Guest Post: Newly Born: the Science of Astronomy

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Editor’s Note: Astronomy journalist Govert Schilling has written a book that looks at the 100 most important discoveries since the invention of the telescope 400 years ago, called “Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries.” In Schilling’s distinct style, he takes the reader on an adventure through both space and time. Schilling has written this guest post for Universe Today:

Astronomy is a newborn science.

Yes, I know astronomers like to say it’s the oldest science in the world. In a sense, our distant ancestors who wondered about the lights and motions in the night sky were the first practitioners.

But look at it this way: until four centuries ago, we all had the same opportunities in the field. Or lack thereof. Two eyes and a brain – that has been the main instrumentation in astronomy for thousands of years. Not much, really.

Little wonder then that astronomy was in a pretty primitive state at the start of the seventeenth century. Granted, scientists had come to realize that the Sun occupied the center of the solar system, rather than the Earth. They had seen the occasional comet and Stella Nova, and they knew about the slow change in the orientation of the Earth’s axis.

But no one knew the distances to the planets, let alone to the stars. No one had the slightest clue about the true nature of the Sun or the Moon. Meteors were a mystery; planetary satellites and rings were unheard of, and to many, the Milky Way was just that – a cosmic river of milky clouds.

The Milky Way as seen near the Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert. Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

More importantly, no one realized that the Universe is in a constant state of flux, albeit at an extremely slow pace. That stars were once born and will eventually die. That the planets in our solar system are built from the ashes of an earlier generation of stars. That the Universe hasn’t always been there.

Most of the astronomical knowledge that we take for granted these days, was completely unknown four centuries ago. That’s why I say astronomy is a newborn science.

And the telescope was its midwife.

A replica of Galileo's telescope.

The invention of the telescope, probably around 1600 in the Netherlands, ushered in a whole new scientific era. It paved the way for hundreds of revolutionary discoveries and revealing insights. It brought astronomy to where it is now.

On the occasion of the International Year of Astronomy (2009), I decided to devote a book to the hundred most important astronomical discoveries since the invention of the telescope. Recently translated into English as Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries (Springer, 2011), it is a lavishly illustrated and beautifully designed history tour of the grandest science of all, chockfull with surprising details and personal anecdotes.

What I realized when writing the book was that the young science of astronomy went through a number of very distinct stages, just like a human being goes through childhood, puberty and adolescence before reaching full maturity.

In the seventeenth century, astronomers were like children in a newly opened candy store. Wherever they aimed their rather primitive telescopes, they beheld new discoveries, but this embarrassment of riches was also an undirected endeavour.

During the eighteenth century, the search became more systematic, with diligent observers surveying the skies and taking stock of everything that the telescope brought into view. This was no longer a first reconnaissance, but a real exploratory phase.

Then came the nineteenth century, with the advent of photography and spectroscopy, and the discovery of mysterious cosmic denizens like spiral nebulae, white dwarfs, and interstellar matter. Nature was trying to tell us something profound, and astronomy stood on the threshold of major theoretical breakthroughs that would explain this surprising variety of phenomena.

Finally, the twentieth century saw the emergence of an interconnected, all-encompassing view of cosmic evolution. We discovered the energy source of stars, the true nature of galaxies, the expansion of the Universe, and the humble position of our home planet, both in space and in time. Moreover, we finally understood that the atoms in our bodies were forged in the nuclear ovens of distant suns. That we are truly one with the Universe.

So has astronomy grown into a mature science? With the current generation of giant telescopes, the full exploration of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the advent of space science and computer technology, it’s tempting to answer this question with a resounding ‘yes’. Then again, ninety-six percent of the cosmos consists of mysterious dark matter and dark energy; we have no clue about the origin of our Universe, and no one knows whether or not life – let alone intelligence – is rare or abundant.

Personally, I feel that astronomy is still in its early years. And that’s exactly why it fires the imagination of so many people. The questions that astronomers try to answer are the same questions that a ten-year old would ask. The answers may be difficult, but the questions are simple, because the science is young. What’s it made of? How did it all start? Are we alone?

Certainly, I’d love to see a 2411 edition of Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries, highlighting the hundred most important discoveries and breakthroughs that astronomers made in the 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th century. But I’m afraid I wouldn’t understand most of the issues that would be described.

Frankly, I’m glad to live during the youth of my favorite science. After all, I’ve always been fond of the curiosity, energy, creativity and the sheer sense of wonder of children.

Please, astronomy, don’t grow up too soon.

Govert Schilling is an internationally acclaimed astronomy writer in the Netherlands. He is a contributing editor of Sky & Telescope, and his articles have appeared in Science, New Scientist and BBC Sky at Night Magazine. He wrote over fifty books on a wide variety of astronomical topics, some of which have been translated into English, including “Evolving Cosmos; Flash! The Hunt for the Biggest Explosions in the Universe,” TThe Hunt for Planet X,” and “Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries.” In 2007, the International Astronomical Union named asteroid (10986) Govert after him.

“I believe this nation should commit itself…” Kennedy’s Moon Shot Speech to Congress

50 years ago today, US President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress to ask for support for the goal to “commit…before this decade is out, to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Kennedy urged Congress to appropriate the necessary funds, which eventually was one of the largest financial expenditure of any nation in peacetime. Just 2 1/2 years after giving this speech, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. And in just over eight years after the speech, on July 20, 1969, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission would successfully fulfill Kennedy’s vision by landing the first humans on the moon.

Below is the transcript of the entire section on space:
Continue reading ““I believe this nation should commit itself…” Kennedy’s Moon Shot Speech to Congress”

World Ending on May 21? Don’t Count on It

Why do some humans have a fixation on the world coming to an end? From ancient Nostradamus to Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate fame, there have been a myriad of ultimately failed predictions that the world will meet its demise. The latest prediction comes from Harold Camping, a preacher from California who says the Second Coming of Jesus will occur conveniently at 6 pm local time for each time zone around the world coming up this weekend, on May 21, 2011.

While he claims to have used math to predict this event, perhaps a better use of math would be to count how many times soothsayers and doomsday con artists have incorrectly predicted the end of the world in the past. So far they have all been 100% wrong. Camping himself is guilty of incorrectly predicting the end of the world back in 1994, so his track record is not very good either. So if you’re wondering – mathematically speaking — based on the number of past predictions of the end of the world being right, and the number of past predictions of Camping about the end of the world being right, the odds of Camping being wrong this time are 100%.

So sleep well, and enjoy your weekend!

Need some proof? Here’s a look at some past failed predictions, as well as an infographic from LiveScience.com about the many predictions of doom. Humans seem to like doomsday predictions so much that we even like to make movies about it.

And by the way, the end of the world predictions being pure nonsense goes for the 2012 prognostications, as well. You can read our series about why they are all wrong here.

Interestingly, many past predictions of the end of the world coincide with religious fanaticism (from the top image, above, it appears Camping’s prediction has the biblical seal of approval…) and/or trying to make money. (Camping has amassed $120 million in donations from fervent followers). One of the most recent was God’s Church minister Ronald Weinland who pitched his book “2008: God’s Final Witness” by predicting the world would end by 2008, with the “end times” beginning in 2006.

Before that, it was the Heaven’s Gate mess, where Applewhite’s followers actually did kill themselves so that they would be taken by an alien spacecraft coming along with comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, (I guess, unfortunately the world did end for them…). This prediction included accusations of a huge cover-up by NASA who supposedly knew the alien craft was hidden in the comet’s coma.

Televangelist Pat Robertson predicted Judgment Day would come in 1982. Scarily, Robertson later ran for president of the United States.

Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church predicted the world would end by 1891, and a group that would eventually become the Seventh-Day Adventists predicted the end by 1843.

Some bad-science related predictions include the Y2K scare (which didn’t even burn out a light bulb), several “planetary alignment” predictions that would throw the Earth into tumult (including one in 2000 by Richard Noone), the return of Halley’s Comet in 1910 would envelope Earth in deadly toxic gases, and of course, all the 2012 predictions, which are based on very inaccurate science and the downright mean and nasty tactic of trying to scare people.

Nostradumus, a.k.a. Michel de Nostrdame has been one of the longest-running predictors of doom and gloom, and his vague, metaphorical writings have intrigued people for over 400 years. The vagueness allows for very flexible interpretations, allowing some people to claim that a number of Nostradamus’ predictions have come true. One prediction he gave included a year: “The year 1999, seventh month / From the sky will come great king of terror.”

I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen, just like all the other predictions. The ones listed here are just a sampling of the incorrect predictions throughout time.

 A brief history of doomsdays
Source:LiveScience

Fast Cars and Hot Rod Astronauts

Corvettes were synonymous with the first US astronauts. Why? The story goes that a Florida car dealer named Jim Rathmann had a great marketing idea and negotiated a special lease arrangement with Chevrolet to provide the Mercury 7 astronauts with sports cars worthy of the performance required by a test pilot. The cars were fast and handled like a dream. Plus, the Corvettes back in the early 1960’s had what many would consider “space age” interiors. Six of the Mercury astronauts would take Rathmann up on his Corvette offer, but stalwart family man John Glenn instead decided he wanted a new station wagon. While there are stories of the Mercury astronauts racing each other in their Corvettes, reportedly Glenn’s wagon proved more useful. It was just the thing for those occasions when the seven astronauts needed to travel together.

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These sports cars would continue to be used by Apollo astronauts, and the association between the car and the space program continues even today. For example, the 1995 movie “Apollo 13” featured two era-authentic Corvettes, one of them used in a scene featuring Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell. The 2009 movie “Star Trek XI” opens in the year 2245, with a 12-year old James T. Kirk driving a 280-year old 1965 Corvette Sting Ray.

On May 7, 2011, approximately 30 of America’s surviving early astronauts gathered in Cocoa Beach, Florida to participate in a parade commemorating the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s historic first flight for a US astronaut. Enjoy the video above where some of the astronauts are interviewed, briefly, and includes some vintage photographs of hot rod astronauts with their fast cars.

Source: GM

Rare and Unpublished LIFE Photos of Alan Shepard’s Historic Flight

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If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen how I was oohing and aahing about a wonderful set of rare and never-seen photographs of Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and the other Mercury astronauts released by LIFE.com in honor of the 50th anniversary Alan Shepard’s flight on May 5. Maybe LIFE saw my Tweets, too, as they contacted us, giving Universe Today permission to publish a few. Above, Shepard strides to the launchpad early on May 5 1961, with Gus Grissom close behind. Shepard reportedly joked to technicians who rode with him to the launch pad: “You should have courage and the right blood pressure” if you want to succeed as an astronaut. “And four legs … You know, they really wanted to send a dog, but they decided that would be too cruel.” In Shepard’s right hand: a portable air conditioner to cool the inside of his pressure suit before he enters the capsule.

See more below.

John Glenn crouches near Shepard's capsule, Freedom 7, along with technicians prior to launch. Credit: Ralph Morse/TIME & LIFE Pictures. Used by permission.

In this previously unpublished photo, John Glenn crouches near Shepard’s capsule, Freedom 7, prior to launch. In the book “Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard,” author Neal Thompson portrayed the fierce competitiveness between Shepard and Glenn over who would be the first astronaut in space, which sometimes bordered on the two disliking each other. But as the first flight approached, Shepard and Glenn spent a lot of time together training, and formed a bond. Glenn even put a few items in Shepard’s Freedom 7 capsule as a joke to lighten the intensity of the day, and this image shows Glenn’s excitement and joy as his fellow astronaut enters the spacecraft. LIFE photographer Ralph Morse said of NASA’s choice for who was making the first flight: “You know, I presumed, at that point, that they were saving Glenn, that having him circling the Earth for the first time would be better press for NASA. But you don’t know about these things. They had their own reasons, of course — complicated reasons, based on skills and personality and temperament — for choosing one man ahead of another.”

The Redstone rocket on which Alan Shepard flew into space, May 5, 1961. Credit: Ralph Morse/TIME & LIFE Pictures. Used by permission.

This previously unpublished image shows Shepard’s Redstone rocket before liftoff. “I never have been my own favorite subject,” Shepard once told LIFE, when asked how he felt about the rewards and dangers inherent in Project Mercury. “And I don’t think I’ve found anything new about myself since I’ve been in this program. We were asked to volunteer, not to become heroes. As far as I’m concerned, doing this is just a function of maturity. If you don’t use your experience, your past is wasted, and you are betraying yourself.”

Deke Slayton, Alan Shepard, and Gus Grissom share a laugh after Shepard splashed down following his successful flight. Credit: Paul Schutzer/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Used by permission.

This is my absolute favorite image of this set: Shepard shares a laugh with fellow astronauts Gus Grissom (right) and Deke Slayton upon his arrival at Grand Bahama Island, shortly after his successful flight and splashdown. Oh to be a fly on the wall to know what they were laughing about!

Read all about it! The Mercury astronauts read of their colleague Alan Shepard's heroics, Florida, May 1961. Credit: Ralph Morse/TIME & LIFE Pictures. Used by permission

No internet, no instant messaging, no Twitter or Facebook. The Mercury astronauts and the rest of the world had to wait for the next day’s newspapers to come out to read of Alan Shepard’s heroics. “Though the U.S. still has far to go to catch up with the Russians in space,” LIFE magazine noted in its May 12, 1961 issue, “Shepard went a long way toward lifting American heads higher.”

See many more images on the LIFE.com gallery. Thanks again to LIFE for allowing us to post these images.

Alan Shepard: Complicated, Conflicted and the Consummate Astronaut

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50 years ago today, Alan Shepard blasted off on board the first flight of NASA’s Mercury program, becoming the first American in space. Shepard was the consummate astronaut, — he stayed with NASA for over 15 years, and eventually walked on the Moon. But for all his successes, Shepard was a complicated and conflicted man; even though he was in constant limelight along with all of the early NASA astronauts, his life was somewhat of an enigma, as he closely guarded his privacy and held most people – including his friends – at arm’s length.

“He was the epitome of the image that NASA had hoped to portray when they selected the first astronauts,” said Neal Thompson, author of the only Shepard biography, “Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard.” “He was a aircraft carrier pilot, a test pilot, drove fast cars, smoked cigars, drank martinis—he was stylish and cool and cocky. I’ve described him as Don Draper in a spacesuit. He represented that “Mad Men” era – cool and suave and all that.”

But, Thompson said, that was an image that Shepard worked hard to portray as well as protect, and Thompson felt there had to be more to Shepard’s story. Through years of research, Thompson found Shepard to be a much more compelling man than he ever expected.

“He wasn’t the most outgoing guy with the press and I felt like there had to be more to his story than what I had read,” Thompson told Universe Today. “There were a lot of aspects to his personality that were complicated and compelling and contradictory. He was highly competitive, but he was also a softy underneath at times. He was accused over the years of being a bit of a womanizer, and yet he was married to the same woman for 40-plus years and I think they were very devoted to each other. So there were a lot of complex aspects to his personality that were fun to explore.”

While all the other Mercury 7 astronauts had either written their own books or had books written about them, America’s first astronaut had not told his own life story, and no one had gotten close enough to tell it for him. Shepard died without ever authorizing a biography that focused on his life.

The launch of Freedom 7 with Alan Shepard aboard on May 5, 1961. Credit: NASA

“I was really intrigued when I started researching his life that, no other biography had been written about him,” Thompson said.

The title of the book, which was first published in 2004, refers to Shepard’s impatience with NASA engineers who were making sure his Redstone rocket was ready to go. Shepard was frustrated: he knew very well he could have been the first human in space, if not for political and technical delays. But as it was, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin launched on an orbital flight on April 12, 1961, becoming the first man in space and scoring a huge victory for the Soviet Union in the Cold War with the US.

23 days later, Shepard sat on the launchpad, waiting inside his rocket for over 4 hours while engineers tackled one problem and then another. The wait was longer than anyone expected and Shepard ended up having to urinate inside his spacesuit, claiming otherwise his bladder would burst.

Finally, when one more problem cropped up, Shepard exclaimed, “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”

“I think that sums up his character in many ways, that one particular quote,” said Thompson. “He was a very intense guy who just wanted to get the job done and liked to move forward and not look back, and I think that reflection of that intensity of his personality is nicely summed in those few words.”

Shepard during his Freedom 7 flight. Credit: NASA

Shepard’s whole life was about competition. “Whether it was in sports as a youth, or competing among other naval aviators when he was a carrier pilot,” said Thompson, “and then it just sort of ramped up at each stage of his career, becoming a test pilot where he competed with some of the best aviators on the planet and then to be selected among this extremely elite group of Mercury 7 astronauts and then to compete against them for that first ride. But I think he thrived on that and it was fun to explore what that meant in the scope of the space program.”

Particularly intriguing to Thompson was the competitive relationship between Shepard and John Glenn, who early on were pegged as being the two astronauts who were most likely to fly first.

“As you know, Shepard was picked first and Glenn was furious about that,” Thompson said. “I think it is sort of interesting that now, historically, Glenn is more well known probably than Shepard, even though he was picked to fly third among the first astronauts. But because he has the orbital flight, Glenn’s flight is historically viewed as the bigger accomplishment.”

Shepard always kept a distance between himself and others. While he could be pulling a prank or making a joke one minute, the next he could be sullen and withdrawn or downright angry and unpleasant — which Thompson said was perhaps a way to keep the competition at bay.

But Shepard’s competitive nature is likely what made him so successful throughout his career, and in particular it was something he relied on in the mid-1960’s when he was grounded because of a disabling medical condition, Ménière’s disease, which causes severe vertigo and nausea, which is crippling for a pilot and astronaut.

“After his Mercury flight, he was selected to command the first Gemini mission, and while training for that was felled by Ménière’s disease,” Thompson said. “I think at that point, Shepard just considered hanging it up and leaving the space program and pursuing other things, like business or politics or something high profile.”

While Shepard could have anything he wanted — there were many offers he could have taken, Thompson said – he decided to stick with the program, to stay with NASA, to take on this lesser role as head of the astronaut office.

“It had to be really demoralizing for him to be the first American in space and then not be able to fly at all and to be stuck watching the other astronauts fly ahead of him. But it was always impressive to me that he did stick with it, he got his inner ear disorder cured, and fought his way back into the flight rotation and then was assigned to Apollo 14,” Thompson said.

But the disease may have saved his life from tragedy, as well. Shepard likely would have been chosen to lead Apollo 1 and was originally scheduled to command Apollo 13.

Alan Shepard on the Moon during Apollo 14. Credit: NASA

Thompson added that it says a lot about Shepard’s character that he managed to get assigned to command an Apollo mission and fly Apollo 14 so successfully.

Shepard stayed with NASA for 15 years which is longer than any of the other Mercury 7 astronauts, and longer than many astronauts today stay. “I think he really believed in the mission and believed in what he and what NASA was doing,” Thompson said.

What people might remember most about the Apollo 14 mission is Shepard hitting golf balls on the Moon.

“I think he viewed that as something that he wanted to do, maybe so that his flight could be remembered as being a little more unique than some of the others,” Thompson said. “It was a little bit of flair and maybe a sign of exuberance, punctuating his comeback and his successful flight, and he set things up so that he would only hit the golf balls at the end of the flight if everything went well. It was his kind of exclamation point tacked on to the end of Apollo 14 to say, “I did it” and here’s something fun and extra.”

Alan Shepard preparing for his Apollo 14 mission. Credit: NASA

Later Shepard was successful in business, becoming the first millionaire astronaut. “I think he enjoyed the rest of his life, business, traveling, playing golf, he loved his wife – he just lived a big life,” Thompson said.

Shepard died from cancer at age 74 in 1998. Tragically, his wife Louise died five weeks later from a heart attack during an airplane flight. It almost was if she couldn’t live without him.

“Shepard was almost larger than life – he always had that ‘little extra’ and he was an exceptional man at all levels,” Thompson said.

For more information: Neal Thompon’s website

Find the book “Light This Candle: the Life and Times of Alan Shepard” on Amazon.

You can listen to an interview I did with Thompson for the NASA Lunar Science Institute and 365 Days of Astronomy.

Alan Shepard and MESSENGER Stamps Unveiled at Kennedy Space Center Ceremony

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – 50 Years ago this week, Alan B. Shepard became the first American to be launched into space. Shepard blasted off on May 5, 1961 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA and the US Postal Service honored Shepard’s historic achievement today (May 4) at an Official First-Day-of-Issue dedication ceremony at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Alan Shepard was one of the seven Project Mercury astronauts – who will be collectively known for all eternity as – “The Original 7”.

The US Postal Service simultaneously released two new 44 cent Forever Stamps at today’s commemoration, which bookend two historic space achievements – Shepard’s inaugural manned spaceflight aboard the Mercury capsule and NASA’s unmanned MESSENGER mission which recently became the first probe from Earth to achieve orbit about the Planet Mercury.

Alan Shepard and MESSENGER First-Day-of-Issue Stamp dedication ceremony at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 4, 2011. Alan Shepard is the only American astronaut to be honored with his image on a US postal stamp. Credit: Ken Kremer

Fellow Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter attended the ceremony and unveiled the stamps along with Steve Masse, United States Postal Service Vice President of Finance at the Rocket Garden at the KSC Visitor Complex.

Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter poses in front of a Mercury Atlas rocket at the Rocket Garden at KSC. Carpenter was propelled to space by the Atlas rocket as the 2nd American to orbit the Earth on May 24, 1962. Credit: Ken Kremer

“Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of many, many important issues, among them is the first steps from the home planet that were taken by the family of man,” said Carpenter.

Although Shepards suborbital flight aboard the one man “Freedom 7” Mercury capsule lasted barely 15½ minutes, the flight ignited America’s Moon landing effort and propelled American Astronaut Neil Armstrong to become the first human to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 during the Apollo 11 mission – one of the crowning technological achievements of the 20th Century.

The success of “Freedom 7” emboldened President John F. Kennedy to declare that America “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” just three weeks later on May 20.

“That was largely a response to Alan’s success,” Carpenter told the crowd of assembled officials, journalists and visitors. Also on hand for the stamp dedication was Shepard’s daughter Laura Shepard Churchly; Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator and former shuttle astronaut; Bob Cabana, KSC Director and former shuttle astronaut; and Jim Adams, NASA deputy director, Planetary Science.

“A decision was made not to put 44 cents on the stamp, but it is forever,” Carpenter emphasized. “It is appropriate to the time we should honor and remember Alan B Shepard and Freedom 7.”

Alan Shepard display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Credit: Ken Kremer

Shepard’s tiny capsule measured just six feet by six feet, reached a maximum speed of 5,100 MPH, roughly eight times the speed of sound, and a zenith of 116 miles above the Earth. Freedom 7 was bolted atop a Redstone rocket that generated only 78,000 pounds of thrust, followed a ballistic arc and landed 300 miles down range in the ocean.

“These stamps, which will go out by the millions across this country, are a testament to the thousands of NASA men and women who shared dreams of human spaceflight and enlarging our knowledge of the universe,” said Bolden.
Shepard’s flight and MESSENGER both blasted off from launch pads quite close to one another at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station which is adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center.

Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter is applauded at tribute to Alan B. Shepard, first American in Space ceremony at the Rocket Garden at KSC on May 4, 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer

On Thursday May 5, watch for my on site coverage of NASA’s special ceremony marking the 50th Anniversary of Shepard’s milestone “Freedom 7” mission – and an interview with Scott Carpenter.

Shepard’s mission came barely three weeks after Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. The bold flights of these brave Cosmonauts and Astronauts – backed by a few insightful political leaders – began the Era of Human Spaceflight. As the shuttle program winds to a close, the future of US Human Spaceflight is very uncertain.

Read my related articles about Yuri Gagarin and the 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight:

Yuri Gagarin and Vostok 1 Photo Album – 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight
Countdown to Yuri’s Night and the 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight !
Stirring Video Tributes to Yuri Gagarin
Yuri Gagarin From the Earth to Mars Tribute

NASA Administrator and former shuttle astronaut Charles Bolden praises Alan Shepard at KSC stamp unveiling ceremony on May 4, 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer

President Obama to Attend Endeavour’s Last Launch on April 29

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President Barack Obama and the entire First Family apparently plan to attend the final launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour, according to government officials and multiple news outlets. Endeavour is slated to blast off on the STS-134 mission next Friday, April 29 from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 3:47 p.m. EDT.

There has already been intense drama surrounding the STS-134 mission because it is being commanded by Mark Kelly. Kelly is the husband of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona who was critically wounded by gunshots to her head at point blank range during an assassination attempt while attending a meet and greet with her constituents on Jan. 8, 2011. Six people – including a nine year old girl and a federal judge – were killed and a dozen more were wounded that awful day.

Space Shuttle Endeavour awaits her final launch on April 29, 2011 from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL Credit: Ken Kremer

The Presidents appearance at the STS-134 launch will almost certainly lead to skyrocketing interest, but has not yet been officially announced by NASA and the White House. The event is not yet listed on the presidents official schedule.

However, a tweet by the staff of Congresswoman Giffords on her official website states Obama will attend; “We are very happy that Pres. Obama is coming to Mark’s launch! This historic mission will be #Endeavours final flight.”

NASA spokesman Allard Beutel told me today, “I cannot confirm whether the president will be coming to launch next week. If he’s coming, which I can’t confirm, we are a White House agency.”

“We always welcome a visit from the President,” Beutel said.

Security is always tight at KSC during a shuttle launch. A visit by President Obama will certainly lead to even tighter security controls and even more massive traffic jams.

Giant crowds were already expected for this historic final spaceflight of Space Shuttle Endeavour, NASA’s youngest Orbiter, on her 25th mission to space.

Endeavour is carrying the $2 Billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) ) on a 14-day flight to the International Space Station, a premier science instrument that will collect cosmic rays, search for dark energy, dark matter and anti matter and seeks to determine the origin of the Universe. See my photo below of the AMS from inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at KSC with the principal investigator, Nobel Prize winner Prof. Sam Ting of MIT.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden just announced that Endeavour will be displayed at the California Science Museum following her retirement from active flight service upon landing.

President Obama last visited KSC on April 15, 2010 and gave a major policy speech outlining his radical new human spaceflight goals for NASA. Obama decided to cancel NASA’s Project Constellation ‘Return to the Moon’ Program and the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets. He directed NASA to plan a mission for astronauts to visit an Asteroid by 2025 and one of the moons of Mars in the 2030’s. Obama also decided to revive the Orion crew module built by Lockheed Martin, which is now envisaged for missions beyond low earth orbit (LEO), and invest in development of new commercial space taxis such as the Dragon spacecraft by SpaceX for transporting astronaut crews to the ISS.

Spokesman Beutel said that during the April 2010 visit, “The President met with space workers.” He could not comment on details of the president’s plans for the STS-134 visit and said information would have to come from the White House.

The last time a sitting president watched a live human space launch was in 1998 when then President Bill Clinton attended the blastoff of the return to space of Astronaut and Senator John Glenn. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth back in 1962. Glenn’s first flight took place a little over a year after the historic first human spaceflight by Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961- which occurred exactly 50 years ago last week.

Congresswoman Giffords is recovering from her wounds and Shuttle Commander Kelly has said that she would like to attend the STS-134 launch. But no official announcement about her attendance has been made by NASA and depends on many factors including decisions by the doctors treating her in a Houston area hospital.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) and Nobel Prize Winner and Principal Investigator Sam Ting of MIT - inside the Space Station Processing Facility at KSC. The STS-134 mission of shuttle Endeavour will deliver the AMS to the ISS. The AMS purpose is to try and determine the origin of the Universe. . Credit: Ken Kremer
Close up of Endeavour crew cabin, ET, SRB and astronaut walkway to the White Room. Credit: Ken Kremer

Yuri Gagarin From the Earth to Mars Tribute

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50 Years ago, the dream of human spaceflight opened with the courageous blastoff of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin inside the Vostok 1 spacecraft on April 12, 1961. Gagarin was the first person to orbit the Earth. Less than a month later on May 5. 1961, Astronaut Alan Shepard bravely set forth on America’s first human spaceflight – Freedom 7.

Barely three weeks afterward on May 25, 1961, these momentous events of the early Space Age led directly to Project Apollo and the historic announcement by President Kennedy that the United States “would land a man on the moon” by the end of the 1960’s.

In honor of Yuri Gagarin, NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover explored a small and highly eroded crater dubbed “Vostok Crater” in 2005 during its journey in the Meridian Planum region on the Martian surface. Along the edge of the crater, researchers commanded Opportunity to use the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT), to drill into a rock dubbed “Gagarin” on Sols 401 and 402 in March 2005.

Yuri Gagarin - first human in space. Credit: Russian Archives

I created the poster collage above as a tribute to the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin and his legacy which eventually led to the exploration of Mars by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers

Opportunity landed on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004 for a planned 90 sol mission. By the time that Opportunity arrived at Vostok Crater, she had already lasted more than 4 times longer than expected and found that water existed on ancient Mars.

Opportunity is still alive today on Sol 2571, more than 28 times beyond its design lifetime !

Opportunity used its rock abrasion tool (RAT) on a rock named "Gagarin" during Sols 401 and 402 on Mars (March 10 and 11, 2005). This false-color image shows the circular mark created where the tool exposed the interior of the rock Gagarin at a target called "Yuri." The circle is about 4.5 centimeters (1.8 inches) in diameter. Gagarin is at the edge of a highly eroded, small crater that was named "Vostok" for the spacecraft that carried Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the first human spaceflight, on April 12, 1961. This image combines exposures taken through three different filters by Opportunity's panoramic camera on Sol 405 (March 14, 2005). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./ASU

Scientists are using the data gathered from “Gagarin Rock” and other locations explored by Opportunity to help elucidate the history of the past flow of liquid water on the red planet and determine whether the wet environmental conditions could ever have supported martian microbial life – past or present.

“The 50th anniversary of mankind’s first fledgling foray into the cosmos should serve as an important reminder of the spirit of adventure and exploration that has propelled mankind throughout history,” said Mars rover science team member James Rice of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md, in a statement. “We are a species of explorers; it is encoded into our very DNA.”

“Half a century ago Yuri Gagarin was lofted into a totally unknown, remote and hostile environment and in doing so opened up a new limitless frontier of possibilities for mankind,” Rice added. “A mere 23 days later another brave human, Alan Shepard, climbed aboard a rocket and ventured into the starry abyss. Their courage and vision continue to inspire and lead us into the unknown. Hopefully, one day in the not too distant future it will lead humanity on a voyage to Mars.”

Many people, including myself, were inspired by the Space Race to become scientists and engineers and hope that continues for the next generation of students today.

Read more about Yuri Gagarin and Opportunity in my related stories:

Yuri Gagarin and Vostok 1 Photo Album – 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight
Countdown to Yuri’s Night and the 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight !
Stirring Video Tributes to Yuri Gagarin
Opportunity Rover Completes Exploration of fascinating Santa Maria Crater

Opportunity used its rock abrasion tool on a rock named "Gagarin" during the 401st and 402nd Martian days, or sols, of the rover's work on Mars (March 10 and 11, 2005). This image, taken by Opportunity's navigation camera on Sol 405 (March 14, 2005), shows the circular mark left on the rock. The circle is about 4.5 centimeters (1.8 inches) in diameter. At the end of the rover's arm, the tool turret is positioned with the rock abrasion tool pointing upward in this image. The abrasion target on the rock Gagarin was informally named "Yuri." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Opportunity Traverse Map during 7 year long journey across Mars.
Map shows the long journey of Opportunity spanning the Meridiani Planum region from landing in Jan 2004 to recent stop at Santa Maria crater. Opportunity explored Vostok Crater in March 2005, about 1 year after landing as indicted by marker in yellow. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell Marco Di Lorenzo, Kenneth Kremer

NASA Space Shuttle Owner’s Workshop Manual Book Review

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The shuttle era is ending and when things end people have the tendency to look back and reflect on the trials and tribulations of that period. There are many news books that are being produced that seek to capitalize on this nostalgia – and a few old ones, are being re-released with current and updated information within. One of the more notable efforts is NASA SPACE SHUTTLE Owner’s Workshop Manual.

With modern imagery and text reflective of the program’s long history, the book encapsulates all of the accomplishments that the vehicle’s design allowed to become a reality. The book uses very current information, so much so that it mentions the shooting of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords which took place this past January.

The book provides for a succinct review of the program’s history, its contributions, the setbacks of the Challenger and Columbia disasters as well as other aspects both known and unforeseen of the vehicle’s overall design. Although the book is relatively short, it covers the rationale behind why the space shuttle was designed the way that it was, how the spacecraft launches, flies and lands as well as numerous other facets that comprised the space shuttles’ history.

Written by Dr. David Baker and published by Zenith Press, the book retails for $28 and is well worth the price. With only two flights left before the shuttles are sent to their final resting places in museums and theme parks around the nation this book will make for a great memento of the vehicle that placed the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit, that helped build the International Space Station and that has been the focal point of U.S. human space efforts for the past thirty years.

With the shuttle program ending soon, the book; NASA Space Shuttle Owner's Workshop Manual provides a concise review of the various aspects and impacts that the thirty-year program has had. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian