Friday, September 30, 2011



Many of you have heard of OPEN NASA, billed by enlightened agency individuals as "A collaborative approach to open, direct and transparent communication about your space program."

As part of the greater Open Government Initiative, this entity's workforce strives to innovate on how the NASA does business by embracing new technologies and fostering "citizen engagement".

No easy trick in today's brutal political climate fueled by skeptics, but their earnest efforts reminds me of that old proverb: "Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand."

Conspiracy theorists especially welcome! But remember that your tinfoil hat boots the signal.

The important thing is to participate!

The program management official behind OpenNASA is Nicholas Skytland (who wrote what I consider to be one of the best space presentations ever) and the newest blog writers include Ali Llewellyn of (you may remember her from MissionX!) and Chris Gerty, crew member on NASA's undersea mission aboard the NOAA Aquarius.

Other fresh faces include William Eshagh and Sean Herron, who are now contributing articles about projects in the Open initiative, such as NASA Internships, Mars mapping, NEEMO, the Nebula story, events like space camps or World Space Week, and astronaut initiatives such as Fragile Oasis. has moved to their new official site at, which everyone should check out along with their sister-site This "Open Data Project" portion provides access to amazing NASA digitized datasets, which represents only a small-but-continually-growing body of knowledge captured in nearly 100 years of US aeronautics and space endeavors.

…But choose your forms of participation wisely

Open source software? Check. Open source summit? Check. They make a great team all around; everyone will enjoy first pieces of writing on the new site!

And I'm not just saying that because one of their awesome writers asked to interview me about my space flight simulation experiences... but of course, that didn't hurt, either. ;)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Desperately Seeking Snoopy


I'm not sure if this is a noble endeavor or fruitbat crackers in the classical sense, but it seems there is now an international Snoopy Search Party, and it just smacks of a lesser-known X-Files episode.

Snoopy Space Safety Poster by Charles Schulz
In May of 1969, astronauts Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan completed what was known as the "Dress Rehearsal" mission of Apollo 10. The crew completed 31 orbits of the moon in Command Module Charlie Brown, and tested the guidance and navigation systems of the Lunar Module Snoopy.

During trial maneuvers, the Snoopy LM came within 8.4 nautical miles of the moon's surface. The descent stage was deliberately crashed into the lunar surface; the ascent stage, after its crew exercises, was cast into heliocentric orbit, where it's been now for 42 years.

Lunar Module Snoopy
No other once-manned spaceships are still out there the in the black. Snoopy is the lone wolf. At present, Charlie Brown is in the Science Museum of London – so it's not hard to see why a British team learned all about this mission and decided they were going to track Snoopy down.

British amateur astronomer Nick Howes, who's passion normally lends itself to hunting asteroids, rounded up some heavy hitters with the intent of finding the tiny LM. NASA's JPL, Wales' Faulkes Telescope team, the Space Exploration Engineering Corporation, California's Jamesburg Earth Station and Italy's Remanzacco Observatory will be overseeing the project with schools across Britain, despite having no reliable orbital data after 1970.

Apollo 10 Crew. Guilty of littering.

The search area of this science project is over 135 million kilometers; the vast visual field will be examined with robotic telescopes and later, spectral analysis, if any potential possibilities are found in terms of hardware.

Wow. Needle. Haystack.

So says the Faulkes Education Director Sara Roberts: "There will be a huge search field to examine, so this is not something which will happen overnight. It could take weeks, months, years — or we may possibly never find it. But we're going to try, and as a bonus, the areas we'll be searching will hopefully turn up new asteroids, and maybe even some comets, so there will be useful results whether we find Snoopy or not."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Space Over Time


Technology Review, the magazine of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published one of those all-the-rage-now "infographics" in their Autumn issue.

It shows over 7,000 space launches, noted annually by nation and payload purpose: military, government non-military, commercial or amateur, including universities.

Space Launches by Nation
Click to Download Full-Sized PDF

Unsurprisingly, Russia and America dominate the visual field, with steady streams of launches interspersed with explosions of activity in particular eras. The remaining 50 countries hold some well-knowns as well as many surprises... (Really? Mauritius launched commercial payloads??)

Well done, I say. Even if they do have an ink-blot-versus-totem-pole sort of feel.

Space data from 1959 through the summer of 2011 was compiled by Harvard-­Smithsonian Center ­astrophysicist Jonathan ­McDowell, and arranged graphically by MIT Research Engineer Mike Orcutt and Tommy McCall, founder of

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pale Blue Dot


When I was in elementary school, science teachers used the idiom "a speck in the universe" to describe planet Earth, trying to give us an idea of the vastness of space.

I don't often ponder the vastness of space, because really it's just vastly too vasting VAST. Like, raging vastocity. I know our human brains, having no realistic comparison, cannot possibly intellectualize the vastness, and here's why:

I thought I had it all figured out in 2nd grade when I memorized the order of the planets, as displayed by a poster in our classroom. It looked so simple, and the way people talked about space travel back then -- how everything would soon be "space age" and Star Trekian, well, I imagined we'd all be vacationing to Saturn by the time I was in high school.

Around 9th grade, I read a book that said solar system illustrations or general "depictions" are complete nonsense. You can't scale to size on a poster, or even a large wall.

Even if you shrank a drawing of Earth to the size of the average aspirin pill, Jupiter would be a thousand feet away. Pluto would be in the next town over. And that's just "space in between" objects, to say nothing of the vastness of the objects themselves!

Pale Blue Dot
Comparatively speaking, right around the time this video shows the largest known star in comparison to Earth, our beloved planet is ONE PIXEL. In the immortal words of the great Carl Sagan, pale blue dot.

In the digital age, I think it speaks more to our mentality to be a "pixel" now instead of a "speck". And, I laughed aloud at the extra little slap-in-the-face at the very end... CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE... hint: it isn't you.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Space Shuttle Nostalgia


Okay, no more posts about horrible music... moving on! I hate that this is all in the past tense now, but...

The United Space Alliance (USA) built six space shuttle OVs, or "Orbital Vehicles": Enterprise (1976), Columbia (1981), Challenger (1983), Discovery (1984), Atlantis (1985), and Endeavour (1992).

Space Shuttle Enterprise alone never launched, as it was air-worthy as a tester, but not deemed space worthy after certain design changes. For many moons she has rested at the Smithsonian, but will move soon to New York so Shuttle Discovery can take her place!

Space Shuttle Discovery
My favorite portrait of Discovery

The space shuttles could move at about 17,500 miles per hour, or roughly 25 times the speed of sound.

To put this number in perspective, it takes the average Boeing jet about 5-6 hours to fly from San Francisco to New York. A Space Transportation System (STS) could cut the trip to 9 minutes.

Astronauts Jan Davis and Mark Lee, who flew aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour in September 1992, were the first (and still only) married couple to travel into space together.

Conditions permitting, returning shuttles landed at Kennedy Space Center, but if alternatives were needed either for a landing or "launch abort," shuttles could land at various commercial and military sites in 25 states and 33 different countries.

Space Shuttle Atlantis
My favorite portrait of Atlantis

Together, the space shuttle orbiter, external tank and twin solid rocket boosters had approximately 2,506,450 parts.

The US is not the only nation to build a "re-usable" spacecraft. While many of us are saddened that the Shuttle program ended... hey, we still had one for 30 years!

In 1976, the USSR created three Буран ("Blizzard") crafts; the first was scrapped, but the second completed an unmanned spaceflight in 1988. The Soviets subsequently cancelled their shuttle program in 1993 and the active Buran was unexpectedly destroyed in 2002 when the roof of its hangar collapsed under heavy snow. The third Buran is on display at Technikmuseum Speyer (Germany).

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Martian Hop


And speaking of music... after I put the Onion article about Springsteen's fake Mars album on my blog, I got a mild barrage of emails filled with space-themed songs, not the least humorous of which was The Martian Hop. How did I miss this? The song begins with the unlikely message:
We have just discovered an important note from space
The Martians plan to throw a dance for all the human race

As alien conspiracy theories go, it's the most benign extra-terrestrial intention for humanity, but by far the worst-dressed.

Rocky Sharpe & the Replays (1980)

WARNING: This is two minutes of your life you will never have back again, and once you see it, it cannot be UNSEEN. Watch at your own risk and understand you will have a certain amount of brain cells commit suicide.

Horrifically, this wasn't just early 1980s tragedy. This version by Rocky Sharpe and The Replays was a cover tune of an earlier Doo-Wop era song by The Ran-Dells.

The Ran-Dells (1963)

The sound effects in the original are particularly amusing. Papa ooh mir mir papa ooh mir mir papa ooh mir mir papa ooh mir mir! Catchy, huh? They couldn't name a single dance the Martians couldn't do. So this was what American teenagers imagined in 1963? Awesome. I'm impressed. I can't do the twis or the locomotion. I'm not even sure how.

The Martian Hop
Perhaps it's time for another remake.

I wouldn't put this one past Lady Gaga.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Mars Has A New Boss


You'd have to be living in a cave this week to have not heard that NASA discovered Tatooine, and I'll bet George Lucas is laughing his Alderaan off.

So my dilemma today: do I discuss this exciting new discovery, or do I assume everyone is a huge Kepler nerd like me and that you have already read the same 50 articles I have? Yeah. So let's talk about other important space stuff. Like, music.

Bruce Springsteen Mars Album
Bruce Springsteen Releases New Sci-Fi Concept Album
About Struggles Of Poor Miners Working On Mars

This one really takes me back to the 80s, when Springsteen's baggy posterior portrait was all the rage. For those of you have never spun vinyl -- well, you didn't miss anything, and we're all better off with iPods -- but there is something to be said for the working class hero. Imagine how many of them we will need for inspiration when we're overseeing the immigration to Mars for all the work that needs to be done in the carbonite mines!

So says The Boss, he wanted to express his nostalgia over "one's carefree younger days of racing souped-up hyper-thrust cruisers through the Valles Marineris canyon, and for nights spent chasing Martian girls along the rusting boardwalks of a crater-side spaceport."

And who wouldn't want that, really.

(Alas, we take our humanity with us wherever we roam; if we do ever reach the point where we start harvesting the resources of other celestial bodies, it will likely resemble an episode of the gritty "Firefly" series, and not the optimism of "Star Trek".)

Mars Unions
You can't tell, but that's Norma Rae inside the suit.

*sigh* ... I spend an awful lot of time wishing articles on The Onion were true, partly because I appreciate sarcasm on a pathological level, and partly because I think their social satirists could more efficiently run our government than the current pack of yahoos.

This article is no different. In fact, the only thing that would make it better would be if Aerosmith collaborated on the project, and the Martian colony was mining for chocolate.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Test Your Inner SpaceNerd


I visited and took their Space Test... which is both highly entertaining and amusing.

Test Your Knowledge of Space
For you sticklers: in question six, they meant "revolve" and not "rotate", so don't be snarky. And please don't have a meltdown when they mention "THE EIGHT PLANETS" and neglect to include PLUTO! Fair warning.

I [very nearly almost] aced this with my mental store of geek history, and some blind luck identifying a few pictures. However, it seems I need to brush up on some scientific definitions:

The NerdTests' Space Test says I'm a Master of Uber Space Nerd's Mentor.  What kind of space nerd are you?  Click here!

The site claims that 21,215 unique people have now taken this test (26% female, 71% male and 4% "confused") – seriously, what is with this poor, poor showing of double-XX chromosomes? Come on ladies, join in the full frontal nerdity!

Interestingly, nearly 12% of the people who have taken the test on this web page believe we as a species have NOT been to the moon. Another 2% think neutrinos indicate a cloaked spaceship, and thus watch too much Star Trek.

While "polling the masses" toward the end, 59% think humans will return to the moon by 2020, and almost 68% hope to be on Mars by 2030.

Now if you'll excuse me, my borderline OCD perfectionism complex demands that I go line by line and Google all of the topics, to figure out what the heck questions I missed...

Tuesday, September 13, 2011



Spacehack! It's more efficient (and less criminally motivated) than it actually sounds. Spacehack is a directory of ways to participate in space exploration, interact with the space community, and also serves to encourage what creator and ex-NASA-employee Ariel Waldman calls "citizen science."

The Flight Analogs Project (FAP) investigations were recently updated at the top of the page in the "Data Analysis" category, so hopefully more people will find and apply for the new space flight simulations! Exciting new programs have begun to test out new garments and equipment that will be used on the ISS.

Other listed projects include:
  • "Launch Your Own Personal Satellite" from a TubeSat kit
  • Image a site on the red planet from the orbiting Mars Odyssey
  • Build robotic Lunar Excavation or Mars rover models
  • Track solar explosions and solar storms
  • Classify space images at Galaxy Zoo
  • Lend your engineering ideas for the Space Elevator
Some are competitions for prizes, others pay actual wages; some are for students and/or entire classrooms as projects, others for amateur and professional astronomers... and still others are simply ways to gather information to contribute to scientific research.

Find an Exoplanet
For instance, a timely project for the present moment is the "Planet Hunters", where you can help discover new exoplanets (extrasolar planets orbiting other stars) by exploring telescope data from NASA's Kepler mission. This online experiment taps into the power of pattern recognition. How cool would it be to find a new habitable planet??

If you know of a space-related activity where Citizen Scientists can contribute, you can also submit a project to Spacehack. And feel free to tell me if you join one, as I'd love to hear what folks are contributing!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years


September 11th
New York City from the International Space Station

September 11, 2001

World Trade Center
A moment of silence. Thank you.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Tribute to 9/11 Terrorism Victims On Mars


With very special thanks to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I encourage everyone to check out their "News and Features" section for a very moving story about those lost in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.

Tribute to 9/11 Terrorism Victims On Mars"It's gratifying knowing that a piece of the World Trade Center is there on Mars. That, to me, contrasts the destructive nature of the attackers with the ingenuity and hopeful attitude of Americans," said Stephen Gorevan, Honeybee founder & chairman, and a member of the Mars rover science team.

Click on the 9/11 Tribute text links or the photo to read the story of how Manhattan's Honeybee Robotics and JPL engineers collaborated to honor those who perished when the buildings fell.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory built NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and Honeybee designed many of their on-board scientific instruments. The Mayor’s Office of New York City donated small pieces of aluminum debris from both Tower 1 and Tower 2 of the World Trade Center. These were made into cable shields on two rock tools, each of which bear images of American flags.

The Spirit and "Oppy" Rovers were launched in 2003 and landed on Mars in 2004. It is estimated these Mars Rover Memorials of September 11th victims could last in the Mars environment for millions of years!

Friday, September 9, 2011



What are you doing here? You should be over at NASA TV watching the GRAIL launch! And in my time zone, we'll watch the sun rise not long afterward! Coverage began yesterday at the NASATweetup, carried on through the first scrub at dawn, and will hopefully culminate tomorrow with a launch.

NASATweetup GRAIL Launch
Charles Bolden at the GRAIL Launch Tweetup

This morning, the Delta II Heavy Launch Vehicle will lift off from Space Launch Complex 17B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida around 8:30 am ET. Or so one hopes. Each GRAIL launch window is 1 second long. Between now and October 19th, there will be 2 launch opportunities per day.

Once away from Earth and headed toward our old friend Selene, the Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission will fly twin spacecraft in tandem orbits. A real first for Moon science!

Twin Moon Satellites

The mission's primary science objectives will be to measure the lunar gravity field, determine the structure of the sub-surface interior from crust to core and to infer the moon's stages of thermal evolution, and also examine the history of asteroid collisions.

Among GRAIL's many hardware charms are the "moonkams", five cameras aboard each spacecraft which will provide a way for students and the public to participate in GRAIL's mission of lunar exploration. NASA astronaut Sally Ride. Over GRAIL's 80-day mission in 2012, classrooms that request photography of target areas on the Moon can check the MoonKam site for images of their selected regions.

GRAIL Mission Emblem
Follow #NASATweetup and #GRAIL trends today on Twitter to see all about the mission launch, or go straight to the Grail-Launch public list.

Also check out the GRAIL Fact Sheet for... way more detail than you probably wanted.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

No Space For You!


In the "Rant" section of always-entertaining IO9, writer Charlie Anders recently expounded upon "Why We Need More Space Adventures", because the fall season of 2011 is the first time there is no show featuring space travelers since the "V" and "TNG" gap in the 1980s.

Anders serves as a fine social essayist in the "Space Opera" campaign, listing all the reasons audiences love stories on spaceships, whether self-congratulatory about human-invented technology (notice even when it is inferior, we still triumph over hostile aliens) or simply employing the tragic, damaged-goods, shirt-ripping hot shot who can wage war and woo women with equal charisma.

Firefly Cancelled
He includes in his list the "exploring strange new worlds" angle – certainly a huge part of sci-fi in terms of imagining what might be different on another planet or in another galaxy. We humans also explore what WE FEAR in these scenarios. The villains can often be as telling as the heroes.

However, my fear now is that we have contracted inward, entertaining only the petty politics and crime of Planet Earth, and we no longer think we're going out into the stars. Anders goes on to insist that fantasy won't cut it, neither will apocalypses or time-travel. What we lack suddenly is exploration. Pioneering. Have we lost even the desire for these things?

Our lives are reflected in our art, and perhaps his most chilling commentary on the state of our space dreams is: "…the Baby Boomers who propelled the Space Age are reaching retirement, now helping to propel the Debt Age."

Why We Need More Space Adventures
Perhaps too apt a metaphor

Anders challenges: "What comes first: an excitement about real-life space exploration, or a renewal of fictional space adventure? Could new shows about the wonders of space travel get people jazzed about going to Mars, or do we have to wait for NASA to launch a Mars mission before people will be interested again?"

A fine question. I could sit here and describe about a thousand books that remain unscripted, untapped, alone in all their space glory that will never see the screen. I could.

But I'm still trying to get over the cancellation of the last Star Trek series. Not that I watch much television anyway, but it's a sad commentary on how reality shows, chaotic kitchens, and "Corpse TV" have taken over. How many serial-killer-chasing dramas can people handle? Far too many, apparently. I find forensics and crime-solving as fascinating as the next person, but can't we do them in space, too?

That's what we need -- Law and Order: Lunar Crime Unit.

And no, we won't settle for animation

Well, someone tell Charlie that on the heels of this dilemma, NASA reports they hope to revive "hard sci-fi" to inspire future space forces. They're planning an initiative to promote accurate space science and science fiction novels to inspire young readers to embrace technology that makes space travel possible.

The hope is that someday, armed with mission details and the science that made them possible, they will aspire to become part of the space industry. At the very least, let's hope we spawn at least one hopeful candidate to take over FOX and quit cancelling everything cool.

Monday, September 5, 2011

N =


Oh but I am all a-tickle with merriment. Seems I've managed to peeve the tin foil hat contingent in at least one state, resulting in some not-quite-rated-PG-13 comments. As funny as I find this, I remove rudeness as a rule, and please remember I have some great parents as regulars who read this blog with their children, and I like to keep things family-friendly.

My email address is on my profile page if you have something to say; the people who blast me for putting Pluto at the kiddie table use this method, and so can you tin-foilers. Unless the government mind-control hum told you otherwise today.

Gandalf says Deal With It

So, hey. I'm not running for Congress, I have no television anchor job to lose by telling it like it is; I'm just plankton with a fancy typewriter, and I don't care if you don't like my personal opinions. One hopes that you have better things to do than obsess over anything written on my blog. (But then again... I don't.)

Without mentioning any names or particular battles, I'll just pick a general point of contention out of the ether and say: Yes, I do support SETI, and no, I don't think what they do is laughable or useless.

In some of my previous posts, I've acknowledged merely the supreme improbability of contacting another civilization like our own in real-time, given the realities of distance in our greater cosmos. I believe we are more likely to find archaeological remains of another life form, and the same applies to Earth in return. If you want to use this benign stance as a reason to bash me or assume that I am down on SETI, go right ahead. Just don't get Stephen Hawking started.

Drake EquationI've never disagreed with keeping a candle in the window during the storm. I'm quite relieved that donations helped SETI back on their feet recently, and they will be able to resume operations.

Believe me, the people who work for SETI know things you don't. They know things I don't. They for-darned-sure know the Drake Equation, and I'd suggest everyone at least have a look at it before assuming that movies like "Men In Black" or "Independence Day" could just happen at any moment. You know who you are.

Drake Equation / Green Bank Formula
Named for and by astro-physicist Dr. Frank D. Drake, the equation is the best guess to estimate N, the number of advanced civilizations in the Milky Way. That would be the rotating spiral galaxy about 100,000 light years across, containing more a hundred billion stars!

What does N equal? According to Drake, the average of the most educated estimates would suggest there might be about 10,000 technically advanced planets.

That number may change. In fact, that number certainly will change. As it does so, the smartest thing we can do is ignore Hollywood and realistically explore how probably those worlds are, and under what conditions they might exist. See also: Kepler Mission and the search for habitable planets.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Pizzeria Luna


This is almost better than tin foil hats amplifying secret government frequencies. Almost.

It seems that Domino's Pizza representatives in Japan say they believe many people will be living and working on the moon in the future, enough so that they are already planning a Domino's Pizzeria restaurant to service the demands of would-be Lunar citizens.

While Domino's affiliate in the Land of the Rising Sun have no vehicle designed to land on the moon, and no one has any current way of sustaining life there, they have nonetheless developed a budget and virtual blueprints.

Moon Pizza
Estimating that it will require about $20 billion to build, their long-term intent is to transport 70 tons of building materials and pizza fixings over the course of 15 rockets launches.

What rockets, you ask? Well, yeah. That is some lofty chutzpah right there. They may be -- excuse the pun -- asking for the moon.

I figured humanity might consider the ins and outs of general life support on the moon before we start planning our junk food binges, but far be it from me to rain on their parade. Seems they still have pizza-delivery envy over Pizza Hut staging a PR stunt on the International Space Station back in 2001.

Lunar Pizza
Already recruiting delivery personnel?

I think the "Death and Taxes" magazine summed it up best: "A Domino's spokesman stated that they started thinking of the idea over year ago. She did not comment on whether or not they were stoned."

I know I've been something of a skeptic this month, and more than a little snarky about the end of manned spaceflight in America, but space humor doesn't always provide a good substitute for HOPE. But hey. Who knows? Maybe someday the moon really will come with (extra) cheese.

If you have a strong stomach, you can check out the cheesy, publicity-stunt video about the Moon Branch Project on the Domino's .JP website.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mars500 Breaks Another Record


Aside from being the largest and most complex simulation ever conducted by space agencies, the Mars500 just broke a record for the longest time a crew has ever spent in isolation. Some papers reported it as the "longest mission but without leaving Earth" – but that's rather a dodge that doesn't give enough credence to their amazing scientific trials, in my humble opinion.

The six men certainly have some iron determination, and none have opted to leave the 520-day simulation of a journey to Mars and back – call it vested interests between the Russian, Chinese and European space agencies.

They've landed on Mars to collect rocks, had some emergencies and stumbles along the way, they've celebrated one year in space, and occasionally they've gotten a little punchy in isolation. Okay, a lot punchy.

And now, the guys are in the home stretch... less than 100 days to go! Today is day #456, so they have just passed the 85% mark. On day 438, they were congratulated by Russian Cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, who holds the record for the longest space mission in history, having worked aboard Mir for 437 days.

Technically, he still holds the record for a real mission, but good-naturedly acknowledged the Mars500 for their "spaceflight" surpassing his in simulation. According to Polyakov's video message, it is tradition for Cosmonauts to congratulate their record-breakers.

Mars500 Exercise
Communications delays are dwindling as they grow closer to Earth, and many of their missives to the people sending them messages have a "counting down" mentality. Signs of fatigue? Not obvious, from their twitter feeds, but being human and all, I am sure they have their good days and bad.

The doctors who are monitoring their psychological and physical health have said that the monotony of their routine often affects them, but so far none of them has considered leaving isolation. They are always very aware of how their experiment sheds light on long-duration missions.

I'm looking forward to their landing on November 5th of this year! It will be so cool to watch them open the hatch, pop the champagne corks and ask the crew what they will do first, once they are free! To which I am sure the reply will be…

"When do I get my money?!"