Busy Week in Space!

This week marked a milestone in space exploration: the successful launch of a space capsule by a private company and its berth with the International Space Station this morning. We wrote about SpaceX’s Dragon mission at The Huffington Post; click HERE to read our piece and a pretty interesting conversation in the comment thread. We’re set to do a follow-up there tomorrow, after we see how the opening of the hatch goes.

Yesterday, too, marked an important anniversary: the second time an American orbited the Earth. As part of the first U.S. manned space program, Project Mercury, astronaut Scott Carpenter climbed into Aurora 7 atop an Atlas rocket and launched into outer space. Her spent almost five hours there. Carpenter flew this mission only after Deke Slayton was grounded with a heart problem. Carpenter was the back-up pilot for the mission John Glenn flew to become the first American to orbit the Earth, and Glenn and Carpenter remain the only living Mercury astronauts. Our personal connection to this event is that, for four years, Doug worked for a high-tech company based in Carpenter’s hometown, Boulder, Colorado. And of course, we recently chatted with Glenn during “Discovery Departure.”

Scott Carpenter (NASA)

Today, the day of Dragon’s first berth, is the anniversary of President Kennedy’s speech before Congress in 1961 that announced his goal for the United States to put a man on the Moon by the end of that decade. (View an excerpt HERE and the complete transcript HERE.) April had been a bad month for the Kennedy administration, with Yuri Gagarin orbiting the Earth (view the launch footage HERE) and, thereby, giving the Soviets the lead in the Space Race, not to mention the Bay of Pigs. Among the “numerous and varied” proposals designed to combat “the adversaries of freedom” was that “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Just one day shy of a year later, Scott Carpenter was orbiting the Earth, taking the early steps in the process of reaching the Moon.

Today is also the birthday of two cosmonauts, Georgy Grechko, born in 1931 before jet aircraft existed, let alone anyone was serious about going to space, and Ivan Bella, born three years after Kennedy’s speech. Between 1975 and 1985, Grechko flew several missions, including a repair mission that brought the freezing, inoperable Salyut 7 space station back to life. In 1999, Bella spent almost eight days aboard Mir, the Russian space station.

And of course, just a year ago, space shuttle Endeavour was in the midst of its last mission, the crew giving a variety of press interviews before some serious spacewalking the next day.

Cast of Star Trek with Space Shuttle Enterprise in Palmdale, CA (NASA)

Perhaps, though, today’s most meaningful anniversary for us is the release of Star Wars in 1977. Thirty-five years ago this summer, we each saw Star Wars for the first of what would ultimately be dozens of times. Although Star Wars and Star Trek have been compared in innumerable ways, for this Lofty Duo, both franchises have been much in our minds and in the news lately. Star Trek has been a regular presence in our lives lately because of its association with the Space Shuttle Enterprise, so named because of a write-in campaign by fans of the original series bombarded NASA with cards and letters, and because the ashes of James Doohan, who played Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, were carried to and dispersed in low-Earth orbit this week. Serendipitously, Doohan’s ashes were lofted into orbit by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which is of course named after Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon.

Apollo 10 Crew (NASA)

Tomorrow will mark other anniversaries. Apollo 10, the last mission before someone set foot on the Moon, safely returned Tom Stafford, John Young, and Gene Cernan to Earth on May 26, 1969. This mission offered television viewers back on the ground the first color broadcast from space. And they tested the lunar module, though NASA did not give them enough fuel to land on the Moon and return to the capsule, probably because they knew a person that close to the Moon’s surface would be tempted to just go ahead and do it.

Sally Ride (NASA)

And Saturday is also Sally Ride’s 61st birthday. Ride joined NASA in 1978 and became the first American woman in space in 1983, on STS-7. She flew again on STS-41G in 1984. She served on the Challenger Accident Investigation Board, after which Roger Boisjoly, a whistleblower in that investigation and a Lofty Ambitions guest blogger, credited Ride as one of the few people who publicly supported his efforts. In 2003, years after she retired from NASA, she served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the only person to serve on both accident investigation boards.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

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