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Monthly archive June, 2009

Dreams of Space

I recently heard
an amazing statistic that said seventy percent of the people alive
today weren’t alive when man first landed on the moon. In the
forty-years since we set foot there and in the thirty-seven years since
we left for the overwhelming majority of humans one of mankind’s
greatest achievements is only a historical event and not one they
witnessed firsthand.

For me, I was lucky enough to be born before any person ever left
the planet to first venture into space. I am one of those lucky 30%
that has been around since the space age began and NASA’s birthday and
mine are so close that we could celebrate them together. As my father
remarked last year before his passing it was only appropriate that NASA
and I would celebrate fifty years of existence at the same time and
that it had to be either a sign or a cosmic coincidence on a grand
scale that we both took our first baby steps together for few outside
the space program could have that same undying passion for space that I
have had for so long. It is the dream that just won’t go away.

There are many threads and paths in life that we follow. Some we
stay on for a long time others are just a short trip and of course
there are always detours long the way. Space has always been my dream.
It is the one path and the one consistency that has been with me since
as long as I can remember. All I would ever tell people when I was
young as that I wanted to be an Astronaut. Tough talking words from a
kid whose great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all Baltimore
City Police Officers. There was tradition established and a heritage to
follow, but that didn’t matter to me. Space was it. In watching old
space shows like the adventures of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger I wanted
to be on his crew as he moved effortlessly in a rocket across the
stars. The graphics were lacking, but the imagination wasn’t for before
there was a Captain Kirk roaming the universe for Starfleet there was
Rocky Jones, Space Ranger flying in his OrbitJet, the reusable
spacecraft that took off from and returned to earth. Maybe Rocky
inspired a few Shuttle designers?

It’s a special feeling to have been there at the beginning and watch
as we went from standing on the Earth and looking up to standing on the
Moon and looking back. Suddenly, a generation had moved from the once
far-fetched science fiction of Jules Verne to science fact, but I think
it runs even deeper than that. It is that curiosity that burns inside
of us when we look at the heavens above and want to know what lies
beyond. That insatiable quest for new knowledge and to try to
understand what can’t be easily explained by the naked eye. The same
thirst that inspired the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Goddard,
and Von Braun to look up and wonder what is out there? How do I get
there? That is what inspires all of us “dreamers of space”.

In many ways our love of space is a part of the DNA of who were are.
It is something that is always with us, something that is integrated
into the fabric of our being, and something we can’t change. Space
enthusiasts come in all types and from all walks of life, but they
share that same passion to understand and conquer the mysteries of
space. In a bit of humor and reflection of the time I remember an
exercise in first grade where we had to pick a country and write to
their embassy for information. I picked Russia. I wanted to know more
about their space program. As I wrote their address on the envelope I
was then told by the Catholic Nuns that I could pick any country BUT
Russia. Seems writing to them would get me on some list and nobody
wanted to be on a list back then. I wrote anyway and they sent me a
square glossy brochure with a red cover and Sputnik on the front. The
brochure wasn’t only about space, but it reflected the time we lived
in. That achievement was their national symbol of pride and during that
time reaching space was ours too.

Feelings about the space age were different back then. We could look
around and see typewriters not computers, phones had rotary dials, most
people still owned black and white televisions since color was too
expensive. Usually at around 12:30am or 1:00am you could hear the Star
Spangled Banner play followed by a static noise as television stations
went off the air. Today, no station is ever off the air its news and
entertainment programming runs 24×7×365 on hundreds of channels not
just three or four. Rockets and putting people it to space WAS the most
visible technology of the era. Our lives on Earth were also simpler
back then or so it seemed, but look at what we could do – we could send
people into space! In the movies at the time “Westerns” seemed the most
popular genre. It helped draw a stark contrast to the way things once
were in America from when the “new frontier” meant the western United
States to the new frontier of space. It was the perfect setup to show
how far we had come in so little time. Horses and dusty plains were no
match for rockets and shiny space suits. It had the effect of making
the steps of progress look that much bigger.

It was also a time when the world seemed to be falling apart with
assassination of President Kennedy, protests, riots across the country,
and some of those just a few blocks from our house in Baltimore. I
remember tears running down my mother’s face as she came up to tell me
late one evening that Bobby Kennedy had been shot and killed. For a kid
the world seemed a crazy place to live, but then there was space. It
seemed to be the one thing we all rallied around. You couldn’t go to a
gas station without getting a moon map with your fill up (most people
don’t even remember when someone pumped your gas for you!), a poster
with the history of the Mercury and Gemini program, or a chart of how
we would get to the moon (I still have those) and my bedroom walls were
covered with them. The Gulf gas stations at the time were giving away
cardboard punch-out lunar modules that you popped together which I
promptly hung from a string over my bed. If you’re wondering… yes we
really did drink Tang back then. Truth be told that stuff was awful and
always tasted watered down and I could never seem to get the mixture
right. Perhaps you needed to BE a rocket scientist to get the formula
right, but if it was good enough for the astronauts then I had to tough
it up and drink it down. I had also written to NASA several times
during the 60’s & early 70’s and received copies of bulletins and
signed (autopen) pictures of the astronauts. So passionate was I that
even though the photos came in an envelope marked “DO NOT BEND” the
mailman bent them anyway stuffing it into the mailbox. When I saw that
I marched to the Post Office and complained. They must have had a good
laugh that a 9 or 10 year old kid would walk in and complain about mail
delivery, but I left little doubt in their mind about my passion for
space and I’m sure they understood. It was a magical time and I
couldn’t get enough of it. It seemed the thing I loved everyone else
loved too.

As with all things, neither the good nor the bad times would last.
In 1968, near the height of the space program I sat by myself as a
ten-year old in the McHenry Theater in Baltimore watching 2001 A Space
Odyssey. Seeing the amazing, realistic depiction of space on a giant
screen was wondrous and I thought this is where we will be in 2001. I
just couldn’t wait for the calendar to flip fast enough. This is what
space was like and what our future in space will be. After all it
seemed like we were on such a roll in the quest for space. If we could
land on the moon in less than a decade look at what we could do before
the end of the century. Up until that movie there was nothing that ever
visually compared to what space was like. The pictures and videos from
the space program didn’t paint a view as broad as Stanley Kubrick
could. He captured the beauty and the solitude of space as no other had
before. I ended up staying twice to watch it in a nearly empty theater
and even today when I watch it I get that feeling of awe coming back –
that powerful reminder of what I felt when I first saw it and the
lasting impression it made. That I could even walk a mile or two alone
to a downtown area and watch a movie without a question being asked or
a fear tells you how different an era it was. Soon after came the moon
landings. It was an event with a small gathering of people at the house
watching CBS and Walter Cronkite (of course) in something very
reminiscent of that opening scene in Apollo 13 (the movie) and then
watching a little later as Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface. Wow!
We did it! I don’t think my smile has ever been as big as it was that
day when we touched down on the moon.

In some strange way right after that it felt more like the end then
the beginning. It was as if we had reached the top of the mountain
looked around and saw there was nowhere left to go but down. The
constant coverage of the moon landings soon became less and less as
each mission went on. It went from non-stop coverage to selected
coverage to a few minutes on the news. By the time Apollo 15, 16, and
17 came along it would barely get any coverage except on the nightly
news. Those of us who loved space were being starved of information and
the realization of our dreams. You just couldn’t find coverage anywhere
and for all the build-up and effort no one seemed interested anymore.
All of the people there to support the space program and keep it alive
had gone. No more posters or toys from the gas stations, no television
coverage, no more magazine covers on Life, Look, and Time. The air had
come out of the space bubble all at once and everyone seemed to have
been affected by it. Soon Nixon, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the
quirkiness of the seventies had ushered in a different focus and it
seemed the space age was becoming a relic of the sixties and not a
foundation to build on for decades to come. It was as if when Gene
Cernan left the moon for the last time that we had suddenly run out of
heroes and adventures in America.

It took a long time for me to make my first trip to the Kennedy
Space Center and I’ve been there many times since. It wasn’t until
after 2000 that I actually set foot on the grounds. I can’t explain why
it took so long. I’ve been all over the country, but never in Florida
until I went to KSC. It is a hallowed ground where giant rockets and
giant men walked in an era marked by a strong national will and quest
to achieve mankind’s greatest feat. My love of space makes KSC feel
like home. I can go there with no purpose other than to walk around and
be close where the space program was, where it is now, and where it is
going. Whether walking around the Visitor Complex, out at the Saturn V
center, looking at the VAB and launch complex or taking the “Then and
Now” and “Up Close and Personal” tours it feels strangely like I belong
there. Driving by on the tours and looking at the VAB I couldn’t help
but think that inside that building is where we built our moon rockets.
What it must have been like to see a Saturn V or a Shuttle stack
assembled there and even just seeing the OPF knowing I am this near to
the Space Shuttles feels like I am amazingly close to the dreams of
space.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about being at
KSC. Others dream of going to exotic locales, but what could be more
exotic than where the machinery of space is launched. It is a place
that rekindles in me the best of what America can be even during the
worst of times. It is also the place that stands proud and tall in the
annals of history and a place that I feel a connection to – that thread
that has been woven into my life since long, long ago. KSC is symbol
today of what we are doing to keep the conquest of the heavens alive
and a reminder of the brave souls who risk(ed) it all to keep that very
dream alive for all of us. I often joke to my friends that one day I’ll
retire there and run for Congress or even just be a tour guide to do my
little part to bring that magic back.

We’ve been waiting a long time to recapture that feeling of the
space race as it was in the sixties, to get a bold, new mission and to
find another mountain to stand on and not look down, but up or out to
the next tallest peak we could climb. It is up to all of us to continue
to reach out and educate all that we can about space so that the dream
of human spaceflight doesn’t end on our watch.

NASA people are a special breed and close to my heart. I saw my
first Shuttle launch in 2007 from the causeway and through a casual
connection got a chance to see a landing at the Shuttle Landing
Facility and that led to an opportunity to view another launch from the
NASA VIP section as a guest of NASA. The people are fantastic and did
all they could to make it a memorable event. They had no idea how much
those small gestures meant to me or how good it felt to be a part of
that, and all due to one reason only – a common passion for space. I’ll
continue to be an advocate for NASA and the space program educating
anyone who will listen for all my days. I owe the space program for
being that one constant that was always there as a part of me when
everything else was changing, the thing that always kept me interested
in science and what was out there, and that always challenged my
thinking about our tiny world as it sits in the vastness of space. I’ve
written my own blog and I have my own web site
that chronicles what I’ve seen related to space as I’ve crossed the
nation or peered through my telescope. There’s still more to see, more
to do and many more skeptics to win over.

It was by chance that I stumbled upon Twitter, my first search was
of course “NASA”, then “Space Shuttle”, “Space”, “Astronomy”, etc. and
it brought me inside amongst new friends who shared that same passion
for space. While the window is closing on any opportunity I may ever
get to work at NASA just being linked to the likes of @absolutspacegrl,
@flyingjenny, @apacheman, @contnclimr, @bethbeck, and so many others at
NASA and other followers of space has made me feel like an insider to
the program, and like I am there every step of the way. Oh how I wish
we had Twitter back in the 60’s! Neil could have been sending tweets
from the moon! We have something special in the Space Tweep Society. We
are connected now in ways that no generation before has been. We are a
collective group of those who are passionate about space and we can not
only educate others, but use our broad reach across the planet to keep
the dreams of space alive. Perhaps it will be something we say,
something we write or someone we will talk to that will be the spark
that lights the fire so that they can make their dream of going into
space or working for NASA a reality and carry that same passion for
space for the rest of their lives that we all do.

The Trouble with Twitterers

Recently Twitter has been making headlines in crazy ways. It’s aiding people in Iran to get their stories out after the election.

Pretty amazing, if you stop to think about it. NASA Ames has just released a social media policy, as has the Mission Operations Directorate at JSC.

Twitter is changing how we communicate faster and faster every day.
Who would have thought that a simple question – What are you doing –
could have erupted into a communications phenomena?

After dealing with some Twitter growing pains of my own, I soon
discovered that there are lots of people out there going through
similar things. Word travels fast in the world of Twitter, and when I
was trying to figure out how to properly balance work and social
networking, I was kind of amazed at how fast it did.

During the #saveabsolutspacegrl campaign, I had people I’d never met
before in other parts of the country and the world message me. Just out
of curiosity, I asked people who enjoyed my Tweets to let me know why.
I had a kid in a wheelchair tell me that he had always wanted to talk
to someone who worked in the space program and now with Twitter, he
could. I also had a father tell me that he showed my page to his
daughter – and now she knew that girls can be rocket scientists.

Wow. I’d honestly never expected anything like that. These are just
two examples, I probably have 50 or so more of my favorite ones saved
on my computer.

I also had people come out of the woodwork with crazy stories –
someone forced to take their blog down. Someone who cancelled their
Twitter account due to work pressures, and someone harassed and made
fun of by their manager in front of coworkers because they had a
Twitter account. Someone even resigned their job at NASA Ames rather
than back down.

I wish I could go into more detail about the other situations, but I
promised those involved that I would keep their anonymity. Maybe one
day their stories will be told publically.

Things like the oneNASA
site are a step in the right direction to get this kind of dialogue
started. Whether people like to admit it or not, the way we communicate
is changing. Just like with the telephone, text messaging, and email,
social network sites are reinvinting how we converse. Sure, when email
was new, people were intimidated by that “new-fangled” technology – but
can you imagine a day today without sending or reading just one email?

And have you ever tried a hurricane evacuation without text messaging? Good luck.

I got my first email account in 1992 with the Prodigy internet
service, and the only other people I knew who had email were other
people subscribed to the same service. My email address was a string of
7 random letters and numbers – I was so excited when I could customize
it with something more personal!

I get people’s concerns – Twitter is somewhat uncontrollable. What
if a reporter sees something negative about the company? Point taken –
that’s legitimate. But how is Twitter different from the telephone or
email or having a conversation with a friend at a restaurant and a
reporter is at the table next to you?

I understand that people will try to get information from you, but
why is that limited to Twitter? Can’t that happen in real life? Doesn’t
the same cautious approach apply to Twitter as much as it does to
anything? I ask this question in all seriousness: why is Twitter
different? Is it only because it’s new and not easily understood at
first glance like all new forms of communication, or is it because
there is something genuinely different about it?

I also understand that it’s best to approach these things
cautiously, but should Twitter be approached any differently than
email? My question is – should there be different rules for Twitter?
Once again, is it the newness, or is it really different?

In the years between shuttle retirement and the first flight of the
next vehicle, communication will be vital to keeping the public
interested in the space business. In a world where our attention spans
are shrinking more and more, constant reminders will need to be given
to them as examples of why it’s a good thing that their tax dollars are
being spent on space.

Twitter has numerous space advocates reminding them – on their own
time, not getting paid to do it, with their own equipment – why space
is GOOD. As an experiment on more than a few occasions I’ve used one of
the Twitter search pages and searched people discussing NASA. Trust me
– the ratio of good to bad is huge and it’s because of people like
those in the Space Tweep Society.

Nothing is perfect, and mistakes will be made. But from someone who
probably knows better than most, Twitter is doing far more good than
harm. During the #saveabsolutspacegrl debaucle I also had more than a
few people tell me that they had no interest in space at all before
they started following my Tweets – and that’s just me!

Does Twitter have the ability to be abused? Absolutely, just like
anything – credit cards, food, and blue eyeshadow, but it also has the
ability to do an AMAZING job of getting the message out there in ways
even I can’t even imagine.

So, while social media policies are being developed at companies
everywhere, just remember – probably just as much damage can be done by
email. There are bad apples everywhere, but the number of people trying
to do harm is by far in the minority. Are you going to try and stifle
the good apples because of it? Which one is worse?

As we’ve seen with the situation in Iran, to try and stop something
of this magnitude is a waste of time and energy. Why not embrace it,
and posture yourself for the future? If your company or brand has a
large number of people interested in what you do, by having people
advocate for you you’re getting free advertisement – the best kind.

Back in the Day… (Chapter Two)

Chapter 2 – NASA’s Best Kept Secret (and no, its not Area 51)

Much of the general public is familiar with the more notable NASA
facilities. KSC, JSC and JPL are for many people, household names.
Others like Ames less so and hardly anyone knows of Wallops Island or
Dryden.

Perhaps the least known is White Sands Test Facility. And before the
folks at Facility IV&V jump all over me, they didn’t exist “back in
the day.”

Originally known as the Apollo Site and later renamed White Sands
Test Facility, WSTF lies in the high desert of New Mexico far from
anything.

It lays approximately 18 miles northeast of Las Cruces, New Mexico
and is at the end of a six mile road to nowhere called appropriately,
NASA Road. This is not to be confused with NASA Road One. If you are on
NASA Road One and you are looking for WSTF, you have a long hard trip
ahead. NASA Road is in a different state!

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect Apollo Site was obtained when
some poor rancher didn’t pay his taxes. I say this, because the land on
which WSTF sits, is not fit for man nor beast. Well maybe some
jackrabbits, snakes, and lizards, but that’s about all.

If you are looking for White Sands Test Facility it would be logical to look near or on White Sands Missile Range. Right?

Wrong!

The two are worlds apart. WSMR is military and WSTF is civilian. And
if the separation of these two cultures is not sufficient, the two are
separated by a mountain range! WSTF is on the west side of the San
Andreas Mountains, some eighteen miles from Las Cruces and WSMR is on
the east side, close to Alamogordo.

Back in the day, the north end of the San Andreas range was called
the Organ Mountains. They were called that because the mountains were
very rugged, and appeared to some like the standing pipes of an church
organ. US 70 connects Las Cruces with Alamogordo and goes over a
mountain pass. If heading east from Las Cruces, WSTF is north of US 70
and the other side of the mountain, WSMR is south of the highway.
Confused yet? Maybe this is why nobody knows where WSTF is.

As a small matter of interest, back in the day there was a small
beer joint on the highway just below the summit pass through the
Organs. Locals called that watering hole Balls.

From August 1963 to January 1966, a series of unmanned flight tests
were conducted at WSMR to demonstrate the adequacy of the Apollo launch
escape system and to verify the performance of the command module earth
landing system. The launch vehicle used for five of these tests was the
Little Joe II. Glynn Lunney (later the flight director during the most
critical hours of the Apollo 13 mission) took charge of the
“boilerplate” tests of the Apollo abort escape system at WSMR.

(See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Joe_II and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glynn_Lunney)

At the same time, on the other side of the mountain, engine firing
tests were being conducted on thrusters and LEM ascent and descent
engines that were deemed to be too dangerous because of the safety and
health aspects of hypergolic propellants, for testing at other NASA
facilities.

Here is where we pick up on the story “Back in the Day…”

After college, I went back to the Los Angeles area and found
employment as an analytical chemist for a laboratory running analyses
on foods and foodstuffs. I spent long boring hours determining the
butter fat content of raw milk, fresh from a cow (and smelling like
it), fusil oil content in liquor (that’s the stuff that makes you go
blind from drinking moonshine) and looking for “gross filth” in canned
goods. Gross filth is the polite term used to describe fly eggs, bug
parts and other yucky things that show up from time to time in food. It
was a far cry from the excitement of those student days working “out on
the range” at White Sands Missile Range. Needless to say, I was not
enamored of a long term relationship with gross filth!

Realizing boredom was setting in, I decided to go back to New
Mexico, try for a full time job with PSL or perhaps WSMR. By that time,
WSTF was up and running. I applied for and managed to secure a position
at White Sands Test Facility in the early days of the Apollo program.
Actually, it was not so much a position as it was a grunt job; junior
bench chemist. But I gained a tremendous amount of experience and
knowledge that stood me in very good stead in the years to follow. And,
I made enough money to fulfill the first of my life-long ambitions. I
learned to fly!

From my days as a co-op student at New Mexico A&M studying
chemistry and working part time at White Sands, I was vaguely aware of
class of fuel and oxidizers that were hypergolic, in other words needed
no source of ignition. Mixing certain chemicals with others could cause
spontaneous combustion. Some hypergolic fuels and oxidizers were used
in the German rocket program during WWII. One such oxidizer was red
fuming nitric oxide. In Germany it was known as S-stoff. In our early
missile program a version of this oxidizer, IRFNA, red fuming nitric
acid with an inhibiter added, was used most notably in the Air Force
medium range ballistic missile, Thor.

Perhaps the most important rocket propellants ever developed were
the Nitrogen Tetroxide (NTO) oxidizer and hydrazine family of fuels,
Monomethyl Hydrazine (MMH), Dimethyl Hydrazine (DMH) and Aerozine-50, a
mixture of the two.

Early long range missile development centered around petroleum based
fuels and cryogenic oxidizers. Examples of these were kerosene or
alcohol and liquid oxygen. The problem is that cryogenics, gases cooled
to super cold temperatures at which they become liquid, are not readily
storable. They can be contained in dewar flasks, which are similar to
the familiar thermos bottle, but much, much more sophisticated (and
expensive). Cryogenic propellant tanks for missiles must be
continuously “topped off” to maintain flight readiness. This is not
practical when designing an ICBM (from which our first manned space
flight system, the Mercury-Atlas was developed).

Consequently, an ICBM had to be “tanked” before launch. This was not
acceptable when faced with the possibility of our enemies adopting a
“first strike” scenario. We needed a rapid reaction system, one where
our missiles could be fueled with storable fuels and oxidizers, and
which could generate the same specific impulse levels, read thrust, as
cryogenic oxidizers used in our first generation ICBMs. The answer came
with the Titan II. Titan used storable propellants, Aerozine-50 and
Nitrogen Tetroxide.

The Titan II was the basis for our second generation manned spacecraft project, Gemini.

Designers of the Apollo system settled on cryogenics for most of the
rocket engines but dictated hypergolics for the thrusters and the
ascent and descent engines of the Lunar Excursion Module and the
Service Module engine. The thinking being that the only the Command
Module, Service Module, LEM engines and various thrusters needed
storable propellants. All other stages of the Saturn V would be
discarded in or on the ascent to earth orbit.

The only downside of using the hypergolics is that they are highly toxic!

Hydrazines rot your liver and smell like dead fish, set out in the
sun for a couple of days. A favorite practical joke on new comers was
to shove a sanitary napkin, stained with ketchup and a small drop of
A-50, shoved far back in your desk drawer. This was my baptism in my
unit at WSTF. Thanks guys!

NTO exists as a gas/liquid phase in equilibrium at room temperature.
The red brown gas boiling off is essentially nitric acid anhydride,
needing only water to form nitric acid. High school chemistry students
soon learn that nitric acid burns like hell. Breathing in Nitrogen
Tetroxide fumes react with the moisture in the lungs forming nitric
acid and thus dissolves your lungs from the inside out. Bummer!

NTO leakage on the engine test stands at WSTF was known as a “BFRC.”
One might hear over the loud speakers, “We have a BFRC on 3!” A new
secretary asked her boss, “What does BFRC mean?” Like a pluperfect
idiot he told her. “BFRC means Big F*cking Red Cloud.” Shortly
thereafter a directive came down from the head-shed that from that time
forward, BFRC’s would be referred to as “Propellant Excursions.” I
really believe to this day that “BFRC” better described the urgency of
the situation.

At WSTF I became very proficient in the handling of, and the
analyzing of the chemical properties of the hypergolics. One might say
I enjoyed sticking my head in the mouth of the lion.

While at WSTF a call came down from NASA HQ for candidates to form a
hypergolic analysis unit at the Merritt Island Launch Area, MILA. The
winner would get an all-expenses paid vacation in a mosquito infested
swamp!

My boss won the lottery. He made the mistake of adding a caveat, he
would accept so long as he could take his best “technician.” The powers
that be informed him that they had not considered a sidekick as part of
the deal, but that personage should submit a resume for consideration.
I did.

Tonto got the job!

I’ll never forget the phone call I received the following Thursday morning.

It went something like this.

Him: “Can you be down at the Cape on Monday morning?”

Me: “I suppose, but don’tcha think we ought to discuss a few things first?”

Him: “Like?”

Me: “For a visit, er, interview? Do I need to bring a toothbrush maybe wear a bra or something?”

Him: “Forget the small stuff, can you be at work here Monday?”

Me: “Ummmm, do we need to talk about salary maybe? And, Oh yeah, I
got a house here, and how much it’s gonna cost me to move, and Oh Hell,
lotsa things.”

Him: “Don’t sweat the small things. Double your current salary,
we’ll buy your house and front your moving expenses and advance the
down payment for a house on the island. That good enough for ya? I need
an answer NOW!”

Me: (Gulp) “I suppose.”

Him: “Suppose?”

Me: “er, yes.”

Talk about jumping off the deep end, but then I always did say I wanted to see the world!

Next stop, Merritt Island where the big kids play…

Gamma Ray Tweets!

So this is my
first post as an author on this blog (and indeed, any blog other than
my own), so given that everyone here likes to twitter about space, I
thought that might be rather a good discussion to kick off with! I must
admit, I was a bit skeptical of Twitter at first, but it’s steadily
growing into a very useful platform for sharing information, catching
news headlines and swapping factoids with other scientists and
enthusiasts. The question is, where might this be heading? And are
there more ways to use it?

The vast majority of NASA missions these days have Twitter feeds. Not just the people like @Astro_Mike but the actual telescopes and probes themselves, like @CassiniSaturn, @NASAKepler, @MESSENGER2011 and @NewHorizons2015.
During the most recent space missions, I’ve been finding myself
repeatedly using Twitter as my main news feed. The combination of
expert opinions and input from people directly involved in events makes
for compulsive reading, as well as better information and/or links to
other sites.

But what about things which humans aren’t really suitable to report
on? The kind of things which might be better suited to an automated
feed?

Like them or loathe them, automated twitter feeds aren’t entirely
unheard of. The best examples are probably based at Manchester
University’s Jodrell Bank Observatory,  @JodrellBank.
To my knowledge, three of the observatory’s telescopes have live
twitter feeds, giving the current coordinates (in Right Ascention and
Declination) of whatever the dish is currently pointing at — found on
twitter as @LovellTelescope, @42ft and @7metre. The upshot is that anyone feeling curious enough can just load up Simbad and spy on whatever the telescopes are currently observing.

The question is if and when people are going to realise what a
useful tool Twitter could actually be for real time astronomical events
— The biggest research area being gamma ray bursts (or GRBs for short).
After being discovered initially by one of the orbiting high energy
observatories (Fermi or
Swift),  GRBs are then tracked in real time by as many ground based
telescopes as are available as they fade (in order to monitor the
afterglow and collect a light curve). These systems in many telescopes
are completely automated. If a telescope is idling, it will
automatically repoint and take either photometric or spectroscopic data
accordingly. Indeed, there are also websites which can give you a real time GRB sky map.
Why not a twitter feed? It surely couldn’t be too difficult for someone
to automate a system whereby a twitter update is posted every time a
new GRB is detected — perhaps giving data on coordinates and apparent
magnitude.

Indeed, other real time events can be important for astronomers too.
Twitter could be a convenient way to disseminate information like this
to whomsoever wanted to receive it. Supernovae, for instance. Or, as
soon as pan-STARRS
is up and running, near-Earth asteroids. Further, it could doubtless be
useful for telescope operators or researchers to be able to actually
receive a text message on their mobile phone informing them of such
real time events. The ability for anyone to watch too, also allows
hobbyists or other enthusiasts to get involved.

Of course, this is all just speculation, but it would be an
interesting way to use the Twitter engine. As “social networking” sites
go, it certainly has a lot more potential than I originally gave it
credit for!

Scrubbed Launch and Scrubbed Dreams

NASA scrubbed the STS-127 launch of Endeavour – twice!

My grandiose plans for the launch were kaput. How I did dream a
trip, a campaign, a pilgrimage with style and adventure and ritualistic
dance. Now I have nothing but this blog post. NOTHING!

It is hard nowadays to plan a vacation to watch a launch. I have
never seen a shuttle launch in person and have been thwarted multiple
times due to problems with the stack or the vehicle or weather.

Hard earned monies were wasted in my endeavor to see the bird fly. 2
non-refundable round-trip coach airplane tickets to Florida,
non-refundable hotel accommodations in Orlando at a 3 star getaway for
5 nights, non-refundable “Swimming w/ Killer Whales Oceanic
Spectacular” and backstage jamboree tickets with included SCUBA
training, non-refundable campground deposit at the site of the 17th
Annual “Gator Slog” and BBQ picnic, non-refundable bus tour of national
historic marshlands where one finds a ‘haunting mock-up Isruville’, a
town with severe hurricane damage billed as “The Forgotten Village,” a
side trip to visit friends Tricia and Meg and family, and lastly, 4
non-refundable gourmet cooking lectures w/ included geology trips. BAH!

Why 2 plane tickets you ask? One for me. And one for John Glenn.

Bottom line: don’t use cheapy, never-heard-of-before internet travel vacation arranger planners. http://www.travel-fore-les.biz/nasa_package always did make me twitch. Now I know better.

So my nerdy attempts to witness a launch first hand were ruined.
Fascinated with human space flight I am. Within the past 10 years, my
love for space, technology and the mysteries of the universe has
blossomed almost into a way of life, a positive philosophy based on the
foundations of “mission control,” THE FLIGHT CONTROLLER’S CREED.”

I have followed the space shuttle missions since I can remember,
dating back to 1986, when Challenger exploded. I was 11 and in 4th
grade. I think that’s when my consciousness expanded, not just with
space flight but also with gaining knowledge of something called “the
media.” We watched Challenger in school and I remember going home and
being drawn to the news, watching the footage and investigation unfold.
It was pretty hefty stuff for a 4th grader.

I have always enjoyed television news and video footage of real
events, without editing, like tornados, airline crashes, earthquakes,
tsunamis etc. Forces of nature, things beyond our control, caught on
tape, y’know? Sounds filthy. What a marvel of the space age! Is that
morbid?! lol The photo journalist in me I suppose…

Continental Airlines Flight 1713 crashed here in Denver on November
15, 1987 and 28 people were killed. I was having a slumber party for my
birthday. That flight was bound for Boise, Idaho when it crashed during
a snowstorm while attempting to take off from what was then Stapleton
International Airport. I interrupted my 12th birthday party because I
wanted to see what the deal was with the plane crash. I ate ice cream
and cake while watching the news.

So I trudged through high school, a nerd, went to college and
studied English/Journalism. Why I didn’t study Math is beyond my
comprehension. With the advent of the “digital age,” everyone from the
average Joe to the third-world villager can glean much from the
internet (not all of it good). I find that following space missions
online to be very rewarding and mentally stimulating. They stream
everything now from live mission control to live EVA (space walk) to
press conferences to background video presentations blah blah blah.

Pushing the human endurance and technology boundaries is a positive
in this negative-filled world. If only the entire people of earth
gathered together for the science and exploration.

So much could be solved if we work together.

Wow this was pretty much a stream-of-consciousness ramble if I ever saw one.

A Symbol of the Limitless Quest for Knowledge

I’m no longer a
blog virgin!  Lets see how this works.  Here are some thoughts I had on
Hubble’s upgrade, and so much more.  It starts off a bit like a
research paper (guess I wish I was still in school) then veers a little
into left field.  That’s OK though, that’s where I like to hang out…

The Hubble Space Telescope during its nineteen years of service has
produced the most iconic images of our universe that everyone has come
to know, but the best has yet to come.  Three hundred fifty miles above
the earth, in a high orbit, the greatest telescope of all time has just
been released by shuttle Atlantis after its fourth and final servicing
mission.  Yesterday the STS-125 crew set Atlantis down at Edwards AFB
after a challenging but very successful fourteen days and five
spacewalks.

This great observatory has been re-upped with a new generation of
scientific instruments, practically rendering it a new machine, giving
it a healthy ten more years.  Hubble has a new gyro system to
accurately and precisely aim at the farthest plots of our
universe.  A Cosmic Origins Spectrograph has been installed and,
without even knowing what is does, sounds awesome.  This scientific
instrument will be a window to the past.  It will show us the workings
of the early elements in primitive space, the prelude to the orchestra,
a masterpiece of creation and life. 

The icing on the new Hubble cake is the new Wide Field Camera 3, or
WFC3.  This newer generation camera will capture wavelengths of light
with much greater sensitivity, and also in ranges not visible to its
predecessor.  This new camera will see visible light, the more
energetic ultraviolet light from the youngest and hottest stars, but
also the cooler infrared regions of the spectrum, emitted from deep
space.  This will make visible the oldest galaxies and nebulas on the
outskirts of the universe.  Their light, as we see it, stretched to a
mere infrared glow as it has traveled for millions of years through an
ever-expanding space.   The product of the WFC3 will be stunning new
views of the celestial systems that we already know, but also countless
new discoveries will be made.

 I’ve been so excited about this mission, because the information
was so available to me.  Following every aspect of the mission in real
time on NASA TV (and I cannot lie, constant Twitter updates from NASA
on my cell phone) has beat out anything else on TV for 14 days!  That’s
real suspense.  It just excites me imagining the wonders of working in
space and seeing the gratefulness and skill of the few that get the
privilege.  With all this having been said, the STS-125 crew members
are my heroes.  I feel like I’ve gotten to know them and the work that
they did, and the things they achieved for us down here were amazing. 
I’ve learned a lot and it has continued the tradition of seeding new
impressions in mind.  

So the question remains:  where does this fascination come from and
what purpose does it serve?  Now this I ask myself often and I do not
know the answer.  Maybe someday I will.

For now I have a conclusion that I am comfortable with.  We’ve been
given these eyes and these minds to teach ourselves, enabling us to be
the guardians of this tiny humble celestial speck we call home.  Our
potential is special, given our imagination and the technology to
realize it, that we can accomplish things before we can even understand
why.  The gifts we have been given should not be underappreciated.

This morning lying in bed I thought of these words and decided to do
a blog.  Ooh, did I really say that?  So I got the bulk of my thoughts
out quickly before they went away, then got up to make pancakes.  When
I sat back down and read this I realized that I still am an
“odd child.”  And I say that with a smile on my face.  The spirit of
exploration is a wonderful thing to have.  Seeing the natural world
like a child makes it so new and big and beautiful, but also make one
realize how small we are.  We are not the boss, the Earth owns us
Ok, a moral of my story, kind of.  We’ve been given everything
necessary to thrive, and we have, but it’s a long way to fall.  If we
continue to abuse what is not ours, then put on your galoshes because
we could be in store for another long rain.  You never know.  The book
has been written by what we can see out there and mostly by what we
can’t see, and now it is ours to read.  Most importantly, reading it
means understanding it and if you understand it, you will listen.

Now, hopefully I will be able to find someone to read this!

 25 May 2009

Space Junk

This is a wacky
Public Service Announcement I wrote about Space Junk. I think it’s
humorous but my sense of humor is different.  I am a staunch advocate
against space junk and I get particularly concerned about unexplained
debris generation events. Nothing makes my blood boil more than bubbles
of sodium potassium reactor coolant flinging around our good Earth at
17,500 miles an hour.

Yes I read Orbital Debris Quarterly News.

Space junk are objects, created by humans, that orbit the Earth and
no longer serve any useful purpose besides circling our blue dot
harmfully. Spacey junk consists of everything from entire spent rocket
stages and broken-down satellites to explosion fragments, paint flakes,
dust and slag from solid rocket motors, coolant released by RORSAT
nuclear powered satellites and other small particles.

Clouds of very small particles may cause erosive damage, akin to
sandblasting. Collisions at orbital velocities (17,500 miles per hour
+) can damage satellites and spacecraft, creating more debris (the
Kessler Syndrome) which could eventually lead to unsafe space
exploration and stop the use of satellites, perhaps for many
generations.

One does not want to get struck by a fleck of paint traveling at orbital velocities!

SPACE JUNK PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT

Have you ever gazed up into the night sky in magical wonder of the
vast cosmos, knowing pure calm and peace? What if that peaceful moment
was suddenly shattered as you, in abject horror, ingest a flaming 2nd
stage piece of rocket launch vehicle during its fiery return into
Earth’s atmosphere? It slams into you, sending your mangled body ejecta
hundreds, perhaps thousands of feet away, leaving behind a small crater.

It’s only a matter of time.

Orbital debris is becoming more and more of a hazard in this Space
Age. Not only are we polluting our Mother Earth here on the ground, we
are also soiling the space around it. Help stop space junk, this flying
pollution. Thank you. Don’t do drugs.

VOICE OVER & TEXT

Hooked on Space and Space-Twitterers

I’ve really had
a lot of fun among you all, especially during our launch parties – with
more to come.  Like probably most of you I didn’t understand Twitter
during its early development. Twittering sounded just too superficial,
but curiosity got the best of me and within a day, I bumped into this
joyful – inquisitive – and thought-productive group.

By word of introduction, but maintaining a measure of anonymity, I
have no ties to the space program other than my intense interest in it
since my earliest years.  As a somewhat geeky child of the 1950s, my
teachers and parents were encouraged by our then space-desperate
country (sputnik driven) to hook me up with all things science and this
suited me very well.  My very favorite place in the world as a child
was Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles where I celebrated several
birthdays with close friends.  Then, there was the early manned
space-flight program! That absolutely riveted me and glued me to the TV
at each and every launch – many of which were delayed after endless
holds.  Picture my folks providing me food trays close to our TV in the
family room where I would not, could not tear myself from the screen. 
I’ve pretty much continued that wonderful obsession throughout my life,
a healthy obsession that won’t be ending anytime soon.

The space program in all its forms is just about the most important
expenditure I can think of, just after food, water, health care, and
safe shelter for the world’s population. I’ve run the numbers and –
trying not to become too political as per our blogging guidelines –
there is PLENTY of money and human resource to pour funds toward the
sciences, including basic science and space exploration for the sake of
exploration itself. That enormous, or rather astronomical sums are
flushed away in empty, non-usable weapons systems is another piece of
evidence that those in high places often demonstrate a talent for
getting there, but no talent whatsoever in having imagination and
vision.  Ok, off the soap-box.

To sum it up, I am sure that we – those who love this stuff – are on
the right track. I very much enjoy being given the gift of hearing your
thoughts and your humor, and experiencing thoughts of my own that come
as a result of our ongoing twitterings.

A ‘Cluster’ of Space Tweeps?

What is the collective noun for a bunch of Space Tweeps – a “Cluster
of Space Tweeps”, perhaps? Whatever it may be, I have really enjoyed
being a part of it. If you are into all things space, astronomy and
cosmology, then these are the folks to hang out with.

It’s satisfying to pursue an interest, but it’s even better to
pursue it in the company of others. I have had the pleasure of
following many fascinating threads emanating from ‘the cluster’, and
random one-off messages too. Sure, I can spend hours following my own
leads in directions that I find interesting – but the Space Tweeps have
really added to this. Often I have tweeted about things, only to find
that others chip in with extra stuff that I wouldn’t have come across.
If you are fascinated by our universe, then you are most welcome here
and I think you’ll find it a good place to be.

We’re also a civilised bunch. So often these days online experiences
are marred by unkindnesses of many hues, but not with the Space Tweeps.
Even problematic subjects are handled with impeccable manners. That’s
as rare as galactic supernovae. I like it. I’m sure you do too.

@Rob_Bowman

A Captivated Audience

Thursday 18th June 2009 was no ordinary day for me…

The suspense and excitement was already starting to build as I got to my desk right after dinner. The internet was all a-Twitter about the launch of the LRO/LCROSS mission. As the reports started coming on of pre-launch going well and ‘tanking’ was beginning. Then came news that the weather was likely to go ‘RED’ in the area during the launch. Thunderstorms were moving near and that could scotch the whole launch program. Lets face it, you don’t want to mess around with that much Liquid Oxygen and Hydrogen in a steel flask in the middle of a lightning field! The good news was tanking completed successfully and they could hold for a later launch slot. As it was they picked the latest possible one, 5:32pm EDT. Everyone held their breath. You could feel the suspense even through the tweets. It went quiet. You could tell everyone was willing the clouds away and the weather to pickup. Maybe we did it between us or maybe Mother Nature was just smiling on Cape Canaveral that day. The message popped up in my stream:

@flight0001:
WEATHER IS GREEN! GO FOR LRO/LCROSS LAUNCH! @5:32 pm EDT

That’s all we needed to know. The launch was a go. As you could feel the anticipation beforehand and the tension during the weather hold, you could now feel from the tweets with caps and exclamation marks the relief and excitement as everyone again look towards the 5:32pm launch window.

The next part was exciting for me more than almost anyone else watching. In the UK we don’t get NASA TV piped to cable. I know NASA TV broadcasts over the internet and has for some time but for one reason or another I’ve never watched a live launch before. I expected the ground pictures, I expected the commentary, and I expected the glorious sight of the lift off. What I didn’t expect was the onboard pictures as the Atlas V with LRO/LCROSS aboard soared high into the atmosphere and underwent the separation of the first rocket stage and the shedding of it’s payload fairing. All I can say is ‘Wow.’

But when you are watching all this unfold on Twitter it doesn’t stop there! Almost immediately after the launch people started posting picture links of the launch, some of which were absolutely stunning!

Twitter and NASA TV served up a meal fit for a king to me that evening and I can’t wait for the next sitting! I’m still amazed at how the emotion of the event actually comes across through the tweets. Who’d have thought you could do all that inside 140 characters. Amazing stuff from some amazing people!

My Story

This will
probably be one of my very few blog posts here, at least for a little
while. I just wanted to tell my story…I’ve been trying to help out,
moderating and the like, but reading everyone else’s stories…it’s hard
to just sit back and not participate.

I joined Twitter in December of 2007 hoping to score a Nintendo Wii
via mobile alerts. I did, and didn’t pay much more attention to it
until Hurricane Ike in September 2008. I posted updates of my
evacuation plans to all of my 2 or 3 followers, and didn’t visit again
until STS-119. For some reason I got a wild hair and thought people
might be interested in what I do, so during that mission I posted
updates.

DISCLAIMER: At NO time did this impede my work. The updates were
done when I was NOT on console, and during that time I was getting my
info from NASA TV like everyone else.

People took notice, and whoa! Look at the incredible turn of events!
I’ve met a whole group of interesting people – because of Twitter I got
a tour of the launch pad and the Hypergolic Maintenance Facility at KSC.

I only want to spread the good word of space exploration and
generate more interest in it. You Space Tweeps have been so supportive,
in good times and bad, and I want you to know that I appreciate that.

So I’ll be commenting here and there, probably not writing so much,
but I am here helping out how I can behind the scenes. You guys are
great and I just wanted to tell you that. It’s amazing how far we’ve
come in such a short time.

Thanks again,

@absolutspacegrl

The Aurora

Aurora Borealis Overhead by Howard Sandler

He gently shook my tiny shoulder and then leaned down to quietly whisper in my ear, “Wake up sweetie, there is something special I want to show you.”

I blinked my sleepy, four year old eyes and tried to return to earth from my distant dreams, but only grasped the faintest threads of consciousness. Encouraged only by a growing curiosity as to why Daddy might be trying to wake me in the dark of night.

It was a muggy night in July, my family and I fortunate to have a retreat from the city in the depths of the New Brunswick woods, high on the banks of the Nashwaak River. Our summer cottage stood on the bank above the flood plain below – still knee deep with mud and ragged spruce logs trapped by a failed logging run when the annual flooding receded that spring.

At four I was an explorer, alive in a world that was as much populated by my fantasies as reality, a wild, half-naked, primitive child roaming the woods, eating wild strawberries by the handful and building forts in the reeds and underbrush where no one could find me (unless bribed out with the promise of a cheese sandwich.) At four I was an expert at identifying the call of the chickadee, the scree of chipmunk, the tapping of the woodpecker, the abrasive gnawing of the woodchucks on the cabin foundations. All that was the Earth existed at my eye level.

Til that night my Daddy woke me in the wee hours of the morning, took my tiny hand and led me outside.  He woke no one but me – for some reason I was the only one he chose to share this moment with. Still half asleep and bewildered, he led me to the large open field beyond our cabin- in the daylight a treasure trove of tiny flowers, unimaginably delicious wild strawberries and the creatures I thought of as my friends; the deer and rabbits who often boldly nibbled only meters away from us.  It was a very different place in the deep darkness. I would have been frightened except for the comforting presence of my father.

He stopped once we were in the open, crouched down beside me and with one arm around my shoulders pointed directly above our heads. “Look” is all he said.

Above me, thin wispy veils of green floated gently in a lazy flickering dance. Beyond that the deepest, blackest sky I had ever seen. As my eyes gradually adjusted to what I was seeing I realized that the dancing green lights were not clouds! They may have been magic, or fairies, or dragon fire – whatever they were, didn’t matter, I was transfixed, awash with the awe and magnificence of the Aurora Borealis display above me. Sometimes they appeared to flow like rapids in a river, other times they pulsed like flames. I don’t know how long we stood there together, silently enjoying the magnificence of the night sky, but for me the moment was eternal, because it lives with me now today as clear as if it were only moments ago.

The universe grew for me at that moment, expanding to include not just my tiny self and my world at ground level, but spiriting me up into a universe in which I lived on a delicate sphere floating in the enormity of outer space. The night sky suddenly revealed to me the secrets we try to ignore in the daylight – the infinite, unexplainable vastness of the universe, the terrifying reality of our solitude, and the exquisite beauty of the miracle of our existence despite all that.

This was the beginning of my love for outer space.