Monday, October 07, 2013

Neil A. Armstrong (1930-2012)

The first man to walk on another world no longer walks on planet Earth.  Neil Armstrong passed away on August 25, 2012.  It's easy to recite the list of his accomplishments.  They are spectacular even if he hadn't happened to have commanded the very first attempt to land on the Moon.  Born in Wapakoneta, Ohio on August 5, 1930.  Korean war veteran of 78 combat missions while in the Navy.  B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering from Purdue, 1955.  Joined NACA (NASA's predecessor) as a civilian test pilot and flew the X-15.  Selected in the 2nd group of NASA astronauts in 1962.  Flew Gemini 8 in 1965 and made the first docking of two spacecraft in Earth orbit before saving the spacecraft and his and Dave Scott's lives using emergency procedures when a stuck thruster spun up their Gemini spacecraft to near fatal rates.  Commanded Apollo 11. Became a professor of Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Cincinnati.  Served on the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident in 1986.  Oh, and did I mention that he happened to be the first human to walk on another world during that Apollo 11 mission?

Neil Armstrong was one of my childhood heroes.  He was a lot of kids childhood hero and I bet also one of a lot of adults hero as well.  This young and impressionable young future scientist was fascinated by all things space.  I drew rocket ships and astronauts along with fire engines and ships.  Superman had nothing on John Glenn and the rest of the astronauts!  I remember watching the landing on that Sunday afternoon in July 1969, not understanding much of what the words from Houston and from the Moon really meant.  I didn't understand the significance of 1201 and 1202 alarms.  But I did understand when Armstrong announced that "The Eagle has landed".  We were all excited about the upcoming moonwalk that evening.  I remember going outside and looking up at the nearly first quarter Moon in the early evening sky and recognizing that there were 2 men actually on that object so far away up in the sky!  It was the first of many times since then that I'd look at the Moon or later at SkyLab and more recently at Space Shuttles and Space Stations overhead knowing that there were humans on that light in the sky and thinking about the significance of that!

That night I got to stay up late for about the first time.  We sat in front of our B&W Zenith TV and watched the network coverage (probably NBC) as we all awaited the moonwalk.  And then we watched as a fuzzy image appeared on our screen and then a ghostly image that looked human in shape appeared and descended the ladder.  And finally "That's one small step..."  If I hadn't been hooked on space before that moment, I sure was after it!

Neil Armstrong has now passed into the Hall of the Ages, along with so many others who will be known when future generations talk about history.  Along side the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, John Glenn.  Along with Sir Edmund Hillary, Amundsen, Columbus and Magellan  Along with John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington.  Along with Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, and Aristotle.  He can no longer speak for himself but his actions will speak well of him for a long time to come.  Thanks for inspiring so many of us Mr. Armstrong!

Thursday, September 08, 2011

End of the Shuttle Program - Part II - Early memories

I came of age at about the same time as the Space Shuttle did.  I don't remember the first time I heard of the shuttle but it might have been when it was announced officially during the Apollo 16 flight to the Moon in 1972.  I was an avid Apollo viewer back then at age 11 or 12 and could have called myself an "Apollo Geek" like I do today.  While disappointed in the end of Moon flights, NASA and the U.S. Government advertised a robust future which included the Shuttle lifting things like space stations and telescopes and satellites into orbit.  It would fly almost weekly and be treated much like an airliner with only routine maintenance between flights.  Early plans had it lofted into the stratosphere piggyback on a winged booster that would return to land on a runway like the shuttle itself would at the end of its mission.  Ultimately, shuttle would support those planned missions to Mars, if not in the late 1980s, then maybe in the 1990s or thereabouts.  As my interests in space grew into an interest in science and then in Astronomy in particular, I watched as the shuttle started to become reality.  I was in high school in 1977 when the Enterprise was rolled out and then made its first un-powered drop tests by the end of that year.  The sight of the shuttle being carried on the back of a 747 was awe inspiring.

As I graduated from high school in 1978, the shuttle program was advancing, but appeared to be a bit delayed.  Early estimates would have had its first launch about the time I graduated, but it was now projected into late 1979 or even 1980.  Having watched SkyLab fly over with humans on board, I had hoped an early shuttle flight would visit America's first space station and provide a much needed reboost before it re-entered the atmosphere.  NASA even talked about such a mission.  As I entered college at the University of Arizona in Tucson in the fall of 1978, I looked forward to many years of space shuttle flights starting soon, but the delays kept adding up.  It had been more than 3 years since the last Apollo flight that had docked with the Soyuz during the Apollo Soyuz Test Project and the interval before more human flights into space by American Astronauts seemed way too long.  Then, during my first full summer in Tucson, in 1979, it was clear that the SkyLab rescue mission was just not going to fly in time - SkyLab was dropping literally like a rock and would de-orbit soon and shuttle was at least a year off.  I watched SkyLab fly over that summer and on the morning of July 11, 1979, I watched in the pre-dawn sky as it made one of its last orbits around Earth.  A few hours later, it burned up over the Indian ocean, dropping bits of wreckage onto Australia.

I was an avid space nut, infected by moonwalking astronauts at a young age, so I paid close attention to the development of the shuttle.  Columbia appeared fresh out of the factory at Palmdale CA and was flown across country on that 747, complete with lots of missing tiles.  It's first flight was still a long ways off, but at least it's preparation would be happening near its launch pad.

In December 1980, I was in Florida for Christmas visiting my parents who had moved to Miami when my Dad (who was in the Coast Guard) was transfered there.  We went up to Merritt Island to visit my Uncle James.  Since he worked at KSC, he got a car pass so that we could go to the rollout of Columbia to the launch pad for its first ever flight.  The majestic but microscopically slow crawl to the pad took a long time, but we watched in a large crowd outside the VAB as its white tank and boosters preceded the shuttle out of the huge assembly building.  Things looked very different to these eyes trained to watch Apollo Saturn V rockets going to the pad - the launch platform no longer contained the huge access tower and the Shuttle and its tank and boosters looked like they might just fall over standing there apparently unsupported.  Of course, the launch tower of the Saturn V provided no support, just access and with the Shuttle, the launch tower was now affixed to the launch pad and the crawler would take the platform with shuttle out there.  We watched the stack creep out of the massive VAB - the shuttle was huge, but was dwarfed by the even more huge VAB and would have been dwarfed by a Saturn V as well.  The crew of Columbia's STS-1 flight spoke to the crowd.  John Young and Bob Crippen talked of all the hope and expectations that we all had for the space shuttle.  We stood on a crawler track next to one of the old Saturn V launch towers on a cold Florida December morning.  I was quite impressed.

Almost 4 months later on April 12, 1981, I sat in front of a color TV as the countdown for STS-1 proceeded.  There on TV was the same shuttle stack that I had watched leaving the VAB.   I watched in anticipation - there had been a scrub 2 days earlier - as the countdown proceeded.  And finally a sight more spectacular than a Saturn V launch appeared on screen.  The Saturn V used kerosene and oxygen in its first stage and its thrust to weight ratio was closer to 1.0 than the Shuttle, so it slowly rose off the launch pad and into the sky in an almost stately manner on a tail of flame and a little dark colored smoke.  Columbia lept off the launchpad like a bucking bronco!  It's solid rocket motors were bright and spectacular as it climbed into the sky, slowly rolling into the right direction before starting to pitch over as it rose into the clear blue sky.  It left a trail like none I'd ever seen during Apollo!

Two days later, I was watching the TV again, this time a view from Edwards Air Force Base in California as we prepared for the impending arrival of the first glider from outer space.  Would the shuttle be able to re-enter safely?  It had lost some tiles on launch, so that was worrisome (it would have been much more so if we had known the ultimate fate of Columbia, but that is a story for another blog).  A spacecraft had never flown like an airplane back into the atmosphere before.  And the shuttle had exactly one chance to hit the runway - there was no going around since it had no jet engines and was only a glider.  Finally, after watching cameras pan over the crowds out at Edwards, all awaiting the shuttle's return, we heard the now well known double sonic booms and then the long range tracking cameras picked up the shuttle high over the California desert.  The dark black-tiled belly of the orbiter looked so majestic as it made its turns overhead and soon, the T-38 chase planes caught up to it, diving for the desert floor trying to keep up with the flying brick that was Columbia.  As the mountains appeared in frame, the landing gear dropped and then, it was kicking up dust on the dry lakebed runway it was touching down on.  Then the nosewheels dropped and it rolled for what seemed like forever.  Later, we watched, still fascinated with this new spacecraft, as John Young, still in his golden-brown spacesuit bounded down the stairs, fist pumping and obviously very energized as he walked around the orbiter by the first space shuttle landing from orbit!  The Shuttle era was upon us!

Here is a video with highlights from the STS-1 flight of Columbia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuzuWmno-X8

Watching the 2nd launch of Columbia wasn't quite as memorable, but I watched as long as the networks would cover them.  In November 1982, I went to Edwards myself to watch the landing of STS-5.  It was  an overcast morning and when we heard the sonic booms, the shuttle was nowhere to be seen as it circled high above the clouds overhead.  Just before landing, it dropped through the clouds and was on the runway in seconds.  In years that followed, I watched shuttles overhead in orbit.  I watched shuttles deliver satellites into orbit.  I watched astronauts try out their own little spacecraft in the "Manned Maneuvering Units" or MMUs.  I watched them retrieve and repair satellites.  The space shuttles seemed to be delivering on their promise and were ramping up slowly in launch rates.  By 1985, they launched a record 9 flights into orbit.  Spaceflight was becoming routine, or so it seemed.

The End of the Shuttle program - part I

It's been 2 months since I watched Atlantis rocket into the Florida sky on its way to the International Space Station.  I'll cherish my memories of that day as well as those that followed as we first watched the launch, then watched the SRBs return to port, then eventually, we watched the last space shuttle landing before returning to reality and home.  About 8 minutes after Atlantis disappeared behind the cloud deck about 40 seconds after liftoff, I continued to intently listen to the NASA TV audio - long after about half of the other viewers at Space View Park were heading for their cars and the long parking lot streets they must have experienced.  I listened to all the launch calls and all the abort mode calls as I was amazed at how quickly people started leaving.  Launch wasn't over!  SRB sep still hadn't happened and they were heading for the exits.  It was like Dodger stadium in the 6th inning!  Out of sight, out of mind - as soon as the shuttle pierced the cloud deck and vanished above the clouds, folks were off.  They hadn't even got to the "Go at throttleup" call & they were heading out.  Finally, I heard the call I was waiting for - "MECO!"  That's when I take my first deep breath, knowing that everything went fine all the way into orbit.  Until then, they are still launching and there are still a gazillion things that can go wrong and cause NASA and our brave crew to have a bad day.  "MECO." I hear over the Space View Park loudspeaker. I pumped my fist into the air and called out "They're in orbit!"  And then I also pointed out: "135 launches and not a single failure in the 3 main engines on all of those flights!" Back in April 1981, if you'd asked me what the most likely cause of the first shuttle accident, I would have said it was the shuttle main engines.  They have to burn perfectly for about 8 and a half minutes & there are so many moving parts and so many things pushed to unimaginable limits.  No way they would fly 135 times and not once have a significant failure!  Well, they did.  There were a couple close calls - just before Challengers fatal flight, an engine shut down in flight a little early, but it was only a sensor error and it was late enough during launch that the shuttle was able to limp into orbit with the only ever abort call during launch, "Abort to Orbit" where they burned the other engines a little longer and made it into a useful orbit without having to make an emergency landing at some runway around the world.  There was another close call during the first launch with a female commander when the engine nozzles had a small leak in a propellant line used to cool the engine bells.  But that wasn't in the guts of the main engines even.  135 times 3 times 8.5 minutes (less about 7 minutes for 3 of them on poor Challenger).  That is about 57 hours of main engine burn time!  If you had told me that the main engines would burn for almost 2.5 days without a single failure back in 1981, I would have laughed you out of the room.

The shuttle was an amazing vehicle, despite its flaws and shortcomings.  In a few blog posts, I plan to talk a bit more about the Space Shuttle.  I just wanted to start this off on the 2 month anniversary of the last ever Space Shuttle launch.  Click on this link to see my view of that launch: http://pixofmyuniverse.blogspot.com/2011/07/go-atlants-go.html

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

SpaceFest III - Thursday and Friday




Spacefest III was held at the Starr Pass resort in Tucson this past weekend (June 2-5). Kim and Sally Poor of NovaSpace Galleries here in Tucson have organized the Spacefest since its first one 4 years ago. Kim contacted me earlier this year and asked if I would speak at this years event and I gladly agreed. Later, he asked if I could help with the Kitt Peak tour which I also agreed to do. One of the benefits of speaking was that I got to go to the event for free - definitely a great tradeoff.

When I got to Starr Pass on Thursday morning around 7AM I quickly found the meeting site for the tour bus that would take us to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and then up to Kitt Peak. Eventually all 33 folks would gather there including a group of 12 students and two teachers from Aiglon College in Switzerland. Aiglon College is a boarding school at the U.S. High School level and the boys were ages from 14 to 16. The head of the program, teacher Christopher Starr was attending his 2nd Spacefest and from the start, it was obvious that the 12 boys in his care would enjoy their 8 day trip to Arizona. They had already visited Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon and Meteor Crater. They were in for the time of their lives as they would get to meet some of the most famous men in Space history. But first, the Desert Museum would present its fantastic array of plants and animals to them. I sat next to Christopher on the bus ride to the museum and after getting off the bus, I told him that if any of his students had any sorts of questions, especially about Astronomy, I'd be happy to talk with them.

Inside the Desert Museum, I met up with the students from Aiglon College and as the group split up heading for various parts of the place, two of the students stayed close to me. One of them, Dom, is an astronomy enthusiast. It was fun having them with me as I went about exploring a museum (really a modern zoo) with my camera, hunting for so many things that it had been a few years since I'd seen.

We left the Desert Museum by about 11:45, heading for Kitt Peak. I don't get to sit and watch the scenery very often since normally I'm busy driving. We met up with Travis Rector, a professor at the University of Alaska who used to work at NOAO. We split the group in half with Travis taking his half up to the 4-m and I took my half to Spacewatch, showing them both of our telescopes. After 45 minutes or so, we traded groups. Things went quite well and after a visit to the visitors center, we headed back for town, returning to the hotel about 10 minutes before the scheduled return time.

After getting my nametag and "speakers" ribbon, I almost immediately found Sy Liebergot (in the photo I am on the left with Sy, Michael Cassutt and Colin Burgess), sitting in the hotel bar with a few friends. I had been in e-mail contact with him in the past, so as soon as he saw my nametag, he eagerly introduced himself and it was like we had been friends for 20 years. He's somewhat opinionated and has a good memory for details and I enjoyed tallying my first 90 minutes of logged "Sy time" with him. Afterwards, I found a table of space artists including my friend Dan Durda and his mom as well as old friends and new friends Michael Carrol, Pamela Lee, Michelle Rouch, and Anil Rao.

Friday morning started a little late and began a trend. I had planned to see Adam Block's talk or at least Leonard David's talk, but we got up a little late and instead of watching only half a talk, I wandered into the exhibit room where all the vendors, artists and astronauts were located. After saying hello to Sally Poor, I wandered over to the artists table where Bill Hartmann was working on a small piece. Pam Lee was there as well. A short visit later, I wandered into the area where all my childhood heroes would be signing autographs. I saw Rusty Schweickart, but he had a crowd around him. Next to him was Ed Gibson, Skylab 3 astronaut with only one visitor, so I waited for my turn. I did not plan to get any autographs (which cost money), I think 5 minutes chatting with these legends is much more valuable than a signature on a photo or book. I introduced myself and told him about how he and his colleagues had inspired this then future scientist. On Christmas 1973, Gibson was aboard the SkyLab space station and I watched it fly over Governors Island in New York harbor where I lived at the time. I waved at the little point of light that I knew had 3 humans on it and said "Merry Christmas!". Gibson, obviously enjoyed the story but replied "I don't think I waved back." Then I told him about the first time I ever saw a live astronaut in person. The SkyLab 3 crew were presented the "Key to the City" of New York and I got to go to the even at City Hall with some of my classmates. We sat in the back of the room and breathed the same air as Ed Gibson and his two crewmates.

I did get to talk to Rusty Schweickart later in the day. He's very interested in the NEO impact threat and we had a lot in common to talk about. I got a picture of him later on as he talked with Joe Hecht, a fellow space nut.

I wandered around the corner and saw a room full of my childhood heroes, most with lines of 4 or more people awaiting their audience. On one side of the area, I saw Jim Lovell with a line of a dozen waiting to talk to him, Fred Haise, with about 8 folks in line, and I heard crickets chirping when I approached my "old friend" Sy Liebergot who sat patiently between the two Apollo 13 crewmembers who he helped return safely to planet Earth 41 years ago. So I said hello and proceded to add another half hour to my Sy Log.

Looking around the room, continuing to the left past Freddo was Dick Gordon, and Alan Bean. On a row perpendicular was Tom Stafford. To his left was an empty booth for Richard Hatch (Apollo of the original Battlestar Galactica), Charlie Duke, Walt Cunningham and Ed Mitchell. On a row perpendicular to that was Gene Cernan, Al Worden, Jack Lousma and empty booths for Dave Scott and Rick Searfoss (shuttle astronaut now working for XCOR). It was Space Geek heaven wandering around this area! I waited for the lines to be short, then I introduced myself and usually told the hero of mine that he and his colleagues had inspired me to become an astronomer. I spent a few minutes with Charlie Duke and he seemed genuinely interested to hear how he contributed to my success. I had met Dick Gordon before and chatted with him for a few moments. I noticed that the astronauts were particularly good about making you feel like you were an old friend whether they remembered you or not, whether they'd ever laid eyes on you before or not. They would very quickly glance at your nametag (sometimes without your even noticing) and then greet you personally: "Hi Jim! Nice to see you." I can't imagine that most of them would remember me personally considering all the folks they must meet, but it sure did make me feel welcome.

My only real disappointment was when I met Al Worden, CMP on Apollo 15. He was a nice guy and all, but after I told him how he and his colleagues had made a big difference in this astronomers life, he quickly steered the conversation into ancient Sumarians and the flying ships they apparently used. He referenced biblical passages and spouted other nonsense. I quickly tried to steer the conversation to something less upsetting, like the demise of the Space Shuttle program and the lack of future manned exploration plans....

My friend and fellow space artist Michelle Rouch produced some paintings for each of the Apollo flights with the flight number in Roman Numerals. She had the crewmembers sign them and got her picture taken with most of them. I happened to be on hand when she got Gene Cernan's autograph on the Apollo XVII work.

It was rapidly approaching time for the talks I really wanted to go to. Unfortunately, two of them were up against each other. My good friends David Levy and Dan Durda where scheduled in separate rooms at the same time. I had heard David talk recently and since he lives in town, I can get to see him more often, so I opted to go see Dan's talk about the future of private space flight. As always, he gave an excellent talk, displaying his enthusiasm for Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Blue Origin and a few other groups that are on the cusp of carrying many folks on suborbital flights into the fringes of space. Dan already has tickets on a few flights including number 245 on Virgin Galactic. He and his boss and friend Alan Stern are planning to do science on some flights along the lines of what he has done in the past out of Edwards AFB on F/A-18's. The "Lucky Duck" has flown centrifuge simulation runs for the flight profiles as well as taken off of the Shuttle runway at KSC in an F-104 Starfighter! Cool stuff! After Dan's talk, I should have snuck out to go see Carolyn Shoemaker talk, but I stayed and listened to Leslie Young talk about the New Horizons spacecraft mission to Pluto and beyond.

One of the problems with Spacefest is that there were so many things going on at once. There were 3 rooms with simultaneous speakers at any time which meant you had to pick which ones you saw. But at the same time, that reduced the congestion in the autograph area. While the lines for Gene Cernan, Jim Lovell, or Buzz Aldrin were a little long, they were not "around the block" long. There was also no lunch break the first day, though there was a special lunch with the astronauts that was as you'd expect, a little pricey. I decided to head down to one of the restaurants in the hotel for a quick lunch, planning to see Andy Chaikin talk first thing in the afternoon. Lunch took a little longer than I planned (and I admit, I was late getting to it), though it was faster than I should have possibly expected - I was in and out of a fancy place in less than half an hour and for an even $20 including the tip.

I got back to the Spacefest area about 10 minutes after Andy's talk began, so I found myself wandering into the autograph area again. I wandered quickly past the main collection of astronauts and around the corner behind the Cernan-Scott row were some more autograph booths. I walked past the first one and saw Dick Gordon talking to a pair in one long booth. As the identity of the two fellows slowly dawned on me, I saw their banner behind them. It was astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole from 2001: A Space Odyssey! Ok, it was really Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood. Both looked quite different from their youthful appearances, though Dullea was quite recognizable. Lockwood has put on quite a lot of weight since the days of 2001 and Star Trek (he appeared in one of the first ST episodes, Where No Man has gone Before). I stood listening to their conversation with Gordon and eventually put in a few words before wandering away.

My talk was scheduled for 3:30 on Friday afternoon. I was up against my friend Peter Smith, P.I. of the UofA's Phoenix mission to Mars. When Kim asked me to speak, he didn't specify what he wanted me to speak about. I decided to speak about Spacewatch and the impact hazard. I'd finished putting together my powerpoint slides after getting home the previous night (though I had most of it together already before that). I talked about the history of Spacewatch. How our computer back when I joined had a whopping 1.25 MB of RAM and 67 MB of hard drive space! Waving the Droid smartphone around got a laugh at the comparison. After talking about how we developed the first ever automatic asteroid detection software, I went on into some of our discoveries. I dwelled for almost 10 minutes on comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, knowing that two of the 3 discoverers were at the meeting (though David Levy had to leave around lunchtime and wasn't around by the time of my talk). I showed pictures of Tunguska as well as our telescopes. Finally, as I finished, I showed a timelapse of our 36 inch telescope at work on the sky. I had to run it outside of powerpoint as I couldn't get the video to not crash my OpenOffice session when I tried to import it into my file. I left about 10 minutes for questions and I got some good ones. The audience wasn't very big - maybe 20 people. One of the problems with having 3 simultaneous talks and a roomfull of famous astronauts.

Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute gave a talk about Pluto and what constitutes a planet after my talk. I stayed and watched (after grabbing a glass of water). He gave a good talk. Carolyn Shoemaker showed up for about the last 5 minutes of questions in my talk and I sat next to my friend through this talk.

With the talks done for the day, I wandered back into the exhibit hall, but it was near closing time and it was nearly empty. I wandered back towards the lobby area where the hotel bar is and a nice patio area with a view of the mountains and city where many of the Spacefest participants gathered. I found a small group out there with Peter Smith, Bill Boynton (both from the Lunar and Planetary Lab) as well as Leonard David and his wife Barbara, both journalists. I joined the group and we all enjoyed the company until it was time to leave for the night.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Annual time of Mourning at NASA

There have been three fatal accidents involving NASA astronauts and their spacecraft. They all happened at this time of year. On January 27, 1967 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were running a "plugs out" test in their Apollo spacecraft atop the AS-204 Saturn IB rocket with the hatch sealed shut and the cabin pressurized to about 16.7 psi with pure oxygen. Hindsight is 20/20 and everyone was as shocked and surprised that no one foresaw the incredible hazard of such a configuration - pure oxygen at such pressures makes almost everything a fire hazard and it was pure luck over the previous 6 years that such an accident had not happened to a Mercury or Gemini spacecraft. Apollo was very much more complex and it had fallen behind schedule. Mistakes were made and the best estimate for what occurred is that a spark from some frayed wiring ignited a fire that rapidly spread through the cabin, asphyxiating the crew with smoke and fumes from the explosive fire. The crew was dead by the time the ground support personnel could get the inward opening hatch opened. The ensuing investigation uncovered flaws in design and workmanship as well as higher level decisions. Improvements in the Apollo spacecraft and in operations almost certainly saved the program from later disaster that could have ended the program.

25 years ago, on January 28, 1986, NASA launched its 25th Space Shuttle flight into a chilly Florida sky. The previous 24 flights were a model of success, at least from a casual perspective. The 24 flights included the first re-use of a manned spacecraft when Columbia launched on STS-2. It included the launch of a variety of spacecraft as well as the retrieval of a pair of malfunctioning spacecraft. It included the first spacewalks of the shuttle program as well as the first untethered spacewalk when Bruce McCandless flew a jet backpack called an MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit) which was later used for the retrieval of the Solar Max satellite. But beneath the facade of success was a disaster waiting to happen. On many flights, hot gases caused damage to O-rings in the solid rocket boosters (SRBs). Rather than delay the program by stopping flight, disrupting a crowded flight schedule, NASA management chose to continue flight while working the problem in the background. On this cold January morning, the crew of STS-51L made its way to the launch pad like the 24 space shuttle crews before it. The crew consisted of 4 veteran shuttle astronauts including the 2nd woman and 2nd African American astronauts to fly as well as the first Asian American astronaut all making their 2nd spaceflights. The commander, also making his 2nd spaceflight was Francis R. "Dick" Scobee. The three rookies on this flight included teacher in space Christa McAuliffe. As space shuttle Challenger left Launch Complex 39B, the odds caught up with manned spaceflight as hot gases burned past the O-ring near the base of the right hand SRB releasing puffs of black smoke for a moment as the shuttle rose off the pad. For another 50 seconds or so, the leak sealed but as it flew through maximum dynamic pressure, the seal failed and the SRB began burning through, releasing hot gas that rapidly started damaging first the SRB, then the base of the giant orange external tank (ET) including the mount points of the SRB to the tank. 73 seconds into the flight the damage to the SRB and external tank reached catastrophic levels. In the preceeding moments, the flames from the SRB burned through the base of the Hydrogen tank at the bottom of the ET. The rear attachments of the SRB to the ET burned through allowing the SRB to hinge on the forward attachpoint. The nose of the SRB punctured the forward part of the tank where the Oxygen tank is located. The net thrust from leaking Hydrogen at the base of the ET pushed forward into the oxygen tank causing rapid disintegration of the ET. Without the ET to hold the vehicle together, the SRBs flew off into their "Y" shaped paths. There was no explosion - the hydrogen and oxygen cloud expanded with only minimal burning giving the distinctive shape to the expanding debris and vapor. Without the ET, the shuttle could only respond to all the forces acting on it. There was the thrust from the still burning 3 main engines. There were the aerodynamic forces of the airflow over the wings and aero surfaces. The net result was for the orbiter to pitch itself belly into the wind and the aerodynamic stress on Challenger caused it to shatter into pieces. The structurally strongest parts of the orbiter remained somewhat intact including the crew compartment and each flew out of the expanding debris cloud. There was evidence that the crew survived the initial breakup of the vehicle and possibly were alive (but likely unconscious) for the remainder of the fall to the ocean as the cabin flew upward another 3 miles before descending to the water below. The investigation revealed the cause of the disaster to be O-rings chilled to more than 30 degrees below the previous record cold launch temperature which in itself was almost 20 degrees below the rated temperature of the O-rings. Without a proper seal, the hot gas eroded through the O-rings and then into the case of the SRB before burning through and continuing to damage the vehicle. The orbiter was responding to the slightly varying thrust of the two SRBs and continued to try to fly even after the start of the breakup, adjusting the gimbal of the main engines to compensate. The root cause of the accident showed many similarities to the events of 19 years and a day earlier, though management not listening to the concerns of their staff combined with the need to meet demanding launch schedules kept the problem from being dealt with before the disaster happened.

8 years ago on February 1st the crew of space shuttle Columbia were returning home from a demanding 16 day mission of science. They did not make it home. Just 16 minutes from the runway at the Kennedy Space Center the shuttle broke up into debris similar to what had occured 17 years earlier, though moving at mach 18 over the skies of Texas. In the days and weeks that followed we learned that the shuttle and crew of 7 were doomed from nearly the start of their mission when a piece of ET foam broke away from the tank at about 82 seconds into the launch of mission STS-107 and slammed into the leading edge of the left wing of the orbiter at about 500 miles per hour. A piece of the light grey Reinforced Carbon Carbon leading wing surface broke free of the orbiter near the base of the left wing shortly after arriving in orbit. The hole in the wing would allow the hot gases of atmospheric entry inside the wing 16 days later during re-entry of the orbiter. The hot gases ate up the inside of the wing until it finally reached a critical point where the shuttle flew out of control and broke up due to aerodynamic forces. Once again, the crew cabin remained intact for some time after the breakup of the orbiter but was destroyed later as it fell into the thicker atmosphere. Pieces of Columbia were spread over parts of two states as they fell out of the sky. Many of the symptoms from the Challenger accident resurfaced in the face of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board analysis including signs and portents of disaster going all the way back to the earliest shuttle flights as debris strikes on the orbiter from launch were a problem on every flight. Most were harmless but required repair of the tiles between every flight. The 2nd flight after Challenger nearly caused the loss of orbiter Atlantis on STS-27 when a foam strike on the belly of the shuttle which caused over 700 "dings" to the belly and the loss of one tile and near burn through during re-entry. During the STS-107 mission, analysis of the debris strike underestimated the potential for damage to the orbiter and since the strike area was out of sight of the crew and believed to have been a glancing blow on the belly of the orbiter, the debris analysis suggested it would not produce significant damage. Only in hindsight when impact tests using a large gun that could shoot foam at speeds similar to those estimated during Columbia's flight into wing leading edge material did the potential for disaster become fully apparent.

These three accidents along with two fatal accidents in the Russian space program are reminders of the dangers of exploring new frontiers. The danger should never be forgotten but also should never prevent us from pursuing exploration. We learn from our mistakes and move on keeping the memory of lost pioneers in our minds to help motivate us to continue the work in their names while improving hardware and procedures to help minimize the chances for future accidents. Imagine if we stopped sailing the high seas the first time we lost a ship at sea! Here is to those who gave their all in the pursuit of space.

In the words of Gus Grissom: "If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."

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Thursday, November 04, 2010

New Worlds


(The animated GIF above was created by Emily Lakdawalla and appears in her blog) There are certain days in history where mankind gets its first closeup look at a world. Today is one of them. The EPOXI spacecraft which used to be known as Deep Impact, flew past comet 103P/Hartley 2 taking touristy snapshots as it zipped past the comet like a tourist driving quickly past the Grand Canyon. Admiring these images reminded me of a few other landmark days like this one that I remember. For example, July 20, 1976 when the Viking 1 lander landed on Mars and sent the first closeup images of Mars surface. Another July 20 springs to mind when in 1969 we watched Neil Armstrong plant the first human footprints on another world. And there are flyby's of Jupiter by Pioneer and later Voyager or the photos of Titan's surface when Cassini's Huygens lander touched down on that distant world. In the not too distant future, we'll see closeup images of Pluto when the New Horizons spacecraft flies past that ex-Planet and new Martian vistas when the next lander/rover arrives there in a year and a half or so. And the Messenger orbiter will be returning the highest resolution images of Mercury soon as well. We should also not forget the spacecraft orbiting our Moon and other planets like LRO, MRO, Cassini and many others. We live in a wonderful time when we get to see new worlds for the first time ever as well as seeing worlds we're used to seeing closeup even better than before. Those faint points of light in the sky at night are real places to be studied, someday with our own rock hammers, eyeballs and boots.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Double Rainbow, Double Rainbow

Ok, so I was rinsing off in the shower this morning with sunlight beaming through the window and I noticed a Double Rainbow in the mist below and I thought to myself "Double Rainbow!". Then I realised something: it wasn't a real Double Rainbow since both rainbows had their spectrum going blue to red (from the inside to the outside of the arc - right to left). So I closed one eye and sure enough, one of the rainbows vanished. It's tough being a scientist sometimes. Next, I shifted my head to the right a bit and the Double Rainbow appeared with the 2nd one having the red to blue spectrum. It doesn't take much to make some folks happy.....

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

41 years and counting

41 years ago today humans walked on another world for the first time... ever. There won't be another time that we'll ever be able to say that. The picture I've included here (and you can link to a higher resolution version if you click on the title) was the first image taken by Neil Armstrong after planting his bootprint into the alien soil. You can see one of the Lunar Modules landing gear legs as well as a white "jettison bag" laying under the LM. You can see one of the landing gear probes bent upward - one of the 3 probes (there wasn't one on the front leg to keep from interfering with the astronauts descent to the surface) that contacted the surface first during the descent which triggered a light in the cockpit telling the astronauts they were within about 6 feet of the surface and could turn off the descent engine.

I remember what I was doing when Armstrong took this picture. I was not quite 9 years old and sat transfixed in front of our black and white TV, watching the events a quarter million miles away in awe. Were the images fuzzy because of our TV or because they were being beamed from the distant orb that I could see in the sky? Probably both.

On this 41st anniversary, it is a bittersweet time. Our nation has decided to back off of its ambitious goals of returning to the Moon. After Apollo 11 and the 5 lunar landings that followed, we have retreated and lost our initiative, investing our incredible capabilities almost exclusively on planet Earth. We've lost our vision and drive to go out there and see what there is to see. We've been limited to sending unmanned probes to other planets and while they have returned remarkable image and data, we have not layed human eyes on an alien landscape since December 1972.

There are so many reasons we should get back out there beyond low Earth orbit. One of the best reasons is one of inspiration. When humans do the impossible, it inspires the rest of humanity to do more with their lives. I am one of many who was inspired by Apollo to reach for higher goals and in my case, I was inspired to become an Astronomer. Countless others went into fields of endeavor such as engineering, science, art, theater. With all the bad images we see on the news of war, terrorism, natural and manmade disasters, we need things like human exploration beyond Earth to help inspire our youth to what we might still think is the impossible.

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