Friday, December 31, 2010

Goodbye 2010


And now... for no particular reason, here is a picture of me inside a Space Shuttle simulator.

Space Shuttle
Thank you Houston, we will see you on the flipside... Happy New Year everyone! Wishing you all the best in 2011!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

iRATS Pirates


NASA Studies back in the press! I still get various questions about applying for paid studies; the money is quite good and the interview + physicals process can seem daunting, but the healthy people who make it feel a great sense of accomplishment, and seem to have positive experiences at the NASA facility on Galveston Island.

And seriously, even if you are quarantined and can only peer out windows, you could do a lot worse than Galveston Island! Sometimes it's merely the "time spent" that prohibits qualified candidates from applying, because they cannot be away from their homes for the longer protocols, which can stretch into months.

Standalone Zero Gravity Locomotion Simulator
It's the NASA logo hockey helmet that really sells it for me ;)

In 2011, however, some shorter feasibility studies are available at NASA – programs that will be far more ACTIVE and fun than those where folks are not allowed to exercise. That restriction can be nerve wracking for runners or bicyclers who are used to daily cardio! (It's a nice break for about a week, and then you get punchy!)

The goal is still to test ways to counteract the effects of low gravity, but instead of being at a head-down tilt the majority of the time, new participants will "walk up the wall" on a vertical treadmill.

The News Herald of Ohio just ran a piece about how Trials Seek To Help Astronauts and Diabetics, detailing how the tests hope to prevent loss of muscle mass and cardiovascular de-conditioning by performing treadmill exercise a few times per week… though there is that little wrinkle about having to be in "astronaut shape" to begin with.

Integrated Resistance & Aerobic Training Study (iRATS)

The Aerobic Exercise Routines website ran the same story, so I gather they are affiliated, or cross-link when the content is relevant. I hope there are more mentions out in the internet wild, so that we always keep people informed about how they can join the space program and do their part for science if they find these studies intellectually interesting and physically challenging.

Sadly, when I google 'iRATS', the first hits I get are Industrial Rope Access Technician Scheme, the Inspection Reporting And Trending System and the NASA Desert Rats! I guess that third one ain't so bad, since it's also a useful analog program that is contributing to Mars Mission Research. However, finding the new study requires quite specific keywords, so clearly we have some work to do in getting the message out!

The funniest hit came when I used Google's Wonder Wheel, which uses “visual relevance” mappings instead of text lists. I sometimes search topics there to see what related Boolean leaps the search engines come up with! It's a cool tool to play with, and can be used to narrow down topics in those instances when you know you're looking for something, but you are not quite sure what you are looking for!

Probably very useful for finding anniversary gifts =)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

NASA's Pet Woodpeckers


Hey, a happy woodpecker story!

NASA has a very interesting if slightly troubled history with woodpeckers. The pecking damage to Space Shuttle Discovery springs to mind, although a delightful upside was public participation and innovations. In the past few years, NASA also joined the hunt for the elusive Ivory Billed Woodpecker, thought to be extinct until spotted in 2004. To date, however, there have been no splashy announcements that more have been spotted... despite the attempt at high-tech ornithology.

And now, a new pecker chapter?

Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite
The NASA ICESat, or Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite, once the keystone of the Earth Observing System missions for measuring polar ice sheets, clouds and topography, has been re-employed to "monitor" woodpeckers in Idaho. Remember that I do not work for The Onion. Even they couldn't make this up.

Since the satellite was partially designed to provide vegetation data from around the globe, its programming and instrumentation are uniquely suited to its final task of using birds to determine key characteristics of forest biomes. Conventional surveying on foot can be laborious, limited to small areas, and cost-prohibitive -- but satellite-borne lasers can bounce off tree canopies and ground patches, making important woodland attributes easily measurable. (For example, forest density is determined by the relative amount of light returned to the instruments.)

Woodpeckers in particular are good indicators of overall diversity of an ecosystem, because they are incredibly "choosy" about where they live and mate; through their pecking behavior, they also create homes for many other species once they abandon pecked holes from season to season. Once ideal habitats favored by the birds are determined, University of Idaho teams dispatch smaller surveys (think: backpacking all around Moscow Mountain!) to verify the predicted populations.

Attention North American Pileated Woodpeckers:
Satellites are WATCHING you.

Based on vegetation characteristics and indicators of bird population, biologists can deduce the accompanying mammals and reptiles of a given area – very useful in biodiversity conservation and state land management planning.

I regret now that I never featured ICESat earlier, in the many years of its operation. It has truly provided unprecedented three-dimensional detail of the Earth's surface and climate; it's no exaggeration to say that we know what we do about ice flow patterns and the Arctic / Antarctic water cycles because of this fancy floating gizmo.

ICESat was actually just decommissioned, undergoing many orbit-lowering navigational burns. Having fulfilled its original 7-year mission, it was allowed to degrade into a natural orbital decay and then burn up in the atmosphere. ICESat II is currently being designed, and is expected to launch in 2015 for related missions, including study of biomass, carbon measurements, and changes in polar ice fields.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Trekking Through Texas


And the Lunar Eclipse, Continued...

Well fans, this will be the last of the Texas photograph galleries for quite some time, as I have relocated temporarily to California to be closer to my family for awhile. It is so strange being in the Pacific Coast time zone again! Had a nice, quiet Christmas with the family, and am now starting to tell old friends I am "back home" again... although it's a real mind-scramble now, trying to decide to apply the word HOME to Texas or California?? LOL...

The very last evening I was in the Lonestar State, I had the rare and awesome privilege of watching a bright SuperMoon on the Winter Solstice, as was probably obvious by my last post with all the Lunar Eclipse videos.

Winter Solstice Lunar Eclipse 2010
Winter Solstice Lunar Eclipse 2010

I also took a few snapshots of the many phases. None were examples of great photography -- in fact, my Canon was pretty useless once totality was achieved, and one could only see amber shadows from the ground without a good telescope. However, I am still glad that I recorded a few images, so that I will remember the sights and sensations of being there.

There were SO many people all over northern hemisphere who hoped to watch it around the time I was viewing, and could not, because of cloud cover and storms in various areas. Major bummer for such a beautiful and uncommon event!

However, simply googling the term "2010 solstice eclipse" will already yield nearly 8 million text hits, and over 2 million hits in Google Images!

West Texas Sunset
Last Sunset in Texas

Along the way, I also stopped to snap some "Only in Texas" type photographs. I have trekked all over the Lone Star State over the years, taking in the culture, the people, the terrain, the weather and the wildlife -- it never disappoints! I am so sad to leave this amazing state. I tend to gravitate back toward Texas when all is said and done, so I have a feeling I will return someday!

I am not sad to skip a snowy winter or two, however. In fact, I got out just in time to save myself some icy hassles this season. But -- storms and all, Texas is pretty awesome place to live.

Texas Horse Motel
That is not a typo ;)

What to do first in California? Visit the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory? The new and huge Allen Radio Telescope Array? Head down to NASA Ames again for the next Shuttle launch? Ah... all new adventures ahead...

Visit my Picasa Galleries or my Facebook page for the new album "Things I Will Miss About Texas" for some sad, some funny and some sentimental views of the great Texan landscape, which I had to cross in order to escape! Subtitle of the album in some views will read "Winter Solstice Eclipse", since the collection also includes all my lunar pictures.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Solstice Review


I drove out into the Texas Oil Fields, better known as the Middle Of Nowhere, Texas. Well, some people say "Fort Stockton" or "Van Horn" -- but really, it's a gloriously serene and giant prairie that we should have pondered more deeply before we paved.

Nonetheless, it turned out to be quite fortunate that I was driving from Texas to California before Christmas, as the Hill Country had a cloud cover, and I would not have been able to see the recent Lunar Eclipse from home.

Umbral Phase about a half-hour prior to totality...

Of course, a great fuss accompanied this rare eclipse coinciding with the Winter Solstice, and the reddish hues were also an interesting rarity.

This particular "alignment" of our planet with the sun and moon to cast a shadow on the moon's surface happened during a Super Moon, meaning our natural satellite is at its closest point to Earth.

Amber Waves!

I actually had 12 videos, but I will spare you all the footage and late-night commentary. I had no way to anchor the camera, had neck fatigue after "looking up" all that time, and the jiggling you see is not so much bad filming as shivering ;)

It's times like these when I do wish I had a better camera, however! The Canon Powershot is great for parties and the more frivolous end of tourism, but it sure comes up short during celestial events!


So, after combing through videos all week, taken from all different geographical areas, here is a beautiful time-lapse where you can see a more stable view of each phase, set to symphony music. I am still glad I took a few snippets personally, so I can remember my experience in years to come, but this last view is most worthy of the spectating time investment!

Did you miss it? Was it cloudy or were you asleep? Plan your next eclipse viewing with NASA'sFive Millennium Catalog of Lunar Eclipses, courtesy of the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Friday, December 24, 2010



Space Kitty
Round three of space LOLcats, the kitty slang parody of internet lingo, compliments of the always amusing I Can Has Cheez Burger web site! It is rich pickings for Trekkies and X-Files fans these days at the Cheez farm if you have the patience to run through every cult film keyword you can think of...

Live Long and Prosper

Kitteh No Wants To Believe

Tin Foil Hat Kitteh


Fone Home


Alienz Be Abductin' Meh

Fuzz Lightyear

Vulcan Kitteh Nerve Pinch

Beam Me UP Scotty

For the first sets of space LOLcats, see posts LOLCAT1 and LOLCAT2. And have a very Merry Christmas, everyone!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Quips & Quotes II


"Okay, so what's the speed of dark?" ~ Comedian Steven Wright

"In spite of the opinions of certain narrow-minded people who would shut up the human race upon this globe, we shall one day travel to the moon, the planets, and the stars, with the same facility, rapidity, and certainty as we now make the voyage from Liverpool to New York." ~ Author Jules Verne (1865)

"It was breathtakingly beautiful, like something out of a fairy tale. There is no way to describe the joy of seeing the Earth. It is more beautiful than any other planet." ~ Valentina Tereshkova (1963)

Soviet Cosmonauts
First Man and Woman in space,
Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova
(back row: Gherman Titov and Andriyan Nikolayev)

"The path of a cosmonaut is not an easy, triumphant march to glory. You have to get to know the meaning not just of joy but also of grief, before being allowed in the spacecraft cabin." ~ Yuri Gagarin (1961)

"The scientific theory I like best is that the rings of Saturn are composed entirely of lost airline luggage." ~ Mark Russell

"We risk great peril if we kill off this spirit of adventure, for we cannot predict how and in what seemingly unrelated fields it will manifest itself. A nation that loses its forward thrust is in danger. The sense of exploration is intimately bound with human resolve, and for a nation to believe that it is still committed to a forward motion is to ensure its continuance." ~ Author James A. Michener (1979)

NASA Sticker
"To go places and do things that have never been done before – that's what living is all about." ~ Astronaut Michael Collins (Apollo 11)

"The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program." ~ Author Larry Niven

"There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.There is another theory which states that this has already happened." ~ Author Douglas Adams

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Trek The Halls...


... with boughs of ... yeah, that analogy doesn't work for long. There is no good way to turn a carol into a Sci-Fi joke. Have you notice that Science Fiction programs rarely have save-the-day-in-the-nick-of-time Christmas episodes? There's always this vague notion that in the far future, there is no currency, no celebrations and certainly no bank holiday three-day weekends aboard star ships.

But, not the point today! Today, we revel in Trek goodness:

Star Trek Pillows
Ah, the Pillow Astronaut blog, for the first time in 460 total posts, is actually promoting... pillows. It’s all too poetic. Alert reader and fellow Firefly Quote-App coder Joanne Campbell from DragonFlight Designs facebooked this delightful link to me.

Be still my heart, I finally found a decorative set of pillows I would actually use. The creator is the brains behind the Yellow Bug Boutique, and makes pillows, holidays stockings, and tree ornaments in Star Trek TOS colors and designs. Can LED & wicker Rudolph The Red-Nosed Romulans be far behind? I love the magic of the season.

Periodic Table Pillow
As if this wasn’t enough, the same craftswoman creates many other items using the Periodic Chart of Elements, spelling out things like Wine, Bacon, Chocolate, Beer and… Pirates? o but I bask in the glow of her awesomeness.

Regulars who keep up with my space sports might recognize this particular website, as I discussed Etsy's collaboration with NASA for a craft contest in November. Thousands of votes poured in, and finalists were chosen for the second round of voting in December.

Etsy NASA Craft Collaboration
I was gratified to see that a couple of the things I voted for made it to the finals... especially that nifty Space Shuttle hat. I keep trying to figure out someplace I could wear that gem. Anyway, voting is a shorter affair this time around, since there are fewer novelties to pick through, go check out all the great sci-fi creations!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cast Your Space Vote


It's that time of year! The Oughties are almost over, and we soon head into the second decade of the 21st century... Top Ten lists and annual polls are everywhere, deciding the bests and worsts and winners and losers of the year 2010.

Discovery Science
The Reader's Choice vote at the Discovery Channel online outlet, asks: What was your favorite Discovery News Space article of 2010? They used the Twitter interface for the first time this year, which I imagine will become more frequent. At the moment, "Earth-Like Planet Discovery Buoys Search for Life" has edged ahead of SpaceX and Extra-solar planet-hunting, but don't count out anti-matter just yet. Go vote!

Over at the Cosmo Blog, Clark's Universe encourages us to Vote for the Most Inspiring Astronomical Photo of the Year, a difficult choice between "ten stunning photographs of the cosmos that did not exist 12 months ago".

Mystic Mountains
Another fun poll is at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, posing the question: Which of these 7 stamps do you think best represents America? The winning stamp that wins the poll will be the one that symbolizes the United States in the upcoming International Stamp Gallery.

Number #7 on the list is the 1989 Moon Landing Stamp, commemorating the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11, and this clear public favorite is currently enjoying a wide margin of victory. I voted last week when the cont was at about 2,000. This week, I notice it has jumped 600 ticks, and the moon landing, as representative of American culture, has an even more commanding lead.

Space Stamp Vote
Don't forget: there will be two space stamps released in 2011! In Spring, the Postal Service will commemorate both the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight in Project Mercury and the current mission to planet Mercury (launched in 2004 and scheduled to orbit Mercury soon).

If you're tired of space stuff by now, and see your glass as a little less than half-full, you can always head over to MSNBC and vote in their poll for the Top FAIL of 2010, where to the collective shock of decent people everywhere, no one cares about drunken adolescent celebrities, and the BP Oil Spill is leading the pack. Ah, just when you thought humanity wasn't worth saving...

Monday, December 20, 2010

भारतीय अंतरिक्ष अनुसंधान संगठन - ISRO


Monday Space Map update! This week I learned the Devanāgarī alphabet for Hindi, and mapped all the sites for the ISRO, or the Indian Space Research Organization. Once again, while researching all the centers and satellites of a nation's space agency, I found far more sites than I anticipated.

Click on the map to go to the main Space Map page at, or click over to the main engine on Google Maps. In both of these spots, you'll see a larger screen where you can zoom in, zoom out, and examine precise locations.

At present, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has 20 operational centers, and one new facility under construction.

अंतरिक्ष विभाग or Department of Space, Govt of India (Hyderabad, Andra Pradesh)

सतीश धवन स्पेस सेंटर or Satish Dhawan Space Centre & Launch Complex (Sriharikota, Andra Pradesh)

राष्ट्रीय वायुमंडलीय अनुसंधान प्रयोगशाला or National Atmospheric Research Laboratory (Tirupati, Andra Pradesh)

अंतरिक्ष अनुप्रयोग केंद्र or Space Applications Centre (Ahmedabad, Gujarat)

मुख्य नियंत्रण सुविधा or Master Control Facility (Hassan, Karnataka)

अंतरिक्ष आयोग मुख्यालय or Space Commission Headquarters (Bangalore, Karnataka)

विक्रम साराभाई अंतरिक्ष केंद्र or Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala)

जड़ता सिस्टम यूनिट or Inertial Systems Unit (Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala)

तरल प्रणोदन प्रणाली केंद्र or Liquid Propulsion System Centre (Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala)

मुख्य नियंत्रण सुविधा or Master Control Facility (Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh)

क्षेत्रीय रिमोट सेंसिंग सेंटर or Regional Remote Sensing Centre (Nagpur, Maharashtra

ISRO Center Under Construction (Mumbai, Maharashtra)

अंतरिक्ष अनुप्रयोग केंद्र or North Eastern Space Applications Centre (Shillong, Meghalaya)

दिल्ली पृथ्वी स्टेशन or Delhi Earth Station (New Delhi, Northern Capital Territory)

अर्धचालक प्रयोगशाला or Semiconductor Laboratory (Chandigarh, Punjab)

क्षेत्रीय रिमोट सेंसिंग सेंटर or Regional Remote Sensing Centre (Jodhpur, Rajasthan)

तरल प्रणोदन प्रणाली केंद्र or Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (Mahendragiri, Tamil Nadu)

त्रिपुरा अंतरिक्ष अनुप्रयोग केंद्र or Tripura Space Applications Centre (Agartala, Tripura)

सेंसिंग रिमोट इंडियन इंस्टिट्यूट or Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (Dehradun, Uttaranchal)

टेलीमेटरी ट्रैकिंग और कमांड नेटवर्क or Telemetry Tracking & Command Network (Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh)

क्षेत्रीय रिमोट सेंसिंग सेंटर or Regional Remote Sensing Centre (Kharagpur, West Bengal)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Footprints in the Solar System


What an exciting week! Now that we live in a world where a private company is capable of conquering space travel, I wonder: will a new space era ensue? Is there money to be made? Will commercial aims make this industry safer (competition equals more choices)? Or more dangerous (dollars over human lives)?

A non-government entity, through years of failures and stumbling blocks, discovered for themselves just how difficult it is to orbit a piece of hardware, much less living organisms. However, SpaceX and their celebrants appear confident that the next Dragon flight will deliver warm bodies to the International Space Station.

Spirit Rover Tracks On Mars
Alongside this news, many outlets ran articles about how Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity rover tracks are being erased by Martian winds. I got too used to the idea that the footprints on the moon would last for eons, since there is no lunar weather to erode them... but the same cannot be said for Mars, or other future places we might land our perky little robots and leave "human graffiti" behind.

NASA remains conservatively non-committal about where humans may be headed next, and what role the commercial sector will play, but in continuation with yesterday's post about space records, my mind started meandering about what milestones are next for our species?

What's Next For NASA?
In more practical down-to-Earth terms, the aerospace industry employs half a million people in the US alone. Industry sales have seen increases every year since inception, and sales of aerospace products account for about 2% of the gross national product, not to mention it has for some time enjoyed the largest trade surplus of any manufacturing sector. Will our nation continue to enjoy success in this area? Can other nations get on board? Quite a few naysayers are joining the doom chorus these days, insisting the days of the yankee empire are drawing to a close. Certainly, the next footsteps on the moon are unlikely to be American.

If the longevity and radiation hurdles can be overcome, I imagine the first foot on Mars may be Russian –- and the next major milestones for off-world travel will be categorized in terms of race, population and duration. We are up to 40 nationalities in orbit, 13 people at a time in a space station, and we now measure years spent in micro-gravity instead of weeks or months.

Space Craft Evolution
In my lifetime, I had always hoped to see greater international cooperation, and as I add countries to my space map, I am gratified to see that happening before our very eyes. I also think I'll still have a pulse when the Voyager probes leave our solar system in about 4-5 years. Will the golden records they carry ever be found?

I always felt very fortunate to have been born at the late aurora of the very first space age... but I have a profound sense of sadness that in the next four decades comprising my statistical life-expectancy, I may only see small increases in the numbers of things our collective space agencies have already achieved: more people in space at once, more people in space for longer times, and perhaps more nations going into space.

The truly amazing accomplishments, if we can pioneer them with the spirit we already know humanity possesses, may only be a hope for me, because they will occur long after I am gone.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Setting the Record Straight


Fun facts about [some of] the highlights and milestones of space flight...

Age Range
At age 25, cosmonaut Gherman Titov (Герман Титов) was the youngest person to travel into space in 1961, aboard Vostok 2. At age 77, astronaut John Glenn was the oldest person to travel into space in 1998, aboard Shuttle Discovery.

Longest Time In Space
As of 2005, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev (Сергей Крикалёв) is the human being who has spent the most time in space, a grand total of 803 days spread across six missions: Mir EO-4, Mir LD-3, STS-60, STS-88, ISS Expeditions 1 and 11. Krikalev has been dubbed the “Last Citizen of the Soviet Union” because the USSR collapsed while he was on Mir in 1991.

Humans Who Traveled The Farthest From Earth
Astronauts James Lovell, Fred Haise, and John Swigert are the humans who have flown the farthest, on the Apollo 13 voyage in 1970. While passing the far side of the Moon, they traveled 248,655 miles (or 400,171 km) from planet Earth.

Longest Human Space Flight
Cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov (Валерий Поляков) spent 438 days or 14 months(!) on Mir, between January 1994 and March 1995, during which time he orbited Earth 7,075 times and traveled 186,887,000 miles (or 300,765,000 km).

Longest Trip To The Moon
Astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt are the moon-walkers who spent the most time on the lunar surface, on the Apollo 17 mission in 1972; they camped out in the LM for 75 hours, or just over three days.

Most Trips Into Orbit
One of the few records that ends in a tie! Astronauts Franklin Chang-Diaz (STS-61-C, STS-34, STS-46, STS-60, STS-75, STS-91, STS-111) and Jerry Ross (STS-61-B, STS-27, STS-37, STS-55, STS-74, STS-88, STS-110), have both made seven Space Shuttle trips. I really want to meet one of these guys and quiz them to see how fast they can remember all their missions ;)

Most Space Walks
On two shuttle trips and one ISS expedition between 2000 and 2007, Astronaut Miguel López-Alegría completed 10 EVAs! Really. Ten.

Oldest Satellite Still In Orbit
The USA launched Vanguard 1 in 1958, and it transmitted geodesic data until 1964 when it's solar transmitter shut down, but the one-and-a-half-kilogram satellite is expected to remain in earth orbit for about 240 years, or until the year 2198.

Craft Farthest From Earth
The Voyager 1 probe, now traveling through the heliosheath at 38,000 miles per hour (or 60,000 kph), is now 1,081,9724,960 miles (or 17,412,659,445 km) away from Earth. Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 is headed for interstellar space and is well on track to be the first human space craft to leave the solar system.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Monkey Business


I never seek coincidences, but I do appreciate them when they happen. Yesterday, December 14th, was International Monkey Day. Yes, there is such a thing as International Monkey Day... and since its inception in the year 2000, celebrations have included such engrossing activities as auctions to raise money for primate foundations, monkey costume contests, Photoshop LOLmonkey competitions, monkey sound imitation choruses and the speed-knitting of monkey dolls.

Whatever. It keeps the speed-knitters off the streets.

Squirrel Monkey
I have something of a healthy side-interest in primatology, and while celebrating the news items of Monkey Day, I noticed that NASA chose this time to announce that they have ceased their study of squirrel monkeys being exposed to radiation. Mixed emotions. I, like many others, grudgingly admit the basic medical value – but have never given up the hope that someday, analog simulations on the ground would be able to go forward without the use of living creatures who cannot make the conscious decision to participate.

I doubt that day has come, and this may prove to be a loss of necessary research in getting the human race to Mars, but we can all wish the now-free 18 NASA squirrel monkeys well, as they proceed to non-research facility homes. NASA's press release indicated they were undertaking a "comprehensive review of the agency's research to see how they align with the President's plan for human spaceflight." You may as well hang a neon sign that says, "BUDGET CUTS".

International Monkey Day
The year 2010 saw a decided drop in the number of monkeys being utilized for research, a favorable rise in the Mountain Gorilla population, the discovery of three new species of primates in Colombia, Myanmar and Cambodia, and the surprise photographing of a small loris in Sri Lanka once thought to be extinct.

China became the third country (after the USA and Japan) to genetically engineer a macaque, and dozens of wildlife parks and reserves are edging many simians OFF the Endangered Species lists – just one amazing example was the unprecedented survival of all FOUR sets of rare twin tamarin births: Panamanians in New York, Golden Lions in Bristol and Atlanta, and Pieds in Colchester, UK. Death by cuteness on all counts! And, victories for the hard workers of many breeding programs who are attempting, through careful lineage aligning, to ensure these beautiful animals escape the danger of extinction due to habitat loss.

The American Naturalist published the results of a 25-year study, where extinction prevention behavioral observation by 7 universities in 6 countries studied thousands of subjects, and showed that some monkeys can do math (!), other monkeys use mime and complex communications once thought restricted to humans, and that primates are far more resilient to climactic and other environmental variability than other animals.

That includes us higher primates, like humans. So, let's hope they're correct.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Armchair Astronauts


Longtime reader and blog supporter Kim of Houston, TX brought my attention to a story about a local pilot who was invited to fly and land in one of the Space Shuttle Simulators. This chap happens to be an ex-Air Force F-16 pilot who has also flown Boeing 737s... nice work if you can get it.

The fabulous first-person essay was featured by Flight Global, and a few other select news outlets who specialize in these sorts of chronicles. I emailed the web content editors, because I thought it was odd that the gentleman's NAME never appears anywhere – as a byline or in his narrative. The photographs that accompany the article are not of him, but of the astronauts training for the upcoming STS-133 mission.

Shuttle Simulators
Hmm, thinks I… why would this someone remain anonymous? I've been in and around Shuttle simulators – both the toy kind at Space Camp, and the real ones in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (isn't that a great oxymoron? A "real simulator", LOL) … but if I had the requisite flight training and even the remote opportunity to pull off something that cool, I would want everyone to know it.

Alas, no one seemed to know his identity. Our mystery pilot takes us through the history of the Space Shuttle program, from Enterprise onward; the aerodynamics of the shuttles, including its capabilities in various maneuvers, and what makes them unique among modern aircraft.

Space Shuttle Simulator
He then tells his own story of being allowed into the SVMF with famed Flight Director Paul Dye (who, for some reason, I always associate with that Shuttle-bat incident… it's weird, what sticks in your head).

His familiarity with different types of simulators was useful for his skillfully tactile descriptions – but it goes without saying he had never been inside one that was capable of rotating to a vertical launch position! (Even if they do still have a "vintage 1980s" vibe, with an "Apollo-type controller" LOL…)

From pre-launch checks to booster ignition, from roll maneuvers to sonic boom and up to Mach 23 in orbit, from flame-out to drag-chute, our narrator is an encyclopedic host of Space Shuttle technology and history. I always wondered… in a simulator, could you truly take the experience seriously, knowing that you were only in a simulator? Our mystery writer comes pretty close; and while it’s a lengthy piece, it’s quality writing, and very well worth the reading time.

Home-made Shuttle Simulator
Or, you know, if you have some serious time on your hands, a huge basement, soldering experience, 6 wooden panels, five spare computers, 32 switches, 64 wires, and a really, really understanding wife, you can be as cool as Todd and build your own full Space Shuttle Flight Deck. Wow.

I have no idea who Todd is. But when I found this page, I wanted to be his friend. I'll bet he's a Firefly fan.

Monday, December 13, 2010

l'Agence Spatiale Canadienne


For the past few months, I've been updating my Pillownaut Space Map on the weekends, and on Mondays, blogging about whatever I've mapped. Canada was next on my list, and as their Constitution recognizes both English and French as official languages, I've included both. Far easier than Japanese or Russian, since I took four years of French lessons!

I have a few Canadian friends, because I'm huge into hockey, even to the point where I have flown to Canada *just* to see NHL games, no joke. I asked two of them (and I think it's no small coincidence that both of them asked not to be named in the blog) what they thought of their nations' space program, and if they "kept up" with space news.

Canadian Space Agency
One came right out and said, "Heather, if I didn't see your posts show up on my Facebook wall, I wouldn't know what was going on anywhere in the space industry."

The other quipped back in email, "We make fun of our own space program... I think it's partly because we are just shocked to find out we have one."

Of the nine Canadian astronauts who have flown in Shuttles, to Mir and to the ISS, they were able to name Robert Thirsk and Julie Payette, but no others... and it was news to the latter that Canada was the third nation to put a satellite into space after Russia and America.

As if to prove an appalling point, he directed me to a humor web site of "Photoshopping contests" where 19 entries poked fun at the Canadian Space Agency -- mostly to the tune of a Moon Zamboni, hockey puck, SCTV, and Molson Lager jokes. I debated for days whether to even link to this site, but perhaps a sense of humor, in the literal sense, is as good a starting point as any.

l'Agence Spatiale Canadienne
All jesting aside, I think the value of the Canadian-developed robotic arms and the many, many milestones of Canada's efforts in space science should absolutely not be devalued or overlooked.

I have nearly 30 national space agencies to go in my Space Map outline all over the world, and whether large or small, once this map is completed, we shall be able to see the power in the numbers.

l'Agence Spatiale Canadienne (ASC) or the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) sites include:

Centre spatial H.R. MacMillan or the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre (Vancouver, British Columbia)

Centre spatial John H. Chapman or John H. Chapman Space Centre / CSA Headquarters (Saint-Hubert, Québec)

Laboratoire David-Florida or the David Florida Laboratory (Ottawa, Ontario)

ACS Bureau de liaison or the CSA Liaison Office (Ottawa, Ontario)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Space FIRSTS, Including Cheese


I live for this stuff. Some people love Top Ten lists... I live for trivia lists. Hang out with me for awhile through the history, there's a cheesy payoff at the end…

October 3, 1942

DuringWorld War II, German Vergeltungswaffe-2 ("V2") rocket during it's fourth test launch becomes the first rocket to reach space – inadvertently.

December 17, 1947
The first living organisms to travel into space, fruit flies, are launched by the USA and successfully parachuted back to the planet surface in good health.

October 4, 1957
The first vehicle designed specifically for space by the USSR, Sputnik 1, launches on an R-7 rocket and achieves orbit, becoming the first artificial satellite.

Ю́рий Гага́ринApril 12, 1961
The first human being to travel into space and orbit planet Earth is Soviet Senior Lieutenant Yuri Gagarin, aboard Vostok 1.

April 6, 1965
The first commercial (non-government) satellite, Intelsat I, is launched by United Launch Alliance's Delta D rocket for the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT), to demonstrate that communications via synchronous-orbit satellite are feasible. Talk about creating a monster!

June 19, 1973
The first civilian in space is also the first woman in space, Soviet citizen Valentina Tereshkova, aboard Vostok 6.

December 6, 1965
During overlapping missions of Project Gemini, four US astronauts complete the first space "rendezvous" of two crafts. Gemini 6A and 7 flown by Wally Schirra, Tom Stafford, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell.

December 24, 1968
The first human beings to break Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and achieve Lunar Orbit of the Moon, Earth's only natural satellite, are astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders of Apollo 8.

July 20, 1969
During the Apollo 11 mission, US astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are the first two humans to land and work on the surface of Earth's moon.

Up Next?
June 29, 1971
Russian cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov populate the very first orbiting space station, Salyut 1, built by the Soviet Union. Sadly, these same three men become the first and only "in-space" human fatalities when a pressure-equalization valve opens in their Soyuz 11 craft.

July 15, 1975
The first joint space project between two nations, the USA and USSR, is the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), where three American astronauts and two Russian cosmonauts eased the tensions of the Space Race in a shared flight, also known colloquially in each country as "Apollo 18" and "Soyuz 19".

April 12, 1981
Columbia STS-1 is the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle or Space Transportation System, the first "re-useable" craft to achieve orbit and also return to Earth's atmosphere, being part rocket and part space plane.

December 8, 2010
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches the Dragon into orbit and later recovers the capsule from the ocean, becoming the first commercial (non-government) entity to fly and retrieve a private-sector-built spacecraft... carrying a huge wheel of cheese.

That's right, it's cargo was a hunk of Le Brouere, an homage to an infamous Monty Python sketch where John Cleese shoots the proprietor of a cheese shop that quite humorously sells no cheese! As Escapist Magazine noted, "The gesture retroactively makes the sketch somehow funnier, in that now even commercial spacecraft has cheese, but the cheese shop still has none."

Space X Cheese
If you are unfamiliar with this comedy sketch, like maybe you lived in a cave throughout the 1970s or hadn't happened to be born yet, there is a delightful live version on YouTube, where Cleese and Michael Palin almost crack up just toward the climax of the joke.

The original sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus is also on YouTube, not quite courtesy of BBC One.

Pretty sure that's a first. Gouda one, Elon! ;)