Saturday, January 28, 2012

More Thoughts About a Post-Space Shuttle World

July 8, 2011. 

It has been six months since the launch of STS-135. I was there. One of my good friends, Will, and I showed up to Rotary Riverview Park in Titusville, FL around 1 a.m. We secured the last parking space and happily camped out, awaiting what we thought would be a significant delay. The weather was rainy and gusty; I was sure the shuttle wouldn't leave that morning, but I figured, hey, why not try? During our wait, we chatted with some Titusville old-timers and new visitors to the area, all there to see the 30-year-old space shuttle program wind its way to a close. I was 33. The shuttle program flavored my formative years immensely. 

We were surprised - the rain stopped and the storm clouds abated. Everything turned out beautifully. Around 11:26 a.m., we saw those main engines light up for the last time. Atlantis was on its way into space. The shuttle's flaming boosters soon disappeared into the cloudy mid-summer morning sky. As the shuttle arced overhead, we heard the incredibly loud sound of the vehicle going hypersonic. Words can't really describe that auditory experience. It was one of those most overpoweringly emotional moments of my life. 

Apparently, I'm still not over it. I have dreams in which I see night launches from my apartment in St. Petersburg. I miss the twin sonic booms as the shuttles would make their way back to KSC. I am still coming to terms with the fact that I won't hear them again in my lifetime. It makes me feel sad. 

One of Atlantis' booster casings was from STS-1, the first shuttle mission, which launched the program in 1981. I also feel inexplicably sad that John Young won't ever see space again, for some reason. John and Bob Crippen were pioneers in the truest sense of the word and I really miss that era of exploration; we won't experience that level of excitement again. I am aware that new launch vehicles are being developed - but for us living in Florida, the space shuttle experience was something utterly special and inescapable. 

So yeah, as silly as it seems, I realized that I'm still mourning the loss of the shuttle program all these months later. This particular week is always difficult for space buffs (Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia, etc.). I saw the final minutes of Challenger with my own eyes in the schoolyard as a kid. I miss those astronauts, too. January reminds me of the losses we've grown to accept over the years during the space program. The end of the shuttle program, despite the vehicles' age, was also a loss whether we want to realize it or not. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Jack Swigert of the Week is Back!: Parachute...Into Ladies

Before the Old Spice Guy was even alive, Jack Swigert existed. Jack Swigert prepares to get his parachute training on, late 1960s. NASA photo.
Jack is back! Did I mention how difficult it is to find Jack Swigert photos? Although I did find one of him training for Apollo 13's backup to John Young, of all people. That may be one of the greatest collisions of badassery and aftershave ever.

Monday, January 16, 2012

To io9: You All Forgot About John Young Farting on the Moon

"To Charlie Duke...I am so sorry. My best, John Young's GI Tract." NASA photo. 

Recently, the great web site io9 published some Very Important Information about what happens when astronauts fart in space. While this is a great piece, let's talk about some poopular digestive problems which some astronauts publicly encountered during their forays into poopdom history. 

We've all heard about some astronauts encountering space sickness (the most famous offenders: Frank Borman's Apollo 8 Seconal barfs, Rusty Schweickart's Apollo 9 general grossness and Sen. Jake Garn's barf-tastic shuttle flight in the 1980s). However, this problem isn't really food-related as much as being related to motion sickness. The inner ear can be really sensitive to weightlessness and sudden changes in G-forces, which is why everybody ever at NASA puked on the MASTIF trainer and the "Vomit Comet" parabolic flight plane. After Skylab 2, Dr. Joe Kerwin famously barfed his guts out after splashdown due to motion sickness, which is pretty understandable. I am a macho chick and I've puked after swimming. Enough said. 

Allegedly, Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean took so much Imodium before his 1969 flight that he didn't poop for eight days. Bean made it abundantly clear that he did not want to leave any "gifts" in space. I believe Bill Anders of Apollo 8 did something similar and ate an extremely low-residue diet so he wouldn't produce any Space Gifts. How can you all expect me to talk about poop seriously? Come on. Everybody poops!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

UPDATE: Phobos-Grunt Breathed its Last this Afternoon, Reentered

Around 12:45 p.m. Eastern time, Phobos-Grunt reentered somewhere over the Pacific Ocean by Chile. Our long international nightmare is over; you all can put your Skylab shields back in your sheds. As far as anyone knows, no living creature was injured by the crash.

I'm exhausted, so I am going to head to bed soon...but I figured I would update my readers about this long drama (the space probe was launched November 10 and malfunctioned shortly afterwards).  As soon as there are photos or anything available, I'll paste them up. G'night!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Gemini Program High-Resolution Photos Finally Released

Beginning of sunrise sequence from Gemini 7, which flew in December 1965. Photo courtesy of NASA. 

The hi-res images from the Gemini program, which functioned as a bridge to landing on the moon, were released last week. My favorite one is above. The photos are featured on a web site which comes to us viewers courtesy of NASA's Johnson Space Center and Arizona State University. 

Gemini is often overlooked in spaceflight history; we forget that this program made the moon landings possible with its pioneering rendezvouses in earth's orbit. 10 total Gemini missions flew between 1965 and 1966. 

Many of these photos have a stunning, surreal, retro-futuristic quality and they shouldn't be missed by ardent space fans. Visit The March to the Moon Gemini Gallery; you won't be disappointed. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Get Out Your Skylab Shields, 'Cos Phobos-Grunt is Coming Down January 15

According to a report from (rechristened as "" by me right now), the doomed Russian interplanetary probe Phobos-Grunt is scheduled to come down as soon as January 15. 

It's a rather large payload, with potentially toxic hydrazine fuel on board. Hopefully, most of the toxic components should burn up in the atmosphere, leaving 440 pounds (30 to 40 pieces) left to hit the earth. It's expected to reenter somewhere over 51 degrees north latitude and 51 degrees south latitude, which means a lot of the earth will be potentially exposed. 

When Phobos-Grunt comes down, This Space Available intends to provide readers with updates, unless I get crushed by a piece of fallen satellite, sort of like this: 

Farmers' insurance agents meet a Mercury capsule and Ham the astronaut. From YouTube. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

When We Never Left Earth: ...In Which STS-1 Was Supposed to Be a Sub-Orbital Mission

If John Young says it's dangerous, it officially is. NASA photo. 

Some background on this post: in the space shuttle days, one of the four launch abort profiles was "Return to Launch Site." This was a risky, at best, proposition which forced the crew to jettison boosters, flip the shuttle and half-empty external fuel tank around at approximately Mach 7 (??!!) and somehow land the shuttle on a nearby runway. Yes, this was an actual abort profile suggested by NASA at one time. Apparently, it had been tried out in simulators, which meant it worked theoretically. However, no one was quite sure if it would be successful in a real-life emergency situation. 

Apparently, NASA engineers wanted to make STS-1 a sub-orbital mission to try and see if this whole insane scenario worked. John W. Young, no stranger to crazy stuff, refused; the prospective mission was called off. STS-1 launched after many delays in April 1981 and performed 37 successful orbits before landing at Edwards Air Force Base within two days. A former NASA employee told me once that one abort scenario had the two crew members (the first four shuttle flights were considered test flights) jumping out of the shuttle using ejection seats. However, given the extreme heat (5,000 degrees Fahrenheit plus) generated by the solid rocket boosters, nobody really wanted to try this. The early shuttle flights give one an understanding of how risky the new space transportation system was in its early days; at least Mercury, Gemini and Apollo had successful unmanned tests behind it. STS-1 was, in essence, the very first true test flight. The Return to Launch Site abort procedure, thankfully, was never attempted or used in the entire history of the space shuttle program. 

Other interesting cancelled shuttle missions include the "Skylab reboost mission," in which astronauts Fred Haise and Jack Lousma were supposed to outfit the ailing Skylab space station with something called the "Teleoperator Retrieval System" in an attempt to boost it into a higher orbit. This mission was supposed to take place in 1979. Due to delays in the shuttle program, this never happened and Skylab reentered over Australia in 1979, killing at least one bunny rabbit and a cow. Fred Haise flew Approach and Landing Tests in 1977, utilizing the shuttle Enterprise (which never left Earth and was only used for landing tests). He retired from NASA in 1979 and never flew on a space shuttle flight. 

In 1986, Bob Crippen was supposed to command STS-62A (Discovery), which was supposed to be the first shuttle mission conducted in a polar Earth orbit. Due to the Challenger disaster, this mission, too, was cancelled. It was also supposed to be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The whole thing sounds almost too cool for words but fate, unfortunately, had other ideas in mind. 

For more information about the Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort profile, check out this article from the December 2000 issue of Popular Mechanics. Also, check out this interesting blog about various space missions which never happened called Beyond Apollo

The Freakin' Solar System, Part 1: Let's Talk About Venus

Venus' rotation. As you may notice, Venus wants to be an individual and it doesn't want to rotate the same way as its neighbor, Earth. YouTube video. 

I don't talk much about the solar system, so today I decided to talk about the other planets a bit. First, Venus. It's similar in size to Earth. It has a very dense atmosphere and from probes, appears to be cream-colored. However, the clouds consist of mostly sulfuric acid and the atmosphere contains a lot of carbon dioxide, making it an unlikely place for humans to ever visit. Also, the atmospheric pressure tends to crush a lot of landers sent to Venus, making it uninhabitable. The actual surface of Venus appears to be formed from volcanic eruptions and is largely desert-like. 

In the 1960s, radar sent from Earth discovered that Venus rotates clockwise (or "retrograde"), unlike all of the other planets in the solar system. No one knows quite why this happens. Theories abound: either Venus' thick atmosphere caused the planet's slow, reverse rotation or galactic impacts may have disturbed its rotation. No one knows, though. In the night sky when it's visible, Venus is extremely bright. Right now on the U.S. eastern coast, Venus is usually visible until around 8:20 p.m. 

A few space probes and landers have been sent to Venus to further explore why it wants to be a hipster. In the 1970s, Russia successfully landed some landers (the Venera program) which took some photos of the Venusian surface; however, the landers were quickly destroyed by high temperatures and pressures. In the late 1970s, the U.S. Pioneer Venus Orbiter took some gorgeous photos of the planet. The U.S. Magellan probe was outfitted with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and proceeded to map the surface of the planet. The results were pretty amazing. You can visit Venus by looking through your telescope at night or by visiting JPL's Eyes on the Solar System, where you can recreate Magellan's mission. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Unrelated to Spaceflight Post: Tips on Balancing a Professional and Personal Life for Young Women

Recently on my Facebook profile, a rather spirited debate took place over this post about the domestic violence being experienced by famous blogger/writer Penelope Trunk. I read Penelope's blog frequently and am understandably alarmed by her recent posts.

This post here is not meant to criticize her at all or pass judgment upon her advice or personal choices - we all make our own choices for a reason and I have no room to judge anyone for his or her flaws. I've made a lot of regrettable choices myself in my life and have screwed up many professional opportunities due to my own lack of responsibility. There is no one to blame but myself for some of my worst choices, which for brevity's sake and for my own privacy, I won't go into here. This is a spaceflight blog and I rarely wish to discuss anything intensely personal. I am not claiming perfection, as I have a very long way to go before I can claim to even be efficient in most things.

However, when it comes to domestic abuse, I am passionate about personal safety. In addition, I have been asked by some young women to bestow tips on how to effectively manage a personal and professional life simultaneously. Here's my take on the whole thing:
  1. Don't wait for a man to be a success: I was very lucky to meet and marry a very patient, genuinely great guy who completely supports my writing career. We are lucky to have a very happy relationship. However, not every romantic partner is as understanding as my husband happens to be. If you genuinely would love to have a career in whatever it is you are interested in, don't wait for someone else - GO DO IT. NOW. If the person really loves you, he'll follow you. Don't wait for him to get his shit together; get your shit together first and find out what it takes to be a success for yourself.
  2. If someone, man or woman, is beating you up, YOU ARE IN DANGER and you need to get the hell out of dodge: Seriously, I shouldn't need to bring up any statistics, etc., to get this point across. Violence is not really about violence, it's about CONTROL. It only escalates over the years and gets much, much worse. Get the hell out; abandon your belongings if you must. It's just stuff; you can always buy new stuff. There is NOTHING worth dying for. If you are doing the hitting or "provoking" someone into hitting you on purpose, GET OUT of the relationship immediately. It's just not healthy and you need to go into therapy to figure yourself out. This is not said out of judgment; this is said out of concern for mental health. Violence engenders violence and there is no reason for it, ever, pure and simple. 
That's basically it. Like I wrote earlier, I'm not claiming personal perfection in the least bit; like all human beings, I have my own issues I deal with on a daily basis. However, if you want to be a success at work and at life, you need to be all about self-promotion and you can't allow someone else to dictate your life's choices. Also, violence of any sort in a relationship is NEVER acceptable. 

On a serious note, if you are in a violent relationship, please visit this web site for some helpful resources: