Sunday, September 17, 2017

Machines and People: Why Do We Have Feelings About the End of Cassini?

From NASA: "In the shadow of Saturn, unexpected wonders appear. The robotic Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn drifted in giant planet's shadow for about 12 hours in 2006 and looked back toward the eclipsed Sun. Cassini saw a view unlike any other. First, the night side of Saturn is seen to be partly lit by light reflected from its own majestic ring system. Next, the rings themselves appear dark when silhouetted against Saturn, but quite bright when viewed away from Saturn, slightly scattering sunlight, in this exaggerated color image. Saturn's rings light up so much that new rings were discovered, although they are hard to see in the image. Seen in spectacular detail, however, is Saturn's E ring, the ring created by the newly discovered ice-fountains of the moon Enceladus and the outermost ring visible above. Far in the distance, at the left, just above the bright main rings, is the almost ignorable pale blue dot of Earth." Image Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

 “See the dark night has come down on us
The world is livin' in its dream
But now we know that we can wake up from this sleep
And set out on the journey
Find a ship to take us on the way.”

- Gerry Rafferty, “The Ark,” with apologies to Bill DeYoung 

In the early morning hours of September 15, as I awoke and readied for work, Cassini started its final plunge into Saturn, its home of 13 years. Launched in October 1997 from a Titan IV-Centaur launch vehicle, the spacecraft had spent its last few months conducting “dives” into the unexplored region between the gas giant and its signature rings. But alas, 20 years dissipated into a matter of seconds, and at 7:55 a.m. EDT JPL received the last signals from the minivan-sized spacecraft, just before it turned into a meteor among the high clouds of Saturn. By that time, I was clocking into work during a challenging week; my job had been relocated across town due to Hurricane Irma damage. Still, as I checked out the Cassini updates on social media, I found myself welling up with tears. Why?

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Hurricane Irma Updates and Live Blog - Largo, FL

"The NOAA-NASA satellite GOES-16 captured this geocolor image of Hurricane Irma passing the eastern end of Cuba at about 8:00 a.m. EDT on Sept. 8, 2017... Please note: GOES-16 data are currently experimental and undergoing testing and hence should not be used operationally." Entire NOAA caption can be viewed at this link. Image Credit: NOAA/NASA
7:40 p.m. Sept. 9: We are currently in Largo, Florida, having evacuated from our home in Saint Petersburg, waiting for what is being anticipated as the worst weather event in the Tampa Bay area since 1960's Hurricane Donna. As of 7:30 p.m. EDT, the track has the storm making its way through Tampa Bay in the early hours of Monday, Sept. 10 as a Category 3 hurricane. We are in a non-evacuation zone with plenty of food, sodas, water, and snacks, plus we have our cat, Felix, here by us, so we're about as safe as we will be given the situation. Still very nerve-wracking, nobody here is sure what they'll endure or find at homes once the evacuation orders lift. I figured I'd deal with my nerves by trying to document the storm as much as I can. 


Video filmed around 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9. Please excuse the terrible production quality.

12 a.m. Sept. 10: Sleepless, so I thought I'd share this cool 1960 radar image of Hurricane Donna over the Florida Keys, which was mentioned in the above update. As you can tell, radar technology at that time was rudimentary; the colorful, detailed images we see presently were still well into the future, but these images did mitigate what could've been a worse loss of human life and infrastructure in Florida. I know I linked a Wikipedia article above, but it's not a bad read, plus there is a cool time-lapse of radar images of Donna in there, if you're interested in that kind of thing.

Radar image of Hurricane Donna over the Florida Keys, 1960. Retrieved from http://www.whyy.org/tv12/franklinfacts/sep1200ff.html (Original source: NOAA) 
4:38 p.m. Sept. 10: Please check out my Facebook profile (http://www.facebook.com/emilybot) for updates concerning Hurricane Irma; as long as I have battery power, I will keep everyone updated as much as humanly possible.

So far, we are getting tropical storm-like conditions, and we are safe. For meteorological updates, I suggest checking out Denis Phillips' page on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/denisphillipswfts/). 
 *****
Please stay with This Space Available for further updates; if updates cease we may have suffered a power or Wi-Fi outage, so please be patient. Thank you.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

On the Eve of the Great 2017 American Eclipse, Let's Revisit Skylab's Artificial Eclipses

NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) image, the Sun's corona observed by Skylab. The corona in real color would actually be white; this computer-enhanced image uses false color to augment coronal features. "At Skylab's orbital altitude, where almost no air was left and where the sky was starkly black, the outer corona was at last clearly seen. In the thousands of coronal portraits made by Skylab, in which the corona was observed more extensively than in all the centuries of humanity's interest in the Sun, the corona was constantly altering its form, ever adjusting to the shifting magnetic fields from the Sun's surface that so obviously gave it its distinctive shape. Skylab's coronagraph observations coupled with x-ray pictures of the inner corona helped establish the origin of the corona's varied forms and the important connection between coronal holes and high-speed streams in the solar wind." (Author's note: All material in quotes is from NASA.)
DID YOU KNOW: Skylab boasted a white light coronagraph in its suite of eight Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) experiments which allowed its astronauts to photograph incredible simulated eclipses? On the eve of tomorrow's solar eclipse, let's revisit this little-hyped, long-forgotten cool Skylab feature. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Brothers Under The Skin: 'Island of Clouds' And The Myth of the Astronaut as Hero

NASA photo, July 18, 1969: " The face of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot of Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, is seen in this color reproduction, taken from the third television transmission, from the Apollo 11 spacecraft during its trans-lunar journey toward the moon. Aldrin is inside the Lunar Module (LM)."
In the early days of the space program NASA, aided by a questionable agreement with Life magazine, sought to portray the first astronauts as the embodiment of American values. Good husbands, fathers, family men, patriots, professionals. It would have been naïve even at that time to expect them all to be from the same cookie cutter mold. Perhaps that mold was legitimate in one dimension only: they were all competent, even outstanding, pilots.” - Dwayne Day, “Buzz Aldrin will not stop talking,” published on The Space Review, May 15, 2017

[Joan Crawford] was a professional. We did one picture together. Our lives intersected. That’s it.” - Bette Davis played by Susan Sarandon in Feud: Bette and Joan

The subheadings in Dwayne Day’s piece “Buzz Aldrin will not stop talking,” which was published in The Space Review in May, asked the reader, “What do we owe our heroes? What do our heroes owe us?” Day later added, “Our heroes are rarely who we want them to be.” Day underscored in his piece that the tempestuous Aldrin was the first of the Apollo astronauts to tarnish the luster of the “perfect Astronaut” image with his 1973 autobiography, Return to Earth. In that tome, Aldrin discussed the less pleasant aspects of his life in then-unprecedented detail, even dishing intimate details about his alcoholism, adultery, and depression, which were taboo topics at the time. While Aldrin’s achievements cannot be discounted, he has always been kind of an “odd bird” compared to his contemporaries.

Despite that, Aldrin wouldn’t be the last astronaut to dismantle the image of the “astronaut hero.” Walt Cunningham’s All-American Boys, originally published in 1977, functioned as the Ball Four of astronaut autobiographies. Cunningham spared very little in his reminiscences about his colleagues. Two more recent entries in the genre, Al Worden’s Falling to Earth and Donn Eisele’s Apollo Pilot (both co-written with Francis French) further tore down the image of the perfect Astronaut, the infallible knight clad in a white A7L spacesuit.

The Apollo astronauts, probably more than their shuttle counterparts, occupy a strange place in history. Many were test pilots, and all were suddenly thrust into an unforgiving spotlight with little to no warning. Some of them wore their “fame” with more dignity than others. One fictional book released in May, Island of Clouds by Gerald Brennan, furthers Day’s investigation into the myth of “astronaut as hero,” shedding light upon the “fame monster,” and the forced notion of brotherhood and camaraderie among the astronaut corps. Warning: minor book spoilers included.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Maybe It’s Time for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project to Have Its Moment Again

NASA photo, Feb. 1975: "The five prime crew members of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission pose for a group photograph while at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for a three-day inspection tour. They are, left to right, astronaut Donald K. (Deke) Slayton, docking module pilot of the American crew; astronaut Vance D. Brand, command module pilot of the American crew; astronaut Thomas P. Stafford, commander of the American crew; cosmonaut Aleksey A. Leonov, commander of the Soviet crew; and cosmonaut Valeriy N. Kubasov, engineer of the Soviet crew. They were at KSC to look over launch facilities and flight hardware. They are standing in front of artist Robert McCall's painting of an ASTP docking in Earth orbit." 
Space history-wise, the time period from 1973 to 1975 is often overlooked. The Apollo lunar missions had ended, and the Space Shuttle program was just beginning to take shape. The keel for Enterprise had just been laid in 1974. That leaves us with two programs, which were all that remained of what was once known as the Apollo Applications Program: Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP).

People remember lots of disco-funk music, and the mustard-colored uniforms from that NASA era. Even Deke Slayton was wearing lots of plaid, wide ties, and was sporting of-their-time mutton chops. Unfortunately, in terms of attention, many space enthusiasts treat these 1970s programs like “the middle child.” They are seen as lacking the glamour of the prior Moon landings, and aren’t seen as thrilling as the then-upcoming Shuttle program. 

NASA image, a 1973 artist's concept of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
This blog has discussed Skylab countless times, and in the last decade that program has experienced – and continues to experience – a sort of renaissance in the hearts and minds of space fans. What about Apollo-Soyuz? While there were some pangs of nostalgia when its 40th anniversary was celebrated a couple of years ago, it, too, doesn’t gain as much attention as its more exciting Apollo counterparts. Luckily, there are several books that serve to fill in the gaps for space enthusiasts curious about this July 1975 cultural, political, and technological watershed moment.

There are several astronaut autobiographies, including General Thomas Stafford’s We Have Capture, Slayton’s Deke!, and Alexei Leonov’s Two Sides of the Moon (co-authored with astronaut Dave Scott), that discuss ASTP in detail. A newer autobiography, Vance Brand’s Flying Higher and Faster, is a welcome addition to this genre. Published last year, Brand’s book delves into much of the training he undertook before the mission, and underscores his personal dedication to fitting in as well as possible with the Soviet ASTP crew, Leonov and Kubasov. Brand took lessons in the Russian language on his own time, and on his own dime, well before the mission was flown.
We probably had a lot of accent in our Russian. You know, Tom always claims to speak ‘Oklahomaski,’ which is a combination of Oklahoma – well, it’s Russian with an Oklahoma accent. I know we all had an accent, and they had accents. We all had varying degrees of expertise with the other person’s language. They did very well in English, I thought, and it was always hard for me to judge how well we did in Russian because you can’t really hear yourself like a Russian would. But we had excellent communications, could understand each other very well.” – Vance Brand, July 25th, 2000 NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project interview
There are also reminiscences about the trips the crews took afterward to promote their message of international cooperation in space. Brand is one of the quieter astronauts from the Apollo era, and it’s nice to finally hear his thoughts about his life, career, and missions. Brand went on to fly three Shuttle missions in the years after ASTP, and remained at NASA until 2008, capping off nearly 42 years at the space agency. 

NASA photo, labeled Feb. 13, 1975: "Two crewmen of the joint U.S.-USSR Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission participate in ASTP training in Building 35 at the Johnson Space Center. They are astronaut Vance D. Brand (left), command module pilot of the American ASTP prime crew; and cosmonaut Valeriy N. Kubasov, engineer on the Soviet ASTP first (prime) crew. They are in the Soyuz spacecraft orbital module mock-up. Brand and Kubasov are going through a walk-through simulation of the second day of activities in Earth orbit. Brand takes some pictures."
Perhaps the best existing standalone book about ASTP is The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, written by Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell. Published by NASA shortly after the end of ASTP in 1978, this book delves into the many political, cultural, and technical challenges involved in bringing U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts together in orbit. One will discover that docking two disparate spacecraft with different atmospheres and operating pressures isn’t as simple as it seems; there was much concern about the docking mechanism that brought the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft together. While this book was published nearly 40 years ago, this writer has no doubt that many of its lessons and findings contributed to developing “Phase One” (Shuttle-Mir) and the International Space Station in subsequent years.

An upcoming book to be published on Apogee, the Apollo-Soyuz NASA Mission Reports, is currently being put together by author and filmmaker Dwight Steven-Boniecki. Maybe it’s time for ASTP to have its own renaissance. Five men from completely different backgrounds and cultures found common ground in low Earth orbit, which at the height of the Cold War, was nothing short of miraculous. In addition, the cultural and technological resonances from this mission directly contributed to Shuttle-Mir, and our present fortress in space, the International Space Station. And, of course, there was a handshake we’ll never forget.

Some content for this blog post was excerpted from the author’s opening remarks at the Skylab/ASTP Panel at Spacefest VIII, which took place on June 10, 2017. 

NASA photo, July 17 or 18, 1975: "Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford (left) and cosmonaut Aleksey A. Leonov are photographed together in the Soyuz Orbital Module during the joint U.S.-USSR Apollo-Soyuz Test Project docking mission in Earth orbit. They are respective commanders of their crews."

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Ye Olde Space Book Corner: 1988’s Liftoff and The Soviet Manned Space Program

From July 18, 1966: "Astronaut Michael Collins, command pilot, is photographed inside the spacecraft during the Gemini 10 mission." NASA photo.
The late 1980s represented a transitional time for both the U.S. and Soviet space programs. In January 1986, an unspeakable tragedy was etched all over the skies of Central Florida, signaling the fiery demise of Challenger; a lengthy investigation and redesign of many facets of the space shuttle program followed. Meanwhile, the Soviets focused on developing a space shuttle of their own (Buran), while also building infrastructure in space (Mir, their first modular space station, which stayed in orbit through 2001).

Two books, both released in 1988, address many of the issues associated with this era in spaceflight, while casting a witty, sometimes critical eye at both countries’ past glories. Both authors, despite writing about programs that exist on two sides of the world, managed to find common ground – and some of their words were chillingly prophetic.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The New Buran?: SA-500F, and Other Saturn Rockets for the Easily Triggered

"The Apollo Saturn V 500F Facilities Test vehicle, after conducting the VAB stacking operations, rolls out of the VAB on its way to Pad 39A to perform crawler, Launch Umbilical Tower, and pad operations." NASA photo, May 25, 1966. The SA-500F went on to have an eventful life after death.
Every few years or so, an old spacecraft or spacecraft concept appears and reappears on the Internet and becomes so ubiquitous, it almost becomes a meme. This blog has already gone into excruciatingly intense detail about the Soviet space shuttle that couldn’t: Buran. We all know Buran has appeared hundreds of times on social media, message boards, in my damn life, etc. Lately this ubiquity has extended to the SA-500F, the Saturn V facilities verification vehicle, and other sometimes upsetting mutations of the Saturn V and Saturn rocket family.