The Final Frontier


Sometime tonight, hopefully, SpaceX will launch its latest innovation, the so-called Crew Dragon (aka Dragon 2). This is a variant of the reusable Dragon capsule that’s been ferrying supplies to the International Space Station for several years, but in this case, the intended cargo will be human beings. There won’t be any actual people on board tonight, though; this is only a test flight. But if it’s successful, Crew Dragon could be carrying real-live astronauts into space before the end of the year… the first time Americans will fly on an American spaceship since the shuttles were retired in 2011. I’m not generally prone to nationalism, but it can’t come soon enough in my view. It’s been a long eight years.

Although Crew Dragon isn’t carrying a real crew tonight, it won’t be flying empty. There’s a mannequin on board, dressed in one of SpaceX’s sleek ‘n’ fancy pressure suits, and equipped with various sensors to verify the forces a human body will be subjected to by this new ship. And you’ll never guess what SpaceX’s eccentric gazillionaire founder Elon Musk has dubbed the dummy: Ripley.

As in the heroine of the Alien film franchise.

He may be walk on an entirely different plane of existence than you and me, but when you get right down to it, he’s just a geek like the rest of us. Say it with me, kids:

One of us, one of us, one us…



Forty-Seven Years Ago Today…

apollo-11_armstrong-on-the-moonSomebody tell me again why this isn’t a national holiday?

Oh yeah, because nobody cares about history, or because it’s too depressing to think about how we haven’t gone back in nearly half a century, or because too many people don’t believe we went at all and think it was all a lie perpetrated by Stanley Kubrick and the CIA. (Bullshit. Anyone who honestly thinks that… well, let’s just say I find your cynicism utterly baffling.)

And so it goes…









Challenger, Go at Throttle-Up


In January of 1986, I had long since given up my childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.

I was self-aware enough by then to know that I didn’t have a head for (or an interest in) advanced mathematics, and I also knew I didn’t have the proper temperament for (or interest in) a military career, both of which were still prerequisites for the job at that time. I was sixteen years old, a junior in high school, recently enfranchised with my driver’s license and loving the new-found freedom; my dreams at the time were focused on far more immediate and prosaic matters, mostly involving fuzzy pink sweaters and the things that lay beneath them. Oh, I remained interested in space exploration, of course. I was still collecting newspaper clippings about the latest missions, and I was still a total nerd who was convinced that humanity was going to spread beyond this Earth to other planets and moons and asteroids, and maybe even take up residence in the dark spaces between by constructing massive “O’Neill colonies.” Moreover, I was (mostly) certain all this was going to happen in my lifetime, and that it would, naturally, grow out of the space-shuttle program… in time. Even though I knew I’d never be a shuttle pilot, I figured I would at least get the consolation prize of spending the occasional weekend at an orbital hotel… no doubt with a pretty someone wearing one of those fuzzy sweaters. (Funny… I remember thinking¬† I’d be enjoying those weekends by the time I was in my mid-40s or so. You know, now.)

However, I hadn’t actually watched a shuttle launch in several years. What was the point? They were all pretty much the same old thing; fifty times we’d fired those birds into the black… fifty times they’d come home without any major problems. It wasn’t a big deal anymore. And really wasn’t that the point of the space shuttle? To make space travel as mundane as catching a commuter flight to Denver? That’s what I’d been told in all the breathlessly optimistic pop-science magazines and non-fiction works of “futurism” I’d devoured in my younger days. I loved the shuttles — I thought, and still think, they were elegant¬† machines, spaceships that landed like airplanes, the gleaming stuff of science fiction — and yet by January of 1986, I completely took them for granted. I think a lot of other people did too…

Mid-morning, January 28, 1986.

I was in my eleventh-grade creative-writing class. The bell to begin the class period had just sounded, but everyone was still shuffling about, talking, laughing, not yet settled. And in walked this kid whose name now escapes me, a senior who I remember wrote a pretty nifty science-fiction teleplay that ended up being published in the yearbook later that spring. I don’t recall his name, but I can see his face as clearly as the computer monitor on which these words are appearing. Curly hair, blue eyes, a few random sprouts of facial hair… and a thousand-yard stare that made him seem much, much older than any high school kid has any right to be. Somebody asked what his problem was, and he replied in a soft mumble, “The shuttle just blew up.”

We didn’t believe him, of course. Somebody may have even laughed, thinking it was a really bad joke. And the kid said it again, “The shuttle blew up.” Not long after that, the PA speaker in the corner popped and the voice of our school principal confirmed the news. Space shuttle Challenger was gone, destroyed a mere 73 seconds into her tenth flight, the 51st launch of a space shuttle. My principal sounded like that classmate of mine looked… old and tired.

The rest of that day is a haze. As I recall, school remained in session, but nobody bothered much with classes. No attendance was taken, and I doubt anyone made any serious effort to teach, or to learn. There were televisions set up in the media center, the physical heart of the school, and everyone in the building wandered past them at least once to see some of the live news coverage. I stood and watched for hours. I saw teachers and adult authority figures weeping. I saw cheerleaders and cool kids who hadn’t ever set foot in a science class shaking their heads in disbelief, as numb as any of the nerds who actually knew about this space stuff. The awful video replayed over and over, all day long. It’s seared into the memory of an entire generation. The blast-off, the gleaming white-and-orange spacecraft leaping into a blue sky… and then the words “Challenger, go at throttle-up” over the radio, followed by a burst of static and an eruption of smoke where the external fuel tank and the orbiter were supposed to be, and the solid rocket boosters still burning, still thrusting, arcing out and away from the destruction, still blindly trying to claw their way toward the blackness above.

Challenger, go at throttle-up.”

Even now, years and decades later, those words, spoken so calmly, so routinely, raise a lump in my throat. I never watched another shuttle launch where I didn’t find myself tensing up at that moment approached, a muscle tightening in my jaw as I heard other voices call out the same point on the checklist — “go at throttle-up” — and then breathe a sigh of relief as the ship kept going. Even now, with the shuttle program ended and the surviving orbiters taxidermied and on display in air museums around the country, I can watch old recordings and experience the same sensations. A mild case of PTSD, perhaps? I wouldn’t be surprised. I don’t know if people too young to remember that day can understand just how traumatic it really was. Just as, I suppose, the people of my generation can never really understand the emotions unleashed by the Kennedy assassination.

The people in charge held their boards of inquiry and figured out precisely what happened. Steps were taken to correct the errors that led to the deaths of seven people, and the shuttles flew again. They flew a lot, actually, 135 total missions, including the ill-fated one Challenger didn’t have a chance to complete. And they accomplished some great things — notably, the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station — before finally being put to pasture. But nothing was the same after Challenger. A nation’s pride died along with those seven brave souls aboard that orbiter, and our post-Apollo swagger, too. A timidity infected every discussion of manned spaceflight after that. An air of futility. And once we lost Columbia as well…

It still troubles me that the shuttles retired under a cloud, with many people thinking they were dangerous lemons, and a three-decade-long misstep. And it also bothers me that the future I used to believe in — the future of moon bases and Mars colonies and giant cylindrical space habitats — has receded even farther into the distance ahead of me than the eleventh grade has slipped behind me. I still believe that human beings are explorers by nature, and that we may one day spread out into the universe beyond this little rock. But I no longer believe it’s our destiny to do so. I have a lot of doubts that our species will be smart enough, or brave enough, or just plain lucky enough to actually do it. Too many people think it isn’t worth the risk, or can’t imagine a big enough return on investment, or don’t believe it can be done or just plain don’t care. It certainly won’t happen in my lifetime. Honestly, I think I’ll be lucky if I live long enough to see any more human footsteps on the Moon, the ambitions of Elon Musk notwithstanding.

This loss of faith, the death of my childhood, really, and of a certain innocence and naive optimism… it all began unraveling on January 28, 1986, with the words: “Challenger, go at throttle-up.” Thirty years haven’t dulled the sting of those words, or the trauma of losing the tomorrow we should have had, the brass ring we were reaching for and just couldn’t quite manage to touch…



46th Anniversary

apollo-11_lander+armstrong-shadowHere men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.

I still think this day ought to be a national holiday.



But Will the Machine Misspell Your Name on the Cup?

Remember a couple weeks ago when I wondered how the ISSpresso — that fancy orbital coffee-maker recently delivered to the space station — actually worked? And how it avoids the danger of steam clouds drifting around inside the enclosed environment of the ISS? Well, when you have a question, the Internet provides an answer! From a year-old article I dug up:

Those requirements included finding a way to keep the hot water inside the machine after the espresso is finished. While water residue is normal in Earth-bound espresso machines, the prospect of boiling-hot bubbles seeping from the device in microgravity forced Argotec [the manufacturer] to seek a solution.


… in general terms, a small container in the machine collects the water. Also, stainless steel has replaced the usual plastic tubing inside the device, making it more resistant of pressure…

The machine itself resembles a microwave oven — it’s just a box — and works something like those coffee “pod” machines that brew a single serving at a time. Again quote, the process works like this:

Astronauts can operate the device with only the push of a button. An astronaut will take a pouch of water from the station’s room-temperature potable system, about 8.4 ounces’ (250 milliliters) worth. Those who like sweet coffee can add a dash of sugar to the mix.


Next, crew members will select how much coffee they want, insert a capsule in the top of the machine and press “brew.” It takes the device 60 seconds to heat the water to 167 degrees Fahrenheit (75 degrees Celsius), then 40 seconds to dispense the espresso.


The coffee will spew out into a pouch, ready for the astronaut to drink. And if there’s a lineup, the company says the machine can easily make a second serving in the same time, about 40 seconds.

The machine can also be used to make tea, consomme, and other hot beverages, and supposedly the machine has some scientific value — NASA has mentioned studying fluid dynamics in zero-g and how things learned from the ISSpresso may lead to improvements with similar machines back here on Earth — but come on, we all know what it’s all about: the astronauts feeling cozy as they relax inside that observation cupola…

Speaking of the cupola, you may have seen this widely circulated photo of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti wearing a Star Trek uniform, with the arriving Dragon spacecraft visible in the windows behind her:

ISS_astronaut-cristoferetti_star-trek-uniformIt’s a cool photo, and the fact that a real-life astronaut is wearing a Trek uniform has no doubt generated a lot of grins from nerds and civilians alike… but the really amusing thing (to this nerd) is that she’s not wearing just any old Trek uniform. She’s dressed as Captain Kathryn Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager, the fourth television series of the franchise. And one of Janeway’s little character quirks was a hopeless addiction to coffee… black. Cristoforetti is Italian and has reportedly been eager to try out the ISSspresso machine. Life reflects fiction and vice versa, in an infinite regression…

Finally, if you’re not completely bored with the subject (I’m not), here’s an infographic that details the workings of the ISSpresso:


After all this build-up, I hope the silly thing works…


A Couple More…

A last couple of space-related tidbits before I get my mind onto something else:

First, this week is the 45th anniversary of the infamous Apollo 13 moon mission, when a familiar tale of exploration and adventure took an abrupt turn and became one of the greatest survival stories in human history. If you’ve seen the excellent Apollo 13 movie starring Tom Hanks, you know basically what happened: when astronaut Jack Swigert flipped a switch to stir the slushy contents of the spacecraft’s main liquid oxygen tank — a completely routine operation that should’ve been about as exciting as turning on the lights — an electrical fault caused the tank to explode. The resulting damage was severe enough, the situation dire enough, that the three men aboard barely made it back to Earth with their lives. But what exactly led to that disastrous electrical fault? io9 has posted a fascinating rundown of the chain of events — essentially, it was one dumb little coincidence after another, piling on top of each other until some kind of failure became almost inevitable. Most chilling of all is the note that timing was everything; if the explosion had happened sooner in the flight or later, those three brave men wouldn’t have had a chance. Give it a read.

And finally, there’s this:


That’s the first color photo of the dwarf planet Pluto and its satellite Charon (Pluto is the larger blob on the right) taken by the New Horizons space probe last week. New Horizons has been hurtling toward a rendezvous with these twin worlds at the edge of our solar system for nearly 10 years, and it’s still 71 million miles away from them. But it’s closing fast, and will fly past these icy little rocks (as well as Pluto’s other four moons) on July 14th, giving us our first really good look at what used to considered the ninth planet of our system before its controversial downgrade from planet status. Planet or not, I’ve wondered what Pluto really looks like since reading Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel in the fifth grade. I’m looking forward to this one…

National Geographic has the details on that photo, and the New Horizons mission, here.


Getting Closer

Yesterday was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for space nerds, as Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched another mission to the International Space Station, the sixth of 12 flights the company is contracted to fulfill. Aboard the Dragon spacecraft this time was 4,300 pounds of supplies, experiments, and the first-ever orbital espresso machine, which of course has been dubbed the “ISSpresso.” I have no idea how such a thing is going to work in zero-gravity — it would be very bad to have a cloud of hot steam drifting around the station, I think — but it amuses me to think of such a homey touch being added to our outpost on the edge of the final frontier. Because really, who doesn’t want a nice hot beverage at the end of a long day of exploration and experimentation?

The launch itself was flawless after being pushed back a day due to weather concerns:


However, as inspiring and lovely as that was, the part of the launch that was most interesting (to me at least) ended in a spectacular failure. For the second time, SpaceX attempted to bring the first stage of the Falcon 9 booster rocket back to Earth under its own power and land it on an unmanned sea-going platform.¬† The idea, if this system can be perfected, is to someday have the boosters return to the launch site and “soft-land,” so they can be easily refurbished, refueled and used again at an enormous cost saving over today’s “use ’em and toss ’em” paradigm. You know, the same thing the space shuttles were supposed to do but never quite managed.

Anyhow, the first try at a powered soft landing back in January ended in a fireball when the rocket came in on an angle and struck the deck of the platform barge, a failure that was later attributed to the vehicle running low on the hydraulic fluid that operated its control fins. For yesterday’s effort, the rocket was equipped with a larger supply of fluid, which helped it reach the target… but unfortunately, it toppled over after touchdown, resulting in yet another “rapid unscheduled disassembly”:

Failure or not, though, I find that video pretty exciting. The rocket is not under remote control during these landing attempts; it’s autonomous, and its downright astounding to me that it found its way to a relatively tiny barge without any human help. The only problem that I can see is that it came down too fast, something that surely can be adjusted on subsequent attempts. Keep in mind that NASA blew up several rockets during the ramp-up to actually flying a man during Project Mercury, and this was only SpaceX’s second try. I’m confident — okay, I’m hopeful — that they can make this work. In part, because reusability has been the goal in spaceflight for decades, and it’s about damn time somebody figures out how to do it, but mostly, to be honest, because I just really like the idea of a rocket landing on its tail like the spaceships in all those old movies from the 1950s. I’ll bet Elon Musk saw all those flicks as a kid, too…

The next attempt will take place as part of the resupply mission scheduled for June.


It Just Won’t Die!

One of the great success stories of interplanetary exploration, the Mars Opportunity rover is still chugging away up there on the Red Planet, snapping photos and making discoveries eleven years after the start of what was only supposed to be a 90-day mission. The little guy has begun showing his age in almost human-like ways — just recently, Opportunity has been experiencing some memory problems — but generally speaking, the rover is in good shape and could keep going indefinitely. So naturally NASA is considering shutting it down so its budget can be redirected to other programs. I can see the cold-blooded logic behind the proposal, but it strikes me as a downright tragic way to end such an incredible adventure.

Of course, that’s assuming that Opportunity doesn’t already have plans of its own…



Awesome Photo on a Sunday Morning

It’s been a quiet weekend around the Bennion Compound. The Girlfriend and I are both fighting head colds, which we think we and our friends Geoff and Anastasia must’ve all picked up at the Billy Idol concert last Monday, since we all got sick at the same time and that’s the only place all four of us have been together recently. (We’ve been calling it the Bimbo Flu, in honor of the skanky creatures with the personal-space issues who were breathing down our necks during the show.) The rain is coming down outside and we’re passing the time the same way we have been for two days: sitting on the couch watching DVDs, and passing the Kleenex box back and forth.

But hey, that’s not very interesting, so how about I repost an awesome photo of a space-shuttle launch instead?

space-shuttle-endeavour_launchHat tip to Jaquandor, who found this on a Twitter feed called Space Snaps. And now back to the regularly scheduled sniffling, already in progress…


Philae Taking the Big Sleep

Last night, probably around the time I was writing my previous post on the subject, Philae’s batteries dropped below operational levels and the lander entered what is called an idle mode — not completely dead, but no longer functioning, with all of its scientific instruments and most of its onboard systems shut off. Its primary mission is over after 57 hours on Comet 67P. However, before “going to sleep,” Philae did transmit all of its data, including results from the drill test, which ESA scientists decided to attempt after all. Also, engineers went ahead with the attempt to rotate the lander and managed to turn it 35 degrees, bringing a larger solar cell into the light. Current is flowing, albeit slowly, and its possible — if unlikely — that the batteries will recharge enough to awaken the lander at some point in the future. In the meantime, the mission is being called “hugely successful,” in spite of the various setbacks.

The Rosetta orbiter still circling above is now backing into a higher orbit and will continue to study 67P for the next year, hoping to learn more about how comets actually work and, of course, what they’re made of, as the comet comes into close approach around the sun and grows a tail. As comets are believed to be leftovers from the formation of our solar system nearly 5 billion years ago, it’s hoped that Rosetta’s data will provide insight into how that process took place, and perhaps whether comets had anything to do with the origin of life here on Earth.

You can read more detail about Philae’s mission in ESA’s wrap-up here. And here are a few other interesting little tidbits:

  • The web comic xkcd did something cool on Wednesday, a series of cartoons created throughout the day to illustrate illustrating Philae’s descent and landing in real time, and which all flow together to create a “virtual flipbook.” I am amazed at the poignancy and warmth xkcd’s creator pulls out of simple line drawings. Even though it’s silly to anthropomorphize a machine with no actual personality or intelligence, you can really imagine Rosetta and Philae having these exchanges of dialog and emotion.
  • I reported the other day that Comet 67P was two-and-a-half miles across and shaped like a duck, but what does that really mean? Well, take a look at this graphic that superimposes the comet over downtown Los Angeles…
  • And finally, here’s a video from ESA depicted the long journey of Rosetta and Philae, from their mutual launch back in 2004 through the projected end of the mission a year from now, in December 2015:

Look at what we did. Not too bad for a bunch of clothes-wearing apes, eh?