As Shuttle Era Ends, What Will be its Legacy?

When it comes to space flight, the media, politicians and the public tend to focus on who was “first.” Many point to the fact that the Soviet Union was first to send both a satellite and man into orbit as the impetus behind the U.S. into the new frontier. However, the “lasts” are often lost to history, forgotten in the dusty pages of some biographer’s notes. As the shuttle era closes, there are several lasts that, so far, have gone unmentioned. More importantly, the program, as a whole, has been an incredibly powerful engine for change – both within the U.S. and abroad.

Alvin Drew is the last African-American currently scheduled to fly in the shuttle program. Additionally, there is one other last that may or may not be highlighted (if NASA gets the necessary funding for the mission) – the last woman to fly in the shuttle program – Sandra “Sandy” Magnus on STS-135. Although NASA has declared STS-135 an official mission, the funding needed to fly it, has yet to be approved.

Currently, Alvin Drew will be the last African-American to fly in the shuttle program. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

These two “lasts” may or may not be noted by the media, many of whom give the appearance of looking down on the program. The shuttle, as Bob Crippen once said is often “bad-mouthed” for not living up the expectations laid out at the beginning of the program. Perhaps, in time, the shuttle program will be remembered as what it was – an engine that worked to remove many social barriers. The shuttle era could, one day, be regarded as the program that opened space flight to people of all races and nations.

The number of nations that have flown astronauts onboard NASA’s fleet of shuttles is far more expansive than most think. Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Ukraine have all flown astronauts aboard the space shuttle.

During the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo Programs the crews were universally white and male. With the shuttle’s capacity for larger crews – that dynamic changed. The U.S. flew its first woman, Sally Ride, in 1984 (the Soviet Union flew its first woman, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963) the first African-American, Guy Bluford also flew that year. After that the backgrounds of the astronauts who flew on the shuttle continued to diversify.

Sandra Magnus is set to fly onboard shuttle Atlantis' STS-135 mission, she will be the last woman to fly in the shuttle program. Photo Credit: NASA

The first female pilot, Eileen Collins, flew on board STS-63 – she would go on to become the first female commander – and to return NASA to flight after the Columbia disaster on STS-114 in 2005. Charles Bolden, an African-American, commanded the first joint Russian/American shuttle mission (mission STS-61 on Discovery) and would go on to become the first African-American NASA administrator when he was selected in 2009. These are just two of numerous examples of how the shuttle has empowered different genders and races.

So while Drew’s and Magnus’ place in history may not be well remembered, those that paved the way for them as well as the shuttle’s capabilities made it all possible. Time will tell if the shuttle will be remembered for its shortcomings or if it will be remembered for allowing astronauts of all stripes to fly, for the Hubble Space Telescope to be deployed and serviced, for the International Space Station to be built and for all the other positive things that the shuttle made possible since it first flew in April of 1981.

“The shuttle has flown on such a routine basis for the past 30 years that many Americans may not realize the contributions it has made for all humankind,” said Candrea Thomas a NASA public affairs officer. “When the shuttles stop flying, I believe Americans will remember all the wonderful technologies and advancements that these amazing spacecraft, and the diverse group of people who worked on them, made possible.”

Film Review: Nostalgia for the Light (in Atacama)


It’s difficult enough to imagine stark white telescope domes towering over a parched brown landscape made even more arid by the near-constant whistle of high-altitude winds. It’s stranger still to consider that in the desert below those domes, tough and grieving women have been searching in vain for decades for the sun-bleached remains of loved ones stolen from them, killed and dumped in the void by Pinochet’s army.

Acclaimed Chilean film director Patricio Guzmán has woven these stories together into a documentary called Nostalgia de la Luz, or Nostalgia for the Light, that is both touching and stunning, human and other-worldly, emotional — and hopeful.

The film played at the Toronto International Film Festival and at Cannes before lighting up a packed theater at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning in Boulder, Colorado, a community with a special fondness for space science owing partly to the presence of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Ball Aerospace, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center and the Southwest Research Institute.

In fact Jason Glenn, an astronomer at the University of Colorado at Boulder, took the podium for a few moments before the start of the film to announce plans for the Cornell-Caltech-Atacama (CCAT) telescope proposed to go atop the Chilean mountain Cerro Chajnantor — and to request donations toward its construction. CCAT, a submillimeter telescope, will be used to probe primeval galaxies, star formation and extra-solar planetary systems.

The film opens with awe-inspiring images of galaxies, close-up views of the pockmarked lunar surface, and eerily beautiful shots of the vast Atacama. The desert lies west of the Andes Mountains in Chile, and is generally regarded as the driest place on Earth. That, plus its high altitude, make it a perfect place for astronomy. The Atacama supports the ESO’s Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and numerous other instruments. Many Chileans, the film intimates, grow up loving astronomy.

Meanwhile the people of Chile continue to heal from Pinochet’s bloody rule beginning in the early 1970s, when thousands of his political opponents were taken from their families and disappeared. The film captures the perspectives of people on all sides of the tragedy — from the grieving mothers and wives, the archeologists working to decipher both the recent and distant human past, survivors of Pinochet’s concentration camps and even astronomers who, tucked in offices underneath the massive telescope domes, might not seem to have much in common with the grieving women. But they do.

Gaspar Galaz, an astronomer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, says in the film that both he and the women pursue quests to learn history; they’re all chasing rare clues in dauntingly vast spaces. Galaz peers far across the cosmos to study diffuse galaxies, whose origins are unknown, and the women comb the 40,600 square mile (105,000 km2) desert for minute fragments of bone. The difference: At the end of his workday, Galaz says, he can get a good night’s sleep, “but these women must have trouble sleeping after they search for human remains.”

Nostalgia de la Luz is worth seeing for any of its parts — the glimpses through the powerful Atacama telescopes, the desert scenes, the cultural insights or the beautifully human and optimistic ending, which I won’t give away here. Taken together, the film’s elements are an experience not to be missed.

Several trailers for Nostalgia de la Luz are available on YouTube; upcoming showtimes include, according to Facebook, March 8 and 9 at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, March 18 at the IFC Film Center in New York and April 22-28 at Landmark’s Nuart Theater in LA. Today’s showing was at the Boulder International Film Festival.

50 Years of Human Spaceflight: Yuri’s Night Video Contest

On April 12, 2011, everyone with the least bit of interest in space should be rockin’ the house. It’s the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight, the first human to launch to space. As of this writing there are 109 Yuri’s Night events in 27 countries on 5 continents on 2 worlds (#2 is in Second Life.) Take a look at the Yuri’s Night website to see if there is an event near you. If not, start your own!

There is also a Yuri’s Night 2011 Video Contest, which is an open source competition to engage the public to create tribute videos for this 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight. The best videos will be shared at events around the world and the winners will receive $500. The deadline for submission is April 1, 2011. There will be online voting for the winner.

Find out more info about the contest at:
And get more info about Yuri’s Night:

More Space Anniversaries: Apollo 14 and Ham

Forty years ago today, the Apollo 14 crew launched on their Saturn V rocket, the 6th human flight to the Moon and the third that landed. Following the heart-stopping problems of Apollo 13, almost ten months elapsed before Commander Alan Shepard (the first American in space), Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa, and Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell set off on January 31, 1971. They reached the Moon on February 5, and Shepard and Mitchell walked the Fra Mauro highlands, originally been the target of the aborted Apollo 13 mission. The two astronauts had to scrap a planned rock-collecting trip to the 1,000 foot wide Cone Crater when they became disoriented and almost got lost. Interestingly, recent images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed they were only a little over 30 yards from the crater’s rim when they gave up the search. But they did have many successes as well.

You can read more about Apollo 14 on this NASA website.


Also on this date 50 years ago was the flight that made Alan Shepard’s suborbital Mercury flight possible: the Mercury-Redstone 2 (MR-2) mission carrying Ham, a four-year-old male chimpanzee. The suborbital flight lasted a total of 16 minutes and 39 seconds, and carried the spacecraft 422 nautical miles from the launch site at Cape Canaveral, FL, reaching a maximum altitude of 157 statute miles. The flight reached all its objectives, paving the way for human flights.

When you think about it, 10 years from Ham to Apollo 14 is pretty amazing. But we’re not likely to ever see anything like that again.

Read more about Ham’s flight and see more pictures on NASA’s Life Sciences Database website.

What is a Flying Wing?

The field of aviation has produced some interesting designs over the course of its century-long history. In addition to monoplanes, jet-aircraft, rocket-propelled planes, and high-altitude interceptors and spy craft, there is also the variety of airplanes that do away with such things as tails, sections and fuselages. These are what is known as Flying Wings, a type of fixed-wing aircraft that consists of a single wing.

While this concept has been investigated for almost as long as flying machines have existed, it is only within the past few decades that its true potential has been realized. And when it comes to the future of aerospace, it is one concept that is expected to see a great deal more in the way of research and development.


By definition, a flying wing is an aircraft which has no definite fuselage, with most of the crew, payload and equipment being housed inside the main wing structure. From the top, a flying wing looks like a chevron, with the wings constituting its outer edges and the front middle serving as the cockpit or pilot’s seat. They come in many varieties, ranging from the jet fighter/bomber to hand gliders and sailplanes.

A clean flying wing is theoretically the most aerodynamically efficient (lowest drag) design configuration for a fixed wing aircraft. It also offers high structural efficiency for a given wing depth, leading to light weight and high fuel efficiency.

A Junkers G 38, in service with Lufthansa. Credit: SDASM Archives
A Junkers G 38, in service with Lufthansa. Credit: SDASM Archives

History of Development:

Tailless craft have been around since the time of the Wright Brothers. But it was not until after World War I, thanks to extensive wartime developments with monoplanes, that a craft with no true fuselage became feasible. An early enthusiast was Hugo Junkers who patented the idea for a wing-only air transport in 1910.

Unfortunately, restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles on German aviation meant that his vision wasn’t realized until 1931 with the Junker’s G38. This design, though revolutionary, still required a short fuselage and a tail section in order to be aerodynamically possible.

A restored Horten Ho 229 at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Credits: Cynrik de Decker
A restored Horten Ho 229 at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Credits: Cynrik de Decker

Flying wing designs were experimented with extensively in the 30’s and 40’s, especially in the US and Germany. In France, Britain and the US, many designs were produced, though most were gliders. However, there were exceptions, like the Northrop N1M, a prototype all-wing plane and the far more impressive Horten Ho 229, the first jet-powered flying wing that served as a fighter/bomber for the German air force in WWII.

This aircraft was part of a long series of experimental aircraft produced by Nazi Germany, and was also the first craft to incorporate technology that made it harder to detect on radar – aka. Stealth technology. However, whether this was intentional or an unintended consequence of its design remains the subject of speculation.

After WWII, this plane inspired several generations of experimental aircraft. The most notable of these are the YB-49 long-range bomber, the A-12 Avenger II, the B-2 Stealth Bomber (otherwise known as the Spirit), and a host of delta-winged aircraft, such as Canada’s own Avro-105, also known as the Avro Arrow.

Recent Developments:

More recent examples of aircraft that incorporate the flying wing design include the X-47B, a demonstration unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) currently in development by Northrop Grumman. Designed for carrier-based operations, the X-47B is a result of collaboration between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) program.

The X-47B first flew in 2011, and as of 2015, its two active demonstrators successfully performed a series of airstrip and carrier-based landings. Eventually, Northrop Grumman hopes to develop the prototype X-47B into a battlefield-ready aircraft known the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system, which is expected to enter service in the 2020s.

Another take on the concept comes in the form of the bidirectional flying wing. This type of design consists of a long-span, low speed wing and a short-span, high speed wing joined in a single airframe in the shape of an uneven cross. The proposed craft would take off and land with the low-speed wing across the airflow, then rotate a quarter-turn so that the high-speed wing faces the airflow for supersonic travel.

The design is claimed to feature low wave drag, high subsonic efficiency and little or no sonic boom. The low-speed wings have likely a thick, rounded airfoil able to contain the payload and a wide span for high efficiency, while the high-speed wing would have a thin, sharp-edged airfoil and a shorter span for low drag at supersonic speed.

In 2012, NASA announced that it was in the process of funding the development of such a concept, known as the Supersonic Bi-Directional Flying Wing (SBiDir-FW). This came in the form of the Office of the Chief Technologist awarding a grant of $100,000 to a research group at the University of Miami (led by Professor Gecheng Zha) who were already working on such a plane.

Since the Wright Brothers first took to the air in a plane made of canvas and wood over a century ago, aeronautical engineers have thought long and hard about how we can improve upon the science of flight. Every once in awhile, there are those who will attempt to “reinvent the wheel”, throwing out the old paradigm and producing something truly revolutionary.

We have written many articles about the Flying Wing for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the testing of the prototype blended wing aircraft, and here are some jet pictures.

If you’d like more information on NASA’s aircraft programs, check out NASA’s Dryden photo collection, and here’s a link to various NASA research aircraft.

We’ve also recorded many related episodes of Astronomy Cast. Listen here, Episode 100: Rockets.


Today is Wright Brothers Day

Almost all of us take for granted that we can get to virtually any destination in the world by flying in an airplane. We routinely board an aircraft, grumble at the slightest delay, and complain when we don’t get any peanuts during the flight. But really, we should be amazed in wonderment as each airplane takes off and lands.

It’s almost a miracle: we can sit in a somewhat comfortable chair, sleep, read a book or watch a movie, and three hours later, we’ve flown across the country. And it all began 105 years ago. On December 17, 1903 the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, made the first successful controlled, powered and sustained flight of an aircraft.

Orville flew for 12 seconds, covering 120 feet (36.5m), at a speed of only 6.8 mph from level ground into a cold headwind gusting to 27 miles (43 km) an hour. The flight was recorded in the famous photograph, above. Then, to prove it wasn’t a fluke, they flew two more times: Wilbur flew approximately 175 feet (53 m), and then Orville took the controls again and flew 200 feet (60 m).

Their altitude was about 10 ft above the ground. Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls – a three-axis control – that made it possible for a pilot to control the aircraft and made fixed wing flight possible.

Every year since 1963 the US Congress proclaims Dec. 17 as Wright Brother’s Day, and the US President signs the proclamation (read below). Here is Orville Wright’s account of the final flight of the day:

“Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o’clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred feet had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet (260 m); the time of the flight was 59 seconds. The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was not injured at all. We estimated that the machine could be put in condition for flight again in about a day or two.”

The proclamation of Wright Brothers Day :

“Our history is rich with pioneers and innovators who used their God-given talents to improve our Nation and the world. On Wright Brothers Day, we commemorate two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who took great risks and ushered in a new era of travel and discovery.

With intrepid spirits and a passion for innovation, Orville and Wilbur Wright became the first to experience the thrill of manned, powered flight. On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright flew for 12 seconds over the North Carolina sand dunes in the presence of only five people. In the span of one lifetime, our Nation has seen aviation progress from the first tentative takeoff at Kitty Hawk to an age of supersonic flight and space exploration.

On this Wright Brothers Day, we recognize all those who have taken great risks and contributed to our country’s legacy of exploration and discovery. This year, we also celebrate the centennial of the world’s first passenger flight. By remaining dedicated to extending the frontiers of knowledge, we can ensure that the United States will continue to lead the world in science, innovation, and technology, and build a better future for generations to come.

The Congress, by a joint resolution approved December 17, 1963, as amended (77 Stat. 402; 36 U.S.C. 143), has designated December 17 of each year as “Wright Brothers Day” and has authorized and requested the President to issue annually a proclamation inviting the people of the United States to observe that day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim December 17, 2008, as Wright Brothers Day.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this sixteenth day of December, in the year of our Lord two thousand eight, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-third.


Happy Birthday Johannes Kepler!


December 27 is a day to celebrate the life of astronomer Johannes Kepler, who was born on this date in 1571, and is best known for his three laws of planetary motion. But also, coming up in 2009, The International Year of Astronomy (IYA) will celebrate the work of Kepler as well. Not only did Galileo begin his observations with a telescope almost 400 years ago in 1609, but also in that year Kepler published his book New Astronomy or Astronomia Nova. This was the first published work that documented the scientific method.

Kepler’s primary reason for writing Astronomia Nova was to attempt to calculate the orbit of Mars. Previous astronomers used geometric models to explain the positions of the planets, but Kepler sought for and discovered physical causes for planetary motion. Kepler was the first astronomer to prove that the planets orbited the sun in elliptical paths and he did so with rigorous scientific arguments.

An offshoot of Astronomia Nova was the formulation of concepts that eventually became the first two of Kepler’s Laws:

First Law: The orbit of a planet about the Sun is an ellipse with the Sun’s center of mass at one focus.

Second Law: A line joining a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas in equal intervals of time.

And Kepler’s third Law: The squares of the periods of the planets are proportional to the cubes of their semi-major axes.

Kepler was also instrumental in the development of early telescopes. He invented the convex eyepiece, which allowed an expanded field of vision, and discovered a means of determining the magnifying power of lenses. He was the first to explain that the tides are caused by the Moon and the first to suggest that the Sun rotates about its axis. He also was the first to use stellar parallax caused by the Earth’s orbit to try to measure the distance to the stars.

While Kepler remains one of the greatest figures in astronomy, his endeavors were not just limited to this field. He was the first person to develop eyeglasses designed for nearsightedness and farsightedness, the first to investigate the formation of pictures with a pin hole camera, and the first to use planetary cycles to calculate the birth year of Christ. He also formed the basis of integral calculus.

Kepler’s many books provided strong support for Galileo’s discoveries, and Galileo wrote to him, “I thank you because you were the first one, and practically the only one, to have complete faith in my assertions.”

Original News Source: The Writer’s Almanac