Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How Humans Will Get to Mars

Mission to Mars

Mission to Mars

Mission to Mars

Mission to Mars

As the 40th-anniversary celebrations of the moon landing end, a human voyage to Mars remains a holy grail for NASA.

"We're still looking at human exploration of Mars as one of the goals of the future at the top level," said NASA researcher Bret Drake with Lunar and Mars Integration at Johnson Space Center in Houston. "Having a human actually set foot on another planet would be one of the greatest adventures possible, one of the greatest monuments to history."

A crewed mission to the red planet is a daunting challenge that lies at the edge of current technological capabilities and possibly beyond. Still, NASA keeps a strategy to go there and constantly keeps up to date with new ideas.

"Mars is one of those targets of fascination that has been around a long time," Drake said.

How to get there

A voyage to Mars would take a crew about 180 days. So far NASA is exploring two options for propulsion there — a nuclear thermal rocket and a chemical engine.

A nuclear thermal rocket, based off designs from the '60s and '70s, would use a nuclear reactor to super-heat a gas and blast it out the nozzle to generate thrust. "It's a very high-performance vehicle, and we think it's very safe, not radioactive at launch, but it is a nuclear system," Drake said. "The idea for the chemical engine is similar to that used on the space shuttle, liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. It's a fairly well-known technology, but it's not as efficient as nuclear thermal."

To reach the Martian surface, NASA envisions an aerodynamic lander that flies down with thrusters to help it descend. The ascent vehicle that takes the crew back into space for the six-month trip home will likely rely on a combination of methane and liquid oxygen. "Oxygen is present in the Martian atmosphere in the carbon dioxide, so you can use resources on Mars to make it," Drake said.

Before the crew even gets to Mars, the plan is to send as much cargo there ahead of time as possible.

"That way we can know it's operating right before we ever commit the crew," Drake said. "A Mars mission is not like a lunar mission where you can come home at any time — once they're committed, a crew is out there for years."

By current NASA estimates, a crewed mission to Mars needs to lift about twice the mass of the International Space Station into space — roughly 1.76 million lbs. (800 metric tons) of technology. To launch the equipment, NASA plans on using the Ares V rocket, designed to be the most powerful rocket ever built and capable of carrying about 414,000 lbs. (188 metric tons) to low Earth orbit at one time.

"We're going to try to minimize the amount of assembly needed," Drake said. "The heavy lift capacity we'll have with the Ares V will allow for simple automatic rendezvous in orbit and docking of components."

The crew would ride up in one of the upcoming Ares I rockets before starting the voyage to Mars.

"Having humans in place could bring a wealth of experience and training and the ability to put into context what they see and to make real-time decisions, all things difficult to do with robots," Drake said.

The very habitat the crew stays at on the Martian surface would be sent ahead of time. "You can also do things like produce and store oxygen from resources at Mars beforehand for the crew and the ascent vehicle. You could generate water as well."

Big crew, long stay

NASA envisions a crew of six astronauts for a Mars mission. "That's about what's required for the skills needed — a commander, scientist, engineer, medical officer, things like that, as well as cross-training," Drake said. "They'll need expertise in a wide range of disciplines."

Currently NASA envisions a long stay for a crew at Mars, about 500 days.

"Crew autonomy is vital, because there's an up to 40 minute time delay in communication between Earth and the crew because of the distance," Drake said. "And the crew doesn't have a capability for re-supply — they'll just have what they send ahead or what they bring with them — so when things fail, they'll have to be able to repair them. They must be self-sufficient."

To survive the voyage, air and water need to be completely recycled regularly.

"We're learning a lot on the International Space Station right now on air revitalization and water recovery," Drake said. "What's nice about Mars is that there's carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so that can help get us oxygen and water for the crew. In terms of food, we're looking at smaller systems, 'salad machines,' to grow food for the crew. Fresh food is not only good for nutrition, but good for the mind as well. A fresh tomato can really boost psychology."

Mental and physical challenges

The long hardship of roughly two-and-a-half years in space with only a few people in a potentially lethal environment will undoubtedly challenge the psyches of Mars explorers.

"The Russians are conducting a test right now that hopefully will shed light on the behavioral sciences aspect of a Mars mission," Drake said. "Looking at other remote exploration endeavors is helpful as well — Antarctica, or submarines — all that feeds into the human behavioral aspects of crew selection."

A key concern for astronauts as well as during the stay on Mars is dangerous radiation in the form of storms of high-energy particles from the sun as well as cosmic rays from deep space. "The best radiation protection material is hydrogen, or water, which is rich in hydrogen," Drake said.

On the surface of Mars, NASA envisions that cargo deployed ahead of time can produce water before the crew arrives to use as a shield during the crew's stay there. On the way to and from Mars, the ship could be configured so that water and food surround areas where crew spend most of their time, but "a 'storm shelter' aboard the ship will be an integral part for short events of radiation that can be lethal," Drake said.

No firm date has been set for any potential Mars mission, but it remains of keen interest not just to NASA, but also others, such as China.

"It's humanity's next step to understanding and expanding our presence outward," Drake said. "We view human exploration of Mars as being an international endeavor, most likely not limited to just one country, but probably of global scale.

Check out the article at Fox News.

If human exploration and colonization of Mars is a subject that interests you, I highly recommend Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy - consisting of Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. In this awesome work of science fiction, Robinson delves into the technological, social and political aspects in a realistic future of Martian colonization and terraforming. You'll find no light-sabres or warp drives in these books... just down-to-earth, well-written sci-fi!!!

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy

Monday, July 20, 2009

40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Landing!

Apollo 11 40th Anniversary - 2009

Apollo 11 40th Anniversary - 2009

Apollo 11 40th Anniversary - 2009

Apollo 11 40th Anniversary - 2009

Apollo 11 40th Anniversary - 2009

Apollo 11 40th Anniversary - 2009

Apollo 11 40th Anniversary - 2009

Apollo 11 40th Anniversary - 2009

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Neil Armstrong moved slowly down the ladder. Getting to the moon had been a long time coming. He was an Ohio pilot who came from the same soil as Orville and Wilbur, who ejected from a crippled jet fighter over Korea just after turning 21, who flew seven test flights in the X-15 rocket, who saved himself and a crewmate in Gemini 8, who ejected from a lunar landing trainer a split second before it crashed.

In the 1950s and '60s, he flew about every propeller, jet, rocket and helicopter built by his country. To say that this Midwestern farmboy was the best test pilot in an emergency ever was an easy argument. That’s why chief astronaut Deke Slayton chose Neil Armstrong to take the first step on a small world that had never been touched by life. A landscape where no leaf had ever drifted, no insect had ever scurried, where no blade of green ever waved, where in the silence of vacuum even the fury of a thermonuclear blast would sound no louder than a falling snowflake.

More than 200,000 miles away, billions of eyes stared at the black-and-white TV picture. They watched Neil’s ghostly figure move like a spacesuited phantom, closer and closer, planting his boots in moondust at 10:56 p.m. ET, July 20, 1969.

All motion stopped. "That's one small step for a man," Neil said slowly, "one giant leap for mankind."

Neil gathered several ounces of rock and soil from the lunar surface and stuffed the invaluable material in a suit pocket. The plan was, after Buzz Aldrin joined him, they would remain outside for two hours, planting experiments and collecting primarily rocks, but if something should go wrong, at least they would have a tiny bit of the moon.

With the contingency sample safely tucked away, he took the time to look around. “The moon has a very stark beauty all its own,” he said, almost whispering. “It’s like much of the high desert areas of the United States. It’s different, but it’s pretty out here.”

What we on Earth did not know at the time was exactly why history’s first moonwalk began when it did. NASA had scheduled a four-hour sleep and rest period for Armstrong and Aldrin in the lunar module, or LM, and we were told to wait.

It turned out that we were hoodwinked.

The truth came out last November. NBC News President Steve Capus was giving me a dinner to celebrate my 50 years at the network. Former astronauts Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Edgar Mitchell flew in, along with other survivors of the old days. Following dinner and a short ride to one of our favorite watering holes, Neil spilled the beans.

“Of course we wanted to get outside as soon as possible, before an emergency. But we thought we would need several hours to get the LM’s fluids and systems settled,” he explained.

"For several hours you reporters would have been speculating, guessing about possible problems, and we didn’t want one of you inventing stories,” Neil grinned. “That’s why we put in a four-hour sleep and rest period we hoped we would never use.”

We laughed, and Neil laughed, and he added, “Everything went much faster than we expected.”

Most of us were having dinner when the call came that the moonwalk would begin early. We rushed back to our microphones and reported the history-making event of our lives.

Buzz takes his turn

While Neil took his one small step, Buzz Aldrin stayed aboard the lunar module, which they named Eagle, to monitor its systems. That was his duty as lunar module pilot, and that was one reason why he was the second man to walk on the moon. When he and Mission Control were convinced that the Eagle was safe and purring, he joined Neil on the surface.

“Beautiful, beautiful! Magnificent desolation,” Buzz said as he stared at a sky that was the darkest of blacks above a landscape that was many shades of gray, a touch of brown, and utter black where the rocks cast their shadows. No real color, not even the places lit by the unfiltered sun.

Then there was the weak gravity. They weighed only one-sixth of their Earth poundage, and Neil reported, “The surface is fine and powdery. It adheres in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the soles and sides of my boots. I only go in a fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles.”

Was the moonwalk faked? No!

It would be these highly defined footprints that would set some armchair physicists crying the moonwalk was a fake. In the years to come there would be those who would claim Apollo astronauts never went to the moon. They said all of it was done on a movie set in an Arizona.

It occurred to me that if NASA had been so deviously smart to persuade 400,000 Apollo workers to lie, to persuade the Russians to lie, to persuade the people tracking the lunar flights with giant radio antennas around the world to lie ... well, if NASA got away with it once, would the agency be so stupid as to try to get away with this world-class hoax nine times?

The claim is too dumb not to be laughable. It is sad. We as a people would rather think the worst of ourselves than the best.

Nevertheless, scientific investigators investigated.

Myth-believers claimed that Neil and Buzz could have only left such firm, defined bootprints in soil with moisture — and everyone knows there is no water on the moon, right?

Wrong. There’s now evidence there could be water ice at the poles, but that hasn’t a thing to do with the first footprints on the moon.

Close examination of the lunar soil back on earth showed it to be virgin. The grains still had their sharp edges. They had not been rounded off by wind and erosion in an atmosphere. In their vacuum the sharp edges of lunar soil cling together, leaving a smooth surface much as moist sand does on a beach.

"Where were the stars," the myth-believers ask. "Where’s the crater carved out by Eagle's descent rockets during landing?"

The cameras that NASA sent to the moon had to use short-exposure times to take pictures of the bright lunar surface and the moonwalkers' white spacesuits. Stars’ images were too faint and underexposed to be seen, as they are in photographs taken from Earth orbit. And why didn’t the descent rockets carve out a crater? Their thrust was simply too weak to make a huge dent in the lunar surface.

So much to see, so little time

For Neil and Buzz there was so much to see and do and so little time. They moved their television camera 60 feet from Eagle. This would help Earth’s viewers see some of the things they were seeing and let them watch them going about the business of setting up Apollo 11’s experiments.

The two had problems jamming the pole that held the American flag into the lunar surface. Though a metal rod held the flag extended, the subsurface soil was so hard that they had to bang and push on the pole to get it to barely remain erect. Their forcible actions left the flag’s staff rocking back and forth for an unusual length of time.

Ah, said the myth-believers. That’s wind blowing the flag, and everyone knows there’s no wind on the moon. Right?

Right, there’s no wind on the moon. No atmosphere, just vacuum. And everyone knows an object that is forced into repeating motions in vacuum repeats many more times than it does in atmosphere. Atmospheric drag dampens movement. Vacuum is nothing. No resistance.

The flag’s motion was later duplicated in a vacuum chamber at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

No fraud, no conspiracy.

With Old Glory standing, Neil moved off to take more pictures while Buzz set up a seismometer to gather information on quakes and meteorites hitting the moon. An instrument to measure the flow of radiation particles inside the solar wind and a multi-mirror target for returning laser beams fired from Earth were deployed — laser reflectors that have been used by American universities and Russian institutes and other global investigators to determine the distance between Earth and the moon to the inch.

Those laser reflectors could not have been used if Neil and Buzz had not put them there.

Just days ago, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched last month from Cape Canaveral, returned its first images of the Apollo moon landing sites. The pictures show five of the six Apollo descent stages, including Apollo 11's, resting on the moon's surface. The Apollo 14 landing area shows a faint trail of Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell's two-mile round-trip march to Cone Crater with their "rickshaw."

Guess we really did go to the moon, huh? So much for the myth-believers and the conspiracy theorists.

In the lunar dust, the two Americans placed mementos for the five astronauts and cosmonauts who had lost their lives, and Neil read the words on a plaque mounted on Eagle's descent stage: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

Neil and Buzz gathered about 46 pounds of lunar materials, and once everything was loaded for flight back to Earth, they shut down the first moonwalk.

Was Buzz Aldrin a publicity hog? No!

Because of the primitive state of television at the time, most of us couldn’t wait for Apollo 11 to get back with all the great pictures the crew had shot. That in itself was the beginning of yet another controversy.

When all the film had been developed, there was only one image out of the 121 Hasselblad still-camera photographs that showed Neil on the moon, plus the film from a 16mm movie camera that was set up to peer out one of Eagle's windows. Neil had taken great shots of Buzz moving about, Aldrin took only one rear shot of Neil stowing samples for return to Earth.

Why?

Was Buzz angry?

No.

“I was the one with the camera,” Neil told me. “His job was to set up the experiments. He had much to do. Nothing more than that.”

Two months ago I had the same conversation with Buzz, and got a similar response. “NASA should have trained us in public relations,” he said with passion. “We were just doing our job.”

Simply put, MIT-educated Buzz Aldrin was one of the smartest guys in the astronaut corps.

During Project Gemini, spacewalker after spacewalker had failed. They tired quickly, and Buzz studied their problems. By the time he stepped into space, he had invented the tools and methods needed to walk in a vacuum. For example, he fashioned a pair of golden slippers that could be placed where needed to hold his booted feet. A spacewalker needs that — something to hold his or her feet in place — to keep stable attachment with the spaceship. Otherwise you will thrash about wildly. During Gemini 12, Buzz Aldrin whistled and sang through his spacewalk assignments.

And when he returned from the moon, when one of those moon-conspiracy theorists shoved a Bible in Aldrin’s face and ordered him to swear on it that he walked on the moon, Buzz decked him. Fellow astronaut Wally Schirra, one of the original Mercury 7, renamed him Rocky. That’s my kind of man.

After 51 years on the job, after covering every spaceflight flown by Americans, I can report that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — and Michael Collins, who kept stoking the home fires on board the Apollo 11’s command ship Columbia — were the best Earth had to offer.

History, this time we got it right.

Check out the article at MSNBC.

For more info, check out the following links:

Check out today's Google art:

Google Apollo 11 Landing 40th Anniversary 2009

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Happy Independence Day 2009!

Happy Independence Day 2009

With the mercury hovering around 95 degrees, several hundred people gathered on the Mississippi River levee to watch three World War II-era airplanes stage a mock attack on the USS Kidd during the day’s “Star-Spangled Celebration” of Independence Day.

People eagerly scanning the sky for the start of the show saw two F-15 Eagle jets approaching from across the river before roaring above the Navy’s retired destroyer moored on the downtown Baton Rouge waterfront.

Several minutes later, three T-6 trainers, their engines a dull hum compared to the jets, approached the Kidd, which began firing back angrily, causing many of the kids in the audience to clutch at their ears.

“They’re blanks! They’re blanks!” shouted Anthony Antoine, 47, a warning to people in the crowd not to worry. “Smell that gunpowder!”

Cheryl Cummins, of Prairieville, peered up at the unfolding battle, eagerly snapping photos with her digital camera.

This was the first Fourth of July celebration in Baton Rouge for Cummins, 60, and her husband Phil, 61, who moved to the area last month from Midland, Mich.

The couple, originally from Philadelphia, said they decided to stay in the Sheraton downtown, eager to avoid the traffic following Saturday night’s fireworks display.

“We figure we had to do it once and do it right,” Cheryl Cummins said.

Maury Drummond, executive director of the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial & Museum, said the display was made possible by the Louisiana National Guard and Dan Fordyce, of Vicksburg, Miss.

“They’ve been so good to us every year,” Drummond said.

The T-6s were flown down from Mississippi earlier in the day and then waited at Baton Rouge Ryan Airport before taking off to perform in the mock battle, Drummond said.

Quite a few people could be seen milling around inside the museum Saturday, perhaps taking respite in the air conditioning from the day’s intense heat.

“It’s never been this hot,” Drummond said of the weather. “I’ve been producing a Fourth of July event for 24 years and it is absolutely brutal today.”

Drummond said he was grateful for everyone who came out despite the heat.

Earlier in the day, brothers Sean, 7, and Aaron, 10, Jameson munched on snowballs outside of the River Center. The boys and their parents crouched alongside an outside wall of the arena as they sought shelter from the noon sun.

They were among the first people down by the Mississippi river for Baton Rouge’s Star-Spangled Celebration.

As Sean ate his icy treat, a few drops of the blue snowball spilled onto his white T-shirt. Aaron showed off his green-tinged tongue as he laughed at his younger brother.

“The ice is melting before I eat it!” Sean pouted with his blue-stained lips.

The Jameson family, of Shreveport, were in Baton Rouge Saturday visiting relatives.

“We tried to get here early to beat the heat, but that didn’t happen,” said mother Laura Jameson, 39.

The all-day celebration started at 8 a.m. with Freedom Mile, a series of 1-mile races along River Road. The race was followed by tours of the USS Kidd.

As the day went on, more people showed up dressed in red, white and blue. Many of them found shady spots under trees or next to a building. Others laid out lawn chairs in the grassy area next to the USS Kidd and waited for the first live band to take the stage.

Young children found respite from the heat by splashing around in one of the area’s many fountains.

For Jeanie and Mitch Talbot, the celebration has become a Fourth of July tradition.

“We’ve been coming every year for about five years,” Mitch Talbot said. “We stay all day and wait for the fireworks.”

Check out the article at The Advocate.

Hope everyone is out enjoying their independence today! It's great to be free!!!

Check out today's Google art:

Independence Day 2009

Also check out 2000's Independence Day Google art:

Independence Day 2000