Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Kennedy and Apollo

There has been speculation over the years that John Kennedy had become disenchanted with the space program as he watched its costs rise. Some suggest that, had the President lived, he would have scaled back Apollo, and perhaps pursued creating a joint lunar program with the Soviets. An audiotape of a meeting between Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb in September, 1963, released recently by The Kennedy Library, sheds some new light on that question.

On the tape, President Kennedy was clearly concerned about the amount of money being spent on space; Republicans, and some Democrats, had begun to question Apollo. However, his concerns seem to have been tactical. He wanted Webb to build a political case to support the spending; he did not, at that time, seem to support cutting spending.

What might have happened had Lee Harvey Oswald sneezed at a critical moment is a matter for science fiction writers, not historians. We do know, though, that the speech Kennedy intended to give in Dallas on November 22, 1963, included a sentence reaffirming his support of the space program.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Scrap NASA?

Former Apollo astronaut and Moonwalker and former U. S. Senator from New Mexico Harrison Schmitt says NASA should be dismantled and replaced by a new agency focused on space exploration. Schmitt acknowledges NASA has some remarkable achievements to its credit, but argues that after fifty years a new start for a new era would be best.

NASA should be reformed and refocused, but replacing it and starting from scratch would probably waste money. It's not obvious, after all, why Congress would give more money to a new space exploration agency than it gives NASA. The problem isn't NASA. The problem is that Congress doesn't give space exploration a high priority. There is also the matter of staffing a new agency. Because of the specialized skills and knowledge required for space exploration, a new agency would probably be peopled by many ex-NASA hands. It's not clear, therefore, what advantage a new agency would have over a rejuvenated NASA.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Training For Space

The FAA has certified the Zero-G Corporation, home of the "Vomit Comet," to offer microgravity simulation flights as part of the training for future private space crews.

The flights will obviously focus on exposing candidates to some of the physical challenges of spaceflight-- functioning in microgravity, enduring rapid acceleration and deceleration, understanding spatial orientation, etc.

This is one more small step down a long road leading to the creation of a truly spacefaring civilization.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

New Name For MPCV

It seems NASA agrees with this humble blogger that the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV, doesn't cut it for what will hopefully be an historic spaceship. So far, NASA has been focused on getting the engineering of the new manned spacecraft right, but the agency says it will soon turn to finding an appropriate name for the program.

How that will be done wasn't specified. NASA could simply come up with a name itself, or it could run a contest and let the American people name it-- which might generate more interest in and support for the program-- or it might establish a process that combines both of those approaches.

Hopefully, the naming will not be left to Congress.

So Long, Spirit

NASA has stopped trying to contact its Mars rover, Spirit, thus ending a spectacularly successful mission. Spirit has been trapped in a kind of sand pit for two Earth years and hasn't communicated with its handlers for months. Before becoming trapped, however, Spirit produced remarkable science for years, science that changed our view of Mars.

NASA's other Mars rover, Opportunity, is still going strong.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Yesterday, NASA unveiled the new spacecraft it will use in future manned deep space missions. Dubbed for now the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, it is essentially the Orion capsule of the old, canceled Constellation program. That makes sense, as NASA was already well along in developing Orion. Hopefully, NASA will run a contest to come up with a better name for the new program. Whatever the eventual name, however, when MPCV goes on long duration missions, it will rendezvous and dock with a larger habitation module, to give the crew of four more living space.

NASA also announced it will develop its own heavy lift launcher. That is in line with current law, but it would also seem to be a blow to the emerging commercial space industry. Perhaps, however, if companies like SpaceX can quickly establish their rockets as reliable and get them man-rated, NASA may still be able to forego building its own.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

NASA Plans

Later today, NASA is scheduled to announce its plans for a space transportation system that will be used to pursue the nation's human spaceflight goals over the next couple of decades. Currently, as set by President Obama, those goals are reaching an asteroid by 2025, and a mission to Mars in the early 2030s.

Given those goals, the development of a heavy lift launcher might be on the agenda. That is controversial, both outside and inside NASA. Some argue it's too early to commit to any specific heavy lift design, while others suggest using several launches of smaller rockets might be preferable for virtually any mission in any case.

Learning how much NASA sees itself depending on commercial launch services will also be interesting. There might not be a viable market beyond NASA for huge rockets, but if NASA makes it clear it intends to rely on launchers such as the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy it could be a nice boost for commercial space.

Monday, May 23, 2011


Astronomers have long analyzed the light spectrum of heavenly objects to determine the chemical compositions of stars and planetary atmospheres. With the discovery of extrasolar planets-- by the hundreds, so far, but soon, no doubt, by the thousands-- they are looking at more ways to squeeze information out of light. Specifically, astronomers want to develop ways to identify Earth-like planets that also support life. They want a biosignature.

A new study suggests, reasonably enough, that a technique used by satellites that look back at Earth be adapted to studying exoplanets. The basic principle of the technique is that light reflects better off things like trees than it does off rock. Therefore, Earth-like worlds that are brighter are more likely to harbor life than those that are dimmer. Similarly, worlds covered by water will be brighter because water is a good reflector of light. Liquid water, of course, is essential to life as we know it.

Coupled with a spectroscopic analysis of the light bouncing off the atmosphere of an Earth-like exoplanet, such insights and techniques could build a solid case for life elsewhere in the galaxy.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Endeavour A-OK

NASA engineers have cleared space shuttle Endeavour to return to Earth. Inspection of the orbiter found seven dings in the heat shield tiles. Six of those were quickly cleared, but the seventh posed more of a concern. Astronauts used the remote manipulator arm to position a camera and sensors to study the area more closely. Engineers built a 3-D model of the ding and decided it poses no danger.

Endeavour is scheduled to land June 1.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Tile Damage

Inspection of the underbelly of space shuttle Endeavour has found seven small areas of damage to the heat shield tiles that protect the shuttle during re-entry. Presumably, the damage was done during launch. NASA engineers have already cleared five of the areas as not a problem, and seem poised to clear a sixth, but the seventh may require a closer look.

Astronauts have some capability to repair tiles in space, though that's never been attempted, but, so far, program officials are confident such a repair won't be necessary.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Counting Rogue Planets

A new study suggests rogue planets-- planets not associated with any star-- may be more common than main sequence stars in the galaxy, and may outnumber orbiting planets by fifty percent. The study emphasized Jupiter-mass worlds, but the objects no doubt range from smaller planets to brown dwarfs-- failed stars.

If the number of rogue planets is in fact so huge, scientists say, current theories of planetary formation will need to be expanded. The accretion model alone, in which planets build up slowly, couldn't produce the numbers implied by so many rogue worlds. There may be a parallel to the history of geology. Early modern scientists argued geologic processes slowly shaped Earth's surface, but now we see catastrophic events as also playing a role.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Gliese 581d Habitable?

The system of the red dwarf star Gliese 581, a mere 20 light years away, continues to fascinate scientists. A new study based on sophisticated computer modeling of a possible carbon-based atmosphere for Glies 581d, a so-called super-Earth, suggests that 581d could have clouds, rain, liquid water on the surface, and might be habitable.

Of course, this is from a computer model based on the mass of the planet, its distance from its tiny, dim, parent star, and a good deal of informed, directed tinkering. It is, as everyone acknowledges, speculation. The next step is to directly analyze 581d's atmosphere. That should be possible within the next few years. At that point, there might be some truly remarkable news.

Gliese 581d might even merit an honest-to-gosh name.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Diifferent Twist For SETI

SETI researchers are trying a different strategy in their search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Instead of listening for radio signals from all over the sky, a new search will focus on 86 planets that might be Earth-like, according to data from the Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft. The Kepler data still needs to be confirmed, but SETI researchers feel its enough already to justify a focused search.

In any case, one good way to confirm a planet is capable of supporting life would be to receive intelligent radio signals from it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Endeavour On Its Way

Following a beautiful launch this morning, the crew of space shuttle Endeavour is settling into the STS-134 mission.

Endeavour is to deliver tons of supplies to ISS, plus one huge physics experiment-- a device that will allow scientists to search for antimatter, dark matter, and dark energy.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dealing With Space Debris

A study by DARPA, the Defense Department agency that focuses on developing advanced technology, says that while space debris is not a critical problem now, it could become one over the next few decades. The study suggests a first step in dealing with the problem would be for spacefaring nations to adopt technology and approaches that would not add to the debris currently in orbit. Beyond that, the study says removing debris is important, and developing technology to do that should begin now.

Exactly what technology would be necessary is not clear. A suite of technologies may be required because the sizes of individual pieces of debris range from, say, large dead satellites down to flakes of paint. Even those flakes can act as bullets because they are traveling at 17,000 miles an hour.

Removing space debris would seem a task suited to the private sector. Governments could pay companies to de-orbit specific pieces or more general classes of objects. That would provide an essential service while also giving an emerging space industry an additional revenue stream.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

China, America, And Space

Some American political leaders are becoming concerned about the ultimate intentions behind China's space program. They cite, for example. the demonstrated Chinese anti-satellite capability, and the fact that China's space program is run by the People's Liberation Army. Add to that unease the booming Chinese economy, the struggling American economy, and the ongoing emergence of China as a true world power, and some American officials are wondering whether China plans to challenge U. S. dominance in space.

A robust Chinese anti-satellite capability could be a major concern, but China isn't alone in that area. The U. S. has a similar capability, Russia may well have, and India is developing one. Other nations may also be in the mix. Such technology is operationally similar to nuclear bombs-- a great power might want it, but the whole point is to never use it. The Chinese economy may be moving right along, but there are huge challenges ahead. People are moving from the country to the cities by the hundreds of millions. Absorbing those people will strain the system. China is also attempting to empower people economically, but not politically. How long that can work is open to question.

China's manned space program may be coming right along, too, but it's trying to do things NASA accomplished fifty years ago. If American leaders are unhappy that constitutes gaining on the U. S., they have only themselves to blame for wasting that half century.

Detecting Rogue Planets

Finding planets orbiting other stars is tough enough. Finding planets that whiz through interstellar space on their own, unattached to any parent star-- rogue planets-- would seem to be even more difficult.

Well, it is. A new study, however, argues that extremely large rogue planets, several times more massive than Jupiter, could be detected by listening for radio noise associated with aurorae. That implies, of course, a rapidly spinning world with a strong magnetosphere, but such noise is likely our best bet to detect rogue planets anytime soon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Funding FAA's Space Arm

The Federal Aviation Administration is not just about aircraft. Congress has also given the FAA the job of licensing private spacecraft and developing other general regulations to guide the growth of the new commercial space industry. The touchstone of FAA policy in this area is to demand maximum possible safety in the context of encouraging the development of an industry that is inherently risky.

A debate about the correct level of funding for FAA's space arm is currently underway in Congress. It focuses on the likely pace of development of commercial space. Some analysts within the industry, plus others outside of government, see the industry quickly reaching hundreds of flights per year. That would argue for beefing up FAA's space office starting now. Other analysts, however. including some in the Government Accounting Office, see much slower growth, and therefore argue less money for FAA early on would be sufficient.

Given the federal government's deficit and debt problems, many in Congress would prefer spending less on what tends to be seen as a peripheral issue in any case. Spending less might work, too, but if there is an accident in the early phase of this new industry after Congress has tried to save a few million as part of its response to a multi-trillion dollar problem of its own making, the company directly involved in the accident may not be seen as the only responsible party.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

New Date For Endeavour

Space shuttle Endeavour is now set to begin its final mission May 16. Engineers still aren't sure what caused the delay of the launch in April, but after swapping out the offending piece of equipment and doing some re-wiring they are confident that the problem is no longer on the ship.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Space Refueling Stations

Having refueling stations in space would allow rockets to launch carrying less fuel, thus increasing the size of the payload that could be carried to orbit, for example. NASA is challenging the private sector to develop fuel depots that could be deployed in space to support deep space missions, allowing ships to take on fuel as needed rather than carry all the required fuel out from Earth. NASA is offering $200 million dollars-- possibly $300 million for a particularly good depot-- to the company that meets the challenge.

The trick to NASA's challenge is that the agency requires the depots must be able to store liquid hydrogen, which is one component of NASA rocket fuel. Fair enough, but hydrogen is only liquid at incredibly low temperatures, so insulating it from solar heat and hot rockets might be the main obstacle to overcome.

The first refueling stations would likely be in low Earth orbit, to support lunar missions, but the concept sees establishing refueling stations everywhere we plan to go in the Solar System as a first step. Therefore, by encouraging refueling station development, NASA is also trying to foster the development of an infrastructure that will support activities in space over the long term.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

bin Laden Raid

GeoEye, a commercial provider of satellite and aerial images, has released satellite photographs of Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. The wreckage of the helicopter left behind after the raid by U. S. Navy SEALs that resulted in the killing of bin Laden is visible.

According to the U. S. Government, President Obama and his national security team were able to follow the raid in real time. Exactly what that means is not clear. For example, could the President hear the raiders communicating with each other? Could he see bin Laden at the moment bin Laden was shot? If commercial technology can provide detailed images of a fairly small area, it's likely that classified military and intelligence technology can deliver much more information. In order to keep that capability secret, the administration is unlikely to provide further details about the nature of the real-time information the President had.

GeoEye's images bring home a point, however. If the media and other groups stay on their toes and approach their jobs in a systematic way, the developing information world should make it increasingly difficult for governments to operate in secret and cover it up.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Chinese Space

China says it plans to launch its first space station later this year. It will also launch an unmanned ship to the station to develop its rendezvous and docking expertise. The station will be comparable in size to the U. S. Skylab space station of the 1970s. Next year, China plans to launch two separate manned missions to the station. All in all, the planned activities represent a quickening of the pace of the Chinese manned space program.

The first space station is expected to last about two years. After that, China plans a much larger space station that will be dedicated to scientific research.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Freedom 7

Fifty years ago today, Alan Shepard rode Freedom 7 into the history books, becoming the first American in space. While lasting only 15 minutes and reaching an altitude of only 116 miles, Freedom 7 set the stage for President Kennedy's dramatic proposal three weeks later that the U. S. put a man on the Moon before the decade was out, and return him safely to the Earth.

As one gauge of the extraordinary progress made by NASA, Shepard was not only the first American in space, but also the fifth man to set foot on the Moon as commander of Apollo 14-- an astounding double which shows what humans can do when we dedicate ourselves to achieving a goal.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Rescheduling Endeavour's Launch

Getting space shuttle Endeavour into space is more complex than simply fixing the auxiliary power unit that caused last week's delay. An Atlas 5 is scheduled to launch a satellite, which must be factored into Endeavour's schedule. ISS-- Endeavour's destination-- is also a busy place this month. A cargo ship will be docking, and a Soyuz undocking, and the STS-134 mission has to be fit in so it doesn't disrupt those activities.

NASA is currently looking to launch Endeavour May 10 or 11, but that could slip. If it does, it could potentially affect the launch date of Atlantis on the final shuttle mission, which is set for June 28.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Water Ocean On Titan?

Scientists have known for a while that they were missing something on Titan. The orbital behavior of Saturn's largest moon didn't conform to what was expected of a world with a solid interior. Neither did its axial tilt. The surface of the moon also seems to shift, which it shouldn't do if it were simply the visible layer of a solid body.

Speculation has been that an ocean of liquid water existed beneath the surface. A new study argues that such an ocean is indeed the most likely explanation of the observed behavior of the moon. More work needs to be done on the model, but the subsurface ocean could be more than 200 miles deep.

The Titan we know is a frigid world, but also one chock full of organic compounds, the building blocks of life. Liquid water under such a cold surface suggests a hot core-- to keep the water from freezing. Add an environment of liquid water and heat, or energy, to organic compounds, and you have the possibility of life as we know it. Scientists also think methane-based life might exist on the surface, which would be life as we don't know it. Life of two fundamentally different natures coexisting on one world would be an extraordinary, profound discovery.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Surveyor 3 Microbes

Since Apollo 12 astronauts brought back the camera of NASA's Surveyor 3 lunar probe, which had landed on the Moon 30 months before they did, the story has circulated that Earthly microbes on Surveyor had survived all those months. A new look at how the camera was examined after its return casts doubt on that story, however. It seems procedures used to avoid contamination of the camera were lax, thus opening the door to the possibility that the microbes were introduced to the camera after its return.

The study concludes we must do a better job of isolation when we return samples from Mars, for example. That's no doubt true, and no doubt procedures will be more rigorous-- partly because we'll have better technology and a better grasp on biological possibilities, but also partly because expectations will be different. No serious scientist in 1969 thought-- and none think now-- that there is life on the Moon. Going through exacting procedures to avoid contamination, or the release of alien microbes, might have struck some people involved as unnecessary. Mars is different. There is a reasonable case to be made that Mars could have supported life in the past, and even a fair case that Mars supports life today. We will have a good idea whether a sample from Mars could be biologically interesting long before it reaches Earth. In any case, rigorous protocols will be followed to the letter.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Another Delay For Endeavour

The last launch of space shuttle Endeavour has been delayed for a second time. The Friday scheduled launch was delayed by a heating problem in one of the orbiter's three auxiliary power units. NASA engineers thought a quick fix might be possible, but close examination revealed a switch in the engine compartment has to be replaced.

No new launch date has yet been set, but NASA says it will be the end of this week at the earliest.