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Space Race

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The Fields Under Lock and Key | In Eclipse.

“Miller, whose parents would rouse him in the wee hours to watch space launches, was awestruck by Launch Complex 19, where the manned Gemini missions took off. It was slowly rusting away, and Miller resolved to photograph it while there was still time. It took two years of haggling before he made his first images of Cape Canaveral…Since then, he has photographed sites nationwide, including Johnson & Kennedy space centers, the Marshall & Stennis Space Flight centers, Langley Research Center and many more.”

In Wired, photographer Roland Miller captures the decaying infrastructure of the early space race. “As launch pads were replaced, retrofitted or decommissioned, Miller was invited inside. By his estimate, 50 percent of the things he’s photographed no longer exist. ‘It’s not in NASA’s mission to conserve these sites,’ he says. ‘With shrinking budgets it’s an impossible thing to do.'”


“There’s not only last week’s deadly crash by Virgin Galactic, which hoped to launch widespread space tourism, or the unexpected explosion of a rocket headed toward the International Space Station. The United States also retired the space shuttle fleet in 2011. And…we now spend less on NASA — relative to the wealth of overall economy — than at any point in history.”

In very related news, and in the wake of Interstellar (which, on account of all the reasons I just mentioned, I haven’t seen yet), the Post‘s Zachary Goldfarb briefly surveys our current neglect of the space program. (Here’s what we’ve got planned at the moment.) “As recently as 2012, polling showed that more Americans than ever before thought that we were spending too little.”

45 and Counting.

“When I look back over the time that’s elapsed since 1969, I wonder what we’re doing. I remember the dreams of NASA, and they were too the dreams of a nation: Huge space stations, mighty rockets plying the solar system, bases and colonies on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids…Instead, we let those small-minded human traits flourish. We’ve let politics, greed, bureaucracy, and short-sightedness rule our actions, and we’ve let them trap us here on the surface of our planet.”

On the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, Phil Plait wonders what the hell happened to the Dream of Space in America. “Venturing into space is not just something we can do. It’s something we must do.”

E.T. Burn in Hell!!

“You see, the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe. This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation,’ he explained. ‘Jesus did not become the “GodKlingon” or the “GodMartian”! Only descendants of Adam can be saved. God’s Son remains the ‘Godman’ as our Savior.'”

And here’s your counterpoint: Creationist Ken Buck argues that space exploration is a boondoggle because aliens are going to Hell anyway. “Ham argued that ‘secularists are desperate to find life in outer space’ as a part of their ‘rebellion against God in a desperate attempt to supposedly prove evolution.'”

Erm, yeah. I would hope the John Olver rule is in effect if and when this fellow is inevitably queried about his views on television, against Bill Nye or Neil DeGrasse Tyson or somesuch.

I Can See Your House From Here.

“The High Definition Earth Viewing experiment consists of four cameras strapped to the ISS’s hull and are all pointed toward the Earth. Occasional blackouts when switching between cameras can occur and the dark side of the Earth is, well, dark, but you still get some pretty stunning views.”

Who knows what will happen in 2020 — for now, the scientists (if not the politicians) are saying that “the relationship between NASA and Roscosmos is good, it is healthy.” In any event, NASA has set up a 24-hour live-feed from the ISS. Hopefully, it will help keep things in perspective down here.

Forget the Ground Floor.

“‘I think in parallel to full space elevators, partial space elevators are definitely worth exploring more,’ says space engineer Stephen Cohen…Today’s materials aren’t strong enough to support a huge, full space elevator to those heights, the McGill University study argues. Instead, a much smaller elevator looks less far-fetched. ‘We could view it as the first building blocks of a [full] space elevator,’ says study co-author Pamela Woo of McGill University.”

Also in space news, National Geographic makes the case for a “partial” space elevator, whereby ground launches would go into low-earth orbit to drop off their payloads. (See also this New Statesman article from August 2012.) “A space elevator untethered to Earth, with both of its ends hanging in space, might cut the costs of space travel to high orbit by 40 percent, researchers report.”

A World of Worlds.

“‘This is the largest windfall of planets — not exoplanet candidates, mind you, but actually validated exoplanets — that’s ever been announced at one time,’ Douglas Hudgins, exoplanet exploration program scientist at NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington, told reporters today.”

NASA announces 715 new planets found by the Kepler telescope, and that’s only from the first two years of data. “About 94 percent of the new alien worlds are smaller than Neptune, researchers said, further bolstering earlier Kepler observations that suggested the Milky Way galaxy abounds with rocky planets like Earth…four of the worlds are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and reside in the ‘habitable zone,’ that just-right range of distances that could allow liquid water to exist on their surfaces.”

Pouring Down All Over Mars.

“So, how does water flow in the frigid Martian temperatures that are present, even in the summer months? Researchers think that there may be a naturally-occurring anti-freeze in the water, caused by the high-iron content…the water and ferric iron flowed together as part of a brine.”

Via io9, Scientists at NASA’s JPL find the strongest evidence of currently extant water on Mars yet. “We still don’t have a smoking gun for existence of water…Although we’re not sure how this process would take place without water.”

Farewell, Europa.

“The ASRG program was created to help extend the life of the remaining Pu-238 supply. It uses a Stirling engine to generate electricity at four times the efficiency of a regular RTG. This means more missions to these harsh places using less Plutonium. While NASA has started to generate Pu-238 again, it won’t be ready to use until 2019, and even then the Department of Energy will only produce about 1kg – 1.5kg per year. The New Horizons mission to Pluto used about 11kg, which would take anywhere from 7 – 11 years to generate under the current plan.”

Because of sequestration and other budget cuts, NASA is forced to cancel its advanced spacecraft power program, threatening future missions past the asteroid belt. “ASRGs had been under development by NASA for over a decade, and had been planned for use by 2016 in the next low-cost planetary exploration missions…Because of the limited cost cap imposed on these missions, they’re now essentially limited to the inner solar system. Missions with bigger budgets that could afford regular RTGs will be bottlenecked by the production rate of Plutonium to maybe once or twice per decade. Goodbye, outer planets.”

Explorers on the Moon.

“The next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.” A belated happy 44th anniversary to the Apollo 11 crew, the first without Neil Armstrong. Speaking of which, it’s now been over 40 years since man walked on the moon — ’bout time to go back, dontchathink? (Spiffy Tintin image via LinkMachineGo.)

A Home Next Door in Centauri Bb.

“The triple star system of Alpha Centauri is only 4.3 light-years — about 25 trillion miles — away. The possibility of an earth-like world orbiting our nearest neighbor has been a kind of holy grail of astronomy —- and something taken for granted by countless SciFi authors.”

Hey neighbor: Astronomers find an Earth-like planet just next door in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our sun. “Indeed, Alpha Centauri Bb is the first planet with an earth-like mass ever found orbiting a sun-like star.” That being said, prospects for life — or colonization — seem, for the time being, remote. “Unfortunately for any hope of finding life on this world, it orbits only about four million miles away…This would make Alpha Centauri B more than twenty times larger in the planet’s sky than the sun is here on earth…and more than 500 times brighter and hotter.”

The Future is Off-World.

“In the next generation or two—say the next 30 to 60 years—there will be an irreversible human migration to a permanent space colony. Some people will tell you that this new colony will be on the moon, or an asteroid—in my opinion asteroids are a great place to go, but mostly for mining. I think the location is likely to be Mars.”

James Fallows speaks with Space Adventures co-founder Eric Anderson on the coming age of space colonization. “One key to making all this happen is that we need to use the resources of space to help us colonize space…The near-Earth asteroids, which are very, very close to the Earth, are filled with resources that would be useful for people wanting to go to Mars, or anywhere else in the solar system. They contain precious resources like water, rocket fuel, strategic metals.”

Along the same lines, and from last June, a Dutch company called Mars One has a very specific timetable in place for Mars colonization. “Lansdorp plans to send another couple of adventurous astronauts to join the colony every two years, but the idea is that no one gets a return journey. This is a permanent base, a Plymouth Rock in an entirely new world that will begin the long, slow and painstaking process of terraforming it.” The first four colonists, set to leave Earth in 2023, will be chosen this year.

Update: So far, it seems, the Mars One project has received 40,000 applications.

The Other Space Program.

‘The mission is ongoing,’ Air Force Maj. Eric Badger, a spokesman for the X-37B program, told SPACE.com. ‘As with previous missions, the actual duration will depend on test objectives, on-orbit vehicle performance and conditions at the landing facility.'” From the the bottom of the ocean to low-earth orbit: The Air Force’s classified X-37B space drone enters its third month in space. “The X-37B looks a bit like a miniature space shuttle. The vehicle is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 m) wide, with a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed.”

Well, at least one branch of our government is well-funded enough to take on these sorts of projects, I guess. Too bad the research is classified and likely highly iffy. Consider, similarly, the two “other” Hubbles found lying around in a Pentagon warehouse last year. “[S]top and think about this for a moment. The Department of Defense has the kind of funding needed — hundred of millions to billions of dollars, presumably — to build not one, but two, Hubble-like optical telescopes and then never use them.”

The Sky Will Fall.

“‘I would call this a tiny asteroid,’ Chodas said. ‘This is the largest recorded event since the Tunguska explosion in 1908.'” I’ve been meaning to write about this all week: On the same day that asteroid 2012 DA14 passed closer to Earth than many of our satellites, a meteor explodes in the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, injuring close to 1500 people. “The object vaporized roughly 15 miles above the surface of the Earth…The force of the explosion measured between 300 and 500 kilotons, equivalent to a modern nuclear bomb.”

Consider this a wake-up call. This is one more reason why we need to invest in our space program — because, right now, we are playing chicken with the universe. That deadly asteroid might not hit tomorrow, or even in 2106. But the danger is real. As author Larry Niven put it, “the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!”

The Worlds Next Door.

“‘We thought we would have to search vast distances to find an Earth-like planet. Now we realize another Earth is probably in our own backyard, waiting to be spotted,’ said Harvard astronomer and lead author Courtney Dressing.”

Data from Kepler’s Space Telescope suggests that an estimated 6% of red dwarf stars have planets in the habitable zone, meaning, statistically, we are basically surrounded by inhabitable worlds. “Our Sun is surrounded by a swarm of red dwarf stars. About 75 percent of the closest stars are red dwarfs.”

Sail on, Sunjammer.

The Sunjammer mission – the name is borrowed from an Arthur C. Clarke short story about an interplanetary yacht race — will unfurl a solar sail that dwarfs those that have thus far been tested in space. Where NanoSail-D’s diminutive sail measured just 100 square feet and Japan’s IKAROS measures something like 2,000 square feet, Sunjammer’s sail possesses a total surface area of nearly 13,000 square feet. Yet collapsed it weighs just 70 pounds and takes up about as much space as a dishwasher, making it easy to stow in the secondary payload bay of a rocket headed to low Earth orbit.

Popular Science previews the flight of NASA’s Sunjammer, set for launch in 2014. “The destination for Sunjammer is the Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 1, a gravitationally stable spot way out there between us and our nearest star…Sunjammer will be carrying the cremated remains of various individuals, including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and his wife Majel Barrett Roddenberry.”

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