Archive for the ‘Shuttle’ Category

“This Week In Space” – September 5, 2010

September 5, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is out!

Hello and Welcome.  This week we have everything from NASA creating vomit in a lab to fire and smoke, and let’s cut right to those flames you want to see…

ATK DM-2 Motor Test. Source: NASAFIRE and smoke blasted out of the  most powerful solid rocket motor designed for flight – a 5 segment solid rocket booster.  This was a NASA and ATK test in Promontory Utah.  It was a 75 million dollar test of a rocket that President Obama wants cancelled.  This five segment motor was built to power the Ares I rocket meant to fly crews to space.   This one blasted out a 600 foot long flame that was 5600 degrees and can generate up to 3.6 million pounds of thrust.

We LOVE an excuse to show catchy video anytime here at TWIS – and NASA just gave us two good reasons.  The agency selected two companies for experimental space vehicle test flights…Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems and awarded them a total of about half a million dollars.  The awards will be used by the two companies to test their systems near the edge of space.  That’s considered to be the area between 65 thousand and 350 thousand feet.  The CRuSR awards will fund two flights this fall and one this winter of Armadillo’s Super-Mod vehicle from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The first two flights will be to an altitude of approximately nine miles and the third to approximately 25 miles.  A Masten Space Systems’ vehicle will make four flights this  winter from the Mojave Spaceport in California. Two flights will reach an altitude of approximately three miles and two others will be to approximately 18 miles.

All good things must come to an end – and that was the case Monday for NASA’s ICESat spacecraft, which fell to Earth in a controlled re-entry over the Barents Sea.  The spacecraft weighed about a ton, and NASA expected about 200 pounds of debris to survive the fiery plunge to the surface.  Launched back in 2003, ICESat was an Earth Observing satellite designed to measure the thickness of both land and sea ice – as well as vegetation, clouds and atmospheric aerosols.  Its laser instrument stopped working last year, and controllers fired on-board thrusters over the summer to adjust its orbit and bring it down in a safe and controlled fashion.  And here’s a cool twist – NASA farmed out the planning work on the final maneuvers to students at the University of Colorado Boulder.  It was a great project for them, and it saved some tax dollars too.   ICESat 2 is on the books to launch in 2015.

International Space Station. Source: NASA

As long as we are de-orbiting things…Tuesday was trash day up on the International Space Station.  In space it is a little more complicated than pushing the big green bin out to the curb.  As you know, the station gets regular shipment of supplies via unmanned Russian Progress vehicles.  Once the station crew members unpack all the cargo, they start packing trash back in.  When it is full, the Progress undocks and Russian ground controllers eventually deorbit it and it burns up over the Pacific Ocean.  The station crew waved bye-bye to Progress 38 in time to start preps for the arrival of Progress 39, set to launch from Kazakstan on September 8 and dock at the station two days later.  Also on the ISS, astronauts were keeping an eye on hurricane Earl from 218 miles up…talk about a birds-eye view.  And one more piece of station news before we move on.  NASA crew assignments for Expedition 34 and 35.  The headline:  in March 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will assume command of the ISS – making him the first Canadian commander.  Way to go, Chris, ‘eh?

The NASA family bid farewell this week to astronaut Bill Lenoir, who died at age 71 of head injuries sustained in bicycle accident.  Lenoir was a “scientist-astronaut” selected in 1967, and he waited a full 15 years to make his one and only flight.  In the shuttle program, he is a man of many firsts.  He flew on the first “operational” shuttle mission, STS-5.  The previous four were considered test flights.  He and Joseph Allen were the first mission specialists to fly on the shuttle.  He was the first flight engineer to assist the Commander and pilot during a launch on the flight deck.  He switched seats with Allen for the return home, and so he was the first astronaut to ride back to earth on the middeck.  He and his crewmates deployed the first commercial shuttle payloads into orbit – two communications satellites.  And he and Allen were supposed to conduct the first spacewalks from the shuttle – but space sickness and suit malfunctions scuttled that plan.  Lenoir went on serve three years as Associate Administrator for Space Flight.

Check out this super-cool visualization of the solar system that shows the location of asteroids over time as we earthlings discovered them.  Here’s what our situational awareness was in the year 1980.  But let’s skip ahead a bit.  Discoveries really took off  around the year 2000 or so.  The ones in red are so-called Earth crossing asteroids – need to keep a particularly close eye on those.  It’s like Yogi Berra said – you can see a lot by just observing.  Another interesting asteroid tidbit this week.  There’s been a lot of buzz in recent months about a possible manned mission to an asteroid, perhaps sometime in the 2020’s.  Well, opportunities to do that may not be as plentiful as you might think.  We can’t  go to any just any old asteroid – we would need to choose one that’s got to be zipping through space at the right speed, its got to be spinning just right, viewable by ground-based telescopes, and reachable using a heavy-lift rocket that will presumably be developed between now and then.  When you put all that up on the scale, you know how many suitable asteroid candidates there are for a manned mission in the 2020’s? According to the NASA Near Earth Object Office:  Two.  Of course, we may discover others.  Which would be great.  It’s always nice to have options.

Here’s a new view of a mysterious Martian crater, compliments of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft.  It’s called “Orcus Patera,” and scientists are not sure how it formed.  A leading theory:  it’s an impact crater from a small object that hit at a shallow angle.

Artist's rendering of MESSENGER at Mercury. Source: NASA

From Mars to Mercury.  NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft  has been executing flybys of our solar system’s inner-most planet for the past couple of years, and is preparing to pull into orbit around Mercury next March for a year-long science mission.  Here’s a MESSENGER image looking back at Earth snapped about 3 months ago, during its closest approach to the Sun.  Check out the moon.  Is that cool or what?

If you want to keep on top of missions like MESSENGER, NASA has a new iPad out called NASA App HD, free at the App Store.  Among other new features, you can stream NASA TV live…and view images like that one we just showed you from MESSENGER in high resolution. Also, NASA has started putting more of its image archives up on Flickr.   You’ll find a lot of new imagery up there, but also a fair amount of historical material too.  Point your browser to our web site for a link.  That’s spaceflightnow.com/twis

Here’s a story that really stinks.  NASA is creating vomit in a lab.  Really.  So why does the space program need vomit?  Here’s what researcher Nikki Williams at the Johnson Space Center  told roving reporter and astronaut Mike Massimino.

We need to put all the trash you’d have on a space mission on that trash bag.  That includes potentially vomit, diapers.  It sounds like a baby place.

So it’s for a new trash bag test. There is a vomit recipe from medical research that NASA based their formula on.  Fake vomit …eg…kinda makes me want to …(gags) nevermind…I’ll be ok.  If you want to see more of NASA’s vomit research – come on you know you want to, head to our page spaceflightnow.com/twis.
Time for us wrap this up…I’m feeling a little sick.  Don’t need any Odorama “scratch and sniffs” to go along with that story.   Thanks for watching.  If you like us, please consider tossing us a few bucks via Paypal at spaceflightnow.com/twis.  Send us an email twis@spacelfightnow.com,  tweet us @thisweekinspace. Check out the blog here.

Thanks so much to our sponsor, Binary Space.  We really appreciate your ongoing support.

Join us again next time for all the news off the planet.   We’ll see you then.

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“This Week In Space” – August 28, 2010

August 29, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is now out.  Please watch!

Source: Hubble Space Telescope

We begin with an arrival of a spacecraft that aims to tell us how the universe formed.  The  2.1 billion dollar Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer arrived at Kennedy Space Center as it gets prepped for its flight to the Space Station. It will be mounted on the space station to search for antimatter, dark matter, and strange matter – and it will also search for cosmic rays.  It’s a spacecraft that almost never made it to space after being built.  The mission to fly it was canceled after the Columbia accident in 2003.  But AMS had some strong supporters in Congress, and NASA managers reshuffled plans to fly it.  It’s the last big piece station hardware to go up shuttle.  Principal Investigator Samuel Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has high hopes for the science that AMS will conduct on orbit.

We have checked and rechecked and double checked the detector, and we are now quite confident, we will stay on the space station, for its lifetime.  For the next 20 years when you look at space and see the space station, there is one very very precise detector to collect data.

AMS is scheduled to fly aboard Endeavour on what at the moment is the last scheduled space shuttle mission set for February 26th 2011.

But first things first, before STS-134 delivers the AMS to the station, Steve Lindsay and the STS-133 crew will be visiting the orbiting outpost on Discovery’s last flight to space.  That mission is currently slated to lift off November 1st.  OV-103 is currently in its Orbiter Processing facility undergoing final preps for rollover to the VAB on September 8th.  The media recently got a chance to take a look at some of cargo they’ll be taking up to the ISS – including Robonaut 2, as well as the Permanent Multipurpose Module and an Express Logistics Carrier filled with spare parts and supplies.  The crew was recently at KSC for a Crew Equipment Interface Test – that’s a last chance for the crew to personally look over the orbiter and payload before flight.  For these final missions, NASA is getting the public involved in selecting some of the wake-up songs that rouse the astronauts out of bed every morning on orbit.  Traditionally, crew members’ family and friends make the picks…but now you can get in on the action too.  Check out songcontest.nasa.gov for details.  And a final word before we leave shuttle behind, NASA has not yet officially announced whether or not the Atlantis will get one final flight next year, but they are kicking a prospective schedule.  You might want to pencil June 28, 2011 on your calendars for STS-135.  We’ll you know when you can ink that in.

International Space Station. Source: NASA

Meanwhile in space, things are getting back to normal and science activities have resumed now that the International Space Station’s radiator problems have been put to bed. With flight engineer Shannon Walker at the controls of the station’s robotic arm, astronauts Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson conducted three marathon spacewalks to swap out a failed ammonia pump that shut down half the station’s cooling system for a couple of weeks earlier this month.  The spacewalkers hit some frustrating snags while trying to disconnect the broken pump, especially a balky ammonia line called M3 that repeatedly stuck in place, and leaked ammonia as well.   Afterward, Wheels said the secret to their ultimate success was going out the hatch with the right attitude about  unexpected  problems.

I think the greatest thing that I’ve learned on my earlier EVA’s is just to expect that, just take a deep breath, think about different ways that you can finesse the piece of hardware and listen to what your ground trainers are telling you from the ground, and don’t give up trying.  And so we kept at it.  M3 became my giant through this whole thing that I had to face out there.  And we did it together and we needed both of us on either end of the line to get it, to just find that sweet spot to mate it up and demate it as well.  So I don’t know it sort of became the villan for us, and we sort of needed a villan to fight against when we were out there and it became a real challenge for us and we were able to rise to the challenge as a team.

SpaceX has conducted a high-altitude drop test of its Dragon spacecraft designed to ferry cargo – and eventually crew – to the ISS.  An Erikson “Air Crane” helicopter dropped a Dragon test article at an altitude of 14,000 off the California coast to test the capsule’s parachute system  as well as recovery operations.   SpaceX says the exercise met 100% of test objectives.  SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a dummy Dragon spacecraft  into space in June.  The company is planning another launch later this year that will put an operational Dragon into orbit, and return it to Earth.

The Mars Science Laboratory rover – also known as Curiosity – continues to take shape in its clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.  Engineers have now attached its robotic arm.  It was so heavy that they had to hoist it  into place using a crane.  The arm is tipped with a suite of instruments including a camera, a spectrograph and a drill that will core out and deliver samples to other instruments on the rover’s deck.  Curiosity is set to launch to Mars late next year.

And speaking of Mars launches, it was thirty-five years ago that NASA launched the Viking missions to Mars – Viking 1 on August 20th and Viking 2 on September 9th, 1975.  Each probe consisted of an orbiter and lander.  In their day,  Viking 1 and 2 were the most successful interplanetary probes ever deployed to the red planet – beaming back color images of the Martian surface and scooping up soil samples for analysis.  It would be nearly 20 years before Mars Pathfinder returned for further exploration of the surface.

Artist's rendering of Kepler 9. Source: NASA

The holy grail for astrobiology buffs is finding an Earth-sized, Earth-like planet.  That hasn’t happened yet (we’ll be leading the show with it when that happens!) but there are a couple of interesting developments on the planet-hunting beat this week.  Scientists working with the Kepler spacecraft have identified a planetary system orbiting a sun-like star called Kepler 9.  The new solar system includes two Saturn-sized gas giants and possibly a slightly-larger-than-earth sized planet orbiting very close to the star.  No chance of Earth-like conditions though…it’s just too hot.   Also this week, researchers working with the European Southern Observatory announced they’ve identified a solar system with at least five and maybe as many as seven planets orbiting a sun-like star located 127 light years away in the constellation Hydrus.  And one of those two unconfirmed planets is thought to be roughly Earth-sized and also orbiting very close to its sun.  Again, too hot for life.  So we’ve got new solar systems breaking out all over.  No pale blue marbles though.

Erupting volcanoes have been in the news this summer – and no I am NOT going to try to pronounce the name of that volcano in Iceland.  But take a look a cosmic volcano, erupting out of the black hole at the center of galaxy M-87.  These images from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory combined with radio telescope data from the Very Large Array show the black hole blasting gas and energy out.  The good news – air travellers in Europe have nothing to worry about with this volcano – it’s 50 million light years away.

And finally, we leave you with this time-lapse video of earth from space, shot by NASA astronaut and Mr. “Saturday Morning Science” himself, Don Pettit.  I’ve spent my whole career in TV and I can tell you, most everything looks better in forward.  Turns out Earth is no exception.  Night is even cooler than day.  Check out those green auroras when they zip by…absolutely incredible.  Pettit is headed back for a second tour of duty on the ISS next year.  What are you going to wow us with next time, Don?  It’s going to be hard to top this!

Time for us to hit the stop/eject button for this week.  Thanks for watching…please check us out regularly.  Also, please think about tossing us a few bucks at spaceflightnow.com/twis, we’re kind of singing for our supper here with this show..send us an email twis@spacelfightnow.com,  tweet us @thisweekinspace. Check out the blog here.  Thanks so much to our sponsor, Binary Space.  We really appreciate your ongoing support.  Join us next time for all the news off the planet.  Miles O’Brien will be back next week – we’ll see you then.

“This Week In Space” – August 14, 2010

August 15, 2010

Check out the latest edition of “This Week In Space.”

International Space Station Source: NASA

Hello and welcome – they call them quick disconnect valves – but apparently on the International Space Station – they don’t always live up to their name. One of them – that connected a faulty ammonia pump to the station’s cooling system sent NASA into a tiger team frenzy of troubleshooting and head scratching this week. first time they tried to disconnect it – it spring a huge leak of ammonia – nasty stuff…so they reattached it and then tried again on the next walk – at first it wouldn’t budge. But in the end, the solution was precisely what you or I would have done if it was a pipe under the sink at home – they shook the darn thing like crazy until it came free. Spacewalker Doug “Wheels” Wheelock employed the elbow grease – spacewalking sidekick Tracy Caldwell Dyson was at his side. It was the second spacewalk to replace the pump and get that cooling system back on-line. When it failed – the station still had one other set of operative radiators – but the reduced capability created a significant brown out for the 6 person crew.

Veteran astronaut and spacewalker Dave Wolf was helping lead the effort on the ground to figure out how to solve case of the stubborn valve. I spoke with him via Skype.

Former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and his teenage son Kevin survived a horrific plane crash in Alaska this week that killed five people, including former senator Ted Stevens.  They were on a fishing trip when the amphibious twin otter they were in plowed  into the side of a mountain in bad weather.  Both O’Keefes are banged up pretty badly but are expected to survive. Sean served as NASA Administrator from 2002 to 2005 – he was sent there by the Bush White House to tighten the reins on the space station budget. He ended up leading the agency through the Columbia accident – and offered up a text book example of expert crisis management. Sean was the man who signed on to the idea of sending yours truly to space – an idea that ended with the loss of Columbia. He is a good friend – and I wish him and Kevin a speedy recovery.

A dawn rocket launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station lit up the sky over central Florida Saturday.  That’s an Atlas V rocket, and the payload is the AEHF-1 satellite.  Its one of what will be a network of four military satellites designed to provide global, secure, protected and jam-resistant communications for our armed forces.  Hopefully our troops will have better communication than i get with AT&T on my iPhone.

Good news Space Tweeps. – it’s official NASA will hold another tweet-up at KSC for the next shuttle launch – that’s STS-133, currently scheduled for November 1 (but you knew that).  They are fantastic events – and if you are prone to tweet – you really should put your 140 characters in the ring. This is a good way to satisfy your assignment to see a shuttle launch before it is too late.  Registration opens at noon on Tuesday, August 24, and closes at noon on Wednesday, August 25.  If you want to know more, go to www.nasa.gov/tweetup.

Hard to believe it’s now been six years since the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn. And it is still a very busy space probe. So busy it just got another extension – through 2017 – giving it a chance to observe the summer solstice in Saturn’s northern hemisphere.  Here’s a cool new movie from Cassini.   The spacecraft was getting some close-up images of Saturn’s F-ring, and purely by chance captured these images of a globular star cluster passing though the field of view.  That’s NGC 5139, or Omega Centauri – nearly 16 thousand light years away.

As long as we are talking clusters – here’s a long exposure Hubble Space Telescope image of a galaxy in the Coma Cluster, 320 million light years away.  this is a spiral galaxy called NGC 9411 captured face-on.  And the Hubble folks have all kinds of questions about this picture of  NGC 4696.  This galaxy is not a perfect spiral – in fact it curls around on itself, kind of like a question mark.   Astronomers are scratching their heads about it – they have all kinds of questions about why it is  shaped so strangely, and what those filaments that stretch out from it might be. We’ll let you know if they find some answers…

Hubble is a third of the triumvirate of telescopes NASA called the Great Observatories – the other two are Chandra, and Spitzer – together these space scopes see the universe in the optical, x-ray and infrared wave lengths.  Now imagine if they could work together – like the Justice League –  This is a composite image – a super-space-scopes mash-up – of two colliding galaxies located about 62 million light years away.  The Chandra data is in blue, the Hubble data in gold and brown, and Spitzer data in red.  These so-called Antennae galaxies started colliding about 100 million years ago…and they are home to highly active star-forming regions. to infinity and beyond indeed!

Mars. Source: Hubble Space Telescope

Two anniversaries worth noting this week.  Fifty years ago, NASA launched Echo-1, it’s first communications satellite.  It was basically a big mylar balloon – able to bounce television, radio and TV signals cross-country and even across continents.  And five years ago, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched from Cape Canaveral.  MRO has become a workhorse for NASA – imaging the surface of Mars with unprecedented clarity, scanning for minerals and water, monitoring Martian weather, and serving as a communications relay for robotic missions on the surface.

Which brings us to our favorite simulated Mars mission – well I guess it’s the only simulated Mars mission – you know it by now – 6 men entered a human sized hamster habitat in Moscow – and will spend 520 days there pretending to go to Mars, explore the surface and then come back. We have now gone past the seventy day mark – which means they are about 15 percent done! and the video diaries they are posting on YouTube show no signs of reality show style discontent. Here is Romain Charles showing one of the…er…highlights – air sampling:

So Romain what’s up with the white socks and sandals and the wife beater t-shirt? I think that is a fashion don’t on Mars as well…just saying.

And on that note – I am outta here – you can email us a twis@spaceflightnow.com – or tweet us @thisweekinspace – the blog version of this podcast is at milesobrien.com. But here is the most important thing – please go to spaceflightnow.com/twis – and send us a few bucks – we really need you help – and if you don”t i’ll start wearing a wife beater – and white socks and sandals. Is that extortion? Sorta, I suppose. thanks to our most loyal sponsor ever – Binary Space – we really appreciate your support. We’ll see ya next time.

“This Week In Space” – August 7, 2010

August 8, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is out!  David Waters is in for Miles O’Brien this week.

International Space Station. Source: NASA

One spacewalk down, at least one more to go in NASA’s efforts to remove and replace a failed ammonia pump that’s crippled part of the International Space Station’s radiator system.  Astronauts Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson conducted the longest spacewalk in station history – 8 hours, 3 minutes – attempting to switch out the pump with a spare.  Unfortunately, removing the ammonia umbilicals from the old pump turned out to be a lot more difficult that anticipated, and there was significant  ammonia leakage from one of the lines as well.  The spacewalkers quickly fell behind on the timeline.   In the end, they had to wrap up the EVA with the broken pump still in place.  Ground controllers are now regrouping, and will need to re-plan the second spacewalk to try to make up for lost time.   And ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini says a third spacewalk may be in the offing.

I will tell you we’ve lengthened the amount of time from now until we get this pump running.   I would tell you that it would take a lot of good luck, and somebody coming up with a really short tweak to the EVA for us to get to the point that we could start that ammonia pump after the next EVA.  I really do think we are going to end up with three EVA’s.  So I think we are going to end up being in this condition, this risk posture, a few more days than we had originally planned.

There will be no doubt be developments in this story daily.  Please check in with us at Spaceflight Now for all the latest news.

The full Senate approved its compromise version of the NASA authorization bill for the 2011 budget late on Thursday – by voice vote with no discussion – and then they skedaddled out of town for the August recess.  The Senate legislation would add a final shuttle flight to the manifest, extend the life of the space station through 2020, fund commercial space activities, and start work on a new heavy lift rocket that’s supposed to be ready for orbital missions by the end of 2016.  But, the forward plan for the space agency remains in limbo for the foreseeable future.  The House of Representatives, is working on its own, very different, version of a plan…that preserves key parts of the Constellation program, slashes funding for commercial space, and puts that heavy-lift rocket championed by the Senate on the back burner.  The soonest the full House will vote on their version is September – and then compromise legislation will have to be hammered out in a conference committee.  So…if you are holding you breath for this all to be wrapped up soon…it’s gonna be a while.

While the wheels of government turn slowly, workers at the Kennedy Space Center are getting pink slips as the shuttle program winds down.  Commerce Secretary Gary Locke toured KSC this week along with NASA brass and Representative Suzanne Kosmas of Florida.  Locke sits on a White House task force aimed at improving the economy on the Space Coast as the clock ticks down for shuttle.  He met with about a dozen workers who will soon be hitting the unemployment lines.  The task force will be submitting a report to Obama this month on the prospects for helping the workforce through the tough transition ahead. Let’s hope they can come up with some good ideas.

And speaking of shuttles, it seems we are all going to have to wait a little longer to hear from NASA where the orbiters are headed after the program ends next year.  The agency had said it would announce in July which museums would get shuttles – but that deadline has come and gone with no word.  NASA spokesman Mike Curie told our friend Robert Pearlman over at collectSPACE that a final decision has been postponed because  the dates for the final two shuttle missions have slipped…and while the powers-that-be ponder whether or not to add an additional flight for Atlantis next summer.  Here’s what we know:  the shuttle Discovery will be going to the Air & Space Museum, which means NASA shuttle test article, Enterprise, currently housed there but never actually flew in space, also becomes available.  We’re in standby mode to find out where Atlantis and Endeavour will, er, land.

(more…)

The big “Y”

January 28, 2009

challenger-explosionI was fast asleep when the Challenger exploded. It was almost high noon – but I had turned in only about three hours before.

I had spent the night in a citrus grove in Polk County, Florida. I was a general assignment reporter for a TV station in Tampa, and we were up all night providing viewers constant updates on the record freeze. The fate of the citrus crop is very big news in that part of the world.

We had huddled near smudge pots and (more modern) kerosene heaters that dotted the grove in neat rows beside the trees. But they did little to ease our chill, and I suspect, they were equally futile in protecting the valuable fruit. As I think back on it, seeing central Florida that clear, cold night from low earth orbit would have been an eerie, spectacular site.

When the call came from the assignment desk, I was in a deep sleep, so it took me some time to comprehend what I had just been told: “You are not going to believe this, but the shuttle has blown up.”

I turned on the TV and dressed quickly. My assignment: to gather local reaction to the tragedy. When I walked outside, I looked up at an implausibly blue sky – the kind of sky you only get when high pressure and low temperatures intersect.

Then I saw it. At first, I thought it was a cloud. But it was such an odd shape. Kind of like a big “Y”. It was, in fact, the awful scar that loomed off the coast of Cape Canaveral – more than 150 miles away. It seemed to be asking us all a question that to this day offers no easy answers: “Why?”naive-shuttle-concept

As you know, the truth is painful and sad. NASA managers were determined to prove their shuttle fleet was truly “operational” – even commercially viable. If their dreams had become reality, 1986 would have been the busiest year ever in the history of the Space Transportation System.

Fifteen flights were scheduled over 11 months. One was supposed to be the first mission to launch from the new shuttle facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Nine communications satellites, three classified payloads for the Pentagon and two major unmanned probes were to be carried into space in the payload bay of an orbiter that year.

NASA managers were trying to live up to years and years of their own unrealistic expectations, fanciful claims, pure science-fiction, and outright lies.

So when they discounted and discarded the firm “no-go” admonitions of engineers at the Thiokol plant in Utah where the solid rocket boosters are made, mission mangers team were, in fact, lying to themselves.

They, too, were asleep on that bitter morning when the world witnessed a nightmare.

All of this was tumbling through my head as I traveled up the road to Chattanooga to meet June Scobee Rodgers nine years ago. I wondered if, after all these years, she was bitter, or angry, or sad.

The answer is “none of the above.”

With the “Y” still hanging in the sky, she was telling then Vice President George Bush and then Senator John Glenn that her husband, Challenger Commander Dick Scobee, would not have wanted the country to take the fork in the road that would bring m070614-F-5306T-002anned space exploration to an end.

But it went beyond lip service. “I couldn’t NOT help to continue that mission – I couldn’t NOT do my part,” June told me.

Sometime later, as she and the other surviving family members met in her living room, it became clear they HAD to do SOMETHING.

“Each of us wanted to do our part to see that space exploration continued – that shuttle flights went on and their mission in particular lived,” says June.

And so the Challenger Learning Centers were born. Middle school students come to these places to role-play as astronauts and flight controllers – learning about math, science and teamwork in a way that doesn’t seem like learning. Visit one sometime – and you will marvel at  the intensity, the concentration and the utter joy these children display as they accomplish their mission.

There are now about 50 of these magical places – and millions of kids have tasted the excitement of saving the space station.

Clearly, this has helped June Scobee Rodgers cope with her loss. Happily remarried (to former Army General Don Rodgers) she has journeyed down a tough road to some happiness and peace.

But, as she confided, “there is always that morning when you wake up – on the 28th – where you think about that tremendous loss. I am so blessed, though, because I have had a beautiful life since then… and I have been given a chance to love again.

“Those are hard days and my children and I always talk to each other – and I often talk to the other families. But then we go on and we celebrate how far we have come and we often have a great celebration – a ribbon cutting (at a) new learning center that is opening – and we see that they lived in truth and they have given us so much.”

Today, I am lucky to be a member of the Board of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. It is an organization that does much to engage and inspire kids – and keep the dreams and hopes of that lost crew alive.

The organization does great things – but it needs our help. I encourage you to support it.

challenger_crew_2