Tag: space exploration

Interview on The Alyona Show about our future in space

By Phil Plait | April 19, 2012 10:30 am

On Tuesday, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery took one last flight from Florida to Washington DC, where it will be placed in a museum. This event really put a big punctuation mark on America’s ability to put humans in space. I was on The Alyona Show Tuesday to talk to her about what this means, and what’s next for us. That interview is now online:

I had to squeeze in a bunch of things there at the end, and I hope I didn’t gloss over ideas too much. I said, for example, that nationalism is fine; but what I meant is that national pride is fine, and American citizens wanting our country to do what’s best — specifically, to explore space — is fine by me. I do think that a key step in that is getting people educated and excited about space travel.

Many, perhaps even most, people are interested in it, but in a vague, fuzzy way. Apollo galvanized that natural desire, but we don’t have an Apollo-scale program in the works right now (or do we…?). I’m attending several meetings in the next few weeks with space scientists, astronauts, and movers and shakers in both private and public space exploration, so I’ll be very curious to see what they think about this. I may have one or two things of my own to say to them as well.

[Updated to note: for some reason, every time I type Alyona’s name, I misspell it. There are a handful of typos like that I always seem to make, and someday psychologists will have a name for it. Perhaps Plait’s Phumble Phingers. Anyway, I apologize to Alyona and I’ll try harder to spellcheck next time!]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space

Discovery makes one final flight… but we must move on.

By Phil Plait | April 17, 2012 10:15 am

This morning, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery took one last flight. Mated on top of a specially-adapted 747, it flew from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Dulles airport just west of Washington DC.

My brother-in-law works in DC and got this phenomenal shot of it:

Discovery’s ultimate destination is the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex outside of DC. It will be put on display for people to see, which is nice, if bittersweet.

I have mixed emotions about all this. Discovery is special to me; it was the only Shuttle I saw launch live, in 1997, when it carried a camera I helped build up to Hubble Space Telescope. And of course, for decades the Shuttles were the main rocket fleet of NASA.

But they were expensive, and had a host of other problems (I enumerate many in an article I wrote for the NY Post). I really wish we had stuck with Werner von Braun’s plan to keep building bigger and better rockets, back when the Saturn V was thundering into the sky and it looked like we’d be walking on Mars by the 1980s.

But that future didn’t happen. We made that shining tomorrow into the somewhat drab today, where shifting political winds — both inside and exterior to NASA itself — have had us going around in circles for 30 years.

Still… sometimes that wind blows fresh. We’re still exploring the solar system, still looking up. Hubble’s still going strong with its 22nd anniversary next week. We have rovers on Mars, a spacecraft around Saturn, another on its way to Jupiter, and yet another orbiting the asteroid Vesta while setting its sights to move on to Ceres soon. Space X is about to launch its first rocket to the space station.

But all of this is still fragile, still tentative, still threatened. We need a far, far stronger presence in space. If you’re a US citizen, let your Senators and Representative know you support a strong space effort.

Listen to Bill Nye:

I know there’s a wave of support for space exploration. People want to touch the sky; as my brother-in-law wrote me about the Discovery flyby today, "Every building that had roof access was full, maintenance folks had ‘jobs’ to do on the roof between 10 and 11." They wanted to be a part of that piece of history.

Always remember: Ships are safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.

Related Posts:

… and then there were none.
Where the Shuttles will come to rest
Two Shuttles, nose to nose
Debating space

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space

White House asks for brutal planetary NASA budget cuts

By Phil Plait | February 13, 2012 2:09 pm

The White House has released its Presidential budget request for fiscal year 2013 today, including the budget for NASA, and as usual there is some good news and some bad. But the good news is tepid, and the bad news is, well, pretty damn bad. I can lay some of this blame at NASA’s feet — a long history of being over budget and behind schedule looms large — but also at the President himself. Cutting NASA’s budget at all is, simply, dumb. I know we’re in an economic crisis (though there are indications it’s getting better), but there are hugely larger targets than NASA. If this budget goes through Congress as is, it will mean the end of a lot of NASA projects and future missions.

The budget

The President’s FY13 budget for NASA is $17.7 billion in total. This is marginally less than last year. In most cases, the budget for science is stable, with a lot of missions getting modest increases. After perusing the individual budgets, it looks to me that most missions that are getting reductions are either ones that have been up a while and are winding down, ones near launch that are built and ready to go and therefore costs are smaller than during development, or ones that have had launch delays (due to tech issues with the launch systems).

Overall, astrophysics, Earth science, and Heliophysics (Sun studies) did OK. Again, some individual missions got increases and some decreases, but in general the budgets are stable. Funding for commercial spaceflight got a massive increase, more than doubling last year’s $400M budget. I’m all for that, as of course is the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. I’ve been vocal about that, and I think handing off launch and other capabilities to commercial ventures is a good way for NASA to save money in the long run.

Some cuts didn’t make sense to me. Education, for example, drops from $136M to $100M. Why? That money funds a vast amount of educational outreach — and I should know; I was funded by this for several years when I was at Sonoma State University creating educational materials for various NASA satellites. That funding does a huge amount of good for schoolkids, and cutting it is a mistake.

And it gets worse. A lot worse.

The bad news for Mars

However, planetary exploration has gotten creamed. Its budget overall drops from $1.5 billion to $1.2, a very deep cut that doesn’t just threaten but destroys near-future Mars exploration as well as future big grand missions to the outer planets in the tradition of Voyager, Cassini, and others.

There’s no easy way to say this: these cuts are devastating. The President’s request for just Mars exploration is $361 million, a crippling $226M drop in funding over the FY12 estimate, a 38.5% cut.

Read that again: a 38.5% cut. This will effectively halt the new exploration of Mars. It means pulling out of planning the ExoMars mission with the European Space Agency — effectively cancelling the mission, which will not make the Europeans happy — and also halting planning on a 2016 mission. There is still funding for the MAVEN mission scheduled for launch next year, but at reduced levels.

In my opinion, part of this is the fault of NASA: Curiosity, the rover on its way to Mars right now, was well over budget. Even after all these years, NASA still has a hard time getting budgets right, which is frustrating. However, this particular cut in the budget is madness. It was fought mightily by NASA, but the Office of Management and Budget apparently ignored all the advice from scientists and managers at NASA, cutting the program anyway. Ed Weiler, who was the head of the NASA Science Mission directorate, quit in protest over these cuts. I’ve had my disagreements with Ed on budget specifics over the years, but he has been a big defender of NASA from government cuts. For him to quit over this is a pretty strong indicator of how bad it is. Read that link to get all the details; but it’s not a happy story.

Bill Nye, speaking on behalf of The Planetary Society, says it best:

The priorities reflected in this budget would take us down the wrong path. Science is the part of NASA that’s actually conducting interesting and scientifically important missions. Spacecraft sent to Mars, Saturn, Mercury, the Moon, comets, and asteroids have been making incredible discoveries, with more to come from recent launches to Jupiter, the Moon, and Mars. The country needs more of these robotic space exploration missions, not less.

He’s right. The US has had an incredibly strong Mars program which has returned amazing science, as well as garnered enthusiastic public support. No other country has been able to do as well getting to Mars as we have. Of all the pieces of NASA to cut, this should be the very last one to see a reduction! It’s maddening, bizarre, and simply dumb.

What cost JWST and Curiosity?

NASA chief Charles Bolden tried to spin all this positively, but I have a hard time seeing it that way. And it’s hard to see how James Webb Space Telescope did not have an impact here. JWST is getting a large $109M (21%) increase as it gets nearer to completion. My thoughts on this are on record, for example here, here, and here. Basically, this mission on its own is taking the lion’s share a big chunk of NASA’s science funding, and if NASA’s overall budget remains stable JWST must perforce siphon money from other missions. Administrator Bolden wouldn’t specify what part of the budget would get cut to accommodate JWST, but given the massive slashing of Mars funding, well. That seems clear enough. [Update: It has been pointed out to me that the increase in JWST’s budget is smaller than what was taken from Mars. True, but as I pointed out last year, an additional $500+ million was recently given to JWST. I was considering that as well when I wrote the above paragraph.]

At some level the Mars rover Curiosity, currently on its way to Mars, must have played a role here too. It was also overbudget, though by a smaller total amount than JWST. But its impact has been significant.

I’ll note that I think JWST is far enough along to make sure it gets finished and launched, but the funding for it should be added to NASA’s budget, not subtracted from other places. I’m not happy with the way JWST was handled (the amount it’s over budget is staggering to say the least) and NASA really needs to gets its head in the game when it comes to figuring this stuff out.

But the thing is, we shouldn’t even have to make these choices. We shouldn’t have to choose between one ground-breaking scientific mission and another. The reason we do is because NASA’s budget is so small in the first place. It really speaks volumes about where science and exploration stand as an American value.

The next step

Mind you, this budget is not set in stone. This is simply the President’s request, which then goes to Congress. Over the past few years, Obama’s request has been for increases, with Congress threatening to cut it. Now, however, this budget comes pre-cut to Congress. The news isn’t all bad, though: some members of Congress have said this budget is not satisfactory (like Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena), whose district includes JPL), and will fight to make it better. The Planetary Society will be rallying its members to talk to their Congress critters and increase NASA’s slice for science from 27.5% to a solid 30%, enough to re-fund Mars exploration.

My opinion hasn’t really changed in years. NASA is a tiny, tiny part of the federal budget, far less than 1%. There are other places where money can be found, other places where cuts make more sense.

I’ve made this analogy before: if you have a hard drive full of 4 Gb movie files, you don’t make room by deleting 100kB text files! You go after the big targets, which is far more efficient. Reducing NASA’s budget for Mars exploration frees up 0.01% of the federal budget. That’s it. One ten-thousandth of what we spend overall, a hundredth of a penny for every dollar.

What does that mean in more understandable terms? Over the past few years, the rate of money spent in Afghanistan and Iraq is about 20 million dollars per hour. In other words, the amount of money being cut from Mars exploration is equal to what we were spending on the War on Terror in just 15 hours.

You might want to read that again. For the cost of less than a single day on the War on Terror, we could have a robust and far-reaching program to explore Mars, look for signs of life on another planet, increase our overall science knowledge, and inspire a future generation of kids.

Our priorities on national spending could use some major overhauling. Science is the future. Our economy depends on many things, but science, engineering, and technology represent a huge portion of its support.

It’s simple: cutting back on science is cutting our future’s throat. And this budget is reaching for the knife.

So I’m reaching for my keyboard. I’ll be contacting my Senators and Representative. If you’re an American citizen, I suggest you do the same.

Related posts:

What value space exploration?
Debating space
Wait, how big is NASA’s budget again?
Whence NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Top Post

LRO spots Apollo landing sites in high res

By Phil Plait | September 6, 2011 11:27 am

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been circling the Moon for the past few years, snapping away, taking hi-res pictures of the lunar surface from a height of a mere 50 kilometers (30 miles). A few weeks ago, NASA commanded the probe to dip lower, allowing even closer, more detailed shots. Skimming the surface at a mere 21 km (13 miles), it took this amazing shot of a site where humans once walked on the Moon:

[Click to onesmallstepenate.]

That is Apollo 12, my friends, the location where humans showed that not only can we explore other worlds, but we can do it more than once.

The entire shot shown here is a little over 350 meters across (pictures from Apollo 14 and 17 are also available at on NASA’s website). Various highlights are labeled: the descent stage of the lunar module (left behind when the top half of the module blasted back up to orbit, docked with the command module, and returned home to Earth), the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP), and even Surveyor 3, an unmanned lander that had touched down two years previously; one of the Apollo 12 mission goals was to land near it, examine it, and return pieces of it. Clearly, they nailed that.

The part of the picture showing the lander is really something. LRO took images of the site in 2009, but these new ones are more detailed due to the lowered orbit, and also a bit clearer due to the angle of the Sun being lower. You can see the lander’s shadow to the right far more clearly.

… and those squiggly lines? That’s where the dust was disturbed by the astronauts’ bootprints as they walked around.

Yup. You are actually seeing physical evidence of human beings walking on the surface of another world.

And there’s more.

Read More

Debating space

By Phil Plait | May 16, 2011 7:00 am

So this is cool: the National Forensic League — the national honor society that promotes debating skills for high school students, and which suggests topics for debate teams — has announced their policy topic for the 2011 – 2012 debating season… and I like it!

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its exploration and/or development of space beyond the Earth’s mesosphere.

Nice! I think this is an excellent topic, and I know it’ll get a lot of folks thinking about space. There are a lot of pros and cons to space exploration, of course, but to me the positives far, far outstrip the negatives. Not everyone agrees, so I’d be interested in seeing some of these debates.

I get a lot of questions — a lot — about astronomy and space from kids in this age group. I expect this debate topic will prompt many more, since I’m outspoken on the topic. So I’ll take this opportunity to link to a few of my earlier blog posts where I make my opinions pretty clear. I’ve divided them up into subtopics to make them a little easier to read, too. I have no problem trying to influence the opinions of others, but my intent here is to give any potential debaters a place to start, a jumping-off point.

Agree with me? Disagree? Why, that’s why we have debates!

Politics and space

Space leaders to Congress: light this private candle
Congress passes NASA authorization bill, but I’d rather watch sausages being made
Obama lays out bold revised space policy
Obama champions science… but where’s NASA?
Obama and McCain on space exploration

Space exploration

What value space exploration?
40 years later, failure is still no longer an option
Give space a chance
From distant planets to the deep blue sea
Why explore space?
Neil Tyson on exploring space
Human exploration of Phobos and Deimos

NASA and space

Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia, and those who sacrifice for the stars
Ten years of the International Space Station
NASA’s next small step: to an asteroid
Wait, how big is NASA’s budget again?
My NASA Op-Ed in the New York Post
Whence NASA?
NASA’s budget… as far as American’s think
Followup to Congressional NASA hearings and my thoughts
An open letter to NASA

I expect I’ll be referring a few students to this blog post in the year to come… and if you know kids who are interested, let them know about the topic! And, as always: per ardua, ad astra.

Tip o’ the spacesuit visor to Linda Mitts for this info.

Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia, and those who sacrifice for the stars

By Phil Plait | January 27, 2011 9:45 am

[Today is the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the loss of the Shuttle Challenger, and next week is the 8th anniversary of the loss of Columbia. I wrote the post below four years ago, but it still reflects my feelings today. I have updated it a bit to keep it current, but overall it stands as it did in 2007, on the 40th anniversary of Apollo 1. Once you’ve read it, I recommend you read a followup I posted, which has a different but also important view on these events.]

On January 27, 1967 — 44 years ago today — a fire swept through the Apollo 1 capsule during a test, killing all three astronauts.

Ed White, Roger Chaffee, and Gus Grissom didn’t have a chance. 17 seconds after the first yell of "fire!", they were dead.

A series of events and circumstances led to the fire. Perhaps the most famous is the pure oxygen atmosphere used in the capsule during the test. Why did NASA do that? The capsule was designed to use a pure O2 atmosphere while in space. Our air on Earth is a mix of nitrogen and oxygen, but this is difficult to use in space. The capsule needed to be as lightweight as possible (to save on fuel), so using a lower cabin pressure (5 pounds/square inch instead of 15 as on the surface of the Earth) means less equipment and therefore less weight, and less need for structural strength in the capsule. However, at lower pressure nitrogen can form bubbles in the blood, causing the condition known as "the bends", which can be crippling or fatal. So, at lower cabin pressure, there cannot be nitrogen in the air. Another gas could be substituted but that only works at higher pressure. The air has to have a certain amount of oxygen in it for the human body to survive, and at lower pressure that means essentially 100% of the air must be O2.

The danger of a fire is very real in space, but the lower pressure and lack of gravity (which means no convection; hot air cannot rise) makes a fire danger with pure O2 in space is no worse than it is on Earth with our air.

But that means the equipment on board that supplies the air can only handle pure oxygen, which in turn means that on the ground they needed to test with pure oxygen. The big difference is, on the ground the pressure is Earth-normal: 15 psi. At this pressure, fire danger is much higher.

A spark is what caused the fire. In the pure O2, it swept rapidly through the capsule. The hatch in the capsule that led outside was designed to open inward, to prevent it from being blown accidentally (which had happened in a real flight in 1961– ironically, Grissom’s Liberty Bell Mercury flight). It had a complicated set of procedures to open, and the astronauts couldn’t get it unlatched in time.

And so they died.

But I’ll take this opportunity to make a point. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Space

Give space a chance

By Phil Plait | January 30, 2010 1:47 pm

For criminy’s sake. What is it with people and all the rending of garments over the impending doom of NASA?


1) The reports of Spirit’s death are greatly exaggerated.

spiritOK, yes, Spirit is now stuck. It looks like even if it survives the Martian winter it may no longer be able to traverse the Red Planet’s landscape. But that doesn’t mean it’s dead. Instead of a rover, it’s now a stationary platform capable of doing a lot of science on the cheap (since most of the cost was getting it there).

If you’d rather not have a lander sitting on the surface of Mars doing science that we simply cannot do from millions of kilometers away on Earth, then fine. But astronomers and scientists and science journalists should know better. Stop saying it’s dead.

[And I can picture Opportunity on the other side of Mars, waving its mast frantically, saying, Hey, remember me? Still moving, still doing cool stuff!]

Next, and more importantly:

2) The reports of the manned spaceflight’s death are greatly exaggerated.

OK, yes, it does look like (assuming the rumors are true) the Obama budget for NASA is cutting out the Constellation rocket program in general and Ares in particular. But that doesn’t mean manned spaceflight is dead.

SpaceX launch of the Falcon 1 with RazakSATAs I said in that above link, private space companies are still a ways off from putting people in orbit. However, I strongly suspect they’ll be doing it before Ares would’ve been ready to do it anyway. Private companies like Space X may be two years from that, while Ares wouldn’t have been ready for five, assuming NASA could even get Ares ready by the scheduled time and in the assigned budget (which I would give a chance of, oh, say, precisely 0). So it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that after the Shuttle retires later this year (or early next) companies like Space X will be able to reach the International Space Station with rockets before NASA could.

As far as going back to the Moon, we still don’t know exactly what the budget for NASA will be like, but it was made clear in the leaked reports (again, assuming they are true) that money will be spent to look for a better heavy lift vehicle than Ares. No specifics were given (though the Commercial Spaceflight Federation says it may be 6 billion bucks, a huge chunk of change), so let’s wait until we actually see the report, hmmm?

Also, a lot of folks thought Ares was a waste of time, money, and with little or no chance of working well. Heck, the Space Frontier Foundation praises the killing of Ares! So not only is it unfair to lament the death of manned spaceflight, some people think — with some evidence, mind you — this will spur it on even more.

Buzz Aldrin's footprint on the Moon, from Apollo 11That last sentiment rings true to me. NASA’s manned program has been endlessly circling the Earth for almost 40 years now, with no real end in sight. I don’t have a lot of faith, so to speak, that Ares can do the job in breaking this cycle. I suspect a lot of the same folks who are decrying this move by Obama are the same ones who would be first in line to say that NASA has had its wings cut for decades now, making one bad decision after another when it comes to space exploration. Maybe it’s time — maybe it’s long after time — that we let someone else have a stab at this.

When I look at the Moon, I see a place where people will one day work, live, breathe, play, and explore. I also see that future receding two years for every year NASA doesn’t have a rocket to go there, and I’ve been watching that movie play for many years now.

I’m tired of it. When I look out my window now I see a future I’ve been dreaming of my whole life, a future that seems just out of my reach. When my children, my grandchildren, look out their windows in that future, y’know what I want them to see?

The blue-green crescent Earth hanging in a pitch black sky over a cratered horizon.

Let’s give space a chance.


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