Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Majesty of an ISS flyby

It amazes me just how close we are to space. The thin blue line that separates us from the blackness of space is so thin that the equivalent drive on a freeway would take mere hours. The energy required to cross that line is so tremendous that only governments (and a few companies) have been able to cross it.

Yet, on many nights, seeing the human presence in space only requires your eyes. The International Space Station can be viewed flying over us with the naked eye, if you know where to look, what to look for, and when to look up.

The where and when depends on the station’s orbit and changes, so a good Internet site like is helpful. From here, you can enter your location and be told of the where and when. Remember that the when will always be around dawn or dusk and the where can be almost anywhere in the sky.

What to look for is an interesting question. If you’ve never seen an ISS flyby, you might not even notice it or might dismiss it as an airplane. The key to differentiating the ISS from other celestial objects is twofold. First, the ISS doesn’t sparkle, blink, or flicker, it’s a steady light heading across the sky. Second, nothing quite has the same speed of movement across the sky. The ISS moves at the same approximately 17,700MPH on each orbit, so its speed in crossing the sky won’t vary. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll know it and will be able to spot it from here on out.

Seeing an ISS flyby is an amazing experience for me because of the amazing skill and technology created and used to get it there. I’ve seen space shuttle launch. Felt the rumble and energy from 6 miles away and I can tell you how much power and thrust is required to get something into space. Looking up and seeing the ISS and its six international crewmembers flying over reminds me of how far we’ve come in the fifty years since man first left our planet.

ISS flybys are also magical because they can spark the imagination. Whether you’re young or old, you can look up and dream of being on board. If you’re my son, you can go so far as to reach out and touch the ISS from your perch here on earth.

If you’ve never seen an ISS flyby, it’s totally worth it. If you’ve seen one, go out and look again, you’ll be happy you did!

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Launch Windows

I’m in the midst of several launch windows right now. First, there’s the birth of my daughter, that window is 4 weeks long and opened on April 23rd. That’s going to be a very long window, closing on May 21st.

Today is home to the first of several short launch windows for the Space Shuttle Endeavour on its final mission to space. The launch is scheduled for 1247PDT today. The shuttle’s launch window to when flying to the International Space Station is a short one, lasting just under 10 minutes. There will be a launch window for the shuttle each day for the next several days.

To prepare for the shuttle launch, my son (who says his little sister is going to be an astronaut) wore his space jammies and countdown hat, as well as reading his shuttle operations manual.

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Thoughts on Orbiter Placement (Not From Me)

I’ve been reading some interesting blog entries and articles on why certain cities were selected to get the orbiters and others weren’t. These are the most interesting ones I’ve read:

Blog Entries

Wayne Hale  – Why Houston Did Not Get A Shuttle – Former NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager and Flight Director

Txflygirl – aka Cindy –  It’s more than a Space Shuttle – NASA worker at JSC

Michael Grabois – Don’t Blame NASA or Politics for an orbiter-less Houston  – NASA worker at JSC


New York Times – NASA Chooses Space Shuttles’ Retirement Homes

Opinion Pieces

Joanna Molloy – New York Daily News – New York Deserves More than Just a “Fake” Shuttle – I’m including this not because I think it’s particularly good writing or reasoning, rather because it’s provoked a lot of conversation on the topic

If you come across particularly pieces of writing on the topic, please let me know, I’d love to post them.

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Final Locations of the Orbiters

To quote the NASA release, “At a ceremony held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced the facilities where four shuttle orbiters will be displayed permanently at the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program.”

Discovery – OV-103 – National Air and Space Museum
Atlantis – OV-104 – KSC Visitor Complex
Endeavour – OV-105 – California Science Center – Los Angeles, CA
Enterprise – OV-101 – Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum – NY, NY

All in all, I think these are good selections, placing the oribiters where the most people will see them. Unfortunately, the squabbling and back biting has begun. Members of Congress are calling for investigations of the selection process. Residents of the cities who bid, but didn’t get an orbiter are saying how they are more deserving than the selected cities. A columnist from New York is saying that NY deserves an orbiter that’s been to space because New York is New York.

I don’t envy Gen. Bolden his decision and I trust that he made the right one, because he had all the information and I have none. However, without criticizing the decision, I would suggest that putting an orbiter in the center of the country would have been a good thing. I don’t know whether Houston deserved one out right because it is the home of JSC, but I will say that placing an orbiter off a coast would have been a good gesture. In terms of thoughts on why Houston didn’t get an orbiter, here are the thoughts of former Flight Director and Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale. To read some well thought out reasons on why Houston should have gotten an orbiter see Txflygirl’s blog.

Certainly, placing Discovery at the National Air and Space Museum is appropriate. The Smithsonian is the official home of our nation’s history, and having an orbiter there will give the respect that I think it deserves. Atlantis staying at KSC is also appropriate, as all Space Shuttle launches, indeed all manned launches from the United States have occurred there. As for Los Angeles, I think it’s fitting that an orbiter is going to near where they were built. New York isn’t an obvious choice to me, but it makes sense if the main criterion being used is number of probable visitors.

If I had to hazard a guess, I think that’s the criterion General Bolden used to select the final location for the orbiters. It’s a criterion that I can certainly understand and respect. I think it’s only appropriate that the orbiters, which have inspired a millions, be placed where the largest number of people will see them.

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What a Ride it’s Been

April 12th is a day of many anniversaries. This year, many of those anniversaries have even come in tens. 150 years ago today, the first shots were fired in the Civil War, pitting brother against brother in a battle for the very fiber of a nation. 50 years ago today, the first human left earth and entered space, starting a race between our nation and another that did a lot to better the human race and international cooperation. 33 years ago today, my wife was born! (Happy Birthday Sweetie!). 30 years ago today, the first launch of the Space Transportation System occurred, propelling the United States and the world to a new level of space exploration.

Just over 57 years after humans’ first flight, we left our planet for the first time. Eight years, three months, and eight days later, men first stood on the moon.

On this day in 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia, commanded by Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young and piloted by rookie astronaut Robert Crippen launched from the same launch pad from which all of the visitors to the moon (including Young himself) had launched from. This launch was the first of the most successful manned launch vehicle in the history of space travel. At the end of the Space Shuttle program in just a few months, 135 missions will have flown on five different orbiters, carrying over 350 people of many different nationalities to space. The Space Shuttle was was designed to have many different capacities and has served as a research vehicle, a military transport vehicle, a materials supply ferry, and most of all as a vehicle carrying the dreams of anyone who wanted to get to space.

Some people grew up with Mercury, some with Gemini, some with Apollo. Most who were alive at the time can remember when men first landed and walked on the moon. I grew up with the Space Shuttle. Some of the days that will stay with me forever are January 28, 1986 when the Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch; Februrary 1, 2003, when then Columbia disintegrated in the final hour of its mission; and April 5, 2010, when I got to watch Discovery launch from KSC. These days are forever burned in my memory and I will never forget them.

The Space Shuttle is a utilitarian vehicle, designed by committee to fulfill many tasks. However in that utilitarian design comes a system of immense beauty. The Shuttle is the world’s only reusable spacecraft, launched like a rocket and landing like an airplane. With over 1,000,000 moving parts, it’s the most complicated vehicle ever made by humans. To date, there have been 131 successful flights out of 135 attempts, which is a 98.4% success rate. Out of over 350 people launched on the shuttle, only 14 have been lost.

The losses of STS-51L and STS-107 were tragic. The Challenger disaster (STS-51L) occurred nineteen years after the Apollo 1 fire. The loss of Columbia (STS-107) occurred 17 years after Challenger was lost. These disaster all had similar human causes, while their technical causes were very different. Each of these disasters taught us that complacency is a very dangerous thing and in high risk endeavors, it can cause the loss of life. Brian Bassett, creator of the Red & Rover cartoon strip, put it best in this drawing:

So today, on the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle program, I want to take the time to thank the countless thousands of people have devoted their lives to keeping the Shuttles flying. Whether your’e an astronaut, a trainer, a flight controller, a propellant tech, an NBL diver, a public affairs officer, or one of the thousands of other positions that have kept the shuttles flying for three decades, THANK YOU for all that you do and have done! The human race and our planet is better because of the work you’ve done!

As the final two Shuttle launches approach, think about how different the world is from how it was at the first flight thirty years ago. When the Shuttles retire, we will buy seats from the Russians to get our astronauts into orbit. There is a space station orbiting the earth once every 90 minutes with components built around the world and launched in to space from three different continents. Humans have had a continuous presence in space for over 10 years, working together for the betterment of the species and our planet as a whole.

Again turing to Mr. Basset’s  comic strip, “What a ride it’s been!”


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STS-131 Launch, 1 Year Ago Today

One year ago today, I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I watched the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-131. It was truly amazing, not only because of experiencing the launch, but also because it’s set me down a path of space exploration that I’ve been on for the past year.

I’m not going to rehash the experience again, just link to my previous writings on the subject:

Today, the world is different. Discovery has has her last flight on the STS-133 mission. There are only two space shuttle missions left, SpaceX has announced the Falcon Heavy rocket, which might just revolutionize the space industry, and the russians have raised their Soyuz seat prices by 200%.

Who knows what is going to happen in the next few months and years when it comes to space. I’m confident that good will come of these changes, but it’s still a tough time in space travel…

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Ames Planet Hunters #NASATweetup

It was a quiet Friday morning. I got up, got dressed and headed out. Not to work but to the #NASATweetup at @NASAAmes Research Center in Mountain View. Rather than having to travel to Texas, like I did for the STS-132 #NASATweetup at JSC, I had to hop in my car and drive for an hour or so. To see all the pictures I took of the event, go to the Flickr set.

The morning started off with an informal breakfast with fellow tweeps at a restaurant near @NASA_Ames. It was great to meet some more space minded folks and to get an idea of how far people had traveled to come to the tweetup. After breakfast, we headed over to the Ames Exploration Center and started our day by milling about outside.

Once we got inside, we had some time to wander around and look at the various exhibits. My favorite, as could have been predicted was the moon rock brought back to earth on Apollo 15.

We then sat down and were greeted by John Yembrick, who is a #NASATweetup veteran, working for NASA HQ, but on loan to Ames. The Center Director, Pete Worden, then told us about the history of Ames, which was founded as a NACA (yes, I mean NACA) center and was second only to Langley in Virginia.

Following Gen. Worden, we jumped into the meat of the presentation. Natalie Batalha, Deputy Science Team Director for NASA’s Kepler Mission, told us how the Kepler probe, while looking at a fairly small portion of the sky, has found many planets outside out solar system, some of which are in the habitable zone of their star systems.

We learned how the scientists working on Kepler locate and confirm their planet candidates. It was an amazing presentation, but the best slide was of the first globe of an exoplanet ever made.

Unfortunately, it was lost by American Airlines on the flight back from the conference where Dr. Batalha received it as a gift, but it’s the thought that counts.

Next we learned about SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, which is a telescope mounted in a 747 that flies above 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere and does infrared astronomy.

Photo © Kate Arkless Gray

We then had a conversation with Dr. David Morrison, Director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. Dr. Morrison was an incredibly engaging speaker, who told us interestingly, looking at life on other planets, it’s most easy for us to detect life o the scale of microbes OR life on the human scale, but hard to find anything in between. He also quoted his thesis advisor by using the term, “Billions and Billions…”

Photo © Kate Arkless Gray

After Dr. Morrison, we headed to lunch in the Ames cafeteria, right next to the famous Hangar One, built for the USS Macon.

After lunch, the tour began. We headed over to the Control center for NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. On the way in, we came across undeniable proof that we were visiting a NASA Center.

Once inside, we visited the Kepler Control Center, the server room (No pictures allowed there) and then had a great presentation of how the Kepler mission works. In the control room there was a model of the spacecraft, conveniently sitting next to a box of sweet tarts.

The real presentation began with a profile of the Kepler mission:

Then they showed Kepler’s data analysis process:

Kepler locates planet candidates by seeing the changes in light as they pass in front of their respective stars. The data is expressed in different light curves. Jon Jenkins, a researcher with the Kepler program has put some of these light curves to music. The curves are very different, some sounding high, others low, some steady, some oscillating…

After visiting Kepler, we headed out to see some of the other parts of the Ames campus. Our next destination was the Future Flight center, one part of which is their Air Traffic Control Tower simulator… They first showed us a simulation of a yet to be built airport outside of Las Vegas. The simulation was so real that controller input can be combined with changes in traffic patterns and weather to accurately predict how traffic will move around the airport.

After they showed us the ATC simulation, they up some 360º pictures taken my the Mars rovers. The photos of this display didn’t work out too well, so none are featured here.

We then headed over to the Fluid Dynamics Lab, which houses some of Ames smaller wind tunnels, including the ones used by the Mythbusters in a couple of their shows. Once inside, we saw several different wind tunnels and assorted models used in the tunnels.

Of course, there was the “Things I don’t see in my office” moment.

And for a Shuttle geek like me, seeing this file cabinet with mission stickers from missions which the FDL worked on was extra cool.

Ames Research Center was the second research center founded by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, in 1939. Twenty years later, ARC was transferred to NASA. Some remnants of NACA remain on the site:

One of our hosts for the day was a part of NASA’s Information Security group and had this patch on his uniform, which I thought was particularly awesome.

We then visited the Vertical Motion Simulator, which is the world’s largest. Every Space Shuttle Commander and Pilot has trained a this facility. It has a range of motion of 60 vertical feet and 40 horizontal feet. The cab on the VMS the day we were there was the Space Shuttle Cockpit. We later also got to see the mockup of the new lunar lander.

Here’s a plaque of all the astronauts who have been trained at the VMS:

This is the view inside the Lunar Lander cab… (sorry for the image quality)

After viewing the VMS in action, we got to meet Astronaut Karol Bobko. He was the pilot on STS-6, the maiden voyage of Challenger; was the commander of STS-51-D on board Discovery; and also commanded STS-51-J on board Atlantis. He now runs the VMS at Ames.

At the end of the day, we gathered in front of the Ames Research Center headquarters building for our group photo.

After the official Tweetup ended, about 30 of us gathered for some food and libations at the Tied House in Mountain View. It was a great conclusion to a great experience. Thanks to @NASA_Ames, @spacesooner, and @yembrick for a great day!

Oh, I forgot to mention that I met @Camilla_SDO too!

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