Space, once a place for governments and dreamers who would really just be civil servants, has become a playground for the hyper-affluent. [...] We don’t have flying cars, but we have a billionaire who sells electric cars to millionaires. We don’t have space vacations, but we have another billionaire who will take you on a magic carpet ride for two-hundred large. Today, a kid who says “I want to be an astronaut” is really just saying “I want to be rich.” Isn’t that what everyone wants? All of today’s dreams are dreams of wealth.
The official mission of the final Space Shuttle, STS-135, reads more like a joke from The Office than a science fictional fantasy: “Space Shuttle Atlantis is carrying the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module to deliver supplies, logistics and spare parts to the International Space Station.” Among its tasks: the delivery of a new tank for a urine recycling system, and the removal of a malfunctioning space sewage pump. If only I’d known in 1982 that astronaut and garbage collector would turn out to be such similar jobs.
[apollo] Moondoggle: The Forgotten Opposition to the Apollo Program … turns out a majority of Americans did not think going to the Moon was worth it in the 1960s … ‘The race to the moon may not have been wildly popular among scientists, random Americans, or black political activists, but it was hard to deny the power of the imagery returning from space. Our attention kept getting directed to the heavens — and our technology’s ability to propel humans there. It was pure there, and sublime, even if our rational selves could see we might be better off spending the money on urban infrastructure or cancer research or vocational training.’
Nixon was president, Watergate was still a third-rate burglary, and Tom and I were left feeling anxious, paranoid, and bored. We were both admirers of Mailer—the tough little reefer smoker, contrarian wordsmith, libertarian politico, and no-nonsense ladies’ man—so the story about the Voyage Beyond Apollo stirred our interest.
“They’ve cleverly organized this thing on a ship, you dig, that way no one can crash it,” mused Forcade. He theorized that the cruise was just a cover for an elite conclave conspiring to jettison Earth once they’d totally ravaged it, and establish an exclusive colony for the rich and powerful in space. Everyone else would be left to fight over dwindling resources and perish in the terrestrial ruins. “Mailer is either in on the scam or they’ve suckered him into it. We have got to get on board that ship,” Tom said, “find out what these motherfuckers are up to, blow their cover, and rescue Mailer before it’s too late.”
Under the influence of a fresh shipment of Tom’s Columbian import, I thought it seemed like an entirely reasonable plan…
[space] Technoarchaeology: How to revive a satellite … the amazing story of how communication has been re-established with a satellite last communicated with in 1998 … ‘This initial contact indicates that the satellite’s computer and radios are functioning. The next steps are to determine more fully whether its control systems work as expected and test its instrumentation and propulsion. The team must fire its rockets by mid-June to reposition ISEE-3. The next big challenge will come when the satellite swings around the moon onto its shadowed side and is cut off from the sun. The craft will power down for the first time in many years, and the team hopes when it sees it again, it will wake up and resume communications. It has lasted this long, and the group hopes for many more years to come.’
[space] SuitSat1: A Spacesuit Floats Free … slightly disturbing picture of a empty spacesuit floating away from the International Space Station … ‘The unneeded Russian Orlan spacesuit filled mostly with old clothes was fitted with a faint radio transmitter and released to orbit the Earth. The suit circled the Earth twice before its radio signal became unexpectedly weak.’
The photos were stored with remarkably high fidelity on the tapes, but at the time had to be copied from projection screens onto paper, sometimes at sizes so large that warehouses and even old churches were rented out to hang them up. The results were pretty grainy, but clear enough to identify landing sites and potential hazards. After the low-fi printing, the tapes were shoved into boxes and forgotten.
They changed hands several times over the years, almost getting tossed out before landing in storage in Moorpark, California. Several abortive attempts were made to recover data from the tapes, which were well kept, but it wasn’t until 2005 that NASA engineer Keith Cowing and space entrepreneur Dennis Wingo were able to bring the materials and the technical know how together.
When they learned through a Usenet group that former NASA employee Nancy Evans might have both the tapes and the super-rare Ampex FR-900 drives needed to read them, they jumped into action.
[apollo] The Family that Went to the Moon … How a picture of a family ended up on the moon …‘The portrait shows Charlie, his wife Dorothy, and their two sons Charles and Thomas. It looks like they are sitting on a bench in the summertime.The family photo, gingerly wrapped in clear plastic and slightly crumpled from being stashed in the pocket of a space suit, was left on the Moon. It presumably still sits there today…’
[space] Astronaut Recounts His Near-Drowning On Spacewalk … Who knew you could drown in Space? ‘…he pondered what he would do if the water reached his mouth. The only idea he had, he said, was to open the safety valve on his helmet and let out some of the water. “But making a ‘hole’ in my spacesuit really would be a last resort,” he wrote.’
[space] 13 Little Things NASA Did to Get Alan Shepard Ready for Space … ‘Even the flight surgeon had a little bit of a man crush on the astronauts: “The physiological bradycardia (pulse rate 60 to 70) and normotensive (blood pressure 110/70) state both give some indication of the calm reserved air of confidence which typifies both of these pilots.” I bet they smelled good, too.’
[space] Skylab 4 Rang in the New Year with Mutiny in Orbit … the little known story on a mutiny in space … ‘Long work periods and seemingly endless lists of tasks took their toll on the rookie astronauts. The crew found themselves exhausted, falling badly behind schedule. NASA was pushing them too hard, they said, and they couldn’t keep working such long hours. Ground crews in mission control disagreed. They felt that the astronauts were complaining needlessly, that they should be working through their meal times and rest days to catch up. It was expensive having a crew in orbit for 84 days, and NASA intended to get all the work out of the men it could manage. About six weeks into the flight, a few days before New Year’s Eve, the Skylab 4 crew hit their breaking point…’
[space] World’s Largest Scale Model of the Solar System Covers Sweden … fascinating blog post with pictures … ‘The Sweden Solar System is the world’s largest model of our planetary system, built at a scale of 1:20 million and stretches the entire length of the country. The Sun is represented by the Globe arena in Stockholm, the largest spherical building in the world. The planets are placed and sized according to scale with the inner planets being in Stockholm and Jupiter at the International airport Arlanda. The outer planets follow in the same direction with Saturn in Uppsala and Pluto in Delsbo, 300 km from the Globe. The model ends at the Termination shock, 950 km from the Sun.’
According to lunar scientist Paul Spudis: For forty-odd years, the flags have been exposed to the full fury of the Moon’s environment – alternating 14 days of searing sunlight and 100° C heat with 14 days of numbing-cold -150° C darkness. But even more damaging is the intense ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the pure unfiltered sunlight on the cloth (modal) from which the Apollo flags were made. Even on Earth, the colors of a cloth flag flown in bright sunlight for many years will eventually fade and need to be replaced. So it is likely that these symbols of American achievement have been rendered blank, bleached white by the UV radiation of unfiltered sunlight on the lunar surface. Some of them may even have begun to physically disintegrate under the intense flux.
[space] Was Neil Armstrong a real hero? … ‘The weekend’s retelling of the 1969 moon landing reminded us just how risky it was and how Armstrong’s quick wits and calmness saved the day. The Eagle landing craft contained no more computer power than a modern washing machine, and was heading slightly off course for the rocks when Armstrong took over the controls manually. He landed with 20 seconds’ worth of fuel, and got the Eagle back up again to rendezvous with Apollo 11. There was no backup plan, no way of rescuing the crew. Sitting in the co-pilot’s seat with his spear (well, you never know, do you?), even Achilles might have been grudgingly impressed, though Armstrong’s lack of melodrama would have annoyed him. And therein perhaps lies the clincher for Armstrong’s heroic status. No boasting, no bullying, just a soft-spoken man who insisted he was only doing his job.’
[space] Voyager at 35: Break on Through to the Other Side … ‘Voyager 2 became the longest-operating spacecraft on Aug. 13, 2012, surpassing
Pioneer 6, which launched on Dec. 16, 1965, and sent its last signal back to NASA’s Deep Space Network on Dec. 8, 2000. (It operated for 12,758 days.)’
Even if we could find a way to increase the speed of our spacecraft a hundredfold — about the same ratio of speeds between a horse-drawn cart and a 747 jet plane — they would still take almost a thousand years to reach nearby stars, and as long to return. And while exciting theoretical research is under way into pilotless probes to the stars, the real possibility of large-scale human interstellar culture is considerably less thrilling.
Think about it. No salvation from population pressure on the shores of alien worlds. No release from the threats of biosphere degradation in the promise of new biospheres. No escape from our own destructive tendencies by spreading out among the stars like seedpods in the wind. For as many epochs in the future as there are epochs of human history in the past, we may simply have to make do, get by with what we have and, in the end, learn to get along.
[life] What is the most astounding fact about the Universe? … answered by Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson … ‘So that when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up – many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big – but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive…’
[space] All the Water on Europa vs. All the Water On Earth … ‘The subsurface ocean plus ice layer could range from 80 to 170 kilometers in average depth. Adopting an estimate of 100 kilometers depth, if all the water on Europa were gathered into a ball it would have a radius of 877 kilometers.’
[space] Methone, an egg in Saturn orbit? … fascinating blog entry with pictures about a recently discovered moon of Saturn … ‘Methone is really shockingly round. Some of the other small moons that orbit near the rings have a smoothed appearance, but they all still have some craters or some topography. The smoothness probably results from these things collecting dust, a substance that there is a lot of in this part of the Saturn system, but it’s kind of hard to understand what could make the dust slide around to fill every topographic low on this little world, covering it with what’s essentially a global ocean of very puffy dust. I think the roundness tells us that whatever Methone is made of, that material behaves like a liquid — it has no strength to hold any shape whatsoever.’
[life] Kevin Kelly – We Are Stardust:‘Where did we come from? I find the explanation that we were made in stars to be deep, elegant, and beautiful. This explanation says that every atom in each of our bodies was built up out of smaller particles produced in the furnaces of long-gone stars. We are the byproducts of nuclear fusion. The intense pressures and temperatures of these giant stoves thickened collapsing clouds of tiny elemental bits into heavier bits, which once fused, were blown out into space as the furnace died. The heaviest atoms in our bones may have required more than one cycle in the star furnaces to fatten up. Uncountable numbers of built-up atoms congealed into a planet, and a strange disequilibrium called life swept up a subset of those atoms into our mortal shells. We are all collected stardust. And by a most elegant and remarkable transformation, our starstuff is capable of looking into the night sky to perceive other stars shining. They seem remote and distant, but we are really very close to them no matter how many lightyears away. All that we see of each other was born in a star. How beautiful is that?’
[tech] Computers in space … a look at the supposedly antique technology used in space missions … ‘The ISS is packed with processors to keep its crew happy, or at least alive, but at the core of its operational hardware are the Command and Control Computers. They’re 80386SX-20s. But they’ve got 80387 co-processors! A couple even have hard drives!’
[best_of_metafilter] A few things we learned on the way to the Moon … nice collection of links on the Apollo program …‘What about the 800 plus pounds of rocks and dust brought back from the Moon? Surprisingly, they’re similar to Earth rocks, giving weight to the Giant Impact Theory. But the most amazing fact is that with no true atmosphere, there’s no erosion. The Moon rocks, laying on the surface for billions of years, contain information about the universe from early era of the universe, which also reveals the conditions of Earth shortly after it was formed.’
[space] Jupiter’s heart is dissolving … ‘New calculations suggest that Jupiter’s rocky core is dissolving like an antacid tablet plopped in water. The work could help explain why its core appears smaller and its atmosphere richer in heavy elements than predicted…’
[space] 10 Weirdest Consumer Products Based on NASA Technology … ‘Personal Lubricants – Maybe you thought they called it Astroglide because it makes you feel like a star. But no. The clear, water-based lubricant was developed by an engineer named Dan Wray while he was working on the space shuttle’s cooling systems at Edwards Air Force Base in 1977.’
[space] The Blue Marble Shot … a look back at the first complete photo of a whole round Earth taken from space which might be the most reproduced photo ever … ‘You can’t see the Earth as a globe unless you get at least twenty thousand miles away from it, and only 24 humans ever went that far into outer space. They were the three-man crews of the nine Apollo missions that traveled to the moon between 1968 and 1972, six of which landed there successfully (three men went twice). But only the last three saw a full Earth.’
The space vehicle is shoddily constructed, running dangerously low on fuel; its parachutes — though no one knows this — won’t work and the cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, is about to, literally, crash full speed into Earth, his body turning molten on impact. As he heads to his doom, U.S. listening posts in Turkey hear him crying in rage, “cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship.
[space] James Burke On Thermos Flasks … ‘You see, all three men had understood that certain gases ignite and that the thermos flask permits you to store vast quantities of those gases safely in the frozen liquid form until you want to ignite them; at which point, you take the top off the flask, the gases evaporate, you apply a light, and boom! Now, two gases do that better than any other. It was Oberth’s assistant, who put them together most efficiently. His name was Wernher von Braun…’
[space] Space Stasis … Neal Stephenson takes a fascinating look at path dependence and lock-in within the business, idea and design of rockets… ‘To employ a commonly used metaphor, our current proficiency in rocket-building is the result of a hill-climbing approach; we started at one place on the technological landscape – which must be considered a random pick, given that it was chosen for dubious reasons by a maniac – and climbed the hill from there, looking for small steps that could be taken to increase the size and efficiency of the device. Sixty years and a couple of trillion dollars later, we have reached a place that is infinitesimally close to the top of that hill. Rockets are as close to perfect as they’re ever going to get. For a few more billion dollars we might be able to achieve a microscopic improvement in efficiency or reliability, but to make any game-changing improvements is not merely expensive; it’s a physical impossibility.’
[space] Martian Moon Phobos from Mars Express … from Astronomy Picture of the Day … ‘Phobos orbits so close to Mars that from some places it would appear to rise and set twice a day, but from other places it would not be visible at all. Phobos’ orbit around Mars is continually decaying — it will likely break up with pieces crashing to the Martian surface in about 50 million years.’
[space] The Worst Part of Going to Space? Your Fingernails Come Off … ‘Astronaut gloves are designed to simulate the air pressure on Earth, so they’re made of a pressurized rubber layer embedded in a thick, space-proof shell. Spacewalking astronauts must constantly fight against the bulky pressurized glove to do their work — imagine gripping a wrench while wearing skiing mittens, and you get the idea. This constant bending and flexing causes chafing, blisters and, apparently, fingernail loss.’ [via jwz]
[space] Carl Sagan – Pale Blue Dot … ‘Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.’
[space] Stuart Clark’s top 10 approachable astronomy books … ‘Understanding the celestial objects and our place within them has been a passion of mine for my whole life. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t consumed with curiosity about the universe. These books span the entire history of mankind’s fascination with space. All of them capture the fascination of astronomy and the human stories behind this most noble of sciences.’
[space] Neptune May Have Eaten A Planet And Stolen Its Moon … ‘Neptune may have polished off a super-Earth that once roamed the outer solar system and stolen its moon to boot. The brutal deed could explain mysterious heat radiating from the icy planet and the odd orbit of its moon Triton.’
[mars] Abstract And Affecting, The New Mars Pictures Are A Confrontation With The Sublime … Sam Leith On Photographs Of Mars… ‘These photographs inspire not only awe and wonder, but also a sort of longing. None of us alive at this moment – possibly no human ever – will see these landscapes with our own eyes. And yet here are the pictures. For me, they have the same effect as great paintings or photographs – a feeling that something impossible has been made present, while remaining just out of reach.’
…you can tell the abductees are lying or delusional because their descriptions of the aliens and their craft are always so unimaginative. As he writes in The Eerie Silence, the giveaway is the banality of the aliens’ putative agenda, which seems to consist of grubbing around in fields or meadows, chasing cows or cars like bored teenagers, and abducting humans for Nazi-style experiments.