Neil Armstrong & Mankind’s Greatest Step

Joseph Campbell once wrote that “we must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” If the life of Neil Armstrong, who passed away on August 25 at the age of 82, is any indication, the life that awaits the astronaut and legend will be nothing short of remarkable.

In an end perfectly designed by the Fates, Neil Armstrong departed just one month after another memorable colleague, Sally Ride, did the same. Between the two, a dynasty of American aeronautics and space exploration had been created, and with their passing the world awaits another phase—one that can only be facilitated by the work completed by the pair. For Ride, the first American woman to orbit Earth, the legacy created was in striking down what was culturally normal at the time and providing women and girls with a role model for the sciences.

Armstrong, on the other hand, was the hero envisioned by writers of old, almost; although he never led an army into war or was known for his physical prowess, his image is one that will forever be engrained in American culture—in much of the same King Arthur and the great warrior Achilles were in theirs. G.Roger Denson, in an article for the Huffington post, describes how both Ride and Armstrong, although not the typical celebrity, are the embodiment of modern day heroes:

“Despite both having achieved monumental ‘firsts’ as astronauts—Armstrong as the first to set foot on the Moon, Ride as the first woman to orbit the earth—there is a fundamental difference to be found between them in that Armstrong represented the classical mythic hero upholding a time-honored social order, while Ride embodied the mythopoetic hero who heralds the transition to a new age and social order, a change signaling that a censorial social order that once define a former age has now become obsolete.”

With “one small step” in 1969, Armstrong launched himself into history and into the dreams of children everywhere.

When John F. Kennedy committed America to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth,” Armstrong was a 30-year-old test pilot for NASA, a new government agency at the time. With experience flying 78 missions in the Korean War, Armstrong became the last of a group of astronauts selected to take part in NASA’s manned-aircraft missions. He would go on to be a large part of both the Gemini and Apollo missions.

On July 21, 1969, Armstrong took his (and the world’s) first step on the surface of the moon and forever cemented himself in history. For over two hours, videos captured him and Buzz Aldrin working on the moon’s surface—gatherings samples, taking pictures, and setting up experiments. Because Armstrong was the only one of the pair to carry a camera, many of the pictures from the moon were taken by Armstrong and not of him. Which is actually quite fitting.

Despite a volume of accomplishments, Armstrong was not one to boast. Preferring a life out of the lime-light, Armstrong kept to himself for the most part, interviews and television appearances kept at a minimal. Simply put, he let his achievements do the talking. According to Campbell, “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself”—Armstrong, then, will forever be a hero.


Photo Credit: 

Death Valley Acts as Rehearsal Space for Upcoming Mars Landing Project

Practice makes perfect, and when it comes to examining far off lands on distant planets scientists are not taking any chances with the Curiosity rover—NASA’s “robot geologist” which is set to arrive on the surface of Mars within the next 100 days, on August 5th.  It is with this preparation in mind that researchers, headed by Caltech’s John Grotzinger, set off to California’s vast (and devastatingly hot) Death Valley.

If the name is any suggestion, Death Valley may not be anyone’s idea of a perfect vacation, but for scientists looking to get a real feel for what the geology and landscape of Mars may be like, it is a great place to start.  While a major hotspot for researchers throughout the decades, Death Valley has become a treat for geologists looking to tap into to the earth’s deepest and longest held secrets.  And it is precisely this that NASA is hoping to accomplish with the as-of-yet still unknown Mars terrain. 

The massive $2.5 billion undertaking that is NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission is hoping to crack open a bit of Mars history, specifically seeking dirt and rock samples taken from the planet’s Gale Crater and its memorable Mount Sharp, the unusual mountain situated in the middle of the crater and extending three miles high into the air.  With Curiosity, which has its course set for the crater, NASA officials are hoping to gather enough samples from the crater in order to help them determine whether or not the area was ever able to support microbial life. 

Back in Death Valley, Grotzinger (with a trail of researchers and journalists behind him) moves from site to site, pointing out aged rock formations in the distance as he goes.  At one point, stopping to draw attention to an area sprinkled with fossilized stromatolites—“structures created by sticky, sediment-trapping microbial mats”—believed to be approximately 1 billion years old.  Characteristically, stomatolites are tell-tale signs of microbial life, as they are formed by sediment trapped by abiotic methods.  These particular formations, if found on Mars, could mean big news for those looking to prove that life at least at one point existed on the planet.  To find these on the planet would truly be groundbreaking.

And since Mars does not have the added difficulty of tectonic plates, an element that proves difficult when trying to crack through the layers of Earth’s history, scientists have high hopes of their potential findings.  “These are some of the best stromatolites you’ll see in western North America,” explains Grotzinger, who also doubles as Curiosity’s lead scientist. “If we ever found anything like this with MSL, we would stop and study it.  And it might be a really good place to come back and do sample-return.”

With already so much hope placed in Curiosity, not to mention a newly devised landing technique that involves the craft being lowered to the surface by cables connected to a rocket-powered skycrane (pictured), it is no wonder why so many involved are getting geared up for the main event.  And until August 5th, at least we will all have Death Valley.


Photo Credit:

International Space Station Could Be Evacuated In November

Less than two months after the space shuttle program officially ended, NASA is facing another setback, this time regarding the International Space Station. NASA officials confirmed yesterday that it was a possibility that astronauts may need to temporarily abandon the space station this fall.

NASA’s shuttle program ended last month after over 30 years and over 100 missions. Prior to the program’s shutdown, NASA announced that American astronauts would still be active on the International Space Station. Instead of flying in American shuttles, however, American astronauts would be shuttled to the space station by Russian spacecraft. Plans have now changed following the crash of an unmanned Russian spacecraft stocked with supplies that was destroyed last week during liftoff from Kazakhstan.

Russia’s Soyuz rockets, the vehicles that would have taken Americans to the moon, are currently grounded until the cause of the crash is determined. The Russian space agency has put together an investigation team, but the answer to the crash may not be determined for a while. So far, none of the debris from the spacecraft has been discovered, as it landed in a remote and heavily forested area of Siberia.

According to Mike Suffredini, NASA’s space station program manager, if the Soyuz rockets continue to remain out of use past mid-November, it will be impossible to launch any new crews of astronauts before the current crew of the space station is scheduled to leave. The unstable future of the Russian spacecraft could potentially mean the need to vacate the space station.
The launch of the next crew due to head to the International Space Station, scheduled for September 22nd, has already been delayed. In order to keep the space station with a full staff of six for the longest amount of time possible, three of the astronauts currently onboard will remain in space for an extra week; prior to the failure of the Russian supply spacecraft, the astronauts were due to return to Earth on September 8th. Suffredini noted that the astronaut’s extra time on board will further contribute to more scientific research.

If the International Space Station is indeed evacuated, NASA confirmed that it is possible to keep the station operating for as long as necessary, assuming the station’s systems are performing correctly.

The International Space Station, which currently orbits the planet 240 miles above land, was launched in 2000 and cost $100 billion. The space station has never been completely evacuated; ever since its launch, it has been continuously inhabited by astronauts. The only other time NASA considered abandoning the space station was in the wake of the Columbia disaster in 2003. Instead of completely evacuating the space station then, the normally six-person crew was cut down to two astronauts due to the limited lack of supplies.

Currently, the space station is plentifully stocked with supplies; Atlantis, the last shuttle in NASA’s now defunct program, dropped off supplies during its final mission. NASA has noted that due to the amount of supplies onboard, the space station could potentially go on until next summer.

If NASA makes the decision to evacuate the space station, action must be taken soon to accomodate several factors. Both the American and Russian space agencies require that landings must happen at least an hour after dawn and an hour before sunset in order to aid any search or rescue operations that could become necessary. The conditions at Soyuz’s landing site in Kazakhstan could potentially be an issue; the landing window for the first crew closes for five weeks starting September 19th, while the landing window for the second crew closes around November 19th. Because Soyuz spacecraft is only designed to spend about 200 days in space, waiting for a new window of opportunity to open would surpass the 200 day mark.

Photo Credit:

NASA Confirms July 8th Launch For Space Shuttle Atlantis

NASA has confirmed that the last space shuttle launch will take place on Friday, July 8th. Atlantis is scheduled to launch at 11:26 am and will mark the final shuttle launch of NASA’s 30-year long space shuttle program.

NASA officials met at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday morning as part of a Flight Readiness Review to discuss the final shuttle launch. Bill Gerstenmaier, an assistant administrator for space operations, confirmed that an “incredibly thorough review” was conducted and remarked that “This flight is incredibly important.” Mike Leinbach, the shuttle launch director, noted that “Team Atlantis is feeling good about the flow and the launch countdown and hope we’ll be able to get her off the ground on Friday the 8th as scheduled.”

The question of if and when Atlantis‘ final flight would occur and how it would be funded was an issue that started last summer, when the NASA reauthorization bill passed through Congress. President Obama signed the legislation into law on October 11th of last year, although there was no specific funding for the mission. NASA announced in February that the mission would continue “regardless” of the issues of funding with Congress.

The mission, known as STS-135, will last for 12 days and is the last mission in the 30 year shuttle program. Atlantis will be flying to the International Space Station with a year’s worth of supplies. The main cargo the shuttle will be carrying is the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) Raffaello, a pressurized container used to transfer cargo to and from the ISS. Atlantis will also be carrying a Lightweight Multi-Purpose Carrier and the Robotic Refueling Mission. The launch date was confirmed after a week’s worth of testing a new fuel valve installed in one of the shuttle’s main engines. Also checked out were the support brackets on the external fuel tank, which were X-rayed and confirmed as safe and ready to go.

Four astronauts will be flying in the final shuttle mission. Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walhiem will be aboard Atlantis for its final journey. The four-person crew is the smallest of any space shuttle mission since the STS-6 mission in April of 1983 and is the first four-person crew to fly to the International Space Station. Crews of six or seven are usually assigned to shuttle missions, but only four will fly in the final launch because there are no space shuttles available for a rescue if things were to go wrong.

The launch of Atlantis marks the 135th and final shuttle launch in NASA’s 30-year long program. The July 8th launch will be Atlantis‘ 33rd mission. Atlantis first flew on October 3, 1985, on the STS-51-J mission. The shuttle is 122.17 feet long, with a height of 56.58 feet and a wingspan of 78.06 feet. The shuttle is also the lightest of the space shuttles, weighing in at 176,413 pounds. After its final voyage, Atlantis will be decommissioned and displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Since its maiden voyage, the shuttle has orbited Earth more than 4600 times and flown more than 120 million miles in space. The STS-135 mission will add another 5 million miles to Atlantis‘ total mileage. As of its most recent mission, Atlantis has spent 293 days, 18 hours, 39 minutes, and 37 seconds in space. Throughout its 30+ missions, Atlantis has been involved in several important projects, including deploying multiple communications satellites, deploying probes to Jupiter and Venus, delivering supplies to the International Space Station, and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. 

After Atlantis returns to Earth for the last time, American shuttles will no longer be launched into space. Instead, NASA will utilize Russian spacecrafts to transport American astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Photo Credit:

Total Lunar Eclipse To Happen On June 15th

A total lunar eclipse, the longest in eleven years, will take place on June 15th, the first of two that will happen this year.

Lunar eclipses occur when the moon passes behind the earth, causing the earth to block the sun’s rays from reaching the moon. Total lunar eclipses can only happen when the sun, earth, and moon are aligned exactly or almost exactly, with earth in the middle. Total lunar eclipses account for 35% of all lunar eclipses. Lunar eclipses can only occur when there is a full moon. Seemingly, there would be a lunar eclipse every month during the full moon, but the orbit of the moon prevents eclipses from happening monthly. The moon does not orbit the earth on the same ecliptic plane between the sun and the earth; instead, it orbits approximately 5 degrees off of the ecliptic plane. The place where the moon does occasionally cross the ecliptic plane is called a node. In order for an eclipse to happen, the moon must be near a node.

The earth creates two cone-shaped shadows: the umbra (the center shadow) and the penumbra (the outer shadow). Both of the cone-shaped shadows are cast from behind the side of the planet being hit by the sun. During a total lunar eclipse (as opposed to a penumbral eclipse or a partial eclipse), the moon enters the umbral shadow, which is encased by the penumbral shadow. Every total lunar eclipse starts with a penumbral eclipse, followed by a partial eclipse, before entering into a total eclipse. The moon then enters another partial eclipse before ending with a final penumbral eclipse. The penumbral phase of an eclipse is the most difficult to view, even with the aid of a telescope.

Lunar eclipses last for several hours at a time and always happen on a night with a full moon. The upcoming eclipse is expected to last for just over five and a half hours. The period known as totality, which occurs when Earth’s shadow blocks the moon completely, will last for one hour and forty minutes. This is seven minutes longer than the lunar eclipse that occured on July 17, 2000, when the moon was completely eclipsed for 107 minutes.

During a total lunar eclipse, the moon changes from a white glow to an orange or reddish haze. When the moon is completely in the umbral shadow of the earth, it is still exposed to indirect sunlight. Before the sunlight reaches the moon, however, it must pass through Earth’s atmosphere, which filters out most of the blue colored light. The only light that remains, then, is orange or red. The atmosphere of the earth bends and refracts this light so that it reaches the moon, casting it in an eerie reddish glow. The color of the moon during a total lunar eclipse is influenced by the presence of dust or clouds in the earth’s atmosphere; the more debris that is present, the darker the moon appears.

Lunar eclipses can generally be viewed from anywhere on earth at night, unlike solar eclipses, which are only visible from certain parts of the planet. Also unlike solar eclipses, lunar eclipses can be viewed with a naked eye. Because the upcoming lunar eclipse is a central eclipse, it will be visible over Europe and South America after sunset, and over Africa, Asia, and Australia before sunrise. Unfortunately, the lunar eclipse will not be visible in North America. The next total lunar eclipse that will be visible in North America will take place on April 15th, 2014.

The most recent total lunar eclipse occured on December 21, 2010. After June 15th, the next total lunar eclipse will take place on December 10, 2011. Several solar eclipses have also happened this year, both partial: one on January 4th and one on June 1st.

The upcoming eclipse will begin at 1724 GMT and last until 2300 GMT.

Photo Credit:

Space Shuttle Endeavour Scheduled For Final Landing June 1st

The space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to return to Earth for the last time on Wednesday, June 1st. The space shuttle is nearing the end of the 16 day STS-134 mission to the International Space Station.
There are two landing opportunities for Endeavour at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 1st: 2:35 am or 4:11 am EDT. Before the shuttle makes its final landing, the astronauts must assess the weather conditions in order to complete a safe landing. If Endeavour is unable to land on Wednesday, it will have the opportunity to land at the Kennedy Space Center the next day; in addition, the Edwards Air Force Base in California is available as a backup landing site.
If Endeavour lands on June 1st as scheduled, the shuttle will have spent a total of 299 days in space. Endeavour first launched on May 7, 1992, and has since completed 25 missions, traveling a total of 122.8 million miles.
Endeavour gets its name from the British ship HMS Endeavour, captained by the British explorer James Cook in 1768. The shuttle was originally constructed as a replacement for the space shuttle Challenger, which was lost in an accident in 1986. Endeavour cost $2.2 billion to construct and was completed in May of 1991, a year before its first launch.
Highlights of Endeavour’s 25 mission career, which has spanned nine years, include:
-1992: Captured and redeployed the INTELSAT VI communications satellite
-1993: Service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope
-1998: Interaction with Mir space station, including astronaut exchange
-1998: First International Space Station assembly mission
-2007: Four spacewalks completed
After Endeavour completes its final mission, the shuttle will be retired to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, where it will be a permanent exhibit. The space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch on its final mission on July 8th. Atlantis will be the 135th shuttle mission and will mark the end of the space shuttle era.

Photo Credit:

NASA Researchers Discover Large Amounts of Water on the Moon

A NASA-funded study reveals that the moon contains a much larger amount of water than was previously thought. The study, lead by a research team from Brown University suggests that the moon may contain 100 times more water in the lunar mantle than scientists suspected. The amount of water present in the lunar mantle is so plentiful that it is thought to be comparable to the amount of water in Earth’s mantle.
Scientists have been aware of the existence of water on the moon for several years, when evidence first suggested the presence of water. In a paper published in Nature in 2008, the same research team reported evidence for the presence of water on the moon.
The new findings, published in the journal Science Express, were discovered by studying rocks collected in 1972 during the final manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17. The rocks came from the area of the moon known as the “Sea of Serenity.” Harrison Schmitt, a geologist and astronaut who walked on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission, collected the rocks used in the study.
By studying the rocks brought back from the astronaut crew, scientists were able to detect lunar melt inclusions, which are small bits of molten rock that become trapped in crystals and turn into glass-like material. Scientists studied the water content of the lunar melt inclusions, which were formed approximately 3.7 billion years ago. A precision instrument called the NanoSIMS 50L ion microprobe was used to study the lunar melt inclusions.
The discovery of water in the lunar mantle could challenge the scientific theory of how the moon was created. The current theory, known as the “giant impact theory,” states that the moon was formed after a collision between Earth and a celestial body the size of Mars around 4.6 billion years ago. The debris resulting from the collision would have been several thousand degrees, resulting in the leftover water evaporating, thus creating a dry moon. The discovery of water now has scientists confused as to the origins of the moon.
The discovery also sheds new light on the origin of water-ice found in craters at the lunar poles. Previously, the ice was thought to be the result of comet and meteor impacts. Researchers now believe that it is possible the ice is the result of water that was released during lunar eruptions billions of years ago.
Photo Credit:

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the First Manned Spaceflight

On April 12th, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history as the first man in space during his groundbreaking flight as part of the Vostok program. Aboard the Vostok 3KA spacecraft, Gagarin successfully completed an orbit of the Earth fifty years ago today. During the Cold War, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were high, with the two countries locked into a rivalry with each other. Both nations were focused on achieving supremacy in space exploration. Gagarin’s spaceflight, less than four years after the USSR launched the first artificial satellite into space, intensified the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Cosmonaut

Yuri Gagarin, a pilot in the Soviet Air Force, was selected in 1960 along with 19 other pilots for the Soviet space program. Upon entering the space program, Gagarin was selected to be a member of an elite training group formed to select cosmonauts for the Vostok program. Upon undergoing physical and psychological endurance testing, Gagarin was selected due to a combination of his optimal physical characteristics and his intellectual capacity. At only 5 ft 2 in tall, Gagarin’s small stature gave him an advantage in the small cockpit he would later fly in. An Air Force doctor observed that Gagarin possessed a “high degree of intellectual development” and noted that “it appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.”

The Spacecraft

Vostok 3KA, the spacecraft that would take Gagarin into space, was designed by Sergei Korolev and was originally designed as not only a spacecraft, but also as a camera platform to be used in the Soviet Union’s spy satellite program. The craft consisted of several parts: a spherical descent module, which contained instruments and an escape system as well as room for the cosmonaut, and a conical instrument module, which housed the engine system and propellant. The cosmonaut and the craft were intended to land separately; upon reentry, the cosmonaut would eject from the spherical descent module at an elevation of 23,000 feet and return to Earth via parachute.


Gagarin’s spaceflight consisted of a single orbit around the Earth lasting 108 minutes from launch to landing. Tucked into the Vostok 3KA, Gagarin launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome Site No. 1, located in present day Kazakhstan. As the spacecraft took off, Gagarin said “Off we go!” Six minutes after launch, Gagarin noted good visibility and was able to observe the Earth from his spacecraft. Five minutes later, Gagarin successfully entered the Earth’s orbit.

Orbiting the Earth

Upon entering the Earth’s orbit, the spacecraft began its journey by moving over Siberia and crossing over the Pacific Ocean diagonally. Twenty minutes after entering orbit, Gagarin reported feeling “splendid” before he crossed into night northwest of Hawaii. Eleven minutes later, he crossed over the equator, and began to travel over the South Pacific. After a brief period of being out of touch with ground stations, Gagarin once again crossed into daylight. Fifteen minutes after, Gagarin began to prepare for reentry.


To prepare for reentry and landing, the spacecraft began to undergo engine firing, also known as retrofire. Ten minutes after retrofire occurred, the spacecraft began reentry. When the spacecraft was 7 kilometers from the ground, the hatch released, ejecting Gagarin. Gagarin’s parachute opened almost automatically, and ten minutes later, Gagarin landed back on Earth. His first words upon landing, spoken to a woman and a girl near the site of landing, were “I am a friend, comrades, a friend!” In total, Gagarin spent 89.34 minutes in orbit at an orbital inclination of 64.95 degrees.

Gagarin’s Legacy

Gagarin’s experience in flight inspired him to encourage others to preserve the natural beauty of the earth. After his space flight, Gagarin noted “Orbiting Earth in the space ship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!” For a visual account of Gagarin’s voyage into space, check out the film ‘First Orbit,’ available on YouTube. The film recreates Gagarin’s Earth orbit with footage shot on board the International Space Station and also includes audio from Gagarin’s groundbreaking mission as the first man in space.

Photo credit: NASA