Goodbye, Cassini

Cassini in Saturn’s Orbit (Credit: NASA)








I was only 15 years old when I saw the announcement for NASA’s upcoming exploratory mission to Saturn.  At that moment in my life I had solidified my interest (sorry, “obsession”) with spaceflight. The brief article burned in my mind with NASA’s bold assertion: this new space probe would be exploring the planet Saturn from orbit.  Saturn! No country had yet sent a spacecraft to study specifically the ringed gas giant.

On Friday, September 15th of this year, Cassini will descend into Saturn’s atmosphere after nearly 13 years in orbit.  The spacecraft was lunched in 1997 and entered orbit around Saturn in 2004.  Take a moment to think about everything that you’ve experienced for the last thirteen years.  For the entirety of that period, planetary scientists from around the world have been working to study the data returned from this far-flung space probe.

Saturn, as seen by Cassini, 2007 (Caltech/JPL)

The spacecraft (which is nearly as large as a bus and is powered by a nuclear radioisotope thermoelectric  generator) has shown to us visions of a world alien to our senses.  Photographs taken by the Cassini orbiter have allowed us to see things we are incapable of viewing from earth such as the hexagonal jets streams turning about Saturn’s poles or the faintest of the rings that encircle the planet. A magnetometer onboard has measured the first record of the planet’s magnetic field. Orbits that passed the famous ring structure made it possible to determine the nature of the matter that forms them. And imagery returned of the diminutive moon Enceladus has shown what appear to be geysers of water erupting from its surface. (The tiny world was thought to be of too little mass to feature active geothermal processes).

One of the most impactful elements of the mission was the inclusion of a lander probe, know as Huygens (Named for Christiaan Huygens.)  The lander detached from the main spacecraft and entered the atmosphere of the moon Titan in 2004.  Never before had humans seen what existed below the clouds that masked the surface of the largest moon in our solar system.

Everything we know about the chemistry, atmospheric makeup, geography, and geology of Titan comes from data collected by instruments on Huygens and Cassini. Here is an entire world, alien to us, yet close enough to be similar.  We can see in images like the one above that Titan has hills and shorelines and most of it was formed by chemicals other than water. Instead, we know through Cassini that Titan experiences a hydrologic cycle that is made up of ethane, methane, and hydrocarbon rich nitrogen.

The longevity and audacity of the Cassini mission has, and will continue to have an impact on NASA and its affiliate s for decades to come.  Unlike the Voyager and Mariner missions of the 1970s, Cassini did more than a dramatic flyby of Saturn -it persisted.  The mission not only demonstrated the technological capability of deploying a separate lander, but of the extensions to the original mission profile and flexibility to change targets.  In an increasingly risk-averse aerospace culture, the Cassini team proved that bold goals can still achieve results.

There’s a certain sadness than comes naturally at the end of a space mission.  Years of labor and study come to a close, and in many cases, the actual hardware is lost to the cosmos forever.  Additionally, trends in both science funding and politics have curtailed further proposals to study Saturn and its moons.  For those who’ve dedicated their lives to the study of the outer planets, this week could be the last an American spacecraft visits Saturn in their lifetimes.  It’s justified to feel bittersweet about the successes Cassini/Huygens accomplished when political changes suggest there will be no successor.

But there is hope: Every decade, the U.S. National Research Council meets and publishes a document known as the  Planetary Decadal Survey . Participating scientists make suggestions, balance cost versus scientific return, and prioritize potential future exploratory planetary missions. the last decadal survey was conducted in 2011 and the report was published a year later.  In the 2011 survey, strong emphasis addressed the lack of knowledge concerning Europa, one of Jupiter’s icy moons.   This had impact on NASA’s decision to approve a planned orbiter probe, now known as Europa Clipper.

Saturn and it’s moons were not left out; in fact, there were seven distinct mission concepts featuring the ringed-gas giant in the 2011 survey. Listed, they are: Titan Saturn System Mission,
Saturn Atmospheric Entry Probe Trade Study, Saturn Atmospheric Entry Probe Mission Concept Study, Saturn Ring Observer Concept Study, Enceladus Flyby & Sample Return Concept Studies,
Enceladus Orbiter Concept Study, and Titan Lake Probe Concept Study. While none of these mission concepts received the priority or impetus of Europa or Mars, if offers a glimmer of hope for the researchers who wish tone day delve deeper into the study of Saturn.

For now we will have to remain satisfied with the years of data Cassini/Huygens delivered.  In days, the spacecraft will descend into Saturn itself, heated by the friction of the planet’s atmosphere.  What remains will be pulled deep into the gaseous abyss, eventually crushed by the immense gravity.  A mission is complete. Goodbye, Cassini.

For more information about Cassini and the Grand Finale, click the link below:

“My God Bones, what have I done?”


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 X: Looking for Public Outreach support


In my effort to share the story of human spaceflight (Including the various federal and commercial programs as well as my own endeavors), I would like to find ways to share my upcoming participation in NASA’s HERA analog study.

If you would like to follow the details of the simulated mission, the crew and I will be posting on Twitter to this account: @HERA_Crew_X

From April 19th through May 2nd, the other crew members and I will be training on the Johnson Space Center campus in Houston, Texas.  Each of us will be assigned a role on the crew.  Two of the selected participants will train as Mission Specialists, another will play the role of Flight Engineer, and one will be responsible as Mission Commander. During training, we will learn the tasks associated with our respective roles.

I will continue to post to this blog until the start of the mission study, and follow up afterward with more after the flight profile is completed.

If you have a webpage, write a blog, host a space/science/STEM social media account (or know someone who does) and would like to know more about the HERA X mission, feel free to contact me and I will do my best to answer your questions.  I would love to share this experience with a wider audience.



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!

I Return to (Simulated) Space

Photo Credit: Ron Garon

Photo Credit: Ron Franco

Continuing my goals of playing a role in human spaceflight, I recently applied to and was accepted as a participant in the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) campaign.

HERA is a “high-fidelity research venue for scientists to use in addressing risks and gaps associated with human performance during spaceflight.” (according to NASA’s website.) It is a project operated by NASA’s Human Research Program, or HRP, located at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Like my experience in the HI-SEAS analog (You can read my post about that HERE), I will be serving as a subject for NASA’s investigation into mitigating the risks of future space missions.  As a “stand-in” for an astronaut, I will be simulating the duties and tasks necessary to conduct a long-duration spaceflight.  Whereas in HI-SEAS the mission was one of Martian exploration, this time I will be simulating the launch and flight to a nearby asteroid.

After a several decades of learning to live and operate in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) using the Skylab, Space Shuttle, and International Space Station, NASA is beginning to plan for deep space exploration missions again.  There are a number of mission concepts and targets proposed, with all choices eventually leading up to human landings on the planet Mars.  But before a rocket carrying astronauts can reach the red planet a number of milestones need to met.

Graphic courtesy of NASA

Graphic courtesy of NASA

One of the precursor missions being developed is rendezvous and exploration of an asteroid.  Either by direct observation and sampling, or retrieval and sampling from a safer lunar orbit, it promises to be one of the most ambitious human spaceflight missions ever undertaken.  Such a mission would provide NASA an operational test of the techniques and technologies required for the much riskier Martian exploration flights, just as Gemini preceded the Apollo Lunar missions.  (For more about the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission, check out NASA’s page)

The HERA study profile will be that of a human spaceflight mission from launch to recovery, featuring a rendezvous and virtual EVAs to collect samples from the target asteroid.  To do this, myself and three other crew members will train for and conduct a 30 day simulation.  This will provide the HRP researchers with an opportunity to record and evaluate our ability to complete all of the duties required of astronauts during that period.

Astronauts collecting samples from an asteroid Credit: NASA

Astronauts collecting samples from an asteroid
Credit: NASA

Similar to HI-SEAS, I will be the subject of a multitude of human factors experiments.  Participating institutions will incorporate ways to evaluate our physical and mental health, our cognitive skills, problem solving, time management, nutritional balance, and team building.  Feedback from surveys (and video cameras placed throughout the HERA hab structure) will be the primary methods of collecting the data from the crew/subjects.

The HERA project us centered around a versatile habitat module structure that has been used in several NASA programs.   Initially devised as an engineering test article, the 3 story structure was known as the “Deep Space Habitat” or DSH.  As a generic design not specific to any particular mission, it has been used as a static and mobile research platform.  In 2011, the whole unit was trucked to Arizona and assembled to take part in the Desert RATS (Desert Research and Technology Studies) analog.  Today the DSH serves as the core module of the HERA project and is located on the campus of Johnson Space Center.



As you can see in the diagram above, it is not a large living space. The interior is designed to reflect the cylindrical shape of space structures launched from Earth (as each component of ISS was).  It features a laboratory, storage, crew quarters, galley, and fitness equipment.  Attached to the main DSH are hygiene and airlock modules. Windows are replaced with video screens that will play vistas appropriate for each phase of the mission profile. (The depiction above doesn’t show the 2nd or 3rd stories, in what is known as the “Badger X-ploration Loft). Like a real spacecraft, there is no unnecessary space.  Astronauts are creative with small living spaces, and I suppose I will learning to cope soon too.

My return to (simulated) space is just a month away.  I will post more about my experience here, so check back for updates. During the study however, I will be not be able to access social media, so you’ll need to be patient. There will also be restrictions as to what I can share because of the nature of the study, but I will do my best to answer any questions that you have. Thank you for following along on my journey!

For more information about HERA and NASA’s other analog research projects, follow this link:


Film Review: The Martian


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 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.


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!


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


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.

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).



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.

Suborbital Science is just around the corner


It was announced on June 3rd that NASA’s Flight Opportunities program (NASAFO) has selected one dozen science experiments to be flown aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

This is validation of the “suborbital science” concept.  If you’ve read my earlier post about the Suborbital Applications Research Group (SARG), then you can understand my excitement about this announcement.

Suborbital spaceflight is much more than an adventure sport of the super wealthy.  Like the X-15 hypersonic research program, suborbital vehicles operate in a realm very different from both orbital and aerial craft.  This transition zone, the fuzzy line between atmosphere and space, is largely unexplored.

There exists an incredible diversity of scientific disciplines that can take advantage of the minutes of microgravity that can be achieved during a parabolic sortie.  NASA Flight Opportunities, which is the space agency’s office that manages the process of flying scientific payloads on launch vehicles, has taken advantage of the emerging commercial spaceflight industry and the proliferation of new spacecraft. Virgin made available the cabin of their suborbital spacecraft, SS2, exclusively for science experiments on its inaugural test flight to the edge of space. For a list of the payloads selected, click here

Although there have been many detractors to the longevity of the SS2 flight test program, incremental progress is being made.  Every flight provides data from which engineers can improve upon the performance and safety of the vehicle.  Test flying experimental aircraft is a hazardous vocation, and one not tolerant of haste.  So while space tourists and payloads must wait for VG’s commercial flights to begin, that wait is necessary to ensure that every effort is made to mitigate risks.

The date- or even year- that Virgin Galactic will begin commercial operations isn’t known yet. But, following this recent news, it is clear that the company will be a leader in the field of suborbital science.