Saturday, September 22, 2012

SpaceUp Europe!


Coming to you live from SpaceUpEU at the Cosmodrome in Genk, Belgium! Are you watching all the sessions and presentations at  We have already enjoyed a wonderful slideshow by particle physicist Christer Fuglesang... I think my favorite part was where he introduced himself, and did not even mention that he was an ESA astronaut who went into space... TWICE! 

Logo Design by Jen Scheer @flyingjenny

If you have not yet tuned in to the vidcast, definitely do so within the next few hours, where we are continuing sessions and presentations, and NASA astronaut Ron Garan (now spear-heading the Fragile Oasis projects) will also be guest-starring!  Tomorrow, keep watching, for we will see Italian space traveler Paolo Nespoli... quite an impressive line-up!

My part was over pretty quickly, since I arrived this morning to find the schedulers had put me first in the line-up for a T-5 talk.  I had a moment of panic that I was prepared enough (I thought I would speak tomorrow, and have another evening to review me notes), but Remco replied that he knew I was a veteran speaker and could kick things off.  Well!  It is amazing how someone showing faith in you can help you calm your natural fears and rise to the occasion!  I happily bounced up to speak first, and was pleased to see so many people tweet and re-tweet the space maps I created and displayed for the SpaceUpEU crowd!

So far my only complaint is that it's a BEAUTIFUL day outside, and I would rather go hike the nearby Solar System Scaled Hike near the grounds of the Genk Cosmodrome that be cooped up in a building, even if I am getting to hear tons of geeky space stuff!  I have thus far met fascinating scientists, physicists, astronomers and space enthusiasts from Belgium, Germany, Holland, Britain, France, Sweden and Spain!

Also, having traveled 5624 miles (9051 km) from San Francisco to Genk, I think I am probably the space geek who traveled the farthest to attend!  And may I just say, it is completely worth it!

Tonight, we will all be treated to a sky show in the grand, domed planetarium onsite, after which we will enjoy a dinner in the resident restaurant called... wait for it... "The Crater"! Stay tuned, picture galleries and videos to come later!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

SpaceUp Founder: Chris Radcliff


I had the pleasure of attending SpaceUp San Francisco this past April, and this weekend, I'm so lucky to be attending the very first SpaceUp Europe at the Genk Cosmodrome in Belgium! In between, I kept up via Twitter with the SpaceUp Unconferences in Houston, San Diego (their third!), and Los Angeles; and I hear even more were or will be held in Washington DC, Canada, and Germany!

Session Grid
There are no spectators at SpaceUp, only participants.
Put a topic on the Session Grid!

The founder of the SpaceUp Unconference, Chris Radcliff, wasn't at all what I expected. You know, you expect founders to be running around… running things. But, true to his signature format, the soft-spoken, self described "software engineer, space advocate, citizen scientist, & geek dad" was far more of a willing participant than the an "owner" of the new forum style now delighting the space industry on multiple continents.

After he and many others treated us to a "T-5 talk" at the SF gathering, I resolved to make my own T-5 slides for whatever unconf I next attended, and hopefully sometime corner Chris for an interview!

Chris RadcliffPhoto by Kevin Baird

How did you first get the idea for an "UNConference" and what does it mean to you?
I've been a software engineer for over a decade, so I've gone to lots of tech conferences, both as an attendee and as a speaker. They get old, and the topics are always stale compared to conversations with friends or on the Internet. In 2006, I attended my first unconferences, Mashup Camp and MashPit, based on the popular BarCamp format, which was in turn based on an unconference called Foo Camp. They were both amazing. Attendees had so much more to say than any one speaker could! Every unconference I attended left my brain full of wondrous ideas.

To me, the most important part of an unconference is trusting the attendees (who you invited because they're awesome, right?) to decide what they'd like to talk about. There's no way an overworked conference organizer can predict hot topics months in advance, which is traditionally when speakers are chosen. (Imagine a smartphone conference the week after the iPhone was introduced. All the talks about slide-out keyboards and web browsing on a tiny screen. Awk-ward!)

When I got involved in the space community in 2008, I went to conferences to get a sense of what was new and fun. I noticed the most interesting conversations were happening in the hallways, and kept saying, "the space community should have a BarCamp." Blank stares every time; apparently, unconferences hadn't made the leap from the tech world yet. After describing unconferences half a dozen times, I finally worked with Jesse Clark of SD Space to put one on in San Diego. It was hard work – I'm a programmer, not an event organizer – but the result was amazing. All my space heroes in one place talking to each other – and to me!

Hardy spacetweeps Remmco & Eico are planning for the first SpaceUp in Europe this week. Are you surprised your idea crossed state lines and now an ocean? Will you be there?
I can't say I'm surprised that SpaceUp is going global – it's based on other global unconference ideas – but it has been heating up much faster than I figured it would. At last year's SD Space strategy meeting, I set a 5-year goal of six SpaceUps a year. We've had 7 so far in 2012, and there might be a dozen before the year is over!

I've been to all the California ones – San Diego, LA, and San Francisco so far. It's wonderful to see what other people do with the format; each one is different, but they're always exhilarating. I'd love to go to all of them, but I also have a day job. :)

As it turns out, I was already planning a trip abroad with my family when SpaceUp Europe was announced, but two weeks afterward. My wife and our geeklet take school with them wherever they go, so they're going early so they can attend. It should be exciting, and I look forward to hearing all about it from them and watching it online!

Chris Radcliff at SpaceUp San Francisco Californian @Joi_the_Artist re-captioned this Calvin & Hobbes cartoon to describe SpaceUps; what did you think of it?
As usual, Joi gets it exactly right. SpaceUp is a whirlwind in two days: Finding old friends (or online friends) and meeting new ones, talking about a zillion crazy ideas and sharing your own, talking until you're hoarse, and then crashing when you get home. People have asked for more time at SpaceUp, but I think it would be completely exhausting if it was any longer. There's one aspect that isn't in Joi's poster, though: working like a fiend between SpaceUps to make something that was suggested at one, to show off at the next.

You've been to a lot of SpaceUps now; what was the most interesting thing you saw, developed, created or talked about that stands out in your memory?
There are two moments that really stick out in my mind. One is something I look for at every SpaceUp I attend; it's my own "measure of success" for the event. SpaceUps are usually a mix of industry insiders, enthusiasts, and students, so seeing a student and an insider talk about things as equals can be amazing. For example, at the most recent SpaceUp LA I overheard a VP at a space company with a household name talking to a high-school student who was there as part of a robotics club. She mentioned the college she was attending, and he gave her three names (off the top of his head!) of interns at his company that had come from that university, and told her to contact them (and him) when she decided to be an intern herself. Her eyes bugged out and her jaw dropped. That's just awesome.

The other one I get to crow about because I'm a dad as well as an organizer. My eight-year-old geeklet has hosted four sessions at SpaceUps so far, and each one has been well-attended, with thoughtful and honestly interesting conversations. What traditional conference would ever gamble on an eight-year-old speaker?

Not too many! But that is the beauty of SpaceUp, and we're all so excited it's coming to Europe! Watch the live stream of SpaceUp Europe 2012 at SpaceLiveCast.DE!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ballunar Blast in Houston!


Fried ice cream, anyone? It's that time of year again in Houston! Mark your calendars in advance, because the celebration is a bit earlier this fall: September 28th, 29th and 30th will be busy busy busy with the 19th annual Ballunar Liftoff, presented by the City of Nassau Bay and Space Center Houston! Rain or shine.

Admission will be $10 per vehicle into Johnson Space Center, where NASA is holding an "Open House" on Saturday. Astronauts will be signing autographs! Who's joining us?

Ballunar Festival and NASA Open House
The amazing schedule of events for the 3-day weekend includes team skydiving exhibitions, evening "balloon glows," arts & crafts exhibits, Sonny the Bird Man, the Texas Snake Man, the usual presence from local restaurants to round out diverse concessions and tons of live music, including The Infinite Groove!

Of course, the hot air balloon competitions are the major highlight, and I love the names the participating balloon teams come up with! This year, we'll be seeing SuperChicken (seriously), Air Apparent (clever!), Beemster Betty Bovine, Rainboze Too, Spa Force One, Wind Rose, Leaves of Grass, Texas Magic, Texas Twist, Racer Tex, and many (many, many!) more.

Ballunar Festival and NASA Open House
Novelties to keep the kids busy will be Disney shows and local dancers, Lockheed's Shuttle Rendezvous, Air Sports Excellent Adventures, and many opportunities to catch local live musical acts. Just like Space Week, the Experience NASA zone with the Driven to Explore exhibit will be on hand, as well as the Kids Space Place and numerous NASA programs in the Teague Auditorium.

New additions to the festivities this year will be the exotic bird and snake shows, and the Preludes Dancers from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts!

Ballunar Liftoff Festival, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. Its mission is to help the public learn about aviation and space exploration, and to sponsor and fund educational activities that encourage young people to learn about aviation and space and to study mathematics and the sciences.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Star of India


Or perhaps "stars" of India would be more accurate, and no, I'm not talking about ships or sapphires! I mean the Ratnaswamy family, who visited one of the main space agency sites in India... something that very few visitorsever get to see.

My Twitter-pal, John R., left this gem on one of the NASA Facebook pages:

John Ratnaswamy
Such an amazing experience for their whole family, and a ringing endorsement for my World Space Agencies map. This is exactly the sort of thing for which I hope it could be utilized! Wow, someone checked it before they went on vacation, and were able to see a space agency they wouldn't have visited otherwise. Awesome.

And it resulted in quite the rare treat that makes me quite terribly jealous! After speaking with John about his trip, I hear that it's quite thrilling to tour around the fast-growing Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), even if photographs are forbidden.

Still, one can get a fair idea of what the Indian Space Agency is up to from their beautifully illustrated literature...

Indian Space Program
Click for full-size ISRO
Space Program Brochure

The ISRO, founded in 1972, is the 5th largest Space Agency in the world, spread across 22 sites (soon to be 23) in India. They are one of the largest satellite providers in the world, working on the construction of their third major launch complex, and also not developing astronaut training center with a mind to future manned spaceflight.

With the success of the Chandrayaan-1 mission in 2008, India became only the 4th individual nation to send a probe to the surface of Earth's moon.

Click for full-size ISRO Satellites
and Launch Vehicles Brochure

Sadly, upon John & family's visit to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (which also includes the Liquid Propulsion facility, Inertial Systems unit and the esteemed Indian Institute of Space Science & Technology), they had to surrender their cameras, cellular phones and other combination handheld devices. So, no genuine photographs of the museum, rocket park or surrounding facilities. You have to go there to see the good stuff.

However, special thanks to John for the wonderful brochures, usually only available in India! Some of this information is available on their website, but it takes some digging. Click on either of the above pictures to see 6-page glossy books of the ISO highlights: rockets, research, moon probes, Indian satellites -- and a surprisingly long list of satellites the Indian Space Agency has launched for other countries!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Breaking The Mold


Putting a spacesuit on is called "donning". Removing the suit is called "doffing." I don't know what it's called when you dip yourself in plaster to make body-molds that will decide all your space-suity parts, and custom seat-liners for space crafts (but I'll bet the Russians have a slang term for it).

WIRED published some photos awhile back, sensationalizing the "butt molds"; I normally enjoy the Wired family of blogs, but this time, I'm not linking to them on principle. I grow peevish when media outlets inflict innuendo onto perfectly reasonable operational tasks. That's only funny when astronauts do it.

Mercury Astronauts
The Mercury Seven with their Body Molds, 1959.
Left to right: Shepard, Glenn, Schirra, Carpenter, Cooper, Slayton,
Grissom, and director of the Space Task Group, Robert Gilruth.

Not surprisingly, when leg room was at a minimum and everything was made to precise specification, these first astronauts joked that you didn't "ride" in the tiny Mercury and Gemini capsules –- you "wore" them. Over the years, even as crafts became slightly roomier, such fittings are still the norm.

Current astronaut Clay Anderson wrote a humorous journal entry about how he was "fitted" for his seat on a Soyuz, perhaps the most amusing part being his exclamation that "[A team of five engineers] took measurements in places that I didn't even know I had!"

Astronaut body molds
NASA Langley Research Center, 1959

Two programs later, astronauts were also fitted with pressure boots, also designed from plaster molds of each astronaut's foot. Then, lunar boots were donned over the pressure boots with tight seals. I've searched high and low for photographs of the foot molds that were used, but thus far, have had no luck.

The archives do, however, include this eerie snap of casts from all Apollo astronauts. You can just make out "Borman" and "Bean" on the two front sets – alas, the other surnames (and rumored nicknames) are too blurry, and I've been unable to find any other close-ups in the public domain.

Apollo Crew Hand Molds
Houston, Texas - 1968

Of course, everyone wants to know which are Neil's... Apollo 11 always gets the spotlight! The hand-casts of Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins are in the US Space and Rocket Center at NASA Marshall in Huntsville, Alabama ... and I got a great picture of them myself this past January:

Astronaut hand molds
Top: Armstrong - Right: Collins - Left: Aldrin
US Space & Rocket Center - Huntsville, AL, 2010

Apollo-era gloves were custom-molded precisely to each individual hand – with thin silicone-rubber fingertips, which allowed astronauts to touch with greater dexterity when operating equipment or gathering rock samples. Neat, huh? There are lots of great viewing opportunities of donning & doffing in the Pre-Flight Suit Images section of the Apollo Library, if you have like a spare week to kill...

If you just want the snack-sized version, visit NASA's Spacesuit Gallery to see the evolution of the spacesuit through many eras of exploration.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Space Cats With Thumbs!


One of my [many, many] guilty-surfing-pleasures is the LOLcat phenomena... every year or so, I feature some of the space-themed LOLcats for fun. While compiling a recent set for future spotlighting, I stumbled across a mysterious Russian-American teacher who writes the inexplicably-named Cats With Thumbs blog.

Cats With Thumbs
Well, at least I think it's a mysterious Russian-American -- that conclusion took some poking around. Presumably, the reporters for this news blog are felines with opposable digits who roam the world gaining insights into breaking news at NASA, the US State Department, Library of Congress, Department of Commerce, Russia and Roscosmos. Oh, and the American Association of Feline Practitioners.

I've had quite an amusing time studying their take on Canada's attempt to annex North Dakota, Wal*Mart's bid to purchase Iraq, the current Pope's conversion to the Southern Baptist faith, and ... well, you get the idea.

I think my second-favorite has to be: United Kingdom Petitions World Court for Return of Original 13 U.S. Colonies. Good luck with that, giddy ministers!

There's a point here. I'm getting to it.

UFO Kitteh
My overall favorite, is how all the Earth cats have determined that aliens in our universe want nothing to do with us goofy Earthlings!

Stephen Hawking would be proud
. I wonder if he likes cats? According to them, communications from alien beings indicate they would appreciate it if we Earthlings stopped bothering them, or at the very least, stopped broadcasting cable television signals: "To put it bluntly, they think we're crackpots."

Apparently, they have a particular problem with Simon Cowell. However, they have not entirely ruled out sending ambassadors to Iceland. Volcanic eruptions notwithstanding, they appear to admire the Íslendingars.

Slightly less PC and a little more eyebrow raising in her space news is the report that Illegal Immigrants Were Discovered Aboard International Space Station, and all I can say is, OUCH.

Onion-worthy. Truly.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Endeavour's Final Endeavour


Parade route alert! Tons of breaking news this past week about Space Shuttle Endeavour has both delighted and enraged people everywhere, as word of her retirement flight was released; some are anxious to see the flyovers, display stops and final crawl; others are upset over how many trees in Los Angeles were cut down along her intended rolling path... (400 will be removed due to the wingspan, 800 will be re-planted).

Space Shuttle Endeavour Los Angeles Parade Route
Click to Embiggen

For better or worse, the trees are down, the stoplights and road signs will also be temporarily removed, power lines are being raised, and the spacecraft will soon be on her way.

Endeavour will perform flyovers of no less than 7 NASA centers! They are, in order, her departure point, NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA Stennis in Mississippi, NASA Michoud Assembly Facility outside New Orleans, Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, NASA Ames Research Center and NASA Dryden Flight Center in California, and finally, a visibility run over the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in SoCal before landing a LAX. Quite the cross-country spread!

The schedule looks packed and long, but of course it's just a fraction of her time spent in space. Her final mission will definitely be her shortest.

Shuttle Endeavour
Some fun facts about this fifth and last-created Orbital Vehicle:

Endeavour, always spelled with a "u", was named after H.M.S. Endeavour, the three-masted barque commanded by Britain's James Cook on his epic 18th-century South Pacific voyage.

Endeavour's first mission was in 1992. Her second mission was a huge sociological milestone for NASA later in the same year: the crew included Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, Mamoru Mohri, the first Japanese astronaut, and Jan Davis & Mark Lee, the first (and still only) married couple to fly on any space mission.

Space Shuttle Endeavour
Via school essay competitions about historical vessels, Space Shuttle Endeavour is the only Space Shuttle to have been named by children.

Endeavour was the Shuttle that first visited the Hubble Space telescope, to fix initial problems with optics.

Overall, Endeavour flew 25 flights total, the last being STS-134 in May of 2011. She is the third Space Shuttle to be flown to her retirement museum in the last year, the first two being the shuffles of Enterprise to New York, and Discovery to Washington DC.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Partly Cloudy With No Chance of Taco


No theme today. No moon laments. No deaths (hopefully). No politics. Just a funny memory... and I have no idea why I had a dream about this last night. Just one of those weird flashbacks.

So hey, remember when Taco Bell used the fiery re-entry of Space Station Mir for an advertising campaign?!

Taco Bell Mir Target
Mir, meaning "Peace" or "World" in Russian, was a Soviet Space program craft, launched the 19th of February in 1986, and as modules were added, was intended for a 5-year mission. After the Russian Federation was established in 1991, Roskosmos continued to fund and operate experiments on the station until 2001, making the craft last 15 years.

Side Note: Cosmonauts Aleksandr Volkov & Sergei Krikalev were aboard Mir during the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. When they left Earth, they were Soviets. When they returned from orbit, they were citizens of the Russian Federation. Volkov and Krikalev are the only space travelers whose citizenship changed while they were away from their planet

Mir was scheduled to be decommissioned over the South Pacific Ocean, guided back toward Earth to burn up in atmosphere. However, it was the largest object ever to be brought back from space; would pieces survive, and plunge toward Earth? Clearly the marketing department at Taco Bell Corporation hoped so. They created a 40x40 foot target with a bell bull's eye and the words "FREE TACO HERE" and floated it in the ocean off the coast of Australia.

In the event of the core of the space station landing upon the target, customers could claim food at no cost. So said Chris Becker, vice president of brand communications, Taco Bell Corp, "If Mir rings our bell, we will offer a free taco to everyone in the US." Despite all our hopes (these are probably the same odds by which people buy lottery tickets), no free tacos were forthcoming.

And after all the trouble Taco Bell went through to purchase insurance, covering anticipated costs of free food upon a direct hit!

Space Station Mir

On the 23rd of March, 2001, Мир dipped from its 139-mile-high orbit, and re-entered Earth's atmosphere, most likely losing flimsy solar panels first, and then many of its larger modules broke into fragments around the 50-mile mark.

A few photographers captured small swarms of incandescent fragments hurtling toward the sea at near-sonic speeds, the flying debris left streaming trails of smoke. After 86,331 orbits, Mir plunged into the ocean off the coast of New Zealand at 175 West longitude, 25 South latitude.

Partly cloudy with no chance of taco...