Posts Tagged ‘United States’

'This Week In Space' – April 10, 2010

April 11, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is hot off the presses.  Check us out!

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Discovery launch. Source: NASA

Hello and welcome – and happy Yuri’s night – hard to believe it has now been 49 years since the first human being left the planet – and 29 years since the first shuttle flew – we’ll check in with one of the founders of the global Yuri’s night celebration – in a little while – see what is in store this year –

But first – let’s talk about the 131st space shuttle mission – currently “in work” as they say in the space business. I must admit – I am pretty lucky to have witnessed a lot of shuttle launches – and each of them is beautiful in their own special way – like a snowflake I suppose…but this one stands out – for one thing – we got a great view of Discovery’s destination – the international space station – as it flew overhead in the predawn darkness shortly before launch…then came the launch itself,

Those of us at the cape were able to see Discovery with eyes only – for a full seven and a half minutes – no one can remember anything like that – and then after Discovery was out of view and safely in space – were were left with this spectacular scene as the sun rose…remnants of the shuttle plume lit up like a pastel painting…

Discovery commander Alan Poindexter had to dock his craft at the station without the benefit of a radar system that failed. It is the same device that allows the orbiter to send out streaming video (or what we used to call TV)…and so that meant they had to record the heat shield inspection – and then send it down to earth using the station’s system.

The joint crews successfully attached the space equivalent of a PODS moving crate to the station – the Leonardo Multipurpose Logistics Module – in it – about 17 thousand pounds of gear and supplies – including some new crew sleep quarters…a fancy exercise machine that will give researchers a better idea about how physically fit the station-keepers are…and a device that ads cameras, spectrometers and other sensors to better observe the earth as it passes below the station.

They do see some cool things up there – look at this shot from crew member Soichi Noguchi of the Aurora Boraealis – or Northern Lights – he tweeted that one down.

Three spacewalks are planned for the 13 day mission.

Late as this is in the shuttle program – there is still room for some firsts as well as lasts – there are four women on the  combined shuttle station crews – a space record. And no – none of them stopped and asked for directions.

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New 'This Week In Space' – March 6, 2010

March 7, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” – hosted by Yours Truly, is out!  Watch here!

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Map of the North Pole of the Moon.  Source:  NASA

Map of the North Pole of the Moon. Source: NASA

I gotta admit,  I am getting a little tired of launching the program with the latest skirmish in the war over the Obama NASA space budget – it’s not that I don’t care – but frankly I am more interested in learning something new about the Cosmos – not Congress. How about you? So this week, I am starting in the orbit of the moon – where a high tech divining rod built by the U.S. – hitching a ride on an Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan-1 – has found there is a whole lot of water ice down there. And here is the proof…NASA’s Mini-SAR radar is the instrument – and it found the ice in more than 40 small craters where the sun don’t shine. So how much ice is there? 1.3 trillion pounds (600 million metric tons).  Another reason to visit the moon – it will be easy to keep the beer cold.

Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin

Tempting as a toga party in 1/6th gravity might be – we are not heading back to the moon anytime soon – and the second man to leave footprints up there is just fine with that. Buzz Aldrin is pushing a plan called the Unified Space Vision – which earmarks money to build a heavy lift booster – and a craft that would only operate in space called the Exploration Module – or XM (he’s Sirius about XM).  The XM’s would be built from parts left over from space station construction – carried to orbit by shuttles – oh yeah – he wants to fly several more shuttle missions. I Skyped Buzz to hear more.   A lot of others are looking to get more funding for NASA – Kay Bailey Hutchison – the Senator from Shuttleland has ginned up a bill that would add 1.3 billion dollars more to the Obama NASA budget.  The money would be used to fly the shuttle fleet indefinitely.  All of this is grist for the so called “Plan B” team that is working on a compromise plan inside NASA that might bridge the gap between the White House and the Hill. Enough said – stay tuned.

Discovery at launchpad 39A.  Source:  NASA

Discovery at pad 39A. Source: NASA

Meanwhile the serious business of launching a shuttle safely moves on in earnest – and in slow motion at the Cape.  TWIS Correspondent David Waters was there the other day as Discovery and her entourage – made her way to the pad – like a herd of turtles.

Liftoff is currently targeted for April 5.  Please join David, me, and astronaut Leroy Chiao at Spaceflight Now for comprehensive coverage of the launch.

International Space Station.  Source:  NASA

International Space Station. Source: NASA

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To the Moon? I think not, Alice….

February 24, 2010

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The NASA insignia.

Image via Wikipedia

(ed. note: these remarks are part of my testimony to the Senate Committee on Science and Transportation hearing “Challenges and Opportunities in the NASA FY 2011 Budget Proposal” on February 24, 2010)

Washington – we have a problem – there is an uproar across the land over NASA’s course change – and it says a lot about how the public is no longer in the loop with the space agency.

The headlines read “NASA cancels its Moon mission”. Now I would submit to you most people reading those stories had no idea were were heading back to the moon in the first place. And guess what? We really weren’t! The program – packaged as the “Vision for Space Exploration” – never got the promised funding – and its “vision” was clearly focused on the rear view mirror.

Constellation was touted as “Apollo on Steroids” but really it was a ninety-pound weakling – an uninspired attempt to bring back the magic. NASA was acting like the middle aged high school football hero who spends too much time in the local saloon telling tales of the glory days when he led his team to the state championships.

But the country has grown up and moved on – and it is time for NASA to get off the bar stool and do the same.

And that is exactly what I see in this budget. This is a grown up approach to space exploration – one that synchs the goals with national needs and budgetary realities. The space agency is getting a slap in the face. “Thanks, I needed that!” is what it should be saying. But that is not what we are hearing. Change is never easy.

But wait a minute – isn’t NASA supposed to be all about change? In fact, if it can’t embrace – no actually invent – change – we should close the whole place down.

But wait there is more – because as much as anything else – what we have here is a failure to communicate.

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Worse than Nixon – or a Masterstroke?

February 21, 2010

So who will have the last word on what NASA does next in space? Maybe some powerful members of Congress…at least that is what Constellation supporters are hoping this week – as they move from the shock and denial – to the anger and bargaining stage of grief. I checked in with the exiled President of the Constellation Nation, Mike Griffin – and the king of space tourism – Eric Anderson, the CEO of Space Adventures. He  has been right in the middle of every multimillion dollar deal to send civilians on Russian rockets to the International Space Station. He has always been bullish on the space business – but never more than now.

Watch my interview with Mike Griffin here.

And the counterpoints from Eric Anderson here.

Mike Griffin

Mike Griffin

Eric Anderson (lower right)

Eric Anderson (lower right)

A Room with a View

February 21, 2010
Endeavour astronaut Steve Robinson in front of the cupola.

Endeavour astronaut Steve Robinson in front of the cupola.

As the the joint station/shuttle team bolted on the Tranquility Node – with its 7 windowed cupola…would that the NASA nation could see the future as clearly as this…

The cupola is supposed to be there to make it easier for station-keepers to operate the robot arm – but you can bet they will have to keep the Windex handy – to clean the smudges from their noses flattened against the glass.

At the cupola ribbon cutting – station keeper Jeff Williams and Shuttle boss George Zamka paused to remember the late Lacy Veach an astronaut who died of cancer in 1995 – and who participated in the cupola’s initial design –  they also installed a plaque with some small moon rocks picked up by Neil Armstrong in 1969 – and carried to the summit of Mt. Everest by astronaut Scott Parazynski this past spring.

Charles Lacy Veach

Charles Lacy Veach

Before the Endeavour astronauts departed the station, they took a call from President Obama.  It was the first time the President has found himself in the space – space – world since he rolled out  his controversial new NASA budget that cancels the Constellation Project.  Surrounded by schoolkids and his science adviser John Holdren, Obama offered major props to the crew:

“Just wanted to let you know that the amazing work that is being done on the international space station,  not only by American astronauts but also by our colleagues in Japan and Russia, is just a testimony to human ingenuity, a testimony to extraordinary skill and courage that you guys bring to bear, and is also testimony as to why continued space exploration is so important, and is part of the reason why my commitment to NASA is unwavering,” said Obama.

You can watch a video version of this story on “This Week in Space”.

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But before STS-130 is history, we gotta show you a couple of pictures. Check out this one…that’s the predawn launch of Endeavour back on February 8, as seen from the Intracoastal Waterway Bridge, in Ponte Vedra, Florida, about 115 miles north of the launch site.  Thanks to James Vernacotola for that.

Endeavour launch on February 8 from Ponte Vedre, Florida

Endeavour launch on February 8 from Ponte Vedre, Florida

And here’s another…that’s Endeavour on final approach to the ISS, just before docking.  Check out the layers of the atmosphere…for the record, blue is the mesosphere, white is the stratosphere, and orange is the troposphere.  Looks like a parfait doesn’t it?  paraphrasing a famous donkey:  “Parfait’s gotta be the tastiest thing on – or off – the whole damn planet.”

Endeavour on approach to ISS.

Endeavour on approach to ISS.

It’s cold up there above the troposphere – and also on the ground at the Cape – so how cold was it? So cold they couldn’t move the shuttle Discovery…and that means a 2 and a half week launch delay..

For the first time anyone can remember – the shuttle team canceled a move out of Discovery’s hangar into the unheated Vehicle Assembly Building – on account of cold. Apparently when sub 45 degree weather can cause the the thrusters to spring leaks. The delay forced shuttle program managers to postpone the launch date until after a Russian Soyuz docking. The shuttle launch is now set for April 5th.

Flying with the Low Bidder

February 9, 2010

(Ed. Note: Please watch your PBS Station tonight at 9pm (8 Central) for the Frontline program “Flying Cheap” )

colgan-air-flight-3407There is an old, apt bromide in flying world: It’s easy to end up with a million dollars in the aviation business…just start with twenty million.

And so it has gone for the airline industry. Since the airline business began nine decades ago, airline companies have collectively not made a dime.

And these days the business is as bad as it ever has been. Facing high fuel costs, restrictive labor contracts, an epic recession and intense pricing pressure, the are grasping for ways to make a buck. We all know this – after all we are getting tenned and twentied to death to fly our bags, get some chintzy headphones, a flimsy pillow and thin blanket or a microscopic snack. How far off can pay toilets be?

I always assumed (perhaps it was denial) that this dysfunctional business model did not mean the safety bar was lowered an iota. But over the past nine months, while working on the PBS Frontline documentary “Flying Cheap”, I have learned that is not the case. Airline flying in the United States may be the safest means of travel ever devised since the invention of the wheel, but it is often not as safe as you maybe led to believe.

Over the past twenty years, the airlines have been doing what is common on so many other industries. They have been outsourcing.

The idea has its roots in deregulation. When Jimmy Carter took the government out of the business of dictating airline routes and rates, it was not too long before the airlines cooked up a new operating model we now call hubs and spokes. The idea: gather up passengers from smaller cities – get them to the larger airports – and stuff them into bigger planes for the longer hauls.

Hamstrung by expensive, restrictive union contracts, the big ”legacy” carriers were not structured to efficiently fly short runs in little airplanes. So they started hiring others to jump the puddles and came up with a scheme called “code sharing”. The legacy airlines paid commuter carriers to fly a certain number of flights to their hubs. The smaller carriers borrowed the name and livery of their clients – who would sell the tickets. These airborne contractors were paid by the completed segment (on time) – regardless of the number of passengers on board.

For passengers it made life much more simple. They could buy one ticket form a familiar brand name airline to take them from Peoria to Paris. Most of us would assume that the smaller airline would operate the same way as its larger customer.

But in fact the big airlines generally go out of their way to stay out of the business of their contractors. They point the finger at the FAA and say it is responsible for the maintaining “one level” of safety in airlines large and small. And that is technically true. But the legacy carriers exceed FAA minimums in almost every regard. They have discovered enhancing safety, maintenance and training programs actually accrues to the bottom line. Flying safer also means flying more efficiently.

But all of this requires some significant up front investments – which would put the smaller carriers at a competitive disadvantage. After all they win those flying routes by being the low bidder.

The major airlines do not send their maintenance and training experts – or their Sully’s -to to their regional contractors – because they prefer keeping a thick firewall between the operations.

Perhaps they are listening to their lawyers too much. As it stands right now, the big airlines are not liable when one of their outsource carriers crashes. If the laws were passed forcing that liability to be shared (“joint several liability” is the legal term of art), things would change about as quickly as Continental/Colgan 3407 went from a routine flight to a horrible disaster.

They say this industry has a “tombstone mentality” – meaning people have to die before things change. Let’s hope the souls we lost a year ago did not die in vain.

Congress Holds the Purse Strings

February 4, 2010
U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, of Florida.

Image via Wikipedia

The debate is by no means over – it just will shift venues.  Congress holds the purse strings – and the Constellation program has some very powerful supporters on both sides of the building and both sides of the aisle. One of them Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama – home of the Marshall Spaceflight Center.  He blasted the Obama Administration – saying: Congress “cannot and will not sit back and watch the reckless abandonment of sound principles, a proven track record, a steady path to success, and the destruction of our human space flight program.  Constellation is the only path forward that maintains America’s leadership in space.”

Well, that’s a taste of the debate to come. We also caught up with the only current member of Congress who has flown in space  – Senator Bill Nelson of Florida.

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Flexible Path 'Lite'

February 4, 2010
Leroy Chiao, U.S.

Image via Wikipedia

There was something else that further cemented this deal – it was the work of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee,  headed by veteran aerospace executive Norm Augustine. The group delivered its list of options to the Obama Administration last year. For those of you keeping score at home – the White has chosen what is know as “Flexible Path” – but the commission members were hoping there would be $3 billion a year extra in the budget to get busy with some far flung plans.  What the Administration proposes is – to borrow a phrase – flexible path – “lite” – as in light on funding. I checked in with Augustine Committee member Leroy Chiao:

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Alan Bean – Moonwalker and Artist

January 24, 2010

Alan Bean.   Source:  NASA

Alan Bean. Source: NASA

You best not have a frozen budget if you want to buy a painting from the only artist who has walked on the moon. His name is Alan Bean – and this past summer I was lucky enough to get a tour of his tour de force exhibit at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C..

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Captain Underpants and the Illusion of Security

December 30, 2009

DESHAILES, GUADELOUPE – I doubt there are many people who would look forward to leaving this little piece of paradise. I am sitting on the deck of a sailboat anchored in the harbor of this quaint fishing village.

I just finished a hot croissant delivered by an enterprising young man plying the water on an inflatable dinghy (deftly prying Euros from my wallet with inflated prices – C’est la Vie!). The sun is shining, the breeze is steady and the temperature is 80°F.

What could be wrong with this picture?  Nothing except what dutifully drops into my Kindle every morning via Whispernet (as opposed to the old Eastern Whisperjets…)

The absurd, inane, horse-out-of-the-barn response to the Christmas Day “Fruit of the Boom” Bomber-wannabe gives me even more reason to dread the trip back home.

My Kindle tells me my family and I will face long lines, lots of questions, pat down searches and an hour of lockdown time in our seats before landing. It is as if my ruler-brandishing first-grade teacher Sister Grace took over Delta Air Lines. “Books away – feet on the floor – hands on your desk – eyes straight ahead…”

It is brilliant thinking like the new seat arrest rule that should tell you a lot about our ill-conceived approach to thwarting terrorists who continue to find plane loads full of innocent Americans to be tempting targets. I don’t suppose future terrorists might try to light some portion of their clothing 61 minutes before landing do you?

What about the baby who needs a bottle or a passy on descent and is crying his lungs out?  God help him, his mother and the rest of us…

We put the jerk in knee-jerk with the way we respond to threats.

Our Homeland Security Czarina Janet Napolitano tried to spin the whole thing into a triumph of our security apparatus. At least she didn’t get a “Nappy, you’re doin’ a heckuva a job!” from our Commander-in-Chief, but the Sunday talk show gaffe was one of those moments when the political Cuisinart jams on a big chunk of reality (it does, indeed, bite).

And of course we all know the Brief Bomber laid bare what I have suspected for a long time: that our no nail-clipper, no-hair gel, shoes-off, laptop-out security apparatus is little more than a Potemkin Village. It gives the appearance that we are doing something real  – when all we are really doing is providing travelers a false sense of security – and often a real sense of frustration.

Let’s see: a young man embraces radical Islam and starts spewing some twisted, violent vitriol. His respected, influential father tells the CIA that he fears trouble and the US should revoke his son’s visa. The young man arrives at an an airport without any luggage and buys a one-way ticket to Detroit – with cash. And no one even arches an eyebrow? Come on people…you don’t have to be a security expert to know something was not right with that deal.

There was a time after 9/11 when I would routinely get selected for additional screening whenever I purchased a one-way ticket (which was fairly often given the vicissitudes of the TV News business).  And I was using a corporate Amex card – flying an airline where I had logged a million miles. I used to grumble about it (silently, of course) because I assumed no future terrorist would be so stupid (or cheap) to buy only a one way ticket.

But, as I mentioned, I am no expert.

Here is what any moron can see as plain as day: our $40 billion dollar post-9/11 airline security net is a total joke – a White Elephant of epic (and potentially tragic) proportions.

The truth is the only aspect of our post 9/11 defense that has turned out to be 100% effective are the passengers themselves. Without really thinking about it we have become an airborne militia – all watching and ready to kick al Qaeda butt at the drop of… a pair of trousers. It began in Shanksville – it effectively thwarted the shoe-bomber – and now Captain Underpants.

Which brings me to my big worry: ever since Richard Reid tried to light up his sneakers, we have all had to remove our shoes before boarding. The logical conclusion in this illogical system: government sanctioned panty raids.

Your mother always told you to wear clean underwear.

Or maybe we should just get it over with and fly like the fat, old French guys I see strolling around this little cute Caribbean town: in Speedos and plastic sandals.