Archive for May, 2009

I guess I don't have to change my name to 'Kilometers'

May 30, 2009


Do you all remember the infamous crash of the Mars Climate Orbiter? It was one of two NASA missions to the Red Planet that crashed in 1999 as they reached the end of their long journeys from Earth. Mars Polar Lander made a hole in the rusty dirt in in December – after an on board sensor designed to extinguish the rocket motor once it landed mistook the jolt of the landing gear deploying as a safe touchdown – and shut off the engine while MPL was still 1200 feet above the surface.

MCO was supposed to orbit the Red Planet – but instead entered the atmosphere way too low and burned up in September . The navigation error occurred because the NASA team at the Jet Propulsion Lab in La Canada, CA was using the metric system (newtons) to measure the force created by a thruster – while the Lockheed Martin team in Denver was using imperial units (pound force). One pound force equals approximately 4.45 newtons, and the thruster firings were nothing more than mouse farts, so the discrepency was not obvious just by looking at the numbers. Unfortunately, the two teams never cross-checked their navigantion data. The rest is history – and the ignominous end to then NASA Administrator Dan Goldin’s “Faster, Better, Cheaper” approach to space exploration.

Which brings me to the posting below on NASA is under a mandate to go metric because of the MCO mishap. But the agency is resisting the change for some reason. The irony is it was the JPL/NASA team using the metric system in the first place. LockMart was using pounds.

These days there is a lot of talk about the US remaining competitive in a global economy – and switching to the metric system is something that we should have done a long time ago. Jimmy Carter tried in the 70s…but he apparently didn’t have the newtons to move the masses.

“Following the loss of the Mars Climate Observer, the NASA Office of Inspector General initiated a review of the Agency’s use of the metric system. By law and policy, the metric system is the preferred system of measurement within NASA. However, our review found that use of the metric system is inconsistent across the Agency. A waiver system, which was required by law and put into effect to track metric usage and encourage conversion, is no longer in use. In addition, NASA employees are given little guidance on the Agency’s policy and procedures regarding use of the metric system.”

via NASA Finds The Metric System Too Hard To Implement for Constellation | NASA Watch.


Augustine Commissioners Should be Out Today

May 29, 2009

It’s been nearly three weeks since the Obama White House announced it would name a 10-member commission to examine NASA’s human spaceflight programs and goals, with a particular eye on its troubled Constellation rocket program. Since then, retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine has been named the chair, but there’s been no announcement of who the members will be.

In the interests of hastening the process — some folks are saying that the announcement could come as early as this afternoon — here’s the names of eight members we’ve been able to nail down:

Besides Augustine, they are:

via Orlando Sentinel – Here are the names of most of the Augustine Commission.

'The issue here is monkey'

May 28, 2009

Able and Baker on the cover of Life

Able and Baker on the cover of Life

Gus Grissom: You’ve got it all wrong, the issue here ain’t pussy. The issue here is monkey.
John Glenn: What?
Gus Grissom: Us. We are the monkey.
Deke Slayton: What Gus is saying is that we’re missing the point. What Gus is saying is that we all heard the rumors that they want to send a monkey up first. Well, none of us wants to think that they’re gonna send a monkey up to do a man’s work. But what Gus is saying is that what they’re trying to do to us is send a man up to do a monkey’s work. Us, a bunch of college-trained chimpanzees!
-The Right Stuff, 1983

Fifty years ago on this day, a multinational crew of astronauts flew a brief harrowing, historic rocket ride from Cape Canaveral. They were strapped into a Jupiter Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile and streaked at 10,000 mph – to an altitude of 360 miles. The crew was weightless for nine minutes, survived re-entry and were recovered 1700 miles downrange. No ticker tape parades for them – just some tasty bananas.

Able, an American rhesus monkey and Miss Baker, a Peruvian squirrel monkey, became the first mammals to survive a round-trip to space and back. They were by no means the first animals in space. The first living creatures of any kind to make it to space were some fruit flies launched on a captured V2 rocket from White Sands, New Mexico, to the edge of space (100 miles) in July 1946.

Baker died in 1984 at the age of 27. Able died four days later from a reaction to anasthesia.

Baker (seen here) lived to be 27. Able died four days after the launch from a reaction to anasthesia.

The first primates to go to space were named Albert – four of them in all flew on a series of V2 rocket launches in 1949.  But they all died when the parachutes failed to open during re-entry. They did survive the trip into space which was the object of the research.



The Soviets, of course, are well known for dispatching a series of dogs on one way trips to space – the most famous of them being Laika – a mostly Siberian Husky mutt who flew to space on Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. Laika was wired up to determine how she would fare in orbit – and she was fine until the air ran out. You see, the USSR did not build Sputnik 2 to survive re-entry. The craft eventually fell to Earth in April of 1958 and Laika became a space legend. She is enshrined in a statue at the cosmonaut training center in Star City, Russia. There is a good list of all the early animal space missions here.

Of course the animal flights created a lot of grist for critics of the Mercury 7 astronauts – as Tom Wolfe captured perfectly in The Right Stuff.  The man who first broke the sound barrier – the test pilot’s test pilot – Chuck Yeager trash-talked the first astronauts by telling them the Mercury capsule “doesn’t really require a pilot, and besides, you would have to sweep the monkey shit off the seat before you could sit down.” Ouch.

When the shuttle fades into history at the end of 2010, we will, in a sense, be right back to square one on this debate. Flying the shuttle – which is after all a $2 billion glider that handles like a falling piano – down to a gentle runway landing requires some no-shit piloting skills. The shuttle’s successor – Orion – will splash down in the ocean under parachutes. Do you really need the best test pilots in the world for that? Another reason I will miss the shuttle.

Wanted: Space Cadets with Open Minds

May 28, 2009


Ares V rocket at "booster sep". From NASA

Ares V rocket at "booster sep". From NASA

Norm Augustine, the man who is leading the White House scrubbing of NASA’s post-shuttle plans, has apparently selected a group of experts who have not made up their mind about the future of space exploration in this country.

They are going to have to be quick workers on deadline as well – as their report is due at the end of the summer.

I guess it would not be considered proper to have the NASA Administrator-elect Charlie Bolden sitting at the table for this (couldn’t call it independent anymore…), but since this group will be making some crucial decisions for him (like whether to build the Ares V heavy lift rocket), it would seem only fair that he be in the loop and be heard…

Norm Augustine

Norm Augustine

BETHESDA, Md. – Membership in the White House/NASA panel being set up to give the Obama administration a quick review of the U.S. human spaceflight program will be announced as early as May 27, and the group of 10 aerospace experts should clear all the regulatory wickets to begin work in about two weeks, according to Norman Augustine, the retired Lockheed Martin CEO who will chair the group.

Augustine, who took the job after discussing it with officials of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of Management and Budget, and key members of Congress, said in an interview May 26 that the panel will consist of experts who are “fully open-minded on the subjects.

via Spaceflight Panel Wants Open Minds | AVIATION WEEK.

It's a "Curiosity" alright…

May 27, 2009
Curiosity (indeed). From NASA

Curiosity (indeed). From NASA

Now please do not take this the wrong way, because I think it is noble and good that NASA is involving schoolkids in the process of naming its Mars Rovers. But Curiosity? Can’t we do better than that?

Imagine if kids had named the Apollo spacecraft…would the “The Curiosity has landed” have the same ring to it? Or, if one of the Mercury guys had named their capsule the Sobriety-7 or the Kindness-7, wouldn’t they have been laughed out of the Right Stuff Corps? Those are just a few other traits from the List of Virtues I found on the interweb.

Given what I hear about the Mars Science Laboratory, Complexity, Corpulence or Extravagance might be more apt. OK, maybe I am being something less than virtuous here…But what about naming this one after some towering figures in exploration of the Red Planet – like Schiaperelli, Lowell (or my favorite) Sagan? Or how about some of the great science fiction writers? Wells, Burroughs or Bradbury would all be great names.

Anyway, as my kids say: just sayin’…no offense. If you have a good idea for the name for MSL, let me know…By the way, my friends at are running a poll on this – click here if you are…er..curious.

First there was Sojourner, then there were Spirit and Opportunity, and in a few years there will be . . . Curiosity. That’s the official name given to NASA’s next Mars rover, formerly called the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL.

via “Curiosity” rover to explore Red Planet – Short Sharp Science – New Scientist.

Getting Crowded Up There…

May 27, 2009

Soyuz TMA-15 rising over the steppe in Kazakhstan. Image Credit: ESA/CSA/NASA/Stephane Corvaja

There are big changes afoot for the International Space Station. Ten years after the first pieces arrived in low earth orbit, it will soon be home to six crewmembers. This is a shot of the Soyuz TMA-15 rocket carrying Expedition 20 to ISS from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 6:34 am EDT on Wednesday.

Flight Engineers Roman Romanenko of Russia, Frank De Winne of the European Space Agency and Robert Thirsk of Canada will spend six months in space.

Expedition 20 will mark the start of six-person crew operations aboard the International Space Station. All five of the international partner agencies–NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency–will be represented on orbit for the first time.

Maybe now, after $100 billion spent, they can start doing some real science up there? Let’s hope that urine and sweat recycling system and the second toilet don’t…er…crap out. The alternatives are not very pleasant (you know, the Lisa Nowack method).

Not a "latte" for NASA…

May 27, 2009
What about bucks for the stars? (just venti-ing)

What about bucks for the stars? (just venti-ing)

NASA seal

Image via Wikipedia

I get pretty tired of people who say we cannot afford to sustain our space program (hard times, big bailouts, what’s the point?, blah blah blah…). But this is all half-baked poppycock. The truth is, at $18 billion, NASA gets a fraction of one per cent of the US budget. Chump change. I used to tell people it is about what we spend, collectively, on coffee each year. And you can check my numbers here if you like. Lately though, I have updated my analogy by reminding folks that Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was bigger than NASA’s annual war chest. Well, this inspired Nancy Atkinson at The Universe Today to write this:

Miles O’Brien recently brought it to our attention that the amount of money Bernie Madoff scammed with his Ponzi scheme ($50 billion) is way bigger than NASA’s budget.

American’s spend a lot of money on some pretty ridiculous things. Returning to that oft-used phrase about spending the money used in to solve the problems on Earth, consider this:

Annually, Americans spend about $88.8 billion on tobacco products and another $97 billion on alcohol. $313 billion is spent each year in America for treatment of tobacco and alcohol related medical problems.

via 8 Ridiculous Things Bigger Than NASA’s Budget | Universe Today.

The Hubble Constant: High Interest

May 25, 2009

The Ten Billion Dollar Man - Last Shuttle-eye view of Hubble.

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Hubble Repair Missions. After all, I cut my teeth on the space beat covering the legendary STS-61 mission in December 1993 – the first, the most dramatic – and certainly the most important – of the five astronaut telescope calls now inscribed in the space history books.


Astronaut Story Musgrave fixing Hubble on STS-61.

So I must confess I am a bit wistful – even a little misty – now that it is all over. We will no longer have the good fortune to witness the live drama of human beings pushing the envelope of impossibility to improve a machine that pushes the boundaries of our understanding of the universe.

Over the years, sixteen Mr. Starwrenches finessed, improvised – and sometimes used brute force – to fix what ailed Hubble – or make it better. It was Reality TV for the Space Cadet Nation.

Today old man Hubble embarks on its final scientific chapter much better than new – as if he were The Ten Billion Dollar Man.

Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was before. Better. Stronger. Faster.

But if I am getting all blubbery over this space bookend, you can only imagine what it must be like for Dave Leckrone – a Hubbler for 33 years now – the last 16 of them as the Project Scientist.

Last week, he startled into consciousness the normally somnolent media assemblage at your typical NASA news briefing by saying something that was (a) candid, honest and heartfelt (b) off the talking points (way off), and thus, (c) newsworthy.

“It just makes me want to cry to think that this is the end of it,” Leckrone said. “There is no person out there, there is no leadership out there, there is no vision out there to pick up the baton that we’re about to hand off and carry it forward.” [ has the salient question and response isolated here.]

Now this kind of thing simply does not happen at a NASA briefing. But Leckrone is retiring on October 1 and rightly feels he has nothing to lose – and maybe something to gain – by venting at this stage of his career.

Dave Leckrone

Dave Leckrone

He was quickly smacked down by his boss, colleague and frienemy Ed Weiler – who rules the Kingdom of Science at NASA Headquarters.

“There are no other satellites up there to service other than Hubble…why is that?” Weiler asked rhetorically when we spoke on the phone the other day as he waited on the wrong coast for Atlantis to come home.

Ed Weiler

Ed Weiler

“You gotta realize the guy (Leckrone) is coming from a very, very narrow focus,” said Weiler. “(Hubble) is the grandest, most wonderful Redwood tree in my forest, but I have to worry about the whole forest of science missions.”

And Weiler claims in his ten year stint as NASA’s top science manager (“Code S”), not a single scientist with a wild idea for a mission has asked that it be designed to be serviced by astronauts.

The main argument here is over the Benjamins (isn’t it always?). Hubble has cost the taxpayers about ten billion non-inflation adjusted dollars since the beginning. That is a big number to be sure. Hubble’s successor – the James Webb Space Telescope slated to launch in 2014 – carries a $4.5 billion price tag – which, when adjusted for inflation, is equivalent to our $1.5 billion down payment on the Hubble program three decades ago.

Webb is not designed for astronaut servicing – it is headed a million miles out into the space – to an orbital sweet spot in our solar system called a Lagrangian Point – out of human reach with any spacecraft currently available or on the drawing boards.


The James Webb Space Telescope

Webb is not going to be cheap – but it will certainly be cheaper than Hubble. Or will it?

I also reached out to Dave Leckrone – he too was cooling his heels in Florida – presumably making separate dinner plans than his boss. Leckrone reminds us when you add in the five astronaut servicing missions – and subtract for the flawed, blurry mirror that hobbled Hubble at the outset, you could make a good case that there have now been three distinct Hubble Space Telescopes.

I realize the Blue Light doesn’t exactly start flashing there, but that does change the amortization and depreciation schedules significantly doesn’t it? So could the Hubble model of space astronomy actually be cheaper?  Well no one can say for sure.

“No one has ever commissioned a proper, academically rigorous study of that cost trade,” said Leckrone.  So whenever you see (Weiler) saying that (astronaut servicing) is more expensive, he is saying it on intuition.”

The agency is conducting a $20 million study to get definitive answer, but that seems like a waste of money because the question is utterly moot given what lies ahead once the shuttles are pickled and chalked on museum floors.

The successor to the shuttle -the Apollo-like Orion Capsule – is not designed for this kind of work at all. It doesn’t even have an airlock or a robot arm. It is nothing more – or less – than a (hopefully) reliable, safer taxi to space for humans…not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is just not a space work platform like the shuttle.

Orion Capsule

Orion Capsule

Still, as part of Leckrone’s public rebuke, the NASA PR machine churned out this statement from spokesman Grey Hautaluoma: “There is nothing about the (Orion) architecture that would preclude satellite rescue work.”

True in the narrowest parsing of the word, I suppose. But the Space Cadet Nation knows the real score here.

So will there ever be another Hubble? As he unfailingly does, Ed Weiler cut to the chase: “Probably not, because there won’t be a shuttle.”

Indeed, Hubble and Shuttle are inextricably linked – both conceived and gestated with each other in mind in the seventies.

“They are like two kids growing up in the same family,” says Weiler. “They impacted each other’s designs.”

In fact, Hubble’s mirror is 2.4 meters in diameter so that it could fit in the Shuttle cargo bay – and it flies in Shuttle striking distance (low earth orbit) even though that is by no means the ideal place to park a space telescope (half the time, Mother Earth proves to Hubble she would be a better door than a window).

So what happens now that we don’t have Hubble to tinker with?  Leckrone worries we will eventually forget all that we have learned during the Hubble years – through tears, sweat and spherical aberration.

“It leaves us in the incredible position of losing amazing capabilities we once had and not being able to recover those capabilities in our lifetimes,” he told me.

Sounds grim, but truth be told, astronauts are still proving their spacewalking mettle on the space station – you just don’t hear about it in the mainstream media very much. Sadly, most Americans do not fully appreciate the amazing accomplishment that is the International Space Station. They overlook its incremental role in pushing out the frontier and see it more like a big public works project. Whether or not the widget attaches to the gizmo “nominally” just isn’t enough to sell the program outside the Space Cadet Nation.

But Hubble literally has a wider field and thus it fires synapses in both hemispheres of our brains. The beauty and wonder of its images appeal to poets as much as engineers – and the extravehicular repair work might as well be performance art.

John "Hubble Hugger" Grunsfeld

John "Hubble Hugger" Grunsfeld

That is one thing that the scientists may be overlooking as they green-eyeshade the future of man and/or machine in space. Everyday people have connected with this shiny, silver telescope in ways that transcend Hubble’s stack of peer-reviewed discoveries that have sparked the biggest revolution in astronomy this side of Galileo.

Maybe it is the hard-luck comeback, sad-sack to superstar tale…maybe it is the stunning, ethereal images from the (now retired) Wide Field and Planetary Camera-2 (see the greatest hits on Universe Today)…or maybe, just maybe, it’s those spacewalks…those high-tech, high-drama ballets in the void. Man meeting machine in the harshest environment of all.

"The Pillars of Creation"

"The Pillars of Creation"

Leckrone’s conclusion: “the astronomical community has not been enamored of this because they had this prejudice that space shuttles and (human) spaceflight are expensive and it is not something they want to get involved in.”

But let’s not forget that first Hubble servicing mission was among the most important missions in the history of the space program – no matter which side of the flow chart you report to. NASA was a laughingstock, Congress was poised to stop the Space Station before it was built – and no one was certain how much practical building an astronaut could do in space anyway. It is not an understatement to say that stunningly successful mission saved Hubble, the Space Station, and for that matter, the space program as we know it.

Fixing Hubble saved NASA and made a lot of people smile and think maybe humans really do belong in space after all. So now that this chapter is closed, who or what is the agency’s new lifeline to a blasé, apathetic public?

Parting Shot from Atlantis

May 21, 2009

The crew of the space shuttle Atlantis is now in the homestretch of a mission for the record books. The crew is cleaning up the orbiter. Mike Massimino says the place is littered with “garbage” and looks like a teenager’s room after the parents have been gone for a few days. Landing at the Kennedy Space Center is set for 10am EDT tomorrow (Friday). But the weather is looking dicey.

On Saturday, NASA will activate its backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base in the High Desert of California. If the weather is still not favorable for landing in Florida on Saturday – but the forecast for Sunday is improved – mission managers may elect to keep Atlantis in orbit for another 24 hours – making Sunday the get on the ground no matter where day. Check out mission coverage for the latest.

Someone on the crew also took the time to take this great shot – which is now my desktop wallpaper. You can find it here if you want to do the same.


“The most challenging thing I have ever done…"

May 21, 2009


Scott Parazynski says it is the hardest thing he has ever done. This comes from a guy who has strapped himself five times to a rocket with the explosive force of a small nuclear bomb – and who has ventured into the void as a spacewalker seven times. In his last spacewalk, he was lashed to the end of an extended robot arm on the space station – and performed an improvised fix to some bunched arrays – which were still alive with electrical current. But summiting Everest still tops all of it.

Listen to my last Skype chat with him and his Sherpa Danuru from Everest Base Camp. It sure was a fun ride for me – even though I seldom left my laundry room. Hope you enjoyed it as well.

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As you know by now, Scott was carrying some small moon rocks with him gathered by Neil Armstrong in July 1969. Here are some great shots of him at the top including one holding the rocks in a container with a sliver of a moon in the distance.