Miles O'Brien

Reporting on space, science, aviation & tech.

Category Archive: blog

  1. Alan Alda’s “Flame Challenge”

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    Any parent can remember the moment when their child asks one of those seemingly simple, yet devilishly hard questions: you know, “why is the sky blue?”… “why are plants green?”…and “where do babies come from?

    One of the toughest in this category is “what is a flame?” In 1947, an 11-year old Alan Alda asked his teacher that question and got a non-response: “oxidation” – thus ensuring young Alan would continue on his career path of acting instead of taking a turn toward science.

    But now Alda has taken a turn at trying to bridge the gap between scientists and the rest of us.

    Read the rest of this post here at the PBS NewsHour site.

     

  2. “To the Moon, Liu Yang!”

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    If you are not impressed with the Chinese space program, you are not paying attention. The just-completed Shenzhou-9 mission to the Tiangong-1 “stationlet” appears to be a stunning success.

    The three person crew (including China’s first woman taikonaut, Liu Yang) spent slightly less than two weeks in space.

    They arrived at Tiangong-1 on autopilot, conducted a series of unspecified experiments and then, most importantly, successfully docked Shenzhou-9 with Tiangong-1 manually – proving they can perform this crucial task in case “George” fails someday  (as mine tends to on short final in the clouds).

    My good friend Leroy Chiao and I had hoped to be there for the launch and landing of this mission. But after years of negotiating with the Chinese for some real access to their space program for a documentary, our proposal was flat-out rejected amid the controversy over that blind activist Chen Guangcheng.

    Leroy logged four space missions – three on the shuttle and one on the Russian Soyuz – which took him to and from the International Space Station – where he spent about 190 days as Commander of Expedition 10.

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  3. Dollars and Dentists

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    This is a crisis you may not wish to think about. After all, who enjoys thinking about a trip to the dentist? On assignment for the PBS documentary series FRONTLINE, I have been thinking about dental care in America for the past year.

    And as it goes for so many things in this country, if you are poor, you do not have a lot of options. But this particular hole in our safety net is bigger than most. Think about it: if you are sick or injured in any other place in your body, and you arrive at an Emergency Room, you will likely get treatment. It is not the most efficient way to run a health care “system”, but it does provide a measure of care for folks in need who do not have the means to pay for treatment.

    But if you have a toothache when you arrive at the ER, the chances are you will be given antibiotics and pain medication and sent back out the door to go find a dentist. But where? Who will see a child on Medicaid – or the uninsured truck driver living paycheck to paycheck?

    They do not have a lot of options. But our free-market system is very good at finding a need and filling it. Private equity backed corporate dental chains are offering services to poor people who are in oral agony. But we found a lot of evidence these chains are pressuring patients into care they may not need.

    This is an hour that may be hard to watch for a lot of reasons. But it is an important issue that has not been aired out in a proper public debate. Until now. I hope you will watch tonight – on TV or online. I will be tweeting while the program airs this evening. So join me then – and let’s find a way to solve this problem.

  4. Venus Transit Fare

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    Who knew Venus had a subway, but the Transit there does run on time – although not very frequently – as in twice in a century, give or take.

    And if you are in North America, tonight is the night. Venus will pass between our perch in the Solar System and the Sun. This does not happen often because the Solar System is not lined up perfectly as it was in that model on your third grade teacher’s desk.

    The orbit of Venus is about three degrees cockeyed relative to ours here on Earth. So most of the time, the Planet of Love is aptly coy – passing above or below the sun.

    But every now and then, our orbital planes intersect and we get a chance to see “a little black spot on the sun.”

    If you miss this chance, you will have to wait 105 years. I have put this in my iCal in the hope they will be able to thaw me out of my cryogenic slumber in time to see it in 2117. But to hedge my bets, I will make an effort to be a part of this transitory event beginning this evening.

    The transit lasts more than six hours, but you need to be in the middle of Pacific to watch it ingress to egress (the terms of art among astronomers). It is too late for me to get to Hawaii, but there will be a way for those of us not so geographically fortunate to watch from that vantage point. Mauna Kea is just one of a dozen spots on the globe where observatories will be streaming live images of the Transit. NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center has a good site that will allow you to easily surf the streams. 

    My friend Fraser Crain over at Universe Today is planning an interactive Transitathon  over here. Venus Vision.

    If you are inclined to watch it “in person” as it were, you should follow the usual caveats for eclipse viewing. View it indirectly, through welder’s glass or mylar coated glasses designed to make it safe to gaze at the the Sun. You can find a great guide for safe viewing here.

    An armada of observatories based on land and in space will be homing on on this event – including the Hubble Space Telescope – which will be aimed at our Moon to measure how much the light dims as Venus passes in front of the Sun.

    Exoplanet hunters are excited about this event, because it will allow them to fine tune their technique of identifying possibly habitable planets outside our solar system by measuring the dimming of distant stars as a planet passes in front. It’s like measuring what happens gnat transits your headlight beam – and it is exactly how NASA’s Kepler observatory works.

    In the Age of Enlightenment, the rare Transit of Venus spurred what might be called the first ever Space Race. The great astronomer Edmond Halley correctly surmised that accurate observations of the beginning and end of the transit gathered from distant locations of the globe would allow scientists to determine the precise distance between Earth and Venus (exploiting the parallax effect) . This prompted several adventures and misadventures on the high seas during the Venus Transits of 1761 and 1769. Dr. Tony Phillips has a great account of Captain James Cook’s voyage to Tahiti to see Venus in 1769. He and his crew apparently ended up more enamored with the Polynesian women than the astronomical event. Love Planet indeed!

    The definitive account of these ultimately Quixotic attempts to measure the size of the Solar System using the Transit of Venus has just been penned by Andrea Wulf. “Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens” is a great read – with some fascinating detail about science in its Golden Age.

    Make sure you read the about Guillaume Le Gentil – the French astronomer who tried to measure the transits of 1761 and 1769, but was ultimately (spoiler alert) thwarted by war, typhoons, dysentery, sea sickness and thick clouds. Driven to the brink of insanity,  he returned to Paris eleven years later. There wasn’t exactly a brass band waiting for him. In fact, he had been declared dead, his estate distributed and his wife had remarried.

    Wow. Talk about a King of Pain!

    I was on The Takeaway this morning – talking with John Hockenberry about all of this. You can listen to it here.

     

     

  5. Elon Musk Unedited

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    Elon Musk and SpaceX are on a roll. I am glad to see it, but it is worth remembering how risky the space business is. As they say in the financial services industry, “past performance is not a guarantee of future results.” In any case, Musk’s critics owe him something more than silence. He and his team have proven an awful lot with this stunningly successful vanguard run to the ISS. 

    Perhaps his detractors might want to take a moment to visit the SpaceX factory in Hawthorne, California. It is a hop and a skip from LAX. It is an impressive place.

    That is where I met Mr. Musk and interviewed him in January for my PBS NewsHour story on SpaceX that aired in April. 

    Below is a transcript of the interview. There is no doubt Musk thinks big. But more importantly, he takes action on his bold dreams. We talked about his vertical manufacturing philosophy, his plans for manned flight, the political battle he and other commercial space companies have endured, and his goal to homestead Mars.

    Miles O’Brien:   Why do you try to build so many of the components yourself?

    Elon Musk: Maybe two thirds or a little more of the value of the rocket is manufactured right here at SpaceX in Los Angeles County. We often talk about the demise of the American Manufacturing System as like, “Well, we’re building the most competitive rockets on earth better than China, Russia, Europe, or anyone else, and it’s right here in California in LA.”
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  6. A Fire Breathing Dragon

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    It is all over but the “chuting.” International Space Station Keepers unleashed the SpaceX Dragon Capsule at 0949 GMT (5:49am EDT) and sent the history-making capsule on a fiery ride toward a spot in the Pacific about 500 miles west of Los Angeles.

    I got up early this morning to help shed some light on this for the viewers of CNN Early Start. You can see my appearance here.

    Ahead for Dragon is a series of “burns” (rocket firings) leading up to the Big One – a nine minute and fifty second braking de-orbit burn beginning at 1451 GMT (10:51am EDT) which will slow the craft down just enough to stop its revolutionary free fall.

    Dragon is slated to splashdown at 1544 GMT/11:44am EDT.

    With the shuttle fleet pickled, chocked and either in – or on their way to museums, Dragon is the only vehicle designed to haul cargo back to Earth in tact. Freighters from Russian, Europe and Japan are more like trash incinerators – as they do not have heat shields and parachutes designed to insure a safe landing.

    Dragon is carrying just shy of 1400 pounds of cargo. More than it hauled up.

    On board, about 300 pounds of crew preference items (lots of mementoes  for friends and family), 200 pounds worth of scientific experiments, and nearly 800 pounds of station gear including a pump for the station urine recycling system (yes, they drink their own pee up there…).

    Dragon will re-enter the atmosphere like a streaking meteor – as its ablative heat shield burns away – protecting the spacecraft from the searing heat.

    A small flotilla of SpaceX vessels are near the imaginary bullseye in the Pacific – ready to pluck Dragon out of the water and start steaming toward the Port of Los Angeles. Some of the cargo will stay inside Dragon as it is trucked back to the SpaceX facility near Waco, Texas. Some items that have a shorter shelf life will be retrieved and returned right away.

    SpaceX and Dragon had an astounding run for a first-of-its-kind test flight. Take a look at the objectives NASA laid out for its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services flights 2 and 3. You can put a check on nearly every box – except for the last two items – a safe landing and a recovery of the cargo.

    Assuming all goes well, SpaceX will begin for-real cargo missions to ISS later this year. The Falcon 9 rocket earmarked for the first of twelve of these cargo supply runs is already at the Cape. The Dragon capsule being built for the job sits in the factory in Hawthorne – a short walk from the company’s Mission Control room.

    Departure Operations – as Planned (in GMT)

    2012-05-31 09:35:00 ISS releases Dragon
    2012-05-31 09:50:00 Departure Burn 1
    2012-05-31 09:51:36 Departure Burn 2
    2012-05-31 09:57:44 Departure Burn 3
    2012-05-31 09:58:06 Dragon Yaw maneuver
    2012-05-31 10:03:11 TDRSS pointing
    2012-05-31 10:45:10 Reduce Apogee Burn
    2012-05-31 10:45:40 Unlatch/Close/Latch GNC Door Prep
    2012-05-31 12:10:40 GNC Door Closure
    2012-05-31 14:40:58 TDRSS omni
    2012-05-31 14:50:58 Deorbit Burn
    2012-05-31 15:00:59 Jettison trunk
    2012-05-31 15:28:05 GPS Blackout Period
    2012-05-31 15:35:35 Drogue Chute Deployment
    2012-05-31 15:36:32 Main Chute Deployment
    2012-05-31 15:44:32 Water Landing

     

     

  7. Is the NRC Tough Enough on US Nuclear Power Plant Operators?

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    JEFFREY BROWN: In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, how should government regulators here set the safety bar for nuclear power plants in the U.S.?

    This week, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced his resignation, and news reports suggest that battles within the commission over safety requirements may partially account for his departure. NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien has been looking into these bigger questions well before the latest news.

    His report was produced in partnership with ProPublica.

    MAN: We’re staying on AOP-1 for reactor scrams and AOP-2 for turbine trips.

    And the immediate actions for AOP-1 reactor scram are complete.

    MILES O’BRIEN: This is a test, only a test. If it were a real nuclear accident in the making, you would know about it by now.

    MAN: Also, right now, we have sustained a loss of RPS, plus Bravo.

    MILES O’BRIEN: We’re in the simulator at the River Bend nuclear power plant near St. Francisville, Louisiana, where these technicians are practicing how to respond to an accident.

    Since the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979, this has been part of the routine at all U.S. nuclear power plants, one of many changes in the way the industry does business in the wake of that accident.

    But now, in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns, U.S. regulators and the industry are grappling with how best to respond, or not, to what happened in Japan.

    Gregory Jaczko is the outgoing chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

    GREGORY JACZKO, chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency: Nuclear power plants generally work well when a lot of things aren’t changing. So there is, I think, an inertia against change and against improvement. And I think it’s something we have to be vigilant about and continue to push, as the regulator, to make sure that that change happens.

    MILES O’BRIEN: An inertia against improvement, that doesn’t sound like a very safe approach.

    GREGORY JACZKO: Well, I think you look at the industry and where it is today vs. where it was 10, 15, 20 years ago, there have been a lot of enhancements to safety. Performance is much better than it used to be.

    MILES O’BRIEN: I joined Jaczko as he toured the River Bend plant. Managers here showed us the layers of safety measures that stand between controlled nuclear fission and disaster.

    In industry parlance, it is called defense in depth. These portable generators at River Bend are the last line in that defense if a failure, a disaster, or terrorism knocks out the three larger backup generators designed to keep the cooling water flowing and the nuclear fuel from melting.

    But industry watchdogs warn there are holes in the defense at U.S. nuclear power plants.

    DAVE LOCHBAUM, Union of Concerned Scientists: The biggest concern I have had with the NRC over the years I have been monitoring them is lack of consistency.

    MILES O’BRIEN: Dave Lochbaum is a nuclear engineer who spent 17 years working for the industry before publicly blowing the whistle on safety concerns and joining the Union of Concerned Scientists, which just released an eye-opening report on the NRC and nuclear plant safety in the U.S. in 2011.

    It documents 15 near-misses, many occurring because reactor owners either tolerated known safety problems or took inadequate measures to correct them; problems with safety-related equipment that increased the risk of damage to the nuclear core; recognized, but unresolved problems that often cause significant safety-related events at nuclear power plants or increase their severity.

    And it says NRC inspectors all too often focus just on a specific problem, not its underlying cause.

    DAVE LOCHBAUM: I think the challenge the NRC has is, when something happens, it’s easy to convince people they need to spend money, prevent the next one. But when something hasn’t happened yet and it’s just a postulated event or a hypothetical disaster, it’s more difficult to get people to pony up millions of dollars to fix the hypothetical problem.

    MILES O’BRIEN: The case in point may be the Indian Point nuclear plant that sits on the Hudson River, 35 miles from Times Square in Manhattan. The 40-year licenses to operate the reactors here are up for renewal.

    Indian Point’s owner, Entergy, is seeking a 20-year license renewal. But where to set the safety bar, especially after Fukushima, is at the heart of a raging debate over whether Indian Point should get a new lease on life.

    Eric Schneiderman is the attorney general of the state of New York.

    ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN, New York attorney general: It is clear to us that, at this point in time, they have not met their burden of proof of showing that they deserve to be relicensed.

    MILES O’BRIEN: After Three Mile Island , a federal court ruling forced utilities to expand their list of what-if scenarios and consider the cost of protecting against more unlikely events than required by the NRC. They are called severe accident mitigation alternative analyses, or SAMAs.

    ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: All that requires the utility to do is to examine, do a cost-benefit analysis of safety measures that are not prohibitively expensive, but could provide substantial additional safety for the plant.

    MILES O’BRIEN: Indian Point’s SAMA analysis revealed 20 cost- beneficial safety upgrades Entergy could perform. They include adding a diesel generator to charge batteries, a flood alarm, better flood protection, additional devices to monitor for leaks, and a valve to reduce the risk of hydrogen explosions.

    In all, the upgrades carry a $77 million price tag. But, surprisingly, implementation of SAMA upgrades like these wasn’t a prerequisite for an NRC license renewal.

    Why not?

    GREGORY JACZKO: We have a two-track approach to our review.

    The first part is really the safety decision, and that’s about the license. The second part is about the federal government needing to do a review to look at environmental consequences. So, it’s as part of that — that second review that we look at these severe accident issues, and they really are about looking at environmental impacts.

    MILES O’BRIEN: So, that means you don’t have to factor in a Fukushima scenario as you consider the possibility of relicensing a plant?

    GREGORY JACZKO: We — again, we do it as part of the environmental review, but not specifically in the safety context.

    ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: The NRC has taken a very narrow view of what’s required for relicensing. It defies common sense. There is no one out there who thinks that that’s the way a regulatory agency should behave.

    MILES O’BRIEN: So Schneiderman took Entergy to court, and his unprecedented legal challenge paid off. In a landmark decision, the independent tribunal responsible for relicensing ruled that the company must now consider, and likely implement, the SAMA upgrades in order to get a new license.

    ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: We’re not talking about wild, expensive stuff. These are only things that pass through this cost-benefit analysis. These are cheap remedies that yield a substantial safety, big bang for the buck, or little bang for the buck, I guess.

    But it’s something that they should absolutely be required to do. And now, in the context of Indian Point, because it will be a condition of their relicensing, they will be required to going forward. That should be our policy in every nuclear power plant in the country.

    MILES O’BRIEN: Should be a given?

    ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Yes, absolutely.

    MILES O’BRIEN: Schneiderman hopes his victory will change the way the NRC does business, but as Gregory Jaczko points out, the agency is resistant to change.

    In fact, the announcement of his resignation comes amid a battle with other commissioners over whether to embrace a menu of a dozen changes proposed by a task force that studied the Fukushima meltdowns.

    Among the recommendations? A requirement that plants have vents designed to prevent buildup of explosive gas, that operators plan for outages at more than one reactor simultaneously, and, most important, the installation of extra generators like this one at River Bend that would allow a nuclear plant to endure a long blackout of at least eight hours without losing the ability to keep cooling water flowing over the hot nuclear fuel rods.

    GREGORY JACZKO: That effort is going to take probably at least two years, and it will require focus and diligence on the part of the agency, as well as on the part of the industry, to make sure that we get that rule change done, and then we implement everything that it requires in a prompt and timely way.

    MILES O’BRIEN: Two years, that’s lightspeed for you guys.

    GREGORY JACZKO: I think two years would be an aggressive schedule, but it’s one that I think we can achieve.

    MILES O’BRIEN: But other NRC commissioners and the nuclear industry are fighting the Fukushima task force safety upgrades, saying they need more time to implement them.

    The meltdowns in Japan may have forced the industry to think about the unthinkable, but it is still unclear what actions may follow, and if the NRC will take the lead or be forced into taking action.

  8. The Takeaway on SpaceX

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    Had a great talk this morning with John Hockenberry @JHockenberry of The Takeaway. He interviewed Mike Lopez-Alegria and me to discuss the significance of the Dragon launch.

    We also talked about the difference between the NASA PAO launch announcers and the SpaceX webcast. Prozac versus Crystal Meth is my take!

  9. SpaceX-tra! Read all About It…

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    The Dragon capsule is homing in on the ISS and so far the systems shakedown has not created any show-stoppers: the solar arrays have deployed, the navigation pod bay doors have opened (as Elon tweeted: “So much nicer than HAL9000 :)”), the abort system has been tested and the craft has successfully gone into “free drift” mode.

    All of these steps are essential before NASA will give a “go” for rendezvous and grapple by the ISS robot arm on Friday morning EDT. By the way, Dragon is not “docking” at the station despite a lot of inaccurate reporting to the contrary. The capsule will get close enough to be captured by the arm and then attached to the station.

     

    Dragon is not equipped with the so-called “Androgynous Peripheral Attach System” – required for an ISS docking.

    The short video above is my conversation with Jeffrey Brown on the PBS NewsHour set Tuesday evening.

    Bill Harwood has posted a full timeline for Dragon’s encounter with the station here. But here are the key events to follow on berthing morning (all times EDT).

    04:18:58 AM…03…00…34…20…Approach initiation (HA4) burn
    04:35:38 AM…03…00…51…00…HA4-MC1 burn
    04:52:18 AM…03…01…07…40…HA4-MC2 burn
    05:13:58 AM…03…01…29…20…Range: 350 meters; yaw 180 degrees
    05:18:58 AM…03…01…34…20…Resume approach
    05:28:58 AM…03…01…44…20…Range: 250 meters
    05:43:58 AM…03…01…59…20…Resume approach; begin retreat/hold demos
    06:08:58 AM…03…02…24…20…Hold at 220m (evaluate retreat/hold demoss)
    06:23:58 AM…03…02…39…20…Resume approach inside keep-out sphere (KOS)
    07:13:06 AM…03…03…28…28…Sunrise
    07:13:58 AM…03…03…29…20…Range: 30 meters
    07:28:43 AM…03…03…44…05…Resume approach
    07:48:43 AM…03…04…04…05…Capture point arrival
    07:58:43 AM…03…04…14…05…Go’ for capture
    08:06:43 AM…03…04…22…05…Capture
    08:10:24 AM…03…04…25…46…Sunset
    08:45:38 AM…03…05…01…00…Sunrise
    09:00:38 AM…03…05…16…00…Latest go for capture
    09:10:38 AM…03…05…26…00…Latest CP arrival
    09:25:38 AM…03…05…41…00…Earliest go For capture
    09:30:38 AM…03…05…46…00…Earliest CP arrival
    09:42:58 AM…03…05…58…20…Sunset
    10:18:10 AM…03…06…33…32…Sunrise

     

     

  10. Space for the Rest of Us

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    Space for the Rest of Us

    Space is hard and unforgiving and there is still a lot of challenging work ahead for the SpaceX Dragon team, I would not pop the champagne corks just yet. But this is a moment to savor.

    For the first time since Atlantis’ wheels stopped on runway 15 at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011, a US built spacecraft is back in Mach 25 motion – on its way to meet up with the International Space Station.

    Atlantis landed 42 years and one day after Neil Armstrong first left his footprints on the moon, and for reasons that escape me, the J.D. Salinger of the Apollo astronaut corps has been very vocal in his opposition and skepticism about this new course in space.

    But anyone who claims they are interested in the exploration of the Final Frontier must applaud this endeavor.

    It has now been more than fifty years since human beings first flew to space and little more than 500 of them have been there. Talk about the ultimate elite club.

    It is, uh, high time that ended and that will never happen if the government runs its space enterprise the way it has up until now: with cost-plus contracts that provide no incentive for the private sector to think about efficiencies.

    NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program – or COTS – literally turns COST inside out – cutting fixed price deals with private companies to perform a specific task: fly safely to the ISS, be grappled and berthed in order to deliver cargo, and then return to earth in tact.

    Supporters of this new approach to space contracting say it is tantamount to subsidizing nascent airlines in the barnstorming days by giving them contracts to fly the mail. The government didn’t tell Henry Ford how to build his Tri-Motor, but the mail those planes carried was an effective taxpayer tool to encourage a whole new industry – eventually making it possible for millions of people to board planes with as much fanfare as if they were buses – and then moan if they are five minutes late pushing back from the gate.

    It would be nice if space travel could be that routine some day. And the Shuttle, a vehicle that I love and miss, was never going to get us there.

    In a perfect world, we would have gotten a little farther down the commercial road while the shuttles were still flying. But remember who pulls the strings at NASA: Congress. So here we are in this dreary manned space vehicle gap.

    But things started looking a little brighter in the wee hours of this morning when Falcon 9 left launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral.

    There is, of course, a lot more to do in space in the next few days. The Dragon capsule must rendezvous with the ISS, fly in formation safely and then sidle up close enough to be grasped by the ISS robot arm. Tough stuff. But nothing in space is easy.

    Dragon’s first close encounter with ISS will happen on Friday, May 25th – a fitting moment as it will be the 51st anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s audacious, historic speech to a joint session of Congress that set the US on its course to the moon.

    “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space,” said Kennedy, “and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

    “It will not be one man going to the moon…it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”

    It is time now to pass the torch to a new generation of space explorers who will find the challenge is in making spaceflight not so expensive to accomplish. And if they succeed, maybe all of us will get to go ourselves.