Monday, May 30, 2011

Who knew lying down was such hard work?


While I'm never enamored of how news can tend to trivialize the research experience and all it entails in terms of space flight simulation, I almost always get over it long enough to enjoy any press for the NASA medical studies! The most recent film broke new ground!

For all the new readers who joined me in 2010-11, I started this whole social media bit by accident after doing two bedrest studies myself, one in head-down tilt micro-gravity, and one in up-tilt lunar gravity. I documented my experiences of playing fake Astro-NOT, while scientists tested their various contraptions, or examined my bones and muscles for changes.

Gary Conway of Seattle
Now, however, a new component has been added to the current studies. Participants in iRATS and other upcoming campaigns get to use the eZLS or enhanced Zero-Gravity Locomotion Simulator, a wall-mounted treadmill that simulates space exercise. Of course, astronauts exercise for many hours per day while in space, but it's still a challenge to maintain bone density and muscle tone in weightlessness. Gadgets such as these on Earth help fine tune new possibilities for the space station.

This television broadcast on the ABC nightly news featured the head project scientist Ronita Cromwell, whom I've interviewed before about these amazing studies; our old friend and physical trainer Brent; some ISS footage of exercise machines versus those used on Earth –- all in all, a great range of what the projects are all about.

WFAA Dallas Channel 8 Story by David Schecter
Featuring Gary Conway (Seattle) and Michael Asaf (Houston)

But... "Mad Science treadmill"?? Well, I've heard worse descriptions. Realism is more beneficial to folks who hope to apply for a chance to be part of these programs, designed to result in, as they said, "Healthier astronauts through rigorous scientific research." Well said.

But was it truly a "mentally and physically grueling" study? Not really. I took those same horizontal showers for two months myself, and they were not that difficult. Humans are highly adaptable creatures; you deal with it, you practice, you become adept, and it becomes routine. Every day isn't a rainbow, but neither is every task so grinding that you cannot function happily; like most things in life, the truth is somewhere in between.

Michael Asaf of Houston
I've seen people make remarks about side effects that aren't true either; when the article accompanying this film was released online, someone commented that "you wouldn't even be able to walk afterward." Not so. Walking was stiff and achy for awhile, but healing is a rather swift affair. With regular exercise, I was back up to running daily miles in less than a month!

If you asked either of these chaps after their study stints... they'd very likely say the same. In fact, Gary and Michael, feel free to weigh in around August or so to back me up, LOL!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Twitter From Mars


It just wouldn't be a MARS UPDATE week without checking in with Roskosmos and seeing what the Mars500 chaps are up to! Aside from cabin fever, that is.

Cabin Fever on Mars
Very. Serious. Scientists.

After leaving their Marswalk activities behind in March, our intrepid explorers began the long journey back to planet Earth -- continually monitoring the health and psychological stamina of the crew.

One particularly interesting simulation-about-isolation took place in April, where they conducted a complete communications blackout for the space ship. Due to severe disruptions by solar storms (something that could definitely happen on a real Mars voyage!), the crew had no news, no email, no audio or videograms from anyone in the outside world... not even from Mission Control!

In some cases, such total isolation can be damaging, and at the very least, nerve wracking... as evidenced by their later tweet: "What if we came back online [after the storm] and there was no one outside?"

However, this type of training is designed to ensure such autonomy is motivating -- bringing the crew together in times of challenge or uncertainty, and hoping we found the right mix of people who can work as a team in any environment.

They took time in their schedule to celebrate Yuri Gagarin on the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight, continually remembering him as source of inspiration in helping the world to understand that the benefits of our exploration outweigh the dangers. Interestingly, none of the Russians weighed in, but we'll take their reverence as a given!

I was particularly moved by the responses of Diego Urbina, and if that name sounds familiar, it's because I also just mentioned Diego in the last post about MDRS crew, as he has now participated in Mars simulations on two continents.

Also! Big news coming up! Today marks Day #360, so this week will be a very exciting time , in that the crew will reach the one-year milestone in their ship. An entire calendar year in a simulation for science. What amazing commitment! And from there, it will still be 155 days to go until landing...

Mars 500 Crew
Join the crew next week on their many organizational sites and social media spots for all the anniversary buzz:

Mars500 Official Site at RU -

Mars500 Site at ESA -

Mars500 YouTube Channel -

Mars500 Twitter Feed -!/Mars_500

Mars500 Google Blog -

Steve Légère Mars500 Letters -

And of course if you query Mars500 on Facebook, you will now find many groups and fan pages sharing news items about this record-setting simulation program. Amazing how these have grown over the past year...!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS)


Another exciting site for Mars simulations is the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, managed by Dr. Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society. Laksen Sirimanne, veteran of two MDRS missions, made time in his busy international travel schedule to discuss his co-authoring of the amazing book The Mars Diaries: Crew #88 of the Mars Desert Research Station, edited by journalist David D. Levine.

Mars Desert Research Station Crew 88
Mars Crew #88 outside the Hab
Laksen, David, Paul, Steven, Bianca & Diego

Four of five crew members blogged during their Mars sim, discussing the Green Habitat, pressurized tunnels, water recycling systems, plant farms for water purification, inverter and power systems, generators, ATV "rovers", etc. Ever wondered what it would be like to perform a simulation with such strict protocols that you cannot go outdoors unless you're wearing a full space suit? The crews go to great lengths to ensure the simulations are as accurate as possible to off-planet exploration! Crew #88 included:

1. Commander Steven Wheeler
2. Chief Engineer Laksen Sirimanne - BLOG: The Sky Is Not The Limit (English)
3. Health & Safety Officer Bianca Nowak - BLOG: Bianca Goes To Mars (Dutch)
4. Chief Biologist DiegoUrbina - BLOG: Déjame mi Espacio (Colombian Spanish)
5. Chief Astronomer Paul McCall - BLOG: Never-Ending Journey (English)

MDRS Habitat

I noticed that among your four masters degrees, one is in Aerospace engineering and Astronautics; is that what drew you toward The Mars Society?
LAKSEN SIRIMANNE: Actually, I have been in the BioMedical field for about 20 years now. Since I am not in the space field, I wanted to contribute in some way towards furthering human spaceflight, and I thought a simulated missions was a great start. When I was growing up in Sri Lanka, my dad used to take me to the American Center where Arthur C. Clark gave talks and showed images of Saturn and Jupiter, taken from Voyager. I was 5 years old when Armstrong landed on the moon and am a huge fan of the shuttle program, so I feel like I grew up with NASA. I have always been drawn to spaceflight. Now I am following Elon Musk and SpaceX too, so you will see more blog posts about them. I am certain that I'll at least fly a sub-orbital flight (probably with Virgin Galactic), but my real goal is an orbital flight.

I also returned to MDRS in June as part of Crew #95, on a refurbishment and refitting mission to prepare the habitat for this year's crew seasons, and had a chance to work with some of the pioneers: Artemis Westenberg, Keith Keiplinger, Josh Nelson and Gary Fisher (who now own Explore Mars, Inc).

You were the most dedicated blogger during crew habitation, and anyone interested in Mars should definitely read the book! One crew before yours had thermal, electrical, plumbing and computer malfunctions, so you had your work cut out for you. Would it be difficult to be an engineer on Mars?
LAKSEN SIRIMANNE: Yes, it's going to take a lot of work to keep equipment running at all times. Similar to actual Mars conditions, the desert around the MDRS is very harsh and there are a high number of equipment failures. Engineers need to be "hands-on" "nuts and bolt" types who can figure out the problem and implement the solution. They have to be knowledgeable in mechanical, electrical, plumbing and a variety of other skills. Small problems can rapidly escalate into bigger problems; engineers have to know the systems inside and out. About the third day, I could tell which faucet was running (upstairs or downstairs) by the sound of the water pump and water pressure, I could tell when the furnace came on or off, and could tell which outer hatch was being opened just by the sound. We had less trouble than most crews because we stayed on top of the issues several times a day.

MDRS Crew Patches
My favorite post was your "Day in the Life of a Chief Engineer" where you give describe the conditions, temperature, tasks and your Spacesuit Mobility Experiment. Did you feel like you met all your research objectives? Would you have stayed longer?
LAKSEN SIRIMANNE: We had a great mission. The crew really clicked even though we came from such different backgrounds. The common themes were a love for space exploration (or anything related to space), smart, funny people with a team player type attitude. Everyone picked their area of responsibility before the mission and worked very hard to perfect their experiments and also share and educate the other members (i.e. astronomer, biologist, engineer etc).

Among the highlights were assembling the Radio telescope, the EVA Suit Mobility Experiment and the GPS/GeoTagging Experiment. So we accomplished almost all of our research objectives. One other thing that played in our favor was the weather. We had mostly sunny days with blue skies with rain or snow only on the last few. But the crew previous to us suffered very cold weather, and the crew after us many days of snow with high winds.

Part of me would liked to have stayed longer. But another part wanted to go home and back to work. I guess mentally I was prepared for only a 2 week mission. It gets pretty lonely even if you are around other people constantly, and the sense of isolation was very real. I did feel like we were on another planet.


My favorite picture in the book is Diego's farm label: "Eat the fruit but don't eat the plant!" I remember from my sims that food becomes an enormous pleasure in one's day, and I imagine in an extreme environ like you experienced, it's even more so. How were your moods based on whether edibles were appetizing or not?
LAKSEN SIRIMANNE: We were asked to participate in a food study that was run by Cornell University and the University of Hawaii. The details are in the book. We had rehydratable foods, and on alternating days we could add hot water to the packs, or add water and use a gas cooker. Breakfast was the worst. I did not like the oatmeal, or the MRE bread and jam... but the soups were absolutely fantastic. The Texas BBQ chili was terrible. Then someone found cans of corned beef which broke up the vegetarian diet and we thoroughly enjoyed beef with rehydrated potatoes, peas and onions. Sprouts grew in the greenhab by the second week, so we had fresh sprouts with one of the dinners. That was fantastic. I am sure that on a mission to Mars the spaceship will have a greenhab with fresh fruits and vegetables. The mood definitely lifted when we had tasty food to eat. But when it was not, nobody complained because everyone knew it was a short mission. I am sure this will be different on longer missions.

What do you think overall about our chances to get to Mars? The challenges are intense… do you think humans will set foot on the red planet?
LAKSEN SIRIMANNE: Yes, I do believe that humans will not only set foot on Mars but colonize! Unlike the Moon, which is very close, such that you can make a 10 day visit, the trip to Mars will be too long and expensive for "flag & footprints" type missions. As described in Dr. Zubrin's book The Case for Mars – we will not just travel to Mars, but crews will be sent to colonize it with a second crew landing before the first crew returns to Earth. The other important consideration is that unlike the Moon, which has no atmosphere, we can use the atmosphere of Mars and the solid CO2 to make oxygen, water, and rocket fuel. I think the first settlers will not be test pilots but electricians, plumbers, masons, carpenters, engineers and technicians. They will be followed by scientists, then families, teachers and journalists. I am hoping that humans will set foot on Mars in my lifetime.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Haughton-Mars Project (HMP)


So, did everyone sign up to win the Mars rock? It's been awhile since I turned my attention to my Mars fixation, so I thought now would be a good time to look around all the great Mars projects going on with various agencies and institutions.

Flashline Mars Desert Research Station
Photo by Christine Pires on Devon Island, Baffin Bay, Nunavut
(Crew Vehicle compliments of NASA Edge)

This past year, it's been my pleasure to meet a fantastic lady through Facebook who "worked on Mars" for nearly four years! Christine Pires was the System Support Specialist at the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP), a NASA and CSA project managed by The Mars Institute.

Christine provided network support for planetary wireless communications in the Canadian High Arctic, and is featured in many parts of their photorgaphy archives in all sorts of research and simulation activities. Wow! But, brrrrr.

The territory for Mars analog simulations is named for the Haughton Impact Crater, the 41-mile diameter site of an ancient meteorite crash, estimated to have hit the Earth nearly 40 million years ago.

Haughton-Mars Project
Christine's description of the Canadian High Arctic:
"Snack food for the polar bears??"

Ms. Pires followed the HMP online for many years, spent another handful of years expanding her skills set and getting to know one of the Principal Investigators of the project. She then spent four full seasons with many crews and graduate students. Upon being asked about highlights, says she was constantly "honored and amazed at all the sciency types" and that it was "one of the very best experiences of my life without question".

What's amazing to me is how many people involved in space simulations all over the globe (most prominently Utah, the Arctic, Russia and the Antarctic) say the same thing! The Mars Institute, in addition to FMARS, also run the Mars-1 Humvee Rover and the Romance to Reality project.

Follow Christine, aka the Planetary Network Support Goddess on Twitter, and also check out the Haughton-Mars Project Photostream archives on Flickr!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Win a Mars Rock!


New Scientist magazine doesn’t say if they are giving away Mars shergottite, chassignite, or nakhlite – though one assumes it’s the first choice, given they are the most common. But who knows? I imagine the only person who will find out will have the Red Planet specimen in their hot little hand!

Note: Object in promotional picture is larger than it appears. One centimeter, that’s like the space of about five type-written dashes. ----- yeah.

Still, it's from freaking MARS.

Win a Mars Rock
If you poke around the site as a basic visitor, you can read various news articles and blog posts. Registering at New Scientist gives further access to their feature articles, interviews of scientists and scholars, and opinion pages (these expire after a week or so); I get the weekly newsletter from New Scientist, though I opted out of any spam from their parent company (Reed Business Information Ltd.) and third party affiliates.

Full online access, as given to paying subscribers, includes archive with no time limits and home delivery of their weekly magazine.

Once registered or subscribed, proceed to and tell New Scientist in 140 characters or less: What should be the first spoken words on planet Mars?

In other words, you have to think of an EPIC TWEET to win this pebble.

Win a Rock From Mars
That's right, your job is to come up with the timeless words spoken by the first human to set foot on the red planet. And Mission Control has to be able to use it on Twitter.

There are 10 prizes total... the runner-up 9 being copies of My Life On Mars by Colin Pillinger.

The contest ends at midnight London time (BST) on Tuesday, May 31st, 2011, upon which time the winners will be emailed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Baby of the Fleet


Yeah, go make the round of space web sites this week, and try to find one that doesn't feature a tribute to Space Shuttle Endeavour. G'head, try. ;)

Shuttle Endeavour
I've got a new special place in my heart for Orbiter Vehicle 105, because when she's done with her current 16-day voyage, she'll be coming to her new permanent retirement spot in my home state of California! Not that I am anxious for her to be finished, however; at various times over the next weeks, I'll be following the Endeavour crew's mission timeline, all due rapt attention!

This week it is my great pleasure to feature some original photographs of OV-105 Endeavour, the only space shuttle named by contest among school-children, taken during her final VAB rollout by DCist Managing Editor and Astronomy columnist Heather Goss, on her last trip to Cape Canaveral.

Yes... yet another Heather! This is my third as a guest... so just one more, and we have the official clique. And aren't these shots amazing!

Orbiter Vehicle Endeavour
is a hardened veteran, despite being the youngest orbiter, made largely by recycled parts from Discovery and Atlantis. She was responsible for the first Hubble servicing mission, which put the giant space telescope into use; and she delivered Unity, the first American module of the International Space Station.

Click on any picture here to see Heather's entire collection at Aviation Week, where you can also read her many space blog entries about all different NASA missions and directives.

Space Shuttle Endeavour
It's sad to think Endeavour will never be upright on a launch pad again, but we were all treated to a glorious penultimate launch yesterday morning, and as always, wish her for safe -- and final -- return to Earth.

All photos credited to Heather Goss, except for #4 from the NASA Archives.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Smithsonian Curator Space Quiz


Who wants to learn about Smithsonian curators? I think that should be the title of their quizzes, just because "Are You Smarter Than A Curator" sounds more like that game show I would never watch.

Regardless, the website refreshed their materials and have a new quiz! Last month, this feature was launched by the Smithsonian, the world's largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums, 9 research centers and more than 140 affiliate museums around the world.

Smithsonian Curators
In the first round, they featured Heidi Hellmuth, curator of Enrichment and Training at The National Zoo, in a 5-question quiz, where every correct answer earned 10 cents for TNZ's animal care program.

The second round is the same model, but this time hosted by Roger Launius, the Curator of Lunar and Planetary Spacecraft at the National Air and Space Museum; Launius also previously held the position of NASA's Chief Historian.

Most of what he and his team curate is inside the McDonnell Space Hangar and/or the illustrious Udvar-Hazy Center, soon to be home to the recently retired Space Shuttle Discovery orbiter.

National Air and Space Museum
Check out some of the links to see what else they have in their amazing collections, and take the quiz to earn your free souvenir sticker, and also support the Air and Space museum with all correct answers! As per the website, each is worth 10 cents.

The first quiz lasted about a month, and I imagine they will continue on to change this, moving from museum to museum so we can learn about the full collections all across the Smithsonian sites. While taking the quiz, you will be asked for an email address, which opts-in to receive future emails from the Friends of the Smithsonian, their national membership group; however, you can opt-out anytime by unsubscribing.

Special thanks to
NASA Goddard's Ed Rezac for bringing this continuing quiz fun to my attention! :)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Endeavour Audience


Everyone is excited about coming to see Endeavour's final launch!

Alligator at Kennedy Space Center
And I do mean... everyone! ;)

Watch on NASA TV if you cannot get to Florida...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Junk Pile


Did you know that the USSR sent 16 space crafts to Venus between 1966 and 1985? Until this morning's round of time-on-my-hands research, I didn't. I'm sadly under-informed about the only planet named after a female goddess, it seems. The United States has only sent five probes, all in 1978. The Soviet Union, before turning their attention to other planets, sent capsules, landers and even "balloon gondolas".

The scattering of major hardware on Planet Venus amounts to just under 50,000 pounds or 25 tons. That's an awful lot of metal, slowly melting on the hot Venusian crust!

Space crafts on Venus, Moon and Mars
We hear far more about Mars in the news and popular culture, but only a fraction of similar metal exists on the red planet. And here, of course, some are still operational and moving about!

All the artificial objects on Mars, compliments this time of NASA, RFSA, ESA and JAXA, come to only 18,000 pounds or 9 tons.

It may still sound like a substantial heap of hardware, but it's a relatively meager showing, considering that's only 13 crafts total out of 39 attempts! It must not be as easy to reach Mars and land as we might think. The majority of crafts sent up have either failed somewhere along the way, or suffered communication malfunctions, leaving their fate a mystery.

Surveyor 3 on the Moon
Click for a graphic of large objects mapped on the moon

However, the list of lunar junk truly sets the record for off-world trash heaps. Our moon holds a whopping 393,000 pounds of space crafts, or just under 200 tons of human-made objects.

Each of the lists linked above have convenient coordinates listed, so it's fun to go to Google Moon or Google Mars and map the human hardware!

The USA, USSR, Japan, the European Union, India, and China now have 73 probes, [intentionally] crashed orbiters, landers and rovers on the lunar surface. Clean up crew, anyone?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Fry's Space Ship


Wow, I cannot believe I almost forgot this! This collection of pictures was on a different memory card, which I've just found again in my shockingly small accessory bag. (Seems you can lose anything in purses, however, no matter the size.)

On my visit to the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, I went all around the area of the Rose Bowl, which is La Cañada Flintridge. There are many other attention-grabbers nearby, including Studio City, where we had a trendy meal; Griffith Park, where we deliberately skipped the Hollywood Sign and hoofed around the hills for a few hours anyway; and Fry's Electronics in Burbank.

Fry's Burbank
Tech Mecca

I'm quite likely to waste half a day in any Fry's store, regardless of theme... but it takes space ships for me to pull out my camera before I shop the miles of aisles of computer fluff and DVDs.

Last year, I featured the Fry's Space Station store near Johnson Space Center in Houston, and ended the post by inviting anyone who's seen the Burbank or Anaheim stores to send me photos. Little did I know I would be in California myself so soon...!

The Burbank branch displays 1950s science fiction movies... mostly space ships, as constructed on a huge scale both inside and out...

Fry's Electronics Aliens
I Want To Believe

...but they also feature characters such as Robby The Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956), GORT from The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) and scattered giant Ants from Them! (1954). Quite the classic Sci-Fi theme park!

What, no Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952) ? Leonard Nimoy must be so bummed. About that and the prices in California stores. Good grief. I can't exactly give the in-house cafe a good review either. However, if you're playing tourist in the area (pretty funny, since I lived in Los Angeles for 2 years long ago, and never did a lick of sight-seeing back then!), the spaceships are worth a look-see.

See my JPL Picasa gallery for the entire set of pictures in the Burbank Fry's. Next up, the Anaheim store's Shuttle Flight Deck!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Light This Candle


Yesterday’s post didn't even scratch the surface in terms of all the great tales in Alan Shepard's biography: how he viewed himself and his world, how he was viewed by others, and the complex emotional dynamics of the early Space Race.

The amazing author of Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard generously offered an autographed copy of his book for a blog prize, and even made time in his schedule for an interview, so I could satisfy some of the burning questions I had after reading his book.

For example... good grief, are test pilots completely CRAZY?

Neal Thompson Blog
Also check out Neal's blog, where he invites any
and all to "stalk" him on Facebook and Twitter!

Test-pilot personalities seem such a paradoxical mix of precision and flamboyance. Alan Shepard claimed to hate the press, but clearly adored the spotlight. Your book was published 5 years after his death from Leukemia. Do you think he would have liked it? Or liked the attention from being the subject of a biography?

Neal Thompson:
I'm pretty sure Shepard would have seriously disliked the idea of my book, and probably the book itself, too. And I think one reason no book had been written when he was alive was because he refused to cooperate with any potential biographers, and his friends did the same. Many of the people I contacted early on would say something like, "Al wouldn't have wanted me to talk about this." But I think in time some of those sources realized his life story was an important one that deserved to be told. It is true, though, that he hated the press but didn't mind the celebrity status he achieved.

I think he liked managing the spotlight, and keeping reporters away from certain aspects of his story. The deal with Life magazine helped in that regard, and helped assure that, while he was alive, no one got close enough to tell the real story.

I was blown away by the amount of people you interviewed from every phase of Shepard's life. Most impressive was your in-depth research of WWII, his role in introducing jets to the naval fleet as propeller squadrons were retired, and his crossover into NASA at a time when our culture was in Sputnik-turmoil . Did you have a healthy interest in any of these historical eras before this book?

Neal Thompson: At the time of Shepard's death, I was covering the military (primarily the US Naval Academy and the NSA), so I already had an interest in military stories and, in general, stories about men living big lives. So when Shepard died, and I realized, to my surprise, that no one had yet told his full story, I knew I wanted to dig deep and really get to know who Shepard was.

This was tricky in the beginning, since man of his friends were reluctant to talk about him. But little by little I got through to people, and doors started opening. I also felt it was important to explore some of the lesser known aspects of his impressive life and career, such as his days as a carrier pilot. So much has been written about the space race, so I chose to find a fresh approach that showed not only what he did with NASA, but how and why he got to the point where he was chosen among the first 7 astronauts. To learn about the full breadth of his life, I felt that I had to talk to everybody.

Light This Candle, The Life and Times of Alan ShepardGordon Cooper called Shepard the "most complex" of the first astronauts, but NASA white-washed the "image" of the Mercury Seven, so we rarely see their multi-faceted humanity. However, his foibles brought him alive on the page for me, I admired how you didn't shun being truthful. While he was fascinating, brave and intelligent – he was also often arrogant, dismissive, and his adultery was no secret. Did you worry at all about revealing the "evil twin" of an American hero?

Neal Thompson: One reason I was drawn to Shepard's story was because his life is so rich with complexity and paradox. He was raised in a religious and disciplined family, but became a renowned rule-breaker, occasional hellion and undeclared agnostic. He was a good father and devoted husband, but not necessarily faithful. He was a top Navy pilot, but constantly battled against the Navy's rules, to the point of almost being court martialed. He was ruthlessly competitive but could also be generous, kind and extremely loyal. In short, he was fascinatingly complex. He was a human being, with exceptional qualities but also flaws. Learning about all facets of his personality made him seem more real to me, and I hope I achieved my goal of showing the man behind the white-washed NASA image of the man.

You absolutely did. He claimed the "Right Stuff" book and film were fiction, and disliked both. I for one am surprised that a separate film has never been made about him… but now that the 50th-year milestone has passed, perhaps someone will greenlight one. Do you think one ever will make his life story into a movie, and if it was made now, who do you picture playing Alan Shepard?

Neal Thompson: In recent Op-Eds that I wrote in advance of the 50th anniversary of Freedom 7, I describe how Shepard represented the iconic, bad-ass test pilot, how he dressed well and drank martinis and smoked cigars, how he was the epitome of Mad Men-era style and cool – he was basically Don Draper in a spacesuit. So, as for playing him on the big screen, how about Jon Hamm of Mad Men? I would love to see a Shepard-focused film some day, especially one that explores his mid-60s fight back from Meniere's Disease to eventually reach the moon.

Oh wow, yeah, how about John Hamm of Mad Men to play Alan Shepard! Check him out!

Thursday, May 5, 2011



"Ten Facts About The First Man In Space" was my post for Yuri Gagarin, so I guess my subtitle for and about Alan Shepard's 50th anniversary would be the "Ten Facts About The First Man to FLY THROUGH Space".

Why the distinction? Whereas Yuri's flight had been auto-controlled, and he was largely a passenger on orbit, Alan Shepard was the first person to control the angle and rotation of a space craft. He thus genuinely flew his capsule in space – a manual activity the American astronauts fought hard for.

His nicknames were Shep, Schimpf (a mis-pronunciation by a classmate's niece), The Snake, Roué, Liberty Hound, Icy Commander; and he often referred to himself in the third person as "the world's greatest test pilot".

Mercury Seven
Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. 1923 - 1998

Throughout his life, Shep lived in New Hampshire, Maryland, California, Texas, Florida, Virginia, New Mexico, Japan, Korea, and aboard 6 different Navy ships.

He skipped 5th grade and 8th grade, but [after he discovered girls] was later almost expelled from the US Naval Military Academy for poor academic performance and sneaking off school grounds.

Later, he nearly washed out of Navy pilot school due to poor grades, and took private flying lessons in secret to gain more practice time in the air. When he got his pilot's license, the first person he took for a ride in his first plane was his wife Louise.

Mercury 7 Flight in 1961
Schimpf played the piano and the bongo drums.

His father Bart opposed his son's decision to join the Navy, since Shepard men had a history of being Army colonels. Bart also later also opposed his decision to become an astronaut, saying it would derail his military career. Alan didn't listen either time. He became the first American in space in 1961, walked on the moon in 1971, and was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Navy in 1974.

In the early 1950s, Shepard once deliberately disabled a jet in mid-air so he could attempt a non-powered descent, and was the among first to produce emergency procedures for "dead-stick landings" in the newly invented jets, in case one flamed out in-flight.

Alan Shepard with Wife and Children
Upon being chosen for the Freedom 7 sub-orbital flight, he hugged his wife and said, "You have your arms around the man who'll be first in space." Louise quipped back, "Who let a Russian in here?!"

President Kennedy broke up a National Security Meeting to go into his secretary's office and watch the (4-hour-late) launch of Shepard's capsule atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket, which the first US astronaut later described as "a subtle, gentle gradual rise off the ground".

The MR-3 flight cost American tax-payers $400 million. As there were about 180 million Americans in 1961, that came to roughly $2.25 apiece.

Alan Shepard Golfs on the moon
When asked by Sports Announcer Bob Murphy what he thought about when he looked up at the moon after walking on its surface, Shepard replied, "Well, you know Murph, I wonder where my golf ball is."

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Alan Shepard Book Giveaway


Over the past week, I've had the distinct intellectual pleasure of reading Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, a captivating tome from Crown Publishing, courtesy of author Neal Thompson.

Let me just say, that while I love reading anything about astronauts and all things space, this in particular was a fun, fluidly conversational read – though still densely packed with remarkable stories and skillfully researched information about a very complex, often evocative, and always mysterious man who captivated the world in May of 1961!

Light This Candle, The Life and Times of Alan ShepardThose of us who were unfashionably late to the space race (*cough* Not born yet *cough*cough) eagerly absorb tales from the "names" who excite us – Jim Lovell, John Glenn, Gene Cernan, etc. and many were interviewed personally for this book. Still others were quoted from their own famed auto-biographies, to paint a fuller picture of the man who made some of them money, made more of them jealous, and made all of them work harder!

From early school pranks to golfing on the moon, he was certainly never boring – never even still for five minutes at a time, for that matter. Reminiscences of the remaining Mercury Seven and other Moonwalkers, as well as the foreword by Chris Kraft, paint the era in which Shepard thrived and reached the pinnacle of achievement for a cocky test pilot. Call it the Right Stuff, call it the Best of the Best, the clichés are many and varied. But once you delve into the many facets of the man inside the silver suit, he is anything but clichéd.

May 2011 Alan Shepard 50th Anniversary Stamp

Did everyone get a chance to go play on the Space Cadets app yesterday? I'm sure you've noticed that alongside the serious scientists and astronauts, there are some light-hearted science fiction stars as well… from Captain Kirk to Captain Mal... to Yoda. And kudos to anyone who plays with the quote generator long enough to find the lone Looney Tune. ;)

Alan also appears many times, with both funny and ponderous quotes, and you'll have a chance at winning a free SIGNED copy of Neal Thompson's "Light This Candle" if you go find him!

Go to the Space Cadets page and click the LIKE button… and you're entered in the contest! Generate a quote and post it to your wall, that's worth another entry. Everyone who helped test the new app is automatically entered, and all the wonderfully supportive readers who joined when I announced this yesterday.

I went to my admin alerts page today, and saw 50 new fans, right out of the gate… way to go, space geeks! I always hear people complain there is no "intelligent" material on Facebook, so here's your chance to join a page dedicated to the brainy, the pioneering, the true and literal rocket scientists.

Also, anyone who joins my Pillownaut Twitter feed in May is automatically entered (or entered again). On Friday, May 20th, I'll choose randomly from the alerts, and send the winner a brand new, free copy of Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, personally autographed by researched and author Neal Thompson … because it's worth it!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Space Cadets


Eager Young Space Cadets! Well, I have all sorts of nerd toys on Facebook, such as movie and television quote generators, but in honor of the 50th anniversary of space flight -- both Russian and American -- I decided to get serious, and create an application there that truly honors space exploration in all its glory!

Check out the new Space Cadets Quote App Generator on Facebook! This link takes you to the Fan Wall, so click the "Go To App" button to generate quotes from famous faces in the space industry, including rocket scientists, cosmologists, astronauts, cosmonauts, physicists, science fiction authors and scientific essayists.

Robert Zubrin Mars Society
I know, I know, all the ads can be annoying -- but unfortunately, those are placed in the layout by the third-party NDE or by Facebook, so there isn't any way for me to lessen them. I always just hope people appreciate the fun more than the annoyance of pop-ups!

The INFO Tab has all the application details, as well as links to related applications. If you want to see all the quotes (there are currently 90 total), go to the DISCUSSIONS Tab. From various places in the quote generator, you can also send suggestions for new quotes to the development manager, or simply post them on the Fan Wall after you hit the LIKE button.

And of course, I welcome any feedback in the REVIEWS Tab after you've the collection of pictures and quotes!

How many faces do you recognize? It was fun for me to put all these together because, in some cases, I knew the person but not their quotable moments; in other cases, I knew the person's work, but not what they looked like! So it's also got an educational bent, and I hope everyone enjoys something a little more "brainy" than what we usually expect from Facebook!

Come play and post!