Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Coverage of STS-135 in Westfalen-Blatt (Bad Oeynhausen, Germany)

Being a spacetweep is all about outreach and inspiration via social media. When a German twitter follower of mine learned that I was traveling to Florida to witness the last Space Shuttle launch on July 8, 2011, he pointed out that many local Germans don't even know or care about the end of the Space Shuttle program. I decided to contact both papers in my hometown of Bad Oeynhausen to see if they wanted to interview me while experiencing STS-135 in person. Did they ever! I was asked for and promised exclusive coverage to the first paper that responded, the Westfalen-Blatt. I figured if I can reach, inspire or educate just one person in Germany, it would be worth the effort. I anticipated publication with some degree of trepidation and was pleasantly surprised. The journalist who interviewed me, Malte Samtenschnieder, did a great job. I was especially happy to see her translation of my STS-135 launch tweet stream in my hometown newspaper.

If you read German, you can see for yourself (scroll down to PDFs). If you don't, here are the Cliff Notes:

The first PDF page is the transcript of the interview with me a few days before my trip to the Space Coast. It was published pre-launch on July 8, 2011 and the picture on the right is actually of the last launch of Discovery on February 24, 2011 (STS-133). The interview mainly covers how I became a space geek and how NASA's social media activism, especially on twitter, has created a growing global community of spacetweeps and citizen scientists that will help launch the coming era of space tourism, private space exploration and permanent human colonies in low-earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and other solar system destinations. 

I also give a shout-out to Sonja Rohde, who is slated to become the first German space tourist and the first German woman in space. She is from my home state of Nordrhein-Westfalen. There are also sidebars with my biographical info and about the STS-135 mission profile and crew members. The interview was featured on the Westfalen-Blatt's front page.

The second PDF page is a second article by the same journalist published post-launch in the Westfalen-Blatt's weekend edition of July 9/10, 2011. It is a translation into German of my live tweets on launch day. While historic space events tend to cause cell phone and network outages due to overload, I got lucky. All my launch-related tweets got through, without delay. I even composed my launch tweet "...5 ...4 ...3 ...2 ...1 and Lift-Off!" ahead of time, with my finger on the "Send" button and my eyes on the launch pad. (Have I noted recently that smart phones are cooler than tricorders?). 

If you don't read German but follow my twitter feed - or space events, for that matter - you don't need a translation of the second article. I should add that the translation is very good and accurately captures what I was trying to convey. Except for one quibble that only matters to those who read both German and English. I tweeted about how shuttle launch sound waves are something you feel *viscerally*, in addition to seeing and hearing them - a feeling you just don't experience unless you're physically close to a couple million tons of propellants being ignited. The translation of "visceral" ended up as "zu Herzen gehend" (heartfelt), which is an ok translation, but not really what I said in English. It's a tough one, though, so I'm giving the translator a pass :)

Most of all, these articles are symbolic of what space activism and outreach is all about for me: It is about communication, passion, creativity and hope, the transcendence of national borders and cultural differences, and a focus on building a better future for all humankind.

Click here to read about my launch day experience in English.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Tragedy Remembered: January 28, 1986

On that fateful winter day in 1986, I was a newly minted grad student at UCLA in the then-fledgling area of cognitive science, where I was able to assemble my own interdisciplinary course of study and research. I chose computational psycholinguistics, which meant that my goal was to invent the Universal Translator (as seen on Star Trek) by the time I was 25 and single-handedly revolutionize global and cross-cultural communication.  The reality of technological limits put a damper on these aspirations soon enough. But in the winter of 1986, I felt I was in the right place at the right time to change the world.
In addition, just a couple of weeks prior, I had met a human factors engineer who was working on improving the space shuttle crew compartment and on designing living quarters for the planned space station, which was named “Freedom” at the time, a very ambitious project that was later scaled back into what is now the ISS. She soon hired me as a consultant, once she realized that I have a background (more by accident than by choice) in quantification of human movement across three dimensions. We spent many hours together in front of a TV set and VHS VCR, watching NASA footage of astronauts moving about various shuttle compartments in space, followed by many more hours of devising ways to measure and quantify their movements. Most of the footage was from Challenger missions.
It was during these hours that I lived through one of the most intellectually embarrassing moments of my life. While we were discussing the difficulties that moving about in microgravity added to obtaining consistent measurements, I suddenly had a seemingly brilliant idea: “Hey! Why don’t we suggest to NASA to film astronauts in microgravity during an upcoming mission – have them do some basic movements that can be used as baselines. Put some lead boots on them so they’ll always have their feet on the floor!”  I looked at her expectantly and could tell she was trying not to laugh. :::::dramatic pause::::: …. and…. the light went on in my brain (about 30 seconds too late, thanks a lot, brain). I just wanted to disappear. Thankfully, she laughed and said “Don’t worry – that happens to everybody!”
This collaboration ended with a job offer to work full time in human factors psychology to design living quarters on space station Freedom.
So the question “Grad school as I had planned or a job in the space industry that just happened to fall into my lap?” was very much on my mind as I walked across the UCLA campus to the research methods lab class I was teaching early that morning on January 28, 1986. I knew there was a launch that morning, but like so many others, I had already started taking them for granted after 5 years and didn’t give it much thought. I walked through the student union where everybody appeared to be clustered around two TV sets. Deep in my own thoughts, I ignored them and figured it had something to do with a football game, the only other occasion during which I had seen students glued to the TVs like that.
When I walked into my classroom I could tell instantly something was wrong. I attempted to make a joke about “all the long faces”. “You don’t know?” one of the students asked. “Know what?” “The space shuttle! It exploded! They’re all dead!” (I realize Challenger did not actually explode and there had not been any official announcement on the fate of the crew). The news hit me like a physical punch. I took two steps back against the wall and had to consciously keep from sliding to the floor. I don’t remember much after that. I don’t remember if I taught the class, cancelled it, or anything else about that day. I do remember very vividly that the wait for answers about what had happened was frustrating and excruciating. I never looked at a space shuttle the same way again. And I never once took them or their voyages for granted again.
I did stay in grad school. The job offer was still on the table, but I decided against it. A year later, the human factors program for space station Freedom was cancelled and my friend was transferred to a department that had her working on improving the ergonomics of combat plane cockpits. After all, this was the era of Star Wars. No, not George Lucas' Star Wars. Rather, the giant defense industry boon(doggle) that was Ronald Reagan's Star Wars.
I don’t usually believe in chasing “What ifs” but in this case it’s hard not to speculate.
I keep Challenger’s last mission patch in a special place – as a reminder not of what could have been, but as inspiration for all that which we will yet achieve in space.

Challenger's last mission patch on the left

A heat tile  from Challenger's wreckage at the Santa Maria Museum of Flight in Santa Maria, CA

Read more about the Santa Maria Museum of Flight and the history of the space shuttle at Vandenberg AFB:

Monday, November 19, 2012

Soyuz Expedition 33 Returns to Earth

On Monday morning, November 19, 2012, Soyuz Expedition 33 landed near Arkalyk, Kazakhstan. The capsule carried three astronauts returning from a 127-day stay on the International Space Station: Akihiko Hoshide (@aki_hoshide) of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Russian Soyuz Commander Yuri Malenchenko and NASA astronaut Sunita Williams (@astro_suni), who became the second woman to command the ISS. 

Expedition 33 made a rare night landing on the Kazakh steppe at 7:56 a.m. local time, before local sunrise. The temperature was well below freezing and the capsule landed on its side in the snow - but not before leaving a spectacular scorch and drag mark. As much as I love the space shuttle, you just don't see that sort of thing on the Cape ~

All three astronauts were recovered from the Expedition 33 capsule in good spirits. 

Oh, and am I the only one who thinks that the Soyuz capsules should be *named*?

The Soyuz capsule carved a trench in the snow upon landing, parachutes are visible in upper left

Another aerial view of the landing site and recovery team; capsule is on its side

Capsule upright prior to hatch opening

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who returned from a stay as Commander of the ISS

Photo credits: NASA

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Endeavour's Parade - Viewing Locations

To all of you who have been fretting over whether or not you'll be able to see Endeavour from L.A. sidewalks and streets this weekend, take heart! I scouted out the route today and talked to dozens of business owners. Not a single one told me that shuttle watchers are not welcome. In fact, most of them were thrilled at the prospect of the extra business with a distinct "Bring it on!" attitude. There was no talk of anyone closing for the Parade.

I focused on businesses and venues that either provide sit-down food & beverage services or have parking lots or other outdoors spaces. I made sure that shuttle watchers would be welcome there. 

The information below is NOT official information from Los Angeles city officials (much official advice in recent days has been versions of "stay away"). I compiled this information today while making my way along Endeavour's route. I hope this info will help you make plans for the Parade.

Be sure to pay attention to street closings (details below). I have heard that the police will close off streets/sidewalks 1 mile ahead and behind the shuttle. However the street closing signs today didn't mention anything about a "rolling" closure. The viewing locations below are all venues that get you off the streets and sidewalks - if indeed city officials decide to forbid shuttle viewing from sidewalks along the route.

Update - October 11, 5:40 p.m. 
Sidewalks may be opened up along the route, as determined by the LAPD on a block-by-block basis. No details.

If you plan on driving to the Parade, my advice is to arrive a couple hours prior to official street closing times, park off the Parade route a few blocks away and walk to your destination. That way, your car won't be stuck inside the closure zones. 

I have included a few hotel listings along the route for those who want to stay along the route overnight.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please email me at ctaake23 at or contact me on twitter (@ct_la).

Here is a detailed map of the route and major stops along the way.


LEG 1 - EAST: Manchester & Sepulveda to Manchester & Crenshaw Drive

Manchester Blvd. will be closed from 12-5 pm along the shuttle route, according to signs displayed today.

Manchester & Sepulveda - Shuttle starts to head East at 1:15 p.m.

Manchester & Airport

Holiday Inn Express (rooftop viewing available)
7-11 parking lot

Manchester & Belford

Yum Yum Donuts
Jino's Bistro

Manchester & Bellana

Burger King
Jack in the Box
Mini-mall parking lot anchored by a Subway

Manchester & Hindry

7-11 parking lot
Tumby's Pizza

Manchester & Olive

Day's Inn
Sandman Hotel

Manchester & La Cienega

Randy's Donuts (look for the huge iconic donut with a shuttle in the donut hole)
Louis Burgers
Airport Hotel

Update - October 11, 2:55 p.m. 
Randy's donuts will be closed on Friday. They leased their parking lot to Toyota and the Tundra shuttle transporter will be stored there.  This is right at the 405 Freeway overpass.

** END ROUTE FOR OCTOBER 12 ** - Endeavour will reach the 405 Freeway overpass at Manchester & La Cienega around 4 p.m. Here she will be transferred to another carrier to cross the overpass around 10 p.m. Note: CHP will close freeway ramps in the area around this time.


Endeavour will continue along Manchester Blvd, entering the city of Inglewood around 8 a.m.

Manchester & Ash

Roscoe's Chicken & adjacent mini mall parking lot

Manchester & Cedar

Bravo's Char Burgers
Economy Inn
Lotus Motel

Manchester & Inglewood

7-11 parking lot
Charly's Restaurant
Carl's Jr

One Manchester Ave - Inglewood City Hall
This is an official viewing area and there are some grassy areas set back from the sidewalk. There are no other off-sidewalk viewing opportunities through downtown Inglewood.

Manchester & Locust


Manchester & Hillcrest

Von's parking lot (including Starbucks and a bistro cafe).
This is a good one if you don't want to wait at a restaurant or fast food place. This is also the only segment along the route where Endeavour will be going downhill. There are grassy areas inside the parking lot to wait. I made sure the manager is fine with shuttle spotters in the parking lot. There is a fence around the lot, but it doesn't obstruct one's view, unless you have professional photo/film equipment.

Manchester & Prairie / Inglewood Forum


9 a.m. - Celebration at the Inglewood Forum. This venue accommodates 14,000 people. I couldn't get any info on how close visitors can get to the shuttle there.

Manchester & Briarwood

Inglewood Cemetery - for those who want to get into the Halloween spirit. You will not be able to get close to the sidewalk here due to walls that block the view but the cemetery is large and has gentle hills from which Manchester Blvd. is clearly visible.

LEG 2 - NORTH: Crenshaw Drive & Crenshaw Blvd to Martin Luther King Blvd.

From here on out, viewing opportunities diminish quite a bit. The neighborhoods are mostly residential, with houses frequently bordering the sidewalk without lawns or spacious businesses. 

I did not see any signs about closure times along Crenshaw Blvd., but expect it to be closed, partially or in its entirety, from early morning to at least mid-afternoon on Saturday.

Crenshaw & Florence

McDonald's and adajacent mini-mall

Crenshaw & 60th Street

Pizza Hut
Taco Bell

Crenshaw & Slauson

Burger King

Crenshaw & 48th Street

Church's Chicken

Crenshaw & Vernon


Crenshaw & Martin Luther King Blvd / Baldwin Hills Mall

Walmart / Macy's parking lot
Louisiana Fried Chicken, numerous additional restaurants

This is the location of the Baldwin Hills Mall, where there will be a celebration hosted by Debbie Allen at 2 p.m. The venue can accommodate 3,000 people. So if you want to go to this one, arrive early.

LEG 3 - EAST: Martin Luther King Blvd. to CA Science Center

A sign on MLK Blvd today read: Closed 8 pm / 10-12 to 8 pm / 10-13

The initial stretch of MLK Blvd is comprised of residential areas with very few viewing opportunities.

MLK & Olmstead

Audubon Middle School. There are large playgrounds and sports areas right on MLK Blvd. Downside: You'd be behind a chain link fence.

MLK & King Blvd.

7-11 mini mall (it looks like a tight fit there; city workers were taking down street lights today)

MLK & Arlington


A sign at Arlington said today that this stretch of road will be closed on 10/13 from 4 pm to 10 pm. I take this to mean that the shuttle will probably arrive at CA Science Center closer to 8 pm than 4 pm.

MLK & Western

Burger King
Ralph's parking lot

MLK & Normandie

Carl's Jr
Taco Bell

MLK & Walton

McDonald's with adjacent mini mall parking lot

MLK & Bill Richardson Lane


This is a good location to see the shuttle at the end of her journey. Endeavour will turn left here and head over to the CA Science Center, which will also host a celebration. See my previous two Endeavour Parade blog entries for details on this celebration.

Update - October 11, 2012 12:40 pm
CBS just reported that Endeavour is slated to arrive at the CA Science Center at 8:30 p.m. Previously reported arrival times were 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Open Letter to Mayor Villaraigosa

To Mayor Villaraigosa and city officials in charge of moving Endeavour to the California Science Center:

The way you have handled public relations for Endeavour's move so far is an absolute disgrace. By keeping spectators away from the shuttle route you are turning an event that could be a highlight in the history of space shuttle retirement into a nightmarish police state scenario. Your emphasis on "security" is a thinly veiled way of saying that Angelenos cannot be trusted to celebrate THEIR shuttle without damaging it, themselves, each other or city property - especially considering that the route leads through some of LA's poorer neighborhoods. I really have to wonder if you have a clue just how bad this looks to us - and everybody who will be watching this weekend.

This is the last time any space shuttle will be on the *move* anywhere on Earth or in space. Do you really want to turn this historic occasion into one that Angelenos and the world will remember as one of anger, resentment and ham-fisted management?

It is an honor for Los Angeles to have been chosen as the permanent home of one NASA's orbiters, especially considering the role Southern California played in the shuttle's design and development. One would think you could grasp the historic significance of moving this magnificent machine through our city streets. Angelenos and visitors want to be PART OF HISTORY. Yet you are treating Endeavour's move as if it is a huge inconvenience, through a city populated by residents too incompetent or dangerous to watch a shuttle go by at TWO miles per hour.

What makes you think Angelenos are incapable of participating safely in a celebration and parade? We have hosted the Olympics as smoothly as any city can. We host an annual marathon through those same city streets. We survived closure of our busiest freeway for a whole weekend without missing a beat, twice. We can handle horrific daily traffic, along with earthquakes, riots, fires and floods. Angelenos are tough, resourceful and delightfully diverse. How dare you paint us as people who can't be entrusted with keeping ourselves and the space shuttle safe because we want to WATCH FROM THE SIDEWALKS?

If your concern is for the shuttle or transporter injuring onlookers: Please. The transporter will be crawling along. What are you afraid of? I'd really like to hear what kind of specific "security" concerns you have. I would also like to know how you intend to handle massive crowds at a venue you are billing as a public viewing site, even though it accommodates only 3,000 people (Crenshaw Plaza).

Are you concerned the shuttle might get damaged by the people along the route? Endeavour has accomplished 25 fiery launches and re-entries, traveled 120 million miles in space and helped build the International Space Station. Are you saying Endeavour is too fragile for a parade and celebration in the streets of Los Angeles?

I can tell you this: You will not keep Angelenos and visitors from seeing Endeavour along the route. The shuttle belongs to the people. We paid for it, just like we pay for the maintenance of public streets. It's ludicrous that you're telling us we can't see our shuttle on our streets. Alas, just as we've learned to cope with man-made and natural disasters, we've gotten used to a city government completely out of touch with city residents.

It's up to us, then: We will find a way to #SpotTheShuttle!

I will scout the route tomorrow, talk to business owners and residents along the way and compile a list of viewing locations. Look for the info on this blog tomorrow evening.

Here is a detailed map of the route and major stops along the way.

Endeavour's Parade Route - UPDATE

Below is an updated route timetable for Space Shuttle Endeavour's trip from LAX to the California Science Center on Friday and Saturday. (Source:

The details below differ from the timetable I published here on October 8 (source: Los Angeles Times), including arrival time at the California Science Center.

My advice is to plan for the earlier arrival times. City officials have been releasing very little information, considering the scope of the event. I believe that is deliberate to keep spectators away. At the time of this writing, city police plan on closing streets and sidewalks for one mile in front of and behind the shuttle. This means spectators will need to look for businesses and residents who are happy to welcome shuttle watchers and celebrate. I will make my way along the route tomorrow (Wednesday, Oct. 10) to scout for locations and will publish the information here tomorrow evening.

So far, I know of two businesses who are welcoming shuttle watchers:

Randy's Donuts - 805 West Manchester Boulevard  Inglewood, CA 90301

Holiday Inn Express at LAX -  8620 Airport Boulevard Los Angeles, CA
As of today, the hotel still had a few rooms available.

UPDATED Endeavour Parade Route ~

Friday, Oct. 12

    2 a.m.: Depart LAX on north side.
    4:15 a.m.: Arrive at intersection of La Tijera and Sepulveda boulevards. There, Endeavour will have a 9-hour layover while the roads ahead are cleared.
    1:15 p.m.: Head east on Manchester Boulevard.
    4 p.m.: Stop short of San Diego (405) Freeway, and transfer shuttle to another carrier for crossing the overpass.
    10 p.m.: Cross 405 Freeway. CHP will close ramps and run traffic stops to minimize traffic disruptions caused by gawking. Endeavour will continue east overnight.

Saturday, Oct. 13

    8 a.m.: Pass Inglewood City Hall, a designated viewing area.
    9 a.m.: Reach the Forum, the scene of a formal welcoming celebration capable of accommodating a crowd as large as 14,000.
    9:30 a.m.: Continue east on Manchester Boulevard, turning left at Crenshaw Drive, which connects to Crenshaw Boulevard.
    2 p.m.: Arrive at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for a second celebration, with entertainment produced by Debbie Allen.
    2:30 p.m.: Continue east on MLK Boulevard.
    4 p.m.: Reach Exposition Park, another designated viewing area and the site of the shuttle’s new home at the California Science Center.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Endeavour's Parade Route - Details & Tips

Space Shuttle Endeavour is making its final voyage to the California Science Center from LAX this week. As many of you know, parade plans are in shambles and city officials are well on their way to turning an event that could be a highlight in Los Angeles and space shuttle history into an unmitigated public relations disaster. Nonetheless, many thousands of Angelenos will go shuttle watching this weekend. I will do all I can to help Angelenos and visitors celebrate Endeavour along her route.

Here is a detailed map of the route and major stops along the way.

On SATURDAY, OCTOBER 13, celebrations are planned at the following locations:

- 9 a.m, Forum parking lot in Inglewood

- 2 p.m., Martin Luther King and Crenshaw at Crenshaw Plaza

- 8:30 p.m., Bill Robertson Lane at Exposition Park

The third stop at Exposition Park is the final stop at the California Science Center. I visited CSC last week and spoke to the staff about the venue. The museum will be open and it's free to get in. They are opening up all parking lots that they have, but they couldn't estimate the number of people that will attend so parking could still be an issue. Remember that the California Science Center is located on the newly opened Expo light rail line. Take the blue line or red line to 7th/Metro and catch the Expo line to Expo/USC station. The CSC entrance is located across from USC through the rose garden. If you see the fountain, you know you're in the right place. Click here for Expo line info and time table.

The other two locations, at the Forum and Crenshaw Plaza are the only two locations where city officials are currently "allowing" the public to see the shuttle. The Forum is a venue with 14,000 parking spaces. Whether that is enough is anyone's guess. Given this event is happening on a Saturday, I very much doubt it. 

The second location at Crenshaw Plaza mall will feature a celebration choreographed by Debbie Allen. The bad news is that the venue accommodates only 3,000 people. 

I will personally scout the route and post more details this week. In particular, I will look for businesses along the route that plan on welcoming shuttle watchers, such as the iconic Randy's Donuts on Manchester Blvd. in Inglewood:

Here is a detailed itinerary of Endeavour’s trip from LAX to its permanent new home at the California Science Center:

— Leave United Hangar at LAX

THURSDAY, OCT. 11, 11:30 p.m.

— United Hangar to Twy E17
12:30 a.m. (Friday, Oct. 12)


— Service Road to LAX Gate S1A
2:00 a.m.

— Northside Pkwy. to Lincoln Blvd.
2:30 a.m.

— S. McConnell Ave. to La Tijera Blvd.
3:30 a.m.

— La Tijera Blvd. to Drollinger Parking Lot.
4:15 a.m.

Switch Transporters from Narrow Configuration to Wide Configuration Exit Drollinger Parking Lot at 1:30 p.m.

— Sepulveda Eastway to Manchester Blvd.
2:00 p.m.

— Manchester Blvd. to Osage Ave.
2:45 p.m.

— Osage Ave. to S. Glasgow Ave.
3:15 p.m.

— S. Glasgow Ave to La Cienega Blvd.
4:15 p.m.

Set Orbiter to Dollies from 4:15 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Cross Manchester Bridge from 10:00 p.m. to 10:15 p.m.

Set Forward End of Orbiter to SPMT’s from 10:15 p.m. to 11:55 p.m.

Set Aft End of Orbiter to SPMT’s from 12:05 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.


— S. Ash Ave. to Inglewood Ave.
1:30 a.m.

— Grevillea Ave. to East Hillcrest Blvd.
8:00 a.m.

— East Hillcrest Blvd. to South Prairie Ave.
9:00 a.m.

— South Prairie Ave. to Crenshaw Dr.
10:00 a.m.

— Crenshaw Dr. to Crenshaw Blvd.
11:00 a.m.

— Crenshaw Blvd. to W. 79th St.
11:30 a.m.

— W. 79th St. to West Florence Ave.
2:00 p.m.

— W. Florence Ave. to W. Slauson Ave.
12:45 p.m.

— W. Slauson Ave. to W. Vernon Ave.
1:30 p.m.

— W. Vernon Ave. to MLK
2:00 p.m.

Switch Transporters from Wide Configuration to Narrow Configuration from 2:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

— MLK to Olmsted Ave.
5:00 p.m.

— Olmsted Ave. to 4th Ave.
5:45 p.m.

— 4th Ave. to Western Ave.
7:15 p.m.

— Western Ave. to S. Normandie Ave.
8:00 p.m.

— S. Normandie Ave. to Bill Robertson Ln.
8:30 p.m.

— Bill Robertson Ln. to California Science Center Pavilion Ramp
9:00 p.m.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Elon Musk answers my question about manned missions

I almost missed it. 

However, thanks to @serenityhanley and @libbydoodle, who recognized my twitter handle during today's Google+ hangout with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and tweeted about it, I just watched Elon Musk answer my question (submitted via twitter):

@NASA @SpaceX What's the timeline for the 1st manned #Dragon flight to the #ISS? How are NASA & SpaceX collaborating in that area? #askNASA

Go to 8:07 to hear Elon's answer:

Three years to manned spaceflight for SpaceX, four years for manned missions to the International Space Station. That's fairly soon, considering SpaceX is building its own rockets and spacecraft from the ground up. I truly wish, however, that the Soyuz wasn't our only current option for manned missions to the ISS. Don't forget to watch on Sunday, October 7, when SpaceX will launch its first Falcon 9 / Dragon supply mission to the ISS under contract with NASA from Kennedy Space Center. The launch is scheduled for 8:35 pm EDT / 5:35 pm PDT. Both NASA and SpaceX will carry live feeds.  UPDATE - October 8, 2012 During last night's pre-launch SpaceX webcast, John Insprucker also answered my question! I was just hanging out, watching the webcast in anticipation of the launch when I did a double take "Wait, that's me!"  Thank you Elon and John for both taking the time to answer!


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Water on Mars Revisited

From Giovanni Schiaparelli to Robert Heinlein the notion of water-filled "canals" on the surface of Mars was a popular one in science and science fiction during some of the late 19th and early 20th century. By the time I discovered science (fiction), the hypothesis of straight canals with flowing water on Mars had long since been dispelled. By the time I began to study Mars, Mariner and Viking had already sent back images from the Martian surface that meant I didn't have to imagine it. I could just look up the images. As I looked at Martian landscapes apparently devoid of any visible water, the notion of streams with flowing water on Mars appeared quaint and naive. 

Now, Curiosity has sent back images from Gale Crater that contain evidence of ancient, quick-flowing water on Mars. NASA's newest rover on the Red Planet found a tilted block of rock that is part of an ancient streambed, along with gravelly rocks whose shape and size indicate they were formed by having been tumbled in water, for a long time. The gravel is too heavy to have been shaped by wind. This is the first time that water-transported gravel has been found on Mars.

Evidence of an ancient streambed on Mars (left), compared to a similar formation on Earth

The size and shape of the gravel also provides clues about flow rate and duration: The water was between ankle- and hip-deep and flowed at a rate of 3 feet (1 meter) per second. That is a pretty brisk-moving stream. When water did flow on Mars in this location, it flowed for a very long time, a very long time ago.

We are certain to find additional clues as Curiosity continues its journey towards the Glenelg area of Mt. Sharp on Mars. In the meantime, I am left with a whole new, awesome dimension of Martian geological history. While Gale Crater was picked as the rover's landing site partly because orbital data indicated the presence of an alluvial flow, I have to ask: If Curiosity practically landed in an ancient Martian streambed, how common was water on Mars back when Gale Crater sported at least one knee-deep, briskly moving stream of water? Was it common or rare? Did the flowing water environment support any life? What happened to the planet between then and now? How did it change from an environment supporting liquid water to what it is today? Where did all that water go? 

We may not have reliable answers to these questions for a while but the fact that we can now ask them and look for clues in data directly from the Martian surface is a spectacular achievement of planetary science. 

Go Curiosity!

For my coverage of Curiosity's landing on Mars from Planetfest 2012, click here and here

For my coverage of the NASA/JPL tweetup featuring Curiosity in June 2011, click here

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Welcome to Los Angeles, Endeavour!

Space Shuttle Endeavour arrived safely and to a huge welcome at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday, September 21, 2012.

Since it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of seeing a space shuttle soar overhead on top of a modified 747 (aka SCA = shuttle carrier aircraft) let's take a look at a rare photograph first. Below is Endeavour in her full splendor docked to the completed International Space Station during her last mission to space. Italian Astronaut Paulo Nespoli snapped this picture on May 23, 2011 from a Soyuz capsule. While there are a number of photos showing parts of shuttles photographed from inside the ISS, this is the only picture showing all of Endeavour docked to the completed ISS. This picture shows her doing what she was made for: Spaceflight. Building and servicing the International Space Station. An amazing machine that gave us the ability to construct a human outpost in orbit. Endeavour may be ready for retirement now and I can't wait to visit her at her new home at the California Science Center. I'm sure she will be breathtaking. 

But to me she was never more magnificent than doing what she did best - In Space.

Photo credit: Paulo Nespoli / NASA

Around 9 a.m. on Sept. 21, I started making my way to LAX a few miles away. I took the bus and train to avoid the predicted traffic chaos and shortage of parking at the location I had in mind: The East Side of Aviation Blvd, at the end of LAX's south runway. If you know the area, this stretch of road is located north of the Proud Bird restaurant. The runway starts on the other side of the street. It's a great spot for watching incoming planes fly low before touchdown. 

I arrived at the location at 10:30 a.m, as planned, for a shuttle landing time of 11 a.m., just as I learned that landing time had been postponed to 12:45 p.m. Aviation Blvd. is not one of those quaint, picturesque L.A. streets. It's a major four-lane airport access road and the ambiance is razor wire fence-industrial. The "sidewalk" is a narrow strip of gravel.  (Note: If you ever find yourself stranded on a narrow strip of gravel for a long wait, do so with a Southwest flight attendant who has a carry-on. They have everything you need in that bag for hot, dusty, historic space events!)

When I arrived, the crowd was still relatively thin. I settled in for a 2+ hour wait. Twitter dropped in and out of being accessible during that time so my #spottheshuttle tweets from the location are a bit... spotty. 

As I have found to be the case at all space events, nothing is easier than striking up a conversation with strangers. I met two flight attendants from Southwest Air, one who had come from Minneapolis, the other Las Vegas. I met an engineer who had worked on Endeavour's SSMEs. A mother who had brought her kid to see the shuttle; they had been waiting since 6 a.m. Two film students with professional equipment who planned to get footage of the landing and use it in their film project this semester, and many more. As a bonus, I got a ferocious sunburn despite SPF50. No matter.

By noon, the crowd had grown considerably and was now clustered along Aviation Blvd. in both directions as far as anyone could see. The cops amused us trying to contain everybody on the gravel strip, keeping them out of the bike path and street. This was a doomed effort. The bike path was ours. During the shuttle's final landing approach, the cops caved in, stopped traffic and let us take the street. That is when the long, dusty, brutally hot wait paid off. This is what we saw - no zoom, no filters, a glorious moment:

Photo credit: Tanya Ehret

The aircraft in the upper right is an F-19 fighter aircraft, one of two that accompany the shuttle carrier aircraft (SCA), a converted 747, flying space shuttles across the country. While the shuttle program was active, NASA maintained two SCAs to return shuttles from California. Shuttle landings were diverted to land at Edwards Air Force Base in California on a number of occasions.

Video credit: Tanya Ehret

The landing approach was Endeavour's third pass above us. We first glimpsed the plane carrying Endeavour as a speck in the northwest, from the direction of Santa Barbara, heading inland over Santa Monica, beginning its flyby of L.A. landmarks, including Griffith Observatory and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The SCA then headed south, where it flew over Disneyland, Boeing and the U.S.S. Iowa. It then returned to LAX and gave us two approaches: The first one much higher than the above pic; even though it looked like it might land. At the last moment, the 747 pulled up and completed one last long loop to the southeast toward its final landing approach.    Welcome to Los Angeles, Endeavour! We are proud to have you. I will see you again during the parade to the CA Science Center on October 12. Below is a collection of some of my favorite photos.  

Endeavour began her journey to Southern California with flyovers of Sacramento and San Francisco 

Endeavour over Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

The two photos above were taken by a photographer for the L.A. Times from a skyscraper rooftop in nearby downtown Los Angeles

 A sight that was never before seen over downtown Los Angeles - 
and never will be again

 Endeavour soars over NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena 

 Touchdown at LAX

 You don't see this every day: Angelenos stop and get out of their cars along a busy airport access road to get a better look at History in the Making. 

By Saturday afternoon, Endeavour had been de-mated from the SCA. This marks the first time Endevour was seen nose-to-nose with a NASA shuttle carrier aircraft