Miles O'Brien

Reporting on space, science, aviation & tech.

Archive: Feb 2010

  1. Geysers, Oceans and Dinosaurs

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    Jets on Enceladus.  Source:  Cassini

    Jets on Enceladus. Source: Cassini

    Saturn’s moon Enceladus is spewing out some impressive geysers of water ice.  The NASA/ESA Italian space agency team that flies the Cassini spacecraft just released this composite image captured in November showing about 30 of the jets near the south pole of that moon. The big question for those who are interested in life beyond our planet – could their be liquid water reservoirs beneath the surface?  As you know – wherever water is found in liquid form on this planet – you will find living things.  So…Let me be the first to tell any prospective Enceladians – we come in peace.

    SMOS Image.  Source:  ESA

    SMOS Image. Source: ESA

    Another ESA satellite is focused on water as well – just a little closer to home…These are the first calibration images from the the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity – or (SMOS) mission.  – Launched in November this satellite is designed to help scientists better understand the water cycle on earth – and that will help them improve weather and climate models.

    Jurassic Space.  Source:  Hubble Space Telescope

    Jurassic Space. Source: Hubble Space Telescope

    Kids love space and dinosaurs – so I have always believed if we could just put a dinosaur into space – we would have a nation of space loving high achievers in math and science…well voila…astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have found some galaxies that are tantamount to seeing a dinosaur wander into your backyard. It’s a group of small galaxies that are still in the early stages of formation – but they are much closer to us – only 166 million light years – and thus much younger than galaxies at a similar stage that scientists have seen before. For some reason these small galaxies waited 10 billion years to get together.  Now that’s a long courtship…see this story in video form here.

    Watch Enceladus and SMOS stories on “This Week in Space” version 8 here:

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  2. Shuttles and Astronauts

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    Endeavour lands at the Kennedy Space Center.  Source:  NASA

    Endeavour lands at the Kennedy Space Center. Source: NASA

    The Space Shuttle Endeavour was fresh off its night time landing at the Kennedy Space Center. The 6 person crew – led by Marine Colonel George Zamka – the guy they call Zambo – logged a successful mission to the Space Station – installing the Tranquility Node – with its stunning Cupola. Matter of fact station keeper Soichi Noguchi watched Endeavour streak through re-entry  “He tweeted that “The view was definitely out-of-the-world.”

    Not a haiku – no

    But he uses left side brain

    I cut him some slack

    I’m a poet – bet ya didn’t know it…

    Discovery in the Vehicle Assembly Building.  Source:  NASA

    Discovery in the Vehicle Assembly Building. Source: NASA

    From Haikus to minuets – TWIS is taking you upscale this week – with the precisely choreographed moved from horizontal to vertical – no I am not talking about getting out of bed with a hangover –

    I am speaking of Discovery’s move from the orbital processing facility – or hangar – to the vertical assembly building for mating. Don’t worry teachers – shuttle mating is G rated. It’s all about connecting the orbiter to its big burnt orange external fuel tank – which has the solid rocket boosters attached to it. The finished product – the space shuttle stack – is slated to begin its slow roll to the launch pad on March 2nd. Launch to the space station is set for April 5th. Don’t forget the best place to watch the launch is on Spaceflight Now.

    When the shuttle stops flying – the US government will no longer be in the business of building spacecraft for its astronauts to fly into space. We can only hope this is a temporary suspension in membership of a very elite club. Still the Obama space budget says the National Research Council will take a hard look at role and size of the astronaut corps. No Bucks – no need for Buck Rogers. But in India – they are ready to invest some rupees on future Ramu Ramjets. The nation’s space agency says it is ready to join the club –  they are vowing to send a pair of astronauts into space in the next six or seven years…not wise to curry…

    atk-logo-bgAnd from our very busy “last-ever ” desk – an item this week from Big Love Country – northern Utah…Rocket builder ATK staged its last test firing of a shuttle solid rocket motor. Since 1988, ATK has conducted 34 ground tests during to verify performance and safety margins – and test new materials. ATK says it will march ahead with a static test of an Ares 1 style booster – even though that program is a goner – NASA has already paid for it – and the show will go on.

    Watch these stories from “This Week in Space” Version 8 below:

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  3. The Politics of NASA's New Path

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    Mr. Bolden goes to Capitol Hill this week…

    The NASA boss Charlie Bolden is a former Marine fighter and test pilot and astronaut and he is used to taking flak – after all he flew a hundred combat missions over southeast Asia during the Vietnam war. So facing off with some lawmakers on Capitol Hill over the controversial Obama NASA budget proposal – piece of cake- right?  Well, it started out that way – he began with the Senate Subcommittee on Science & Space.  The chairman – his former shuttle crew member – then Congressman – now Senator Bill Nelson.  Watch their exchange here.

    And a somewhat chillier one with Senator David Vitter – a Republican from Louisiana – home of the Michoud Assembly facility – where they make the external fuel tanks for the shuttle- here.

    And I got in on the action too…Here is some of what I had to say. And you can read my full remarks here.

    The next day – Charlie Bolden found himself in a different orbit – namely the House of Representatives – where they don’t know comity – from comedy…and when he appeared before the House Science Committee, it was so silly you almost had to laugh as members from Texas Alabama and Florida tried to out Bolden-bash one another.

    Cygnus Spacecraft.  Source:  Orbital Sciences

    Cygnus Spacecraft. Source: Orbital Sciences

    The Obama budget for the space agency puts some big bets on some commercial players to work more independently to get cargo – and ultimately humans to and from low earth orbit. But there are a host of concerns about transferring so much risk outside the space agency. One of the main players in this game is Orbital Sciences – Like its competitor SpaceX, the company is building a vehicle to deliver cargo to the ISS under contract to NASA. Veteran astronaut and NASA manager Frank Culbertson is now a senior VP with orbital – and he was listening intently – as I was  – when his former fellow astronaut Hoot Gibson said this in that Senate Hearing.  Watch and listen to our conversation here.

  4. The late, great Robert McCall….

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    (Ed. Note: I just heard the news that we lost the great Robert McCall. My heart goes out to his widow Louise and the rest of his family. His vision of the future will live on forever. I wrote the following piece about the McCalls in August of 1999. I had gone to visit them as part of my coverage of the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing. It was one of the better assignments I can recall…)

    Robert McCall inside the Chapel he created in Arizona in 1999.

    Robert McCall inside the Chapel he created in Arizona in 1999.

    PARADISE VALLEY, Arizona — Even if you haven’t heard of Robert McCall, you are still probably familiar with his work.

    You will find his wide-eyed (and just plain wide) views of space — past, present and future — spanning the entry hall of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum; at the Horizons pavilion at Disney’s EPCOT center; in old movie posters for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or in a two-decade-long series of postage stamps depicting space themes (talk about pushing the envelope …).

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  5. To the Moon? I think not, Alice….

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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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  6. Stairway to Heaven

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    Air Ship Ventures

    Air Ship Ventures

    When I say the word “Zeppelin” – safety may not be the first thought that comes to mind…”Oh, the humanity” might…but these days the Zeppelin is not your grandfather’s airship.  In fact – a private company called Airship Ventures has set up shop – selling rides to tourists – at NASA’ Ames Research Center – trying to prove their business model is more than hot air.  Recently I caught up with the Zeppelin in the LA area – and it is some ride.

    Watch my story from “This Week in Space” here.

  7. Worse than Nixon – or a Masterstroke?

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    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)

  8. A Room with a View

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    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.

  9. The Latest Edition of "This Week In Space"!

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    Watch it here!

    We have now done six editions of This Week In Space – and now is the time for us to figure out how to pay the rent. We are looking for advertisers — if you have any suggestions on that, let us know. In the meantime, you the viewers can help us. If you would like to help keep us on – go to our site and click on the Paypal button.  This isn’t tax deductable – but if you like our show and you want us to stay around, please consider making a contribution.

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  10. Endeavour In Flight

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    Source:  NASA

    Source: NASA

    In the aftermath of the Obama Administration’s cancellation of the Constellation program, agency workers may be shell shocked and confused over what is next for the space agency – but that didn’t stop them from successfully lighting the candle on the space shuttle Endeavour. With the shuttle program winding down – every launch these days represents a last – and this was the last scheduled night launch – of course a a few slips could change that.

    The Endeavour Six – led by Marine Colonel George Zamka – charged uphill and put the international space station in their sites. The space station now looks like – well – a space station – prompting veteran astronaut Steve Robinson to was eloquent in an inflight interview with some local TV stations.

    “To look up and see what humankind could really accomplish in space was just almost impossible to believe, It seemed like science fiction,” he said.  “Now here we are with human beings that are living on board. That truly is the amazing legacy of the space shuttle program.”

    As Endeavour homed in on ISS  – the stationkeepers put the orbiter in their sites – taking a series of 400 and 800 millimeter telephoto hi resolution shots of the thermal protection system. The pictures revealed a protruding ceramic fastener near the cockpit windows. The team is trying to determine what damage risk there is should it come loose during reentry – and there is a tile on the upper surface of the crew module of the orbiter that had been repaired – and that repair has apparently failed. We are told worry meter for these is on the low setting. The main goal of the mission: to deliver the last big connecting piece – or Node. This one is called Tranquility – and has a seven window cupola that will offer the crew a stunningly clear view of the earth as it whizzes beneath them.

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