Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Discovery - The Oldest Shuttle

A tweet by Mike Massimino (aka @Astro_Mike) caught my eye today:

It points to a cool video that shows the history of Discovery and its last planned mission, STS-133. Mike has been one of the most active astronauts on the internet (more over a million and a quarter followers on twitter, many videos), and has been doing a great job showing a less official angle of astronauts and their missions.

What caught my eye was the description of Discovery as NASA's oldest shuttle. While technically correct, it's only because of the two great disasters of Columbia and Challenger, the former burning on deorbit and the latter disintegrating at launch, both seen by some as the hard way NASA learned about severity of problems previously deemed as not posing a major risk by some.

The end of the space shuttle era is near, and sometime in the future we may look at it as either a stepping stone or a detour on our way to settle space. No matter what - Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and their younger sisters Atlantis and Endeavour are probably the most amazing spacecraft to watch launching (I got to experience STS-132) of all manned spacecraft to date and probably for years, if not decades, to come.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


The NASA Toaster. For more, see here
Space exploration and exploitation is slowly but surely going on a new trajectory, one of NASA leaving some pieces of the puzzle to the private market including design. For example, through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program NASA awarded a contract to SpaceX fot getting cargo to the International Space Station without designing the rocket or capsule at NASA, thus allowing SpaceX to design and build the hardware, letting it do more than space contractors did in the past.

This shift is not easy, especially when human life is at stake, as the existing model where NASA has very close control over the design and manufacturing of space hardware, especially manned spacecraft, was put in place for crew safety reasons. Instead, NASA will have to trust private companies to design the hardware, which will have to pass a safety standard (for example, NPR 8705.2B, "Human-Rating Requirements for Space Systems").

In the following years, there will be cases of inertia and fall-back on how things have been done in the past 50 years. Even in software companies I worked for, a lot younger than NASA, inertia and resistance to new ideas occasionally manifested in the form of the statement "but that's how we've been doing it for the last 5 years". Yes, old-and-comfortable is as cozy an environment as a 3 year old favorite blanket.

My request to our elected government officials and those who will be designing and building space hardware in the upcoming years - for every decision, every design, every expense - ask yourself and honestly answer the following question from the perspective of benefiting humanity progress into space: Is this really necessary to be done within NASA and the old controlled way or should this be a commodity NASA buys as a shelf product from someone else?

In short - Is this really NASAssary?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

10/10/10 - What's in a Date?

Today is October 10th 2010 or in it's more serene form, 10/10/10. Take the delimiters out and you get 101010, or 42 in binary which is of course the famous Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, as written over 30 years ago by Douglas Adams. In Roman numbers we're looking at XXX, a term originating from over 40 years ago in relation to movies (X-rating). On the internet, #101010 is a very dark shade of gray.

This is, of course, not the first time the 10/10/10 date happened. 10/10/10 can designate 1910, 1810, and any century before that. If you're one of the people wearing this shirt ("There are 10 types of people in the world: Those who understand binary and those who don't") you'd be probably even more excited a thousand years ago on 10/10/1010 (albeit you wouldn't be able to blog or tweet about it...). Interestingly, October 10th 1010 was actually an ordinary Wednesday noted as October 4th in Europe, as the Julian calendar was still used rather than the Gregorian calendar, created in 1582 but adopted by some countries as late as the 20th century.

As the world rejoices and birds tweet, unless you're Jewish, Muslim, Persian or Mayan (OK, you're probably not Mayan) you may not realize this is not the only calendar used over the world and may want to look at the Fourmilab Calendar Converter, just to get a whiff of some other cultures, current and past.

Since Spacepirations is a space oriented blog, I tried to find space related events that happened on October 10. The most notable event I found was that in 1967 the Outer Space Treaty, which calls for responsibility in space activities, entered into force.

Also on October 10 (courtesy of the New Mexico Museum of Space History):

1846: William Lassell discovers Neptune's moon Triton.
1960: The Soviets' first attempted planetary spacecraft, the Mars probe 1M s/n 1 fails to leave Earth orbit.
2007: Russia launches TMA–11, which carries the Sixteenth Expedition to the International Space Station.

Finally, thanks to Virgin Galactic:

2010: SpaceShipTwo, aka VSS Enterprise did it's first gliding flight - (video here). We just got one step closer to commercial manned space flight.

Whether you're celebrating October 10 2010, 2nd of Cheshvan 5771, 2 Thul-Qedah 1431 or any other date, may your dreams come true until 11/11/11!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sputnik - The Launch of Space

Sputnik (Source: US Air Force)
Sputnik 1 was launched 53 years ago, on October 4th, 1957. In many ways, it can be seen as the launch of the space age. Being the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth, it started the space race which led to Buzz and Neil landing on the moon in 1969 and contributed to the demise of Communism.

Most of the people writing nowadays about space weren't alive yet in 1957, myself included. As such, we cannot fully grasp the feelings that swept through the United States of America knowing a USSR made object was flying invisible and uninterrupted above its skies. However, from the events which proceeded it is obvious, to put it mildly, that it was a very big deal.

Similarly to the first successful Wright brothers flight at Kitty Hawk NC, this was a modest beginning. Sputnik had some radio capabilities, short 22 day battery life and limited scientific capabilities. However, it was the eye opener that ignited decades of advancements and discoveries, the proof of the entire concept, which today is a versatile tool for both looking out to space and looking at Earth, helping us understand our pale blue dot, the solar system and far beyond.