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.

 

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The “New Space” Race

Yesterday, the Indian mission to Mars, called Mangalyaan, fired rockets that caused it to leave Earth orbit and begin a voyage that will see it rendezvous with Mars in September, 2014.  This morning China launched its first moon rover, with a rocket carrying the “Jade Rabbit” on a mission to explore the lunar surface.

India and China are competitors in a new space race.  They are vying to join the United States, Russia, and Europe in showing the scientific and engineering capability to conduct complicated space missions and enhance their international prestige as a result.

In the meantime, the focus of American space efforts have changed.  Although NASA continues to produce amazing unmanned space exploration missions, with the end of the shuttle program the United States government is temporarily out of the business of launching humans into space.  As the Washington Post has recently reported, the torch of manned space flight is being picked up by a number of private companies that are taking a different, more entrepreneurial approach.  Many of the companies are located in the Mojave desert — a location familiar to anyone who has read The Right Stuff and knows the history of the Mercury space program.  The companies feature imaginative business models that forecast how space flight and exploration can become a profitable venture.

As the Indian and Chinese missions show, there will always be a role for government in space.  Many of us regret that the federal government didn’t ignore the naysayers and move much more aggressively into space after the triumphs of the Apollo program with the building of a large, functioning space station, lunar bases, and other efforts.  But the government didn’t do so.  Now those of us who dream of space exploration should be pleased that private enterprise sees opportunities in the heavens.  The history of America has shown that capitalism can work wonders, and competition among companies can spur extraordinary technological advances.  If the same visionary leadership and engineering savvy that produced our personal computer and smartphone revolution can be brought to bear on the commercial development of space, who can say what opportunities might be realized?

Keep your eye on the high desert.  When we start reading more about readily available “space tourism” flights or mining efforts in the asteroid belt, we’ll know that the future envisioned in countless science fiction novels has moved a little bit closer.

Gravity

Gravity is one of those films where you are acutely aware of all of the components of moviemaking:  cinematography, sound, special effects, acting, props.  All play key roles in making this space thriller a real gut-punch of a movie that sticks with you.

The story line is simple.  Astronauts are working on equipment in space when disaster strikes, and they have to figure out what to do.  They’re cut off from the world and alone in an impossibly hostile environment.  And that’s where all of the elements of the cinema arts come in.  In these days of blasting soundtracks, how many movies feature absolute silence, or only the sounds of panicky breathing, to help tell the story?  In these days of explosions and superhero epics, how many films require you to watch tiny things, like ice crystals forming on a space helmet?

The zero-gravity environment of space is a perfect setting for jaw-dropping technical wizardry, and Gravity doesn’t disappoint.  The weightlessness special effects looked spot on and, in the case of a tear forming into a tiny drop of water and floating toward the camera, moved the story forward.  Equally impressive was the camera positioning and sets that gave a true sense of the claustrophobic nature of spacecraft and their tininess against the vastness of the universe.

George Clooney is perfectly cast as the wisecracking veteran who falls back on years of astronaut training to develop a game plan on how to respond to the crisis.  Sandra Bullock is a revelation as the first-time space voyager who must draw upon the will to live as she faces challenge after challenge.   Bullock shows an emotional range I didn’t think she had.  And while the physics of their space adventure may be sketchy, thanks to the actors the human story rings true.

Gravity is well worth the price of a ticket.  Just be sure to budget time afterward when you can talk about “how did they do that?”

Chatting Up Astro Boy

The Japanese have come up with a solution for astronaut loneliness:  they’ve designed a talking robot that was sent up into space yesterday to serve as a companion for the Japanese astronaut who will be commanding the International Space Station later this year.  The robot, called Kirobo, is part of a study of how machines can interact emotionally with humans who are isolated.

Kirobo is 13 inches tall, is capable of various movements, and was modeled on the cartoon character Astro Boy.  Kirobo is programmed to communicate in Japanese and to recognize the face of astronaut Kochi Wakata, so Kirobo can greet Wakata when they meet up at the International Space Station.  The robot will record all of his conversations with Wakata and also may serve as a conduit for messages from the control room.  Kirobo’s designer says he hopes the robot will serve as a kind of mediator between human and machine.

The Japanese are constantly breaking new ground in robotics, and Kirobo is just the latest development.  Still, I wonder about the underlying concept.  Our technology has progressed to the point where we routinely communicate with machines, through keyboards and voice commands, but an emotional connection just doesn’t happen. No one considers Siri their BFF.

Will a lonely astronaut, fresh from a hard day’s work on the ISS, really want to have a deep conversation with a doll-like invention that looks like Astro Boy?  Would Mission Control be more concerned if the astronaut didn’t connect emotionally with Kirobo — or if he did?  Is talking to a tiny machine really that much emotionally healthier than talking to yourself?

Alpha Centauri’s Earth-Sized Planet

Science continues to achieve amazing advances in our ability to detect, measure, and analyze planets orbiting stars far outside our solar system.

So far, scientists have discovered and confirmed the existence of more than 800 planets.  Most of the planets, however, are huge gas giants, like Jupiter or Saturn in our solar system.  The latest advance in detection capabilities came this week, when scientists announced that they have detected the lightest planet to orbit a Sun-like star — and the star just happens to be Alpha Centauri, a weird, triple-star system that is the Sun’s nearest galactic neighbor.

Alpha Centauri, for those who fell asleep during astronomy class, is a mere 4.3 light years away.  Of course, one light year is 6 trillion (6,000,000,000,000) miles away, but who’s counting?  The planet scientists have detected is about the mass of our good Earth.

Before you start worrying that little green men might appear on your doorstep tonight, take a deep breath:  the Earth-sized planet is closer to Alpha Centauri B than Mercury is to the Sun, so it’s probably not conducive to life.  Still, the discovery is remarkable.  In the not too distant future, scientists will use this detection technology to find a planet about the size and mass of Earth, orbiting a star a lot like Sol, at a distance that would suggest that it is likely to be temperate.  What will that mean?  My guess is that we will train every radio telescope and sensory device we have in the direction of that planet, listen as hard as we can, and hope.

 

Enter The Dragon

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has successfully rendevoused with the International Space Station and has been snagged by the space station’s robot arm.

The Dragon capsule therefore becomes the first privately owned space vehicle to reach the ISS.  This morning the astronauts on the space station opened the capsule and entered it, conducted a quick inspection and found no sign of any problems with the interior, and indeed reported that the capsule had that familiar “new car smell.”  So far, SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and its Dragon capsule have performed flawlessly — reaching orbit, conducting the maneuvering tests that showed that the capsule could safely be brought near the ISS, and then ultimately delivering the payload.

We now have a private company with the technology and human know-how to put a vehicle into space and haul cargo to an orbiting destination.  The Dragon’s successful delivery is a huge step forward toward increased exploration and development of space, in an era where commercial entities will bear an increasingly significant part of the cost — and, not incidentally, will look to reap profit from their investments.  With SpaceX leading the way, other companies will not be far behind.

A Glimpse Of The Future Of Space

Our governments are running out of money.  Programs like space exploration — which don’t pander to particular interest groups and aren’t viewed as “essential” — are easy targets for budget cutters.  That means that, if we are to advance in space, commercial entities motivated by profits will have to carry the ball forward.

Today saw a big step in that direction.  A company called SpaceX launched its own Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral.  The rocket is carrying a SpaceX Dragon capsule filled with supplies for the International Space Station.  Because this is the first flight, the supplies are not essential, and the Dragon capsule will need to show its reliability and maneuverability before it will be allowed to get near the ISS.  If it passes those tests, however, it will move close to the space station, be snatched from space by a robot arm, and then emptied of its cargo.  If the mission is a success, it will be the first of many such deliveries.  With the space shuttle program ended, NASA will need to rely on private companies to deliver the goods.

I’m sure there will be some who moan about the intrusion of money-grubbing corporations into the pristine realm of space, but the fact is that capitalism is already there, in the form of countless communications satellites.  If space is to be fully explored, profit-seeking risk-takers will need to take the lead.  We should all celebrate SpaceX’s achievement and hope for a successful venture that encourages other companies to get into the business of space.