Sunday, October 7, 2007

The First Fifty Years

Fifty years ago this October Sputnik became the first human made object to leave the bonds of earth and reach space. Back then our televisions were black and white, World War II was still fresh in our minds, and computers for the masses were 25 years away. Our knowledge of what lie beyond earth was limited. Science fiction and not yet science fact was the foundation of our understanding of the space frontier. The early and mid-fifties were fertile ground for science fiction movies and shows. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were a few of the early sci-fi writers whose works were required reading for those that lived in the Sputnik era and of course the fifties were the beginning of the Cold War and of UFO sightings. So the pump was primed for the shock and inspiration that Sputnik delivered. Suddenly, things that was merely a dream to that point became real. The race was on and America rose to the challenge. There are many detractors to the space program, but in fact it accelerated the transformation of America from an industrial power to a technological and information power. Our world has gone from snowy, fuzzy black and white to vivid high definition color. Our space crafts have journeyed beyond the solar system and visited all of the planets except one (Pluto) and New Horizons will complete that Task in 2015. The pictures that the Mars rovers, Galileo and Cassini have delivered have been nothing short of spectacular. We've impacted a comet, had a rendezvous with an asteroid and have seen the far ends of the universe with the Hubble telescope. We've learned so much about our own solar system and where we once thought our nearby celestial neighbors were barren and lifeless we now know could harbor some form of life whether in pockets on Mars or in the liquid ocean of Europa the possibility exists. Yet, the very technological revolution that the space race started has numbed us to it's wonders. Ready access to information, amazing effects in video games, movies and television have stripped us of our imagination. The real space race has started anew and this time the stakes are high and like last time will lead another technology revolution that our continued existence depends on. The answers to many of our current problems will be solved by our continued understanding of space. To stop or slow down global warming we need to find alternate energy sources like Helium3 which sits in abundance on the surface of the Moon and we still don't understand all that lurks in the heavens that could have devastating effects to life on Earth. Whether asteroids, comets, higher solar output or gamma rays danger could be lurking if we aren't vigilant. To advance as a society we must move forward, standing still has never been what being human is all about. Our ancestors trekked the globe to explore new lands and our generation will do the same in the heavens. The next fifty years will take us to places we can't have imagined - back to the Moon, to Mars, to the oceans of Europa and out to Pluto. We must have the vision, imagination and political will to continue our journey. We must teach our next generation of explorers to imagine and dream and not take us to distant places on Earth, but to the stars.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

John Dobson's Legacy

I had the opportunity last night to hear John Dobson, the father of sidewalk astronomy lead a discussion with an audience of amateur astronomers and space enthusiasts. Despite being ninety-two years old Mr. Dobson demonstrated the passion and acuity of a man much younger. He spoke on his theories of the "big bang", his life in the monastery, his work building telescopes and his evangelical work bringing astronomy to the masses. Entertaining and colorful at times his frail appearance did not diminish his inner love of science and astronomy. I was impressed by his life's work, his love of the stars and his dedication to making the objects in the heavens available to all. We need more John Dobsons, more people who can take their passion for the stars and space and bring it to the masses. John Dobson dedicated his life to this cause and those of us who share that same passion must do what we can to get involved in our schools and communities to bring the heavens down to earth.

In his many years of service it's hard to know how many people John Dobson has influenced into becoming scientists and astronomers. He impressed me in the hour discussion and I'm sure many more have looked at the stars through a Dobsonian telescope and never knew the man behind the magic they were seeing. Science, wonder and amazement at space and the stars above are taking a back seat with the younger generation getting lost with the myriad of options they have to spend their time. Why Dobson's work is so important - if science isn't brought to the masses I'm afraid they won't come on their own. We all need to do what we can to help rekindle the interests in the study of space. Get involved in your local astronomy club or start an outreach program at your local high school. The future depends on it.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Time, What Now?

On August 13, 2007 published an article called "Endeavour, What Now". Throughout the mission of STS-118 there has been an endless stream of reports by journalists that reflect how uninformed the press is about the Space Shuttle and the space program. Jeffrey Klueger's article ends by saying "But the anxiety this mission is causing is one more reason that so many NASA employees and astronaut families are simply marking time until shuttles' scheduled retirement in 2010, when the snakebit ships will fly no more." Really Jeffrey? Who are all these people who are saying this? or is this your flair for the dramatic? Snakebit ships? First Jeffrey, the Space Shuttle is a system comprised of many components - the orbiter, space shuttle main engines, external tank and solid rocket boosters. The orbiter including the space shuttle main engines have been anything but snakebit. Two have been lost to other failure points in the system. The spacecrafts, now over twenty-five years old are remarkable feats of engineering that flew as a routine craft since day one, but were really in an experimental stage. Look how much we've learned about the vehicle and the dynamics of flight since their inception. Yes, it was thought that they had brought the word routine into spaceflight. Even your magazine said in 1981 after the maiden flight of Columbia "So it was: simple and flawless, almost as if it had been performed countless times before. Yet the picture-perfect landing on California's Mojave Desert last week all but obscured the historic nature of those last, breathtaking moments of Columbia's 54½-hr. odyssey. Gone were the great parachutes and swinging capsules of earlier space missions, splashing into the sea, never to travel into space again. For the first time, a man-made machine had returned from the heavens like an ordinary airplane—in fact, far more smoothly than many a commercial jet. So long delayed so widely criticized, Columbia's flight should finally put to rest any doubts that there will one day be regular commuter runs into the cosmos. "

When the shuttle launched it truly was and still is an amazing machine it was a machine that we didn't know everything about, but learned through trial and error and through tragedy. The shuttle has taught us volumes about spaceflight and for us to be a space fairing nation we need to take risks to move forward. You've got it wrong Jeff, retiring the shuttle will be a sad day for the program. Astronauts know the risks and want to push the program forward. We learn more about spaceflight every time the shuttle flies. The job of a journalist is to accurately inform the public, not opine in subject where they would be challenged to understand how Sputnik worked much less the space program of today and the future

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Tragedy in the Desert

Three pioneers of the new space age gave their lives as the sun was rising on the era of private space travel. We have learned that at least for now there is no such thing as a routine test and those individuals will not be remembered as the first to lose their lives in the quest to make space more accessible, but as the first to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in this new era of private space travel so that man's conquest of the stars can go forward. When the Apollo 1 fire occurred killing Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee the program paused to reflect and assess, but then went on to man's achieve greatest feat - the moon landing. So incredible a feat that here were are 38 years later talking about being able to do it again in another 12 years. That would be 51, yes 51 years after we first landed! It doesn't seem comprehensible, but the spirit of the three who lost their lives along with the Challenger, Columbia and other space pioneers drove those who came after each loss and they didn't let fear, failure or adversity hold them back - they went undeterred to chart a vision for the future. Yes, there were more losses and after each the pieces were picked up and progress marched forward. It is highly likely others will make the ultimate sacrifice for something they believe in, but we must regroup and march forward. Efforts to provide private citizens access to space must go on. This tragedy should give us pause to reflect and learn, but much like the trailblazing efforts before we must now rise to greater heights. Great achievements come with great learnings and with great sacrifice.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Blame it on Nixon

Why haven't we gone back to the moon? or landed on Mars? Why 38 years after first landing on the Moon and 35 years since we last set foot on another world have we not left low Earth orbit with a manned craft? The answer lies in the troubled world that was Richard Nixon's presidency. Despite having the good fortune of being in office when the first manned landing by a human (an American) on another world occurred Nixon didn't seize the momentum or chart his on next steps for the American space program. Nixon was too preoccupied with the Vietnam War, later Watergate, but always about his own insecurities. For him, landing on the Moon accomplished the dream of his political enemy JFK. Nixon wanted the NASA budget cut and a cheaper solution found. He positioned it as a new era of space travel, but he really couldn't have cared less. The Space Shuttle was born of that initiative, an incredible machine, but a single method of what should have been a multi-part program. Americans built the amazing shuttle and could have continued enhancing the Saturn program to provide Americans with a versatile launch capability. The Skylab program accomplished much with very little, but Nixon didn't have the forethought to fund America's space program and keep it on a track that would have dominated for decades. He couldn't see the legacy that would have left behind for him much like Kennedy's space legacy lives on today. We would be talking about how Richard Nixon was responsible for Americans on Mars. Instead, Nixon is the man who single handily took the world's preeminent space power and technology leader and set us on a course that would cause the program to drift for years. Today, as a result of Nixon's failed vision for space exploration we are in another space race. We are still ahead for now, but there is a question if we will win this race. Our marvelous shuttle will retire soon and leave a gap where America won't have a manned launch capability and the Chinese and Russians will. Why don't we have Americans on the Moon or Mars? The blame rest solely on the shoulders of Richard Nixon. His space legacy doesn't exist. His failed space exploration vision was just another failure we can add to his presidency.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Interest in the Space Program

Where does the myth come from that Americans don't care or aren't interested in the space program? I recently went down to the Kennedy Space Center to view the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on June 8th. The launch was scheduled for 7:38 and I got to the center in the early morning. The visitor complex was crowded and the gift shop overflowing with people buying space memorabilia who just couldn't seem to get enough of it. The lines to view the space-themed IMAX films were very long and visitors lined up in the hot sun to get a chance to see them. Around 4pm we left the main visitor complex and made the short bus trip into the complex to watch the launch from the NASA causeway. NASA only allows 3000-5000 visitors on the causeway to view a launch. The grassy area was lined with people from all parts of the country and from all walks of life. All were amazed and excited at the launch and mesmerized that they got to see what the majority of Americans will never get to see - the launch of a manned spacecraft. It reminded me of film I had seen of the Apollo 11 launch. People lined everywhere along the space coast to see a part of history. America's space program is a source for American pride, we have landed on the moon and it will still take other countries another twelve years to do what we did 38 years ago. Politicians are the ones who seem out of touch with the pulse of the people. I'm no fan of Senator Barbara Milkuski (D-MD), but she is one of the few who has consistently gone to bat to get more money for NASA. President George Bush and his father are and were supporters of the space program. President Bush directed NASA to take the next steps in space exploration with the Moon, Mars and Beyond initiative. The naysayers argue we have better things to do with our money - my response is yes we have better things to do with the incredible amounts of money we waste on trivial or pork barrel projects, but funding and supporting the manned and unmanned exploration of space should be a top priority. With an election looming it is important in the midst of all of the other issues to understand whether or not the candidates will continue to support the space program those that don't or seek to diminish it's role and vision are not in sync with the will of the people.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Red Moon

China announced today a new heavy lift launch vehicle capable of lifting a space station or propelling astronauts to the moon. The target launch date is 2011. China's space program garners a lot of attention. Each announcement seems to convey a country that just isn't satisifed with getting a man into Earth orbit, but a country that is on a course similar to the United States in the early sixties. China is on a fast track, seemingly achieving one space success after another. Their budget is lower than NASA's yet they appear to be on a calculated path to reach the moon and beyond at or before the United States. This is a different era though and the Chinese space program has the advantage of leveraging the work of both the American and Russian programs that accomplished so much in an era where ingenuity and resourcefulness were required. The Chinese has been able to take shortcuts to getting into space. First, they've leverged the Russian knowledge and hardware. Second, they have had open access to the wealth of public information that the American program makes available. Lastly, the Chinese program is more narrowly focused. The American program is ambitious - the world is learning about the solar system from missions like Cassini, Mars Rovers, ISS, Pluto-Kuiper Express, Messenger, Dawn, Hubble, SOHO, NEAR, Deep Impact and many others. The U.S. Program is criticized for it's expense, but compared to the Chinese program the American program is leading the planet on exploring other worlds. The Chinese programs is focused on getting to the moon, the American program is focused on getting back to the moon, but also in exploring the rest of the universe and continued research on aeronautics and earth sciences. Our program accomplishes so much with limited resources. The budget needs to be increased significantly to further our continued exploration. Space isn't a luxury that some think we can't afford, but a necessity that we must afford to secure our nation's technological preeminence and to take what is considered the next Saudia Arabia - the Moon. The moon is thought to hold enough Helium 3 to power the Earth for a 1000 years. With China's growing energy demands, securing an endless supply of clean fuel would be priceless. If we don't act, don't get back to the moon first, we will indeed gaze at the night sky and see a red moon.