Odds and Ends

Tomorrow I’ll try to share another old Flight Director war story.  The last one set off quite the email chain at work as all the old SRAG guys felt like I was complaining about their work; not at all.  Let me set the record straight; the folks that keep watch over the crew’s health and their possible radiation exposure are thoroughly professional and very dedicated.  And they mainly scare the Flight Director to death when they appear in the Flight Control Room.   The moral of my previous story is that there is a lot to know about how to fly safely in space and rookie Flight Directors are dangerous.  Tomorrow I’ll try to post another example of that. 

I had a little free time in Paris and tried to exercise the other hemisphere of my brain by going to the Musee d’Orsay, which is an art museum specializing in late 19th century to early (pre WWI) 20th century art.  I have a liking for the impressionist school and my friend from Marshall, Dr. John Horack likes the pointellists so I thought this would be a good place to improve my art appreciation.  The museum is housed in a converted 19th century train station and I must say that the building itself is as much a work of art as anything inside.  I am fascinated by trains and railroads and looking at this wonderful structure was great. 

The art is wonderful, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Monet, and many many more.  It seemed like the artists have a few favorite subjects that appear again and again, however.  Among the popular subjects are scenes from the Bible, French peasant life, French countrysides, Paris street scenes, and the number one favorite subject of all the artists:  . . . nekkid ladies.  Hmm.  I guess that is how Paris got its reputation.

Being an engineer, I started looking for picures of technology and noticed how little there was.  An ox cart here and there.  A few sailboats, usually fishing sloops.  In the battle scenes there might be a cannon  or two.  But here they were in the middle of the industrial age with steam railroads, the dawn of aviation, and . . . almost nothing.  A couple of trains in the distance in landscape paintings, but nothing else.  Oh wait, hidden away in the corner was this little picture:


Bleriot’s little yellow monoplane crossing the English channel; one of the most significant events of early aviation history — and nothing else.  And even so, the clouds and their interesting play of light and shadow are the real subject of the painting, not the airplane.  And that was it; nothing from the Wright Brother’s famous exhibition in Paris.  Nothing.  Technology did not exist to these guys.  Engineering and technology was not a fitting subject for their art work. 


I thought about the great art work that I have seen at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington or in the Kennedy Spaceport in Florida.  People and landscapes show up there, but that art includes our machines and what we have done with them.  Even more to my liking. 

Now, do I have to connect the dots for you?  Art reflects what the artists think is important; great art reflects what the society thinks is important.  

Yes, you can learn a lot if you travel and observe and reflect on what you have seen.


I couldn’t get to the computer yesterday to write, and thought I’d spend a very brief report on what is going on for the last couple of days.

I’m traveling with several senior NASA officials to London and Paris to have high level talks with the leaders of other national space organizations.  Going into space — to the International Space Station, or sending robotic probes to obtain various scientific data, or even in the future returning to the moon and going on to Mars — going into space is international in scope.  I guess what I am learning is how to work with the rest of the world.

Our first day was filled with meetings with the British government, both the executive side and the legislative side.  There is quite a bit of cooperation with the British government, but they have many of the same problems and concerns that the United States has in regards to space exploration.  It was very interesting to meet these folks and talk with them.  I think good will come from this.

Going to the Farnborough air show was interesting.  For the longest time I didn’t think we were going to get to see any airplanes fly.  When I was growing up, going to the airshow meant looking at the parked planes on the ground and then seeing them fly.  This airshow is all about business deals.  Everybody who is anybody in the global aerospace business has a space at Farnborough.  You can see everybody all at once.  And we did.

We spent the better part of our day at the airshow in little conference rooms meeting with the heads of the various aerospace firms.  Topics were very high level but mostly consisted in making sure that we were all working well together on the various projects that are going forward.  I’m happy to pass along that the reports were good.

We managed to watch the planes fly for about an hour, and it was great.  The fighters put on aerobatic shows that were phenomenal.  Lots of great aircraft were there.

This morning we traveled to Paris.  Straight to the meeting rooms.  In one of the most beautiful and interesting cities in the world and we spent the afternoon locked in meetings with the leaders of the national space agencies from around the world.  Tomorrow will be more of the same.  These Heads of Agencies meetings happen about every 18 months or so.  It is a chance for everybody to discuss and plan at high levels.  More good meetings, not very exciting.  A lot of work is like that, not exciting but very important.

Anyway we had a nice French dinner with all our international collegues. More work was done between the appetizer and the main course and by dessert some loose ends were tied up.

Whew.  This is a long way from Mission Control.  A lot less exciting than watching the shuttle launch.  Not technical in the usual sense.  But vitally important.

I’m learning a lot.  Hope to get on and update the blog tomorrow but no promises. 

Travel can be very educational.


Old Flight Director War Stories

We have had a splendid day in London building cooperation in space with our oldest ally.  Some time later I’ll have to tell you all about it.   Right now, by popular demand, I thought I’d tell a story about what happened to me when I was a brand new shuttle Flight Director.  It sorta ties into some of last week’s blog and I promise it won’t be pithy or pontificate . . .

It was a DoD flight, we still can’t talk about the payload or what we accomplished, but it was my first flight and it was a high inclination flight when most of the early shuttle flights had been low inclination.  High inclination means the orbit goes further north and south than usual, “inclination” being the technical term for the angle at which the orbit crosses the equator which is equivalent to the highest latitude (north or south) that the orbit reaches. 

Your first flight is full of overconfidence and fear at the same time.  There was a lot that the training had given me but there was a lot that I didn’t know.  And was about to find out.  For good reason, first time flight director’s are put on the planning shift:  the crew is asleep and there is little to nothing happening in space, the flight control team on that shift is to see if any modifications are required to the pre-flight plan for the next day and get those sent up to the crew (in those days by teleprinter).  I have seen many a senior flight director come in for shift change, read the flight plan updates that the rookie flight director’s team built “overnight” and throw them in the trash.  It is not a confidence building experience.  As a matter of fact, the Orbit 1 Team Flight Director is usually the Lead Flight Director who has been doing nothing but preparing exclusively for this particular flight for the better part of a year pre-flight.  Therefore he knows more about what the objectives are and how to accomplish them than anybody else. The Orbit 1 Team Flight Director is always a senior, seasoned, experienced, Flight Director who knows the astronaut crew members personally.  The Planning Team Flight Director is usually the rookie, usually assigned two months before the flight, nervous and cocky at the same time.  There may be a few big egos in the Flight Director Office (that was ironic — there are lots of big egos there).

Anyway, about the fourth night, I got a call from one of the back room guys that I had only been briefed about, they never participated in the simulations.  I was ready for leaks to appear in the EECOM systems (like they did on Lee Briscoe’s first flight on the planning shift), thrusters to fail off in the RCS system, IMU dilemmas to appear in the GNC systems.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the etherial call over the headset from SRAG.  I say etherial because most of the operators are present in the Flight Control Room.  I could throw an eraser or something harder at them if they weren’t playing by the rules. But SRAG lived alone in a locked room upstairs in Mission Control.  If this were the ‘day shift’ when the crew was awake, there would have been a Flight Surgeon on console and SRAG would have talked with them, but when the crew goes to bed, the Surgeons leave.  Always on call,  but assuming that nothing too bad can happen during crew sleep.

SRAG is about as bad as it gets.  The acronym stands for “Space Radiation Analysis Group” and that is as bad a subject as you can get into.  They have ‘technical methods’ that we don’t talk about.  Anyway, they called and said there had been a Solar ‘event’.  I love it we use euphemisms.  I had been briefed on solar ‘events’ and when SRAG reported that on the Flight Loop, I almost came out of my chair.  It was, as I clearly recall, about 2 AM in Houston.  All the really scary things in human space flight seem to happen at 2 AM. 

SRAG said they were coming down to see me in person.  This is really bad.  That means they didn’t want to talk about it on the Flight Loop because too many people around the world can monitor the conversations on the Flight Loop.  This is bad.  I spent a nervous 10 minutes chewing my fingernails as they made their way into the FCR.  In hushed tones they described the problem:  a major solar eruption that was sending electromagnetic radiation and highly charged particles toward the earth.  Early analysis said this would exceed the crew health limits when it got to us.  They advised taking no action now, they needed to do more analysis, and would be back with an update in an hour or so.  Then they left the FCR.  Quietly.  And I was left alone with my thoughts.  I pulled out the flight rules and read over the ones dealing with space radiation.  The numbers SRAG predicted called for an emergency deorbit to protect the crew.  This was no drill.  I got on the phone and called my boss.  When you are chief of the Flight Director Office, you expect to get some number of calls at 2:30 in the morning.

Lee told me to take a deep breath and call me when they came back with their analysis in an hour.

It was a long hour.  Waiting.

It turned into an hour and a half.  Two hours.  I couldn’t stand it any more and broadcasted blind on the Flight Loop:  “SRAG, this is FLIGHT, please come to the FCR”.  “Be there an a few minutes, Flight” came the disembodied reply.

15 long minutes later the door popped open and the SRAG guys (they always traveled in a group) came in.  In hushed tones they explained that their initial estimate had been high.  More observations indicated the radiation would be lower.  By this time I had memorized the radiation limit table in the Flight Rules.  Now we were at the level where the flight could continue only if there were high priority mission objectives to accomplish.  We were past that.  But it was no longer an emergency deorbit question, maybe a deorbit the next day at the opportunity for the primary landing site.  Ahh.  The Orbit 1 Flight Director could make that call, and scramble the Entry team if required.  Should I tell the crew?  “Don’t worry them Flight, we’ll know more in a few hours”.  After they left, I called my boss back and the Orbit 1 Flight Director (a couple of hours before his normal wake up time) and told them we might be looking at mission termination when the day shift came in. 

It seemed like just a few minutes later when the Orbit 1 Flight Director showed up in the FCR, fully awake and dressed.  He wasn’t going to let the rookie Flight Director end his mission early!  He listened to my briefing, told me I didn’t know jack . . .and flew out of the FCR to the locked SRAG room and beat on the door until they let him in. 

I left shift not knowing if the shuttle was going to deorbit in eight hours or not.  I crashed at home after the long sleepless night.  Hours later I woke up and called the MCC.  No deorbit today. 

On my shift the next evening, the SRAG guys had a new and lower prediction:  normal mission duration would be the plan.  They would have some “words for the crew” on their return.  What a wild night it had been.

After the crew landed, the doc’s met them and explained that they had probably received the biggest dose of radiation ever received by a space crew.  The Commander and his guys were NOT HAPPY.  You never want your Commander to be NOT HAPPY. 

Before the Crew debrief with the Flight Directors, the results from the onboard dosimeters were available.  Nowadays those results are on telemetry and available in “real time” during the mission.  But in the early days, they were only readable on the ground, post flight.  The results were:  . . .. normal levels of exposure.  The predictions had been wrong.  All of us on the ground who knew about the solar flare had been worried unnecessarily.  And the crew had  been furious, unnecessarily.

Later, we were briefed on improvements made to the radiation prediction tools.  And the folks that study such things said it would be awfully hard to get a significant dose of radiation inside the shuttle (not hard on EVA, though) since we fly below the Van Allen Belts; even at high latitudes.  Years more of study have improved our understanding, monitoring, and predicting even more.

What did I learn?  A lot.  But most importantly, always tell the crew.  That may have been one of my first, best, lessons as a Flight Director.

True story?  Absolutely.   At least the way I remember it . . . .






Serendipity – Part 5

I’m going to round out this little series on the serendipity of space travel with a discussion of what we have learned about the human body in space.  There are probably a thousand blogs that I could write on the serendipity of space travel so we will come back to this topic in the future.

Before 1961 the medical community was almost unanimous that space travel would be fatal to human beings.  Not only would it be impossible to swallow food or water without the affect of gravity, but the circulatory system would completely break down, fluids accumulate in the wrong places and the heart would not be able to pump blood adequately.

Early flights with mammals and then primates showed significant changes and while the animals generally survived, there were serious questions.  The first few manned flights were nail biters.  Fortunately everybody came back alive.  And some of the worst predictions were quickly shown to be false; for example swallowing is as much a function of peristalsis as it is gravity.  But serious changes in the human body did show up.

For exposure to zero gravity for a week or two, the human body showed remarkable adaptation ability.  But there were several close calls and many warning signs that things would not be well for longer duration flights.  The Skylab flights concentrated on trying to understand some of these changes and came back with alarming results.  Subsequently, many Space Shuttle flight experiments and studies refined the issues.  The redistribution of fluids in the cardiovascular system, changes in the structure of the bones and muscles, all were studied in detail through many shuttle flights and most effectively on the SpaceLab Life Sciences flights.

Some of the close calls that happened in the early shuttle days have still not been widely discussed.  But coping mechanisms, drug therapies, exercise protocols, and other means to control or reverse some of the physiological affects of zero gravity have been honed to a high degree.  Work continues on the International Space Station with long duration solutions as the goal.

We have found out a lot about the human body in space.  It is remarkably adaptable.  But there are limits and countermeasures must be applied and refined. 

Much of this work has application to medicine here on earth.  Many of the processes that accelerate in zero gravity are like the affects of aging.  Countermeasures for zero gravity can find some applications with older folks here on the ground.

Scientific journals are full of this stuff, yet it is so technical and the jargon so dense, these extraordinary findings are largely ignored by the media and thus by the general population.  In medical improvements for human life alone, the space program has more than paid for itself.

Next week I am on travel and we’ll see if I can continue this blog remotely!  If not, the problem won’t be with the internet but with the operator (me!).  See you then, I hope.

Serendipity Part 4 – The end of all things

One of the fundamental questions of mankind is what is the fate of the universe.  Hopefully its a long way off.  Astronomy has always factored into cosmology and it shouldn’t be any surprise that many of NASA’s probes have studied the factors that may determine our long term outcome.  Working with ground based observatories and scientists around the world, recent information has been startling.

First you have to understand that the universe is expanding.  Edwin Hubble, for whom the great orbiting observatory is named, discovered that objects at great distances from us are flying away from us with a speed that increases with their distance.  If you can measure their speed — which astronomers due by seeing how much the light from an object is shifted to the red end of the spectrum — you can get an accurate indication of how far away they are.  The conversion factor between red shift and distance is called the Hubble constant.  Edwin Hubble worked in the early part of the 20th century, this is all old news, where are we headed?

One of the big debates in cosmology is whether or not the universe is open or closed.  That is, will it expand forever with the stars getting farther and farther apart until the universe suffers what some have called a freezing death?  Or at some point will the universe start contracting, headed back toward that density that existed at the beginning which has been called the big crunch (opposite of the big bang)?  Turns out it is almost too close to call from the observations we could make from the ground.

But we started sending probes into space.  For example the Hubble (the telescope, not the astronomer) has started measuring red-shift and distance much more precisely than we can on the ground.  And we sent two probes to study the background radiation lingering from the Big Bang:  COBE and WMAP.  And they found . . . .that the speed at which the universe is expanding is . . . (drum roll) . . . accelerating!

How can that be?  Shouldn’t gravity be slowing things down?  Whew.  The theoreticians went to work with the data.  Turns out that Einstein had it right, except he thought he was wrong.  He had put a constant in one of his equations — the Comological Constant — which he later said was his biggest blunder.  Now, it seems it wasn’t a blunder at all.  Something is making the universe expand faster as time goes on. 

Scientists can’t see it, and they can’t measure it, but the only explanation they have for this phenomenon is dark energy.  Dark energy must pervade every cubic inch of the universe but we have never detected it.  It must cause this acceleration; that is the only possible explanation, so they say.

Whew.  Talk about finding out what you didn’t expect.  So the universe won’t end in the big freeze or the big crunch but will start expanding so fast that it will end in a big rip! 

I wouldn’t worry any time soon.  Likely long after we’re gone and long after the earth is baked to a cinder by a dying sun.

So why do we care?  Other than the academic interest, that is?

Could we do something with dark energy?  I mean, if we could get hold of it.  Might get more miles per gallon than gasoline!  We’ve just started to figure this out.  Some smart person, knowing that it is there, will figure out how to harness it.




Serendipity – Part 3

The universe is a dangerous place.  Extremely energetic radiation can come from unexpected directions at almost any time.

In 1957 we knew that the earth had a magnetic field — that is the reason why compasses point to the north — but scarcely understood the implications.  When the United States decided to launch Explorer 1 (after Sputnik and the Vanguard failure) a radiation detector was one of the principal instruments.  Its goal was to measure cosmic rays to see if they were as prevalent above the atmosphere as predictions indicated. 

After launch it appeared that the instrument periodically failed.  After Explorer 3 was launched and much analysis, the investigators at Iowa State University discovered that the reason the instrument failed was that the earth’s magnetic field trapped high energy radiation in bands which came to be known as the Van Allen Belts after the leader of the team.  These belts of trapped charged particles were basically unexpected.  A serendipitous find.

If the Earth and Mars and Venus all formed about the same location in the solar system, they should have similar basic constituents.  And so they do, except for oxygen on Earth (largely produced by plants) and water — abundant on Earth, lacking on Mars and Venus.  What caused this?  Both Mars and Venus have weak magnetic fields.  Solar radiation strikes the top of their atmosphere basically unimpeded while the Earth’s magnetic fields deflect most of it away; only a fraction comes into contact with the atmosphere and mostly at the magnetic poles — we can see that interaction as the aurora.  This radiation has the interesting property that it tends to split up molecules high in the atmosphere; H2O is broken down into hydrogen and oxygen and each constituent atom is energized to basically escape velocity.  The water on Mars and Venus likely evaporated away.

We knew none of this in 1957.  Some of it was suspected.  How it played together has been puzzled out ever since. 

The Earth has a planetary protection system.  Water is the necessary ingredient for life.  No strong magnetic field, no bands of trapped radiation, and your water leaves the planet.  No water, no life. 

It really isn’t all that simple, but that is close.  Close enough for the blogosphere anyway. 

Why does the Earth have such a strong magnetic field and Mars and Venus weak ones?  Yet another unlooked for event.  It has to do with the moon.  Moon rocks are unlike almost any on earth, but in a family resemblance sort of way are like the rocks on the earth’s crust, quite different from what we think the composition of the earth’s mantle or core may be.  And the crust of the Earth is considerably thinner than the crust of Mars or Venus.  And the moon basically doesn’t have a mantle or molten core (or magnetic field for that matter).  What is going on?

The best hypothesis — the scientific guess that best matches the available data — is that early in Earth’s history, a Mars sized planet collided with Earth and the two planets blurped together (that’s not a scientific term).  Most of the heavy mantle and core type stuff stayed in what would become the Earth and most of the lighter crust type stuff got thrown off into space by the violence of the collision and subsequently coalesced into the Moon.  All of this is backed up by computations, mathematical models, and lots of long scientific papers that you probably don’t want to read.  And it took going to the moon and bringing back rocks and studying them in detail to make this clear. 

The Earth’s large core and mantle generate the magnetic field.  Venus, although almost the twin of Earth in total size and mass, does not have nearly as large a core and mantle.  Poor little Mars, about half the size of Earth, with a thick crust and small core, is basically frozen.  No magnetic field to speak of at either Mars or Earth.

So when you look at Earth, it really is unique among the rocky planets of the solar system.  Makes you feel special doesn’t it? 

We would never have known half this stuff if we hadn’t ventured off the planet, gone to the Moon, sent probes to Mars and Venus, and then thought really hard about what it means to have Van Allen Belts.

You may well ask, “so what?”  This planetary protection is there and its natural and we can’t do anything about it. 

Well, not exactly.  But when mankind releases chemicals which punch out the ozone layer, we are affecting life on Earth in very significant ways.  We stopped producing and releasing CFCs because of that damage.  In the early 1960’s, the United States exploded an atomic bomb in the middle of the Van Allen Belts.  Totally disrupted them for weeks.  Now we have a treaty not to do that sort of thing again.  Its good to know how your planetary protection system works so you don’t mess it up.

Seems like there should be a moral here . . . .


Oh yeah.  Going into space has allowed us to find out things that we didn’t have any idea about — and which are really important to our continued survival.

Serendipity — Part 2 – a warning


From the Merriam-Webster On-Line Dictionary:

Serendipity   ser·en·dip·i·ty  Pronunciation: -di-pə-tē noun Etymology: from its possession by the heroes of the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip 1754

: the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also : an instance of this
Sometimes, when you look you find out things that you never expected to find.  Unfortunately, sometimes what you find out is not always agreeable; but maybe necessary.  Forewarned is forearmed, so the saying goes.  Dr. John Horack of Marshall Space Flight Center’s Science and Mission Systems office alerted me to an unusual discovery made by NASA in the jungles of Guatemala.
This is the story of a series of satellites and the ground based analysis of their data.  First of all, the satellites were not constructed to be an archeological tool. They were intended to monitor many things on the earth, in particular plant growth to help understand how agriculture and forestry could be improved.  To do this, the instruments lofted into space looked at various spectral bands in ways the human eye cannot see.  Flying over the Peten basin of Guatemala in the dry season, they collected data which amounted to plant health.  Ground processing with intricate computer codes extracted patterns from the raw data.  And these patterns meant something very interesting.
The Maya created a great civilization that lasted the better part of a millennium.  At the time they were unsurpassed in astronomy and mathematics, especially when compared to Europe, deep in its dark ages.  The Maya were on par with the great Arabian scientists and philosophers of the same era whose algebra is still bedevils schoolchildren.  The Mayan empire stretched across meso-america and their influence was felt by all peoples for a thousand miles north and south. 
But their civilization suddenly collapsed.  We don’t really know why.  Just collapsed.  No record of a war, perhaps it was a plague, but nobody knows.  Most of the Mayan ruins lie in the all but impenetrable forests of central America.  Archeologists suspect that as late as a decade ago, less than 1% of the Mayan ruins had been studied.  The Peten basin was the nexus of their homeland, today it is largely uninhabited and wild.  In the middle of what amounted to a resource desert, the Maya had built a huge concentrated metroplex.  The population density exceeded that of the most populated areas of China or India today.  Food production, water distribution, waste management were all the subject of intense planning and construction.  Until the day it was all abandoned.


Ground processing of satellite data during the region’s dry season detected subtle spectral differences in signatures from the canopy tops.  In regular patterns some of the flora was more stressed — imperceptible to the human eye — than the surrounding vegetation.  With GPS precision, archeological teams were sent to some of these places and discovered — ruins: aqueducts, buildings, temples, homes — an entire civilization mapped precisely by the change their foundations made to the soil. 
Recent computer modeling of the local climate may give some clues as to why this happened.  In the natural cycle there are periods which are drier and periods which are wetter.  With proper understanding and accomodation, humans have dealt with such cycles with reasonable inconvenience.  However, when the dry cycle hit central America in the 9th century, the Maya had deforested the entire region.  The computer models predict that temperatures rose significantly than would have been the case if the vegetation had been intact.  The hydrological cycle was interrupted because the moisture naturally exhaled by trees.  The models show the rains didn’t merely diminsh, they quit altogether.  Food production must have collapsed; the water system must have dried up when the reservoirs were no longer refilled.  Civilization as the Maya knew it came abruptly to an end.  And the people either died or walked away. 
When the European explorers came 500 years later, the Maya still existed in small pockets, but they were no longer a great civilization; just another native tribe which was swept away with the others.
So what is the lesson for us?  There is a lot of debate about global climate change these days.  I don’t know what you think about global climate change — is it happening or not, is it man made or not — and perhaps that debate is extraneous to the central history lesson of the Maya.  Here is the lesson:  if you don’t understand what you are doing to your neighborhood, bad things can happen.  Really bad things.  So learn, understand, and adjust accordingly. 
If we don’t learn anything else from the collapse of the Maya, that is probably enough. 
And nobody foresaw that we would figure this out by sending satellites into space. 
Serendipity — with a warning. 
You can read more about it here:

Serendipity – Part 1

One of the benefits that space exploration brings to mankind is a happy serendipity.  I have several examples of serendipity that we should explore together, but since folks may be unfamiliar with the term, here is a short personal story to illustrate how serendipity works in science.

When my daughter was in middle school, participation in the annual science fair was mandatory.  Lacking any ideas on a good project, she asked a family friend — an avid amateur astronomer — if he could recommend a good project.  Yes, one that his daughter had done a few years before, finding the rotation rate of the sun.  Easily done with a telescope, look for sunspots every day and track how fast they move across the solar disk.  This determines how quickly the sun turns on its axis.

As a bonus for later, my friend informed me privately that this is a trick question!  At the bottom is the secret.

We borrowed his telescope and learned many things right away:  first and foremost is safety.  Never look directly through a telescope or binoculars at the sun!  Also, the telescope can focus the sun’s rays enough to set the telescope on fire (this happened to our friend’s daughter).  We learned how to set up the telescope, collimate it, mask off part of the aperture, set up a projection board so that the image could be traced on paper, etc., etc.  We learned a lot very quickly.  I say “we” because as all parents know, science fair projects are a family activity.

Part of the official science fair process required my daughter to make a ‘hypothesis’ before starting the project that she was to prove or disprove.  Her hypothesis was something like this: “the sun will turn on its axis about every week”.  The science fair rules required proof or disproof of this hypothesis.

So after school, we started observing.  Immediately she encountered a problem:  the projected disk of the sun was completely blank.  The telescope setup was checked and rechecked.  Many days in a row, the solar disk always showed a blank.  We called the astronomer friend and tried every recommendation he gave us.  Nothing.  Just a blank, bright, sharply-focused circle of light.

Time was running short.  No data, no project; no project, no passing grade. 

So my daughter started reading up on the sun and sunspots.  Guess what?  Sunspots come in an 11 year cycle and it was right at the sunspot minimum.  Reports from professional observatories all agreed — no sunspots at this time.

Serendipity – finding something that you didn’t expect to find.  Who would have guessed that sunspots come and go?

My daughter learned a lot about the sun and sunspots.  But it didn’t prove or disprove her hypothesis.  The project was due, so she wrote up what she had learned — and what serendipity means — and put together a presentation about how sometimes in science you find out things that you didn’t expect.  Since hers was one of the very few astronomy projects at her school, this presentation got a blue ribbon in its category and the permission to go to the county science fair.

Our community straddles two counties, so she was allowed to compete in both science fairs which were two weeks apart.  In the first science fair, the judges loved my daughter’s project, her presentation, and her conclusion.  She won a big trophy, an impressive calculator, and a certificate for a free dinner at a fancy restaurant.  Quite a haul for the science fair project that went bust.

At the other science fair, she ran into a different mind set.  The judges said: you never proved or disproved your hypothesis. 

Yes, she knew that, but look what she did find out!  Sunspots come and go in cycles.  Isn’t that important?  And in science isn’t it important to have an open mind, sharp observational skills, and the ability to recognize what you didn’t expect? 

Not at all said the judges.  The rules are specific, prove or disprove your hypothesis.  No data, no conclusion, no project, no prize.  We walked out with a poorly xeroxed certificate of participation.  And marveled at the difference between the two mindsets.

So, rather than a dictionary definition of serendipity, I thought a real world, personal story might be a better illustration.  Many discoveries have been made by people looking for something else: vulcanized rubber, penicillin, the moons of Jupiter.  If science so narrowly defined as simply proving or disproving a previously defined hypothesis, we would not have made nearly as much progress and we have.

NASA has had more than a few examples of serendipity.  This week, that is my topic: serendipity.  Space exploration — finding out things that we didn’t expect.


Oh, the trick question?  Did you know that the sun is a ball of gas and at different latitudes it rotates at different speeds?  Our friend set my daughter up!  Her hypothesis was going to be wrong no matter what, and she was going to discover something she didn’t expect even if sunspots had been everywhere.  Serendipity bound, she was.

She still has the telescope we made later that year.  And she still has the interest in astronomy that started with no sunspots.  To my mind that is the best science fair prize of all.   

Thoughts for Independence Day

Taking a little different tack today — tomorrow is official birthday of the United States of America and it is time for Americans – and the rest of the world – to remember why the United States is as it is

At NASA we fall under the Constitution; yet in 1789 nobody believed that flying to the moon or the planets would ever be possible.  Yet that controlling document says that the national government is to “promote the general Welfare”  and thus it allows the United States to pursue exploration of realms unimaginable two centuries ago.

Here are two short stories that are worth pondering if you want to understand America.


It quickly became fashionable that the July 4 celebration include speeches and other commemorations. At one particular event early in the 19th century a Federal District Court judge was the master of ceremonies.  The dignitaries on the platform included an old farmer who had fought at Concord on April 19, 1775,  “where the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world.” 

The judge called the old farmer to the podium and asked, “Were you fighting because of the tax on tea?” 

“No, ” the old farmer replied, “we never drank tea.” 

Trying again, the judge asked, “Were you fighting because of the Stamp Act?” 

“No” came the reply. The old man allowed that he had never seen any of those stamps. 

Getting desperate, the judge said, “Well, you must have been reading Thomas Locke on the Rights of Man.”

“No” said the farmer; “Our only books were the Bible, Isaac Watt’s Psalms, and the Farmer’s Almanac.” 

Flustered, the judge asked “Well then, tell us: why did you fight the redcoats that day?” 

The old farmer replied: “As long as anybody could remember, we had been running our own affairs.  Those soldiers were coming down the road to take that away from us.”


The chief revolutionary was George Washington, “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of his Countrymen.”  George is not the greatest writer America has produced.  Much of his writing is a tough read.  But read this passage from his Circular to the States written as the Continental army disbanded in 1783.  And think particularly about the very last sentence which I have emphasized.


The citizens of America, placed in the most enviable condition, as the sole lords and proprietors of a vast tract of continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the world, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now, by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and independency.


They are, from this period, to be considered as the actors on a most conspicuous theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.


Here they are not only surrounded with every thing, which can contribute to the completion of private and domestic enjoyment; but Heaven has crowned all its other blessings, by giving a fairer opportunity for political happiness, than any other nation has ever been favored with.

Nothing can illustrate these observations more forcibly, than as recollection of the happy conjuncture of times and circumstances, under which our republic assumed its rank among the nations.


The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of ignorance and superstition; but at an epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period.


The researches of the human mind after social happiness have been carried to a great extent; the treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labors of philosophers, sages, and legislators, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the establishment of our forms of government.


The free cultivation of letters, the unbounded extension of growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of society.


At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a nation; and, if their citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.


Have a thoughtful Fourth of July.  Here is a picture I took outside the National Archives, the quotation is from Jefferson:

Statue with text: Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty

Questions and Answers

I’ve been LOS for the last few days.  LOS means loss of signal and in the lingo of Mission Control that means that you cannot talk with the astronauts because the radio signal is blocked.  My LOS was caused by taking a couple of days off (personal business!! Or rather my wife’s honey-do list!) and not having the Blog software set up on my home computer . . .

Anyway, this is a good day to tackle some of the comments and questions that folks have been posting, so here goes.  I’ll start with the easy ones first and work up to the harder ones.

Bob Mahoney had a question about posting comments to my blog.  First of all Bob, I don’t know why special characters would block out your posts but there may be some weird software thing there that I don’t know about.  Secondly, all comments to this blog are moderated (a NASA requirement since this is an official NASA blog) and the moderator is me.  So if you sent in a comment and it didn’t get posted, possibly it was because I found it offensive or off topic (not likely at least so far) or more likely because I was LOS (see above).  Obviously, this blog is not really my principal work duty . . . .

Dave Hromanik asked if Gene Kranz was going to appear at the NASA exhibit at the Smithsonian Folk Life festival on that National Mall in Washington, DC.  Dave, to the best of my ability to find out, the answer is no.  Sorry, Gene would have provided great commentary.  But he keeps a very full schedule for a retired guy and unless something changes he is not going to make this event.  See him on the Discovery channel most Sunday evenings when they show that great series “When we left Earth”

Coleton B. Cooke asked why the Ulysses probe is about to quit sending information back to earth.  Ulysses is a pretty deep space probe and uses radioisotope thermal generators to produce power.  Small amounts of radioactive material are embedded in a device that captures the heat from the natural decay and converts that to electrical power.  After 17 years the process of natural decay has resulted in heat/power levels that are not adequate to power the spacecraft.  As the rocket propellant freezes, the spacecraft will loose attitude control and no longer be able to point the radio antenna at earth.  Or even power the radio for that matter.  Wish we could “refuel” the probe, but its kinda far away . . . .

Coleton also asked if the wagon tracks from the Oregon trail are really still there.  Yes, in some places, they sure are.  I have seen them (and walked in the ruts) in a couple of places.  Check out this web page:  http://geoimages.berkeley.edu/geoimages/starrs/RUTS.html  Some things really do last for 160 or more years. 

Kenneth asked if we could devise a plan to keep the last Shuttle attached to the International Space Station as a new room.  Kenneth, there are a couple of reasons why this basically wouldn’t work.  First of all the shuttle is primarily water cooled.  That is, we use water evaporated (sublimated really) into space to cool the electronics.  Water is a precious commodity on the ISS and is mostly recycled.  If we can’t use the electronics on the shuttle then it is basically a dark cave that is going to get cold in a hurry after the lights go out.  Secondly, the weight of the shuttle will cause attitude control problems for the ISS over the long term.  Its OK for a short term docked mission, but over the long term the control system would have a hard time compensating for it.  But the biggest reason is this:  how do we get the guys that flew up on the shuttle back?  Sending more Soyuzes just to do that is probably cost prohibitive.  So, look for a Space Shuttle Orbiter at a museum near you after they retire in 2010.

Michael Mealing asked (in a round about way) what I thought about the various private efforts to fly into space?  Frankly I am very excited about these efforts and wish the various groups the very best luck in their efforts.  It is perfectly clear that for the long term exploitation of space, private enterprise has got to get involved in a big way.  The problem to date is that there has not been a good business case for private flights into space.  The space tourism industry may make this possible.  The up-front capital costs to build the first system is still huge and skeptical financial investors have not signed on; just a few visionaries who are willing to take on a high-cost, high-risk development project.  Once the first system flys and turns a profit, the whole business should grow quickly.  Anyway, I hope it will grow.  So GOOD LUCK to all those guys trying to get off the ground!

Ed Minchau wrote that it was “deceptive” of me to talk to children at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival and lead them to believe that they would have a chance to fly into space.  Ed, I certainly hope I wasn’t deceptive.  Obviously there are currently only a limited number of seats planned for rides into space.  But see above — I really do hope that private industry, perhaps aided by NASA through the Centennial Prizes or the COTS effort — will take off and allow lots of folks to go to space within MY lifetime.  Looking at the children, it is hard to say what might be possible in their lifetime.  If we give them a dream to shoot for.  Anyway, I made no promises that I couldn’t keep and told them each and every one straight out that I wasn’t handing out tickets but encouraging them to think about future careers in the space related jobs.  Hurt my feelings here, Ed.

Robert wrote that “space exploration is not meaningful enough . . . but space utilization is . . . what if it were NASA’s goal to deliver to earth by 2040 sufficient energy to . . . ” (fill in the blank).  Did you know that under President Carter, NASA was given the goal of developing fuel efficient automobiles?  Our heart really wasn’t in it, but we provided several technical improvements and build a roadmap to more efficient transportation which was handed over to the Department of Transportation, where it resides to this day.  When I was in college, there was a lot of talk about Space Power Satellites — unfortunately the business case did not close:  that would have been the most expensive electricity put into the national grid.  Times have changed and solar cells are cheaper and more efficient.  But the transportation costs to build an SPS (or lunar based power station) are still . ..  astronomical . . We need to get the transportation system up and working (and more economical) before we can talk about building power generating plants in space and maintain a straight face.  I personally like the Helium 3 fusion power plant.  Helium 3 is potentially the best fuel for a fusion power plant and Helium 3 is plentiful on the lunar surface.  Unfortunately nobody has built a working fusion power plant yet, and we still have to get back to the moon to dig up the Helium 3 . . . .So, one step at a time Robert.  Your idea is a good one, just the timeframe may be a bit longer.  In fact, I am positive your idea is the ONLY good way to power the planet — but in the long term.

Ticonderoga wrote “It is NOT the job of NASA to fly in space . . . it is to enable others to fly into space”.  To which I say amen.  The better job we do in getting more people into space in a more economical manner, the better it will be for all the pursuits that we can imagine in space.  So I think we are aligned in intention, maybe just the execution is different than what Ticonderoga would like to see.

I am about out of time today, so I close with one other comment that I really liked.  Scott wrote “none of NASA’s budget is spent in space . . . all of it is spent here on earth . . . to keep our technology competitive with that of other nations”.  Well said, Scott.

Keep those comments coming folks.  Some of the ideas are really energizing and thought provoking!