Film Review: Fight for Space (2017)

“Where is your space program?”

This is the tagline that summarizes the independent documentary “Fight for Space“.  Produced and directed by Paul J. Hildebrandt, the film attempts to discern the point at which NASA deviated from the traditionally understood pathway of space exploration to the stasis the agency exists in today.

Fight for Space collects a considerable “who’s who” of spaceflight luminaries- from Apollo era astronauts to the most prominent astrophysicists in popular culture today.  Through interviews, the audience gets a glimpse of the opinions of these noted individuals. This is the film’s strength and crutch. By focusing much on the perspectives of those closest to the state of NASA in the 1960s, it emphasizes the positives of the Lunar exploration missions without explaining the scientific progress being made in space today.

Fight for Space is heavy on the nostalgia for the Project Apollo and the lunar landing missions of 1968-1972.  I say this upfront as framework in which to understand the documentary.  As the lunar landings have defined the extant which our species as travelled beyond Earth, they also remain as the benchmark for public perception of what space exploration is to be.  And in many cases, this measuring rod is wielded by space exploration advocates as well.  In Fight for Space, the viewer is introduced to a number of outspoken spaceflight advocates who adhere to this idea, and aren’t subtle in their presentation of it.

Following President Kennedy’s 1961 address at Rice University, political momentum built to surpass the Soviet Union in the development of human spaceflight.  In a simple challenge, a goal was set that drove the fledgling NASA to the surface of the Moon. When that was achieved in 1969, a few additional missions continued, until public and political support dwindled and the project was terminated.  This unparalleled event has remained so, as no further human missions beyond earth orbit have been carried out.  Fight for Space  takes the viewers back to this period, letting such gentlemen as Gene Kranz, Jim Lovell, and Story Musgrave describe the incentive for Kennedy’s challenge.

Why did NASA stop sending astronauts to the Moon?  Perhaps no other question dominates the public consciousness concerning the space program.  This documentary explores that question thoroughly, which becomes the film’s strength. From Kennedy’s brinksmanship, to Johnson’s maintenance of the legacy, and finally Nixon’s self-imposed strife, the audience is shown how the executive branch dictated space policy, from Mercury to the Space Station.  As compelling as the missions themselves, the history of NASA is populated by heroes and villains in the quest for funding.  The stories of compromises that resulted in the final Space Shuttle configuration and contemporary Orion spacecraft are both heart-breaking and hopeful tales on par with the greatest of the golden age oceanic voyages.

Space policy professionals such as Marcia Smith, Rick Tumilson, James Muncy, and John Logsdon add their takes on the fate of Apollo and what it meant for NASA throughout the film.  These interviews are the meat in this sandwich, offering nuanced perspectives on the direction of the space program from professionals who were not astronauts or engineers. Each of these speakers makes the point that, in essence, its not for a lack of technical failure that Apollo was discontinued, but a lack of political will. [We] stopped going to the Moon because [we] (Congress and the White House) chose not to.  I emphasize this is an important distinction he film makes- NASA didn’t curtail human spaceflight, the bureaucratic and partisan machinations of government did.

What this results in is less a documentary than a lament for space exploration achievements of the past.  There is no fault in the direction, cinematography, or editing in Fight for Space.  Nor is there a criticism in the message- that human spaceflight is best destiny for our species.  Where the film falters, when it does, is the emphasis that “NASA is going nowhere”.  (This message is reinforced by interviews with Robert Zubrin, Lovell, and Musgrave).  Emphasis on “destinations and timelines”, such as Kennedy’s 1961 speech, oversimplify the challenges of space exploration and hint at repeating the errors inherent to Project Apollo.  One of the best sequences in the film shows the fallacy of building disposable spacecraft that shed components via computer simulation of an airliner discarding its wings, tail, engines on a flight from Los Angles to New York.  Again later, there is a point where narration commends the Russian space agencies for relaying on sustainable technologies to support orbital access. Yet this epiphany is buried just as quickly as it is shown by over emphasizing the successes of the Saturn V rockets (Of which not one component was reusable, and which was monetarily unsustainable).

I was disappointed in how the film chose to represent the contemporary era of NASA (and it’s commercial partners) and in particular, the International Space Station.  ISS, as it’s abbreviated, has been the focus of much of the negative press aimed at NASA.  Many politicians, space advocacy pundits, and spaceflight enthusiasts tend to point toward the space station as “all that is wrong” with America’s government managed space program. This film could have made point to better share the science being conducted in orbit today, perhaps even altering the public perception of ISS.  Instead, we are left with a few minutes in the movie where random pedestrians are interviewed about the role of ISS, in which each person admits to their ignorance of it. The director rightly ascribes to NASA’s inability as a n agency to “sell” ISS to the general public, but then does the same by leaving the viewer with no answers.

Of all the “space celebrities” interviewed for the documentary, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was by far the clearest in enunciating the political dance NASA has endured in it’s 50+ years.  As much as many spaceflight enthusiasts are loath to admit it, the agency cannot act independently of the legislative and executive branches of our government.  To lambaste the administrators of NASA for “lack of will and vision” is a copout.  NASA can only do what it is authorized (and funded) to do.  The film illustrates the transition period from the Space Shuttle and potential follow-on vehicle development programs Constellation and Space Launch System. Much to the credit of the director, the film does not take any partisan political slant here where too many others have before.  Many space policy advocates have pointed to the previous federal administration as crippling the space program for the cancellation of Constellation, but few diagnose correctly the ailment was lack of congressional support.  Fight for Space rightly shines the light on this controversy without falling for the easy path of choosing a political scapegoat.

My review of this movie may seem mixed, and that would be truthful from my (as yet) single viewing.  As someone who has absorbed a great deal of the media surrounding NASA and it’s contemporary space programs, I feel that this documentary missed an opportunity to tell the story of what is happening is space NOW.   Indeed, “where is your space program?”. It’s not in the 1960s, nor shouldn’t it be.  There is so much more to the progress necessary for any future explorations of Mars, for example, than shown in this film.  Overemphasis on launch vehicles is one of the most aggravating elements of space advocacy in my personal opinion.  And that is the sidestep this film does when lamenting the cancellation of the Saturn V rockets. (An educational sequence to be sure, but is that what the audience should take away from this?)

Human space exploration has always been a story of hope.  There can be a powerful, positive message in any film describing the progress of understanding our solar system.  Fight for Space doesn’t necessarily become that movie. The audience is left with hopeful statements by Dr. Tyson and Mr. Tumilson, following a sequence describing the benefits of an inspired populace. Examples included technology spinoffs, higher education participation, increased understanding of STEM principles – obvious to the space enthusiasts, and necessary for any film advocating spaceflight.  But by turning to look back on the glory of Apollo, we lose sight of where we’re going. (Or for those who interpret NASA’s current path as going nowhere, where we CAN go.)  Perhaps it would be the topic of a different documentary, but as it has been repeated consistently that the goal NASA is pursuing is human missions to Mars, I believe it would have been more effective to include the research a development taking place within NASA today as a coda, and ask “WHEN are we going?”

 

HERA Crew 10 Mission Patch

HERA Crew 10 Patch (Design by Oscar Mathews)

HERA Crew 10 Patch (Design by Oscar Mathews)

As with every mission that preceded it, Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) mission 10 will have its own unique patch.  It will be worn by the 4 crew members, adorn equipment and apparel, and one day hang alongside the previous mission’s symbols on a wall at Johnson Space Center.

The patch design reflects the various aspects of the HERA campaign. This particular missions simulation is C3M2- or, “campaign three, mission two”.  Counting the total number of HERA crews that have used the analog habitat module, ours will be number ten.  Hence the big Roman numeral “X”.  The X has another significance this particular study will take place during the 50th anniversary of Gemini 10, which also used the large Roman numeral 10 in the mission patch design.

Each of the crew members names appear, as do 4 stars representing the number of crew.  Occupying the foreground is the asteroid Geographos, an actual asteroid found near Earth, one that actually crosses our planet’s orbit, and the simulated target for this mission. (Conveniently closer than the asteroids found orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt).  Earth is to the right, eclipsed behind the asteroid representing both the origin and final destination of the spaceflight. Mars is there too- always in the background, on the horizon of all NASA’s human spaceflight projects.

Finally, you can see our spacecraft or a representation of what a craft might look like if one were to attempt a human mission to a nearby asteroid.  The design we chose to use was NASA’s “Nautilus X“, a conceptual deep-space craft for beyond Earth orbit  (BEO) exploration.  Although such a vehicle is likely decades away from actually transporting astronauts anywhere, it follows the existing engineering principles necessary for such a journey.

I’m really looking forward to wearing this patch on my uniform!

Commercial Spaceflight Training: A New Series!

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I’d like to share with you my journey.  It’s the physical manifestation of my aspirations.  I’m going to document my progress as I complete milestones on the path of commercial spaceflight training.

(I will post my disclaimer now: I will in no way refer to myself as an astronaut, nor an astronaut candidate, nor make any assumptions or predictions concerning my competitiveness to ever be selected for a flight.)

What I will do is share my experience as I work through the various practical aspects of spaceflight training.  Each post in this series will focus on a specific skill or event required for human spaceflight.  From flight training to microgravity simulation, I will document my accomplishments and discuss how they pertain to preparing an astronaut for space.

My goal is to inform and entertain.  And maybe, if I do this well, I will be lucky enough to inspire someone too.  I will make no arguments suggesting commercial astronautics is superior or inferior to federal programs, nor extol one spacecraft manufacturer over another.  I will, however, be an advocate for the potential of commercial spaceflight.  This series will focus on the commercial space industry, not NASA. That is not to say I won’t reference NASA’s astronaut training – how could I not?  Expect though that my posts will discuss training specifically addressing commercial suborbital and orbital projects.

Please follow along and share this at your leisure.  I will post to this series on a semi-regular basis, or as often as I have the opportunity to complete another milestone.  I do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard – to keep a schedule!

Casey Stedman, Fairview Heights, Illinois – February 23rd, 2016

Film Review: The Martian

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Every now and then space geeks are treated to a great, scientifically feasible science-fiction film.  I am happy to report that The Martian, a film adaption of the novel by the same title, is one of those films.

For those of you who haven’t read the book by author Andy Weir, go do so. In fact, you should go do that now so you can watch the film when it’s available in theaters. Really, go do it.

The Martian is a simple premise: Sometime in the near future, on the third human exploration mission to the planet Mars, a martian dust storm forces the crew to evacuate and abort the mission. Launching from the surface of the storm battered planet, they escape, leaving behind one of the crew whom they believe is killed in the attempt to reach the spacecraft.  Except he doesn’t die.

Instead, fictional astronaut and reluctant protagonist of the drama Mark Watney (played by deftly by Matt Damon) is marooned alone, very much alive, on the surface of Mars.  Faced with incomparable desolation and a meager collection of leftover equipment, Watney is forced to adapt in order to survive before a rescue mission can be launched years later.

Much of the angst fans of the book will center on the next 2 hours of the film: does it portray the science (and engineering) correctly?  Of course the answer is yes AND no. For obvious reasons, there are simply some aspects of interplanetary life that just cannot be replicated on Earth. (Or effectively in CGI, for that matter.) For example Mars has only 38 % percent of the gravity found on Earth.  The film does it’s best to diminish the impediment of Earth’s 1G, but there is just so much that can be done here on our orbital rock. Wisely, director Ridley Scott didn’t attempt to force unnecessary and poorly simulated Martian gravity into the film.

Our astronaut hero is left on Mars with but a few months ration remaining in the habitat module he makes home.  Ingeniously, he endeavors to grow potatoes from some of the few remaining examples cached in the crew’s stores. Now, when he pours raw martian regolith (as non-organic soil on extraterrestrial planets is called), I cringed.  The actual surface of Mars, besides being rich in oxidized elements, has been found to contain perchlorates– an ammonium-based substance toxic to most lifeforms, including humans. Astronauts living on Mars would be constantly working to mitigate the exposure to these chemicals. Disregarding this, the premise of growing crops to supplement future Martian explorer’s diets is a well established concept. Even today, research into growing foodstuffs on Mars is a full-time occupation for some scientists.

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I want to point out I’m not a scientist- I cannot vouch for the veracity of every aspect of the film’s scientific accuracy. (Although I have taken part in a long-duration Mars Mission Simulation)  There are some elements in the film which will likely leave some more literal viewers aghast.  I’m not one of those viewers- I can enjoy the film for it’s entertainment value alone.  Instead, space geeks should rejoice that this story remains true to the novel in almost every respect.

Space enthusiasts and aficionados will be excited to see the array of space exploration technology seen in the film. Habitat module? Remarkably similar to proposed NASA configurations. Mars rover? Again- nearly straight from the pages of industry’s designs. Even the spacesuit- which is considerably more form-fitting than contemporary EVA suits being tested BY NASA- has a basis in reality. (The Dava Newman bio-suit) Even as I typed this review, NASA unveiled a design concept for a Mars Ascent Vehicle, or “MAV”, just tlike the one that plays a key role in the plot of The Martian.

It can be said the real star of this film is Mars itself. There have been many depictions of the red planet in movies, some more accurate than others, and some downright laughable.  Perhaps because the surface of Mars is slowly becoming a part of the collective consciousness through the images returned from the rovers now exploring its geology, it takes more than just a red filter and matte frames of Monument Valley to adequately portray the planet in a movie.  The Martian doesn’t falter in this element. Wide alluvial plains, windswept hills, dust devils- even the incomparable Tharsis volcanoes make an appearance in the film.  (Some of the topography brought back memories of flying over the Sahara in Southern Algeria from my time in the service)

Perhaps the major sticking point in the science shown in the movie is very dust storm that strands poor Watney in the first minutes of the motion picture.  Mars does endure massive dust storms that envelope entire hemispheres for months at a time- but with the average density of the atmosphere being close to just 1% of that found on Earth, the devastating chaos featured in The Martian is an exaggeration of tremendous magnitudes. There is an enlightening article featured at Space.com by Elizabeth Howell that investigates this issue in detail- ‘The Martian’ Dust Storm Would Actually Be a Breeze. To read what NASA has to say about the dangers of Martian dust storms, click HERE.

The film is also limited in another dimension that just cannot be experienced in the same fashion as the novel: time.  The tedious efforts to farm, construct makeshift repairs, and simply wait was an aspect of the book that had a discernible impact in literary form. But constrained by the period in which a feature film can run, Watney’s sentence on Mars seems much too quick. The sequence depicting his cross-country road trip to seek out the defunct Pathfinder lander is an example. However, one manner in which the film succeeds in this conundrum is the visual degradation Watney experiences over the course of the story.  When we first see Damon on screen, he is a muscled movie star. By the time his character is preparing for his desperate rescue, he appears, gaunt, malnourished, and broken.  That gradual slide toward doom plays well in the film.

Besides our abandoned hero, The Martian also features a diverse cast of supporting characters that add to the whole of the odyssey.  This is a place where the film succeeds- adding a textured backdrop to Watney’s arc.  Taking place mostly at either the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, these sequences of the film at first seem jarring- almost TOO much contrast from the panorama of Martian topography. But as the audience comes to know the characters, they become more and more essential to the overall story.

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The crew of the Ares spacecraft is led by Commander Lewis, played by a guilt-ridden Jessica Chastain. Her crew is made up of Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan),  and Alex Vogel (Askel Hennie, who seems a ringer for real-life astronaut Luca Parmitano).  In many ways, the Ares crew has even fewer resources available to them to effect Watney’s rescue than he does himself. With just a docking hatch, a spacesuit, and some orbital velocity, they ensure the story happens. Personally, I’d have liked to have seen more character development of the crew- but the film reflects the book in this regard neatly.  But for what the Ares sequences lack in-depth, they make up for in grandeur on the screen. (The interior of the spacecraft seems almost laboratory-clean, at least in comparison to photographs of the interior of the International Space Station)

More impact comes through in the scenes taking place on Earth.  The audience is treated to the politics of mission management at JSC as well as the technical trouble-shooting of the engineers at JPL.  It is through the actions of the mission directors and staff that we see how the world reacts to the discovery that astronaut Watney is alive, and the frustration of being unable to devise a way to reach him as quickly as necessary.

A very serious Jeff Daniels plays “the director of NASA” (the actual title is “Administrator“), shown mostly presenting press conferences and sparring over rescue plans with flight directors Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetal Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean).  Circling around them is an array of supporting characters whose roles are to enable the solution that help to rescue Watney.  I was pleasantly surprised how well the scenes featuring the Chinese space agency fit into the overall film, considering it essentially introduces a whole new plot arc two-thirds of the way into the story.

It has been pointed out that the scenes depicting events at the Mission Control Center (MCC) and other building at JSC were NOT actually filmed there- no government facilities look that nice!  One can only assume that in future depicted in the film, NASA was appropriated a great deal more funding than it receives currently!

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The Ares’ return to Martian orbit and the “convertible rocket” rescue sequence is simply incredible on a massive movie screen.  The dance of centripetal motion as the ad-hoc rendezvous unfolds is better seen than read- an advantage the movie has over the novel. Desperate Extra-Vehicular Excursions (EVAs) are a staple of contemporary science fiction films, but few have so earnestly walked through the physics necessary like The Martian does.

Perhaps because it contrasts so much with recent space-themed dramas Gravity and Interstellar, The Martian stands apart by retaining a levity between the characters and the story that never allows the audience to feel despair.  Even at its darkest moments, the movie never twists the knife even when it could- (The scene where a catastrophic decompression of Watney’s habitat module comes to mind).  A well executed incorporation of Commander Lewis’ disco music collection plays throughout the movie, conveying in some regards the humanity that might otherwise have been lost by succumbing to an overwrought orchestral score.

There is an important addition the movie that wasn’t in Weir’s novel.  The film’s coda sequence is perhaps one of the more touching portions of the whole story, and a welcome extra.  In talking to others who’ve read the book, many are struck by the abrupt ending.  The director wisely included one more chapter to Watney’s journey for this interpretation of the story. Purists may find fault in this, but I really do think it adds to this interpretation of Weir’s novel.  I won’t spoil it here, however.  You just need to stay in your seat a few moments longer when the credits begin to play.

So, is the film any good? My answer is YES. I’ll even say it’s worth the $12 to see it in 3D or on an IMAX screen, if you have the chance.  It’s not every day we are treated to a quality science fiction film with some real science in it. Treat yourself this week and go see The Martian.

By the way, I hope you enjoy disco music…

 

Opinion: It’s Not About Being First

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I’m about to say something that seems at odds with the space community-

It’s not about being first.

 

There is a curious preoccupation with people associated with space exploration and human spaceflight.  That’s the idea of “being first”. First in space, first to orbit, first on the Moon.  First of a gender or ethnicity. First to do “X’.

The media feed off the notion of “first”.  It’s headline ready, easy to report, and doesn’t require any investigation.  Public attentions span being what it is, the notion of “first” fits easily into a sound-byte and sates the Nationalist agenda so many would-be leaders feel necessary to to trumpet.

That said, I don’t mean to imply there is no merit in the accomplishments of the pioneers.  Gagarin and Armstrong will forever be enshrined on the podium of human history.  Nothing can or should diminish the struggle of the minorities who overcome injustices to reach orbit.  Every first launch of a new type of spacecraft is reason for celebration.

But “being first” is is only an achievement if you’re in a race.  If the goal of human spaceflight is making a sustained, operational industry and exploration campaign, then we (as space advocates and popularizers) should be making an effort to applaud the second and third and fourth time something in space is accomplished.  Because it is only after something is repeated that it becomes part the normalcy we hope to achieve.

If we are to tell the story of space exploration, to promote it, to build it properly in the public consciousness, then we need to congratulate the seventeenth mission of any program as much as the first.  Because it wasn’t  Amundsen or Scott that made it possible to people to live and work in Antarctica, it was the establishment of permanent research stations like McMurdo.

There is sort of a trend happening with some aspiring public figures presumptuously announcing their intent to be “the first person on Mars”.  Perhaps this is fueled by the ability to garner attention through social media, or maybe it’s perpetuated by an element of journalism that thrives on bold proclamations.  It’s an unpopular opinion, but I think these premature announcements are , if not unrealistic, then at least distracting.  I admire the setting of goals and the efforts people will go to achieve them, any message celebrating the necessity of self-motivation.

The journey to Mars will be the summation of countless untold struggles, careers, studies, investigations, simulations, campaigns, but most important, the unified cooperation of many people working toward that goal.  It is not, nor should it ever, be the story of one individual. Rather than ride on the nebulous virtue of “being first”, I argue that those who wish to popularize attention to human spaceflight instead devote energy to what is necessary to make the journey possible at all.

Spaceflight may never be routine or operational as so many have hoped, but that is the goal we who promote it should be working to achieve. The story of human space exploration should’t be watered down to who was first to be there.  It must be more than a headline; it must the story of us all.

So here’s to the crew and mission support of the 17th Mission to Mars- you all the one’s who are going to make the future possible.

Inspiration and New Horizons

Pluto.

Dwarf Planet.

A New Horizon.

Photo by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JH-APL)

Photo by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JH-APL)

In less than a week, a space probe will pass near enough to the object known as Pluto to photograph it clearly for the first time in human history.  On July 14th, the New Horizons space probe will will conduct a ‘flyby’ of Pluto and it’s moons before exiting our Solar System forever.

The photo above was taken July 5th, 2015, from a distance of approximately 9.2 to 7.8 million miles from the dwarf planet. It is remarkable in that this image clearly depicts the variations in color and materials on the planet’s surface, something that was imperceptible even to the Hubble Space Telescope, which had been used to image Pluto and its moons in preparation for this mission.

The New Horizons spacecraft is much like it’s legendary predecessor,  the Voyager and Mariner series probes. Unlike the contemporary Mars exploration craft, New Horizons will not enter in orbit around Pluto, but pass rapidly by, pointing it’s array of sensors at the target object in hopes of gathering as much data as possible in that short window of time.

Launched from Cape Canaveral in January of 2006, the spacecraft has traveled some 3 billion miles to reach it’s destination.  The timeline and flight path depicted below helps to illustrate the journey that took place over the last 9 years:

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Unlike the other planets in our system, Pluto stands out, and not just for it’s diminutive mass and volume. Furthest of the most famous nine planets, Pluto was that last to be discovered (1930) and will now be the latest to be explored.  It’s very nature has eluded astronomers and planetary scientists, who’ve adopted numerous theories to its makeup and origin.

Using a variety of instruments developed by institutions from around the country, the New Horizons team will undoubtedly collect vast amounts of data that offer new solutions to the more confounding issues surrounding the nature of Pluto.

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For those of you who are avid space enthusiasts like myself, the controversy over Pluto and it’s place in the scientific nomenclature is not a new story.  For that reason, I won’t repeat it all here. For those who unfamiliar, I encourage you to sleuth the web and follow the dialogue of Dr. Neil deGrasse  Tyson, Dr. Mike Brown, Dr. Alan Stern and the debates centered around the International Astronomical Union.

The New Horizons mission is led by the same Dr. Stern mentioned above.  He has made acclaim for his research in a number of planetary science programs, but none so much as New Horizons. His public outreach to the general public has served a pulpit of sorts, a venue for his dissenting opinion regarding the “demotion” of Pluto from being labeled a “planet” to “dwarf planet”.

Terminology aside, Dr. Stern has helped to make New Horizons a publicly recognized name and the upcoming rendezvous an international media event.  In an age of short attentions spans and politically motivated media bylines, that is a commendable accomplishment. His story was recently the focus of an article in Air and Space magazine:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/one-man-lifelong-pursuit-pluto-real-180955303/?no-ist 

What that article of course will not tell you is how much of a influence Dr. Stern has been to me personally.  If one were to ask me who were some the people whom were the most significant influences in my life (topic for a future blog post?), Dr. Alan Stern would make that list.  Although I’m not a planetary scientist, or a member of the New Horizons research team, I consider Dr. Stern to be a most singular role model.  Before I left the active service, I was exploring every option I could find to continue flying professionally that I could find.  My extensive internet searches brought me to a webpage describing a program by which a planetary scientist was flying aboard one of NASA’s F/A-18 jets to observe small orbital bodies.  Obviously, I was hooked. Who was this man? And how did he get to do such cool things!?

Further inquiry brought me more details- lessons in tenacity, innovation, and determined sense of discovery. From his appointment to NASA, leading the Suborbital Applications Research Group, and training to be a suborbital astronaut, I have followed his endeavors closely.  Regardless your opinion of the Pluto designation debate, one has to acknowledge that’s not a shabby example to emulate.  His accomplishments have been an inspiration to me, another guidepost on my own path to achieving more.

I encourage you to red more about the New Horizons mission and follow the discoveries that will take place over the next 6 days: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/overview/index.html

 

Direction and Destinations in Space Exploration

One of the most repeated and vehement critiques of NASA and the American space industry is that ” it has no mission, no goal”.

Bolstered by imagery and nostalgia of the Apollo lunar missions, this statement has been used by space enthusiasts and elected officials alike to support the idea that there is no future in space exploration. Further complicating the issue was the 2010 executive order to cancel the Constellation program- a robust, but woefully under-funded endeavor to develop a series of launch vehicles and spacecraft aimed at human missions to the Moon (and in theory, one day Mars as well). touted by many as the resurgence of the NASA of old, the Constellation program suffered for many reasons, not the least of which was the misfortune of having been implemented by the previous presidential administration.

Political maneuvering aside, some elements of the Constellation program survived. Perhaps the most significant is the MPCV- or Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, better known by its popular name, Orion. Orion, a product of the Lockheed-Martin corporation, is return to the capsule type vehicle design used by expendable spacecraft like Apollo before it. It is to be launched atop a heavy launch vehicle (HLV) rocket, and configured to be employed as part of a mission-specific architecture. Serving as the astronaut’s method of returning home, the capsule features a heat shield and parachute recovery system that will allow the occupants to safely make a watery splash down.

Counter arguments about the viability of the Orion vehicle point out that little or no new technologies are being used, that “we’ve done this before” and such a craft is inadequate for the Mars exploration NASA intends to conduct. In sense, all those claims are true. The Orion vehicle does take advantage of existing technologies and materials, reducing the development period. The expendable nature while far from ideal, reduces the performance-reducing weight incurred by retaining such components as the service module and launch abort system. And yes its true that the Orion capsule alone is completely incapable of carrying astronauts to Mars and back. And that’s the point.

Orion is just one piece of what would be a large, modular craft that can be used to explore beyond-Earth orbit (BEO) destinations. I specifically say that so as to avoid the implication that a particular destination is required. Because it isn’t.

It is easy to rally around the idea of pointing at a certain light in the night sky, saying “We are going THERE!” Every orbital body in our solar system has its fans. The ranks of industry advocates are laden with “Return to the Moon!” and “Next step: Mars!” slogans. Unfortunately, this rhetoric only further divides the issue.

What makes Orion significant is it is ‘destination-ambiguous”. It can be utilized as a lunar orbiter or a crew return vehicle from a larger Martian exploration craft. Instead of a specific destination, NASA must continue to support and develop systems that allow for open architectures. Universal docking hatches. Common communications and network protocols. Modular components.

This will likely be criticized as naive- that the engineering requires carefully defined requirements, that funding won’t support it, or that only destination focused missions can garner public support. I believe it’s short-sighted to dismiss the idea without further analysis. Destination-ambiguous vehicle designs can provide the space agency with more options, even when political restraint begins limiting its resources. Common architectures between systems mean that NASA wouldn’t be limited to only the Moon or Mars arguments. Instead, it makes it possible to discuss both destinations (and others too).

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For further reading on this debate and possible solutions, I recommend James Vedda’s “Becoming Spacefarers: Rescuing America’s Space Program” .

Hit reply and post your thoughts. I welcome discussion on this topic.

Mars Orbit Insertion – #MAVEN

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Tonight, a spacecraft will enter orbit around Mars. Last November, I had an opportunity to watch as that probe launched atop a rocket and began that journey.

That should be emphasized: the spacecraft launched November 17th, 2013. And it will enter orbit around the planet Mars tonight, September 21st, 2014.  10 months after launch, the probe has traveled 442 million miles (711 million kilometers for my continental friends) to reach it’s destination.

The journey is an accomplishment in itself.  NASA’s successes in the last decade have desensitized the general public to the challenges of spaceflight.  The difficulty of launching a space vehicle cannot be exaggerated.  Precision engineering, complex orbital mechanics, and years of research are necessary, and sometimes even that isn’t enough.

The MAVEN spacecraft is one of a series of space probes that have been launched to Mars over the last two decades as part of an ongoing, long-term exploration of the red planet.  Each of the craft that have been sent is designed to investigate a particular feature of our nearest celestial neighbor. MAVEN, or “Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN” is specifically configured with sensors to study the Martian atmosphere.

Success isn’t for certain.  In order to enter orbit around Mars, the spacecraft must fire its thrusters in order to orient the vehicle, then fire those engines continuously for 33 minutes to slow down from its en route speed. Meanwhile, controllers will uplink commands to the craft to open valves, heat essential components, and prepare the sensors to begin receiving data.  MAVEN is set to enter orbit over the planet at an altitude of just 236 miles (380 KM) above the surface.

There have more than a few spacecraft set to explore Mars that never quite made it.  Some have failed to enter orbit. Some have impacted the surface. And some never responded to signals from Earth and disappeared altogether.  If MAVEN succeeds, it will have beaten the odds.

Interplanetary flight is an inherently dangerous way to travel.  Minute errors are magnified and can have drastic results.  The length of time it takes to travel millions of miles between worlds is a long time for mechanical and digital components to fail. Events that must happen may be measured in seconds, but their implications are often measured in the lost dreams of a lifetime.

Best wishes and Godspeed to the MAVEN teams tonight.  Go MAVEN!

UPDATE: NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft successfully entered Mars’ orbit at 10:24 p.m. EDT Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014

http://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/september/nasa-s-newest-mars-mission-spacecraft-enters-orbit-around-red-planet/#.VCBLufldWSp

 

 

Social Media and Space Exploration – #HISEAS

 

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One of the things I wanted to do during the 2nd HI-SEAS analog mission was increase the social media presence as a way of making more of the public aware of what we were doing and why we were doing it.

I’m a relatively late adopter of social media.  I didn’t learn of Facebook until 2008, I didn’t join Twitter until the summer of 2012, and I’ve only had an Instagram account since this last March.  But since taking part in the social media world, I’ve become much more aware of the power it has. Electronic communications is not a fad- this are just the beginning of a techno-cultural movement.

The ability to reach people everywhere in the world, almost instantaneously, is a powerful thing.  Advertising, propaganda, you name it- the digital message cannot be ignored.  It is now an element of our daily lives, a medium of communication, a realm unto itself.  What will you YOU use it for?

I’ve become an advocate of using social media as a way to talk about science and space exploration.  I didn’t do this on my own, and I certainly wasn’t the first to make it happen. Witnessing for myself the impact of social media made me a believer. I was fortunate enough to be selected by NASA to attend an event at the Glenn Research Center as part of the NASA Social outreach program.  In an effort to utilize the existing space enthusiast fan base, NASA adopted a program where attendees who are prolific social media users are invited to witness live or hands-on events.  Participants are encouraged to use social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to post facts a photos of what they saw.  Not only did it give the public an opportunity to see the space centers, but it also was a demonstration of how these websites and applications can be used to tell the story of the space program.

Anyone who follows space topics knows about Chris Hadfield.  Before his tour as commander of the International Space Station, few people knew who this Canadian astronaut was. Throughout his mission, he actively used social media to share photos of life aboard the station,and of Earth as seen from orbit.  His tweets reached thousands of followers.  This success means something- it means that people pay attention when you tell a story well.  His example is something I’ve striven for during my own mission as commander of HI-SEAS.

I was recently contacted by the people behind Instagram. In an e-mail, they described their interest in learning more about my role in HI-SEAS and about my use of their application.  I agreed to the interview, and today my photos were featured on the Instagram blog. Here is the link: http://blog.instagram.com/post/92347551152/smars

What happened next was nothing short of astounding to me. My Instagram account, somewhat neglected, boasted no more than 47 followers last night. Most of those 47 were close friends and family.  This morning, people began to see my photos. LOTS of people. People in the U.S. People in Canada. People all over the world.  At my last count, I had 8,200 new followers.  Eight thousand and two hundred people chose to receive my photographs in their daily electronic feed.  Not only did my Instagram presence increase, but my personal blog was found by some 60 more people today, and I gained another 340+ followers on my Twitter account. And those numbers are still growing as I type this.

It’s not about the numbers for the sake of numbers. It’s about getting a message to those who might not otherwise see it.  It’s about the people who took that second, a moment in their lives, to see what space exploration is all about.  Learning to use social media as a tool has allowed me to share with thousands what the crew of HI-SEAS set out to accomplish. I’ve encountered so many people who either didn’t realize there was still a vibrant space exploration program or had negative opinions about it.  My goal is to change that.  We’re here to make possible future missions to Mars and beyond. And hope I can share that story with you.

I’m not above a shameless plug. Take a look for yourselves. Find me at @casey_stedman on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Milestones: 90 Days on Mars

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Little milestones mark the progress of any journey. We note the events that happen, the dates on a calender, the mile markers on a highway.

Today is the 90th day my crew and I have lived inside the HI-SEAS habitat module on Mauna Loa. The last 3 months have been a remarkable experience.  We’ve lived as astronauts would on Mars, adapting to procedures and habits that future explorers will have to survive the conditions that exist on the 4th planet.

In the time I’ve been in this simulation, I’ve marked the time by the completion of experiments, the addition of new tasks, the daily log entries I make as the mission commander.  At home, I might gauge increments of time based on the days until the weekend, but here on simulated Mars, the weekend is another workday.  In order to maintain the ongoing science and systems, the crew and I must continue rationing food, water, and power in the habitat.  Data is still recorded and analyzed- even if it is Saturday.

In just less than 30 days, the crew and I will exit the habitat module for the last time, and without the limitation of a simulated spacesuit.  This journey will end, and in it’s place, each of us will move forward with our lives and ambitions.  The passage of time will be unchanging, but the milestones we mark it by will be unique.  I don’t know yet what direction my journey will take.  But I hope that it can be measured by achievement the way I have during this mission.