First Man

Last night we went to see First Man at the Gateway Film Center. The movie tells the story of Neil Armstrong, from his days as a test pilot flying the X-15 over the California high desert to his work as a NASA astronaut and, ultimately, to his step onto the Moon that indelibly wrote his name into the history books.

It’s a riveting tale, and the movie leaves a powerful impression as it follows two narrative threads — the arc of the lunar space program and the equally compelling story of the impact on families. The film presents the life of the astronauts with intense realism, as they wedge themselves into cramped spaces atop enormous rockets, are routinely shaken to bits even in a successful launch, and have to deal with technical malfunctions that, in Armstrong’s case, left him in a Gemini capsule spinning out of control above the Earth and on the verge of passing out before he discovered a fix. Tragedy and death are an accepted part of the job, and above it all is the sense that the astronauts were playing a key role in an essential national mission. You can’t watch the film without acquiring a new appreciation for the brave and resolute men who were part of the astronaut program.

But the home front tale is just as powerful. There, too, untimely death has a huge impact, and families struggle as husbands and fathers become increasingly absorbed in the mission and are frequently away. The wives shoulder the burden of keeping their families together and moving forward, listening worriedly to the mission control feeds in their suburban homes as TV crews and photographers and reporters jostle on the front lawns, and living with the oppressive reality that, at any moment, their husbands might be killed and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. The grit and fortitude of wives and mothers were just as crucial to the success of the mission as the courage of the astronauts.

Ryan Gosling is terrific as Neil Armstrong, the buttoned-up and buttoned-down engineer who immerses himself in the mission and strives to keep his emotions in check, and Claire Foy is equally terrific as Janet Armstrong, the pillar of the family who holds it all together. The film is beautifully photographed and the sense of realism is total — from the buttons and switches and configuration of the spacecrafts to the shuddering rocket launches to the desolate lunar surface . . . and to the cans of Budweiser, the TV sets with rabbit ears, and the clothing that were part and parcel of suburban life in the ’60s.

First Man is the best film I’ve seen in a long time; I give it five stars. And as we left the theatre I was struck by the thought that once, this country could come together to try to do great things — and then actually accomplish the mission. I wish we could capture more of that spirit these days.

NASA Naming Rights

The Washington Post is reporting that NASA is considering the possibility of selling naming rights to its rockets and spacecraft.  As part of that process, NASA also is thinking about loosening restrictions on astronauts in a bid to make them more accessible and known to the public — the kind of figures that might appear on cereal boxes.

7864011894_d67acabbf4It’s all about branding and (of course!) money.  The consideration process is in its very early stages, with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announcing at a recent meeting of the NASA advisory council that he will be creating a committee to study the issues.  The Post quotes Bridenstine as saying:  “Is it possible for NASA to offset some of its costs by selling the naming rights to its spacecraft, or the naming rights to its rockets?  I’m telling you there is interest in that right now. The question is: Is it possible? The answer is: I don’t know, but we want somebody to give us advice on whether it is.”

The kind of commercialization that is being contemplated would be an abrupt turn for NASA, which has studiously avoided any action that might be seen as an endorsement of one product or another.  And, there are challenging questions about how it would all work — and how astronauts being paid to appear on commercials, or wearing uniforms adorned with the patches of sponsor a la NASCAR drivers, would be treated under the governmental ethics laws.

When I first read of what NASA was considering, I rebelled against the very thought of corporate naming rights or corporate logos on spacecraft.  I’ve always like the purity of the white rockets and the simple white spacesuits, adorned only with an American flag and a NASA emblem, and it irks me that buildings built with public funds, like sports stadiums, can be rebranded with the name of a corporation that throws in a few million after the building has been completed.  But there’s no doubt about it — that’s just the world that we live in these days.

I also think that if selling corporate naming rights helps NASA get the money it needs to reenergize the manned space program, so that we can finally move to the Moon and Mars and beyond, I’m willing to endure rockets and spacecraft and astronaut suits that are plastered with stickers.  I also think it would be good for the country to have kids wanting to be astronauts again, as many kids did when I was growing up.  In those days, astronauts were the biggest heroes and celebrities around, and they stood for many of the qualities that we prize — bravery, fortitude, and coolness under stress, among others.  It wouldn’t be a bad thing, either, to put people who have gone to college and received advanced degrees into our firmament of national celebrities and aspirational figures for kids, right up there with hip-hop artists and professional athletes and reality TV stars.

So I say let NASA study the issue, and then move forward in a way that puts space back into the public eye and public mind.  I’ll put up with a few corporate logos along the way.

NASA Turns 60

Today NASA celebrates its 60th birthday.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 on July 29, 1958.

63a69251ab87b6532a23a84672c0bb66NASA replaced the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, and President Eisenhower viewed the creation of the agency as an historic step, “further equipping the United States for leadership in the space age” and allowing it to make “an effective national effort in the fields of aeronautics and space exploration.”  You can read the full text of President Eisenhower’s signing statement here.

It is not unusual for federal legislation to be hailed as historic when it is signed, but in the case of the National Aeronautics and Space Act that prediction was entirely accurate.  I think it is safe to say that NASA has met, and greatly exceeded, the goal of allowing the United States to make “an effective national effort in the field of aeronautics and space exploration.”  The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the space shuttle and international space station, and the many unmanned probes and devices that have allowed us to better understand our solar system all bear the indelible imprint of NASA.  NASA has taken human beings to the Moon and brought them safely back home and has given us up-close looks at Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons.  NASA’s efforts have also helped to push advancements in science, technology, and other areas that have now become part of our lives and culture.  By any measure, this still-sprightly 60-year-old has been a spectacular success.

Some people reflexively complain about the creation of any federal agency, but NASA is an example of how mobilizing an effort at the national level and entrusting it to knowledgeable people can accomplish great things.  With private space exploration and travel looming on the immediate horizon, and Congress currently considering how to regulate those private efforts going forward, it will be interesting to see what the next 60 years bring for NASA — the little agency that could.

True Space Art

juno-jupiter-15If you like the notion of space travel, and wonder what it would actually be like out there among the planets, take a gander at some of the photographs of Jupiter taken by the NASA Juno probe, and you’ll get the answer — it is stunningly beautiful, like an artist’s canvas hanging out in space.

I can just imagine hanging out on the observation deck of some orbiting space station, sipping Tang and watching that lovely view slowly rotate in the window.

13 Billion Miles Away, And Still Working

Let’s pause for a moment, ignore the ugliness and failure that seems to boil out of the depths of Washington, D.C. on a daily basis, and consider for a moment something that everyone can agree America has done incredibly well:  manned, and unmanned, space exploration.

640px-ec_voyager_saturnConsider Voyager 1.  It was launched 40 years ago, in September 1977, during the early years of the Carter Administration.  With its sister probe Voyager 2, it successfully explored the major planets of our solar system, sending back fabulous pictures of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn and collecting data that gave us a better understanding of the two giants in the neighborhood of planets circling the Sun.  I remember belonging to a group called The Planetary Society that supported space exploration and travel and getting some of the fantastic Voyager photos as part of my membership.

But then, Voyager 1 just kept going, and going, and going.  It is now more than 13 billion miles away, and has officially gone past the boundaries of our solar system and is out in the trackless areas of interstellar space.  And it’s still working, too.  Recently NASA sent a message out to Voyager 1, instructing it to fire its trajectory correction maneuver thrusters for the first time since November 8, 1980, a few days after the presidential election in which Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter.  The Voyager flight team had to send the instructions in an outdated software language — imagine how much the computer world has changed since 1977! — and it took more than 19 hours for the instruction to reach Voyager 1, but the instruction worked, and the thrusters fired for the first time in 37 years.  The firing of the thrusters allows Voyager to keep its communication antenna pointed in our direction and to keep sending us data as it moves farther out into the void.

It’s pretty amazing stuff, and Americans should be proud of this accomplishment and the planning, and engineering, and foresight that went into the Voyager program.  Of course, we don’t hear about it, in the haze of coverage of presidential tweets and other current news — but it’s a noteworthy accomplishment just the same.  Kudos to NASA!

Checking Out Saturn’s Geometric Weirdness

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has taken its first plunge past Saturn, and the results are pretty amazing.  On its dive, Cassini goes from 45,000 miles from Saturn’s surface to as close as 4,200 miles from the spinning cloud cover, and it even threaded the needle by passing between the planet and its famous rings — where Cassini was hit by a few stray particles.

The brief video above shows some of the highlights of the first pass, and you can read about the first pass, and get links to the longer videos, here.  Forget the fact that the video footage from Cassini is black and white, and focus on the fact that we are seeing video taken from a planet that is more than 750 million miles away from our little part of the universe.  And take a good look at Saturn’s incredible strangeness — like the defined hexagonal shape that is formed by the cloud formations at Saturn’s north pole and the completely distinct eye that is found at the center of the polar vortex.  What could cause the clouds to form such unusual, seemingly unnatural shapes?

Why, aliens, of course.

The Warm Seas of Enceladus

It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is alien life out there, in our solar system and beyond.  To the extent that people still cling to the geocentric notion that Earth is the only planet in the universe capable of supporting life, it’s time to think again.

enceladusThe latest indicator of that reality came yesterday, when NASA announced that its Cassini spacecraft had found promising signs that alien life may exist on Enceladus, one of the moons orbiting Saturn.  Cassini flew through a plume that was spraying out of the icy shell covering Enceladus and detected molecular hydrogen.  That’s a big deal because molecular hydrogen is created by interaction between warm water and rock, and along with carbon dioxide is the kind of food that early, microbial life forms can thrive on.  Scientists believe that life on Earth may have started in the same kind of environment surrounding the deep geothermal vents in our oceans — and if life started here, why shouldn’t it also occur in the same environment elsewhere?

Does that mean that there is, in fact, some form of life already existing on Enceladus?  Not necessarily, because the large amount of molecular hydrogen and carbon dioxide detected by the Cassini spacecraft suggests that there isn’t much, if any, bacteria or microbial life on Enceladus actually consuming the food — a fact that doesn’t surprise scientists, because they think Enceladus is relatively young and it takes a long time for life to emerge.

But equally intriguing is that NASA also announced that the Hubble telescope found evidence of similar plumes on Europa, a much older moon orbiting Jupiter.  Because Europa has apparently been around for billions of years longer than Enceladus, the combination of molecular hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and time might have allowed life to gain a foothold there.  It’s something we’re going to have to explore.

Treasure-Hunting Around Mars

Those of us who’ve been waiting patiently — for years, and years, and years — for the United States to get back into the manned space exploration mode have always thought that perhaps crass commercialism might be the impetus.  If governments aren’t spurred by noble thoughts of advancing into the final frontier and exploring for the benefit of all mankind, maybe they’ll be motivated by cold hard cash.  With a compelling case for a serious financial return from exploration, modern governments might — like the European nations exploring the western hemisphere during the 1400s and 1500s — be willing to commission a few ships, set sail, and see what they can find.

We’re about to get an answer to that question, because in a few years NASA will be launching a mission to a solitary asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter that — all on its own — would seem to make space exploration fiscally worthwhile.

1200x600The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is about the size of Massachusetts and has been battered by meteor strikes.  It’s composed primarily of nickel and iron.  The vast quantities of metal on the asteroid is a kind of treasure trove that causes NASA to say that 16 Psyche is worth about 10,000 quadrillion dollars.  How big is a quadrillion?  Well, apparently there are about one quadrillion ants on planet Earth.  Multiply that mind-boggling number by 10,000, and you get the value of 16 Psyche.  Even Bill Gates would be impressed by that sum.

Of course, we might not want to cart all of that metal back to Earth, because that would be pretty expensive.  We might decide that the treasure trove would be better used to build settlements on Mars, or to manufacture space stations or space craft, or for any of countless potential uses of metal in space.  And it’s all out there waiting for the first intrepid country, or group of countries, that is willing to go out and get it.

So — why not get back into space, already?  We’ve twiddled our thumbs long enough, and you can tell that private enterprise is starting to look pretty seriously at space as an investment and development opportunity.  In fact, some people are arguing that, with private enterprise leading the way, we could be back on the Moon, permanently, in four years, and then moving on to other planets in the solar system thereafter.  Who knows?  Maybe a President who talks about “the art of the deal” couldn’t resist trying to lay claim to a titanic treasure.

With all of the bad things happening in the world these days, it would be nice to turn our eyes skyward.  I wouldn’t mind a little greed for $10,000 quadrillion if that’s what it takes to motivate us to get back into space to stay.

Into Saturn’s Rings

378033main_pia07873_fullYesterday, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft began the final stage of its mission — a series of maneuvers that will give the probe a close-up look at the rings of Saturn.

First launched in 1997, Cassini has been knocking around the outer reaches of the solar system for years, exploring Saturn and its moons, and it has made some interesting discoveries.  Cassini’s foray into Saturn’s rings will be its grand finale.  The spacecraft will dive into the gap between Saturn and its rings, loop around the planet’s poles, and take a closer look at Saturn’s idiosyncratic features and study the gas and dust particles that make up the rings.

The mission then will close with Cassini flying close to the planet’s surface and ultimately plummeting into Saturn’s atmosphere in a final suicidal act.  By then, Cassini will be out of fuel, and scientists don’t want to take the chance that the spacecraft could somehow crash into one of Saturn’s moons — moons that might be habitable — so Cassini will be intentionally steered into the planet to go out in a blaze of glory.

Saturn’s rings were first seen by humans in 1610, when Galileo Galilei turned his telescope to the night sky, and they have been the object of wonder and fascination ever since.  The final stages of Cassini’s two-decade mission will give us more information about the rings than we have ever had before.  And it may answer some nagging questions, like whether the rings are the same age as the planet itself, or were they formed later?  And are there small moons embedded in the rings that might explain their shape and configuration?

NASA’s unmanned space exploration program should be the source of pride to all Americans.  Through countless missions to the inner and out solar system, it has added exposed our planetary neighborhood as a constantly surprising place, with potential sources of water, rich mineral deposits, and places that might conceivably harbor other forms of life.  The Cassini mission is just the latest chapter in an ever-encouraging tale that shows that the human impulse to explore and discover still runs strong.


Aboard the NASA probe Juno, currently speeding toward the planet Jupiter, are three special Lego figures.  Representing Juno, Jupiter, and Galileo Galilei, these Legos are made of aluminum, the same material as the spacecraft itself.  NASA came up with the idea of having the Lego figures ride along to get kids interested in the mission, and the folks at Lego, who are big on education, gladly went along with the idea.

But here’s the key thing:  when the Juno mission is over, the Juno will fly into Jupiter itself, where it and its Lego passengers will be consumed by fire.

lego_color_bricksHah!  Take that, you Lego bastards!  Burn, baby, burn!

Admittedly, these special aluminum Legos have done nothing to me to deserve being consigned to fiery death in the poisonous atmosphere of a faraway gas giant.  But I say that it is a fitting end nevertheless.

I well remember the days when gaily colored Legos coated the carpets of our homes, when you couldn’t walk a few barefoot steps in the darkened early morning hours without painfully encountering the sharp edges of a stray Lego block, and when elaborate Lego kingdoms and cities and spaceports dotted the environs as semi-permanent parts of the Webner family household.

I remember when trying to get the kids to pick up the legions of Legos was a fun daily parenting challenge.  I recall the back-breaking chore of picking up the tiny individual bricks and figures and special accessories, and the distinctive clunking, plastic-on-plastic sound that the Legos made as you tossed them, one by one, back into the plastic tubs that they called home.  At one point, there were likely thousands of Legos under our roof, lurking under our furniture and nestled in the cushions of our sofas and chairs, ready to be sat on by an unwary grandparents.

So yes, I remember the Lego days.  Burn them, I say.  Burn them all!

Still Astronaut Wannabes

This year, NASA set a new record for the number of applicants to its astronaut program.  18,300 people applied to join NASA’s 2017 astronaut class.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of those hopefuls will be disappointed, because NASA expects to actually select only between 8 and 14 astronauts.

When I was a kid growing up in the ’60s, every kid wanted to grow up to be an astronaut.  Of course we did!  Every time there was a rocket launch we trooped into the school auditorium to watch it, and when the rocket cleared the launchpad we cheered in support of those brave men riding in the capsule at the very tip of that pillar of flame.  In my third grade class our science project involved a life-size mock up of the Gemini capsule, covered in aluminum foil, that sat in one corner of the classroom.  From watching Walter Cronkite on TV, we knew all of the steps in the launching and recovery processes.

worldmostexpensivesuit-americanastronautcostumeSo obviously we dreamed of one day being astronauts.  Astronauts were celebrities.  Astronauts were cool — like the Beatles, except clean-cut.  Astronauts were the future.  Astronauts were leading the great national effort for America to win the “space race,” and they got to go to the White House and meet the President, too.

The days of intense national interest in rocket launches and sending a man to the moon are long behind us.  We don’t even have a space shuttle program anymore, and space flight opportunities are limited to occasional trips to the International Space Station.  But NASA is hopeful that a new era in space flight is just around the corner.  It is talking about sending a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, private companies are increasingly getting into the space business, and the movie The Martian was a big hit that made astronauts world-wide heroes again.  Maybe the manned space program will once again come to the forefront.

I think it says something positive that more than 18,000 people applied for the astronaut program.  People still want to be part of a great effort, still want to move the frontiers forward, still want to explore.  In short, they still want to be astronauts.  Why not?  Heck, I still think it would be cool to be an astronaut.


100 Million Times Faster

Recently I tried to read an article about huge advances in computer technology that appear to be just over the horizon.

I say “tried,” because the article includes sentences like this one:  “Quantum annealing (QA) has been proposed as a quantum enhanced optimization heuristic exploiting tunneling.”  I recognize each of those words as being English, and capable of being understood on a word-by-word basis — but put them all together and my conscious mind explodes.  Rather than grasping the intended, core meaning, my brain diverts into cul-de-sacs like:  “Hey, shouldn’t there be a verb somewhere near the end of that sentence?”
black-screen-spinning-wheel-on-bootBut the key concept from the article is that a new form of computer design called a quantum annealer, that a joint project between Google and NASA is experimenting with, is proving to be as much as 100 million times faster at solving difficult, multi-variable problems than the “classical” computer design.  The article cautions that there are still lots of technological hurdles and challenges to be addressed before the quantum annealing approach can be turned into practical technology, but the test results are enormously promising.

It’s not hard to imagine what such a dramatically enhanced and powerful computer could accomplish for an entity like NASA, in calculating the trajectories needed to dodge asteroids, skirt gravitational fields, and safely land spacecraft on alien surfaces.  You could also see how new computers with such tremendously accelerated raw processing power could be used by governments — in decrypting encoded messages, for example — or by hackers looking to crack passwords.  And, of course, such advancements typically are followed by great leaps forward in miniaturization and new applications that weren’t even considered before the technology came on line.  Futurists and dreamers will have a field day considering how faster processing power could be used, for example, in diagnostic medical equipment or implants.

What would having a computer that processes 100 million times faster mean for the rest of us?  We’ll still be moving at standard human mental and physical speeds, of course, unless the new technology results in a trend toward creation of speeded-up cyborgs.  Nevertheless, there is one great promise for all PC users arising from development of inconceivably faster quantum annealing computers:  no more frustrated staring at the computer screen, watching the annoying spinning circle of death!

More Of Earth’s Curious Ancient Mysteries

Scientists recently discovered the existence of hundreds of curious and colossal earthwork formations in Kazakhstan.  The Steppe Geoglyph formations, which include geometric patterns and a kind of curlicue form of swastika, are visible only from high in the air.

As the New York Times reports, scientists estimate that the earliest of the mound formations was built approximately 8,000 years ago.  They had long since been forgotten and were discovered only when a Kazakh amateur archaologist started using Google Earth images to search for pyramids in Kazakhstan.  He didn’t find any evidence of pyramids in his home territory, but he did notice the huge, sprawling patterns that appeared.  After he announced his findings, NASA and other scientists got involved, began photographing the formations from satellites and analyzing their contents, and the mystery only deepened.

No one knows who built the earthworks, or their purpose.  They apparently aren’t burial mounds.  One scientist speculates that the geometric shapes were built to track the path of the rising sun.  But that explanation doesn’t account for the odd, curlicue swastika shape — which looks like the sort of insignia you might see on a uniform or a flag — nor does it gibe with what we know about the nomadic tribes that lived in the area at the time the formations apparently were built.  Why would nomads stop for the period of time needed to build such enormous formations, only to leave again?

I’ve never been much of a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t watch TV shows or read books about “ancient astronauts” or lost Atlantis or theories about the alien genesis of the Sphinx or the pyramids or Stonehenge or the Nazca Lines in Peru.  But there’s obviously a lot we don’t know about the Earth and human history in the period before the early Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations developed.  Perhaps there is a rational explanation for all of these formations that were visible only from the air, and investigation will uncover a period of human culture that we aren’t currently aware of that helps to make sense of it all. And if there was a previously unsuspected, higher form of early human civilization that somehow disappeared, we might be able to learn something useful from its downfall.

Or, perhaps, there is another explanation.  The possibilities are intriguing.

One other point.  If you’ve got some spare time, you might decide to spend it searching Google Earth images of the terrain in your neck of the woods.  You never know what you might find.

Fantastic Faraway Flyby

If you’re near a TV set or computer tonight, you might want to check out Pluto.  The NASA spacecraft New Horizons will be zooming by and sending back photographs and data that will give us our first good look at the “dwarf planet” at the edge of our solar system.

The New Horizons effort is pretty cool.  Nine years ago the spacecraft, which is about the size of a piano, was launched, and since then it has traveled 2.9 billion miles on its journey.  Today New Horizons is closing in on Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, traveling at a rate of almost 31,000 miles per hour, snapping pictures and using its instruments to gather other data.  Already it has taken the first clear picture of Pluto and Charon, with a focus vastly superior to the indistinct blobs produced by the Hubble space telescope.  Eventually it will get to within 7,600 miles of Pluto’s surface.

With this Pluto flyby, human spacecraft have now visited every planet in our solar system.  We should celebrate that, and also celebrate this:  the New Horizons project is one of the most technologically challenging efforts NASA has ever undertaken.  The spacecraft won’t be able to orbit Pluto, it will approach it edge on and then fly by.  That means that New Horizons, which is traveling on an automated control path, has to hit a “keyhole” in space that’s about 60 miles by 90 miles — a remarkably precise target for a probe that is billions of miles away.  If it misses, we’ll just get pictures of empty space.

Starting at about 8 p.m. tonight, engineering data will tell us whether New Horizon threaded the needle.  You can access the NASA live feed here.

Some days, science and technology can be pretty awesome.  This is one of those days.

White World

It has been brutally cold here in Columbus, with several below-zero days.  Yesterday we got a lot of snow and the temperature almost hit 32 — but we didn’t quite make it, and now the mercury is plunging down again and more frigid weather is in the forecast.

I’m not complaining; other parts of the country have had it worse than us.  In fact, there is cold, snowy weather throughout the heartland of America.  A photo taken of middle America by NASA’s Terra satellite shows the wide snow belt, with the Buckeye State right smack dab in the middle.  It makes me shiver just to look at it.

Hey, it’s winter — what did you expect?