Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mars 500 Update!


An exciting update: The Russian and European Space Agencies have set May 2010 as their magic month for the next stage in The Mars500! This amazing project will be the first full-duration simulated mission to Mars.

Last year, a crew of six cosmonauts entered a specially-designed facility meant to act as a self-sustaining spacecraft for 105 days, to study the effects of isolation, finite food and water, artificial atmosphere and communications. A new team is being auditioned for the much-anticipated 18-month version. Can they stay healthy and sane through this process??

"It is literally isolated compared to the ISS, where you have arriving and departing vehicles, crew being exchanged every 2-4 months. You have contact with the ground and always have new experiments. In the Mars simulation, you will depart with a certain set of consumables and equipment -- and the door never opens." – Martin Zell, ESA's ISS Utilisation Department

Interconnected "Space Craft" Modules
No showers, No windows.

Europe, Russia and now China are narrowing down their candidates, and the final six will be hermetically isolated. They will follow a seven-day week with two days off, and tasks performed will be comparable to those of ISS astronauts (maintenance, science, daily exercise) but for a far longer time.

The ESA has also now published many of the complex scientific protocols:

Орлан Модернизированни - Компютеризированниы
("Modernized Computer-aided Sea Eagle")

What will be the effects on hormones, sleep quality, mood, stress and physical shape? Time will tell. Once the 'journey' to Mars is completed, the team will also use modified Martian versions of Russian Orlan-MK space suits to simulate a trip to the 'surface' of the red planet.

"You've got to be a bit crazy to undertake this venture, but it's a healthy craziness. I will miss my family and friends, nature itself, and all the things we take for granted on Earth, such as the internet. And girls -- that's something I'll definitely miss." - Columbian-Italian candidate Diego Urbina (26)

For related press, see this detailed story by BBC Science correspondent Jonathan Amos and also note the Mars500 blog has been updated on the ESA site.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Because It's CLOSE


Seems that people increasingly consider Moon vs. Mars to be some kind of contest. I belong to many conversational forums; at the moment, those that aren't filled with expletive-laced rants about health care are filled with expletive-laced rants about the NASA budget.

Maybe I should find a bowling team.

I'm a fence jockey in many respects, but one rant that positively confuses me goes like this: Why waste time on the moon, when we went there 40 years ago? Come on, we know everything about the moon there is to know, move on!

NASA’s Skytland & Hale (sounds like a folk-rock group, doesn't it?) created a wonderfully humorous presentation about the moon that showcased its importance in terms of scientific exploration. Truthfully, we know very little about this fixture in our sky, which could be a piece of the Mars puzzle! I think our poor little Moon is often misunderstood – and certainly under-estimated in the big picture.

Moon Slideshow
Could you say you knew everything about America
if you merely landed in these spots for a few days?

It's a shame we don't have 60+ moons to play with, like Jupiter… but I still think we are lucky to have such a potentially useful natural satellite. Imagine if our moon was vaporous and impossible to land upon. Imagine we had no moon at all – where would we have set our sights?

We live in a dual-celestial-spheres environment that has clear advantages. Our moon is so close that scientists can control rovers or robots with only a 1.255 second time lag. It's also roomy, and could serve as a construction site for enormous telescopes or Mars-worthy space crafts; it would be an estimated 20-times-easier to launch those from the Moon than from Earth. (Lack of atmosphere also means it may be plausible to use smaller electric motors instead of huge pricey rockets!)

Lunar soil contains silicon, aluminum, iron, helium-3. Could these prove useful? The details of the "Lunar hydrosphere", once thought impossible, is now coming more clearly into focus... that's right, the moon has a water cycle!

Perhaps most importantly, the Moon's proximity to the Earth makes it a perfect place for humans to learn to live and work in space while still retaining comfortably frequent "rescue and return" opportunities.

Greek Philosopher Anaxagoras
"Everything has a natural explanation.
The moon is not a god, but a great rock, and
the sun a hot rock." – Anaxagoras, 433 BC

Caving into mob lore that the Moon is pointless floating debris we already 'conquered' and should now ignore for more politically expedient sound bytes, some say lunar work should be skipped entirely, as if it's no longer even on our scientific radar. Why do some people believe "Moon or Mars" are mutually exclusive?

Any good investor will tell you that the soundest ventures are explorations in diversity. Eggs. Baskets. All that good stuff. I know, I know... if it was cheap, we'd already be doing it weekly. We'd have Survivor: Lunar Surface instead of American Idol Season 10. (I wish.)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Because It's THERE


Mike the Mars Inquisitor is back, and this time, he asks: What is the ultimate goal of sending people to Mars? I'm guessing that as far as collecting data, a robot can do almost everything a woman (or a man) can do, right? For a lot less money and not to mention the potential danger.

Equality means a lot to Mike, so we'll afford men, women and robots the same leeway. I don't see any reason why all three cannot go. Irreverence aside, you have a point: Is Mars only a metaphoric milestone? When the practical issues are resolved, are we going to Mars just because we thought it up?

Should We Go To Mars?
The short answer is: it depends on whether you ask Buzz Aldrin or Mr. Everyman collecting unemployment. Funny thing, if you Google a phrase like "should we go to Mars?" it yields millions of results; the top ten show TIME saying "here's why we shouldn't" and Apollo astronauts saying "here's why we should."

As our current cosmic Everest, it's a bold, inspiring move -– and we've been too long without one that held all eyes gazing in one direction. When we undertake something risky and difficult, it's our symbol for overcoming the impossible.

During the space race of the 60s, the number of people declaring science as their major field of study doubled at every level (high school, college, post-grad and PhD). Wouldn't a repeat of that alone carry valuable rewards?

Will there be tangible benefits, such as mining, or making Mars a habitable safety net if something happens to Earth? Is it lifeless? Is it worth the cost? According to historians at the National Bureau of Economic Research, America has had 34 recessions and 6 depressions. We weathered those, and we'll weather this one.

Humans on Mars
But Would Anything Be Different?

We'll never sell certain people on the idea that planetology, solar system evolution, and Martian volcanism patterns are scientifically important in and of themselves. BECAUSE IT'S THERE isn't good enough for some, just like there were those who thought the moon race was a waste. Perhaps we lack the visionary strength and commitment to overcome that, and proceed to the next great leap for humankind. To recap:

Nixon: "You can still have the car keys, but you can only drive around the neighborhood now. No more road trips."

Ford: [White Noise] {Trip} [White Noise]

Carter: "Hey, is that a UFO?"

Bush Sr.: "... We... have a... space program?"

Clinton: "I love you, I'm just not IN love with you."

Bush, Jr.: "Course I supportify a trip to Mars! Go on, build the ship, I'll bustificate some champagne across it! Ya'll can't have any funds though, me and my friends used it all for limos and tuxedos and caviar."

Obama: "Do you kids think I'm made of money?!"

Only Ronald Reagan was a visionary when it came to NASA, but sadly, a major disaster took place on his watch, causing a huge, humbled retraction of headway. Can we trace our reticence back to the unexpected Challenger tragedy? That may still be a larger factor than we realize.

Mars To Stay
Lives are at stake, after all. But some even want to drop all the nonsense about a round-trip, and advocate accepting that the first trips simply need to be ONE-WAY. So, selected travelers should just cowboy-up and go get it done. With all the folks who dream of being astronauts, how many would volunteer for such a mission? Plenty, I'd bet.

Robotic missions are certainly cheaper and I am not "uninspired" by them, but I'd be far more inspired to know a human being sifted through that Martian soil with his nifty digits and opposable thumb... to know that human corneas and not a camera surveyed the landscape and made the conscious decision to turn left because "the tri-corder says water might be that-a-way."

Thursday, March 25, 2010



This month in history! As part of the Tomorrowland Series, Disney released their Man In Space special in March of 1955. This is an amazingly insightful pre-Sputnik, pre-Mercury Seven, Pre-NASA look at human interest in space exploration.

"Many of the things that seem impossible now will become realities tomorrow."

No kidding! I had such a ball watching this show, seeing what the fathers of the space program were planning and testing in the 1950s. What shape would the conquest of space take? Is it even possible to build a 3-stage rocket? Will we use chemical fuels or atomic energy? If we succeed, how will the mind and body react to weightlessness?

There was no such thing as an astronaut or a cosmonaut yet. In many cases, the solemn answer was, "We do not yet know. "

Disney's Tomorrowland Series, March 1955

You can view the first one here, but a better idea is to go to the YouTube version where you can enlarge the screen. Each clip, upon ending, skips over to the next... so you don't even have to search for the episodes, they all play in a row!

Here's a guide to the topics if anyone is interested in any particular episode:

Clip #1 (8 minutes)
Hosted by: Walt Disney

History of rocketry from 13th-century China
Steam vs. Gunpowder -- was that ever really an issue? You bet.
Robert Goddard's first liquid fuel rocket
Transylvanian Rocket Scientist Hermann Oberth
Experimental Flights Blooper Reels

Clip #2 (3 minutes)
Hosted by: Disney Animator Ward Kimball

German Army Rocket Program and development of the first missiles
The V2 - first forerunner of spaceships to come
Viking, Carpro, the Aerobee & other American rockets

Clip #3 (7 minutes)
Hosted by: Rocket Historian Willy Ley

Early Rocket Motors & Propulsion Units
1949: First time a man-made object reached outer-space
How "orbit" is achieved above the atmosphere
What would be the use of an orbiting satellite?

By far the funniest...
Clip #4 (6 minutes)
Hosted by: Space Medicine Doctor Heinz Haber

"Homo Sapiens Extra-Terrestrialis"
Why humans launch in the reclined position
The New Rules of Weightlessness

Clip #5 (6 minutes)
Hosted by: Space Medicine Doctor Heinz Haber

Why it's a bad idea to smoke in space
Radiation Hazards
Fast-Moving Meteorites
Early ideas for space suits

Clip #6 (6 minutes)
Hosted by: Dr. Wernher Von Braun, Redstone Guided Missile Division

Space Ship Engineering
Flight Simulators
Payloads and Capsules for Crews of 10?
Fuels, Motors & Vertical Lift

Clip #7 (7 minutes)
Narrated by: Dick Tufeld

Animated enactment of sending humans into space
Worldwide radar systems & tracking stations

Clip #8 (5 minutes)
Narrated by: Dick Tufeld

Earth as seen from space
Space suits in use
Return to Earth

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mars 2112 on Broadway


Here’s a first for me... a foodie review?? New York's hottest place for intergalactic dining and entertainment! Mars 2112 is a 35,000-square-foot space-themed restaurant and exotic-cocktail bar in Times Square. So next you’re visiting the Big Apple, be sure to check out this journey to Mars.

So says their hosts: "Our red carpet is 36.4 million miles long and we'll roll it out for you!"

Mars 2112 Restaurant
Their amazing Crystal Crater houses a three-story crystal tree, covered by a glass canopy that affords an amazing view from the Martian skies with the Earth visible beyond. The 300-square-foot Window To Mars displays a kaleidoscopic combination of elements and majestic views of the Martian landscape. So I've heard. I'm taking the word of their website until I'm able to travel to New York again.

Meet Her Royal Highness Empress Glorianna, the blue-skinned ruler of Mars, who favors dresses from famed cosmic fashion designer Oscar de la Rocket. Head of her imperial guard is Captain Orion, protector of all visitors to Mars. Never far behind is QTP, who will dazzle you with her ability to quick-solve math and science equations while you enjoy your Martian cuisine (actually a mixture of Indian and Asian fare, but don't blow the ambiance).

Mars 2112
While touring through the bi-level 'planet', visitors can learn all about planet Mars, such as its rotation, revolutionary orbit, landscape, mountain ranges, temperature, atmosphere and all the spacecrafts that have visited to date. Play games in the Cyberstreet Arcade, and don't skip the cosmic gift shop!

So clever. We need one of these in Vegas, too. In fact, we need a whole theme park. There's room in Kansas.

Rounding out the theme are the Mars Constellation Academy and Martian birthday parties for the younger space travelers, featuring Gemini Cheeseburgers, Solar Flare Chicken Fingers & Pluto's Pasta.

Mars 2112 New York
Mars 2112 is not a theme restaurant, it is, rather the home of the world first space-travel event dining with an uncommonly forceful theme. - Newsday

Tries to create an experience on the Planet Mars ...It is ready for shooting to resume for the original Star Trek! - The New York Times

Last but not least, and what makes them a truly unique facility – look for the orange button that says Etiquette for Earthlings and watch their short Vimeo. It gives rolling views of the interiors, and shows how their character education contributes to their community. WOW. I mean really, WOW. Awesome job, Mars 2112.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Nano Trek


Takayuki Hoshino and Shinji Matsui of the Himeji Institute of Technology (Kobe, Japan) created this unique 1-billionth scale model of the Starship USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D.

Ion Micrograph
Nano Trek

We don't know why. We don't care why. But it got an award as Best Ion MicroGraph at the 47th International Conference on Electron, Ion and Photon Beam Technology and Nanofabrication.(And you thought Trek conventions were nerdy, holy molasses).

Fabricated by 30 kV Ga+ focused-ion- beam CVD using phenanthrene gas, the model is 8.8 micrometers long, seen here magnified with a Seiko scanning-ion microscope at 5,000X.

You might argue these chaps have too much time on their hands. You'd be wrong.

By the way, Happy Birthday to William Shatner (March 22, 1931) ... and also, Future Happy Birthday to Captain James T. Kirk (March 22, 2228).

Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk
Riverside, Iowa. Seriously.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Now Downright Lost In The Archives


So loving this. Still eyebrow-deep in the Popular Science archives, and stumbled across the most wonderful treasure...

The issue was printed in May of 1958. The formal North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) agreement had just been signed between the US and Canada. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik 3. America's first satellite, Explorer 1, had been in orbit for 3 months. The space race was on!

35 cents in May 1958

Dr. Israel Monroe Levitt (1908-2004) wrote a fascinating account of how America might plan and execute the monumental lunar landing... by the year 2000. Wow, we beat that by 31 years! Was he a negative nancy or what?? ... NASA was established July 29, 1958 -– three months after the article was published. Had he known the plans and resources of the fledgling agency and their contractors, his predictions may have been different.

It's still a real eye-opener to see what the bright minds of the mid-20th century thought of potential space exploration. My favorite excerpt:
"The Moon as a military base: Pentagon planners are already calculating the wartime advantages that could result from control of the moon."

Like, ouch. Anyway, the full article is split into two parts in the archive, beginning on page 102 and ending on page 246.

Timetable to Reach The Moon by I.M. Levitt
"Manned flight cannot be initiated in the immediate future. A tremendous volume of preliminary work must be completed first. Before we can think of landing on the moon, it will be necessary to establish a manned space station circling the Earth as a base of operations."

Not so much. Levitt goes on to discuss escape velocity, guidance systems, fuel calculations, and exploding an atomic bomb on the moon as a 'marker' by 1962.

By 1968? We should deliver power supplies and instruments to the moon, to measure gravity, atmospheric density and the expected magnetic field. Heh.

By 1975? Lunar dust should be harvested, via two rockets launched together: one to crash and create a plume, then another to sweep up the samples and return them to Earth (nevermind that the A-bomb made the dust radioactive).

By 2000? Our space station would serve as the assembly point for a moon rocket, after which astronomers would finally have their "field day resolving the moon's mysteries." In that era, knowledge of the lunar surface could only be surmised from the study of reflected sunlight. Scientists deduced the powdery dust, but were perplexed by crater formation, surface streaks, and actual rock composition.

Levitt Books
Levitt was Director of Fels Planetarium at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, and wrote the books: Star Maps for Beginners and A Space Traveler's Guide to Mars.

The former is still in print, though the latter has been discontinued, perhaps because his predictions for the Red Planet (and it's "astonishingly different plant and animal life, based on different chemistry and severe conditions") were even less accurate.

But hey! The important thing is, they set goals based upon evidence of the time, and I can only hope that 50 years from now, someone is equally delighted in hindsight at what a short time it took us to get to Mars in comparison to what we predict today. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Side-Tracked By Archives


O but I am beside myself with glee. Popular Science worked with Google Books to archive all 137 years of their publications! Completely free of charge.

When the weather and clocks both change, I enjoy brief bouts of insomnia, at which point websites like this are exceedingly useful.

Popular Science Archives

The Popular Science Monthly began in 1872 as a newsprint periodical and continued in a textbook style through the turn of the century. Regular ads showed up around 1912. The format switched from black & white to color in 1919 at the same time they cut the name down to Popular Science.

Being able to see the progression as a time-line is fascinating, especially when moving through various inventions and scientific breakthroughs that we now consider commonplace. More startling are the medicinal products (Bayer heroin drops, anyone?), and the sheer amounts of cigarette and pipe tobacco ads!

You can see the original cover at the top of each archive file, and a helpful hyper-linked Table of Contents accompanies each issue.

Popular Science Monthly 1873
The earliest space article is The Moon in the October 1873 issue (ironically beside an ad for Scientific American, established in 1845); mostly telescopic observation, obviously, but almost lyrical in its reverence for the mystery that was the lunar world in those days! Other highlights for fellow space enthusiasts:

November 1873: The Ringed Planet
The nature of Mars, Saturn and Jupiter as known in the era of the "Indian Wars" when Ulysses S. Grant was president.

December 1927: Myths About Mars Exploded
An astronomer claims that Mars is just a bleak red desert? No way! Way.

February 1962: 10 Toughest Problems Putting a Man On the Moon
Space race! This enchanting piece shows early official NASA drawings of how they hoped to put humans on the lunar surface (dig that crafty spacesuit!).

January 1918: Clap! Let There Be Light
Not space-related, but this caught my eye and made me laugh – it's about activating light bulbs via sound-operated circuit controllers. That's right, a WWI-era clapper!

Popular Science Covers - 1919 and 1936
Left: A vision in 1919 of how we might communicate with Mars
Right: Technology in 1936, between the World Wars

The earliest works use flowery prose to describe [oft-questionable] scientific methods in fairly artistic terms, and focus on the more splendorous aspects of the "knowns vs. unknowns" of science, not merely the mechanics of what can be 'documented' or dryly 'tested.' Sometimes authors quote poetry, openly lament the ramifications to conflicting divine beliefs, and even (now all but eradicated from modern science rags) ponder the philosophical meanings of their observations.

As they move through the eras, the influence of marketing flourishes (of course), and a bent toward technology becomes apparent. The gadget-happy 1950s are particularly amusing. Hey, we were supposed to have moon colonies, robot lawnmowers and commute-to-the-office jet packs by now!

I've been on this sucker all night, so I apologize in advance to anyone who doesn't get any work done after finding this today =)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Seeking The Disco Planet


Alert-reader Robert (no city named) brought my attention to a hilarious ad on the Woot store, which pokes fun at the Voyager Golden Records. In a promotion for a portable Sansa player, one of the Wootbots asks, "Seriously, NASA, if Earthlings barely listen to LPs anymore, what makes you think Extraterrestrials will?"

The author then jibes, "It was a genius idea to include a record with images and sounds from our fair blue planet… but times have changed. Unless you expect us to be visited by an armada of interstellar DJs looking to search through our crates of wax for Terran beats, it might be time to update our technological image."

He then goes on to suggest sending Sansa's small media players into space instead, since their 4-Gigabyte storage capacity is preferable to being "the laughing stock of the galaxy" with our dated albums.

Reader Robert suggests politely that "The theory behind the record (including instructions on how to build a player) may be an interesting topic"...

…which, in the blogosphere, is the same as shouting, "Sic 'em!"

Voyager Probe
I've mentioned the Golden Records in past posts, while discussing Voyager Probes, and Carl Sagan, who chaired the committee for their creation in the late 1970s.

I believed then, and still hope now, that one will be found and at least partially understood. Will the recipient species correctly assemble the record player, and set the stylus to extract the audio and video (yes, there is video!) correctly? Will they have the sensory capability to "hear" and recognize what we call "music" or our idea of spoken greetings, even if they cannot translate the languages?

We can't know, and likely never will. As President James Carter put it, "This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours."

Humans may be long dead when these emblematic "time capsules" are handled by other life forms. By the same token, any message we find would not be from a civilization with which we could establish two-way communications, but archaeological remnants of a long-gone species.

If the situation were reversed, would we judge a civilization on the sort of "media" they transported? I highly doubt it. We cannot even imagine what sort of format in which an alien message might arrive, but we'd be so joyously excited to see it, we wouldn't be quibbling over whether it was 8-track or Betamax.

Golden Records
Click to see meaning of the etchings...

"Golden Record" is a misnomer, since they were actually created from copper, and then simply gold-plated. However, the more crucial step in preserving longevity was to place each in a case of electroplated Uranium-238, an isotope with a half-life of nearly 5 billion years! I don't think we'd achieve the same hardiness with memory cards that have a lower toughness factor than Tupperware. Sorry Woot!

In all fairness, it's possible that after only a billion years of travel, the Voyagers might be so increasingly damaged from micro-meteor impacts that the Golden Records could be rendered un-playable – that would be true for any materials traveling through space long enough.

Still, in comparison, it seems rather a poor idea to send a tiny electronic device encased in plastic, particularly one requiring a battery, due to the corrosive materials therein.

I know, I'm a real spoilsport. NASA 1, Wootbots 0.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Pass The Prolificus


Fellow prolific writer Missy Frye at The Incurable Disease of Writing has kindly bestowed upon me the Prolific Blogger Award. I am so flattered by this gesture, because we blog in completely different genres! Missy nonetheless took the time to recommend my blog to anyone interested in space exploration, and I would love to return the favor for any writers out there who enjoy tips about the craft.

Prolific Blogger Award
According to the definition being passed along:
- A Prolific Blogger is one who is intellectually productive... keeping up an active blog filled with enjoyable content.
- Each winner must pass on this award to seven other deserving prolific bloggers, and
link back to the blog post from which he/she has received the award.

Of course, I follow a great many bloggers who don't follow me – so I don't use this sort of tool for "web-ring-ing" returns, as it were. I just take the opportunity to spotlight great sites that I admire personally, so it's an honor to pass them on. Seven is a lot of reviews, however... so I have just chosen four favorites that I read consistently and that I think are truly "prolific."

Miles O’Brien
Longtime aviator and anchor, Miles O'Brien has spent the last 27 years reporting the news (17 of those as CNN's aerospace & science correspondent), and among his many professional accolades are the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement and the National Space Club Media Award. He has hosted his own blog for nearly a year now (where he finds time is a mystery to me!) and more recently began hosting TWIS, as we geeks refer to "This Week In Space," where he reports on anything and everything in the space industry, including his no-nonsense addresses to Congress. Worth watching. That is all.

Miles O'Brien
Miles O'Brien & Moonwalker Gene Cernan
at the Rotary Club of Houston

Pages, Pucks & Pantry
Long-time friend and first supporter of my flight simulation insanities, Mrs. L, writes about all that is fun and fascinating about scrapbooking, hockey and cooking. Pretty eclectic, eh? She occasionally stops the presses for interesting space news and amusing events in the Star Trek 'verse, so her blog has held my attention for many years. We credit her for helping me prepare my very first Thanksgiving Turkey, and keeping me up to date with releases like The Astronaut's Cookbook!

Newer but no less appreciated friend, space-enthusiast Amnon Govrin, describes his Spacepirations blog as "The pursuit of space and reaching for the stars, figuratively and literally." He documents his journey as a marathoning space-hopeful, and perhaps we'll all see him soon on the StarWalker Reality Show.

X PRIZE Foundation
The Launch Pad
The nonprofit X PRIZE Foundation sponsors the Google Lunar X Prize (among others), which in turn runs a wonderful blog about all things moony. Oft-updated and always topical, it’s a great place to keep up with exciting independent projects like SELENE, Odyssey Moon, Euroluna, STELLAR, Frednet, and other teams hoping to make space exploration more accessible (and even profitable?!).

Revel in thy prolificacy! For other great places to follow space news and commentary, see also the Official Seal of Awesomeness.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Space Food Then


Picking up from yesterday: the story of Food In Space is an utterly fascinating one! The guiding principle seems to be:
It's not enough to count calories and add vitamins, then assume humans will eat anything set in front of them, even in a hostile, foreign environment. When not naturally stirred by olfactory and flavorsome stimulus, the body can resign itself to avoiding food entirely... leading to physiological and psychological problems.

Some cliff notes:

- "Space Food Tools" include vacuum moisture analyzers, colorimeters, texture testers, viscometers and (one wonders whose job it is to keep track of this) a shelf-life test chamber.

- Why freeze-drying? It deprives bacteria of the water they need to multiply. Safety reigns supreme, hence the shrink-wrap and airtight cans to prevent oxidation. Keeping food from spoiling and ensuring it retain vitamins through storage processes is of paramount concern.

- Why Tang? Powdered drinks are lighter, and take less space… but NASA did not invent Tang, that was General Mills! Gemini astronauts merely added to the water that was a by-product of their life-support system. That's all there was to drink, and it improved the metallic taste. However, Tang didn't last to the Apollo era.

Mercury Program Food
First American food in space

My favorite story comes from 1968... when one the food designers was forced to eat his own creations and didn't much care for it! Apollo astronauts only stood to gain, however, and the result was the first major leap in space-food science, followed by years of experimentation.

In micro-gravity, astronauts experience congestion, as there is no force pulling bodily fluids down into their legs. Everything pools in the head! Even after initial adaptation to weightlessness, this has the effect of making food taste bland. Smells do not travel well in space, and this lack of sensation also dulls the taste buds.

Thus, richly flavorful items like shrimp with tangy sauce, or jambalaya with spicy garlic beans (special recipes developed by Emeril Lagasse) are preferred the longer astronauts are in orbit.

International Space Station
Americans aboard Mir weren't crazy about borscht or jellied perch, and Russians were equally un-thrilled with bricks of mac & cheese. But it never hurts to try what is brought aboard by various nations as we expand our cultural knowledge… and hey, the first sushi was just rolled in space! I'm sure international crews will continue to experiment with ingredients and preparations.

In my opinion, one of the best descriptions of meal creation in low gravity came from astronaut Sandra Magnus on Expedition 18. It may surprise you what kinds of ingredients make up into orbit these days.

I read this, thinking, "Wow, I barely take time to microwave Lean Cuisine packages. Can you imagine performing such complex preparations for months on end?" I would definitely starve in space, LOL…

For those who are curious or interested in the history of how we got to where we are with nutrition in space, see my separate essay, Space Food In a Nutshell. It's a far more complex (and amusing) story than most people realize!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Space Food Now


Mike R. of Lightning and Thunder asks: Let's say NASA reached the point of launching a spaceship to Mars, would you be willing to go on that voyage?
Yes, let's say that! I'll get my pitchfork, you bring torches and we'll chant toward Congress with spirited vigor! I dream that a Mars voyage will happen in my lifetime. Would I be willing to go? Not so much. I've had a taste of space adaptation during flight simulations, and while I know the sickness passes, I wouldn't volunteer.

That's just too long in a tin can without fresh lilies, rainfall, and green trees. It takes more stamina than I've got to be a pioneer. On a practical level, I'm simply not qualified to work in extreme environments (seriously, too chicken to even SCUBA dive) and would leave that to the professionals. Luckily, there never seems to be any shortage of people applying for the job of astronaut! I'm grateful for that, and I think history will continue to show them as the true heroes of our world.

International Buffet on the ISS
Diane D. of Holy Molasses It Snowed In Florida asks: Why [study] nutritional requirements? Don't they already know what sort of food carries well in space? I thought they would have to grow some of their own along the way too.

Yes, they know what food "carries well" in space, having taken thousands of different items to the moon or into orbit now. Food scientists invented many interesting ways to both preserve food for long periods and also package them so as to conserve space on traveling crafts.

Menus are designed to fulfill the nutritional requirements of crews in terms of days, weeks or months at a time on the ISS. Of course, the Space Station is quite close to Earth, and re-supply vehicles are comparatively easier to come by than they would be on a mission to Mars, which might last 2-3 years.

The goal: Create food that lasts longer than 12-24 months.
The problem: Would it still taste good and would anyone actually want to eat it?
The deal-breaker: Mike asked if I would ever go on a mission to Mars, and all I can think of is having to eat 18-month-old re-constituted roast beef on the way home.

STS Menu
One Week Menu For a Shuttle Crew Member
Multiply by 104 weeks minimum

Imagine having to plan and store thousands of meals (3 per day x 6 crew members = 6570 per year), where each must have a 3-year shelf-life, to be prepared with rudimentary cooking equipment in a galley smaller than the front seat of your car, millions of miles from Earth.

You nailed another major concern, which has been a factor in exploration diets since scurvy was problem on the galleons of the high seas: fresh foods!

NASA's Cosmic Cuisine Fact Sheet specifies crops identified for possible growth in transit on long missions: lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, onions, radishes, peppers, strawberries, various herbs. From my reading, I see other space programs working with rice, potatoes, and various types of beans.

Lack of soil means committing to hydroponics –- and I love that the Wikipedia entry for this features a NASA researchers at the very top.

Stay tuned... I postponed what-all I had planned for this weeks' posts and got my brain cooking on space food; I'm now pondering writing a more detailed essay on how we got from Tang (largely urban legend) and paste-tubes (not used since 1965!) to modern preparations. Not sure why these items are still so alive in the popular imagination, but we should give NASA food scientists some credit by dispelling the myths... because the story of Food In Space is an utterly fascinating one...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Budget Cuts Killed the Radio Star


I belong to the BlogCatalog community, where I am the lucky recipient of continual invitations to other science blogs, and occasional comments or questions in my "ShoutBox". A fellow BC blogger recently lobbed this delightful grenade:

BlogCatalog Community
Great questions, Mike! Wow... bright, handsome, and politically correct to boot! Thank you for implying that women might make it to Mars, just as the Russians announce that they've set their watches back a century.

Didn't our mothers fight this battle already? I distinctly remember the smell of burnt brassiere in the morning. Of course, that was back in the 20th century when people actually cared about space exploration. Boo, hiss.

Do you think it's possible for people endure 6 months of weightlessness?
Yes, I do believe we will reach that point. Research and resulting counter-measures made it possible for routine long-duration stays in space, with far less ramifications to bodily health. A Mars voyage, however, might take nearly two years -- that's a long time in micro-gravity! Varied medical simulations are continually exploring how to ensure minimal impact on the immune system, sleep patterns, heart health, bone density and muscle fitness.

Other behavioral and procedural sims, such as the Mars500, are exploring the unique psychological stresses that might be factors on a long, isolated space flight. Still other teams in multiple nations are examining nutritional requirements, and which exercise equipment might be most effective.

The remaining major question mark is radiation in space. How will a human body react to un-blocked cosmic rays and solar flares? This remains to be seen, and the research on this, unsurprisingly, moves at a slower clip than other biological or psychological simulations.

Are we even there yet technologically to attempt such a voyage?
In some ways, yes. In some ways, no. So, no.

We have the knowledge to build a craft to withstand the journey, and we have the materials, if money was no object. Chemical rocket or plasma rocket? Shape and design of the craft? Hotly debated. Any ship aimed toward Mars would have to be gigantic, in order to carry the necessary fuel, crew, food, water, breathable air, medical equipment, space suits, tools, and of course a lander.

If you had asked me any of these question back in 1977 when Star Wars came out, I'd have chirped happily: sure, Mars will be a reality in no time! I'll be married to Han Solo by then and we'll be neighbors under a big glass dome! Give me a break, I was 8 years old. But even just five years ago, my response would have been far more inspirited.

Today... well, it's become clear that we're all at the mercy of a dispassionate public, and struggling to find the money.

Why don't they send people to the moon first to see if they can bring them back in one piece and then go for Mars?
I am also squarely on the Moon First team. While the processes of getting hardware and warm bodies to the lunar surface are complex and not what I would casually call a "piece of cake" -– I do think it makes sense to work out the kinks close to home before we risk the sheer distance to the red planet. Common sense, right? But I am in a shrinking minority.

NASA's leaders say that Mars is the main goal… but have yet to outline a clear path, and I am not sure why the "elephant in the room" is not a larger factor in the current discussions about Mars –- i.e. the obvious reality that we could not possibly launch a ship directly from Earth to Mars. The gravity of our planet is too strong, and a ship of the necessary life-sustaining size would make take-off impossible with our current rocket technology.


I think this is the part that comes as a genuine shock to many people who believe this has all been sorted out, and we're such a clever little heap of hairless apes that we can launch whatever we please so long as it's a sunny day in Florida. One of my relatives recently asked me how close we are to "warp drive"?

One solution is to assemble a ship in the micro-gravity of Low Earth Orbit, or the one-sixth gravity environment of our lunar satellite. Y'think?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Nerd Merit Badges


Well, this is not even close to being space-related, except that there are thousands of NASA workers who could stack up Nerd Merit Badges like flakes in a snow storm. So, I thought it was worth a post!

These funny velco-backed morsels of colorful embroidery include Spelling, Open Source, Full Stack and Boinged pats-on-the-back. Family Tech Support? Got it covered. One I will never earn, however, is the Empty Inbox!

Ner Merit Badges
At first glance, I could boast a handful of these... and send them suggestions. For instance, where are the "I can recite every episode of Star Trek TOS in order" badges? Or the "Browncoats Forever" and the "Paged Constantly at 3am" badges?

Other Possibilities:
  • Quick-Draw Binary Translator
  • I Can Count In Hexadecimal
  • Monty Python Movie Sing-a-Long Champ
  • My Pet Fish is Named "Wysiwyg"
  • Schrödinger's LOLCat – reductio ad absurdum
  • We Celebrate Pi Day on March 14
We also need a big one for those of us who watch movies about computer hackers and continually shout "That's totally impossible!" at the screen with great dramatic aplomb, and even greater indignation.

Honorable mention (a line of similar stickers perhaps?) for anyone who knew exactly what I meant when I said "TOS" above, anyone who reads XKCD and gets it more than 85% of the time, anyone who ever drove more than 1000 miles for a shot at watching a Shuttle Launch, and my personal favorite – anyone who used to carry a Microsoft Start-up Disk in her purse and used it more often than her lipstick.

Guess who that last one was.

Zazzle Nerd Buttons

Of course, shops like Zazzle and Thinkgeek are way, way ahead of me.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Dream Rocket


Dream Rocket
Support The Dream Rocket! This very exciting project at the US Space & Rocket Center will be many years in the making, with it's grand finale in the summer of 2011.

"The Dream Rocket aims to connect art and education through a global initiative. The Wrapping of the Saturn V Rocket will recognize the power of global collaboration, and in turn, The Dream Rocket hopes to inspire individuals all over the world to recognize their power to pursue their dreams."

And yes, you read that right. They will be WRAPPING the entire 37-story Saturn V rocket in Huntsville, Alabama -- on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech where he challenged the nation to pull together for the successful project of "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth."

The wrapping will consist of over 8000 panels representing dreams for our future and visionaries of our past. Schools, churches, professional organizations, non-profit groups and individuals all over the Earth are participating in its creation! In the first six months, nearly 40 US states and a dozen countries have submitted Dream Theme panels depicting space, health, fighting hunger & poverty, peace, community, science, technology imagination, recycling, conservation and other related ideas.

The Dream Rocket
"What is my dream for a better tomorrow?"

If you would like to participate in creating Dream Rocket panels, you can purchase space in varying sizes, and recruit others to help you develop a dream theme to express! If you are the less artistic type, but have money to burn... you can become a sponsor instead. There are many students and scholastic groups who may not be able to afford the submission fee, and Dream Rocket workers are doing their best to match up donations with willing artists!

You can also make a simple individual contribution, and also keep up with Dream Rocket events through their Facebook fan page, Twitter feed or Flickr Photo collection. I got lost on the Dream Rocket Flickr site for ages, looking at the all the amazing submissions already lined up for panel wrappings!

The Dream Rocket
"This rocket was designed and built as a collaboration half- a-million people and allowed our human species to venture beyond our world to stand on another -- surely one of the biggest dreams of all time. Enabling the dreams of young people to touch this mighty rocket sends a powerful message."
- Sponsor Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of NY Hayden Planetarium