• Lunar Landing Memories

    45 Years Ago

    Apollo 11 rises from the launch pad.

    On July 16, 1969 the first people to actually set foot on the Moon strapped themselves into a tiny Apollo 11 craft on top of a Saturn V rocket and blasted off. It seems hard to believe that all this time has passed, particularly for those of us who fully expected that within a decade or so, regular trips to the Moon would be ours to take.

    Sadly, things didn’t turn out that way. Our space program (in the U.S.) has not yet proceeded in the direction of daily or weekly trips to the lunar surface for fun, work, or colonization. But, the Moon is still an object of scientific (and possibly political) interest, even today. And, maybe in my lifetime, it will become that stopping-off point we all hoped for, useful to folks on their way to other places in the solar system.

    Not long before the Apollo mission, I became enamored of Star Trek. It seemed to me that with a little work (I didn’t understand all the technology at that point), humanity would soon be embarking on five-year missions of exploration, just as Captain Kirk and his crew was doing. Apollo 11 was just the first step. I anticipated missions to Mars that might start when I was in college, and regular trips to the Moon for tourists by the time I was in my 30s. And, starflight?  If I thought about it at all, I probably figured it would be something I’d see others do as I waved fondly farewell to them from my retirement cottage in Mare Imbrium.

    Well, things haven’t turned out quite that way. We have accomplished a lot in space — planetary missions, for example, have showed us what a HUGE and diverse place our solar system is. In the interim years between Apollo 11 and now, I’ve studied education and science journalism, worked as an astronomer, written many millions of words about astronomy and space in books, articles, documentaries, and blog entries, and I’ve come to realize that going to space is tough. It is, as John F. Kennedy said, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

    So, as we embark on this week celebrating the accomplishments of Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins 45 years ago, let’s think about what they really set in motion. Yes, Aldrin and Armstrong set foot on the Moon, and so did other astronauts after them. From them, people have learned to live and work in space. And, I hope that we’ll keep stepping out proudly to new places in space, if for no other reason than they cleared the path for us to do so. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s hard, both technically and politically. But, going to space is the right thing to do. It’s what will help our species live long and prosper. Our first steps will NOT be our last ones.

  • Mars and the Silly Politician

    The Silly Season is Upon Us

    Okay, I have been laughing about the Kentucky politician who decided that since Mars and Earth have the same temperature, there’s no proof of global warming. It’s better than crying about the fact that we have a political “leader” who is supposedly educated, living in the 21st century, who doesn’t have a clue about Mars. Or Earth, apparently. And, he thought it would be okay to shoot his mouth off about something he clearly has no knowledge of. If I were living in Kentucky… well, I actually DID live in Kentucky once… I’d wonder what else he doesn’t understand but still shoots his mouth off about.

    He lives in a state that makes money from coal mining, so his reasoning is screwed up to start with. And, of course, he’s a right-wing Republican, so one COULD suspect some serious science ignorance on his part. But, to conflate two planets’ temperatures (and get them wrong!) takes a huge lack of reasoning skills.

    And, this guy wants to known as someone to take seriously on climate issues.

    No, I don’t think so. And, judging by the reaction his hideous attempt at misusing science, a lot of people (including some of his own constituents), don’t think much of his blunder either.

    So, just to clear the record for Brandon Smith, state senator R-KY and serial coal mine owner, (and anybody else who hasn’t quite figured out that science works and we CAN use it to fact-check a politician’s outrageous comments), here are some facts about Mars temperatures.

    Mars’s average temperature is -80 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s -60 Celsius.  In the wintertime, the polar regions on Mars get to nearly -200 F (-125 C).  In the summer it might get all the way up to 7oF in a sunny spot on the equator.  The average temp is NOWHERE Earthlike. Earth, by contrast, has an average temperature of nearly 60F (15 C).  That’s about one degree warmer than it was a hundred years ago, and the evidence is that it’s getting warmer due to the burning of fossil fuels. Which, as you now know, are mined in Kentucky (in addition to other places).

    Look, the senator from the great state of Kentucky can have any opinion he wants about global warming, and he’s free to have that opinion bought and paid for by the mining interests, if he so desires. But, he doesn’t have the right to his own set of facts that don’t even stand up to scientific scrutiny. Imagine if he blew his mouth off about something else he didn’t understand (like, I dunno, sports or banking laws or something).  He’d have bankers and sports fans all over his sorry hide in two seconds.

    Well, here’s one from the science community: we have probes on Mars that are giving us accurate temperatures right now. We can measure temps on Earth darned accurately. The data don’t lie:  temps on Mars are not equal to temps on Earth. So, Senator Smith, go find something else to bolster your argument against global warming. We’ve got your numbers for you, and they aren’t pretty.

    By the way, Rachel Maddow wrote up a pretty good take-down of this guy’s words, too. Worth reading.

  • The End of One Era…

    The Continuing of Another


    Three years ago today, we watched the last space shuttle launch. Orbiter Atlantis roared up to space, thrilling and saddening all of us who had gathered at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (and beyond) to watch it. Several weeks before that, we had flown to Florida to watch the last launch of Endeavour. Both times we made videos of the experience, capturing for ourselves and our friends the experience of watching a shuttle launch. You can see them both below.

    The final launch of Atlantis – fulldome from Loch Ness Productions on Vimeo.

    The Final Launch of Endeavour from Loch Ness Productions on Vimeo.

    Okay, so now that shuttles have been history for three years (and have taken their places in various museum exhibits), what’s next on the horizon? In truth, we’re still exploring space, just not with regular shuttle launches to low-Earth orbit.

    Space exploration is a huge topic, and there are many variations on the theme. Of course, we have orbiting observatories such as Hubble Space Telescope, ESA’s Herschel, and many others looking in all directions of the cosmos and returning excellent data and images. There are also the planetary missions, ranging from flybys of Mercury and Pluto to rovers and orbiters at Mars, and the long-standing Cassini mission to Saturn. Past world-exploring missions have taken our attention to Venus, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, not to mention asteroids and comets.

    Right now, human missions are pretty much limited to trips to the International Space Station. That’s all fine and good, but people are itching to get to other worlds, to get on with the larger business of getting to the stars. The Moon is a good start, and there are plans on the drawing boards of several countries to land people there in the coming years. How soon? Well, that’s TBD. I’ve read of a private mission by Space Adventures to fly tourists on orbits around the Moon, possibly in two years. The first official governmental missions may come from the U.S. sometime near 2020, as well as from India and Japan. Only the U.S. crewed test of the Orion multi-purpose  is semi-scheduled, the rest are proposed.

    I’ve read (and talked) about planned missions to Mars by such groups as Mars One, which has an elaborate plan to send robotic missions to build up a habitat before the humans get there. I like their idea, I hope they get the money to do it. I wish I could go with them. Mars is the next big frontier, and the more missions we send there, the merrier. Certainly we’ve been doing our homework ahead of time with the surface rovers and orbiting mappers. The MAVEN mission, set to arrive at Mars later this year, will give us an important look at the Martian atmosphere, which is an important factor in figuring out habitability not just for astronauts but for any prior life that could have existed on the Red Planet.

    Beyond Mars, the future is hazy. There are discussions and drawing-board plans for missions to Europa (Jupiter’s icy ocean moon), but that’s about it. For the time being, unless there’s a huge breakthrough (and we get warp technology, for example), missions to the stars are still in the realm of science fiction. To do them, we would likely need generation-spanning ships because the humans who leave Earth on such trips are not the ones who’ll be landing on exoplanets. Their umpty-ump great-grandchildren will be the first explorers on such a world. But, I wouldn’t put it past humans to figure out a way to do it faster and better than the current technology.

    So, the legacy of the orbiters is a future in space. Atlantis, Endeavour and their sister ships accomplished a lot. I hope that we don’t let those accomplishments lie fallow for long, and that future generations will look back at them as one of the first steps to space, not the last.