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It’s Carnival time again…

This week’s “Carnival of Space” is the 105th…  go take a look, it’s a great way of catching up with the best of the previous week’s space blogging…

http://blogs.discovery.com/space_disco/2009/05/the-105th-carnival-of-space.html

Enjoy!

How to COMPLETELY miss the point…

It’s not often that a story on a website makes me want to hurl my laptop through a window in rage, but JPL’s Veronica McGregor just highlighted one in a post on Twitter…

NASA Run by Children [PIC]_1243620122712

Oh hahahahaha, you’re soooo funny mate! See? Satire IS alive and well! Laugh? I thought I’d never start.

Seriously tho, this guy is COMPLETELY missing the point – as well as having half of his story just about 100000% wrong.

For a start, the idea to use the rover’s “camera arm” to push it up and free it from its and trap isn’t going to be tried by NASA, it’s totally impractical. But it is a cute idea from a kid who clearly has a great interest in science and space exploration, and genuinely wanted to help. I think it’s fantastic that a kid of that age felt strongly enough about this to take the time to put his idea down on paper and send it to NASA!  All credit to him – and to the guys on the MER team who, I know, have responded to his suggestion generously and warmly. But that’s no surprise; they’re generous and warm people, and I’m very proud to call at least a few of them friends.

Now. The naming of the Mars rover… sigh…

I genuinely wanted to reach into my screen and grab this guy by the neck when I read his criticism of this. So, let me get this straight… NASA inviting children to get personally involved in one of the biggest, most ambitious, most exciting space exploration projects of the next decade is a BAD thing?!?! NASA actively seeking input from the people who pay for their expensive hardware is WRONG?!?! NASA helping kids to feel part of their work is a MISTAKE!?!

Slap.

My thoughts on the naming of MSL are pretty well known by now. I thought the shortylist of names was rather poor and uninspiring, and the one I wanted to win was “Amelia”, but I seem to have been the only person on the planet who did. They’ve one with “Curiosity” and already, in just a couple of days, it’s grown on me, and whenever I see a pic of the rover I now think of it as “Curiosity”, it’s embedded in my brain already. Criticising NASA for opening up the naming process to youngsters is ridiculous and pathetic, they should be praised for it.

Like I said, this guy is completely missing the point. Although much more is spent on things like junk food, cosmetics and the like, space exploration is expensive, very expensive, and many people question the amount of money spent on it. It’s only right that they should be made to feel part of what NASA does, and NASA goes to incredible lengths to try and make sure they are, with countless blogs, Twitter sites, open days and other things. NASA also lets people “sign their names” on spaceprobes heading off to distant planets, which is a brilliant way of making the people who pay their bills feel involved. Naming competitions, like the one for Curiosity, are a great way of increasing public involvement – and interest – in the space program.

So, Mr Miss The Point, get off your high horse, and instead of criticising it for being democratic, be proud that NASA opens itself and its programs up to the public. And as for Russia (“Russkies”? I thought that term died back in the 1980s and ROCKY V…) “winning the space race”… newsflash… there IS no “space race” with Russia, we’re partners with them in the ISS project. The next “space race” will probably be with China and the Asian countries, not Russia.

But apart from all those errors, misunderstandings and undeserved criticisms, nice article.. 😉

New Dr Who companion revealed…

This is all over the internet now, so I guess I might as well join in…!

The BBC has revealed the identity of the actress who will play the new Companion when Matt Smith takes over from David Tennant as Dr Whonext year…

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That’s 21 year old Karen Gillan, and she’ll be taking over from Catherine Tate as The Doctor’s Companion when the globally-popular sci-fi series returns to BBC 1 next year. If she looks a litle familiar it’s because she has been in Dr Who before, playing a soothsayer in the epic episode “The Fires of Pompeii”.

If you’re not into Dr Who I’m absolutely sure you’re wondering what on Earth – haha! – all the fuss is about. But if you are a fan then this is big news, because the relationship between the Dr and his Companion essentially sets the tone for the whole series. It’s basically the two of them against the universe, and if they’re not compatible, well, it can detract from the stories. But the key issue here this stime, I think, is age.

Matt Smith, the next Doctor, is a young actor too. He’s frequently been described as “floppy haired”, a “pretty boy”, a “boy band singer”… you get the idea. There was a strong rumour not too long ago that his Companion would be an older woman to provide some balance, and to stop him getting carried away with things, you know, running around like a puppy. Clearly these rumours were wrong, and the new Companion is very young too, and very pretty, and wouldn’t be out of place in a girl band, although she’d have to be the “serious, moody” one in the band, judging from that photo released by the BBC.

So, how’s all this going to work out? Well, with both main leads being young and cute-looking, there are bound to be concerns that the BBC is going to turn DW into “Hollyoaks In Space”… 😮 But I have faith in the producers, they wouldn’t just pick good looking kids for the parts without great acting ability too, so all will be well I’m sure.

But if the interior of the Tardis is suddenly painted black, and its floor is covered with dirty washing and discarded takeaway containers, and if the walls are decorated with guitars, framed Che Guevara posters and nicked traffic cones I’m turning over… 😉

So, good luck to Karen, I’m sure she’ll be great.

She’ll have a long way to go to be a better Companion than my beloved Martha Jones tho… 🙂

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35k – again…!

Quick “thank you” to everyone who drops by here, from wherever and for whatever reason. I’ve just hit “35,000” views. Again.

Again?

Yes, again. You might recall that a little while ago I actually clocked-up my 35,000th visitor, and celebrated that minor landmark (well, I was chuffed!) with a post about it. A matter of hours later WordPress had a glitch of some kind, and thousands of hits were wiped off a large number of blogs. I lost around 3,000! They have never come back, unfortunately, so this is me hitting 35k for the second time.

But hey, water… bridge… just nice to know someone out there is reading my rants scribblings! 🙂

Loving the machine…

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The spectacular servicing of the ailing, ageing Hubble Space Telescope during the recent space shuttle mission STS 125, watched by the world on NASA TV and Twitter, brought up a slightly uncomfortable question in my mind…

Is it wrong to have feelings for a machine?

No, I don’t mean the “feelings” I have whenever I watch Battlestar Galactica and see Caprica 6 slinking across the screen in that sprayed-on red dress… temptation, thy name is Toaster… I mean non-humanoid machines. Specifically spacecraft.

I’m a well-known – and often gently-derided and ridiculed – “Rover Hugger”. As one of my friends put it, I love the Mars rovers “like a fat kid likes cake”, and I don’t mind admitting it. I do. I love those plucky, determined-to-be-immortal little guys. With their camera-packed heads, stubby little legs and beetle-shell backs I could hug them until they fell apart, after all they’ve seen and shared with me. I’ve checked on them at least once daily, every day, for the past five and a half years.

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I care for them, I worry about them, feel like I’m walking beside them every hard metre of the way as they haul themselves across the ruddy, rocky surface of Barsoom, and if I could I would happily, right now, transport myself to Mars and bodily dig and scrape and claw the soft dirt out from under and around poor stuck Spirit’s wheels and lift her free of her martian quicksand trap. Hate the idea that she’s stuck there, I just hate it…

And during the past couple of weeks, whilst watching those brave, skilful and, yes, heroic astronauts working on and inside Hubble, more feelings of mechanical sentimentality were inspired in me, and I came to realise just how special that wonderful instrument has become to me, too.

I’ve kind of grown up with Hubble; it’s always “been there” in the background as I left childhood behind and started finding my way in the big, bad adult world. I’ve been doing Outreach talks seriously for around the same length of time Hubble has been operational, so almost every talk has featured, at some point, images taken by the great telescope. I must have shown “The Pillars of Creation” to many, many thousands of people since it was taken and returned to Earth, and it never fails to raise an appreciative gasp when it flashes up on the screen in the school, church hall, theatre or community centre I’m talking at.

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It’s because of images like the “Pillars” that Hubble has become – although I hate the cliché – the “people’s telescope”. For although its images are doubtlessly useful and informative scientifically, they are also, quite simply, bloody gorgeous. While astrophysicists and astronomers drool over them for what they can teach us about stellar composition and light absorption by dust grain clouds, many of Hubble’s portraits of catherine wheel galaxies and colourful nebulae are so beautiful, so achingly beautiful that they would not be out of place on the wall of an art gallery, illuminated by spotlights and protected by red velvet ropes.

Of course, Hubble’s glories have been hard-earned. Gyroscopes have failed, computers have had fits, she’s really been through it, poor thing. And while we bare all now celebrating her latest triumphant refit, and eagerly anticipating another half decade or more of rewarding science and wonderful images, we will never forget that her story had a less than glorious beginning. Every space enthusiast reading this will remember how they felt when they heard that the great telescope’s primary mirror was faulty, and had been made ever-so-slightly, um, the wrong shape. I knew NASA would be in for a kicking, and I wasn’t wrong. The space agency was ridiculed widely and mercilessly, Hubble itself cruelly labelled “A giant squint for Mankind”… I still squirm when I think of that… and as an Outreacher I had to answer lots of people who were indignant that NASA had spent so much money on such an orbiting white elephant. Of course, the problem was fixed when NASA engineers came up with that stunning set of ‘contact lenses’, but it was still a hard time, and then, and on other occasions since, I have had to stand up and defend Hubble.

Since then I’ve showed Hubble pictures at all my Outreach talks, shared them countless with farmers, pensioners, kids and Men and Women in the street. I’ve emailed links to Hubble images to web-users who’ve been so impressed by them they’ve wanted one for their wall, and I’ve printed out images for people not connected to the net who were desperate to do the same thing. I’ve seen Hubble images on TV adverts, in films, on CD covers, everywhere. They’re now a part of our culture. An the public outcry that followed the original decision by NASA to not fly a fourth servicing mission showed just how much affection the telescope is held in.

Why? Why did people get so worked up about that? Well, personally I think it’s because Hubble is one space mission that people outside of the pro-space and space enthusiast communities actually “get”. They see images of the International Space Station hanging in the black sky above Earth, and ask, rightly, what rewards do they get from such a hugely expensive project; they see a shuttle launch on TV and wonder “what’s in it for me?”. That they don’t know the worth of the ISS, and don’t appreciate the rewards of shuttle missions, is as much a failing on our part as it is theirs: clearly we haven’t done a very good job of promoting those programs. But they see a beautiful Hubble image think “Yeah, now that’s doing something useful…!” because everyone loves a gorgeous picture, and a Hubble image like the “Pillars” calls out to non-scientists simply because it is so beautiful. That’s why I agree with the people who argue that many Hubble pictures actually qualify as works of art. Hubble images genuinely impress, excite, inspire and move people.

So, yes I have a very real “soft spot” for Hubble, and I was delighted to see it rejuvenated and set free again last week. But Hubble wasn’t the first machine to steal my heart.

That honour goes, perhaps predictably, to the grand old girl of space exploration herself, the spacecraft that’s had more makeovers and image changes than Madonna – the USS Enterprise.

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The Enterprise was the first spaceship I saw on TV that I really believed was real. Why? Well, it looked like it could actually fly, it looked powerful, and, more importantly, it had lots of windows that gave it a sense of scale. It also looked strangely familiar. You see, as a kid I was also fascinated by the great ships of centuries past – the great sea-going warships of Nelson’s and Elizabethan times especially. In fact, for a time I spent almost as long looking at pictures of them in the dog-eared encyclopaedia in my junior school library as I did looking at pictures of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules, and when I saw the Enterprise on TV for the first time it’s graceful, sweeping lines, powerful engines and sleek hull reminded me strongly and vividly of the great galleons that ploughed the stormy oceans of times gone past…

The Enterprise has changed a lot since then, many times; her engine nacelles have grown, shrunk back and grown again, and her saucer section has changed its size more often than Kirstie Alley, but the look and feel, of the great ship, its essence if you like, has remained the same. Enterprise IS space exploration, and whenever I see it on a screen – TV or cinema – a lump forms in my throat and I feel a real surge of affection for it. Every time I see that epic sequence in STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE where Kirk sees the newly-refitted Enterprise in dry-dock, with the orchestral score surging up in a tsunami of unabashed geek celebratory joy, I get shivers. The new movie’s equivalent – where the young Bones and Kirk see Enterprise though the grimy window of their shuttle – is pretty good too, but doesn’t pack quite the same emotional punch somehow. Actually, much more moving is the shot where the young rebellious Kirk rides up to the shipyard fence on his hi-tech motorbike and sees Enterprise under construction, her half-built hull surrounded by cranes, gantries and platforms. That made the breath catch in my throat I’m not ashamed to admit…

Smaller machines hold special places in my heart, too. I never tire of watching the ‘droids Huey, Dewey and Louie pottering about in the corridors and garden domes of the good ship Valley Forge in SILENT RUNNING, and even though I know It Was Just A Movie I have a clear image in my mind of that brave little droid tending Earth’s last surviving garden, somewhere Out There in the cosmos…

hdlstorm

Speaking of robots, ok, ok, I admit it, I love the C3PO/R2D2 double act, it makes me laugh every time I watch STAR WARS. Have to be honest – I prefer Artoo, he actually seems the more human of the two, he has more character and personality than the more humanoid Threepio. (Note to George Lucas, if he’s reading this: Artoo… jets hidden in his legs? WTF?!?!? Did he forget he HAD those in Episode IV? Consider yourself slapped.)

But my affection for R2D2 is hardly a surprise, is it? After all, there can’t be many space enthusiasts my age who don’t have fond childhood memories of hearing a cinema full of people go “Awwwwww!” when Artoo toppled over in that canyon on Tatooine. But that’s not to say I love all ‘cute little robots’. Some just cry out to be thrown into a trash compactor.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY was one of my favourite childhood shows. It had great spaceships, big explosions, a wise-cracking hero, the works. It also had Colonel Wilma (sigh) Deering, who memorably strode across the post-apocalypse Earth in a painted-on white jumpsuit and towering stiletto heels, her Farrah Fawcett hair billowing in the wind. Oh how I loved her… and oh, how I hated Twikki.

buck_twiki01

Yes, you remember Twikki, the little gold-plated, oriental-looking dwarf robot that talked in a bizarre streetwise gangsta voice – long before there were streetwise gangstas – and sounded like a cross between Max the butler from HART TO HART and Al Capone. Every time he waddled onto the screen I was longing for him to fall over, or be blown to bits by a well-aimed laser blast, or savagely mauled to death by that obviously-a-man-in-a-furry-suit daggit from Battlestar Galactica. Sadly that never happened, and for some strange reason our hero had a soft spot for his biddi-biddi-buddy Twikki, so it must have been my problem.

But back to the real world, and that successful servicing of the Hubble telescope. Like many thousands of people around the world I followed the mission closely on NASA TV. I watched the lift-off (eventually… long story…) and then watched all the spacewalks, too, marvelling at the determination, ingenuity and sheer human bloody-mindedness of the astronauts as they grappled with hand grips, stuck bolts and misbehaving tools. But unexpectedly, my favourite part of the whole mission turned out to be NASA TV’s coverage of the shuttle Atlantis as it returned to Earth.

The shots of the shuttle orbiter dropping swiftly out of the clear blue Californian sky were breathtaking, amongst the most memorable I’ve ever seen in all my years of shuttle-watching. Everything was just perfect – the focus was sharp, the camera steady, the sunlight playing on the shuttle’s fuselage made it glow with an almost mystical energy… it was just a perfect storm of drama, beauty and success. And it brought home to me, again, how much I love the space shuttle orbiter.

I know the engineering, scientific and practical reasons for the shuttle’s retirement and its replacement by the Constellation spacecraft, and I know the people working on it only have the best interests of the space program and its astronauts at heart, but I don’t care what anyone says; compared to the sleek-winged, snow-white shuttle orbiter, the Orion CEV capsule is a snub-nosed, butt-ugly, Apollo throwback. If we’re going to ask our brave astronauts to risk their lives in the harsh environment of space, surely they deserve a more graceful, more elegant, more civilised way of getting there than strapped into a glorified Starbucks coffee cup. And I’m damn sure they deserve a more civilised return to Earth than plummeting into the ocean like a stone hurled off a cliff-top, left to bob about in the surging water like a bottle until someone comes to fish them out. That’s just wrong. It’s undignified. It almost makes me feel ashamed, to be honest.

But anyway, my ranting isn’t going to change anything. Shuttle is being retired, and that’s that. Maybe I’ll learn to love Orion one day. But I already know that an Orion will never, ever look as beautiful suspended above the blue and white Earth as the shuttle does in this image…

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So, back to my original question. Is it wrong to have feelings for a machine?

To answer that, I have to come back to the Mars rovers, because of the huge impression they’ve made on me and the way they’ve changed my life. Somehow the Mars rovers have become a part of my life. If I don’t check on their progress at least once a day I get, well, itchy, jumpy. If I hear they’re in trouble in some way my heart sinks. If I hear or read about someone criticising them I get very defensive. I’m literally dreading the day the first rover falls silent. The rovers matter to me.

But does that mean I have feelings for them? No. I have feelings of respect and admiration for their missions and goals, for the people behind them. I have feelings of pride in their achievements so far, and feelings of excitement and apprehension for the events that will unfold in the days, weeks and hopefully months to come. So when I say I “love” Spirit and Opportunity I don’t actually love the machines themselves, that would be silly… and a little bit disturbing. No. I love what they represent – our insatiable hunger for knowledge, our desperate need to see over the horizon, and our unquenchable curiosity about what’s “out there”.

Fitting then, that the next rover to head to Mars – the MER-dwarfing Mars Science Laboratory – has just been christened “Curiosity” by NASA.

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(I was hoping for “Amelia”, in honour of famous aviator Amelia Earhart, but I think I was the only one!)

The orbiters of the shuttle fleet…Hubble… Spirit and Opportunity… all spacecraft that have a special place in my heart. No doubt Curiosity will join them there in a couple of years, when she lands on Mars and starts trundling around Barsoom continuing our quest for knowledge.

And who knows, maybe one day, when we build a real Enterprise or her equivalent, reproductions of all those spacecraft will be displayed in one of her shuttle or payload bays for the space enthusiasts and “rover huggers” of that time to enjoy..!  🙂

Free Again…

 

See! She is free again!

Lovingly polished and preened she gleams

As if brand new; see how like a bird she

Soars now; an eagle released to ride the whispered winds

Wafting silently from Sol, gliding ’round war- and strife-torn

Terra with a grace that makes e’en the hardest heart

Feel glad that in these troubled times – when mens’ minds

Turn oh so easily to dark and desperate deeds –

At least some souls still feel the need to stare into the sky,

To let bright starlight wash tears from their weary eyes…

 

On this very screen I watched them worship her, saw them floating

By her side liker adoring ghosts. Sometimes she, and they, were painted

Glorious shades of gold by the rays of the rising Sun;

So wonderfully pure, so brutal of beauty that, had he lived to see it,

Turner would have captured it on canvas then declared “I swear

There is now no finer sight for me to see; I am complete.”

 

Once, when I saw that sunlight cruelly sluiced away, replaced

By darkness as a cloak of deepest, crow-wing black swept o’er

The Earth to smother everything like a storm, my breath caught

In my throat as I witnessed one, standing still as stone,

Reach out with a lone, trembling hand and tenderly trail

His fingers across her face, the grace and glory of the universe flowing

Through her into him in a Quickening of “I see it now! delight

As her images came to life, projected in the IMAX of his mind:

Infant stars bursting into life inside the misty maelstrom hearts

Of nebulae suddenly sone bright behind his eyes;

Galaxies’ catherine wheel whorls swirling in painfully-slow motion

All around, each tortuous turn marking another quarter billion years

Gone by while glow-worm supernovae slowly blinked on and off

Within their glittering arms, candles guttering in the wind…

 

I wonder… when he came out of his trance did he dare

To cast a stolen glance towards the myriad stars a’dancing

In the void? Did he peer fearlessly over the edge of his

Swan-winged craft and, seeing the man-made “stars” below,

Have to remind his puzzled monkey brain that the firefly sparks

Flickering so softly in the dark beneath his feet were not

Crackling campfires, as they appeared, but vast cities of glass and stone,

Countless homes where, as children slept in soft-pillowed beds

Their parents stared up at a single silvery star skating through

The sky and sighed “So strange, to think that other eyes

Are gazing down at us right now…”?

 

Those eyes’ owners are all home now, sad, smaller, reclaimed by spine-

Deforming gravity, exiled once more on a restless world of wind

And rain and snow. Those who flew defiantly to Hubble’s side

One final time must learn to think of the sky as being above

Their heads once more, and not a mere membrane

Of brilliant poster-paint blue separating all Earth Below’s

Life and love from the deadliest Black death of all –

Space, that most famous Final Frontier, that calls to us so loud and clear

I am amazed the mountains do not ring like bells

Whenever darkness falls, revealing a sky ablaze with stars;

Each glittering sequin a sun, and many – most? – of them

Proud parents to families of worlds that one epic day

May become another home for Man…

 

If I were them, if I had just Returned, I’d find and climb

A quiet hill, and at the top, with no-one else around,

Cast off my shoes and socks, lay flat upon the ground,

And on Nature’s mattress of dew-cooled, pea-green grass

Thank the Earth for giving birth to me,

For giving me the chance to be among the very last to see

The Greatest Ever Telescope fly free…

 

(c) Stuart Atkinson 2009

What might have been…?

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Confession time – I’m a real sucker for “What if..?” books and articles. You know, the whole alternative history thing: what would have happened, how would the world we know be different, if this hadn’t happened or that person hadn’t died, etc, etc. I lapped up Harry Turtledove’s “Worlds War” science fiction series, describing an alternative WW2 which was interrupted by an invasion of reptilian aliens. In that series the world eventually came together to fight and defeat the aliens, mastering interstellar travel in the process. It’s a rollicking rollercoaster of a ride, and I heartily recommend it to all of you.

Away from science fiction, books like this feed my fascination…

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This book – which I’ve wanted to buy for a while, and finally found in a charity shop today, yaay! 🙂 – features a whole bunch of thought-provoking “alternative history” scenarios. What would have happened if, say, Archduke Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated? How would history have changed if Britian had won the American War of Independance? What would have been the consequences if Guy Fawkes had succeeded in blowing up the Houses of Parliament (ooh, now there’s an image… thousands of MPs’ charred expenses claims forms falling from the London sky like confetti… I like that 🙂 )? Things like that.

… and it set me thinking – not for the first time – about how things might have turned out differently if, at key points in the exploration of space, this had happened instead of that.

There are some really obvious “What if..?” scenarios, of course. What if Apollo 11 had failed in some way? Would NASA have recovered, or would it have crippled the Apollo program? What would have happened if Nixon hadn’t crucified NASA and forced the cancellation of the last planned Apollo missions? Would there be a manned outpost on the Moon right now, instead of one being planned for 20whenever? What would have happened if Russia’s giant Moon rocket hadn’t blown up on the pad, and Russia had beaten the US to the Moon, winning the Space Race? What would have happened if we had kept going after the Moon, reaching out for Mars, the moons of Jupiter and beyond..?

But there are some less obvious and, in my mind, rather more thought-provoking scenarios, too. For example, what if Apollo 13’s Service Module hadn’t blown up en-route to the Moon? What discoveries might Jim Lovell and his crew made on the Moon, what beautiful images would  they have returned, how many fascinating, important and unique rock samples might they  have discovered there? We’ll never know…

Away from Apollo, what if Challenger hadn’t blown up, apart from the obvious consequences for launching spaceprobes and the ISS project?

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If Christa McAuliffe had made it into orbit, how many tens of thousands – maybe even tens of millions – of children would her lessons broadcast from space have inspired? How many more more astronomers, physicists and astronauts might there have been now if kids had been able to see Christa floating around inside Challenger’s mid-deck, describing, in everyday language, not the cold, effecient, tech-speak of many (not all) astronauts, what it was really like to be in space? Upon her return, how many more people – not just children – would her Outreach work have inspired..? Thinking about that lost opportunity for inspiring a whole generation genuinely saddens me…

Away from Earth, what would have happened if Carl Sagan’s dream had come true and Viking 1 or 2 had actually found definitive proof of life on Mars?

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Would there then have been a mad scramble to send more sophisticated probes to Mars, or would the discovery have kick-started a program to send a manned expedition to the Red Planet? Would we have seen astronauts bounding and bouncing across the martian surface two decades ago? Would we be sitting at our computers now, enjoying a live video feed from a martian base, watching astronauts holding up samples of martian life nourished and grown in their own lab..? Just imagine that…

One question that has nagged at me many times over the years concerns what many people think is one of the most significant events to ever occur in the SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) project: what would have happened if the famous “Wow!” signal of August 15th 1977 had been detected again?

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What would have happened if it was proved that the brief signal (from the direction of Sagittarius) actually was a communication from an extraterrestrial civilisation far away in space? Would there have been a global scientific effort to decode and make sense of the signal? Would the detection of an alien intelligence Out There have affected our day to day lives? Would religions have been challenged? Would a reply have been sent? Would that reply have been drafted carefully and slowly by world leaders, scientists and thinkers, or would it have been fired off rapidly and impulsively by amateur radio operators who took it upon themselves to send a greeting for all mankind? Now that makes you think, doesn’t it..?

Coming back home again, what would have happened if a comet – sayKohoutek, or maybe the famous “string of pearls” comet, Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 – had been found to be heading for Earth?

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Would that sphincter-tightening discovery have prompted an “Armageddon”-like international emergency space effort to go out and deflect or destroy it? Would it have led to us becoming, through necessity, a true spacefaring species, with a “lifeboat” or “Ark” base on the Moon, or Mars, to ensure some of humanity – or at least some of its art, culture and history – survived an unavoidable planet-killing impact?

But to be honest, a rather simpler and more personal “What if..?” has been on my mind for a while now. Going back to Apollo, what if Buzz Aldrin had been the first man on the Moon instead of Neil Armstrong?

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Now, your first – reasonable – reaction to that question might be “What difference would it have made?” but just take a moment to think about it. Compare the two mens’ characters. As has been well-documented, after returning from the Moon Neil Armstrong basically withdrew from public life and from the world of space exploration, preferring a life out of the spotlight. In contrast, Buzz Aldrin embraced the fame and public acclaim and attention that followed Apollo 11 and enjoyed talking about his Apollo experiences around the globe. Since then he has become a very high profile advocate for space exploration, through many books, interviews and projects, and is so passionate about Apollo and its legacy – and the needs for space to be explored in the future – that he even went so far once as to punch one of the people who insist, to this day, that NASA faked the Moon landings.

This particular “what if..?” question popped back into my mind – and inspired this post, actually – when I was bought recently a copy of a children’s book written by Buzz Aldrin…

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It’s a great read, a very personal account of how Aldrin was inspired by flight and exploration during his childhood. And reading it set me wondering how differently things might have turned out if Aldrin and not Armstrong had been the first down Eagle’s ladder and onto the Moon. Upon the crew’s return to Earth, as Aldrin rejoiced in the mission’s achievements, sharing his experiences with pride and joy, would the world have been more captivated by the Apollo program than they were? Would NASA have had a better champion and ambassador in Aldrin than they did in Armstrong?

I mean absolutely no offense to Armstrong when I say this, but I’ve always thought, in the back of my mind, that Armstrong rather let NASA down by retreating from them and from the space program in the way he did. The world was desperate to hear from the First Man on The Moon, everyone wanted to hear, from him, what the Moon adventure was like, why it was important, why it mattered to them; NASA were in need of a champion too, someone to climb up on a wall and shout on their behalf. Of course, Armstrong had every right to shun the spotlight as he did, NASA and the world beyond didn’t own him.

But I have always wondered… maybe even, if I’m honest, perhaps sometimes wished… that the more joyous, more open, more excited Aldrin had taken that One Small Step. If he had, I think things might have been different.

But that’s the keyword, isn’t it? Might. We’ve no way of knowing.

But it’s fun to imagine “what if…?” 🙂

Hubble EVAs – one down, four to go..!

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I spent a lot of yesterday – and I mean a lot! – glued to my computer monitor, following the first spacewalk by the crew of shuttle Atlantis as they service the Hubble Space Telescope. By “following”, of course I mean clicking endlessly between NASA TV and Twitter. Following Twitter during the spacewalk was pretty amazing: reading and replying to the comments coming in from a dozen or so different Twitterers at NASA and across the world really added a new dimension to the whole thing. But NASA TV was the main attraction, and watching the spacewalk through NASA TV’s coverage really was like being in the shuttle’s payload bay with the astronauts.

The task of the first pair of intrepid spacewalkers was to remove the “old” wide field planetary camera (WFPC2) and replace it with a brand spanking new WFPC3 that, if fitted, would give Hubble dramatically better image gathering capability, and usher in a new era of even more breathtking space photography and science.

The WFPC camera is basically the size of a piano, and removing it from the Hubble’s tube was never going to be easy, but no-one expected it to be quite as hard as it was. The spacewalk didn’t start off well. It soon became apparrent that the bolt securing the camera was stiff, maybe even stuck, and repeated attempts to remove it failed…

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So, like any good repair men, the spacewalkers went to get some different tools – but they didn’t work either. By this time there was real concern that the old camera was simply not going to budge, and might have to be left inside Hubble to carry on its work, leaving the new, better WFPC stowed away in Atlantis’ payload bay for return to Earth, essentially useless for anything but being put on display in a museum…

But of course NASA never gives up on any problem without a fight (as the ever-heroic MER team are proving right now as they try and get poor Spirit free from its latest – and easily most dangerous yet – predicament, it is well and truly stuck in the dust, with its wheels literally buried… 😦 ), its astronauts especially so, and so they kept trying… and trying… and trying…

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NASA TV showed what I thought was quite amazing footage of the two spacewalking astronauts huddled together in front of the stubborn panel, helping each other, working together, clearly frustrated but not giving in to their frustration, and watching them working as a team was very inspiring, I have to say.

Eventually their efforts paid off, and the offending bolt started to move! Cue huge sighs of relief all round, both onboard Atlantis on orbit and at Mission Control on Earth far below, and the celebrations amongst those of us gathered together on Twitter were great fun too! Soon the old WFPC was being slid out of Hubble and manouvered gently down to a storage box in the payload bay below…

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…and soon after that the replacement camera was slowly but surely slotted into place. 🙂 It was a real triumph for everyone involved – the astronauts and the controllers, engineers and techs down on the ground, and an enormous relief too, because make no mistake about it, the failure to install the new camera would have been a major blow to the mission.

I think it also showed, very clearly, the worth of PEOPLE in space, at a time when NASA is under a lot of scrutiny and pressure, and manned spaceflight is being criticised. Robots couldn’t have done that, they simply couldn’t have. Why? Well, not because of any lack of manual dexterity, or equipment, but because they don’t have that basic, stubborn-as-a-mule human drive to beat a challenge and overcome a problem. Robots can’t – and never will – think “You WILL come out, you little *********!!!” when faced with a stuck bolt; they can’t – and never will – be able to feel the weight of a wrench in their hands and know instinctively just how much farther and harder they can turn it before either freeing a stuck bolt or breaking it. Robots are great, I love them. But put a determined man or woman in a spacesuit, and give them a task – inside a space shuttle’s payload bay, crawling around on the outside of the space station, or standing on the surface of the Moon or Mars – and they will bust a gut to achieve that task. I’m not American, but I was SO proud of those spacewalkers yesterday. 🙂 And, just for fun, I came up with a n ‘alternative’ mission patch for the crew… 🙂

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 Eventually the EVA ended, and the tired spacewalkers went back inside Atlantis for a well-earned rest and, I’m sure, more than a few back-slaps, whoops and high 5’s from their crewmates. Thanks to their efforts, when Hubble is released again it will be a far, far better camera, and will be able to take and send back images even more breathtaking that before. I can’t wait to see them!

A busy day “up there”…

Today must rank as one the busiest ever days “up there” in space. Less than an hour ago an Ariane 5 rocket – sorry, a MIGHTY Ariane 5 rocket! – blasted off spectacularly from the ESA space port at Kourou, French Guiana, and succesfully carried two telescopes up into Earth orbit. As you read this the HERSCHEL and PLANCK observatories are safely on their way to their parking orbits, and there must be a LOT of relieved people at ESA…!

I really need to take a moment here to congratulate ESA on their live coverage of the Ariane launch. It was superb, it really was. A combination of live footage, mini-documentary videos and commentary, it was easily the best launch coverage I’ve ever seen from ESA. Well done everyone involved. 🙂

And now, as you read this, two astronauts are starting a very challenging spacewalk in the payload bay of the shuttle Atlantis, which last night docked succesfully with the Hubble Space Telescope. Today’s task is to remove the old Wide Field Planetary Camera and replace it with a cutting edge, brand spanking new v3 WFPC. I’m watching NASA TV as I type this, and they seem to be having a few niggling problems, but I’m sure all will be well.

Very busy day up there… what amazing times we live in… 🙂

NASA not too worried about shuttle wing ding…

It looks like the space shuttle ATLANTIS was hit by some debris as it thundered up into orbit on Monday. An inspection with cameras mounted on the end of the robot arm yesterday revealed some damage to the thermal tiles along the front edge of the starboard wing…

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However, detailed study of the images by NASA experts has suggested that the damage is quite superficial – the “scars” are quite shallow, and the tiles themselves are very thick and sturdy – and poses no threat to the orbiter during re-entry. And as NASA has gone so far as to say that there’s no need for an even more detailed inspection I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t causing and sleepless nights over there.

Today is the Big Day for the Atlantis crew. Well, the first Big Day! Today’s the day they rendezvous and dock with the Hubble Space Telescope and gently secure it in the shuttle’s payload bay in preparation for doing their Kwik Fit job on it during 5 complicated and risky spacewalks. In a few hours (hopefully before I have to go to work) we will see Hubble emerge from the darkness above the shuttle. A lot of people will be interested to see what sort of state it’s in – will it look all shiny and shipshape, or will it have been hit and damaged by impacts with space debris since it was last seen years ago?

We’ll know in a few hours. Come back here for pics, and don’t forget you can follow the mission live on NASA TV and it’s all over Twitter too.