Anniversaries and Calendars

As you all probably know, this week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of NASA and it is also the 51st anniversary of Sputnik and the start of the space age.  Last year on “Columbus Day”, I wrote a note to my shuttle troops on these anniversaries.  It may be cheating to recycle that letter, but I think it still applies.  Here it is:


Calendars are funny things.  We count time as very important and try to keep track of special days.  But the calendars and the seasons don’t always match up.  For example, every school child knows that Columbus discovered America on October 12. 


Well, not exactly.


It was October 12 on the Julian calendar which was already out of sync with the universe by 9 days in 1492.  So we should really celebrate the discovery of America on October 21st, not the 12th.


And who really sighted land first?  In the wee hours of October 12 (old style), it was Juan Rodriguez Bermeja de Triana aboard Their Most Catholic Majesty’s ship Pinta that called out “land ho” (Tierra!).


So Bermeja discovered America on October 21, 1492.


So much for the history books.




Fifty years is a long time.


We have just celebrated 50 years of space exploration.  How do our accomplishments rack up next to those of the age of discovery?


The first permanent settlement in what came to be the United States wasn’t established until 1565 when Juan Menendez de Aviles founded San Augustine not far up the coast from the recently named Cape Canaveral.  So it took more than 73 years to plant a city in what became our country.


How about exploration?  One of the greatest expeditions came 48 years after Columbus, err that is, Bermeja first sighted the new world.  That was the expedition of Francisco Vazquez de Coronada which explored what would become Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.  Coronado detached one of his officers named Tovar to explore along his western flank.  In turn, Tovar dispatched a scouting party under the command of Don Garcia Lopez de Cardenas.  Cardenas found one of the great natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.  And what did they think?  They thought they were great failures.  They were not the slightest bit interested in finding wonders in the natural world.  These early Conquistadors were motivated by the opportunity to convert the natives to Catholicism, to win glory for themselves, and perhaps to find gold.  Poor Cardenas didn’t convert many Indians, and his superior officer, Tovar got all the popular credit for finding the Grand Canyon (go there today and see whose name is most prominent). 


And if you study their own words, you might just come to the conclusion that the search for gold was their biggest motivation.  No gold, no glory, few converts, and Coronado felt he was a failure.  What a different perspective history puts on that expedition.


Not that those early explorers lacked courage.  Courage was in abundance.  Hernando Cortes took on the mightiest empire in the new world, the Aztecs.  Against an empire that on a regular basis could put upwards of 150,000 warriors on the battlefield against their enemies, Cortes marched in with about 400 soldiers of fortune.  Mostly by bravado and trickery the Castilians defeated their vastly more powerful adversaries.  Well, the captain from Castile had help from superior weaponry, and the biology of European diseases did the much of the rest, but it took a great deal of bravado just to go in the first place.  So the cruel and bloodthirsty Aztecs were defeated by the only slightly less cruel and bloodthirsty Castilians.


One of Cortes’ officers, Bernal Diaz, wrote the definitive eyewitness account of those days in 1521.  He could hardly believe his own story: 


“Those readers who are interested by this history must wonder at the great deeds we did in those days:  first in destroying our ships; then in daring to enter that strong city [Mexico City] despite many warnings that they would kill us once they had us inside; then in having the temerity to seize the great Montezuma, king of that country, in his own city and inside his very palace, and to throw him in chains. . . . Now that I am old, I often pause to consider the heroic actions of that time.  I seem to see them present before my eyes. . . .  For what soldiers in the world, numbering only four hundred – and we were even fewer – would have dared to enter a city as strong as Mexico, which is larger than Venice and more than four thousand five hundred miles away from our own Castile . . . There is much here to ponder on.”


It is not surprising that Bernal Diaz did not title his memoir The Exploration of New Spain, but gave the book the more accurate title:  The Conquest of New Spain. 


As explorers, the early Castilians did not know what they were doing.  They left no accounts of the wonders of the land or its people, merely the dreary endless stories of fighting, treachery, deception, and blood.


By comparison, peacefully landing a dozen expeditions on our nearest celestial neighbor and building a great international laboratory with the cooperation of the leading nations of the world doesn’t stack up too badly.  Comparing the first 50 years, that is with their first 50 years.


What else can we learn about this comparison of explorations?


Here is a short list:  Sometimes exploration goes slower than you would expect.  Don’t expect the history books to get it right.  Don’t expect to be remembered.  Doing the right thing for the wrong reason really can be OK.  Explore for the glory of doing it, for the experience of being part of something bigger than yourself.  Explore for the difference it will make in the lives of people, perhaps your great great great grandchildren in five hundred years.  Even if they won’t realize how much they owe you


A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to camp on a high shelf in the Rockies, far from city lights.  The evening was perfectly clear: no clouds, no pollution.  The moon was old and did not rise until well past midnight.  When the sun set, the most spectacular sight appeared: stars and planets,  satellites and meteors, the milky way so close you could reach out and touch the dark dusty lanes wandering through the innumerable crowds of stars.


There is a lot of exploring to do.  It is just beginning.  We should do it together with our friends.  In peace.  And if we do find somebody out there, we ought to treat them right. 


And someday, when future generations read our memoirs, they will wonder what it was like to be among the very first to start on the voyage of discovery. 


You old Conquistadors, they will envy you.


You see, in exploration you need to take the long view.


Where are the ships?

The International Astronautical Congress is having its 59th annual meeting in Glasgow, Scotland.  This is one of the oldest professional meetings for the space industry.  This is my first time to attend and it has been great.  There have been so many great discussions with the senior professionals and with the students; opportunities to hear the plans and projects for the future as well as the news from projects underway now with recent successes.  The opportunity to discuss mutual problems and mutual interests with people who have different perspectives makes you stretch, learn, and become more innovative.

Of real and particular interest to me were the discussions I had with the SpaceX people and Virgin Galactic.  These folks are building real spacecraft with private funds for commercial reasons.  Even more companies presented papers with plans for imaginative spacecraft that may become more than viewgraphs — or should I say, electrons — in the future.  The potential is enormous.

But the most challenging and best part of the conference for me occurred during a reception.  Now the reception was good, I had a long chat with several colleagues from Canada, Germany, and other places.  But the most striking thing was the location:  on the tall ship Glennlee moored on the river Clyde. 

The Glennlee was launched from a Glasgow shipyard in 1895; a sailing ship in the days of steam freighters.  It is now a museum outfitted for tourists and school children to learn about life at sea a hundred years ago.  Large displays show where she sailed — literally all over the world — and how the crew lived — very spartan.  There was even a long discussion about one of the crewmen who died at sea.  Wages were low, work was arduous, and every day was filled with hazards.  But they carried the freight for decades to ports all around the world.

Leaving the reception and the Glennlee, I walked along the banks of the Clyde reflecting on how many ships were built in Glasgow’s yards: freighters, battleships, channel ferries, even mighty ocean liners:  the two Queens of the 1930’s and the QE2 were built there.  For three hundred years, thousands of ships set sail from the Clyde bound for every place in the world a ship or river boat could reach.  They still build ships there, although fewer than in the heyday of ocean travel.  No great liners; just tankers and immense freighters. But they still build them, and they still set sail.

How long will it be until we have spaceship yards building thousands of spacecraft?  When will we reach the great age of Space Exploration when ships routinely set sail for all the ports in the Solar System? And whose ships will those be?

It is a good thing to preserve the past, to help us learn for the future.  But the Glennlee is forlorn; her yardarms barren of canvas.  No more does she sail from Glasgow harbor to the ports of the world. 

There is a pop culture moment that captures perfectly my mood.  When Elizabeth Swann tells Captain Jack Sparrow that returning to his ship would allow him to go anywhere in the Caribbean, the pirate replies:

“Not just the Spanish Main, love, the entire ocean, the entire world, wherever we want to go. 


That’s what a ship is, you know. 


It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails,

that’s what a ship needs. 


But what a ship is, . . .


What it really is,   


is freedom.”




Lots of talk these days about Shackleton crater at the South Pole of the Moon.  Many reasons why a base could be located there.  The smart guys tell us that it is likely water ice exists in dark parts of the craters near the pole; and on the rims of those self-same craters the sunlight is continuous.  Since almost all of the lunar surface is in darkness for half of the month, the rare location which has continuous sunlight is wonderful resource because it greatly enables power generation.  There are lots of reasons to consider having a lunar base at the poles.

Studying on lunar geography put me in mind of old Ernest Shackleton, who is honored by having a significant crater named for him.  There are several excellent biographies out on Ernest, and his book “South” is still in print.  There are many lessons from his life that all good explorers should learn.  in fact, historian Jack Stuster has written an excellent book which extracts lessons from polar exploration which are applicable to space exploration. 

It is worthwhile to consider Shackleton’s exploits.  He wanted to participate in the great polar explorations at the beginning of the 20th century.  He worked with many of the luminaries of the great age of polar exploration.  Shackleton did not get to go on the first expeditions to the south pole — probably a good thing since his mentor, Robert Falcon Scott, and his team perished in the attempt.  After Amundsen’s expedition made the first trip to 90 degrees south, Shackleton started fundraising for an expedition to cross Antarctica from coast to coast via the pole.  Unfortunately the voyage went very wrong: his ship, the Endurance, was caught in the ice far from shore, carried the wrong way, eventually crushed in the ice.  Shackleton and his men were forced into a survival situation where they lived off the land (this is antarctica, remember) for almost two years.  After an epic sea voyage in a small open boat, the party was rescued.  They all survived.  Truly amazing.  If you want a superb case study in leadership, go to Shackleton.

But Ernest never made it to the south pole, he got within 97 miles of the pole on his closest attempt and had to turn back.  Shackleton died of a heart attack several years after the Endurance experience, just as he was mounting yet another polar expedition.

If you look at a lunar map, they are all there, near the poles:  Shackleton, Scott, Peary, Henson, Amundsen, Byrd, Nansen, even Franklin; they have all been honored.  And it would do well for us to understand their history, the successes and the failures, the good plans and the bad, as we consider going to their namesake landmarks, a quarter million miles away.

Not all exploration trips are successful.  Even worse, not all of them are wise.  We need to study especially those which were failures because, frankly, you learn more from failure than from success.  Success stories always sound inevitable; easy; pre-ordained.  Success in a difficult endeavor is never inevitable.  As my friend Lucy Kranz occasionally reminds her father, “Failure really is an option.”

A cautionary tale worth your study is told by Robert Ruby in his book “Unknown Shore”.  I highly recommend it.  Martin Frobisher, who later became famous in England along with Francis Drake for keeping the Spanish Armada at bay, lead an expedition in 1576 to what we know now as Baffin Island.  On his return, Frobisher’s backers became desperate to justify the voyage.  They took rocks collected from Baffin Island to four assayers.  Three of them reported that these were just rocks, not particularly valuable.  The fourth assayer reported that the rocks were rich ore bearing a high concentration of gold.  Of the four assayers and their reports, which one do you think they listened to?  The one who said there was gold in the rocks, of course!  Three more voyages were made to return more rocks; lives were lost, ships sank, natives were abducted, fortunes were spent, and the rocks turned out to be . . . just rocks.  Not gold. 

There are adventures which benefit mankind; there are adventures which rekindle the human spirit; there are adventures which bring glory, fame, honor, and even useful resources as their outcome.  But not all adventures end that way.  Some are pointless, some are inglorious, some are fruitless. 

I believe that space exploration is the noblest endeavor of our age.  It uplifts the human spirit, encourages scholarship, improves the economy, enhances our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe.  In the long term, space exploration – utilization, exploitation, and colonization – will no doubt save and transform humankind.

But in the near term we need to be careful in our zealousness not to describe space exploration as a panacea to every problem humans have encountered.  We will maintain credibility and help the cause only when we are truthful, accurate, and firmly grounded.  Let’s avoid hyperbole and glittering inaccuracies as we reach for the stars.

Meanwhile, I hope to see you one day at the lunar base on the rim of Shackleton crater where we can reminisce about the courage of our astronauts who got us there and the foresight of the leaders who pointed us there.

Ad astra


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:  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!


The Way West

I recently read a magazine article by Cornell professor Jim Bell who is the lead scientist on the Mars Exploration Rover Panoramic Camera team.  The final picture of his article took my breath away:

Opportunity on Sol 114 looks back at its tracks through



This picture is so reminiscent of views of wagon ruts still visible on the Oregon trail in Nebraska and Wyoming!  Pioneers on the American west a hundred and fifty years ago would feel right at home.

Well, they probably had a bit more oxygen, so lets not push the analogy too far.

Four hundred years after Columbus, American historian Fredrick Jackson Turner lamented the US Census bureau declaration that the western frontier was “closed”, all settled.  In 1893 Turner presented a controversial paper which has come to be called “The Frontier Hypothesis”.  His paper asserted that having a frontier was the most influential factor in American history.  The Frontier Hypothesis has been debated ever since by historians who argue that other factors were more important in American development.  But nobody argues that having a frontier wasn’t a huge factor, just what factor was biggest.

Turner wrote that having a frontier shaped the American character; always facing a challenge, inculcating innate optimism, relying on personal initiative and ingenuity, cooperating with scattered neighbors — all these things influenced who we are today.

Since the western frontier “closed” a century ago, America has become a world power, perhaps the only superpower, and has faced many other challenges.  Today pessimism seems rampant and some quarters seem to revel in painting a dark future for America and humanity as a whole. 

I don’t have the academic credentials to participate in the debate that Fredrick Jackson Turner started, but it seems at least he was close to the mark.  Having a challenge, being forced to be innovative, having the hope that the future will be better than the present — all these things are important.

I’ve overused the quotation by Sir Edmund Hillary, but here it is again:  “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”  Ed Hillary and Tensing Norgay were first on the summit of Mount Everest, so I think the beekeeper from New Zealand knew what he was talking about.  Unlike Ed Hillary or Scott Parazinsky, I’ve never had the nerve or the opportunity to attempt the world’s highest mountain, but I have been on the summit of some lesser peaks:

Wayne and friends atop the highest point in Texas, Guadelupe Peak 2, 667 meters



Climbing a mountain changes the one who takes on the challenge.  When you do something hard, like pioneer a new frontier or climb a higher mountain, you come back a different person.  Generally a better person.  More creative, more resilient, and more optimistic.  After all, if you can climb the mountain, you know you can take on other challenges. 

Collectively we need a challenge that is one for good, not for destruction or competition or rivalry.  Not one for bragging rights.  But a challenge that we can take pride in accomplishing.

This time when we pioneer a new frontier we have the opportunity to do it without all the ugliness that accompanied the last great age of exploration:  slavery, racial and ethnic denigration, hideous destruction of native peoples, and wholesale damage to the environment. 

Lets do it right this time. 

But lets do it. 

It is important for ourselves.