It’s been a rocky few years for spaceflight. NASA’s budget isn’t getting any bigger. And though the Space Shuttle program was expensive, dangerous, and kept better designs from being developed, once it ended last year, US astronauts have had to hitch rides on Russian rockets, which are themselves not too reliable. But this morning’s launch of SpaceX’s first International Space Station supply rocket was a bright spot.
NASA is betting on the private sector to bring about the next great space age. It has made grants to various private space flight companies, including PayPal founder Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, colloquially known as SpaceX, to develop space taxi technologies and supply the International Space Station.
And early this morning, after an aborted launch attempt on Sunday, SpaceX’s first rocket left Earth, carrying a capsule bound for the space station. You can watch the unmanned vehicle take off in the video above, and you can hear in the excitement in the NASA launch commentator’s voice as the fiery ship takes off through the night.
On December 13, 1972, on the surface of the moon, the astronauts of Apollo 17 paused in their lunar ramblings to pick up a chunk of rock about 10 centimeters long. After showing to their video camera, they brought the rock back to Earth, where it was named Sample 70017 and broken into hundreds of fragments, 366 of which were each embedded in plastic, glued to a plaque, and presented by the United States to the leaders of the world’s nations as a symbol of peace.
A new piece of narrative journalism published at The Atavist by Joe Kloc tells the story of that 10-centimeter rock and all its far-flung daughters, which, over the last 40 years, have variously disappeared in coups, been forgotten on museum shelves, or made their way by mysterious avenues to the black market. At the heart of the story is Joseph Gutheinz, a former NASA special agent driven by a kind of mania to return stolen moonrocks to their places of honor—even if few others see the value of his quest. I asked Kloc explain the power of these tiny fragments of the moon.
VG: What is it about moonrocks that exert this pull for some people?
JK: The answer isn’t the same for everybody. For [Gutheinz], I think it is about the time in history they capture. He sees them as a way to inspire kids to get back to that time, to become dreamer-scientist-explorers. And then the people who try to sell them for millions [on the black market] obviously want money. But in each case, the idea behind the desire is ultimately that sort of intangible fascination we all have with the moon.
But these particular moon rocks—the fragments presented to the nations of the world in 1973—seem bizarrely at odds with that kind of sacred viewpoint. They were a PR stunt, despite the stated purpose of giving them as emblems of peace. That they are embedded in plastic and glued to plaques makes them unlikely objects of worship.
Maybe the best way to think about it is that the moon missions were always two things: on the one hand a Cold War-sized political power play, on the other a monumental—perhaps the most monumental—human achievement. Now the rocks embody that same positive-negative duality. On the one hand they are a Cold War power play that some want to sell for millions; on the other, they are this relic of one of humanity’s greatest achievements.
What’s the News: With NASA’s last shuttle launch slated for July 8, the news is filled with retrospectives on the shuttle program. And a few of them make this shrewd point: even though the US has no replacement program, even though the vehicles allowed the construction of the International Space Station…good riddance.
What’s the News: In long space flights, such as a mission to Mars, astronauts will have more time during which they could get injured or sick. And the same apparently goes for the medicine aboard spaceships: According to a NASA-funded study, medicines degrade faster in space than they do on Earth. As the researchers conclude in their paper, “this information can facilitate research for the development of space-hardy pharmaceuticals and packaging technologies.”
The Ares I rocket, scrapped during President Obama‘s overhaul of NASA, may be making a comeback. Two rocket-makers say that they have reached a plan to salvage the design of Ares I and use it to compete in the private competition to provide post-shuttle space taxi service to NASA.
The partners are Alliant Techsystems of Minneapolis (ATK) and the European company Astrium, which builds Ariane 5 rockets to carry satellites into space. Today they are announcing their collaboration on the new 300-foot rocket.
The new rocket, named Liberty, would be much cheaper than the Ares I, because the unfinished NASA-designed upper stage of the Ares I would be replaced with the first stage of the Ariane 5, which has been launched successfully 41 consecutive times. The lower stage of the Liberty, a longer version of the shuttle booster built by ATK, would be almost unchanged from the Ares I. [The New York Times]
To truly go ahead with the project, the two companies will need to snag at least some of the $200 million in funding NASA is set to give next month to private companies developing space taxi technology. Giants like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, as well as newer private space companies like SpaceX, are all competing for these dollars and contracts.
Good news, solar sail enthusiasts: the NASA experimental spacecraft that was feared to be a dud sprang into life last week.
NanoSail-D was launched aboard a small satellite in December; once the satellite was in orbit the engineers back on Earth ordered the cargo door opened, and waited for NanoSail-D to pop out as planned. But the solar sail craft remained stubbornly inside the cargo bay. As weeks passed with no action, NASA’s hopes for the craft sunk.
But last Wednesday, NASA announced that NanoSail-D had spontaneously emerged.
“We knew that the door opened and it was possible that NanoSail-D could eject on its own,” Mark Boudreaux, FASTSAT project manager at the Marshall Center, said in a press release. “What a pleasant surprise this morning when our flight operations team confirmed that NanoSail-D is now a free flyer.” [CNN]
UPDATE: SpaceX just announced via Twitter that the Dragon successfully splashed down in the Pacific: “SpaceX is the first commercial company to reenter a spacecraft from space!”
Liftoff! As I write this, the Dragon capsule by private space company SpaceX is orbiting the Earth, having been blasted successfully in space by the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.
The rise to orbit served as a test run for future resupply flights to the International Space Station. Before today’s launch, SpaceX’s millionaire founder, Elon Musk, observed that a successful ascent would demonstrate that the Dragon could reach the space station, even if it didn’t later re-enter the atmosphere and make its scheduled splashdown in the Pacific. [MSNBC]
Shortly—a little after 2 p.m. Eastern—the capsule is scheduled to conclude its orbits of the planet and attempt reentry. If SpaceX is successful it will become the first private company to accomplish what only government space agencies have achieved to this point. This test is unmanned. But if it and others succeed, SpaceX hopes it will someday soon be blasting humans into space in preparation for trips to the ISS.
The rocket is a pipsqueak compared with the space shuttle it will partially replace – measuring 157 feet with the capsule and weighing 735,000 pounds. The much larger shuttle was needed to fly parts up to the $100 billon international space station, but the fleet is being retired because of its age and because its job is largely done. [Washington Post]
SpaceX’s Twitter feed has links to images from Dragon’s on-board camera. We’ll update you when the capsule attempts its reentry.
80beats: SpaceX Gets First Commercial Permit to Make Orbital Round-Trips
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80beats: SpaceX Success! Falcon 9 Rocket Launches Into Orbit
DISCOVER: Launching Into the Age of Private Spaceflight
DISCOVER: NASA Braces for Course Correction
MIT may have found the answer to astronauts’ bone loss in space: really, really tight suits.
The new suit — the Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit — aims to mimic the effect of gravity on the body. The tight catsuit wouldn’t look out of place in a superhero comic. It features stirrups that hook over the feet and it is purposefully cut too short so that it stretches over the body when worn, pulling the wearer’s shoulders down. The aim is to make sure the legs experience greater force than the torso, just as they do on Earth. [Wired UK]
The Man Vehicle Lab at MIT developed the skin-tight apparel. The researchers are testing it out aboard parabolic flights—those airplane rides that simulate weightlessness—to see if it succeeds in mitigating the harmful health effects of life in zero-G.
Finally, after spending much of 2010 sparring over the future direction of NASA, Congress approved the space agency’s reauthorization bill (pdf) last night. It was not a moment too soon, as the new fiscal year begins tomorrow.
Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait documents the reactions of Congressional representatives, and that unsavory feeling of watching the sausage get made in Congress. Here are the basics of the bill, which President Obama is expected to sign.
The measure covers the next three years, appropriating $19 billion to NASA for 2011 and slightly more over the next two years, adding up to about $58 billion through 2013.
Along with the reauthorization bill, the House also passed a continuing resolution to grant NASA the money to get moving. But Congress doesn’t reconvene from its current break until after the November elections, and that’s when they’ll have to pass appropriations to actually get NASA this money.
The program is still going away, and sooner rather than later. The Congressional compromise tacked on one additional shuttle flight to the last two that currently remain. But after that, it’s curtains.
With the end of that program, scores of jobs at NASA and its contractors will be lost. In fact, on Oct. 1 nearly 1,400 shuttle workers will be laid off at NASA contractor United Space Alliance – a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. [Space.com]
NASA this week made what may be one of the last decisions it will ever make about the space shuttle program, selecting a backup crew in case it needs to make a rescue mission for the last scheduled shuttle flight in February. While the space shuttle’s close draws nearer, the race to replace it gets stronger.
Now Boeing has entered the fray, unveiling the design of a spacecraft it will build for the task of taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The ship could be ready by 2015. Boeing joins both the companies trying to build crafts to meet NASA’s needs and those of space tourists who dream of leaving the planet.
Here’s a (non-comprehensive) refresher:
Boeing’s ship would be called the Crew Space Transportation-100, and would carry seven passengers. Like all the private space competing to carry NASA astronauts, Boeing is competing for NASA money. It won $18 million this February for the project, making it one of five companies to get seed money at that time.
Its venture is also a collaboration with Space Adventures, a space tourism firm. If NASA chooses to send up only four astronauts at a time, that leaves three empty seats.
If NASA chooses Boeing’s spaceship for the job, Vienna, Va.-based Space Adventures will sell the open seats when they are available. Space Adventures has organized eight trips to the space station for seven space enthusiasts on a three-person Soyuz rocket owned by the Russian government. [Los Angeles Times]
2. Sierra Nevada
DISCOVER’s September cover story followed the dreamers at Sierra Nevada who are behind the Dream Chaser space vehicle. Their design is actually taken from an experimental one called the HL-20, which NASA investigated as a possible space shuttle replacement or space station rescue vehicle before tabling the idea. The Dream Chaser relies on another piece of NASA tech to get it into orbit: the proven Atlas V rocket.
Sierra Nevada received $20 million from NASA this year to develop the reusable craft.