Saturday, May 19, 2012

T - 90 Minutes And Counting ~

As I write this, it is exactly T - 90 minutes from the scheduled launch time for Space X's demonstration mission to the International Space Station. A Falcon 9 rocket with its Dragon capsule payload is slated to lift off from Pad 40 at Kennedy Space Center at 1:55 a.m.

Space X is poised at the brink of making history. A successful mission means Space X will become the first private entity on the planet to not only achieve orbit, but to dock with the ISS. The symbolism of this feat cannot be overstated at a time when NASA is reeling from funding cuts and the iconic Space Shuttle will never fly again. 

More importantly, Space X has ambitious plans that go far beyond the symbolic. The Dragon capsule can function as a reusable spacecraft to carry astronauts to the ISS and beyond. Space X founder Elon Musk envisions manned missions to Mars within the next 10 years and a burgeoning space tourism industry that will offer round trip rocket rides to space stations, habitats and other future destinations in low Earth orbit and beyond. 

Within the next 20 years, space travel, space ships and suborbitals will become as commonplace as air travel and aircraft. We have finally reached the dawn of an era that will make space accessible to those who want to experience it, on a large scale.  90 minutes from now, Space X is set to pave the way!

Go Space X!

Go Falcon!

Go Dragon!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Revisiting STS-133 ~ Discovery's Last Mission ~

Among those who were invited to participate in the NASA Tweetup (now NASA Social) at Kennedy Space Center to watch Discovery's last launch, STS-133 is often referred to as "The longest tweetup". 

Discovery was originally scheduled to launch on Nov. 1, 2010. The launch was scrubbed at the last minute. Hope remained alive for about a week that Discovery would launch soon, but it was not to be. Several additional launch dates in early November were also scrubbed. In the end, Discovery had to be moved from the launch pad back into the hangar for additional work. 

Discovery STS-133 finally launched on February 24, 2011. Many of the tweetup attendees traveled to Florida twice in hopes of seeing the launch. After four months of anticipation and disappointments, experiencing the long-awaited last launch of Discovery was a sensory and emotional high that STS-133 tweetup attendees are still talking about today.

Among the STS-133 tweetup guests was fellow space geek and violinist @tallulah_kidd, who was so inspired by the magnificence of the launch that she spontaneously played her violin at Kennedy Space Center. Her music is pure improvisation after seeing Discovery off on its final mission. 

At the Vehicle Assembly Building 

Serenading Robonaut


Below is a special STS-133 bonus - 
William Shatner's wake-up call to Discovery's crew on orbit during the last mission: 


~ Love Letter to SpaceX ~

SpaceX celebrated its 10-year anniversary in March 2012. The next few years and the next decade in particular will be Very Interesting Times as the fledgling U.S. commercial space industry spreads its wings and comes into its own. I expect SpaceX to lead the way. 

A few years ago I realized what retiring the space shuttle fleet means: Loss of the ability to launch astronauts from U.S. soil - without a viable replacement! I considered this particularly embarrassing at a time when other countries like China, India and Russia were and are working to get more people into space, not fewer.

I needn't have worried. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk was way ahead of me. He also has wealth, vision and the ability to attract top talent to step in where the U.S. government is declining to go. What I had once viewed as an unforgivable government policy blunder now looks very different to me: The end of the space shuttle program and an apparent lack of interest by government policy makers to keep U.S. human space flight capability intact has allowed private commercial companies to take center stage. No longer players on the sidelines of NASA, private space companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and many more are now emerging to do what NASA no longer can do without using Russia's Soyuz rockets: Rotate personnel on and off the ISS and fly supply and science missions to the ISS that can also pick up on-orbit science results and waste material.

SpaceX, in fact, is due to make its first supply delivery to the ISS later this month, a demonstration mission under NASA contract. A Dragon capsule atop SpaceX's flagship rocket, the Falcon 9 (named after the Millennium Falcon) is scheduled to launch on May 19 from Cape Canaveral. If this mission is successful, SpaceX will become the first private space company to dock with the International Space Station. In 2010, SpaceX was the first private company to launch its Dragon capsule into orbit and recover it successfully. 

While docking with the ISS will be a huge achievement to celebrate, SpaceX has set its sights on destinations way beyond low-Earth orbit. Elon Musk's goal is to make life multi-planetary, starting with the establishment of a permanent human presence on Mars as soon as possible, i.e., within 10-15 years. This is an ambitious timeline for sure. Yet consider that we have had the technology to go to Mars and establish a colony there for at least 20 years. What we didn't have was leadership, will and determination to make it happen. If we wait for those who hold NASA's purse strings to want to boldly go where no one has gone before, we will continue to be disappointed.

When I listen to Elon Musk talk about making life multi-planetary, I finally, finally feel like I no longer live on a planet among a species so mired in its past and present that it cannot envision nor implement ways to create its own future and claim its destiny among the stars. 

Click here to see a gallery of SpaceX's major milestones over the last decade.

Below is a picture of the Falcon 9 rocket with its Dragon capsule payload on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, as it successfully underwent a firing test on April 30, 2012:

Photo credit: SpaceX