Space: The Final Frontier

Today is July 20th and it signifies a very important day in the history of mankind. It is the day we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the moon landing and, in many ways, the culmination of the advent of the technology age. 40 years ago today, we began a journey into space that has not receded (though we have not recently returned to the surface of the moon).

Much is being made of this anniversary today. WeChooseTheMoon.org, a fascinating real time re-enactment of the mission, including the days leading up to the pivotal moment, is a project of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

It was Kennedy, in an address to a joint session of Congress in 1961, that called on Americans, with a specific mandate to NASA, to put a man on the moon by the end of that decade. An excerpt of this speech:

Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take. Since early in my term, our efforts in space have been under review. With the advice of the Vice President, who is Chairman of the National Space Council, we have examined where we are strong and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. Now it is time to take longer strides–time for a great new American enterprise–time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.

I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

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I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations–explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

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Since then, the United States and the world have gone through vast technological breakthroughs, often in greater haste than the 8 years it took to put a man on the moon. For instance, consumer electronics continue to progress at a staggering speed, particularly with the advent of the iPhone.

The internet burgeoned from a 5 hours monthly dial-up plan with AOL to saturation of broadband in many areas of the world.

Companies like Google continue to harness computing power to create vast databases of information.

Currently, NASA has the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter (LRO) circling the moon in advance of a new moon mission by the end of 2020. The LRO is trying to map the entire moon surface (including the notoriously unknown “dark side of the moon”) to determine resources and terrain for the construction of a manned lunar outpost.

Many companies, news sources and blogs (including this one), are commemorating the moon landing with special logos, graphics or other site modifications. It’s just our way of saying “Wow”.

Touring NASA Goddard Space Center

@technosailor Come and visit me! Just ask for HMI on SDO. They all know me – I am the cutest instrument on SDO plus I am the one tweeting!

The war of cuteness is on at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center where the team is working on a variety of space projects including the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Hubble servicing mission.

I had a chance to visit NASA yesterday for a very intimate tour of the projects they are working on and to discuss, among other things, future missions NASA plans to embark on.

This, of course, a tertiary result of my post the other day where I noted that NASA was engaging more and more in social media. As I noted in that post, this stuff is like being a kid again.

My tourguide, Steph Stockman, is playing an integral part in the development of LRO which will be launched later this year. LROs mission is to go into low polar orbit around the moon for at least a year and gather intel about the surface of the moon in preparation for a return to the moon somewhere in the 2017 timeframe.

A fascinating tidbit I learned about LRO is that there will be a laser-sight, of sorts, that will essentially focus on a fixed point in space (satellite?), or at least a known point in space. This will provide a reading that will allow LRO to stay in orbit over the moon. We currently don’t know entirely what the surface of the moon looks like, so where typical orbiters might be able to use the surface of, say, the earth as known quantity, NASA will have no such luck with the moon.

Also of interest is that the dark side of the moon is registering significant amounts of Hydrogen which indicates a potential for water. At this point, we don’t know and the LRO is expected to provide some of that data.

Later in the day, we explored the concept of a manned mission to Mars. Steph thinks that might not be for 50 years as certain scientific problems have yet to be solved. Specifically, once a human body spends sustained amounts of time outside of the earth’s magnetic field, what happens? To provide perspective, the moon is on the outer fringes of the earth’s magnetic field and dips in and out at different points in its orbit. As a result, most, if not all, of manned space flight has occurred within the magnetic field and no one really knows what it would be like outside.

To explore this problem, Goddard has a anti-magnetic sphere (pictured below as a scale model) where the earth’s gravity is counteracted by an equivalent polarization allowing for an anti-magnetic zone for testing. One wonders how this affects the iron in a human’s blood stream.

NASA Goddard Internal Tour

Another problem with a manned mission to Mars is that the planets move at different speeds through orbit, and such a mission with future technology would probably take two years to complete. A mission would have to be launched at such a point that allows the most efficient route to and from Mars. People much smarter than me, scary folks with pencils, will have to figure out that math.

Thanks, Steph, for the tour. Can’t wait to see the LRO launch. :) Click on the montage below for the full photoset from this tour.

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Bringing the Kids Back to the Show: NASA Using Social Media

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. Hell, when *you* were a kid, you wanted to be an astronaut. Then, one day, we grew up and realized we were destined for more traditional careers like lawyers, accountants or *gasp* social media consultants. Yeah, we didn’t end up quite as sexy as we hoped we would in those days of being of single-digit age.

Today, my son and I watched Shuttle Discovery land online at NASA TV. He loved it and promptly said, “Daddy, I want to fly a spaceship when I get big”. I invited him over to watch after discovering that yet another NASA initiative was using social media. They were using Twitter (@STS124), in this case, to tweet the landing.

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This is not the first time in recent weeks that NASA has used social media. The Phoenix lander on Mars is still sending tweets back from the Red Planet – though we obviously believe this is some savvy user or group of users in Houston Pasadena, CA and not the lander itself.

Though NASA TV broadcasts on almost every cable or satellite outlet, no one actually turns that on – that I know of. That’s because it’s often as dull and non-compelling as CSPANs programming. However, they are using social media to capture the moments that we will one day look back on and tell our kids about are indeed inspiring the imagination of a new generation who missed out on the space race decades ago.

President Kennedy inspired this imagination on May 25, 1961 when he aggressively informed Congress that he wanted a man on the moon within the decade.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations–explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the Moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

Today, we have a shuttle launch every few months. We get jarred back to the reality of the danger of the adventure that is space with tragic accidents such as the Challenger or Columbia disasters, but soon enough, going into space becomes, yet again, a routine thing that is not all that riveting.

NASA has every intention of returning to the moon by 2020 and Russia wants to build a permanently manned lunar base by 2027. Do I have your attention yet?

In 1969, people woke up at 4am to huddle around tiny black and white televisions to watch Neil Armstrong become the first man to step foot on the moon uttering those historic words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Today, we’re huddling around internet-connected computers sharing historic space moments via uStream – where we watched the Mars Landing (SpaceVidCast not officially connected with NASA). We watched the tweet streams come in as we sensed the whole world was watching – again.

NASA is recapturing the imaginations of a generation all over again and using our tools to do it. All the kids are coming back to the show again and we all want to be astronauts. Again.