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Outreach from space: The ISS Effect

Just like many of you I have been following many astronauts during training, mission, return and whatever happens after return. For us spacetweeps it is great to see what it means to be an astronaut. What happens during training, how they prepare for their work in space and the launch, how they experience their time in space and how they communicate with those of us that stay behind on the planet? Obviously social media is the perfect way to keep this communication channel open throughout this entire process. We love to follow our astro_’s on Twitter!

If you can see it from orbit – it’s not a “spill”!

If you can see it from orbit – it’s not a “spill”!

First things first, we need to frame this topic a little better.  Framing the debate is a tactic that, if
done well can give a decided advantage to one side or the other.[1] 
In this case the word “spill” has been used to describe this
environmental catastrophe.  I believe this term has been used to
trivialize the extent of the problem, to minimize public perception, and
used as a delaying tactic.  I think that BP thinks that a “spill” can be ignored or covered up
like it was in Nigeria.[2]

Let’s look at that a moment, before we move on.  A “spill” is “to flow from a

By its very definition, a spill has a finite
limit.  There is a known volume that, when exhausted, will complete the
spill.  The spill will be finished, because there is no more liquid
within the container.  Seems pretty basic, right?  An oil tanker
can spill.  A glass of milk can spill…

Framed differently – framed correctly – what
we are dealing with is a “gusher”.  By definition again: “an oil well
from which oil flows freely and in
large amounts, without having to be pumped”.
[4]  This is a gusher
from Oklahoma
[5]  What is happening in the Gulf of Mexico[6] is not a spill
It is a “gusher”.

So now that we have cleared up that
particular miscommunication, let’s focus on the actual problem,
mitigation tools and potential long-term solutions.

So the logical first and second questions are – where is the oil? 
And how much is there?  Well, here is a day by day gusher map[8],
courtesy of the NY Times with an estimated 34-100Million gallons poured
into our world’s oceans during the almost 2 months since it happened. 
It seems odd to me, that BP did not know (or did not want to
know, or did not want the world to know) how much was gushing
out of their oil well.   But I will leave that question up to the
investigative reporters, the Congressional hearings and finally by the
litigation lawyers that will be seeking damages, because: “The company’s liability will ultimately be
determined in part by how many barrels of oil are spilled.”[9]

So the next question is – what is being done, now to deal with it? 
I’m not on the ground, so I can’t say with certainty what the actual
steps are.  We’ve read about the booms, corrals, caps, top-kill,
burnings (complete with endangered sea turtles
cooked alive
and other tactics…  But one thing I am sure of, is that this problem
will not be solved without space communications.  Just six months ago,
the US Coast Guard deployed a new
communications tool set
  – “to expand its communications capacity
and take advantage of affordable, emerging commercial satellite
NOAA and the DoD have been supplying remote sensing imagery to the
command centers.  Between the robotics, remote sensing, chemical
dispersants, radio and satellite communications between ships, ground
crew and the command center, and the various tracking systems employed;
my hunch is that space and space-age technology is the unsung hero of
this fiasco. 

So what do we do next?  We have to have energy, sure.  But does
it have to come from ‘oil’? 

Hold that thought, we will come back to it. 

Maybe we are looking at this gusher from the wrong angle.  Yes,
it is an ecological disaster.  Yes, people are out of work.  Yes, as if
Louisiana wasn’t already in rough shape, this adds further problems to
the regional economy.  Yes, in an unrelated problem (created during the
Bush presidency), Texas, Alabama and Florida will lose 50,000 space, advanced technology and
support jobs
Yes, Florida anticipates a $1B loss in tourism if the tar balls hit
their shoreline.  All of these are true. 

Yet, what if we are looking at this gusher from the wrong
perspective?  What if we can carve something positive out of this

What if we look at this gusher and say: “We can do better.  We
can learn and we can grow.   We can make a lasting difference.  And this
difference can be big enough to change things. Forever.”

What if this gusher were a short-term problem, but was framed as
long-term opportunity?

We have a lot of people that are angry over this mess.  I am.  You
probably are too.  We also have an amazing resource in the space
community in this region – many of whom are going to be unemployed soon
as a result of the Space Shuttle program closure.  Can we take these
remarkable people and retask them, through various governmental agencies
(NASA, NOAA, DoD and DOE) and commercials teams (USA, LockMart, Boeing
and their myriad of support companies)?

It’s been proposed in a number of forums that the US convene an
official conference to study Space Based
Solar Energy
It is continually voted up as a primary idea, and it continues to be
officially ignored.  I am not saying that SBSP is the be-all-end-all
solution to this energy problem.  Because of my efforts developing the Space Elevator[15]
over the past 9 years, I can tell you first hand that SBSP is a really
really really difficult challenge.  Not quite, but almost on the scale
and complexity of building an Elevator to Space.  Now, I’m not asking
that the US commit to building this system, at least not yet.  What I am
asking for is a new, large, revised and unbiased, study on this

You’ve got a gusher that has become a national problem; one that is
compounded by international media exposure and dead animals[16]
You’ve got a brilliant – and possibly irreplaceable – workforce that
will soon be unemployed.  And you’ve got a national security issue[17]
if you don’t solve once-and-for-all the question of energy security. 

I believe that this is a near-perfect congruence and a tremendous
opportunity.  Assemble the conference.  Do the study.  If those actions
agree, then move forward on design and development of a system.  And if
you do this, then you also unshackle the US from both foreign
governments that do not have our interests at heart, AND from the
environmental catastrophe of almost 4000[18]
floating oil rigs in the Gulf of

This gusher is a mess.  Also, we have a mess brewing with our civil
space communities that are in the same region.  Surely there is a way to
team these problems and come up with a victory.

Michael J. Laine[19]

President / Chief Strategic Officer – LiftPort

Partner – Apollo Partners[21]

P.S. Tweet this! I’m @mlaine in

http://bit.ly/99U2Ts  (East Carolina

http://bit.ly/aedvCt  (UK Guardian)

http://bit.ly/d1tQQ6  (Encarta)

http://bit.ly/a8jjRy (Encarta)

http://bit.ly/cVSQmh (Oklahoma
Historical Society)

http://bit.ly/aRGhqz (PBS

http://bit.ly/bgZVbK (Bing Search
Results for Video)

http://bit.ly/cIdmsM (New York

http://nyti.ms/98JTrQ (New York

http://bit.ly/dwDEs8 (YouTube
Personal Interview)

http://bit.ly/aIq8Eq (US Coast

http://bit.ly/c6eida (NASA)

http://bit.ly/a8aQdS (Brevard

http://bit.ly/9XQ26i (National Space

http://bit.ly/I4QJ6 (LiftPort)


http://bit.ly/cyzWj1 (National
Security Space Office)

http://bit.ly/b7fqzo (NOAA 2006,

http://bit.ly/dCsIt (LinkedIn

http://bit.ly/I4QJ6 (LiftPort Group)

http://bit.ly/bgwBNX (Apollo

http://bit.ly/a7SRtt (@mlaine on

E.T. are You out there?

E.T are you out there? is a campaign of “Faces from Earth
project to introduce the concept of possible extraterrestrial life and
interstellar messages to school students. The campaign introduced the
questions to students: “what if there is extraterrestrial life out
there?, what would we say to a hypothetical E.T.?”.

It was
participated by school student groups in five countries; Hungary,
Germany, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Ukraine during May 2010.

Here is the brief report on the Germany event which I organized. It took place on 19 May 2010 in Molfsee, close to Kiel.

We came together at 5:30 PM – school schedule and some unfortunate
circumstances prevented a couple of students to come, so we had a
familiar meeting with Arianna, Corvin, Louisa, Michel and Vincent (12 to

14 years old) in my home. However, being such a small group gave us the
opportunity to go into lots if details, check information in the
internet immediately – about the Viking experiments on Mars (searching
for life indicators), the Grand Tour of the Voyagers (the seldom
constellation of the outer planets in the Solar System), and, of course,

the chances to talk to E.T., to name but a few -, before the exciting
time of creating the pictorial messages and the preparation of the
balloon payloads. Luckily, we had two balloons for each message 🙂 We
went then to the “launch pad” – a couple of minutes walk to a gentle
hill – and the countdown (we’ve got it from the famous german sci-fi TV
series of the 1960es, Space Patrol Orion) started: … drei … zwei…
eins… zero: “Guten Flug” (good flight) – and the Molfsee messages
began their journey. Where do they end – we don’t know. But we all hope
that some terrestrial intelligence finds some of them, and decipher it!

Read more: http://bit.ly/ET_report

Watch the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQyuoDVaRus

Goodbye, Atlantis!

Cross-Posted to My Tumblr Blog “I = MD^2”:

This is it.

It is all over.

Space Shuttle Atlantis has made its last landing today. And while the orbiter (aka OV-104) will soon go to a museum (where exactly, we don’t know), it will forever live in our memories. In my case, I have two special memories of Space Shuttle Atlantis. The first is (honestly, I am not making up this memory) its first docking with Mir, which I remember real well (I know it is that becasue I remember had remembered the name of an astronaut named Robert “Hoot” Gibson, who, of course, commanded the flight). But what I especially remember is that that was the first news flash that I saw that did not have either OJ or the fat judge (what I called Lance Ito at that time)

My other big memory about Atlantis is the Hubble Mission. I still remember following the mission like none other I have before or after. I still remember listening to spacewalks while exercising! It was a pleasure to follow STS-125, and it was a pleasure to see it again on IMAX in Chattanooga. Memories worth saving.

And even though I missed the STS-129 launch (and, due to my decision to remain anonymous, the Tweetup, of course), due to a Computer class quiz I had that same time, I could not be here w/o the launch. Well, after some time following only Astros and official NASA twitter feeds on Twitter, I decided to make a brave venture and decide to follow a Space Tweep whom I have seen conversing with some of the astros, @Space_Pete, then one spacetweep led to another, and another, and another, until now, I am a full-fledged member of the Space Tweep Society. I am truly enjoying the conversations with you guys and I hope to see you all in person, if not sooner, later.

And thanks for the memories, Atlantis.

Virgin Galactic Dirty Little Secret

By Amnon Govrin

Virgin Galactic is arguably the leading private space tourism company, having actually built their suborbital craft and carrier and having flown them both. Their web site and publications all look taken from a sci-fi movie, with weightlessness touted as a wonder worth $200,000. One of the slogans Virgin Galactic uses (in the training page) is “Feel the Freedom of Zero G.”

However, there’s a dirty little secret that no one over at Virgin Galactic is talking about…

Read all about it on http://www.spacepirations.com/2010/05/virgin-galactic-dirty-little-secret.html

An Apollo 11 Personal Story – Buzz and Me

caption: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Photo by Neil Armstrong.

This was originally posted at Blog on the Universe on July 16, 2009, 4 days in advance of the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing. I wanted to share it with the Space Tweeps in honor of their recent party at the Cape.

I think it
August 1998. I got a
call from Gina Ross, the principal of Buzz Aldrin Elementary School in
Reston, VA. Her teachers were about to return to school for the new
academic year, and before the kids returned she wanted me to come and
visit. My mission? To inspire her teaching staff with an
inter-disciplinary talk on the nature of human exploration, what we as a
species of explorers are capable of achieving when we put our minds to
it, and that teachers and parents are the link that binds each
generation to the next, allowing us personally and collectively to
aspire to new heights.

The presentation was going well. They were
with me, and I could see them getting energized for the new year. Midway
through, I was telling them about how I was inspired to be a space
explorer when I was just 11. It was one of those singular moments that
changes us forever. I was watching a black and white television and on
the screen were Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking around … on the
Moon! You just have to step back from that sentence and let it soak in.

I showed them that incredible photograph (I used it on a recent post) taken by
Michael Collins through Columbia’s window as Armstrong and
Aldrin were returning from the surface in the lunar module Eagle.
With my voice cracking a bit, I said this was an emotionally powerful
image for me because—I was in it. There, above the lunar horizon, was a
tiny blue Earth, hanging motionless against the black void of space. On
that world was me looking
back at the astronauts a quarter of a million miles away. It was
actually a pretty emotional moment for everyone in the room. Many of us
had lived through that shared experience back in 1969.

Then something happened as if on cue. I
heard the door open ever so gently so as not to disturb, and …
Buzz Aldrin walked in. Gina Ross had invited him to his namesake school,
but apparently forgot to tell anyone. We were all stunned. That
powerful photo was still on the screen, and I was having a bit of
trouble getting back into the story. So someone in the audience broke
the silence and said “hey, that’s me and Neil coming back to Mike!” It
was just … surreal. Here is this incredibly historic photo capturing the
most monumental achievement in human history, and to someone in the
room it was personal to the point of it being the subject of a casual,
even ordinary comment. It was like leafing through your family
photoalbum and stopping to tell the cute story behind a particular
photo. I guess the lesson is that these moments that change us all are
accomplished by ordinary people like you and me. But he was my hero. He was once 240,000
miles away from me.

I got back into my talk, managing to build
to an emotional conclusion—that continuing the legacy of human
exploration rested squarely in the hands of teachers and parents. I took
some questions and collected my things. I walked out into the hall and
there, making a quick beeline right for me, was Buzz Aldrin. He smiled
broadly and gave me one of those two-handed handshakes. The he said
“Jeff!” (HE CALLED ME JEFF!) “That was really inspiring, where
did it come from?”

I … just couldn’t think. I didn’t know what
to say. I remember swallowing against a lump in my throat, and I heard
myself saying “it came from you.”

To this day, I think back on what I said
and know with every fiber of my being that it was the perfect answer. It
came from my heart. It gave perfect voice to what I felt, for isn’t
that what it’s all about? Every generation inspiring the next so our
children can take us where none have gone before?

I’ll never forget that moment for the rest
of my life. It was my ‘Kodak moment’. Thanks Gina.


If you’d like to continue this journey with
me, here are some other things you might want to read at Blog on the Universe:

More on My Memories of Apollo 11

On The Nature of Our Existence

On Teaching

On Heroes

On my sense of Exploration, Science, and Education

Photo Credit: Neil Armstrong and NASA

Hero Engineers and Scientists Preparing for MESSENGER Spacecraft Orbit of Mercury

Photo Caption: Stop what you are doing for a moment, and just imagine the stark contrast between the surface of this world and the vacuum of space. Be thankful for the veil of atmosphere above you, slender as it may be.

NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft took this image of Mercury’s northern horizon on September 29, 2009, during its third and final flyby of Mercury, as we were covering the event live via Twitter from Mission Control in Columbia, Maryland. This image captures portions of Mercury we had never before seen—it represents history in the making.

I invite you to read more about this image at the MESSENGER mission gallery. This is cross-posted at Blog on the Universe.

FLASH: We interrupt the rhythm of your daily lives to bring you news from beyond Earth, from a tiny robot determined to take the human race to an alien world. Some of you may have tuned in September 2009 when Blog on the Universe provided live coverage of the MESSENGER spacecraft’s flyby of Mercury, the last gravity assist needed to get the spacecraft on course for Mercury orbital insertion in March 2011. We are now less than 11 months from that historic first—a spacecraft in orbit around the mysterious inner-most planet of our Solar System. You might want to bookmark the countdown clock.

Since last September 29, 7 months of our lives have been filled with a new school year, passage of seasons, and the ebb and flow of over 200 days. Meanwhile, dutifully navigating through the harsh environment of space, our little spacecraft has been steadily gaining on its rendezvous with destiny on March 18, 2011, under the watchful eyes of its extended family back on Earth—the MESSENGER Team. For this team, those 200+ days were filled with assessing data already broadcast to Earth from MESSENGER’s 3 prior flybys of the planet, and preparing for orbital insertion and on-orbit operations.

These engineers and scientists are the current generation of explorers on the frontiers of human exploration, and ought to be held up to our children as heroes and role models in the age of high technology—and at a time when America needs to step to the plate in science and technology education if we are to compete in the 21st century (you might read a related essay at Huffington Post.) So meet these heroes and role models—the Core Team, the Science Team, the Instrument Team, the Engineering Team, and the Mission Operations Team. And to really get up close and personal, read how cool operations engineer Ray Espiritu got from his dream in middle school to being part of the MESSENGER mission. Read highlights on the lives of other MESSENGER Team members using the button at the bottom of the Highlights Page.

So now for some really exciting news sent to the entire MESSENGER Team via email mid-April 2010, by Eric J. Finnegan, MESSENGER Mission Systems Engineer. I have provided the text of Eric’s email without modification to give you a sense of the behind-the-scenes communication and spirit of teamwork that this group of folks is undertaking on behalf of humanity. We are now fully engaged in preparations for an encounter with another world—


Public Relations

This month, preparations for orbital operations came front and center, with a press release describing the extent of preparations the team is conducting, tactfully described by our Payload Operations Manager, Alice Berman.


It hasn’t taken long—the navigation and guidance and control teams have almost closed the gap on Mercury. Over the last month, the predicted trajectory of the satellite has been narrowed to within 1-sigma of the target. Through careful management of the solar array positions and body orientations, the predicted trajectory of the spacecraft is now less than 10 km off the b-plane aim point and less than one minute from the target arrival time needed for Mercury Orbit Insertion. The likelihood of future trajectory correction maneuvers is rapidly diminishing!

MOI Readiness

The operations and engineering teams continue to prepare for events before, during and after the Mercury Orbit Insertion maneuver. The team is considering all possible nominal and anomalous conditions to ensure a robust execution plan, thereby ensuring a successful Mercury insertion. The next milestone for the team will be a Fault Management Review, occurring on June 2. An independent team of reviewers will look over the teams preparation plans and provide any necessary recommendations to ensure successful execution of this mission critical event.

Orbital Operations Readiness

The engineering and operations teams have completed all of the detailed table top reviews covering the necessary flight operations for each of the spacecraft subsystems. Furthermore, all of the detailed discussion meetings between the mission operations team and the instrument engineers, to review the on-board and ground command procedures for orbital operations have been conducted. These series of meeting and reviews have resulted in a number of items that will need to be worked off over the next several months as the teams work towards the fall Orbital Readiness Review.

The science planning and mission operations teams completed the most recent week-in-the-life (WITL) test activity on 24 March. A team debriefing meeting was conducted to cover the activities and lessons learned from the five week exercise. This activity required the MESSENGER team to process two consecutive weeks of orbital operations in a real-time test-as-you-fly environment. The next WITL test activity will exercise four consecutive weeks of orbital operations. The kickoff meeting for this multi-week activity is scheduled for 21 April.

This month, the instrument scientists started the final verification activities for the planning functions of the MESSENGER Scibox software. on April 5, the latest configured version of the SciBox software was released allowing instrument scientists to start evaluation of the software-generated observation plan. Presentations of these observing plans by the instrument scientists to the cognizant Science Discipline Groups will commence at the end of April. In parallel with this activity, the operations and guidance and control teams are working their way through verification of the commanding functions of the Scibox software. Over 10 weeks of the 52 week orbital schedule have been processed by the G&C team using high fidelity dynamics simulations to ensure safe execution of the auto generated command sequences. The operations team has processed 5 weeks of orbital schedules though their command verification tools and vehicle state simulations, ensuring valid execution as well as identifying a few command efficiencies. Processing of the Scibox software generated command sequences will continue until all 52 weeks of scheduled science activities have been processed through the verification tools from both teams.

As a cumulative test of orbital readiness, the operations team kicked off planning activities for a full flight execution of orbital operations, to occur this summer. Current plans are to execute 1-2 weeks of orbital operations, in a cadence and manner that will be utilized during orbit. This activity will flight verify the end-to-end operations of the MESSENGER system.

There are many activities to complete before March 18, 2011, however all members of the MESSENGER team are now engaged and are working toward successful execution of orbital operations.

Eric J. Finnegan MESSENGER Mission Systems Engineer

I wish the best to this remarkable group of folks for the continued success of MESSENGER, and stay tuned for mission updates, and extensive live coverage of MESSENGER orbital insertion. 

The National Center for Earth and Space Science Education oversees the MESSENGER Educator Fellowship Program and other MESSENGER education and public outreach activities, including the development of compendia of lessons on Solar System exploration and science, and programming for families at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.  

Photocredti: NASA

Let’s chill out

We can not deny it, these are exciting times!

As a NASA and space fan since I was a little kid, I still remember
how difficult it was for me to get information about the Space Program.
I even went to the US Embassy in Buenos Aires once, asking for the NASA
address (yes, the physical one). My mom came with me of course. “I need
the NASA address so I can write a letter to them,” I said at the reception desk,
with security guards looking at me. I wanted pictures, posters,
astronaut autographs, everything. They gave me the address and a
couple of official NASA pictures of Shuttle Columbia as well. Wow…just
imagine my face on my way out of the Embassy…I was in orbit,
experiencing free fall.

I followed the Shuttle Program over the years on TV, radio,
newspapers, checking for every mission, if crews were okay, if X or Y
satellite was successfully deployed or if Galileo was finally on its
route to Jupiter. I was also reading books, lots of them, and from time
to time receiving an envelope from NASA in the mail with pics,
posters, press kits…stuff that I still keep to these days.

Time flies. I live in Miami now thanks to both my desire of coming
to the US and my career. The Internet appeared in the middle and
changed the way we live and communicate to each other, family, brands,
and of course, NASA. I would have never imagined that I could follow
astronauts from orbit and that they could actually answer me. That I
would check my mobile phone and see a picture taken from the ISS Cupola
two hours ago? Or that I could have new JPL pictures from the surface
of Mars in my Flickr stream. Think about it…I’m just trying to digest
what 5-10 years ago was unthinkable.

Today we can have an open discussion about our Space Program and its
future like never before, and it’s great. I’ve been reading most of the
posts, tweets, press articles and comments about it. “No Shuttle
flights?” “open it to commercial companies?”  “We are losing the race
with China and India!” “the end of NASA,” “unthinkable…”

Well, we should think twice…

Lets stop the ball for a little while and look at the horizon. We need to.

NASA’s glory days will never go away, they are with us all the time,
in almost everything we do, and thanks to NASA that today we can
have the very first chance to become a space faring nation, for real.

If we really want to develop space industry we need to open it to
the commercial sector, at least for going to LEO first; I don’t see any
other way. If not, what? Do we keep asking Congress for more peanuts
every year? 0.X% something of the total budget? Are we going to keep
waiting for them to realize how important space development and
exploration is? That will never happen and even less in this economical
environment (there will be always an excuse). Oh, and that’s the same
congress now some people are asking to “defend” NASA and Constellation?
They will defend their own interests and the ones of the states they
represent, not NASA and the Space Program in the long run.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see the Shuttle flying and
flying…but if keeping it flying will prevent us to send, as Miles
O’Brien so clearly stated in front of Congress, 500 people per month to space instead of 7, well, we need to make a choice. The choice was made
and we need to stick to it. That this decision brings with it a lot of
uncertainties and changes to the NASA family, yes, of course. I had the
privilege to meet some of them thanks to Twitter and this Society, and
I cannot find people more dedicated and passionate about their jobs.
That’s why I’m so positive than better opportunities will come along
for most of them.

Regarding China and the “race” to the moon…what race? I don’t see any race here. And if China wants to send humans to the Moon then, well good
for them. For the moment, please allow them to keep celebrating their
“Ed White” moment, something the US did 50 years ago. Oh, by the
way..how many probes did they send to space? Rovers on Mars? How many
satellites? Orbiting telescopes? Probes getting out of the solar
system? On their way to Pluto? Etc, etc, etc… again, what race?

The world is very different now; the ISS is orbiting and living
proof of that and the only race here should be between companies to see
who’s the first one to send cargo to it, humans to LEO, or even go to
the Moon. And in terms of exploration beyond LEO, I don’t think we need
a specific destination. Forty years ago we were kind of “forced” to go to
the Moon first; there was no option. The circumstances were very different, and it made sense in that moment. The fact that today we are
discussing which place we should go first is fascinating.

So instead of concerning ourselves with China or India and their baby space
steps, let’s think big here about the great opportunity we all have in
front of us. I’m not even a US citizen and I feel excited about this
program and what it could bring to all of us.

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m 41, and when I grow up I want to be an astronaut. Just thinking loud….

A Letter to the Hubble Telescope

A Letter to the Hubble Telescope

Hello, Hubble. You don’t know me, I suppose. I’m one of those people here on Earth that likes technology and space. I guess you can call me a geek. You are younger than me in human years, although in technology years you’re much older and accomplished.

Hubble, you are possibly the most impressive piece of technology that looks outwards to space in peace. We, the human race, have built you and sent you to the sky at a time of hope – the Cold War just ended and the space shuttle started flying again after the Challenger accident, which grounded you too. Finally, after four years of waiting, ready to go, on Earth, waiting to fulfill your destiny as humanity’s big eye in the sky, you got your chance and went up there to start looking.

The Cat’s Eye Nebula

In the beginning, you had some infancy problems. You needed glasses to fix your vision and your communication skills weren’t that great. But as time passed, you got good care from friends that came to visit you 5 times and brought you new tools and improvements. Those fixes and improvements helped you help us see the universe in amazing new ways.



That Moment When We Make Contact

Of course, there is life throughout the universe.  Life, though, as we already know takes myriad forms.  We also know that some, if not all, of those forms are evolutionary stepping stones.  We could even be evolutionary stepping stones. I hope we are.

It could happen in our lifetime or later in the lifetime of future generations. Regardless, when we make that first contact it may be less than momentous. It could even be somewhat disappointing.  There we are on a nearby moon of either Saturn or Jupiter, and there before us is a squiggly life-form that took an astrobiologist to identify.  WHAT? A moon of either Jupiter or Saturn?  Is that all we have done?

Don’t despair.It will be in our own solar system where we first meet up with ET life. Remember, extra-terrestrial means just that; beyond Earth. It will be many, many future generations before we make contact with life on some distant exoplanet.  When that happens, what we experience and accomplish locally will prepare us to be ready for exo-life out there.

Here is the important consideration.  Although I am personally certain that there are, somewhere in this vast universe, sentient beings as advanced or more so than us;  we may never ever meet.  What we may meet are life-forms of a lower order than us, maybe somewhere between unicellular life and pre-Homo sapien.  In these instances we will be the all powerful, all knowing life-form.  Hopefully, we will have acquired both the curiosity and the gentleness that insures that we do everything we can to study and interact with those life-forms in a most considerate and careful manner.

With all due honor and courtesy to Dr. Stephen Hawking, this is not scifi. We are not going to be fighting off an onslaught of ravenous creatures determined to either devour or, like the Borg, subsume us.  At the same time, we should have learned by now that most life-forms, except Homo sapiens are defensive, territorial, hungry, and curious, but most likely not malicious.  We must not duplicate the acts of Columbus or the Conquistadors of Spain who immediately sought to dominate and control their new environment.  As our own astronauts have proclaimed, we must go and arrive in peace.

Now, I know we all want to look for life on Mars, but as I have stated before, what we will do there is find out what happened on Mars that cost it its life.  So we should learn our new space exploratory skills by first returning to our Moon and creating a fully efficient and sufficient Moon Base.  This will prepare us for all our future exploratory missions, while also keeping us in better contact with home.  Yes, we too, just like ET, will want to call home regularly.  So, are we up to it?  Can we and space scientists across the globe begin to act in concert to start serious, long-term exploration that are totally independent of the wiley whims of politicians?  If the answer is yes, then we don’t wait. We start now.

Twitter and Facebook, give us the links to the entire world. Lets start the call.  Maybe we start by calling for a design competition for an International Space Exploration flag. That’s right, no single nation plants its flag on any of our solar system neighbors.  Only a flag representing the citizens of Earth should fly anywhere in our solar system and beyond.

I’m ready, are you? Quo Vadis!

The Address of a Self-Important World – Humanity Needs a Reality Check

Photo caption: Earth as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft as it flew by our planet on August 2 2005.

Don’t let your seemingly vast experience as an inhabitant of this world fool you. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of self-importance. Let me explain.

You likely live in a house or apartment on a street, and in a community that’s part of some town, maybe even some major urban area. Your community is likely part of a much larger state or province of one of the nations of Earth–which are themselves nothing more than imaginary constructs of human society. Your country is also likely assigned to one of the continental masses whose sum total of land area is just 29% of the planet’s surface. You are small and the Earth is seemingly vast, as if we humans to Earth are just so many micro-organisms scurrying about each day (each rotation of Earth), and following rules of social engagement that often defy logic.

It’s a story that at a most fundamental level defines your address. It may be all the address you need to ship a package to your friend across the ocean. But it won’t cut it with the intergalactic post office. As I said, don’t let your experience and perception fool you. It’s the rest of the address of which most Earthlings are unaware. For so many reasons it’s also the most important part of the address.

Our seemingly vast Earth is but a tiny planet. (By comparison, over 1,000 Earths fit inside Jupiter.) Earth is one of eight planets orbiting the Sun–a tiny star by star standards–as part of a planetary System called the Solar System. The Sun resides in the Solar Neighborhood of stars, a small smattering of stars found in the Orion Spur–a nondescript little corner of the Milky Way galaxy. The Milky Way is a vast city of stars, with enough stars to give 50 to every human on Earth. Right now, you, your family, and the rest of your race are orbiting just one of those stars.

The Milky Way is one of two large galaxies in the Local Group of 25-30 galaxies. The other large one, Andromeda, is on a collision course with ours. And the cosmic debris-field that is the Local Group of galaxies resides not too far cosmically speaking from the Virgo Cluster of 1,300 to 2,000 galaxies. The Local Group and Virgo Cluster are just two of the 100 to 200 or so groups and clusters of galaxies making up the Local Supercluster of more than 50,000 galaxies. The Local Supercluster–a small supercluster–is one of MILLIONS of superclusters that are woven together to form the largest structures ever seen–Galactic Filaments. And all this comprises the Observable Universe–what we believe is a remarkably insignificant portion of the Universe that nature, by law, allows us to see. Beyond what is observable, the Universe may truly be infinite.

So using myself to summarize–

I live in a house on a street in a town in the State of Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, in the USA, in North America, on Earth, in the Solar System, in the Solar Neighborhood, in the Orion Spur of the Milky Way Galaxy, in the Local Group of Galaxies, near the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, in the Local Supercluster of galaxies in the tiny corner of the Universe we like to call the Observable Universe.

That is our address. It makes the often human perception of our reality as the center of cosmic activity …. just laughable. You always know the most about your own neighborhood. But that also leads you to conclude your neighborhood is somehow important. In truth, it is only important because YOU live there. And YOU obviously think YOU are important. So please think about this … for vast numbers of humans, our perception, our daily life, is driven by self-importance, a remarkable lack of humility, ignorance of–even disinterest in–a greater context of existence which our machines of exploration have brought into crisp focus, and for many, a sense that embracing God is the righteous and comforting thing to do–but does not require taking time to look at the majesty beyond Earth. And while we burn precious, non-renewable calories watching “reality” television, following the lives of the rich and famous, acquiring lots of things, deciding which of us is better or more deserving or more moral, and buying into the distorted views of what our societies have our children embrace as heroes and role models, our world–the spaceship that affords us the view of majesty–is coming under attack.

The microbes called human kill one another because each group, each (bacterial) culture, thinks they are more important than the other. It is self-importance taken to the extreme. Their self-serving technology is modifying the environment of the planet, not only threatening their existence for generations to come (how do they do that to their children?), but puts at grave risk countless species that don’t have the gift of recognizing the majesty of the cosmos. Isn’t it ironic that the only species on Earth that does possess the gifts of intelligence and tool-making, does not collectively care about its world, and collectively squanders these gifts?

So watch the movie that goes with the image above, taken by the MESSENGER spacecraft as it flew by in 2005. Watch as the Earth recedes into the cold, black void of space. Imagine the nearly 7 billion humans scurrying around on its surface. How many of them recognize that the remarkable spaceship they are on is NOT owned by them? It never was. But because of their technology, they are now, by natural decree, stewards of this spaceship for good or ill. Do they understand their responsibilities to the spaceship, to ALL its occupants, and to themselves? For if this tiny blue world is laid to waste, the geologic Age of Self-Importance will be over, the rest of the Universe will surely not care … and I fear God will not come to the rescue.

A penny for your thoughts …..

This essay is cross-posted at Blog on the Universe. You’re invited to visit a recommended reading list of Jeff’s essays at Blog on the Universe, a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education.

Photo and movie credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington. For more information about the photo and movie visit the MESSENGER web site.

Rocket Racers – Racing for the Space Age

This weekend was a milestone for bringing space technology to the masses. The first demonstration of a type of race never seen before took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Two X-Racers took off and competed in the sky, in what seems to be described as a combination between NASCAR and Star Wars pod-racing. The X-Racers, delta-winged rocket engine planes with 2000 lbs of instantaneous thrust at a flip of a button, go through a virtual course in the sky, projected onto the pilot helmet and also on huge screens for the audience enjoyment.

Read more about this (there’s also an Israeli connection) at http://www.spacepirations.com/2010/04/rocket-racers-racing-for-space-age.html