Category Archives: NASA

Space Junk

UARSThis is the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) launched from the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1991. It’s continuing mission has been to monitor the atmosphere around our little blue dot in the universe. And for nearly 15 years it did its job flawlessly.

And then UARS got laid off, it got a pink slip, in NASA vernacular it got decommissioned.

It’s a common occurrence in the space program these days. You give all to the agency and then… WHAM! Out of the blue there is no more work for you.

So what do you do? Much like many other Americans out of work and looking for something to do, nobody will put it back to work.  So UARS has done what many other out-of-work Americans do. It’s wandered aimlessly losing all hope of finding new direction. Until finally, in a state of sheer exhaustion, it’s going to crash and burn.

Possibly right on top of another American ready to crash and burn.

Six and a half tons of out-of-work space junk worth millions in it’s heyday is plummeting towards a date with planet Earth sometime between now and Saturday.

If you ever watched the Showtime series, Dead Like Me, you know what it means to be plastered into the pavement by a piece of space debris. Main character Georgia Lass joins the ranks of the dead while on a lunch break from her temp job at Happy Time Temporary Services. She is vaporized when a toilet seat from de-orbiting Mir space station slams into her at a gazillion miles-per-hour. Her last words…. Ah shit!

Dead Like Me

I think we are in pretty good shape. As far as I know there was not a toilet on the UARS.

But just to be safe… me and my little buddy Chicken Little will be scanning the skies for space junk.

You get hit by a bit of UARS you will be dead and buried at the same time. How convenient.

Goodbye Atlantis

The space shuttle program has been a bit of a milepost of my life. My son was born the day the first shuttle, Columbia, landed at Edwards AFB in southern California.

I remember very well the day, January 28, 1986, that shuttle Challenger exploded in a fireball of tragedy 73 seconds after leaving the cape. Teacher Christa McAuliffe and six others gave their lives to the space program. A few days later I stood in Arlington cemetery and watched the burial of Challenger Pilot Captain Michael Smith.

The disaster was an abysmal indictment of safety failures among NASA management. The decision to launch was made for political reasons, ignoring pleas from engineers to delay the launch and the families and crew of STS-51 paid the ultimate price for the ignorance of a few.

The Presidential commission to investigate the Challenger disaster included former astronauts Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, and retired General Chuck Yeagar, as members. An excerpt from the report reads:

"...failures in communication... resulted in a decision to launch 51-L based on incomplete and sometimes misleading information, a conflict between engineering data and management judgments, and a NASA management structure that permitted internal flight safety problems to bypass key Shuttle managers...”

Space would have to wait as NASA cleaned house and took its lumps over the Challenger disaster. It would be another two and a half years before another shuttle climbed the Florida sky. Discovery launched on September 29, 1988, marking America’s return to orbit.

Two years later I stood in the Epcot City complex in Orlando one evening and saw my first and only launch. It was a night launch and what struck me was how bright the sky got, even fifty miles away from the pad. I watched STS-33 climb the night sky with it’s classified payload. It was one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen.

February 1, 2003 – Space Shuttle Discovery disintegrated over Texas on its return from the International Space Station. Seven crew members lost their life and marked another tragedy in space. Again it would be two and a half years before another shuttle would scoff at gravity and return to space.

So here we are, a little more than 50 years since Alan Shepard rode Freedom 7 into the sky and became the first American to view Earth from space – May 5, 1961, to now when Atlantis completes the final shuttle mission. We are leaving behind a legacy of tragedy and triumph, wondering when our next space vehicle will slip its bindings and roar away from Earth.

Until then we are hitchhiking with the Russians. I doubt any of the Mercury guys saw that one coming. Eisenhower is spinning in his grave.

The Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, where some remains were buried

The Space Program

I watched The Right Stuff over the weekend. I thought back to the days when we had heroes in the sky.

If you would have asked a ten-year old me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you, with complete confidence, I wanted to be an astronaut – a Star Voyager. Or at the very minimum a pilot. I wanted to fly jets. Ah, the dreams of a ten-year old that faded away with childhood. I embraced rock and roll, and floundered in the turmoil of the sixties. By the time I arrived in high school, rebellion dogged my every step, and what should have been the best years of my life became kind of a drag.

Today marks the 49th year since star voyager, Scott Carpenter, became the second man to orbit the earth in his ship, Aurora 7. Lots of stuff going on in 1962 — Kennedy was still in the White House, Steinbeck won the Nobel prize for literature, Axel Rose and Eddie Izzard were born — Eleanor Roosevelt died. I was 8 and didn’t have a clue.

I didn’t follow my dreams but over the years my love of the space program never died. My son was born the day the first space shuttle landed. My heart fractured on the tragedies of  Challenger and Columbia.

Today I have mixed emotions knowing the shuttle fleet will soon be history. And then I smile thinking about the next generation of star voyagers standing on a playground somewhere looking up at the sky and dreaming.

To them I would only say…. “Follow your dreams, kid — follow your dreams.”

I ♥ Hubble

On this day in 1990, the Space telescope Hubble was released from the space shuttle Discovery beginning a new era in Astronomy.

Pillars of Creation shows stars forming in the Eagle Nebula

The origins of the Hubble project can be traced back to Astronomer Lyman Spitzer who wrote a paper in 1946 titled “Astronomical advantages of an extraterrestrial observatory.” In it he discussed the two main advantages a space-based observatory would have over ground-based telescopes.

One being the absence of atmospheric turbulence which is what makes stars “twinkle” when observed from the ground. The other being the ability to view the cosmos with the full infrared and ultraviolet components intact. These are mostly removed by Earth’s atmosphere and skews the visual data from land based systems.

In 1962 the National Academy of Science recommended a project be undertaken to study the feasibility of placing a telescope platform in space. In 1965 Spitzer was made chairman of a committee tasked with defining the scientific objectives for a large space telescope.

The space telescope design and fabrication project took shape in 1968 when NASA developed plans for a space telescope with a mirror size of three meters. With the project ready to move forward NASA only needed to clear one more hurdle — funding.

The project came under close scrutiny by the U.S. Congress in 1972 as proposals were flying around Washington faster than the Concorde. The scope and financial requirements of the telescope project were massive and politicians were already sliding into cost savings mode. In 1974, the project was shelved under President Gerald Ford’s spending cuts. This move prompted thousands of astronomers and scientists from around the country to initiate a letter writing campaign aimed at all levels of government, asking the project to continue due to its importance in the exploration of space.

Congress responded by agreeing to fund the project at a level one half the original budget. NASA cut corners in many places including the size of the mirror design, now reduced to 2.4 meters. Many aspects of the project were trimmed to meet the new budget constraints. Congress increased the funding in 1978 and the project moved forward with scientists eying a launch window of sometime in 1983.

In 1983 the telescope was named after famed astronomer Edwin Hubble.

Engineering and fabrication delays plagued the project from day one and the planned 1983 launch slipped past 1984 to late 1985 when the project team assured NASA they would be ready for an October 1986 launch. That date fell by the wayside on the heels of the Challenger tragedy in January of 1986.

Hubble is deployed from Discovery.

Hubble patiently sat in the wings as NASA got their house in order after the process failures of the Challenger launch. Eventually the shuttles returned to space in 1988 and the Hubble Mission was scheduled for April of 1990 aboard Discovery.

Within weeks of the Discovery mission it was determined there had been a serious design flaw in Hubble’s optical system. Images being received had a slight out of focus condition. The only viable solution would be a repair mission to replace the flawed mirror.

In December of 1993, Shuttle Endeavor launched on STS-61 with an aggressive ten-day repair of the Hubble as their mission. Over the next several days they replaced the primary mirrors and several other instruments. At the time is was the most intensive shuttle mission ever undertaken by NASA and included five lengthy extra-vehicular processes to repair the scope. Endeavor also boosted the flight altitude of Hubble by taking it to a much higher orbit than before.

In January of 1994, NASA announced the mission had been a resounding success and they now had a usable telescope in space. Over the years following NASA would return to Hubble four more times, as recently as 2009, to upgrade and repair the instrument. Following the retirement of the shuttle fleet, one of the concerns is the maintenance of the Hubble.

If NASA is unable to return and boost Hubble to a higher atmosphere its orbit will continue to decay until it falls from the sky sometime between 2019 and 2032.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAVjF_7ensg]

For more about the Hubble Telescope visit: http://hubblesite.org/

Remembering Challenger – Jan 28, 1986

It’s one of those moments seared into memory like the Kennedy Assassination and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. A blink in history so intense it will never be forgotten. Twenty-five years ago I was sitting in my cubicle in Raleigh, NC.  I was early in my engineering career and life was good. I never missed a launch if I didn’t have to and that morning was no exception. Space flight had become routine and there was very little live coverage that morning. I was listening to coverage on the radio. The last transmission was Commander Dick Scobee’s “Roger, go at throttle up.” At 11:38 a.m., EST, Challenger disintegrated over the Atlantic.

NASA Images

That evening, President Ronald Reagan addressed a country in mourning. He was scheduled to give his State of the Union address, but on the heels of this crisis, pushed it into the next week. He closed his speech that night with portions of the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.:

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.”

So today we remember the crew of Space Shuttle Challenger.

Commander – Francis “Dick” Scobee

Pilot – Michael J. Smith

Mission Specialist – Ellison Onizuka

Mission Specialist – Judith Resnik

Mission Specialist – Ronald McNair

Payload Specialist – Gregory Jarvis

Payload Specialist – Sharon Christa McAuliffe



“The Shuttle is to space flight what Lindbergh was to commercial aviation.”
~Arthur C. Clarke