NASA Misses Its Own Historic Moment

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1:30 a.m. PDT.   I’m sitting in my living room watching NASA-TV in the middle of the night to see the space shuttle Atlantis’ final landing, and with it, the end of the STS program. But the most important factor in Atlantis last touchdown is it also signals the end of the United States’ manned spaced program. 

I have a few opinions to express over this turn of events.

On a practical note, I’m wondering why NASA decided to end this historic flight in darkness, when the vast majority of Americans are still in bed (leaving only a handful of hardcore flight watchers willing to sacrifice sleep to say we were there). It gives one pause to ponder why NASA decided it was better to sneak Atlantis back down earth under cover of the pre-dawn gloom rather than plan a final landing with a huge celebration to tout the value and successes of putting humans into space?  It is my studied opinion NASA has, once again, been its own worst enemy with regard to publicizing its accomplishments.

My other thought sitting here is having the full awareness that we as a country have ceded our predominance in human flight, a fact that the Russians, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and European space agencies can only consider an enormous gift to their programs. They will undoubedtly continue to accelerate their efforts to exploit the infinite and rich discoveries that await those first humans who have the vision and courage to push past the bonds of low earth orbit. 

It deeply grieves me to know in my lifetime, I witnessed both the beginning and the end of my country’s foray into that great human endeavor to explore above the sky and beyond the finite limits of our oceaned world. 

But my grief is tinged with frustration, because it didn’t have to end this way. In fact, it shouldn’t be ending at all!

Hail Endeavour and Her Crew!

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At this moment I’m sitting in my living room watching the coverage of the final launch of Endeavour.  What a magnificent craft she is!  I salute her and all those brave souls who have entrusted her to carry them to the threshold of the universe. God speed, Endeavour!

Space Shuttle Endeavour Landing with Drogue Chute Deployed. Photo: Nasa.gov

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The Final Launch of the Orbiter Endeavour

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Endeavour in Her Element...And Hard at Work. Photo: JPL/NASA

And here is a nice photo of the replica of the HMS Bark Endeavour, Captain Cook’s ship under full sail.  It looks large because of the tall masts and the sails, but in reality, the original was 106 ft (32 m).  By way of comparison, Orbiter Endeavour is 122 ft/37 m long (not counting the main external tank, which is 154 ft/47 m).  A number of years ago I had the chance to tour the replica of the HMS Endeavour.  It is a wonderful ship and a fascinating look at history and brings home how difficult the crew’s life was day after day.  No real amenities.  No mission control, and years at sea to circumnavigate the earth instead of 90 minutes.

The HMS Bark Endeavour, Full Size Sailing Replica. Photo Courtesy: thevilloz.com

Correction Update: Much to my embarrassment in my original post, I misspelled “Endeavour.”

In Memoriam: Phoenix Lander, Discoverer of Water on Mars

Phoenix Mars Lander. Artist's Conception. Image: LibraryTechie.com

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The Tool that Made History:

The Robotic Arm (RA) is 2.35 meters (just under 8 ft) long with an elbow joint in the middle, allowing the arm to trench about 0.5m (1.6ft) below the martian surface, deep enough to where scientists believe the water-ice soil interface lies. At the end of the RA is a scoop for digging and acquiring loose soil. On the bottom side of scoop is a scraping blade for scraping hard icy soil and protruding from the backside of the scoop is a circular rasp used for acquiring icy-soil samples by pulverizing the icy soil and ejecting it into the back of the scoop for delivery to TEGA. Citation: http://phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu/science_ra.php:

Phoenix Mars Lander Robotic Arm. Photo: JPL/NASA

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Trenches with Proof of Water Ice:

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Phoenix Lander Images--Proof of Disappearing Water Ice. Photo: JPL/NASA

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Mission’s End: Mars Has Given Up its Most Precious Secret…To Date:

The JPL Press Release, 24 May 2010: PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has ended operations after repeated attempts to contact the spacecraft were unsuccessful. A new image transmitted by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows signs of severe ice damage to the lander’s solar panels.

“The Phoenix spacecraft succeeded in its investigations and exceeded its planned lifetime,” said Fuk Li, manager of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Although its work is finished, analysis of information from Phoenix’s science activities will continue for some time to come.”

Last week, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter flew over the Phoenix landing site 61 times during a final attempt to communicate with the lander. No transmission from the lander was detected. Phoenix also did not communicate during 150 flights in three earlier listening campaigns this year.

Phoenix Mars Lander. Photo from Orbit Confirming Irreparable Damage to the Lander. Photo: JPL/NASA

Earth-based research continues on discoveries Phoenix made during summer conditions at the far-northern site where it landed May 25, 2008. The solar-powered lander completed its three-month mission and kept working until sunlight waned two months later.

Phoenix was not designed to survive the dark, cold, icy winter. However, the slim possibility Phoenix survived could not be eliminated without listening for the lander after abundant sunshine returned.

An image of Phoenix taken this month by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggests the lander no longer casts shadows the way it did during its working lifetime.

“Before and after images are dramatically different,” said Michael Mellon of the University of Colorado in Boulder, a science team member for both Phoenix and HiRISE. “The lander looks smaller, and only a portion of the difference can be explained by accumulation of dust on the lander, which makes its surfaces less distinguishable from surrounding ground.”

Apparent changes in the shadows cast by the lander are consistent with predictions of how Phoenix could be damaged by harsh winter conditions. It was anticipated that the weight of a carbon-dioxide ice buildup could bend or break the lander’s solar panels. Mellon calculated hundreds of pounds of ice probably coated the lander in mid-winter.

During its mission, Phoenix confirmed and examined patches of the widespread deposits of underground water ice detected by Odyssey and identified a mineral called calcium carbonate that suggested occasional presence of thawed water. The lander also found soil chemistry with significant implications for life and observed falling snow. The mission’s biggest surprise was the discovery of perchlorate, an oxidizing chemical on Earth that is food for some microbes and potentially toxic for others.

Phoenix Mars Lander. Trench Shovel Photo From Phoenix Onboard Camera. Photo: JPL/NASA

“We found that the soil above the ice can act like a sponge, with perchlorate scavenging water from the atmosphere and holding on to it,” said Peter Smith, Phoenix principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “You can have a thin film layer of water capable of being a habitable environment. A micro-world at the scale of grains of soil — that’s where the action is.”

The perchlorate results are shaping subsequent astrobiology research, as scientists investigate the implications of its antifreeze properties and potential use as an energy source by microbes. Discovery of the ice in the uppermost soil by Odyssey pointed the way for Phoenix. More recently, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected numerous ice deposits in middle latitudes at greater depth using radar and exposed on the surface by fresh impact craters.

“Ice-rich environments are an even bigger part of the planet than we thought,” Smith said. “Somewhere in that vast region there are going to be places that are more habitable than others.”

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Phoenix Mars Lander Mission Patch. Image: UAriz/CSA/JPL/NASA

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We now wait with some impatience for the next mission to cross the great void that separates us from this sister world in hope that from an era of warmer eons, liquid water, and powered by the dynamo of the Sun’s solar engine, that the potential for life was realized.  Well done to the thousands whose individual efforts crafted this small but amazing space-faring robot, flung from our own watered world to descend onto Ares’ dry and dusty surface, scraping its frozen crust to reveal the most precious element of life as we know it: plain old frozen water.

Μπράβο πουλί του πάγου και φωτιάς

A Tale of Two Planets

"No one would have believed..." Photo: JPL/NASA

 

A Tale of Two Stories

My dear readers might expect the opening lines of a post bearing the title with such an obvious play on the most-published original English story in the world to follow the path of Dickens’ immortal words.  In this case, however, I ask your indulgence to open with the words of another world-famous piece of literature, known for its dramatic presentation, but far fewer have ever read its introductory sentence:   

NO one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.   

These words written in 1898 by the equally immortal English author, H.G. Wells, open his universally known War of the Worlds. I have to admit, with some embarrassment, that like many, if not most contemporary Americans, I know Wells’ story through its radio and cinematic productions, but have never read the book.  I had to look up a copy of the text on-line, because unlike Dickens’ opening salvo in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”, Wells opens his   

War of the Worlds, 1st Edition, 1898. Image: Public Domain

 

at a much more subtle and cerebral level, “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched…”  Watched by whom?  Martians: perhaps the first modern depiction of alien life prescient of the field of astrobiology.  Amazingly, many would have believed it; millions did.  Mars was the planet of fanciful speculation, with good reason.  But I will return to that later.  Nevertheless, the universe was still a relatively small and cozy place.  Science, as we know it today, was a toddler awkwardly running to and fro, counting and building things.   

Yet a revolution was brewing, pushed by industry through the 1700s and 1800s, astonishing breakthroughs on how to build things big, how to make an inconceivable jump from the strength and power of humans and beasts to the harnessing of natural elements into machines with the power of a thousand beasts and ten thousand laborers.  That however was prelude, for another force was being created and directed, a force that would not only create power but carry information.   

Though this revolution grew, another vortex formed like a gathering tropical storm, from an unexpected province, not over the consequences of the growing industries that were rapidly building on each step of the toddling sciences, but from the increasing rotation of the storm creating winds and havoc–its target–the very ground and the life that lived upon it:  Geology.  Biology.  Evolution.  The age of the earth.  The origin of life.  Bones, now stone, dug from the ground.  Ocean shells on mountain peaks.  That confluence of the science of the human mind and the science of the divine mind created a cyclone that like the Great Red spot on far distant Jupiter’s gaseous oceanic atmosphere, has now raged for over a century and a half.   

As the turmoil over the origin of the world and life raged across the world, something much more quiet and solitary was happening after dark.  For 300 years, since a Dutch oculist placed two pieces of curved glass into a tube and realized it could magnify the image at a distance, and soon after an upstart Italian mathematics professor pointed it at the sky, a select group of men, (almost always supported by women, from a sister who was devoted to her brother’s work, to a room filled with highly educated astronomers, but denied access to the telescopes even as these instruments were growing in sophistication), began counting what they saw in the sky.  What they saw amazed them.  Very slowly it began to dawn upon them that these views of the heavens were going to change the universe in ways so profound that the debate over evolution or divine creation would pale almost to insignificance.  Now, if they could just figure out why.   

War of the Worlds Title Page, 1st Edition, 1898. Photo: Public Domain

 

In the three decades that followed Wells’ words, Science matured at staggering rate, accomplishing more in those thirty years than perhaps had been achieved in the previous thirty centuries.  It is difficult to describe in words the sheer magnitude of the transformation of reality itself.  The universe was not small, it was huge beyond comprehension.  It was not young but old, so old that nothing in the cherished scriptures of three of the world’s greatest religions gave the slightest hint of that age.  And that included an ancient age of the very Earth itself.   

That was only the beginning of the stunning revelations.  As the discoveries of science accelerated through the Twentieth Century, Edwin Hubble in 1929 proved the Milky Way galaxy was but one island universe among, not thousands, but billions, and they were not suspended motionless in the cosmic void, but were moving, and moving at speeds unimaginable previously to any human in history.  Away from each other. Which led to only one other even more stunning conclusion: There had been a beginning.  But what that beginning looked like was so close to being beyond human comprehension that nearly a century later, millions of people still cannot bring themselves to accept it.   

It would make no difference though to those who stepped into the staggering reality of the universe.  Within that one stupendous century powered flight was invented and human technology leapfrogged from aircraft barely able to climb into the air, to a machine of such great power and thrust, that humans broke the gravitational bonds of Earth.  A scant 40 years after Hubble discovered the true nature of the universe, two humans would step upon the surface of Earth’s moon.   

By the end of the 20th Century, these two stories, one by Dickens and the other by H.G. Wells still command the literary attention of the world.  At the same time, the two stories of reality, one guided by a devotion to a divinely inspired word, and the other guided by an inspired effort of humans to describe in words what they observed still have not found a way to comfortable accommodate each other, although growing numbers are searching for that integrative spark of the fusion of the two.  It is among these seekers that the tale of two planets becomes a revelatory event, a new genesis, indisputable in its truth and its impact.   

A Tale of Two Planets

Earth and Mars to Scale. Photo: JPL/NASA

 

When H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in 1898, the photos above did not, could not, exist.  What Wells had at his disposal were maps such as this drawing by the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877:   

Mars Map by Schiaparelli, 1877. One of the first attempts to map the Martian surface. Originally published in "Meyers Konversations-Lexikon (German encyclopaedia), 1888." Photo: Public Domain

 

A century later, through the combined efforts of NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) satellites orbiting the Red Planet, using sophisticated imaging equipment, the true topography of Mars has been revealed:   

Mars Composite Topography Map of the Surface. Photo: JPL/NASA/ESA

 

The story, however, is a tale of two planets.  In similar fashion, Earth-orbiting satellites have also mapped the topography of our own blue planet:   

Earth Composite Topographic Map. Image: GFSC/NASA

 

One of the most interesting facts about Mars and Earth is that Mars has almost the same amount of land area as Earth.  The difference is that Earth’s oceans cover about 71% of the planet.  Land accounts for 148.94 million square kilometers  on Earth.  Mars has 144.80 square kilometers of land.  Where, then is the water?  That’s a question that has been relentlessly pursued since, well, Schiaparelli labeled surface details on his map “canale”, which was inaccurately translated into English as “canals” rather than “channels.”  Earth-based telescopes could see that the north and south poles of the planet had what appeared to be ice-caps, which grew and shrunk with the seasons (which are about twice as long as Earth’s due to Mar’s orbit being about 80 million km on average farther from the Sun).  But was it enough to have once given Mars vital oceans?  Those hopes were dashed (though prematurely) when in 1964 NASA’s Mariner 4, the first space probe to make it to Mars sent back pictures of a dry, dead, world.  Still, the prospect of a once wetter Mars remained tantalizing.  Over the course of the next half century as more robotic missions were flung toward this enigmatic world, the possibility of water, in great quantities continued to lurk just under the surface.   

The breakthrough finally came in the first decade of the 21st Century, as ever-increasingly sophisticated space probes, some in orbit, some as landers, photographed, radar-probed, scratched the soil, traversed the surface testing thousands of samples of rock and soil.  The chemical hints of water were everywhere, but the proof seemingly nowhere.  Schiaparelli’s channels were there, as were volcanoes of a height that stunned planetary scientists.  Mars bears the scar of the largest canyon known in the solar system, Valles Marineris, as wide as the continental United States, deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon on a scale so massive as to make the great rift in the Earth look like a scratch by comparison.  Ice on the poles was confirmed, too, although the amount of carbon dioxide ice “dry ice” mixed with the water is substantial.  Still, the volume of water seemed too small, even accounting for evaporation and sublimation (liquid turning from ice to gas without going through a fluid state).   

Mars: Valles Marineris with U.S. Map Overlaid. Photo: NASA

 

In 2008, JPL/NASA/University of Arizona in partnership with multiple countries and international companies successfully landed Phoenix at 68.2° North.  Although it was not designed to traverse the martian surface like the wildly successful rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, it had a shovel to scrape through the soil.  On July 31, 2008, in a trench dug no deeper than a child might dig in the sand on a beach, images from Phoenix proved, once and for all that Mars had water:   

Evaporating Ice on Mars, Phoenix Lander, 31 July 2008. Photo: JPL/NASA/Univ of Arizona

 

Ice exposed in the trench on Sol 20 (the designation of a day on Mars), had evaporated/sublimated away on Sol 24.  What if the Red Planet had once been the second Blue Planet?   

Mars with Oceans Current Topography. Image: MOLA & NASA/JPL/MSSS

 

And all this brings us to this photo of an unassuming-looking rock.  Looks, however can be deceiving, for this rock is a meteorite, and it is from all places, Mars.   

ALH84001,0. A Meteorite from Mars. Discovered: Antarctica, 1984, Wt: 1930.9g, Photo: JSC/NASA.

 

Although meteorites confirmed from Mars are extremely rare (only 12 have been verified), the most astonishing possibility as slices of three of these extraterrestrial rocks were subjected to electron microscopy, structures were present that appeared remarkably like microfossils found in earth rocks.   

Possible Fossilized Nanofossil from ALH84001. Photo: NASA

 

And this one from the Nakhla, Egypt Martian meteorite:   

Complex biomorphs appear on another Nakhla chip shown in this scanning electron microscope (SEM) frame. This image contains three basic forms: Broad smooth knife-shaped features, elongated features with rounded endcaps and transverse compartments or dividers, and donut shaped small features, each about 1 micrometer in diameter. One possibility is the donut-shaped features are derived from the compartments present in the elongated features (Wikipedia):   

Mars Meteorite, Nakhla Egypt, Possible Nanolife Markings. SEM Image: David McKay/NASA

 

And, finally, this electron microscope image also from the Nakhla Martian meteorite of a possible nanofossil:   

Martian Meteorite Nakhla, Possible Nanolife Fossil Image. SEM Image: David McKay/NASA

 

Does it not seem oddly paradoxical to recollect H.G. Wells’ opening sentence when he wrote,   

…perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.   

We, the humans of Earth are examining the rocks of Mars, scrutinsing them for “transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water,” even if that drop of water existed billions of years ago.  We know we have found Mars’ water.  Now, are these structures the remnants of life when Mars was the second blue planet?  If that turns out to be the case, the indisputable fact that life existed on both planets, the tale of two planets will require not a new chapter, but whole new book.  For those who cling to the accounts of the Divine Word as given to a one and only act of creation, from which Homo sapiens sapiens is the capstone of the cosmic plan, they will have to grapple, as never before–regardless of the tirades of the past 150 years–with the realization that the Creator they worship is more clever and speaks with words never heard by human ears, not only on our planetary sibling, but throughout a Universe too large to comprehend, but begging us to do so, nonetheless!   

First Photo of Earth Taken from Mars' Surface by Spirit Rover. Photo: NASA

 

This is the first image ever taken of Earth from the surface of a planet beyond the Moon. It was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit one hour before sunrise on the 63rd martian day, or sol, of its mission. The image is a mosaic of images taken by the rover’s navigation camera showing a broad view of the sky, and an image taken by the rover’s panoramic camera of Earth. The contrast in the panoramic camera image was increased two times to make Earth easier to see.   

The inset shows a combination of four panoramic camera images zoomed in on Earth. The arrow points to Earth. Earth was too faint to be detected in images taken with the panoramic camera’s color filters. Source: NASA.   

Little did H.G. Wells ever imagine that the first Martian to look at Earth would be through robotic eyes sent from Earth.   

   

2010–The Year We Learn That Life Beyond Earth Exists?

Dr. David S. McKay, Astrobiologist. Photo: NASA

There’s a buzz out there amongst astrobiologists that before this year is out, Dr. David McKay and his research team are going to announce that they have definitively identified fossilized organisms in meteorites from Mars that have been collected on earth.

Martian microorganisms.  Martians.  Real Martians.  That bubble of perception that life exists only here on Earth will have been burst.

The next step, of course, will be to design Mars missions to determine if any of those organisms have survived Mars’ harsh and extreme history in an environment in which only extremophiles (as we now know flourish on Earth) could survive.

That those first missions will be robotic is certain.  The opportunity that a human will ever reach down and pick up a rock from the surface of Mars that potentially carries evidence of life living or fossilized in this century, at least under the sponsorship of NASA, appears increasingly doubtful in the current political and geo-centric environment.

Although we may be witness to the extinction of the hominid drive to discover the undiscovered, life confirmed beyond the delicate bubble of rock, water and air from which we were formed, literally changes the very quantumization of life itself.  It is a change that cannot be undone. From the present into the future, what it means to be living, what it means to be human will be different.  For life, as we’ve always known it, no longer requires Earth.

Martian Metorite NAKHLA 2058. Possible Fossilized Life. Microscopy Photo: NASA

There is more, however.  All technical considerations aside, if and when this announcement comes, the theological implications, as well as our geo-centric Christology, will no longer be the topic of idle speculation but confront us with a reality that demands a response to the world.

Since 1543, when Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the

Folio Pages Showing the Copernicus' Heliocentric Model. De Revolutionbus, 1543. Photo Courtesy fotosearch.com

Celestial Spheres), we have been attempting to unify our Christology with our Cosmology.  The results have been, in my opinion, at best, mixed.

Parable of the Sower, from the Plenarium or the Evangelical Book of the Year, 1516. Basel, Switzerland. Photo: Pitts Theology Library, Emory Univ.

The announcement of alien life, even microbial, requires a new conversation with a new set of rules.  It shall be a heady time, indeed.  Ours is the generation that broke the shackles of gravity and set off across the Solar System.  If, too, we are to be ones who confirm that life’s seed has been sown across the expanse of space like the Sower in one of Jesus’ parables, we have much work to do.

Here are three links:

http://spaceflightnow.com/news/n1001/09marslife/

http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2010/01/11/2169791.aspx

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/47114/proof-life-mars-come-year.html

Looking into the stars that seed the night will never be the same. Ever.

Landing the Health Care Reform Bill: It Feels Like Apollo 11 Redux

The voyage of the legislation to create a Health Care Reform Bill has all the

Sen. Harry Reid Launches Health Care Reform in U.S. Senate. Photo credit: C-Span

emotional elements of landing Apollo 11 on the Moon in July 1969.  Health Care reform has been a long, complex mission with an uncertain outcome.  Is it an overstatement to say that landing on the Moon and returning to Earth was an easier and safer endeavor than getting the Health Care Reform Bills passed, conferenced and onto the President’s desk for signature?

At this moment, it seems almost to be the case.

When Neil Armstrong took manual control of the lunar lander to find a safe spot to set down, a thousand different things could have gone wrong.  In fact, alarms were going off in the cockpit.

As the Eagle’s landing radar acquired the surface, several computer error alarms appeared. The first was a code 1202 alarm and even with their extensive training Armstrong or Aldrin were not aware of what this code meant. However, they promptly received word from CAPCOM in Houston that the alarms were not a concern. The 1202 and 1201 alarms were caused by a processing overflow in the lunar module computer. As described by Buzz Aldrin in the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, the overflow condition was caused by his own counter-checklist choice of leaving the docking radar on during the landing process. Aldrin stated that he did so with the objective of facilitating re-docking with the CM should an abort become necessary, not realizing that it would cause the overflow condition.  Source: Wikipedia

Eagle Lunar Lander just seconds after separation, Apollo 11, July 1969, Photo: NASA

It’s one thing to read about it.  As we close this 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Landing, it really is much more satisfying to watch it.  This video is one continuous shot of approximately the final 10 minutes of the descent and landing, viewed from the right window of the LEM.  The audio is quite good, as well.  Watching it still stirs in me that sense of excitement I felt as a 16 year old kid glued to the TV set with my family.

[For a similar, but NASA produced video, click HERE.  This is the final approach, and included is an inset window that tracks the Lander’s progress crater by crater.  It provides a sense of perspective for the approach.]

Regarding the impending passage of the Senate bill and then the conference process, if you tend more toward the pessimistic side, you probably agree with Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic:

If your standard for comparison is your ideal health care reform, then of course this will be disappointing. Like every bill that’s moved through Congress, this one would leave millions uninsured even after full implementation–and leave millions with coverage facing substantial, although generally not crippling, financial burdens. It would introduce some reforms to the delivery system and, according to the official cost estimates, generate budget surpluses over time. But it’s not going to radically turn American health care into a paragon of cost efficiency.

If you tend more to the optimistic side, you probably agree with Paul Krugman of The New York Times:

Let me say that I get especially, um, annoyed at people who say that the plan isn’t really covering the uninsured, it’s just forcing them to buy insurance. That’s missing not just the community rating aspect, but even more important, it’s missing the subsidies. And we’re talking about big stuff: between Medicaid expansion and further support for families above the poverty line, we’re looking at around $200 billion a year a decade from now. Yes, a fraction of that will go to insurance industry profits. But the great bulk will go to making health care affordable.

So how anyone can call a plan to spend $200 billion a year on Americans in need a defeat for progressives is a mystery.

I wish there were a public option in there; I wish there were broader access to the exchanges; I wish the subsidies were even bigger. There’s lots of work to be done, work that may eventually culminate in a true, not simulated, single payer system. But even in this form, we’re looking at something that will make America a more just, more secure nation.

If you are a Republican or Tea Party Advocate, you are most likely hoping and praying the Health Care Reform bill will suffer the fate of the Soviet Luna 15 Lunar Lander Probe that was launched three days before Apollo 11:

Luna 15, launched only three days before the historic Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, was the third Soviet attempt to recover and bring lunar soil back to Earth. The spacecraft was capable of studying circumlunar space, the lunar gravitational field, and the chemical composition of lunar rocks… After completing 86 communications sessions and 52 orbits of the Moon at various inclinations and altitudes it began its descent. Astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin had already set foot on the Moon when Luna 15 fired its main retrorocket engine to initiate descent to the surface at 15:47 UT on 21 July 1969. Unfortunately, transmissions ceased only 4 minutes after deorbit at a calculated altitude of 3 kilometers. The spacecraft impacted the lunar surface on July 21, 1969. The spacecraft had probably crashed onto the side of a mountain.   Source: Wikipedia.

Launched 3 days before Apollo 11, the USSR's unmanned Luna 15 crashed onto the Moon's surface just hours after the Eagle had safely landed with Armstrong & Aldrin on board.

I’ll give House Minority Leader, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) the final word…

Photo courtesy Politico.com & BlueStateDigital.com

No, I think I’ll give this Tea Party protester the final word.  Just like the rest of us loyal and patriotic Amurricans, life without spell-check is worse than…oh, wait, he spelled the word right.  In high school he clearly decided to protest which sections of Mrs. Dewey’s English classes were not patriotic enough, because he was getting this way-too-liberal education paid for through public taxation.  And those unacceptable sections happened to include homonyms and writing complete sentences.  I think his pointy hat needs to be cone not a tri-corner.

A Tea Party Protester: The Epitome of the Well-Educated American. Photo: ImageShack

A Proper Name for a Proper Space Station

NASA and other participating space agencies have decided it’s time to give the International Space Station (ISS) a proper name.  Source: ABC News: I say it’s long overdue.  We humans love to name things.  It is such a deeply innate trait, that as far back in history as we can decipher ancient writings, people, animals, plants and objects are given names.  One clear illustration is in the Book of Genesis: God assigns Adam the task of naming all the things of the earth (Gen 2:19-20).  In fact the importance of this naming is underscored, according to the text, because as God creates the living creatures, He brings them to Adam for naming: “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19, NRSV).

Xin Li, Beijing Planetarium

ISS & Shuttle Endeavor (STS126) Transiting the Moon on 15 Nov 08. Picture Credit: Xin Li, Beijing Planetarium

Here’s my list of suggestions for naming the ISS:

Aristarchus of Samos.  (310- ca. 230 B.C.E).  A Greek mathematician and astronomer, Aristarchus, was the first known person to prove, using logic and geometry, that the solar system is heliocentric: the Earth revolves around the Sun.  It took seventeen hundred years before anyone believed him.  “Aristarchus Station” would be a fitting tribute to all scientists throughout history who let the evidence guide them despite the obvious: the Sun “appears” to move, not the Earth.

Copernicus.  (1473-1543).  Copernicus was a Polish cleric, astronomer, and mathematician.  Like Aristarchus, Copernicus refused to accept the obvious and concluded the Earth orbits the Sun, setting off the modern Scientific Revolution.  However, Copernicus could not bring himself to give up the theory that all orbits had to be perfect circles.  “Copernicus Station” is one of my favorites, not only because of his science, but also as a cleric, he found no conflict between his faith and his astronomy.

Kepler. (1571-1630).  Johannes Kepler was a German mathematician turned astronomer, who was a protege of the flamboyant genius Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), whose obsession with collecting astronomical data, provided Kepler with the data he needed to calculate that planetary orbits were elliptical, not circular. Tycho would be a good suggestion for the ISS, except that he already has a lunar crater named for him: that huge rayed crater at the Moon’s southern extreme that is visible whenever more than half of it is visible from your front yard.  I especially fancy “Kepler Station” because it was his discovery that made calculating the orbit of the ISS possible!

Galileo. (1564-1642).  Galileo Galilei is one of the superstars of Science.  Building on the work of Copernicus and Kepler along with a flash of insight to point the new Dutch invention called the telescope into the night sky, he literally changed the Universe from humanity’s perspective.  He discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter as well as the phases of Venus.  His notoriety, of course, is due to his being convicted of heresy by the Holy See for his belief in the heliocentric solar system.  Actually, Galileo was convicted for refusing to STOP teaching the heliocentric theory, not for believing in it as is often misstated in astronomy texts.  Wade Rowland’s “Galileo’s Mistake” (2001) is a very readable analysis of how Galileo ended up being charged and tried for heresy.  Although Galileo is a superstar, his name already has been given to many spacecraft, so I think it’s time to honor someone else.

Newton. (1643-1727).  Isaac Newton, the English physicist, is another of Astronomy’s superstars.  In fact, his genius simply cannot be underestimated.  His theories of gravity and thermodynamics, the invention of calculus and the “Newtonian” reflecting telescope created a paradigm shift that put the last nails into the Ptolemaic cosmos, and set the stage for Einstein and Relativity, as well as Quantum mechanics.  “Newton Station” would be hard to object to, but, like Galileo, Newton has been honored in many different ways.

Messier. (1730-1817).  Charles Messier was a distinguished French astronomer and comet hunter.  He is credited with discovering no less than thirteen of the Sun-orbiting giant dirty ice balls.  But his legacy is the catalog he put together of “objects” that astronomers should not mistake as comets.  Those 110 objects of the Messier Catalog have become the primer of deep space objects, clusters, nebula, galaxies, and others, for all amateur and professional astronomers for the past two centuries, and will continue to be so into the future.  “Messier Station” would be a most fitting way to honor the man who opened up the variety of objects in the vastness of space.

Herschel. (1738-1822).  Frederick William Herschel, though German by heritage, lived in England.  His accomplishments, among others, was the discovery of the planet Uranus and several of its moons, and infrared radiation.  An avid astronomer and researcher, he built over 40 telescopes, some of enormous size for the time.  He has been honored in numerous ways.  His sister, Caroline (1750-1848), however, was his life-long assistant and was an accomplished astronomer in her own right, discovering numerous comets, as well as analyzing her brother William’s data.  Perhaps, “Caroline Herschel Station” would be the ideal name for the ISS to honor women’s underrated contribution to astronomy.

Hubble. (1889-1953).  William Hubble discovered that the universe was not the small island of the Milky Way, but vast beyond our imagination.  Our galaxy is but one among billions.  He also discovered that they are moving away from each other, a phenomenon called “Red Shift.”  Hubble’s legacy is secure, not the least of which is the Hubble Space Telescope that visually has opened up that universe and almost daily continues to astonish.  “Hubble Station” is not a bad idea, but, like Galileo, he has been honored on many fronts.

. . . And now, for the 20th Century!

What a mess!  In the past Century, astronomy came into its own as a legitimate field in science, not just a branch of physics (a fact that the Nobel Prize committee has yet to comprehend, but then, they’re using a list from the 19th Century).

Who to suggest?  The problem is the Space Race.  If you choose an American, the Russians will throw a fit.  And vice versa. And now, since the European Space Agency, the Canadians, Japan, the Chinese Space Agency and other nations developing astronaut programs, have succeeded in either tagging along on a United States or Russian spacecraft, or, with the Chinese, developed their own manned launch program, the naming waters become more and more muddy.   The Canadians, with their tremendous partnership in the ISS, also have a legitimate voice.  So, despite the fact the 20th Century stands with distinction in human history with the advent of space flight projects, both manned and robotic, only dreamed about by science fiction writers a in its first four decades, politics and ideology has permanently screwed up the naming process.  Sorry, John.  Sorry, Neil.  Sorry, Yuri and Svetlana.  You’re a victim of your times.

For instance, if one were to suggest that Werner von Braun (1912-1977) be given the honor, since his engineering genius not only got the American space project off the ground, but was a major influence in Apollo 11 landing on the Moon in 1969, his Nazi connections, as well as the Russian’s still nursing a grudge that the Americans got to him before they did at the end of World War II would scuttle the whole thing.

So any individual, or other Cold War name (such as Mir = Peace), just won’t work.  This is a space station and it requires a historically appropriate name.  Of course, some corporate sponsor like Virgin Galactic might agree to put up a whole lot of billions of dollars or euros in exchange for naming it after Sir Richard. “Branson Station”?  Naaah.

MGM Studios, 1968

Rotating Space Station from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Picture Credit: MGM Studios, 1968

So who invented the modern, iconic space station, a great wheel rotating in space, first displayed by Disney in his 1955 animation classic, “Man in Space,”  and later immortalized in Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey?”  The design was a collaboration between astronomer, Willie Ley and space illustrator, Chesley Bonestell, and then developed more fully by von Braun.  Hmm.  There he is again.  Of course, “Clarke Station” wouldn’t be a bad choice!  But I’m afraid, “Ley-Bonestell Station” just lacks the needed pizazz.

So, in the end what are my favorites?  How about Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), who, in my opinion, is the best science fiction writer of all time?  His Foundation series sold millions and introduced several generations around the world to a style of writing that forever moved the genre away from the silliness of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and began to examine the existential question: what really makes us human?  Oh, and by the way, he also invented the concept of the humaniform robot (the film Metropolis, notwithstanding) and created the Three Laws of Robotics.  “Asimov Station” has a very nice ring to it.

I also like Stephen Hawking. (b. 1942).  After all, his genius for cosmology, as well as his unparalleled courage to live with his ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), guarantees his immortality as a scientist in the ranks of Newton and Einstein.  I like “Hawking Station” very much!

I could go on, but there is one iconic figure, known and loved around the world, that though fictional, would be just about perfect:

Lucas Films

Luke Skywalker--Star Wars Hero and Worldwide Icon for Good! Photo Credit: Lucas Films

C’mon, George.  Why not “Skywalker Station”?  What better legacy could you choose than to have your creation be the name of Earth’s first space station?  No chance of it being confused with the Death Star (Saturn’s moon, Mimas, already has that distinction).  And when “Skywalker Station” passes overhead, we can all say, “That’s no moon!  That’s a space station!”

I like it!