"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, May 9, 2015

I am Fanboy MacLeod...of the Clan MacLeod

Was it Adrian? Was it a personal assistant who runs his Twitter account and took pity on me? I may never know. I don't care. Always enjoyable when a "Verified account" acknowledges a fanboy. Here is my thank you: Adrian Paul founded a charity called The PEACE Fund that helps children. It's worth a look.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Attending Hubble's 25th Anniversary NASA Social

Image of an old reel-to-reel tape recorder on display at NASA Goddard.

For all I was privileged to see as an attendee of the Hubble 25th Anniversary NASA Social, the above picture typifies what I learned. When Hubble Space Telescope launched into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on April 25, 1990, it contained three reel-to-reel tape recorders. Reel-to-reel! The above is one of two that were replaced by solid state drives in subsequent servicing missions. (A solid state drive provides storage on the smartphone you may be reading this on.)

Now, keeping the old reel-to-reel in mind, watch the spectacular video below. It combines Hubble’s observational keenness with digital wizardry to achieve a 3D rendering of a nebula. See how far we’ve come in a quarter century of Hubble observations!

I first watched the above video on Thursday, April 23rd, on a gigantic HD screen at the Newseum in Washington, DC. I and my fellow NASA Social attendees applauded the visual treat. We were among the guests for a televised press conference and image unveiling: Star Cluster Westerlund 2. The image comes from 20,000 year old light emanating from 2 million year old suns.

Jennifer Wiseman, Charles Bolden, and John Grunsfeld, speak at a NASA Press Conference for the Hubble Space Telescope 25th Anniversary Image Unveiling.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who piloted the shuttle mission that released Hubble 25 years ago, presided over the press conference. Seen at center in the above photo, he was joined onstage by Hubble Senior Project Scientist Jennifer Wiseman and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld (like Bolden an astronaut with first-hand Hubble experience). Not seen in the image, but also speaking at the event was Kathy Flanagan, Interim Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

NASA Social attendees view the Space Environment Simulator in Greenbelt, MD.

Following the press conference, NASA Social attendees were bused out to
Goddard Space Flight Center for behind-the-scenes tours of facilities like the above Space Environment Simulator--a high vacuum cryogenic facility that chugs super-cold liquid nitrogen by the gallon. As was a recurring theme throughout the day, our celebration of Hubble transitioned into discussions about the James Webb Space Telescope which should launch into space in 2018.

There was even some playful smack talk about Hubble versus Webb in the pantheon of observatories. In reality, NASA wants to keep Hubble operational through at least 2020. This would allow Hubble and Webb to observe the deepest regions of space in tandem.

Of my day at NASA Goddard I will say that it was a thrill to see the facilities up close--to observe as dedicated scientists and engineers build and test instruments that must survive in the cold vacuum of space for decades at a time. Much of what launches from Kennedy Space Center in Florida is first made space-worthy in labs at Goddard.

Hubble Space Telescope 1997. Image Credit: NASA

Like Hubble, I've been staring up and out for the last 25 years. I remember one of my high school teachers sheepishly explaining Hubble's early technical snafu as it unfolded. Being a brat at the time, I found it a bit amusing. Yet over the years, as happened for so many of us, the improved telescope refined and expanded my sense of the universe and my place within it. A few years ago, I contributed a photo caption to an article celebrating the final servicing mission of Hubble, published by the Planetary Society.

When I watched the IMAX film Hubble 3D at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum back in 2010, I confess I was brought to tears by the shuttle launch sequence. So, by way of geeky tendencies, I have a romantic sense of Hubble’s ongoing mission. Thanks to my Goddard visit, I now have been in the same room with Hubble’s early components. The connection feels more tangible than ever before.

To see the photos I took during the social, visit my Google+ page.

To learn about the NASA Social program and how you might participate, visit their page or follow @NASASocial on Twitter. Lastly, to spend some quality time with the fruits of Hubble’s labor, I strongly encourage you to visit http://hubblesite.org. Thank you for reading!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Boy Meets a Space Shuttle

When I learned I had been selected to attend a NASA Social commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope in Washington DC, I knew I needed an extra day in town. Though a longtime space enthusiast, I had never seen an authentic space shuttle in person. Last Wednesday, after taking the earliest flight into BWI Airport, I drove down onto the Capital Beltway, breezed past the road leading to my childhood home, and headed straight for the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Though I could partially see the shuttle on the far end of the museum, I decided to savor my anticipation. First I ate lunch and strolled along a terrace overlooking the vast Boeing Aviation Hangar. After this playful exercise in procrastination, I walked through the cavernous entrance and stood almost nose to nose with Discovery.

The above video hopefully gives a good sense of scale. Though 6’ 1” tall, I found myself dwarfed by Discovery. The shuttle is 37 meters long (122 feet). In another clip, I try to capture the shuttle’s height of 17m (57ft). The wingspan is 24m (78ft). I took these dimensions from a museum display, of which there are many helpful ones placed around the hangar. Discovery weighs over 73,000kg (over 161,000 pounds). And having said the weight, let us keep in mind that this bird is a glider!

One more clip for fun:

Discovery is hard to shoot. As I found to be the case throughout the packed museum, you can’t get back far enough and retain an unobstructed view. The upside is there are wonderful opportunities to juxtapose big and small, old and recent.

Look closely at the below image. Lots to consider here. At the bottom of the image is an Apollo “Boilerplate” Command Module (test unit, but the inflatable ring around it flew with Apollo 11). To its left sits a Gemini module used to test gliding technology. The gliding sail, ultimately abandoned in favor of parachute/water landing, partially obstructs Discovery (a glider design that made it into operation). Now pan to the right and see an Orbital Sciences Pegasus rocket. It launches from beneath a cruising plane to deliver small satellites into orbit. A half-century of government and commercial space ventures in a single view!

Ultimately, I sat down on a bench next to Discovery, letting the boy/romantic in me have some time to sit quietly. I thought of the Shuttle Columbia poster that hung in my room when I was a kid. I thought of how I take personal pride in the shuttle program the way my parents and grandparents take a personal pride in the Apollo moon landings. I felt renewed desire to actively participate in space exploration and advocacy.

The Space Shuttle Discovery flew 39 missions from 1984 until 2011. It delivered the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit and later flew two servicing missions. It docked with two space stations. And it was the shuttle that twice returned us to space after the tragic losses of Challenger and Columbia. Discovery was both home and chariot for heroes.

Coming Soon:
My next planned blog post will focus on the #Hubble25 NASA Social that I and 49 other bloggers took part in. That event took place on Thursday at the Newseum in Washington DC and at Goddard Space Flight Center.