Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Falcon 9 Returns to Flight and Makes Rocket Science History!

Let's start with a pleasant surprise SpaceX had in store for those of us who couldn't be there in person during an across-the-board successful mission that saw a perfect launch, followed by a nail-biting, historic landing and the flawless delivery of 11 Orbcomm satellites into orbit: SpaceX's much-improved live webcast.

If you have not yet seen it, it's worth the 20 minutes to get a feel for the anticipation and festive atmosphere at SpaceX HQ as events unfolded last night at and above Cape Canaveral:

Video credit: SpaceX

During two previous Falcon 9 missions that included failed landing attempts on an ocean-based barge, there was no live coverage of the landing. Images and details didn't emerge until the next day. 

Not so yesterday. While it didn't become obvious until after the webcast started, SpaceX planned to live stream the landing as well! The webcast also featured a time line at the bottom that let viewers know which maneuvers to expect next as Falcon 9 once again spread its wings, and then returned, scorched, steaming, still breathing fire, in one single, glorious piece! I didn't get any screenshots of the landing because I was cheering, jumping up and down, before I remembered "Wait! You're live tweeting this!"

Another unexpected treat was the live footage from orbit that showed the smooth deployment of Orbcomm's satellite payload as it happened.

Here are a couple of screen grabs from my tweet stream during the event. My full twitter coverage is at the end of this post.

Falcon 9 and its Orbcomm-2 payload at Liftoff
 Image credit: Screenshot from SpaceX webcast

Boostback burn that reorients rocket and prepares it for landing
Image credit: Screenshot from SpaceX webcast

Last June, SpaceX had a setback as the company lost a rocket and a cargo capsule bound for the International Space Station in a launch accident caused by a faulty strut. Earlier in 2015, SpaceX also tried twice to land a Falcon 9 on water atop an autonomous drone barge. Both times the rocket reached the drone ship but tipped over at landing. Both rockets were destroyed.

On December 21, 2015, at 8:29 pm EST, SpaceX not only returned to flight and successfully deployed its payload of 11 satellites, the private space company headquartered in Los Angeles also made rocket science history by successfully landing a Falcon 9 on land. For the first time ever, a rocket used in an actual mission - not a test landing - returned to Earth and precision-landed in one piece: Standing tall, waiting to be re-used instead of wastefully and expensively burning up in the atmosphere.

What we saw today was not just SpaceX coming back from a launch failure. We witnessed a private space company setting new industry standards that others will be hard-pressed to match. 

Long exposure shot of Falcon 9 launch and landing
within 10 minutes of each other at Cape Canaveral
Image credit: SpaceX

In the words of Elon Musk on Twitter: "Welcome back, baby!"
Image credit: SpaceX

Scorched and displaying landing legs. Don't you just want to run up and hug her?
Image credit: SpaceX

A new era in rocketry: Long exposure of launch, re-entry, and landing burns
Image credit: SpaceX

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Will Falcon 9 Fly Tomorrow?

Update - December 21, 2015, 10:45 a.m. PST:

Today's Falcon 9 / Orbcomm-2 launch time has been changed to four minutes earlier than reported yesterday. This is important as the launch window is only open for about one minute.

Updated launch times for TODAY:
8:29 p.m. EST 
5:29 p.m. PST 
0229 Central Euro Time, Tues Dec 22. 

Live coverage will start at http://www.spacex.com/webcast/ about half an hour prior to launch time.

Space X's official patch for the Falcon 9 Orbcomm-2 mission


Update - December 20, 2015, 4:30 p.m. PST:

Weather is 80% favorable for tomorrow's launch time. The launch window is open for just one minute.

If there is a landing attempt tomorrow, it will occur about 10 minutes after lift-off at SpaceX's Landing Zone 1, formerly known as Launch Complex 13. This location is near the eastern tip of Cape Canaveral. 

If you are on the ground near the landing site, you will hear a sonic boom as the rocket returns to Earth. From nearby locations, you may also see the rocket's engines firing in the dark in preparation for landing.

News media won't be allowed to cover the launch and landing, so I'm counting on landing updates from spacetweeps who will be at the space coast tomorrow.


Update - December 20, 2015, 1 p.m. PST:

Elon Musk just tweeted that launch will be delayed by 24 hours to December 21, 2015. Tomorrow's launch time is 8:33 p.m. EST (5:33 p.m. PST). That is 0233 Central European Time on Tuesday, December 22.

He also RT'd this image of Falcon 9 on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral at sunset today:


Update - December 20, 2015, 11 a.m. PST: 

Everything still looks good for a launch attempt today at 5:29 p.m. PST. SpaceX's coverage will start at 5:05 p.m. PST at spacex.com/webcast. The site is already displaying a countdown clock, which is a good sign. I'm not sure if NASA TV will live stream the launch. The launch window is 1 minute long and there are no other windows available today, should the launch not occur at 5:29 p.m. 

For those of you at Cape Canveral: Keep looking up after the launch. SpaceX may attempt to land the redesigned Falcon 9's upper stage on land near the launch site.
I hope so. It would be fitting for Falcon 9 to return to actual, real-life flight the same weekend a movie
soars to box office dominance that features the fictional ship - the Millennium Falcon - after which Falcon 9 was named.

Falcon 9 has been grounded since June, due to a failed launch attempt that was intended to deliver a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station as part of NASA's commercial crew program. Tomorrow's flight will carry 11 second-generation Orbcomm satellites to orbit and will mark the second time SpaceX will deliver New Jersey-based Orbcomm's satellites into space.

The launch has been delayed since August and several times during December. The past week has seen problems with pre-flight static firing tests. The test was completed successfully last night and tomorrow's launch is contingent upon a review of the static fire data.

Elon Musk said on Twitter that all looks good for a Sunday launch from Cape Canaveral:


 Falcon 9 and its Orbcomm payload on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral
Image credit: SpaceX

The exact launch time is Sunday, December 20 at 8:29 p.m. EST (5:29 p.m. PST).

Falcon 9 has received some upgrades: more powerful Merlin 1D engines arranged in their trademark "octaweb" configuration - eight Merlins arranged around one in the center. Together, the engines can generate 1.5 million pounds of thrust. The older generation Merlins generated a maximum of 1.3 million pounds.

The redesigned Falcon is also a little taller, 229 feet (69.9 m) instead of 224 feet (68.3 m), to accommodate longer nozzles and extended tanks on the upper stage engines.

In addition, the improved Falcon 9 will use super-cooled, compressed fuel, which allows the rocket to carry more fuel that can be used in a landing attempt.

Jeff Bezos's company Blue Origin successfully launched a rocket to space and then landed it on a pad in West Texas just last month, and made rocket science history in the process.

SpaceX is also developing re-usability technology. A landing attempt may occur tomorrow on land near Cape Canaveral. At the moment, I can find no information on the likelihood of a landing attempt or the likely landing location near KSC. If you're on the space coast tomorrow, you just may find yourself in the right place at the right time to see a rocket stage *land* at Cape Canaveral for the first time ever.

I will update this post if new information comes in. I will also live tweet the launch tomorrow, starting around 5 p.m. PDT. The launch window is very brief, with no others available tomorrow.

Go Falcon 9!!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

When Will We Go Back To The Moon?

I'll leave this right here:


This is a panoramic view of the Moon taken during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, courtesy of the NASA History Office @NASAhistory. 

Spot NASA astronaut and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt running on the Moon's surface.

Apollo 17 was the last of the crewed Apollo missions and Harrison Schmitt was one of the last humans to set foot on the lunar surface.

That was 43 years ago. Think about that.

What are we waiting for? A planetary disaster that will give us no choice? It's sure starting to look that way.

To be fair, China has plans to establish a permanent Moon base within 10-15 years. But still. It's been 43 years since humans walked on the Moon. We have learned so very much since then. 

Let's leave behind Earth's formidable gravity well and go apply our collective scientific and technological advancements - on another world!

It's only a 3-day trip away.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

10 Reasons Why I Love Twitter # 2: Global Teaching and Learning Opportunities

[I apologize for the funky way I copied tweets into this post. Twitter refused to cough up Embed codes today]

As I explained in my first post in this series, many of my middle-ageish peers aren't on Twitter or any social media. They have merely a fuzzy idea, if any, about how Twitter works, the immediacy of its global reach and the power it can bring to bear on affecting public discourse, especially in current events and breaking news. Many who don't use Twitter see tweets only when they are shown, hours- or days-old, frequently out of context, by main stream media in an attempt to flesh out their own stories. 

A primary purpose of this blog series is to show non-Tweeters why I do Twitter and why I've been a daily tweeter since 2008. Most of my reasons have to do with my passions: writing, human and robot space exploration, astronomy, science communication, multi-lingualism and Mustelidae. But there are other reasons as well, persuasive reasons that illustrate why anyone should at least give it a try.

I, too, was once one of those who scoffed: "What can you possibly say of any value in 140 characters!" 

The answer is: Everything
And if you choose your followers wisely, your tweets are seen and amplified instantly around the world.

Ten Reasons Why I Love Twitter

#2: Global Teaching & 
Learning Opportunities ~

During the July 4th weekend I went on my quadrennial Hyde Park Corner-style rant against America's ridiculously outdated presidential election system that saddles us with frantic election bread & circuses for an entire 16 months. It is one of my pet peeves about life in the US of A. It will also likely never go away. Nonetheless, once every four years I go on record as a huge proponent for a more efficient process. This July 4th, I thought that was it after I got that series of tweets out of system. Then I saw this response from Tommy Thomason (@Sillmyril) in response to my rant-ish tweets on the U.S. election system:

Jul 4
. I love the monologues in series of questions you have done (now and previously). They help me grow and learn.

Thanks for the compliment, Tommy. I love to teach and enjoy finding ways to do it on twitter.

Learning and teaching are two activities that truly attract me to twitter. I have taught in classrooms at all levels through senior college classes and discovering new ways to teach via Twitter is exhilarating. 

For one thing, if you have a question to which google doesn't have an answer, or more commonly, way Too Many answers to sort through, then you can always ask Twitter. I did this recently with a question I had about taking care of a 1-year-old lemon seedling. Google gave me 1.7 million results in 0.0004 seconds. Twitter gave me the answer I needed in 15 minutes.

In addition, I participate in Twitter chats and hangouts, where a group of tweeps interested in specific topics ask and answer questions around various areas of specialization, such as #AskAnAstronuat, #AskNASA or #SciChat. 

I regularly write tweet streams like the one I mentioned above, specific topics. These series of tweets are intended to educate, entertain, amplify, elaborate a position and stimulate critical thinking. Not necessarily in that order. It is particularly nice to get unexpected compliments like the one from @Syllmyril above.

Here is another example of how to use Twitter to learn and keep abreast of your interests. 18-year-old Abigail Harrison is an aspiring astronaut with a dream of being the first woman on Mars. She is also on aspiring polygot:

Jul 4
Write me a letter in Russian and I will write back - you will be helping me learn at the…

This is a fabulous idea for any language learner at any level!

As a polyglot linguist myself, I use Twitter daily to train, exercise and enhance my multi-lingual skills. I tweet primarily in English, yet also converse in German (reluctantly), French, Italian and (not very well) in Spanish. I am currently learning Russian and Japanese and make it a point to follow Japanese and Russian astronauts, such as Koichi Wakata (@Astro_Wakata) and Anton Shkaplerov (@AntonAstrey). I follow other Russian and Japanese speakers as well, but at least with Koichi and Anton I have SOME idea what they are talking about. I enjoy puzzling out foreign language tweets. I have also had entire conversations on Twitter where I wrote in one language and my conversation partner wrote in another, understanding each other perfectly. 

One of my Twitter milestone goals is to have followers that represent every country and every language in the world. To that end, I welcome any follow suggestions!

Notably, Twitter has a "Translate this tweet" button when it detects tweets it thinks are not in your native language. This service is run by Bing and appears to have been added more for user amusement than any kind of useful functionality. Still. Twitter has made language learning even more fun than it's always been for me.

Whatever it is that you want to learn, be it foreign languages, astronomy, fly fishing, citrus cultivation, philosophy, shepherding, the particulars of crab gut DNA, HAM radio (to name only a few of my followers' interests) - Twitter will have an expert on it. Or several dozen even, most of whom are more than happy to talk with you, if you ask and behave nicely.

Monday, June 15, 2015

10 Reasons Why I Love Twitter #1: Tweeting Astronauts

As I’m squarely situated in the the middle-ish age range, Twitter usage among my friends, acquaintances and colleagues in my peer group seems pretty thin. When it does happen, I rarely see the enthusiasm and consistency that's in my daily tweet stream. So I often find myself explaining "why I do Twitter", "how I put up with the garbage on Twitter", "why Twitter is not a waste of my time", and so on. 

My response is to turn negative misconceptions around and explain why I enjoy Twitter and how it benefits me on many levels.

I have these conversations so frequently that I might as well write an explainer I can point to when questions from non-Twitter users come up in the future. 

Reason #1 is below.

#2 - #10 will be published in installments as I have time.

10 Reasons Why I Love Twitter

#1: Tweeting Astronauts ~ 

There are dozens, possibly well over a 100 astronauts active on Twitter. By "astronauts" I mean active or retired members of NASA and other astronaut corps (e.g., Roscomos, ESA, CSA, JAXA) who are in space, have been to space, or are training to go to space.

Yes, there are astronauts tweeting from the International Space Station, every day. Currently there is one space-based tweeter: Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly). There are three astronauts on the ISS at the moment; when there's the usual crew of six aboard, you can find two or three astronauts sending daily tweets from space.

You need only scroll through my Twitter timeline pictures (@ct_la) to see breathtaking vistas of our home planet and fascinating images of life on orbit at our human outpost in space.

Astronauts have been tweeting from the ISS since 2009. The myriad images of our fragile Earth have changed the mental representation I had of our planet. I love maps and my walls are full of them. Sometime around 2010 or so, I found myself looking at a physical map of the U.K. and said "Wait a minute. That is NOT what England really looks like!" By then I had seen dozens of images of Europe from space and become accustomed to the fact that in those images North is not always up, curvature of the Earth is an important marker and non-natural boundaries so common on conventional maps are non-existent. Now, when I think of, for example, Turkey, I don’t envision a map-like representation. Instead, I think of an image like this:

Image of western Turkey 
Tweeted by Samantha Cristoforetti (@Astro_Samantha) from the ISS on June 2, 2015 

It’s not easy to pick the one most awesome thing an astronaut has ever tweeted from space, but if I have to choose, I'll go with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s (@Cmdr_Hadfield) rendition of David Bowie’s "Space Oddity", performed in microgravity. 

If you have a different all-time-favorite tweet from space, please tweet it @ me or leave a comment. I might have missed something! 

Earth-bound astronauts also provide plenty of twitter entertainment, education and fun. One of my favorites is Apollo-era moon walker Buzz Aldrin (@TheRealBuzz), who travels widely to do outreach for his "Get Yo Ass To Mars" campaign and, of course, tweets about it.

Another favorite is retired NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson (@Astro_Clay) who is a prolific daily tweeter and widely appreciated for consistently engaging his followers. This is, in fact, such an awesome Twitter perk that I wrote a separate post about it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

@Astro_Terry's Goodbye Gift From Orbit

Tomorrow, June 11, NASA astronaut Terry W. Wirts (@Astro_Terry on twitter) is returning to Earth from an almost 200-day stay on the orbital outpost, along with this two crew mates, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti (@Astro_Samantha) and Russian Cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (@AntonAstrey).

While aboard the station, Samantha Cristoforetti broke the record for most consecutive days spent in space by a woman (199 days), a record previously held by Sunita Williams (194 days).

Undocking of the Soyuz from the ISS is currently scheduled for 3:20 a.m. PDT June 11, with touchdown on the Kazakh steppe projected for 6:43 am PDT. NASA and ESA will have live feeds. On the US West Coast, you'll have to get up early to watch.

This morning on twitter, prior to his departure from the orbital outpost, @Astro_Terry left us with an incredible image of some of the most recognizable and ancient human-built structures on Earth. Ponder the geometry and remember - construction on these pyramids started 4.5 millennia ago.

Can you name the three main Pyramids of Giza without looking it up?

Monday, June 8, 2015

SpaceX Does Kubrick Does The Future Is Now

It was 1866 when Johann Strauss II composed his waltz An der schönen blauen Donau (On The Beautiful Blue Danube, aka The Blue Danube or The Blue Danube Waltz). I wonder if Strauss ever dreamed that his composition would become timelessly famous and symbolize humanity's evolution into a space-faring species.

Here is the clip from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the vehicle that elevated The Blue Danube - along with the film's entire sound track - to lasting global fame. The movie was released in 1968, 102 years after Strauss composed the waltz, depicting a world set 33 years in the future, 14 years in our past.

And here is real life, today, 2015: SpaceX released a jaw-dropping video of a Falcon 9 nose shroud falling back to Earth:

Spaceflightnow.com has more information about the making of this video here.

Full disclosure: I learned to waltz to The Blue Danube. And yes, I know how to waltz. It's practically impossible to get out of Germany without learning that.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Historic ISS 1-Year Mission Begins Today


Expedition ISS 42S will launch Scott Kelly, Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko to the International Space Station today from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.

When: March 27, 2015, 
12:42 pm PDT 
3:42 pm EDT
20:42 CET

Live coverage is available on http://www.ustream.tv/NASAHDTV and Spaceflight Now, which is already blogging up-to-the-minute pre-launch coverage.

 Photo credit: NASA/ Bill Ingalls

Above: The veteran astronauts that will blast off to the ISS today. Scott Kelly (left) and Mikhail Kornienko (right) will remain on the orbital outpost for a whole year, while Gennady Padalka (middle) will stay on the ISS for the usual 160 days.

Fellow veteran astronaut Mark Kelly - Scott's twin brother - will remain on Earth as a control subject to compare the effects of long-term exposure to space experienced by his twin brother on-orbit. Mikahil Kornienko was chosen for the 1-year mission to match Mark Kelly on a number of variables, such as age, experience, number of missions, and number of hours spent in space. All of this makes scientific sense, especially since the purpose of the ISS 1-year study is to find out more about the health effects of long-term exposure to space, and how humans generally adapt to microgravity, with an eye towards medium- and long-term missions, such as journeys to Mars.

For the record, I absolutely think that one of the astronauts chosen for the 1-year mission should have been a woman. ISS astronauts corps have plenty of women to choose from. I completely understand why choosing one twin on-orbit while the other remains on Earth makes scientific sense, as does a matched control subject for Scott Kelly on the ISS. My question is: Why were women excluded entirely from a 1-year ISS study? What little we know about adaptation to space seems to indicate non-trivial gender differences. What if it turns out women are better suited to long-term missions than men? Why do we not even bother to ask or study that question, now that we have a 1-year mission in the works? Even if you think the current ISS 1-year mission is perfect as planned, why did it not include a woman as a second control subject on-board the ISS? Why not send a mixed-gender trio for one year? The data derived from cross-gender comparisons would be so much more valuable than comparing men only. That's not even mentioning the fact that the current mission to study long-term effects on humans in space excludes half the human race it claims to study. 

To my knowledge, NASA has no plans to conduct a similar 1-year study with women astronauts only (please, please tell me I'm wrong about this!). Plus, with the current ISS lifespan cycle funded for about another 9 years, and many other male astronauts on the manifest for 160-day stays on the ISS, how likely is it that a female-only 1-year study is going to happen?

From where I'm sitting, excluding women astronauts from the ISS 1-year study looks like nothing so much as stacking the deck in favor of choosing male astronauts (all astronauts corps on Earth are male-dominated) for future long-term mission, e.g., to Mars. The reasoning will go something like this: Well, we have limited slots to Mars, and we already know what happens to men during long-term exposure to space, but with women astronauts... you know, we just cannot risk it, because we don't know - and never bothered to find out.

Photo Credit: NASA Aubrey Gemignani 

The Soyuz rocket that will carry Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka to the ISS in less than two hours.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Failing The Heinlein Test

I've been trying, unsuccessfully, to find the exact chapters or book passages from Robert Heinlein's writings where I first came across the concept of The Heinlein Test. He didn't call it that. It's how I thought about his ideas.

Heinlein envisioned a universe that is pretty much the opposite of the "Where IS Everybody?" Fermi Paradox. In Robert Heinlein's universe, solar systems and galaxies are teeming with intelligent life forms that evolve to develop spaceflight and move on from there. He also theorized that in such a universe, the likelihood of evolving into a multi-planetary species could be predicted by how soon an intelligent species utilizes spaceflight to the fullest extent possible, after developing the capability. A species that embraces and relishes this evolutionary milestone would flourish. Those species approaching it with temerity, risk aversion, trepidation and disinterest would perish. The longer this hesitation goes on after developing the capability for creating a multi-planetary species without actually using it, the more likely the species is to become extinct in the long term.

This may well be bullshit, but it has a certain intuitive symmetry to it. A species that embraces multi-planetary life to the fullest extent possible has an excellent long-term survival outlook. Species that hesitate years before taking this step don't have such a rosy prognosis. It starts to look pretty grim for species that take a decade, or decades to get their asses to Mars, to quote Buzz Aldrin. It's not a new idea. Entire sci-fi universes have plot lines based on multiple species with more or less aggressive expansion and colonization tactics. The more hesitant and non-spacefaring species don't do too well in this scenario, in the long run.

If there is even a smidgen of truth to this idea, it's worth noting that homo sapiens is failing the Heinlein Test, badly.

"Yeah, it got us, too." - The Dinosaurs