Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Rise & Roll of Shuttle Atlantis


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 Atlantis, or OV-104, was constructed by Rockwell in California. Atlantis was the only vehicle which provided it's own internal power through fuel cells, and thus was not required to draw power from the ISS while docked in orbit. She flew 33 missions total.

Heather with Shuttle Atlantis
Me at the last Shuttle launch. With ATLANTIS!
Dream. Come. True.

In 1989, Space Shuttle Atlantis deployed the planetary proves Magellan to Venus (on STS-30) and Galileo to Jupiter (STS-34). In 1991, she deployed the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (STS-37).

Dependable Atlantis was our first fleet lady to dock to Space Station Mir in 1995. STS-71 also marked the 100th manned launch by the USA and the 5-day dock created the largest craft in orbit at the time (225 metric tons). Over the next few years, she would make 6 more flights to Mir.

The fifth and final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope was performed by Atlantis STS-125 in May 2009. In a marathon upgrade, Atlantis captured Hubble to replace gyroscopes, computers, and scientific instruments over a whopping 37 hours of space walks – making the telescope 100 times more powerful than when it launched!

Space Shuttle Atlantis
My favorite portrait of Atlantis

Yelena Kondakova was the first Russian female to complete a long-duration mission on Mir in 1994, and then in 1997 she was the first, and now forever only, Russian woman to fly on the Space Shuttle (STS-84)... and the orbiter who flew the only Russian woman Cosmonaut? You guessed it! Atlantis.

The last flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis was the final mission of the entire Space Shuttle program, which began service in 1981. She delivered a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module and Lightweight Multi-Purpose Carrier to the ISS on STS-135. On July 10, 2011, her docking in orbit marked the last time an American Space Shuttle rendezvoused with the International Space Station.

Click to Embiggen
NASA Archives: One of the many bridges
full of space fans watching STS-135 lift off!

This 135th flight of the Space Shuttle Orbiter was the 37th Shuttle trip to the ISS, and the 166th American manned launch. Crowds in Florida gathered in parks, along beaches, across bridges and along the highways were estimated in the MILLIONS. I was there, and I can tell you there was not a hotel room to be found within hundreds of miles of Cape Canaveral!

Actor Seth Green introduced "The Atlantis Fanfare" by musical composer Bear McCreary, known for composing the television themes for Battlestar Galactic and Eureka. So our STS-135 launch had her very own theme song!

Monday, October 29, 2012



And now, out in paperback...

Seems the hardbacks are getting harder to come by, but it's also being released on Kindle today. I'm beginning to think people have too much time on their hands. But then, if it inspires space buffs, I'm all for it.

As Stephen Hawking said, it's odd that at the pinnacle of scientific achievement in many fields, fewer and fewer youngsters aim to be scientists. Why is that, exactly? It cannot possibly be a shortage of reading material... I lost track of all the space-related materials released this month to coincide with the Apollo anniversary.

Rocket ship
Do kids still do this? Do we need them to? Laugh if you like, but the boys in that picture probably thought we'd have an entire colony on Mars now. Why don't we? And what will kick start the next wave? Will civilians be routinely launched into orbit? Are private sector billionaires poised to spur interest in new rocket science technologies where once only space agencies ruled?

If we plan to get to Mars by the 2030s or 2040s, and the average age of a spacefaring explorer is about 37 years old, take a look around you at the age range that will be in training when we finally have the technology to make a Mars landing a reality.

Mission Control of the Future Laugh again, but you're looking at the future -- I hope. They're either about to take Driver's Ed class... or downloading Jonas Brothers tunes to their iPods. That's right, the ones with the toe rings and the spiky haircuts who won't pull up their pants... right down to the ones having Disney princess parties and water pistol wars.

They're going to Mars. Around the time I'm finally dipping into my IRA and learning how to knit. Food for thought. And it makes me want to buy every kid alive under the age of 15 a book about space travel... a Buzz Aldrin action figure... tickets to a planetarium... a toy rocket... a week at Space Camp...

Friday, October 26, 2012

Giving to Lunar GoodWill


So I'm treadmilling in my gym, going through my routine with the TV console: avoiding commercials. Luckily, our slate of channels has news providers in a group: MSNBC, CNN, HLN, FOX, Bloomberg, all in a row. When one breaks to ads, I flip to the next one... unless talking heads on FOX start interrupting and shouting, in which case I give up and go lift weights.

And speaking of Moon Rocks...

Just kidding, I smirk at the bickering and consider myself fortunate not to be in politics. Anyway, I caught the end of a story about a bunch of folks looking in a garbage dump for a missing moon rock, and had to keep running until they cycled around again so I could hear the whole thing.

Get this! A former NASA Special Investigator named Joseph Gutheinz decided he would try to recover all the "Goodwill Moon Rocks" that were presented to all 50 states and over 100 nations by the Nixon Administration in 1973.

Each state received plaques with glittery lunar material encased in plexiglas orbs, just tiny samples of the 842 total pounds brought back by the Apollo explorers – but each is now worth about $5 million apiece. Imagine NASA’s surprise when some of them turned up on the black market!

Goodwill Moon Rock, Nevada
Nevada's Goodwill Moon Rock
Upper Inscription: "This fragment is a portion of a rock from the Taurus Littrow Valley of the Moon. It was part of a larger rock composed of many particles of different shapes and sizes, a symbol of the unity of human endeavor and mankind's hope for the future of peace and harmony."

Lower Inscription
: "This flag of your state was carried to the moon aboard the Apollo XVII Mission; December 7-19, 1972. Presented to the people of the State of Nevada by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration."

In 1998, Gutheinz went undercover in Operation Lunar Eclipse, to find people selling fake moon rocks… but in 1998, they actually found someone trying to sell a real one – which turned out to be the Honduras Goodwill Moon Rock.


Of the estimated 270 rocks presented as gifts, fully 215 were missing when they began searching. "Only" 91 are still missing now, and the search continues.

How did they pull that off? A college professor at the University of Phoenix, Arizona, Gutheinz assigned his students to track down various samples; they have discovered people and facilities who unknowingly had moon rocks stashed in all kinds of creative places.

One was even found in the possession of a former governor of Colorado, John Vanderhoof, who simply took the plaque home upon ending his term!  Vanderhoof, in 2010, stated he tried  to offer it to various museums, but no one was terribly excited about it, so he kept it in a display case in his home for years. It has since been moved to the Colorado School of the Mines Museum.

I've actually seen two of these up close: Georgia's rock at the Fernbank Museum in Atlanta, and Texas' rock at the State Capitol in Austin.. but I was shocked to peruse the list of moon rocks that are still unaccounted for. CollectSpace notes those found, and those documented as gifts but still categorized as missing.  And we may never trust Ireland again, sheesh.

Do you know the current status of a fragment of any lunar sample? Write to moonrocks@collectspace.com!

Friday, October 19, 2012

The 10 Most Bizarre Space Experiments


My first appearance in a textbook! After numerous turns on the internet, radio and television, I'm truly proud that I've been able to contribute to an educational resource for children. Hopefully it will serve to initiate a fascination with space research for some young minds.

Rubicon Publishing has recently released "The 10 Most Bizarre Space Experiments", a fun and fascinating look into various space projects around the world... and off the world!

TheCanadian company who writes "The 10" series of books contacted me with a request for personal photographs insights into my personal experience with bedrest studies. These programs are used to simulate spaceflight so scientists and doctors can study changes in human bodies in prolonged weightlessness.

It was refreshing to talk about the details of the studies again, since of course it's been quite awhile now since I did extended quarantine with spaceflight protocols. Happily, however, these studies are still going strong, and many new studies are also developed each year for new participants.  Johnson Space Center is still seeking healthy paid volunteers for studies like the one I shared here with Rubicon, and new programs involving the newest space station treadmill.

Ah, memories... but, I was not the star of the tiny tome by any means. A complete list of all the featured stories include:
  1. LEGO on ISS
  2. Six-legged Astronauts
  3. Newts in Space
  4. Cola Wars
  5. Mars500
  6. The Bedrest Experiment
  7. Balloon Jump From Space
  8. Moon Bricks
  9. Space Underwear
  10. Telepathy From Space

One of my favorite simulations, performed as a joint project by the European and Russian space agencies, is the Mars500. I followed all three of their missions for years! My feature ends on page 5, and the Mars500 feature begins on page 6! What an absolute honor to be in the same pages of a book with them. Of course, perhaps they would also consider it an honor to be included with a book of long-term space experiments and yeeeeeeears of comparable NASA studies.

I sure wish I could give a link to where the book can be purchased that would work for everyone! However, the target audience is Canadian educators, so it won't be made widely available.  However, if anyone has connections to any of the experiments and would like a look at the particular pages, please let me know!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Is "Earth" The Right Name For Us?


Philosophy break.  No particular theme or reason this week. Just pondering.

I always thought "Earth" was an odd name. Our world's crust is roughly 70% ocean, 30% above-water landmass that is habitable to We The Species who like to go about naming things. So hey, if we’re trying to be descriptive, shouldn’t we be named for "Water" instead?

I posed this question on one of the many blog forums about which I infrequently lurk, figuring my solar system questions are often something of a breather between religious wars and political rants. This particular discussion yielded some thought-provoking responses I thought I would share with a larger crowd.

Planet Water
Language History:
Greek era , Old German erda, Indo-European roots akin to Crimean Goth airtha, Old English eorthe, Middle English erthe

Greek hydor or hudor, Latin unda wave, Old English wæter; akin to Old High German wazzar

The Greek word for water now survives as the prefix hydro- as in words like hydrogen or hydration. But with the widespread ‘borrowing’ of languages, perhaps we might even be Wazer or Wave? I bet if more had been known about the planet’s properties during the time of its ultimate naming, we might be.

If we changed our planet name now, what would be more descriptive?

Yourfindit: If we rename it then the Aliens will have to go through a long process of correcting and updating their records of us.

Legbamel: Mess?

LolitaV: I always though the name should start with Sector; like Sector Z8474895-AJ1248_X. Babylon 5 would do also.

Aningenious: I'd go with Skaron 6 it's quite cool and any aliens would have to be mad to attempt to invade a planet called Skaron 6.

Nothingprofound: It's always fascinated me that we're the one planet NOT named after a Latin deity.

Exit2013: It doesn't matter... sooner or later this planet will be a waterworld. Seriously.

PetLvr: We have friends that named their chihuahua "Paul" because they heard someone on a TV show make fun of people who name their pet dogs human names... we can do that for the planet Earth. I vote for "Planet Melvin".

3Percent of Earth's water is drinkable

Theresa111: Beauteous Globe ? Earth's just fine by me, kinda used to it. I have given the name some thought throughout my existence and figured someone simply named it before being privy to the rest of the planets elements.

Sam1982: Who had the naming rights anyway?

DeRexBowles: Planet Awesome.
JennOfTwoNs: Yeah, Planet Awesome...I can see the t-shirts already.

kdawg68: We should probably ask the insects what they think, since they do outnumber us vastly. Or, we could just go with "Insectia".

Animemania: f we gave a poll to change the planet's name...that would be just awful. We'd be stuck calling Earth "Planet Stupid" or something.

crazyTsu: But mud is everywhere (well in most places), not only here. What's in a name? we name things according to what we are familiar with. Our familiarity has not evolved so much and I aint no marine creature either so no oceanworld for me.

Flamingpoodle: The 71/29 split only applies to the earth's surface. Besides, we call it earth because we largely live on the earth part.

Well, if we're going to split hairs, it's actually 70.78% to 29.22% -- but who's counting? ;) I originally rounded because the point of the exercise was "early colloquial assumptions versus current knowledge." If we really wanted a descriptive name, we’d have to include core material, and we aren't about to call our planet "Giant Ball of Mostly Molten Iron."

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Endeavour Crawl


What's black & white, and crawling through Los Angeles at 2 miles per hour?

Hint: Happily, not Robert Downey Jr. in a ski mask on a bender.

 We got volunteers, we got security, e got traffic jams, we got irreverent Shuttle Xing signs, and awesome views of Shuttle Endeavour looking as through she's just pulling into the Del Taco Drive-Thru, no joke. As I've been watching updates on CNN and local California news channels over the past few days, I've seen enthusiasts of all ages hailing the Space Shuttle as she passes through -- and what a gratifying celebration. Why couldn't we have celebrated them this heartily while they were still flying?!

On Saturday, CNN ran a live picture-in-picture on their screen alongside every other news story throughout the day, keeping tabs on the inch-by-inch progress. Yay mainstream media!

The Los Angeles Times invited attendees to upload their personal photographs to a wonderful public parade gallery that grew minute by minute, and Twitter was abuzz for days with every view of the Shuttle imaginable -- along with the requisite "Why Did The Shuttle Cross The Road" jokes.

But even for this last Shuttle huzzah, there's good news, and there's bad news. Endeavour, proceeding 12 miles from LAX to the California Science Center to the tune of 10 million dollars, 400 cut down trees, thousands of excited onlookers, and a few pissed-off residents who didn't appreciate even an historic interruption of their homes and greenery.  We know this caused a lot of trouble for the neighborhoods involved, and we all hope the newly planted 1,000 replacement trees grow quickly.

A few crowd control issues (including spontaneous choruses of the Star-Spangled Banner mid-street) and last-minute branch trimming on the last leg delayed the arrival, but the final celebration at the conclusion of the journey was epic, and still being exhaustively reported on many channels. You'd have to be living in a cave to miss it. Or, maybe just wasting time reading my blog when you could be watching YouTube ;)

So what's next?  Not sure. Certainly, if any damage has been unintentionally sustained during the recent flight or crawl through town, repairs will be quickly undertaken.

CA Science Center is putting the finishing touches on the pavilion that will house Space Shuttle Endeavour, and expecting such huge onslaughts of visitors once she is revealed, they are selling "timed" viewing tickets!  Thus, you can schedule the very hour to visit, and plan your viewing of Endeavour after October 30th.

If you want to support Endeavour's upkeep in her new home, you can also Sponsor a Space Shuttle Tile.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Planetenpad België


I have another Solar System Hike under my belt, huzzah!

While in Europe this past month attending SpaceUpEU in Belgium, I discovered the wonderful nature trail dotted with planet markers near the Genk Cosmodrome, listed on my Map of Scaled Solar System Hikes!

On my last walk through California's Valley of the Moon, I had a long upward hike through rocky terrain to reach Pluto on a small peak. I didn't get quite the hefty workout this time, as the nature trails in Kattevennen National Park are quite tame... but it was definitely still worth the the time and novelty.

This time, I was able to go through with multiple friends also attending SpaceUp, and a serious mascot posse, Venus Barbie, Chris Hadfield 2D and CamillaSDO.  After a stop at Mercurius, Venus Barbie was, of course, happiest on Venus... but none of us were too impressed with Aarde, being STUCK on it and all.

Toward the end of the short, paved path showing the rocky, terrestrial planets, we came to the Planetoïden (asteroïden)... in other words, the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, and the latter marker required a sharp turn from west to the north, through deeper forest and ravines.

Leaving the paved path, we hiked through longer and longer gaps to see Saturnus, Neptunus and Uranus.  Each area was chock full of gorgeous trees, ferns, wild raspberry bushes and a smattering of autumn flowers. Only one question remained... should we keep hiking?  Many of the owners of scaled hikes around the world have been removing Pluto since its demotion...

...but no, clearly we'll dealing with fans of the 9-planet solar system!  Pluto and a final Planetenpad stansion designated the very end of the path at about the 1.3-kilometer mark.  It was a mad dash back to the Cosmodrome (good cardio!) for the rest of the conference, but it was a fun 2.6 exploration!  To see the entire gallery, check out the Pillownaut Picasa Solar Hikes album...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012



It has long been a dream of mine to see one of the few remaining Buran spacecraft up close, and I finally got that chance in the Technik Museum in Speyer, Germany!

The Soviet Snowstorm, or Buran ("Blizzard"), was the counterpart to the US Space Shuttle project in the 1980s, and explored the "reusable system" method of getting satellites into orbit -- and at the time, also possible nuclear weapons. 

The Energia-Buran reusable system project spanned from planning stages in 1976 to test flights in 1989, before the program could no longer be funded, and included 14 models, prototypes, flight testers, and finally, full-sized Burans.

Only two of the six full-sized Burans were flight-worthy. Sadly, the one Buran orbiter that launched into space on November 15th, 1988 was destroyed when the roof of its Baikonur Site 112 hangar collapsed in 2002. And there the debris still lies.

Happily, one full-sized prototype was saved from the hangar to be put on display at the Baikonur Cosmodrome; the other flight-worthy Buran has been beautifully restored and can be seen in Deustchland! This beautiful lady is the OK-GLI 1.01 model, built in 1984.

With a wingspan of 23.92m and a Fuselage length of 30.85, she is an imposing specimen! Designed to hold a crew of 2 to 10, Buran is only slightly smaller than the American shuttles, and you can see a comparison at EnglishRussia.com.

The OK-GLI was used for testing up until 1989. It flew 25 times in Earth's atmosphere, was a experimental flyer for various landing sequences, and was also once put upright on a launchpad for various countdown checklist tests. You'd never guess it flew so many times, it looks so pristine now!  Amazing what some new tiles and a good paintjob can accomplish.

Unlike the American crafts on display, the public can board this Buran in two places, lower hull and flight deck!  You can even peek into the cockpit, and get a great view of the full payload bay!  Totally awesome experience in every way.  For the entire gallery, see the Pillownaut Picasa Buran picture album!

Monday, October 8, 2012

SpaceUp Genk


And talk about putting Genk on the map! I had some how managed to see ever European nation around Belgium over the years -- without ever actually setting foot in Belgium. Of course, now I am wondering why? Of course, if I had known how much cool science stuff was there, I would have gone years ago. Especially to see "The Atomium" in Bruxelles!

 (The chocolate artisans are nice, but just not enough of a draw). In my last post, I had just begun the first SpaceUpEU conference, and only had some outdoor photos of the Genk Cosmodrome... but now I'm finally home and sorting photos properly, so I can truly show the details of the entire event!

You'd never know what a fuss and flurry were going on in the quite Kattevennen nature preserve, tucked away in the forest! I walked there each morning with a Canadian attendee, Rob Drysdale, after we found we were in the same hotel!  And what a beautiful area of Genk... perhaps a best kept secret!

 Each day was filled with formal presentations, informal sessions (even one where the speaker invited children and adults alike to sit in a circle on the floor), lightning talks, lively lunches where no one stopped talking about space just because it was break time, and more than our share of space industry celebrities.

All told, three astronauts and two prominent science figures joined our passionate band of happy spacetweeps to indulge our moon nostalgia, our race to Mars, our ideas for developing technologies, and our efforts to encourage others to appreciate and take greater interest in space exploration.

 Here is Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, ESA veteran of two shuttle flights and an ISS expedition, who treated us to an amazing slide show of many pictures he had taken from space! We also enjoyed talks by ESA's Christer Fuglesang, NASA's Ron Garan, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and the Planetary Society's Emily Lakadawalla.

Attendee  and sponsor presentations covered everything from Scaled Solar System hikes (okay, that was me) to Mars one-way trips, from space tethers to space university courses, from weightlessness experiments to the history of astronaut selection through the eras.

It was all over far too soon. I moved on to Germany for some vacation after all the space frenzy, and then home to San Francisco. The lucky Europeans, however, have SpaceUp Stuttgart and SpaceUp Poland to look forward to over the next few months... and for 2013, there was even murmurings of a SpaceUp Paris! Hopefully I can get across the pond again next year! Click on any photos, or click here to see the entire gallery of photos over at Pillownaut Picasa!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mike Massimino on Big Bang Theory


Characters launching in rockets and floating in micro-gravity? That's a first for a prime-time situation comedy!

Big Bang Theory broke new ground with their story arc about the International Space Station, even if they skipped the part where the engineering nerd didn't undergo actual astronaut training. We can all forgive the sitcom, however, since they bring science and laughter in our living rooms like never before…

AND… TONIGHT! NASA Astronaut Mike Massimino returns for his third cameo, so be sure to tune in this evening, Thursday, October 4th to see his continuing adventures with Howard Wolowitz – this time, in orbit! He will be featured a fourth time on Thursday, October 18th. So mark your calendars, and remember to watch CBS at the correct local time for your zone!

Dr. Michael J. Massimino, veteran of two Space Shuttle missions (STS-109 in March 2002 and STS-125 in May 2009), which serviced the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), is on Twitter as @Astro_Mike!

Mass is also now a veteran of late night appearances with David Letterman and Craig Ferguson. He was quoted as saying he thinks this may be his last cameo on prime time, but considering Big Bang Theory is now contracted through 2015, we all know Hollywood will come calling again!

Aside from Mass, the Big Bang Theory Wiki now includes scientists Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson; also, Star Trek stars Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, and Wil Wheaton… Quite the Nerdgasm line-up! 

If they score Shatner and Nichols in future seasons, BBT writers and producers are on track to score a record number of Star Trek characters and real-life science heroes. However, they will have a lot of catching up to do with astronauts. The record for most NASA space travelers on one show is still held by Home Improvement. Waiting for someone to break it!