A Launch to Remember (Part 10) May 11, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: A Launch to Remember, Space Shuttle
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The launch of Endeavour is now scheduled for Monday, May 16—this coming Monday! We want to be there, in case it actually launches. We want to be there because we’re part of the press corps for STS-134. Doug has media credentials for the first time, in hopes of gathering material for Knox Magazine. Anna has media credentials, as she did for the not-launch of Discovery in November. Our article based on that trip to Florida last year appears in the new issue of Chapman Magazine.
We want to be there so much that, unless NASA finds a problem before Saturday, we’re heading back to the Cape. Yes, we’re going back! We’ve written before about being a writing couple, about doing writing together and working on our separate projects as a couple. STS-134 has made us a couple of writers in a new way.
The morning after we landed in Orlando, we headed over to the Badging Office at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Then, we flashed our badges and IDs at the gate and proceeded to the Press Center, across the street from the looming Vehicle Assembly Building where the shuttle is mounted to the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters before making its way to the launch pad on the crawler.
Even though it was launch day, the Press Center was relatively quiet when we first arrived. Still, the television cameras and trucks made it clear that this launch was getting far more media attention than any in recent memory. The main building is set up classroom style, with long desks facing the counter behind which the press officers sit, stand, and answer phones. The flags of countries participating in the International Space Station hang overhead. When we requested a desk, we were assigned to a shared desk in the press annex building.
We had missed the rollback of the Rotating Service Structure the night before, and the sign-up sheet for the astronaut walkout was already full, with 150 names. We jotted our names on the overflow sheet, just in case. And we signed up for a few astronaut interviews, including one with Michael Barratt (see HERE). The launch was still hours away at 3:47p.m.
By 7a.m., other journalists began streaming in, huddling in small groups, checking Twitter, asking questions, and creating a palpable buzz. Jay Barbree from NBC, who has been covering the space age since Sputnik, made appearances all weekend. And a young whippersnapper was at the astronaut walkout (yes, we waved to the STS-134 in their orange launch suits!), piecing together shots for his segment on CBS Sunday Morning. Reporters from Houston’s NPR station, an Arizona television affiliate, a website in New Zealand, Florida newspapers, and science magazines like Physics Today were in the mix too.
The press people behind the counter handled the hubbub in stride. They answer whatever question is lobbed their way. In fact, at one point, they worked our question about how many launches have been delayed, and Allard Beutel explained to us the difference between a scrub—which is a delay announced after tanking—and a delay. Candrea Thomas helped coordinate a phone interview for us (more on that interview in a future post). The press officers, however, don’t answer questions they aren’t asked. They don’t volunteer information.
That works pretty well because the journalists ask a lot of questions and also share information. We have come to see journalists (though perhaps not photographers, who are a different sort) as collaborative. A pack? A flock? A herd? Sure, some probably keep secrets, and others have more in-depth knowledge than the rest of us need. But for the most part, word—about the time of the next press briefing, the president’s motorcade, the location of the food truck—gets around the Press Center quickly. Maybe journalists are generous folk who realize the person at the next desk is underpaid too. Maybe the old pros recognize that there are first-timers who need a little orientation, if only so as to not hold the whole group back. Or maybe the press knows that secrets can’t be kept for long; once they file the story or post that tweet, they want to do a favor for the person at the next desk, in hopes that what goes around comes around.
Those who have been through this situation before have an ease about them, but they are still anxious not to miss anything. Anyone might hold a potentially interesting or important tidbit. Friendships don’t seem to grow at the Press Center, but camaraderie forms. Before one press briefing, we talked with the reporter from KOLD and the writer for Physics Today. The television news guy had never been to KSC before. The science writer had been holed up in the Press Center on nine (yes, 9!) previous occasions without ever seeing the space shuttle get off the ground.
When the scrub was announced, we all felt a little buzz—the scrub was a news story to get out—and a lot of disappointment. We hadn’t planned to leave for a few days, but the rest of the press had to decide whether to stay until Monday or go. In the first moments, most resigned themselves to leaving and started making escape plans for that afternoon. But within a couple of hours, many convinced themselves and their editors of staying. They wandered in and out all weekend, until Sunday’s press briefing (where we asked questions!) announced a longer and indefinite delay. The next day, the Press Center was almost empty.
We wonder how many of the same journalists will return for Endeavour’s launch, now scheduled for Monday. The media credentials—the mission badge—are good for STS-134, no matter when it launches. Thomas Jefferson touted the importance of the press for democracy and for individual improvement. But we’ve heard nothing about Representative Gabrielle Giffords attending for the second attempt, so that will likely limit the wider appeal of the story and editors’ willingness to pay for airfare, lodging, and a rental car. Weather at Cape Canaveral on Monday doesn’t look fantastic, with isolated thunderstorms predicted, and one never knows what else could delay the launch again. Some press will be there, of course, but many more news organizations will hold out for the last launch, which is scheduled for this summer. The date for that one is up in the air because of Endeavour’s delays. It’s really difficult to predict when news will happen, and that’s why we’re packing our bags.
Radioactivity and Other Risks (Part 2) May 6, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Biology, Books, Cognitive Science, Physics, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
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If you want to start with Part 1 of “Radioactivity and Risk,” click HERE. This post is part of a loose series, most of which were regular Wednesday posts that unfolded in the wake of the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi. We include the whole list at the end of this post. Here is “Radioactivity and Risk (Part 2)”:
One of the risks every astronaut faces in orbit and beyond is the exposure to radioactivity. Last Friday, when we were in Florida for the not-launch of Endeavour (which as of today is delayed at least until May 16), we spoke with astronaut Michael Barratt about this particular risk. He’s interested in this topic not only because he spent almost 200 days on the International Space Station, which exposed him to a lot of radiation (from which the rest of us on the ground are better protected by Earth’s atmosphere), but also because he is a medical doctor who has studied the exposures and effects of radiation and written about it in his book Principles of Clinical Medicine for Space Flight. One of the problems he pointed out in understanding the risk astronauts face from radiation is that astronauts are a relatively small population for medical study. Even so, he said that recommended radiation exposure guidelines for astronauts have become more conservative in recent years and now are also weighted for gender, weight, age, and other health criteria.
That’s the tricky thing about exposure to radioactivity: it’s difficult to predict its effect on any specific individual. In fact, most current assessment of the risk of exposure is based on the atomic bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a much larger population than the astronaut corps, but problematic for extrapolating to ourselves today. Excepting Chernobyl workers, most of us are not exposed to very large blasts of radioactivity. That said, the radiation to which we are exposed today has increased since the late 1940s.
We have seen a dramatic rise in exposure to radioactivity used in medicine, such as CT scans, though also mammograms, dental x-rays, and other diagnostic and treatment procedures. Last year, at ScienceWatch.com, Director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University David Brenner said, “In the US, the average radiation dose to which we are exposed has doubled in the past 30 years. The average dose from natural background sources has not changed, but what has changed is a more than six-fold increase in the average radiation dose from medical imaging.” In 2008, Time noted of CT, or CAT, scans, “some physicians are raising concerns about the safety of such procedures—most notably, an increase in cancer risk. A CT scan packs a mega-dose of radiation—as much as 500 times that of a conventional X-ray.” One study in the article raised additional concern about the 41% of patients undergoing CT scans who had already undergone two or more scans. While the benefit of having a CT scan may more than offset the risk of radiation exposure, Brenner also points out that “at the doses corresponding to a few CT scans there are direct epidemiological data from about 30,000 A-bomb survivors who were on the peripheries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and who were exposed in this low-dose range. This low-dose subpopulation has been followed for more than 50 years, and shows a small but statistically-significant increased cancer risk.”
In addition to having more medical tests than in previous decades, we’ve increased air travel. The more you fly—and the higher you fly—the more radiation to which you’re exposed. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “For a typical cross-country flight in a commercial airplane, you are likely to receive 2 to 5 millirem (mrem) of radiation, less than half the radiation dose you receive from a chest x-ray.”
Of course that doesn’t include that extra, scattered smattering if you fly out of an airport with the new body scanners. Wired reported in March that the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) “mandated [backscatter X-ray machines] as the preferred airport screening method in February 2009” but is reevaluating the more than 500 scanners in at least 78 or so airports “after testing produced dramatically higher-than-expected results.” An earlier article in the Wired series about the backscatter X-ray machines discussed a group of scientists raising concerns and quoted one of them as especially concerned with the increased risk when exposed to x-rays as we get older. In a CNN piece last year, David Brenner said, “If you think of the entire population of, shall we say a billion people per year going through these scanners, it’s very likely that some number of those will develop cancer from the radiation from these scanners[.]”
When it comes to risk, we’re talking probabilities. The risk that one airport scan poses to one person is very, very small. Almost no one will develop cancer just because they take a few jaunts to Europe. But the risk is not zero. And once the group exposed is large enough, then statistics indicate that someone will develop cancer as a result of exposure to radioactivity that is, for each individual, not very risky at all. In addition, as Michael Barratt pointed out in our interview with him, we’re not each equally vulnerable or hearty. What if you’re a weekly business traveler from Denver (the higher above sea level you live, the greater the exposure to cosmic radiation) who has undergone radiation treatment for cancer, whose father died of cancer, and who had a couple of CT scans after a car accident several months ago?
Even for those workers who know they may be exposed to ionizing radiation, the risk is not always clear to them. The average nuclear power plant worker in the United States is exposed to 300 mrem whole body equivalent, in addition to the presumed average of 300 or 360 mrem background radiation to which the average American is exposed, depending on which source you read. According to an article in the American Journal of Public Health, “In the United States, regulatory standards allow workers to be exposed to ionizing radiation that can cause 1 additional cancer fatality per 400 workers per year. Because radiation-dose limits cover only single sources (e.g., a nuclear plant) or exposure classes (workplace, medical, or public) and are defined for average occupational exposure, workers typically do not know their precise cumulative, individual, and relative risks from radiation.” In other words, no individual seems to know how much exposure to radioactivity he or she faces, nor the risk of cancer that exposure poses long term.
If we don’t understand the risk, we can’t manage it very well. If the level of risk is unknown or unclear, it’s difficult to weigh a given risk against the benefits. Clearly, many people don’t think twice about taking a cross-country flight. Maybe that’s because we’ve heard that the average American is more likely to die in a car accident than in a plane crash. In fact, according to NOVA in 2006, the chance of dying in a plane crash is 1 in 11 million, whereas the chance of dying in a car accident is 1 in 5000. But does knowing that keep you from getting into a car? Our perception of risk doesn’t always line up with the facts. And who is this average American anyway? As NOVA states, “[Y]ou are not the average American. Nobody is.”
In addition to today’s post, check out our previous posts in our Radioactivity Series as follows (CLICK on the title):
March 16: Measurement and Scale
March 28: Three Mile Island Anniversary
March 30: Radiation vs. Radioactivity
April 6: Uranium & Plutonium & Fission
April 13: Fission Products & Half-Lives
April 20: Radioactivity Units of Measure
April 26: The Anniversary of Chernobyl
April 27: Nuclear Secrecy
American Manned Spaceflight at 50 May 5, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Uncategorized.
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Fifty years ago, NASA propped astronaut Alan Shepard, one of seven men initially chosen for Project Mercury, atop a Redstone rocket and shot him into space for a fifteen-minute suborbital ride. (See Arizona State University’s new digital archive of this event HERE.)
If we were still at Kennedy Space Center this week, we’d have attended some of the commemorative events there. Astronaut and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden offers these words about Shepard’s historic ride in Freedom 7: “I was a teenager at the time and just sorting out the field of study I wanted to pursue. Though I never dared dream it growing up in segregated South Carolina, I was proud to follow in Alan’s footsteps several years later and become a test pilot myself. The experiences I’ve had would not have been possible without Alan’s pioneering efforts. The inspiration that has created generations of leaders to enlarge our understanding of our universe and to strive toward the highest in human potential was sparked by those early achievements of our space program. They began with Freedom 7 and a daring test pilot who flew the ultimate experimental vehicle that May day 50 years ago.”
If we were still at KSC, we also might have some extra tidbits about the progress toward a launch date for Endeavour’s final mission. We know the load control assembly (LCA) box that was the source of last week’s launch scrub has been replaced. Both the box that was removed and the box that has been inserted into the aft area of the space shuttle are being tested to determine whether the problem was with the LCA or lies outside that box. Doug’s question at Monday’s launch status briefing pushed Launch Integration Manager Mike Moses to address the possibility that the source of the problem was upstream in one of the nine systems the box supports.
The earliest launch date would be May 10, but the management team won’t set a firm date and put launch preparations back into motion until they know they have located the real source of the problem. Anna’s question at that same press briefing was about how long a delay needs to be to make sending the crew home the appropriate move. Since the crew needs to be back at KSC for about four days to get ready for launch, we’ll probably know tomorrow whether May 10 is too optimistic. If the source of the problem remains undetermined, or if repairs beyond the LCA are necessary, the launch date will continue to slide with each passing day. (See a more detailed description of the repair process HERE.)
Yesterday at Lofty Ambitions, we wrote about risk, and we’ll have Part 2 of “Radioactivity and Other Risks” tomorrow. In the meantime, one way to define the delay in the launch of STS-134 is as a result of risk management. The space shuttle always flies with risk, but the management team refuses to launch with unknown risk. Unknown risk is unmanaged risk.
Risk was on Alan Shepard’s mind fifty years ago as well. According to Life Magazine and other sources, the first American in space was asked for his thoughts on that Redstone rocket upon which he was perched. He responded, “The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.”
Radioactivity and Other Risks (Part 1) May 4, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Earthquakes, Physics, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
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Since shortly after the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi, we have been writing about various topics related to understanding that event. This week, we’re thinking about radioactivity and risk, though not only the risk that radioactivity—and exposure to it—poses. We’ll work our way back around to that on Friday. But we want to contextualize that particular risk (a risk of exposure to radioactive particles) within how we look at risk generally and how different risks are related. One thing borne out time and again is that the miscalculation and mismanagement of risk by institutions can have profound consequences.
Much reporting has focused on the fact that the machinery of Japan’s nuclear power plant survived the 9.0 earthquake intact and functioning, at least according to the current thinking about how the accident unfolded. The machinery, however, wasn’t designed to withstand an earthquake of that scale because those who assessed the risk that earthquakes posed for that nuclear plant did not think a 9.0 was probable enough to occur that it warranted designing for what ultimately did occur. Though we may find otherwise when (or if) people are able to see the machinery up close (perhaps via remote camera as with Chernobyl), the nuclear reactors seem to have exceeded their design specifications for earthquakes. Despite the wherewithal of the nuclear reactors, the facility had not adequately prepared for the tsunami, one which left the emergency generators vulnerable and, therefore, left the reactors without enough power to circulate cooling water.
According to an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Japan had a 30-foot-high tsunami from a 7.8 earthquake on the west coast in 1993.” Eighteen years ago, a smaller earthquake than this year’s caused a wave that would have overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but “the word ‘tsunami’ did not appear in government safety guidelines until 2006. […] Despite the lack of government guidance, the initial plant designs for Fukushima Daiichi did take tsunamis into account. But engineers expected a maximum wave height of 10.5 feet, so the plant was thought to be safe sitting on a 13-foot cliff, and that was apparently the end of the matter.” A tsunami was not an unknown risk. But the engineers had miscalculated the probability of the event and, therefore, had not taken appropriate steps to manage the risk that tsunamis actually pose to the west coast of Japan.
The failure of institutions to properly calculate risk also played an outsized role in the most recent financial panic. The roots of this faulty risk assessment go back to 2004 when five financial institutions—Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley (see NY Sun article)—were successful (it’s hard to believe that that’s the correct word, but there you are) in petitioning the SEC to have the amount of debt that they could take on substantially increased. At the time, this was an acknowledgement that the SEC would be abdicating its prior responsibility for risk assessment and leaving it up to the individual institutions themselves. Here’s a quote from a New York Times article that sums it up: “In loosening the capital rules, which are supposed to provide a buffer in turbulent times, the agency also decided to rely on the firms’ own computer models for determining the riskiness of investments, essentially outsourcing the job of monitoring risk to the banks themselves.”
A lone letter to the Federal Reserve warned that the software model that the institutions used to calculate risk might not be up to the task. In a sinister bit of irony that reminds us of our all too frequent hubris when confronted with things we only pretend to understand, this same letter invokes the language calculating the risks associated with a 100-year flood. In less than four years, three of the five successful (there’s that word again) petitioners were no longer independently viable institution, Merrill Lynch having been gobbled up and Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers turning into funerary pyres of taxpayer dollars. In the end, the one-two failures of Bear Stearns followed by Lehman Brothers were the opening band for the laser-light show financial calamity that ensued, whizzing images and crunching power chords distracting us from the fact that Wall Street had no intention of changing the way it takes risks with our money.
We just returned from Florida, where managers at NASA delayed a space shuttle launch because they perceived excessive risk in a redundant (that means it was NOT the only one doing the job) heater line. So we can’t help but apply our notions about risk to space exploration as well. And it turns out that including the space shuttle in this discussion is also our way back into the topic of radioactivity and risk in Part 2 of this piece scheduled for Friday.
One thing that we know about manned spaceflight is that it’s a risky business. In press briefings, especially those used to disseminate information about why there is a launch delay, Kennedy Space Center (KSC) officials point out that astronauts know there always exists risk. It’s clear that KSC decision-makers use detailed criteria—about weather here and abort sites and about all the various systems of the orbiter, the external tank, and the solid rocket boosters—to determine whether a launch is a go. They calculate risk constantly, have a level of acceptable risk they are willing to take, and manage risks as they shift in order to come in at or under that acceptable level for every launch. When they do miscalculate the risk, it’s usually not catastrophic. In fact, this week’s problem with the heater line, had it been discovered in orbit, would have necessitated a few tasks, basically to disable and make safe the parts. In and of itself, that problem would not have affected mission success.
But twice, managers mismanaged the risk to space shuttles in ways that led to catastrophe. Much has been written about the o-rings and cold launch temperatures for Challenger’s final launch and about heat protection tiles and tank foam for Columbia’s last launch, so we won’t recap that here. (See Guest Blogs on this topic HERE and HERE and HERE.) Instead, suffice it to say that NASA managers do not eliminate all risk, but they are charged with limiting known risks and with delaying launch when the risks are not fully understood.
We’ll break here until Friday, when we’ll get back to these notions of known and unknown risk, limiting not eliminating risk, and radioactivity in particular.
A Launch to Remember (Part 9) May 3, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Space Exploration.
Tags: A Launch to Remember, Space Shuttle
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While we’ll likely have another post or two in this “A Launch to Remember” series when Endeavour actually launches, we leave Florida today to head home to Southern California. Besides, the NASA shuttle management team met yesterday and decided that May 10 is now the earliest possible launch date. The latest news from Kennedy Space Center: “The date [May 10] is success oriented based on preliminary schedules to replace a faulty Load Control Assembly (LCA) box in the orbiter’s aft compartment.” That means that the swap-out of the LCA box must go smoothly, they must prove that the problem is in the old box, and they must not discover a problem elsewhere as they test the nine systems to which the new box will be connected. To launch on May 10, everything must go exactly right.
This morning, we have an interview scheduled with Stephanie Stilson, the NASA manager who is overseeing the process from each shuttle’s last landing to their transportation to the museums where they will go on permanent display. We’re working several angles of the larger space shuttle story, and we’re thinking about what that might bring to Lofty Ambitions.
After today, though, we’ll take a break from our series. In fact, tomorrow’s regular post will be about radioactivity and the ways we think about risk. In the meantime, here is an overview of what we’ve covered in “A Launch to Remember.” Just CLICK on the PART to read that post.
PART 1 (April 22): Lofty Ambitions is awarded media credentials thanks to Chapman Magazine and Knox Magazine.
PART 2 (April 25): Lofty Ambitions examines the space shuttle tile that the Leatherby Libraries archives recently acquired; Doug is overseeing the acquisition of NASA artifacts there.
PART 3 (Thursday night & Friday morning): We arrive at the Space Coast, discover some things have changed in Titusville, try to adjust to the time difference, and wake at 5a.m.
PART 4 (Friday morning): At this point, launch is a go for the afternoon, the external tank is being filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, and we’re pretty excited.
PART 5 (Friday afternoon): Lofty Ambitions focuses on the STS-134 crew, particularly Commander Mark Kelly (also see posts HERE and HERE) and Mission Specialist Mike Fincke, a new favorite of ours.
PART 6 (Friday afternoon): In person from just yards away, we see the astronaut crew in their orange launch suits as they head to the Pad 39A. After the launch is scrubbed, we catch a glimpse of the president’s motorcade; he says if the launch is Monday, he can’t return for it because he has plans (we now know what those plans were).
PART 7 (Sunday morning): Lofty Ambitions features the creatures of the space coast, including an alligator.
PART 8 (Sunday afternoon): We each ask questions at the Launch Status Briefing on NASA-TV, find out exactly what’s holding up the launch, and that it’ll take time to fix.
PART 9 (Tuesday morning): On Monday, Lofty Ambitions featured guest blogger Bill Taber, who also wrote about space exploration. Part 9 is the post you are reading.
Guest Blog: William Taber May 2, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Space Exploration.
Tags: Art & Science, Mars, Physics
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As we sit in the Press Center at Kennedy Space Center for the not-launch of Endeavour, we feel surprisingly positive. Our guest blogger today, Dr. William Taber, has a lot to say about the success of space exploration.
We met Bill at a Chapman University function, discovered he works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory not far away, and were especially impressed with his enthusiasm, curiosity, and appreciation of writing and poetry. Bill is the Technical Group Supervisor for the Mission Design and Navigation Software Group of the Mission Design and Navigational section. His group is responsible for the development and maintenance of JPL’s core navigation and trajectory design software. This software is used to design, navigate and control the flight path of all of NASA’s interplanetary exploration projects. Bill is also a fellow Illinoisan, earning his Ph.D. and M.S. at the University of Illinois and his B.A. from Eastern Illinois University.
We’ve had a slew of fantastic bloggers, and we know that Bill’s words both will make you think seriously and will stir up emotions.
POSTCARDS FROM EARTH
It was a long time ago in a place far, far away, but I still remember my introduction to the space age. On a dark, clear, moonless summer night in 1962, my dad told my brother and me to come with him to look at the night sky, black and filled with more stars than could be counted over our rural home in northwest Illinois. At age 7, I was used to looking up at the stars on a clear night. I knew that the stars didn’t move around. But that night one star moved. A bright point of light moved silently overhead, moving in a straight line across the velvet blackness between the stars. It was the communications satellite Telstar.
It would be poetic to say that evening launched me on the path to my career and my current position as the group supervisor of the Mission Design and Navigation Software group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. It’s more accurate to say it perturbed my trajectory, the way the gravitational tug of a planet alters the path of a comet pulling it into the inner solar system. The space race stirred my imagination and led me to study science and mathematics. I read everything I could find on astronomy, starting close to home with the moon. From there, I branched out to planets, to stars, to galaxies, and then to the cosmos. At some point, I fell in love with mathematics, in particular geometry and its ability to say something “true” about the world and the structure of the universe. All of this eventually led me to a Ph.D. in mathematics and a thesis in Riemannian geometry.
Through a series of improbable events, I ended up—in 1983—working at JPL, the world’s epicenter for planetary exploration. In 1985, I began working on the most extraordinary robotic exploration mission ever flown, Voyager. Launched in 1977, the twin spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, visited all of the giant planets of the solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. From Voyager we learned about volcanoes on moons, discovered rings around the outer planets, discovered new satellites, and got the first—in some cases only—close-up views of the planets and satellites beyond Mars. The Voyager spacecraft are still operating today, heading for interstellar space, sampling the tenuous flow of particles from the sun, looking for the boundary where our sun becomes just another star.
Yet even with all of their discoveries, the Voyager spacecraft are not entirely about science. They are also about who we are and where we have been. On board each Voyager is a “golden record” of sounds and images from the diversity of life and the people of earth. To see and hear some of it on YouTube, see below. Each record is a testament to the unbounded optimism of the scientists and engineers who built and flew the Voyager spacecraft. These artifacts of humankind will endure long after our planet and solar system have passed from the galaxy. They are a message in a bottle, a postcard from earth to the rest of the universe, saying we were here.
On Valentine’s Day, 1990, long after Voyager’s cameras could return any more science images, the mission controllers at JPL honored the request of the late Carl Sagan to command Voyager 1 to turn its camera back toward the inner solar system to take one last sequence of 60 pictures. These images show the sun, Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune as seen from the edge of the solar system. (Mars and Mercury were lost in the glare of the sun.) Collectively, Voyager’s last set of pictures has become known as the Voyager Family Portrait. These pictures have no scientific value. There is no new science to be learned from them. And yet, I learned as much from these images as I did from all of the scientific images returned by the Voyagers. Looking at these images displayed across the wall of JPL’s Von Karman auditorium, I was forever changed. The reality of how tiny we are in the universe and of the vast emptiness between the stars was seared into my mind. And with this sense of smallness was sense that I was witness to a piece of humankind taking one last look in the rearview mirror, before heading out on a voyage to the stars, carrying postcards from earth into the cosmos.
Frequently, those of us in space exploration are asked why we do it. Is it worth the cost? We talk about the new science we will learn and how we will better understand our own planet. Those are all good, rational reasons. But when it comes down to it, those rational reasons don’t do it for me. They probably don’t do it for anyone else either. We explore space for the collective fun of humankind and to satisfy our curiosity. Space exploration challenges and excites the imagination. It changes what we are—for the better, I think. And maybe, by sending our robotic emissaries out into the cosmos, we have a chance to look back at ourselves and discover something of our humanity here on earth.
A Launch to Remember (Part 8) May 1, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: A Launch to Remember, Space Shuttle
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Sunday at 3:15p.m.: Good news: we each asked a question at the press briefing, which you can see in repeats on NASA-TV today! Anna asked about how they make some of the determinations to send the astronaut crew home. Doug asked a technical question about the load control box, which is being replaced in hopes of fixing the problem that’s delayed the launch. In fact, Doug’s question and the official answer leads us to think that maybe the box is the source of the problem, but maybe something upstream in the electronics caused the short in what is essentially like a circuit sub-panel you’d have in your garage or laundry room.
That leads us to the bad news: the earliest possible launch date is May 8, and that seems incredibly optimistic, even though Launch Integration Manager Mike Moses called it a “typical electronics failure.” Tomorrow, engineers will remove the problematic box, which will be examined to prove that the failure occurred there. While that forensics work is being done, a new load control box will be inserted in the aft avionics bay of the space shuttle. Engineers will guide the 40- to 50-pound box into place using guide rails. Once in place, all nine systems connected to the box must be tested upstream. In other words, it would be like replacing that sub-panel in your garage, then turning on each light bulb and the washer and the dryer in order to ensure the whole system is working properly and that each individual component is receiving adequate power. That testing takes a full two days, and as Doug’s question implied, that testing could lead them to discover that the electrical problem lies upstream in one of the nine systems, perhaps some debris or a bad solder on a line or something else.
As the team on Launch Pad 39A makes progress over the next day or two, the launch management team will look at the mission schedule to determine the next reasonable launch date. For instance, a May 9 launch with the extra days they want to add to the mission, for a total of 16 days in orbit, would put Endeavour‘s undocking from the International Space Station (ISS) on the same day as the scheduled Soyuz undocking. Those two events must be decoupled because ISS, shuttle, and Soyuz crew workloads and sleep shifts are adjusted for different tasks, such as launch, undocking, and landing. Undocking on the same day would require two crews working different schedules, when even astronauts are human and, therefore, need some rest.
And of course, if the delay gets extended past a certain point, Endeavour’s launch could push Atlantis‘s launch further into the summer. The exact time needed between launches depends not just on getting Endeavour off the pad to make room the next shuttle, but also on preparing the pad for the last space shuttle launch, which depends upon how much damage is done during Endeavour’s launch. The hard-working folks at KSC can’t start cleaning up after Endeavour until she actually leaves the Earth, and we just don’t know when that will be. Despite the optimism of Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach that May 8 is possible, we just can’t imagine that any time before May 10 is realistic. We should all know more tomorrow or Tuesday.
A Launch to Remember (Part 7) May 1, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: A Launch to Remember, Biology, Space Shuttle
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Sunday Morning: We headed to the Press Center at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) this morning to see what’s what. No press briefing has been scheduled, but we’re expecting one after the launch team makes a determination. The buzz around KSC is that the launch will be no earlier than May 8 or maybe May 10. The simple thermostat swap-out, for which we were hoping, isn’t the planned fix; it’s a much bigger problem.
In the meantime, we’ve kept ourselves busy, and Lofty Ambitions isn’t just about the space shuttle. KSC, in addition to being an active launch facility for both NASA and the Air Force, is a wildlife refuge. Alligators are protected here, and the area hosts 350 species of birds. As native Midwesterners, we’re used to seeing squirrels and bunnies, not reptiles and long-legged birds. Here are some photos of the creatures we’ve seen during our visit to the east coast of Florida.
We’ll have another update later today. We’ll likely be heading home well before Endeavour launches. While that’s disappointing, this trip has been utterly worthwhile, and we have more to share than we’ve been able to keep up with. Stay tuned.