On Sunday, skydiver Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a high-altitude balloon and plummeted 40 kilometers back to Earth. I wanted to watch it live but missed it due to an appointment I had to keep. I heard it was heart-pounding, and Twitter went nuts over it. I wish I had seen it!
Still, my feelings on it are mixed. While I really am glad it got people excited, I couldn’t shake the feeling it wasn’t more than a stunt. A cool stunt, but a stunt. It was plugged as a way to learn more about spacesuits and all that, but I had my doubts. Having it sponsored by a sugary caffeinated energy drink marketed to teens also made me a bit wary.
I was thinking of writing something up about it, but then my friend and space historian Amy Shira Teitel wrote an excellent piece crystallizing my thoughts, so go read her article for more in that vein (which is also mirrored on Discover Magazine’s blog The Crux).
But what I really wanted to write about was this image I saw around Twitter and Facebook:
Why do I want to write about this? Because, in a nutshell, it’s everything wrong about attitudes on our space program. If I sound a little peeved, I am. Here’s why.
This meme was started in a tweet by revulv. I suspect it was just a joke, and to be honest it’s funny enough; I smirked when I read it. But someone took that joke and added the picture, and then it got spread around. And I can tell by the comments I’m seeing people really think it’s true – this idea has been around since the Shuttle retired, and it’s unfair. It’s simply not true.
First, as Amy points out in her post, Baumgartner’s jump was a record breaker, but he wasn’t in space. Our atmosphere thins out with height, and doesn’t really have an edge where air ends and vacuum begins. Because of this, there’s an arbitrarily agreed-upon height where we say space "starts" – it’s called the Kármán line, and it’s 100 km (62 miles) above sea level. Baumgartner was less than half that high. When I talked about his jump I used the phrase "edge of space", which is probably fair. He was in a pretty good vacuum by ground standards, but in space itself he was not.
Second, he wasn’t in orbit. A lot of folks confuse being in orbit and being in space, which is understandable. When we say something is in space that means it’s just higher than that arbitrary limit. You can get there via rocket by going straight up 100 km and then back down, for example. That’s a suborbital flight.
But being in orbit is different. An orbit is where you are free-falling around the Earth. Think of it this way: in orbit the Earth is pulling you down to the surface, but you’re going fast enough sideways that you never actually hit (to paraphrase Douglas Adams: orbiting is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss). Your velocity down and your velocity to the side add together to give you a circular (or elliptical) path.
Baumgartner used a balloon to go straight up. He wasn’t in orbit.
And that’s two of the three things that bother me about that meme picture: he wasn’t in space, and he wasn’t in orbit, two things the US has rockets that can do.
Now, some people will point out that in fact the US cannot do that, at least not with people. We don’t have any rockets rated for human flight into space.
That’s true, but brings up my third point, the most important, what a lot of people don’t seem to get: you need to add the words "right now" to the end of that sentence.
We can’t launch humans into space right now. But in just a few years we’ll have that ability. In spades.
SpaceX is working on making sure their Falcon 9 rocket is human-rated for flight – even as I write these words they have a Dragon capsule berthed to the International Space Station. ATK is another. There’s also Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin (which just had a successful engine firing test), XCORR, and others. Let’s not forget Virgin Galactic, too. [Update: D'oh! Shame on me, and ironic too: I forgot to add Boeing and ULA's work on this as well.]
Both SpaceX and ATK think they’ll be ready to take people into orbit in 2015. Virgin Galactic and XCORR may be ready to do commercial suborbital flights before that date. [Note added after posting: I want to be clear; these are not NASA programs, but some have contracts with NASA, and I'm talking about the US as a nation, not necessarily as a government space program.]
The Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. We’re in the middle of what’s planned to be a five year gap where the US can’t take humans into space. Mind you, when the Apollo program shut down there was a nine year gap before we had a program to take humans to space again (with the exception of a few Saturn flights to orbit for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz mission; even then there was a six year gap until the Shuttle launches began).
My point? Things aren’t nearly as bad as people think. Yes, the Shuttle is retired, but to be brutally honest, while it’s an amazing machine, it could not nor would it ever be capable of taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit. It also cost way more than promised, and couldn’t launch as often as promised. I’ve made this point before, and it’s one we need to remember. Getting to space is not easy, and if we want to do it we have to do it right.
And let’s not forget we are still throwing rovers at Mars, probes at Jupiter, and one satellite after another into Earth orbit. We’re still going into space, if by proxy. Humans won’t have to wait much longer.
We need to learn from the past and keep our eyes on the future. By looking at the past we can see by comparison things are not so bad right now; we’re just in a lull before the storm. We’ll soon have not just the capability to put humans in space, but many capabilities to do it! Space travel will be easier and cheaper than it ever has been since the dawn of the Space Age.
My goal is to see nothing less than the permanent colonization of space by human beings, and I strongly suspect we are not that far from achieving it.
One of the more enduring questions about the Apollo Moon missions is seemingly simple: after 40+ years, are the flags the astronauts planted on the lunar surface still there?
It’s an interesting question. Buzz Aldrin claims he saw the flag blow over when the ascent module carrying him and Neil Armstrong lifted off from the Moon – which was never confirmed (until now; hang on for that), but the fates of the flags from the other five missions have never been ascertained. In 2009 there was tantalizing evidence the flags from Apollo 17 was still standing, but the images were just barely too fuzzy to know for sure.
But now, apparently, we do know: the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has now confirmed that the flags at all the landing sites are still there, except for Apollo 11. It looked like Buzz was right!
Here’s an image showing the Apollo 16 flag:
The flag itself is visible in the picture – LRO’s angle on it shows the shadowed side, which is slightly darker than the lunar surface – and the shadow it casts on the surface is obvious.
I have to admit, I’m surprised*. The flags were made of simple nylon, which can disintegrate when exposed to ultraviolet light. I figured that after all this time they’d be nothing more than red, white, and blue powder at the base of their poles. I guess I was wrong. And I’m happy to be! [UPDATE: In the comments below, BABloggee Maxx points out that polymers need oxygen to be degraded by UV light, so this may be why the flags haven't disintegrated.]
That picture from Apollo 16 is impressive, and I have to admit, that’s my favorite flag of the missions. It’s where Charlie Duke took a picture of John Young doing a "big Navy salute" – Young jumped up, and Duke snapped the photo while Young was still off the surface (not while he was in the air, of course, since that’s a commodity the Moon lacks):
I was interviewed by WGN radio host Mike McConnell this morning about the new Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter pictures of the Apollo landing sites that were released yesterday. The interview is online, or you can grab the file directly.
We talked about why Hubble can’t see the landing site hardware, how the astronauts walked on the Moon, why the flags may no longer be there, why Moon Hoax stuff is silly, and so on. I had a funny moment of confusion when I was trying to count how many people had walked on the Moon, but that was quickly resolved. All in all it was a fun conversation, and I’m impressed with McConnell’s knowledge of Apollo. It’s always nice to talk to another Apollo fan!
Last night, at 02:56 UTC, it was the 42nd anniversary of humans putting a bootprint on another world. Before Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon, though, NASA and the USSR sent a fleet of unmanned probes there. Since that time we’ve sent many more, including the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, one of my favorite spacecraft of all time. It takes amazing high-res images of the Moon… and to celebrate today’s anniversary, they released this mysterious picture:
Cooool. Click to enlunenate.
This image is about 400 meters across, and shows an impact site with two lobes of material laid down to the sides. This butterfly-shape is a clear indication of a low-angle impact; it’s seen on many bodies in the solar system including the Moon, Mars, and even Earth (though the physics of exactly how the bi-lobed patterns form is still not well understood). Features like this are very rare… but it’s known that when a satellite orbit decays, it will impact at a low angle.
As the LRO site notes, in October 1967, the Lunar Orbiter 2 spacecraft impacted the lunar surface, possibly very near this spot. Could this be the final resting ground of an early NASA robotic explorer? It’s hard to say. When something hits hard enough to excavate material, it’s common to see ejected junk of different brightnesses, and here we see the dark patterns overlaid on a brighter surface. If that’s the impact area, though, the size of the impact looks too big for the mass and speed of the probe. Maybe it coincidentally hit a brighter area, but that stretches credulity, given the darker area all around.
So what happened here? The folks at LRO are planning follow-up observations to see if they can get pictures at a different Sun illumination angle, which will make any crater easier to spot. That might clear things up.
Or it might not. The Moon is the nearest astronomical object in the heavens by far, but it also has 38 million square kilometers of surface to explore! That’s four times the size of the Unites States… and LRO sees it at a resolution of roughly a half a meter. That’s a whole lot of pixels, and a whole lot of landscape in which to hide fun little mysteries. I hope there are many, many more.
My friend and fellow skeptic Tim Farley reminded me that today is the tenth anniversary of Fox airing the TV show "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?"
If I had to describe that show in one word, it would be "grotesquely distorting reality, an execrable steaming pile of offal that doesn’t come within a glancing blow of the truth."
Was that more than one word? Well, it’s hard to find a single word that truly captures the feel of that program.
I remember that week pretty well, in fact. I had just started my job at Sonoma State University, having uprooted my family from suburban DC and moving 5000 km west just the month before. I was puttering around on my computer when the phone rang: it was my pal Dan Vergano, who writes for USA Today. He had some questions about Pluto, so we chatted for a while, and then he asked me that fateful question that would, quite seriously and in all honesty, change my life: "Hey, did you hear about this Fox TV show about the Moon landings being faked? It’s airing on Thursday."
Ironically, at that time I had just finished writing about people who thought Apollo was faked for my first book, Bad Astronomy, so I was pretty familiar with the arguments. I was able to procure an advance copy of the show and watched the whole thing. It was like watching a snuff film, except the victims were 1) reality, and b) the immense effort of nearly half a million people to get Apollo off the ground and to the Moon.
I sat down and wrote a point-by-point dissection of the show, waiting until after it aired to actually post it on my site. I was upset, but didn’t think the page would help much; the web was still a bit shiny and new back then.
Ha! By Monday, the page was out of control. To my shock, CNN and NASA had both linked to it, and I was getting flooded with emails. Most were supportive, but some were from, um, people whose grip on reality was somewhat tenuous. One person called me "Mr. Smarty Pants Astronomer" and proceeded to tell me how dust motes in an Apollo 13 photo were actually stars. Lots of other emails were on par with that one.
One in particular caught my eye. Read More
This is really nifty — if you have the bucks:
NASA private collectors are auctioning off a bunch of NASA hardware and other items from the Apollo program!
For example, shown here is the headset Charlie Duke (future Apollo 16 moonwalker) used as CAPCOM to talk to the Apollo 11 astronauts, and this was the very headset he used to listen to the first words spoken from another world! That’s seriously cool. Of course, the minimum bid is $5000, and I imagine it’ll go for more. But that would be fun to have. I’d play NASA all the time!
So, if you’re loaded with cash,
send it to me go take a look at the lot. Bidding starts on January 13th, and maybe you’ll get a chance to own some real space history.
Tip o’ the spacesuit visor to EvilHick
This is so cool: 3D anaglyphs of some of the Apollo landing sites as seen by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter!
That’s the Apollo 14 site. Click to embiggen — and I urge you to do so. You can really see the lander popping right off the surface. In the Apollo 11 image you can even see that the lander feet are farther away from you than the top of the lander. It’s incredible!
On April 14th, 1970, a new crater was carved into the surface of the Moon:
How do we know it’s new? Because we made it.
That’s the impact scar of the third stage of the Saturn V rocket (technically designated S-IVB) that carried Apollo 13 to — but sadly, not on — the Moon. Earlier missions had placed seismic instruments on the lunar surface to measure if the Moon had any activity. They found it did, and in fact several moonquakes were big enough that had you been standing there, you would have felt them quite strongly (and probably been knocked on your spacesuit’s backside).
The S-IVB upper stage accelerated the astronauts to the Moon from Earth orbit. Once that was done, they had one final mission: in Apollos 13 – 17 the stages were aimed at the Moon itself, and impacted a few days later. The impacts were detected by the seismometers and could be used to determine how seismic waves travel through the lunar surface, a trick that’s been used on Earth for a long time. This information can be used to figure out what the lunar subsurface structure is like.
The crater image above is from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and shows the Apollo 13 booster impact. The crater itself is a few dozen meters across, and the material ejected forms a blanket around it for many meters more. The bright material indicates this is a fresh crater; note how gray the more distant undisturbed material around the crater is.
The impact site looks obvious in that picture, doesn’t it? But try finding it in the original full-resolution image returned from LRO and see if you can locate it, then! I found it relatively quickly starting at the top, and was shocked at how far I could trace the rays — the linear ejected debris features around the crater — from the impact site. One of them is clearly about a kilometer long… that’s over half a mile! Those rays are from plumes of material ejected from the impact site, a common feature. They also indicate the crater’s youth: over time, cosmic rays, the solar wind, and even thermal stress from the Moon’s day/night cycle slowly erase the rays. Any crater with such extensive rays has to be young.
Some of the other S-IVB impact sites have been identified; the LRO blog has an image of the Apollo 14 S-IVB crater, for example. Knowing where these impact sites are helps scientists understand the Moon better, since it a more precise location means the data from the old Apollo missions can be interpreted more clearly. I wonder if future colonists may visit those sites the way we do Plymouth Rock, or Jamestown, or other early exploration and colony sites on Earth?
Credit: NASA, NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
Last week I posted about Adam and Jamie on Craig Ferguson’s TV show. I also found this little gem, where he talks about Apollo deniers. The whole thing is funny, but the space stuff starts at 3:00.
I love that guy.