What “First Man” Gets Fabulously Right About NASA: An Interview with Apollo 15 Astronaut Al Worden

By Corey S. Powell | October 13, 2018 11:41 pm
Neil Armstrong (left) as portrayed by Ryan Gosling in First Man (Credit: Universal)

Neil Armstrong (left) as portrayed by Ryan Gosling in First Man (Credit: Universal)

First Man is not like other movies about the space race, and I mean that in a very good way.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical about the director of La La Land telling the story of Neil Armstrong’s historic landing on the Moon. (Would there be songs? A scowling J.K. Simmons?) It turns out to be a synergistic pairing of artist and material. First Man brushes aside the expected saga of space cowboys saddling up their steel horses, delivering instead a moving narrative of NASA’s glory days as seen through Armstrong’s eyes.

That’s an especially impressive achievement given Armstrong’s famously private and controlled personality. Director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling (as Armstrong) use that reticence to their advantage, examining the personal, emotional, and intellectual rigor that made the Apollo 11 triumph possible. It all adds up to a nerve-wracking and fabulously engrossing story, but at times I wondered how closely it aligned with reality. So I spoke with Al Worden, the Command Module pilot on Apollo 15, who knew Armstrong and also served as a technical advisor on the film. Worden strongly validated the authenticity of First Man. He also offered a lot of unexpected insights along the way.

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With a Rain of Robots, the Asteroid-Exploration Era Has Truly Begun

By Corey S. Powell | October 3, 2018 3:42 pm
The MASCOT lander captured this shot of Ryugu from an altitude of 20 meters, just before touching down on the asteroid. (Credit: MASCOT/DLR/JAXA)

The MASCOT lander captured this shot of asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of 20 meters (60 feet), just before touching down. More images and data will arrive in the next few days. (Credit: MASCOT/DLR/JAXA)

The MASCOT has landed.

As of two weeks ago, humans had never put a single robotic explorer on an asteroid. Now we have three of them hopping about on Ryugu, a 900-meter-wide object currently orbiting on the other side of the Sun. On September 20, Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe dropped two little landers, MINERVA II-1a and II-1b. They promptly sent back dizzying images from the surface. Then last night (October 3), the mothership deployed MASCOT, a much larger rover that is now performing a battery of studies during its rushed, 16-hour lifespan. A fourth rover and sample collection are yet to come.

What we are witnessing here is not just a single spectacular mission (though Hayabusa2 certainly is), but the beginning of a new era of solar system exploration. When the New Horizons probe flew past Pluto in 2015, that marked the end of humanity’s initial reconnaissance of the nine classical planets and the beginning of a closer look at the little-explored small objects that hold so much information about the formation and evolution of the solar system, and perhaps about the emergence of life on Earth.

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MORE ABOUT: asteroids, comet, Hayabusa

Saving the World, One Science Fair at a Time

By Corey S. Powell | September 30, 2018 4:00 pm
This is where the magic happens: The main judging hall for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. (Credit: Chris Ayers/Society for Science & the Public)

This is where the magic happens: The main judging hall for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the focus of the new documentary Science Fair. (Credit: Chris Ayers/Society for Science & the Public)

When I was 16, I participated in the Montgomery County, Maryland science fair. My entry was–as I recognized even at the time–a fairly middling effort, more a research project than an original experiment. I was not surprised when I walked away with an appropriately middling “honorable mention” in my category. It was an inspiring experience anyway, for reasons that are perceptively captured in the marvelous new documentary Science Fair.

The culture of the science fair is one of profound optimism, marked by a sense of common purpose more than a sense of competition. I was certainly a little jealous of the more ambitious projects I saw all around me, but mostly I was awed by the brainpower on display, the vast range of problems that kids my age were trying to solve (or at least to understand a little better). Science Fair, the movie, fully embraces these themes as it follows nine budding researchers from around the world working their way to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the largest competition of its kind.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: genius, select, space, Top Posts, Uncategorized
MORE ABOUT: Science Fair

There’s Frost on the Moon — and All Across the Solar System

By Corey S. Powell | August 31, 2018 11:01 pm
Here there be water! The maps show the distribution of surface ice at the Moon's south (left) and north (right) poles. (Credit: NASA)

Here there be water! The maps show the distribution of surface ice at the Moon’s south (left) and north (right) poles. (Credit: NASA)

Yes, there is water on the Moon.

Twenty years ago, evidence of frost-coated regions near the Moon’s poles was greeted with surprise and skepticism. Ten years ago, a NASA instrument aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 space probe greatly boosted the case for water ice on the Moon. Then two weeks ago, a much deeper analysis of the Chandrayaan-1 data validated the surprise and ended the skepticism: Some permanently shadowed “cold-trap” craters near the lunar poles clearly do contain regions that are up to 30 percent water ice.

Lunar ice could be a precious resource for future explorers, a potential source of drinking water and oxygen as well as raw material for rocket fuel. The Moon’s poles are now beckoning targets for further exploration. There’s also a broader message to the discovery of ice on the Moon. Ice, frost, and snow are ubiquitous all across the solar system. Water ice is especially abundant, but every large world across the solar system seems to have frost of some form–even in the hottest and most unlikely places.

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What is a “Habitable” Planet, Anyway?

By Corey S. Powell | July 31, 2018 11:45 pm
Exoplanets (planets around other stars) ranked by researchers at the Planetary Habitability Lab at the University of Puerto Rico. Note the abundance of disclaimers; the truth is, we know little about these planets beyond their size and their distance from their stars. (Credit: UPR Arecibo)

Exoplanets (planets around other stars) ranked by researchers at the University of Puerto Rico’s Planetary Habitability Lab. Note the abundance of disclaimers; the truth is, we know little about these worlds besides their size and the distance they orbit from their stars. (Credit: UPR Arecibo)

We are living at the greatest moment in history for finding life beyond Earth. We have robots poking and sniffing around on Mars. We have a space probe in the works that will take a close look at Europa, to examine the likelihood of life on an ice-covered ocean world. Above all, we no longer have to wonder if our solar system is unique: We know of thousands of planets around other stars, and it’s clear that the total number of planets in our galaxy alone must number in the billions, if not the trillions.

But with all these rapid advances have come acute intellectual growing pains. It is only natural that people want to know how many of those distant planets could truly support life–to know whether living worlds like our own are common or rare (or unique). The desire for answers runs far ahead of the ability of science to provide them, unfortunately. And so we end up with whiplash conclusions based on the latest speculative study: Red dwarf stars are great places to find habitable planets…or maybe they are deadly. Earth couldn’t sustain life without the Moon…or maybe the Moon is not necessary at all.

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Here’s the Answer That Will Finally Settle the “Is Pluto a Planet?” Debate for Good (Yeah, Right)

By Corey S. Powell | June 5, 2018 12:43 pm
Pluto is a beautiful world, with ice mountains, nitrogen glaciers, and methane dunes. But that doesn't make it a planet. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Pluto is a beautiful world, with ice mountains, nitrogen glaciers, a haze-layered atmosphere, and methane dunes. But all that complexity does not necessarily make it a “planet.” (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

I love Pluto. I grew up entranced by this strange little world: What could you be, you rebel that doesn’t seem to follow any of the rules? I even wrote a childhood letter to a local astronomer, offering my homespun hypothesis that Pluto might be a captured fragment of an exploded star. When the New Horizons spacecraft finally revealed the true face of Pluto, I was right there at mission control in Langley, Maryland, to watch the images as they came in.

So I have a lot of sympathy for the Pluto-lovers who were wounded when the International Astronomical Union declared that the 9th planet was not exactly a planet after all, but something called a “dwarf planet.” I also appreciate the sweet irony that the fuss over Pluto’s reclassification stirred up even more interest in the New Horizons encounter. But really, the endless effort to restore Pluto’s planetary status and relegislate the definition of a “planet” is getting tedious. Time to settle this thing.

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665 Days in Space and 47 Minutes on TV: A Conversation with NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson

By Corey S. Powell | May 28, 2018 12:49 pm
Life outside the bubble: Peggy Whitson took her record-setting 8th spacewalk outside the ISS on March 30, 2017. (Credit; NASA-JSC)

Peggy Whitson took her record-setting 8th spacewalk outside the ISS on March 30, 2017. (Credit: NASA Johnson Space Center)

Life is all about bubbles. Every cell in your body is a bubble, a membrane holding together a miniature world of organelles, ribosomes, and genetic material. Your body itself is another bubble, a skin wrapped around a wet, salty interior that carries a distant memory of the oceans in which our ancestors lived hundreds of millions of years ago. And our entire planet is a bubble, a thin membrane of oxygen-rich air wrapped around a spinning rock warmed by a nearby Sun.

Being able to perceive our reality this way is one of the gifts of spending time with someone like Peggy Whitson, the poetic yet resolutely humble astronaut who has spent 665 days aboard the International Space Station–the longest duration of any American. Her life story is woven into tonight’s final episode of One Strange Rock, an unusual type of nature show that looks back at Earth from the unique perspective of the space explorers who have left it. But what you can see in 47 minutes on screen only scratches the surface of what Whitson has experienced.

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Alan Stern on the Pluto Revolution, the Psychology of Persistence, and “Chasing New Horizons”

By Corey S. Powell | May 4, 2018 3:10 pm
In the 1970s, the original version of the Voyager mission was supposed to include a Pluto flyby--and Alan Stern worked through many failed attempts to launch a Pluto mission in

In the 1970s, the original version of the Voyager mission was supposed to include a Pluto flyby–and Alan Stern worked through many failed attempts to launch a Pluto mission in the decades since. (Graphic: Jason Davis/The Planetary Society)

On July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft swept past Pluto, returning eye-popping images of the dwarf planet and its huge (relatively speaking) moon, Charon. At the time, the best existing images of Pluto showed nothing more than an enigmatic blur. New Horizons revealed a world of astonishing diversity: organics-coated dark patches, ice mountains, nitrogen glaciers, and methane snows, all in a state of astonishing activity considering the temperatures there are only about 40 degrees above absolute zero.

The scientific bonanza from the Pluto flyby was sweet vindication for Alan Stern, principal investigator on New Horizons. Stern spent decades fighting to make a Pluto mission happen, persisting long after it seemed like a hopeless cause. Teaming up with writer and astrobiologist David Grinspoon, Stern tells the full, thorny story in his engaging new book Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto. It’s a a tale about space science, yes, but it’s also a reminder of what can happen when you refuse to let dreams die.

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From the Overview Effect to “One Strange Rock”: A Conversation with Leland Melvin

By Corey S. Powell | April 2, 2018 2:37 pm

Leland Melvin shows the two sides of his passion, with the wonder of the "overview" showing outside his Shuttle window. [Credit: NASA]

Leland Melvin shows the two sides of his passion, with the wonder of the “overview” showing outside his Shuttle window. [Credit: NASA]

It’s hard to think of any modern human activity that has had more of a multiplicative impact on the imagination than space exploration. To date, a grand total of 562 humans have left the Earth—a trivial fraction compared to the 7.6 billion people currently staying put. Yet the images and stories of astronauts voyaging away from their home planet has transformed popular culture, education, even business and politics.

Former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin is a lead agent helping to advance that transformation. In a wide range of appearances, he speaks eloquently about the “overview effect,” the life-changing cognitive shift that comes with seeing Earth from the outside. Most recently, he has participated in the new series One Strange Rock, which embraces that effect by examining the marvels of our world from astronauts’ perspectives.

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Finding Stephen Hawking’s Star—And Finding Your Own

By Corey S. Powell | March 14, 2018 1:21 pm
In 2008, Stephen Hawking delivered a lecture on "why we should go into space" in honor of NASA's 50th anniversary. (Credit: NASA/Paul. E. Alers)

In 2008, Stephen Hawking delivered a lecture on “why we should go into space” in honor of NASA’s 50th anniversary. (Credit: NASA/Paul. E. Alers)

When I look at the night sky, I often view the stars not just in space but also in terms of their places in time. Light moves at a finite speed (299,792 kilometers per second, to be precise), so the journey from star to star is a very long one even for a beam of light. When astronomers talk about light years of distance, they are literally describing the number of years it takes for light to travel from those distant stars to your eyeball.

And so when I heard about the death of Stephen Hawking, I couldn’t help thinking about his place in the stars. At some distance from Earth, there is a star whose light (as seen right now on Earth) started its journey at the time when you were born. You can think of that as your birth star. We all have one. Hawking has one–and you can easily see it. His birth star is shining brightly in the evening tonight.

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