What’s the Difference Between a Rocket and Space Plane? Amazing Hand-Drawn Animations Explain It All

You gotta love Earth’s atmosphere. It basically makes life (as we know it) possible on our planet by providing warmth and air to breathe, as well as protecting us from nasty space things like radiation and smaller asteroids. But for studying space (i.e., astronomy) or coming back to Earth from space, the atmosphere is a pain.

Last year, we introduced you to freelance animator and storyboard artist Stanley VonMedvey, who started creating short, hand-drawn videos to explain a complex topic: how spacecraft work. These videos are wonderfully concise, clear and easy to understand. Plus Stan’s hand-drawn animations are incredible.

His series, “Stan Draws Spaceships” now has a new video that shows the complexities of how spacecraft return to Earth through our atmosphere, comparing the partially reusable Falcon 9 and fully reusable Skylon. Take a look below. Again, the hand-drawn animations are impeccable and Stan’s explanations are just captivating.

I was trying to think of sufficient accolades for Stan’s work, but I can’t do any better than one commentor on Stan’s YouTube Channel. MarsLettuce said, “The attention to detail here is insane. The air intake being shorn off by drag was especially great. The sequence of her hands making the paper plane was subdued, but it added a lot. The characters were really well done, too. I love the reaction of Stan being hit by the paper airplane. It’s hilarious.”

Stan’s earlier videos explain expendable launch vehicles and the space shuttle.

He describes himself as “completely obsessed with and fascinated by space exploration,” and he wants to share what he’s learned over the years about spaceflight.

Stan would like the opportunity and resources to make more videos, and has started a Patreon page to help in this process. Right now, he creates the videos on his own (he told us he uses the time-honored home-recording technique of draping a blanket over his head) in his home office. It takes him roughly 2.5 months to produce a 5 minute episode.

“I’d like to make a lot more videos,” he writes on Patreon, “explaining things like Hohmman transfers and laser propulsion and the construction techniques of O’Neill cylinders. I want to make long form videos (2-3 minutes) that explain a general idea, and short form videos (30 seconds) that cover a single word, like “ballistics” or “reaction control.”

An artist’s conception of Reaction Engines’ Skylon spacecraft. Credit: Reaction Engines

So, check out Stan’s videos and his Patreon page. If you’d like to see more, consider supporting his work. See more of his drawings at his website.

NASA Twins Study Researchers Take Genetic Data To Next Level

People who plan and conduct space missions never tire of telling us how hard it is to do things in space.

Our next big goal is getting humans to Mars, and establishing a colony there. There are a multitude of technical and engineering hurdles to be overcome, but we think we can do it.

But the other side of the coin is the physiological hurdles to be overcome. Those may prove to be much more challenging to deal with. NASA’s twins study is poised to add an enormous amount of data to our growing body of knowledge on the effects of space travel on human beings.

NASA's astronauts twins, Scott Kelly (l) and Mark Kelly (r). Image: NASA
NASA’s astronaut twins, Scott Kelly (l) and Mark Kelly (r). Image: NASA

Astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly are the basis of NASA’s study. Scott spent a year in space, returning to Earth on March 1st 2016, after spending 340 days aboard the ISS. Mark, himself a retired astronaut, remained on Earth during Scott’s year in space, providing a baseline for studying the effects on the human body of such a prolonged period of time away from Earth.

In February of 2016, NASA released preliminary results of the study. Now, the team studying the results of the twins study has started integrating the data. The way they’re doing this sets it apart from other studies.

“No one has ever looked this deeply at a human subject and profiled them in this detail.” – Tejaswini Mishra, Ph.D., Stanford University School of Medicine.

Typically, individual studies are released to appropriate journals more or less one at a time. But in the twins study, the data will be integrated and summarized before individual papers are published on separate themes. The idea is that taken together, their impact on our understanding of prolonged time in space will be much greater.

“The beauty of this study is when integrating rich data sets of physiological, neurobehavioral and molecular information, one can draw correlations and see patterns,” said Tejaswini Mishra, Ph.D., research fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine, who is creating the integrated database, recording results and looking for correlations. “No one has ever looked this deeply at a human subject and profiled them in this detail. Most researchers combine maybe two to three types of data but this study is one of the few that is collecting many different types of data and an unprecedented amount of information.”

“Each investigation within the study complements the other.” – Brinda Rana, Ph.D., U of C, San Diego School of Medicine

Mike Snyder, Ph.D, is the head of a team of people at Stanford that will work to synthesize the data. There are roughly three steps in the overall process:

  1. Individual researchers in areas like cognition, biochemistry, and immunology will analyze and compile their data then share their results with the Stanford team.
  2. The Stanford team will then further integrate those results into larger data sets.
  3. Those larger data sets will then be reviewed and analyzed to confirm and modify the initial findings.

“There are a lot of firsts with this study and that makes it exciting,” said Brinda Rana, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry, University of California San Diego School of Medicine. “A comparative study with one twin in space and one on Earth has never been done before. Each investigation within the study complements the other.”

NASA compares the twins study, and the new integrated method of handling all the results, to conducting a symphony. Each study is like an instrument, and instead of each one playing a solo, they will be added into a greater whole. The team at Stanford is like the conductor. If you’ve ever listened to an orchestra, you know how powerful that can be.

“The human systems in the body are all intertwined which is why we should view the data in a holistic way,” said Scott M. Smith, Ph.D., NASA manager for nutritional biochemistry at the Johnson Space Center. He conducts biochemical profiles on astronauts and his research is targeted to specific metabolites, end products of various biological pathways and processes.

“It is a more comprehensive way to conduct research.” – Chris Mason, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Physiology and Biophysics Weill Cornell Medicine

Chris Mason Ph.D., at Weill Cornell Medicine said, “Both the universe and the human body are complicated systems and we are studying something hard to see. It’s like having a new flashlight that illuminates the previously dark gears of molecular interactions. It is a more comprehensive way to conduct research.”

Scientists involved with the twins study are very clearly excited about this new approach. Having twin astronauts is an extraordinary opportunity, and will advance our understanding of spaceflight on human physiology enormously.

“There is no doubt, the learnings from integrating our data will be priceless,” said Emmanuel Mignot, M.D., Ph.D., director of Center for Sleep Science and Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine. He studies the immune system and is enthusiastic to study specific immune cell populations because many of the other immune studies focus only on general factors.

A summary of the early results should be out by early 2018, or possible late 2017. Individual papers on more detailed themes will follow shortly.

Canada To Get Its Own Spaceport

Canada is getting its own rocket-launching facility. Maritime Launch Services (MLS) has confirmed its plans to build and operate a commercial launch facility in Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast. The new spaceport should begin construction in 1 year, and should be in operation by 2022.

The facility will be built near Canso, in the province of Nova Scotia. Maritime Launch Services hopes to launch 8 rockets per year to place satellites in orbit. The Ukrainian Cyclone 4M medium-class rockets that will lift-off from Canso will have a payload of up to 3,350 kg.

The red marker in the map above shows the location of the Maritime Launch Services spaceport. Image: Google

Spaceports have certain requirements that make some locations more desirable. They need to be near transportation infrastructure so that rockets, payloads, and other materials can be transported to the site. They need to be away from major population centres in case of accidents. And they need to provide trajectories that give them access to desirable orbits.

The Nova Scotia site isn’t the only location considered by MLS. They evaluated 14 sites in North America before settling on the Canso, NS site, including ones in Mexico and the US. But it appears that interest and support from local governments helped MLS settle on Canso.

The Ukrainian Cyclone M4 rockets have an excellent track record for safety. The company who builds it, Yuzhnoye, has been in operation for 62 years and has launched 875 vehicles and built and launched over 400 spacecraft. Cyclone rockets have launched successfully 221 times.

The Cyclone 4. The Cyclone family of rockets have over 200 successful launches to their credit. Image: Yuzhnoye Design Office
The Cyclone 4. The Cyclone family of rockets have over 200 successful launches to their credit. Image: Yuzhnoye Design Office

MLS is a group of American aerospace experts including people who have worked with NASA. They are working with the makers of the Cyclone 4 rocket, who have wanted to open up operations in North America for some time.

The Cyclone rocket family first started operating in 1969. The Cyclone 4 is the newest and most powerful rocket in the Cyclone family. It’s a 3-stage rocket that runs on UDMH fuel and uses nitrogen tetroxide for an oxidizer.

There have been other proposals for a Canadian spaceport. The Canadian Space Agency was interested in Cape Breton, also in Nova Scotia, as a launch site for small satellites in 2010. A Canadian-American consortium called PlanetSpace also looked at a Nova Scotia site for a launch facility, but they failed to get the necessary funding from NASA in 2008. Fort Churchill, in the Province of Manitoba, was the site of over 3,500 sub-orbital flights before being shut down in 1985.

The Canso launch facility is an entirely private business proposal. Neither the Canadian government nor the Canadian Space Agency are partners. It’s not clear if having a launch facility on Canadian soil will impact the CSA’s activities in any way.

But at least Canadians won’t have to leave home to watch rocket launches.

Next Cygnus Cargo Ship Christened the SS John Glenn to Honor First American in Orbit

The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named for Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts, stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida behind a sign commemorating Glenn on March 9, 2017. Launch slated for March 21 on a ULA Atlas V. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The next Cygnus cargo ship launching to the International Space Station (ISS) has been christened the ‘S.S. John Glenn’ to honor legendary NASA astronaut John Glenn – the first American to orbit the Earth back in February 1962.

John Glenn was selected as one of NASA’s original seven Mercury astronauts chosen at the dawn of the space age in 1959. He recently passed away on December 8, 2016 at age 95.

The naming announcement was made by spacecraft builder Orbital ATK during a ceremony with the ‘S.S. John Glenn’, held inside the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) clean room facility where the cargo freighter is in the final stages of flight processing – and attended by media including Universe Today on Thursday, March 9.

“It is my humble duty and our great honor to name this spacecraft the S.S. John Glenn,” said Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager of Orbital ATK’s Advanced Programs division, during the clean room ceremony in the inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The next Orbital ATK Cygnus supply ship was christened the SS John Glenn in honor of Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts as it stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on March 9, 2017. Launch slated for March 21 on a ULA Atlas V. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The S.S. John Glenn is scheduled to liftoff as the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-7 spacecraft for NASA on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket launch no earlier than March 21 from Space launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The space station resupply mission dubbed Cygnus OA-7 is dedicated to Glenn and his landmark achievement as the first American to orbit the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962 and his life promoting science, human spaceflight and education.

“John Glenn was probably responsible for more students studying math and science and being interested in space than anyone,” said former astronaut Brian Duffy, Orbital ATK’s vice president of Exploration Systems, during the clean room ceremony on March 9.

“When he flew into space in 1962, there was not a child then who didn’t know his name. He’s the one that opened up space for all of us.”

The Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-7 supply ship named in honor of Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at KSC. Launch slated for March 21 on a ULA Atlas V. Credit: Julian Leek

Glenn’s 3 orbit mission played a pivotal role in the space race with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War era.

“He has paved the way for so many people to follow in his footsteps,” said DeMauro.

All of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus freighters have been named after deceased American astronauts.

Glenn is probably America’s most famous astronaut in addition to Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon during Apollo 11 in 1969.

John Glenn went on to become a distinguished U.S. Senator from his home state of Ohio on 1974. He served for 24 years during 4 terms.

He later flew a second mission to space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998 as part of the STS-95 crew at age 77. Glenn remains the oldest person ever to fly in space.

“Glenn paved the way for America’s space program, from moon missions, to the space shuttle and the International Space Station. His commitment to America’s human space flight program and his distinguished military and political career make him an ideal honoree for the OA-7 mission,” Orbital ATK said in a statement.

Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-7 spacecraft named the SS John Glenn for Original 7 Mercury astronaut and Sen. John Glenn, undergoes processing inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 9, 2017 for launch slated for March 21 on a ULA Atlas V. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

“The OA-7 mission is using the Enhanced Cygnus Pressurized Cargo Module (PCM) to deliver cargo to the International Space Station,” said DeMauro.

Cygnus will carry 7,700 pounds (3500 kg) of cargo to the station with a total volumetric capacity of 27 cubic meters.

“All these teams have worked extremely hard to get this mission to this point and we are looking forward to a great launch.”

Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-7 supply ship named the SS John Glenn undergoes processing inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at KSC on March 9, 2017. Launch slated for March 21 on a ULA Atlas V. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

This is the third Cygnus to launch on an Atlas V rocket from the Cape. The last one launched a year ago on March 24, 2016 during the OA-6 mission. The first one launched in December 2015 during the OA-4 mission.

“We’re building the bridge to history with these missions,” said Vernon Thorp, ULA’s program manager for Commercial Missions.

“Every mission is fantastic and every mission is unique. At the end of the day every one of these missions is critical.”

The Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-7 supply ship named in honor of Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at KSC. Launch slated for March 21 on a ULA Atlas V. Credit: Julian Leek

The other Cygnus spacecraft have launched on the Orbital ATK commercial Antares rocket from NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Overall this is Orbital ATK’s seventh commercial resupply services mission (CRS) to the space station under contract to NASA.

OA-7 also counts as NASA’s second supply mission of the year to the station following last month’s launch of the SpaceX Dragon CRS-10 capsule on Feb. 19 and which is currently berthed to the station at a Earth facing port on the Harmony module.

Historic maiden blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center) at 9:38 a.m. EDT on Feb 19, 2017, on Dragon CRS-10 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Cygnus OA-8 mission will launch again from NASA Wallops in the summer of 2017, DeMauro told me.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Posing with the newly christened SS John Glenn for the Cygnus OA-7 resupply mission to the ISS are Vern Thorp, United Launch Alliance Program program manager for Commercial Missions, Ken Kremer, Universe Today and Frank DeMauro, Orbital ATK vice president and general manager of Orbital ATK’s Advanced Programs division inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility cleanroom at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on March 9, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com


Learn more about SpaceX EchoStar 23 and CRS-10 launch to ISS, ULA SBIRS GEO 3 launch, EchoStar launch GOES-R launch, Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, OSIRIS-REx, InSight Mars lander, ULA, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions, Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX AMOS-6, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Mar 13-15: “SpaceX EchoStar 23, CRS-10 launch to ISS, ULA Atlas SBIRS GEO 3 launch, EchoStar 19 comsat launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions to the ISS, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Are Fast Radio Bursts Evidence Of Alien Activity?

The extremely energetic events that we see out there in the Universe are usually caused by cataclysmic astrophysical events and activities of one sort or another. But what about Fast Radio Bursts? A pair of astrophysicists at Harvard say that the seldom seen phenomena could, maybe, possibly, be evidence of an advanced alien technology.

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are short-lived radio pulses that last only a few milliseconds. It’s been assumed that they have some astrophysical cause. Fewer than 2 dozen of them have been detected since their discovery in 2007. They’re detected by our huge radio telescopes like the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and the Parkes Observatory in Australia. They’re extremely energetic, and their source is a great distance from us.

The NSF’s Arecibo Observatory, which is located in Puerto Rico, is the world largest radio telescope. Arecibo detected 11 FRBs over the course of 2 months. Credit: NAIC

The two astrophysicists, Avi Loeb at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Manasvi Lingam at Harvard University, decided to investigate the possibility that FRBs have an alien technological origin.

“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence. An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.” – Avi Loeb, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

I’ll Take ‘Alien Signals’ For $200 Alex

Loeb and Lingam began by calculating how much energy would be needed to send a signal that strong across such an enormous distance. They found that doing so with solar energy requires a solar array with an area twice the surface area of Earth. That would be enough energy, if the alien civilization was as close as we are to a star similar to our Sun.

Obviously, such a massive construction project is well beyond us. But however unlikely it sounds, it can’t be ruled out.

The pair also asked themselves questions about the viability of such a project. Would the heat and energy involved in such a solar array melt the structure itself? Their answer is that water-cooling would be sufficient to keep an array like this operating.

Their next question was, “Why build something like this in the first place?”

I’ll Take ‘Alien Spacecraft Propulsion Systems’ For $400 Alex”

The thinking behind their idea is based on an idea that we ourselves have had: Could we power a spacecraft by pushing on it with lasers? Or Microwaves? If we’ve thought of it, why wouldn’t other existing civilizations? If another civilization were doing it, what would the technology look like?

Their investigation shows that the engineering they’re talking about could power a spacecraft with a payload of a million tons. That would be about 20 times bigger than our largest cruise ship. According to Lingam, “That’s big enough to carry living passengers across interstellar or even intergalactic distances.”

If FRBs are indeed the result of an alien propulsion system, here’s how it would work: Earth is rotating and orbiting, which means the alien star and galaxy are moving relative to us. That’s why we would only see a brief flash. The beam sweeps across the sky and only hits us for a moment. The repeated appearance of the FRB could be a clue to its alien, technological origin.

The authors of the study outlining this thinking know that it’s speculative. But it’s their job to speculate within scientific constraints, which they have done. As they say in the conclusion of their paper, “Although the possibility that FRBs are produced by extragalactic civilizations is more speculative than an astrophysical origin, quantifying the requirements necessary for an artificial origin serves, at the very least, the important purpose of enabling astronomers to rule it out with future data.”

There are other interpretations when it comes to FRBs, of course. The others of another paper say that for at least one group of FRBs, known as FRB 121102, the source is likely astrophysical. According to them, FRBs likely come from “a young, highly magnetized, extragalactic neutron star.”

Lurking behind these papers are some intriguing questions that are also fun to ponder.

If the system required a solar array twice the size of Earth, where would the materials come from? If the system required water-cooling to avoid melting, where would all the water come from? It’s impossible to know, or to even begin speculating. But a civilization able to do something like this would have to be master engineers and resource exploiters. That goes without saying.

Why they might do it is another question. Probably the same reasons we would: curiosity and exploration, or maybe to escape a dying world.

Either that or they ran out of beer.

Curiosity Watches a Dust Devil Go Past

Curiosity rover raises robotic arm high while scouting the Bagnold Dune Field and observing dust devils inside Gale Crater on Mars on Sol 1625, Mar. 2, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic stitched from raw images and colorized. Note: Wheel tracks at right, distant crater rim in background. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Tis a season of incredible wind driven activity on Mars like few before witnessed by our human emissaries ! Its summer on the Red Planet and the talented scientists directing NASA’s Curiosity rover have targeted the robots cameras so proficiently that they have efficiently spotted a multitude of ‘Dust Devils’ racing across across the dunes fields of Gale Crater– see below.

The ‘Dust Devils’ are actually mini tornadoes like those seen on Earth.

But in this case they are dancing delightfully in the Bagnold Dune fields on Mars, as Curiosity surpassed 1625 Sols, or Martian days of exciting exploration and spectacular science and discovery.

This sequence of images shows a dust-carrying whirlwind, called a dust devil, on lower Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater, as viewed by NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover during the summer afternoon of Sol 1613 (Feb. 18, 2017). The navcam camera images are in pairs that were taken about 12 seconds apart, with an interval of about 90 seconds between pairs. Timing is accelerated and not fully proportional in this animation. Contrast has been modified to make frame-to-frame changes easier to see. A black frame provides a marker between repeats of the sequence. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

Furthermore they whip up the dust more easily in the lower gravity field on Mars compared to Earth. Mars gravity is about one third of Earth’s.

Right now it’s summer inside the rovers southern hemisphere landing site at Gale Crater. And summer is the windiest time of the Martian year.

“Dust devils are whirlwinds that result from sunshine warming the ground, prompting convective rising of air that has gained heat from the ground. Observations of Martian dust devils provide information about wind directions and interaction between the surface and the atmosphere,” as described by researchers.

So now is the best time to observe and photograph the dusty whirlwinds in action as they flitter amazingly across the craters surface carrying dust in their wake.

This sequence of images shows a dust-carrying whirlwind, called a dust devil, scooting across ground inside Gale Crater, as observed on the local summer afternoon of NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover’s 1,597th Martian day, or sol (Feb. 1, 2017). Set within a broader southward view from the rover’s Navigation Camera, the rectangular area outlined in black was imaged multiple times over a span of several minutes to check for dust devils. Images from the period with most activity are shown in the inset area. The images are in pairs that were taken about 12 seconds apart, with an interval of about 90 seconds between pairs. Timing is accelerated in this animation. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

Therefore researchers are advantageously able to utilize Curiosity in a new research campaign that “focuses on modern wind activity in Gale” on the lower slope of Mount Sharp — a layered mountain inside the crater.

NASA’s Curiosity rover explores sand dunes inside Gale Crater with Mount Sharp in view on Mars on Sol 1611, Feb. 16, 2017, in this navcam camera mosaic stitched from raw images and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Indeed, this past month Curiosity began her second sand dune campaign focusing on investigating active dunes on the mountain’s northwestern flank that are ribbon-shaped linear dunes.

“In these linear dunes, the sand is transported along the ribbon pathway, while the ribbon can oscillate back and forth, side to side,” said Nathan Bridges, a Curiosity science team member at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, in a statement.

The left side of this 360-degree panorama from NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the long rows of ripples on a linear shaped dune in the Bagnold Dune Field on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. The rover’s Navigation Camera recorded the component images of this mosaic on Feb. 5, 2017. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These new dunes are different from those investigated during the first dune campaign back in late 2015 and early 2016 that examined crescent-shaped dunes, including Namib Dune in our mosaic below.

The initial dune campaign actually involved the first ever up-close study of active sand dunes anywhere other than Earth, as I reported at the time.

Curiosity explores Red Planet paradise at Namib Dune during Christmas 2015 – backdropped by Mount Sharp. Curiosity took first ever self-portrait with Mastcam color camera after arriving at the lee face of Namib Dune. This photo mosaic shows a portion of the full self portrait and is stitched from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1197, Dec. 19, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

By snapping a series of targeted images pointed in just the right direction using the rovers mast mounted navigation cameras, or navcams, the researchers have composed a series of ‘Dust Devil’ movies – gathered together here for your enjoyment.

“We’re keeping Curiosity busy in an area with lots of sand at a season when there’s plenty of wind blowing it around,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

“One aspect we want to learn more about is the wind’s effect on sorting sand grains with different composition. That helps us interpret modern dunes as well as ancient sandstones.”

The movies amply demonstrate that Mars is indeed an active world and winds are by far the dominant force shaping and eroding the Red Planets alien terrain – despite the thin atmosphere less than 1 percent of Earth’s.

Indeed scientists believe that wind erosion over billions of years of time is what caused the formation of Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater by removing vast amounts of dust and sedimentary material — about 15,000 cubic miles (64,000 cubic kilometers) — as Mars evolved from a wet world to the dry, desiccated planet we see today.

Gale crater was originally created over 3.6 billion years ago when a gigantic asteroid or comet smashed into Mars. The devastating impact “excavated a basin nearly 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide. Sediments including rocks, sand and silt later filled the basin, some delivered by rivers that flowed in from higher ground surrounding Gale.”

Winds gradually carved away so much sediment and dirt that we are left with the magnificent mountain in view today.

The whirlwinds called “dust devils” have been recorded moving across terrain in the crater, in sequences of afternoon images taken several seconds apart.

The contrast has been enhanced to better show the dust devils in action.

Watch this short NASA video showing Martian Dust Devils seen by Curiosity:

Video Caption: Dust Devils On Mars Seen by NASA’s Curiosity Rover. On recent summer afternoons on Mars, navigation cameras aboard NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover observed several whirlwinds carrying Martian dust across Gale Crater. Dust devils result from sunshine warming the ground, prompting convective rising of air. All the dust devils were seen in a southward direction from the rover. Timing is accelerated and contrast has been modified to make frame-to-frame changes easier to see. Credit: NASA/JPL

The team is also using the probes downward-looking Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) camera for a straight down high resolution up-close view looking beneath the rover. The purpose is to check for daily movement of the dunes she is sitting on to see “how far the wind moves grains of sand in a single day’s time.”

This pair of images shows effects of one Martian day of wind blowing sand underneath NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on a non-driving day for the rover. Each image was taken just after sundown by the rover’s downward-looking Mars Descent Imager (MARDI). The area of ground shown in the images spans about 3 feet (about 1 meter) left-to-right. The images were taken on Jan. 23, 2017 (Sol 1587) and Jan. 24, 2017 (Sol 1588). The day-apart images by MARDI were taken as a part of investigation of wind’s effects during Martian summer, the windiest time of year in Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

These dune investigations have to be done now, because the six wheeled robot will soon ascend Mount Sharp, the humongous layered mountain at the center of Gale Crater.

Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.

“Before Curiosity heads farther up Mount Sharp, the mission will assess movement of sand particles at the linear dunes, examine ripple shapes on the surface of the dunes, and determine the composition mixture of the dune material,” researchers said.

NASA’s Curiosity rover extends robotic arm to investigate sand dunes inside Gale Crater on Mars on Sol 1619, Feb. 24, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Curiosity is also using the science instruments on the robotic arm turret to gather detailed research measurements with the cameras and spectrometers.

As of today, Sol 1625, March 2, 2017, Curiosity has driven over 9.70 miles (15.61 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 391,000 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

This map shows the two locations of a research campaign by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover mission to investigate active sand dunes on Mars. In late 2015, Curiosity reached crescent-shaped dunes, called barchans. In February 2017, the rover reached a location where the dunes are linear in shape. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through Sol 1612 (February 17, 2017) of the rover’s mission on Mars. The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Poopy Ideas Net $30,000 For Challenge Finalists

You may have thought that whole ‘going to the bathroom in space’ issue had already been resolved, with the International Space Station operating continuously with crew on board since 2000. But as we reported back in December, long-duration, deep-space human missions will create a possible scenario of needing to take care of human waste in a spacesuit longer than just a couple of hours. And so NASA and HeroX issued a Space Poop Challenge, to create an “in-suit waste management system” that can handle six days’ worth of bathroom needs.

HeroX announced this week that five thousand different teams had submitted entries to this challenge, but Air Force officer and flight surgeon Thatcher Cardon won the $15,000 top prize by thinking out of the box, or out of the spacesuit in this case. His concept figures out a way to handle waste by getting it outside of and away from the spacesuit.

For this challenge, NASA wanted to crowdsource the concept of getting away from the MAGs (Maximum Absorbency Garment) – basically adult diapers – currently worn during 7-8 hour-long spacewalks. They need something to handle ‘bathroom needs’ for long duration missions or even an emergency (think Mark Watney) where astronauts might need to spend several days in a spacesuit.

A concept of the MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System, with a perineal access port in the crotch area. Image Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

Drawing on his “flight surgeon expertise and borrowing a design from the lingerie industry,” Cardon created the “MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System” that places a small airlock opening called the “perineal access port” in the crotch — or “fig leaf area” as Cardon’s press release called it — through which various devices can be inserted to handle liquid or solid waste.

Cardon said the port imitates surgical technologies such as laparoscopy that use small openings to insert surgical instruments and uses devices that are maneuverable with a spacesuit-style gloved hand.

The inflatable bed pan as part of the MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System. Image courtesy Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon.

And if you think inflatable space modules are the wave of the future, you’ll love Cardon’s proposal for an inflatable bed pan. The bedpan has an absorbent liner and is can be slide through the port. Once in place inside the spacesuit, it inflates to capture the waste.

Cardon also invented a diaper made of one, long strip. The strip has segments of absorbent gel alternated with plastic segments that layer over the crotch. When one layer is soaked, the astronaut pulls it out through the port and tears it off like tape from a dispenser, exposing a fresh layer of gel.

Cardon said he filed a patent on his devices this week, as many NASA technologies have found widespread use on Earth. Cardon thinks his ideas may have extensive application. For example, the strip diaper might reduce the number of diaper changes needed by bedridden patients.

The $10,000 second-place prize went to three doctors from Houston that called themselves the “Space Poop Unification of Doctors” team. They created a devices that would direct waste through tube that empties into a small storage tank inside the suit.

In third place for a $5,000 prize was the “SWIMSuit—Zero Gravity Underwear.” These underwear disinfect the waste and store it inside the suit.

Dr. Thatcher Cardon working on his inventions for the NASA-HeroX Space Poop Challenge. Image Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon.

Cardon said in a press release that his involvement in the Space Poop Challenge was “a ton of fun,” and that he involved his entire family and co-workers, and that his small family practice office “was in an uproar” while he was working on his inventions.

Cardon said he will celebrate his win with a poop themed party for his colleagues, family, base community and church friends, complete with poop emoji cupcakes, special-ordered from the local bakery.

Thanks to Dr. Cardon for sharing his images with Universe Today.

Find out more about the Space Poop Challenge here.

NASA Tribute Exhibit Honors Fallen Apollo 1 Crew 50 Years After Tragedy

The new tribute to Apollo 1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center was opened during a dedication ceremony on Jan. 27, 2017, 50 years after the crew was lost – with a keynote speech by Kennedy Space Center Director and former astronaut Bob Cabana. The entrance to the Apollo 1 tribute shows the three astronauts who perished in a fire at the launch pad on Jan. 27, 1967 during training for the mission. The astronauts are, from left, Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL – NASA unveiled a new tribute exhibit honoring three fallen astronaut heroes 50 years to the day of the Apollo 1 tragedy on January 27, 1967 when the three man crew perished in a flash fire on the launch pad during a capsule test that was not considered to be dangerous.

The Apollo 1 prime crew comprising NASA astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee were killed during routine practice countdown testing when a fire suddenly erupted inside the cockpit as they were strapped to their seats in their Apollo command module capsule, on a Friday evening at 6:31 p.m. on January 27, 1967.

“It’s been 50 years since the crew of Apollo 1 perished in a fire at the launch pad, but the lives, accomplishments and heroism of the three astronauts are celebrated in a dynamic, new tribute that is part museum, part memorial and part family scrapbook,” says a NASA narrative that aptly describes the exhibit and the memorial ceremony I attended at the Apollo/Saturn V Center at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017 on behalf of Universe Today.

It was the first disaster with a human crew and the worst day in NASA’s storied history to that point.

The tribute is named called “Ad Astra Per Aspera – A Rough Road Leads to the Stars.”

A new tribute to the crew of Apollo 1, who perished in a fire at the launch pad on Jan. 27, 1967, opened at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the 50th anniversary of that fatal day that cost the lives of all three crewmembers. The tribute exhibit at the Apollo/Saturn Center highlights the lives and careers of NASA astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee with artifacts and photos. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

At the tribute dedication ceremony Kennedy Space Center Director and former astronaut Bob Cabana said the families of the fallen crew gave their approvals and blessing to the efforts that would at last tell the story of Apollo 1 to all generations – those who recall it and many more to young or not yet born to remember the tragedy of the early days of America’s space program.

“It’s long overdue,” said KSC center director and former astronaut Bob Cabana at the KSC dedication ceremony to family, friends and invited guests colleagues. “I’m proud of the team that created this exhibit.”

“Ultimately, this is a story of hope, because these astronauts were dreaming of the future that is unfolding today,” said Cabana. Generations of people around the world will learn who these brave astronauts were and how their legacies live on through the Apollo successes and beyond.”

The exhibit “showcases clothing, tools and models that define the men as their parents, wives and children saw them as much as how the nation viewed them.”

The main focus was to introduce the astronauts to generations who never met them and may not know much about them or the early space program, says NASA.

“This lets you now meet Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee as members of special families and also as members of our own family,” said NASA’s Luis Berrios, who co-led the tribute design that would eventually involve more than 100 designers, planners and builders to realize.

“You get to know some of the things that they liked to do and were inspired by. You look at the things they did and if anyone does just one of those things, it’s a lifetime accomplishment and they did all of it and more.”

Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee stand near Cape Kennedy’s Launch Complex 34 during mission training in January 1967. On Jan. 27, 1967, the three astronauts were preparing for what was to be the first manned Apollo flight. The astronauts were sitting atop the launch pad for a pre-launch test when a fire broke out in their Apollo capsule and they perished. Credit: NASA

The crew and the Apollo 1 command module were stacked atop the Saturn 1B rocket at Launch Complex 34 on what is now Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

During the “plugs out” test the Saturn 1B rocket was not fueled. But the fatal flaw was the atmosphere of pure oxygen for the astronauts to breath inside the sealed Apollo 1 command module which was pressurized to 16.7 psi.

The three-part hatch that was in place on the Apollo 1 spacecraft is shown in a tribute to the crew of Apollo 1 who perished in a fire at the launch pad on Jan. 27, 1967 during training for the mission. This is the first time any part of the Apollo 1 spacecraft has been displayed publicly and is part of the tribute exhibit at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida. A version of the hatch after it was redesigned is also showcased as an example of improvements NASA made throughout the agency and to the Apollo spacecraft that would later carry astronauts to the moon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Another significantly contributing fatal flaw was the inward opening three layered hatch that took some 90 seconds to open under the best of conditions.

After working all afternoon through the practice countdown and encountering numerous problems, something went terribly awry. Without warning a flash fire erupted in the cockpit filled with 100 percent oxygen and swiftly spread uncontrollably creating huge flames licking up the side of the capsule, acrid smoke and a poisonous atmosphere that asphyxiated, burned and killed the crew.

With the scorching temperatures spiking and pressures rapidly rising in a closed system, the capsule exploded some 20 seconds after the fire started. And because of the pressure buildup inside with flames licking up the sides and the toxic atmosphere generated from burning materials, the crew succumbed and could not turn the latch to pull open the hatch against the pressure.

The pad crew tried bravely in vain to save them, fighting heavy smoke and fire and fearing that the attached launch abort system on top of the capsule would ignite and kill them all too.

An investigation would determine that the fire was likely caused by a spark from frayed wiring, perhaps originating under Grissom’s seat.

“An electrical short circuit inside the Apollo Command Module ignited the pure oxygen environment and within a matter of seconds all three Apollo 1 crewmembers perished,” NASA concluded.

NASA and contractor North American Aviation completely redesigned the capsule with major engineering changes including an atmosphere of 60 percent oxygen and 40 percent nitrogen at 5 psi blower pressure, new hatch that could open outwards in 5 seconds, removing flammable materials among many others that would make the Apollo spacecraft much safer for the upcoming journeys to the moon.

The multi-layed hatch serves as the centerpiece of the tribute exhibit. No piece of Apollo 1 has ever before been put on public display. Alongside the old hatch, the new hatch is displayed that was used on all the remaining Apollo missions.

The three-part hatch that was in place on the Apollo 1 spacecraft is shown in a tribute to the crew of Apollo 1 who perished in a fire at the launch pad on Jan. 27, 1967 during training for the mission. This is the first time any part of the Apollo 1 spacecraft has been displayed publicly and is part of the tribute exhibit at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida. A version of the hatch after it was redesigned is also showcased (right) as an example of improvements NASA made throughout the agency and to the Apollo spacecraft that would later carry astronauts to the moon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Display cases highlights the lives and careers of the three astronauts in these NASA descriptions.

Gus Grissom was “one of NASA’s Original Seven astronauts who flew the second Mercury mission, a hunting jacket and a pair of ski boots are on display, along with a small model of the Mercury spacecraft and a model of an F-86 Sabre jet like the one he flew in the Korean War. A slide rule and engineering drafts typify his dedication to detail.”

“The small handheld maneuvering thruster that Ed White II used to steer himself outside his Gemini capsule during the first American spacewalk features prominently in the display case for the West Point graduate whose athletic prowess nearly equaled his flying acumen. An electric drill stands alongside the “zip gun,” as he called the thruster.”

“It was great to juxtaposition it with a drill which was also a tool that Ed loved to use,” Berrios said. “He had a tremendous passion for making things for his family.”

“Roger Chaffee, for whom Apollo 1 would have been his first mission into space, was an esteemed Naval aviator who became a test pilot in his drive to qualify as an astronaut later. Displayed are board games he played with his wife and kids on rare evenings free of training.”

Grissom, White and Chaffee composed NASA’s first three person crew following the one man Mercury program and two man Gemini program, that had just concluded in November 1966 with Gemini 12.

The trio had been scheduled to blastoff on February 21, 1967 on a 14 day long mission in Earth orbit to thoroughly check out the Apollo command and service modules.

Apollo 1 was to be the first launch in NASA’s Apollo moon landing program initiated by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Apollo 1 was planned to pave the way to the Moon so that succeeding missions would eventually “land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before this decade is out” as Kennedy eloquently challenged the nation to do.

Legendary Gemini and Apollo astronaut General Thomas Stafford speaks at dedication of new tribute exhibit at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center about the heroic Apollo 1 crew and their contributions to getting us to the Moon on the 50th anniversary of their deaths in the flash fire on Jan. 27, 1967. Stafford was the backup commander of Apollo 1. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

I remember seeing the first news flashes about the Apollo 1 fire on the TV as a child, as it unfolded on the then big three networks. It is indelibly marked in my mind. This new exhibit truly tells the story of these astronaut heroes vividly to those with distant memories and those with little or no knowledge of Apollo 1.

Exit walkway passing through misty projection of Apollo 1 mission patch and crossing over to mock capsule and crew of Grissom, White and Chaffee seated in Apollo 1 Command Module. Family member quotes at left. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Gene Cernan, Last Man on the Moon, Honored at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Remembrance Ceremony honoring the life of astronaut Eugene Cernan, last Man to walk on the Moon during NASA’s Apollo 17 moon landing mission in Dec. 1972, was held at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, on Jan. 18, 2017. Cernan passed away on Jan. 16, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL – Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, and one of America’s most famous and renowned astronauts, was honored in a ceremony held at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, on Jan. 18. [Story/photos expanded]

Cernan passed away earlier this week on Monday, January 16, 2017 at age 82, after a long illness, surrounded by his family.

Cernan, a naval aviator, flew on three groundbreaking missions for NASA during the Gemini and Apollo programs that paved the way for America’s and humanity’s first moon landing missions.

His trio of historic space flights ultimately culminated with Cernan stepping foot on the moon in Dec. 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission- NASA final moon landing of the Apollo era.

No human has set foot on the Moon since Apollo 17 – an enduring disappointment to Cernan and all space fans worldwide.

Cernan also flew on the Gemini 9 and Apollo 10 missions, prior to Apollo 17.

The Gemini 9 capsule is on display at the KSC Visitor Complex. Cernan was the second NASA astronaut to perform an EVA – during Gemini 9.

The Cernan remembrance ceremony was held at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame inside the newly opened ‘Heroes & Legends’ exhibit at the KSC Visitor Complex – two days after Cernan died. It included remarks from two of his fellow NASA astronauts from the Space Shuttle era, Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana, and space shuttle astronaut Jon McBride, as well as Therrin Protze, chief operating officer, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Robert Cabana, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and space shuttle astronaut Jon McBride, following remarks at the Jan 18, 2017 Remembrance Ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, honoring the life of astronaut Eugene Cernan. Credit: Julian Leek

A NASA portrait and floral wreath were on display for visitors during the ceremony inside and outside of the ‘Heroes and Legends’ exhibit.

“He was an advocate for the space program and hero that will be greatly missed,” said Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana during the ceremony inside.

“I don’t believe that Gene is going to be the last man on the moon. And one of the things that he was extremely passionate about was our exploring beyond our own planet, and developing that capability that would allow us to go back to the moon and go beyond.

“I feel badly that he wasn’t able to stay alive long enough to actually see this come to fruition,” Cabana said.

Portrait of NASA astronaut Gene Cernan and floral wreath displayed during the Jan. 18, 2017 Remembrance Ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, honoring his life as the last Man to walk on the Moon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA is now developing the SLS heavy lift rocket and Orion deep space capsule to send our astronauts to the Moon, Mars and Beyond. The maiden launch of SLS-1 on the uncrewed EM-1 mission to the Moon is slated for Fall 2018.

“We are saddened of the loss of our American hero, Astronaut Gene Cernan. As the last man to place footsteps on the surface of the moon, he was a truly inspiring icon who challenged the impossible,” said Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

“People throughout generations have been and will forever be inspired by his actions, and the underlying message that what we can achieve is limited only by our imaginations. He will forever be known as ‘The Last Man on the Moon,” and for the extraordinary impact he had on our country and the world.”

Cernan was one of only 12 astronauts to walk on the moon. Neil Armstong and Buzz Aldrin were the first during the Apollo 11 moon landing mission in 1969 that fulfilled President Kohn F. Kennedy’s promise to land on the Moon during the 1960’s.

Launch of Apollo 17 – NASA’s last lunar landing mission – on 7 December 1972 from Launch Complex-39A on the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

Cernan retired from NASA and the U.S. Navy in 1976. He continued to advise NASA as a consultant and appeared frequently on TV news programs during NASA’s manned space missions as an popular guest explaining the details of space exploration and why we should explore.

He advocated for NASA, space exploration and science his entire adult life.

The prime crew for the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission are: Commander, Eugene A. Cernan (seated), Command Module pilot Ronald E. Evans (standing on right), and Lunar Module pilot, Harrison H. Schmitt (left). They are photographed with a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) trainer. Cernan and Schmitt used an LRV during their exploration of the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The Apollo 17 Saturn V Moon rocket is in the background. This picture was taken during October 1972 at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

“As an astronaut, Cernan left an indelible impression on the moon when he scratched his daughter’s initials in the lunar surface alongside the footprints he left as the last human to walk on the moon. Guests of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex can learn more about Cernan’s legacy at the new Heroes & Legends exhibit, where his spacewalk outside the actual Gemini IX space capsule is brought to life through holographic imagery.”

Actual Gemini 9 capsule piloted by Gene Cernan with Commander Thomas P. Stafford on a three-day flight in June 1966 on permanent display in the Heroes and Legends exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida. Cernan logged more than two hours outside the orbiting capsule, as depicted in description. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

From NASA’s profile page:

“Cernan was born in Chicago on March 14, 1934. He graduated from Proviso Township High School in Maywood, Ill., and received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University in 1956. He earned a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Cernan is survived by his wife, Jan Nanna Cernan, his daughter and son-in-law, Tracy Cernan Woolie and Marion Woolie, step-daughters Kelly Nanna Taff and husband, Michael, and Danielle Nanna Ellis and nine grandchildren.”

The following is a statement released by NASA on the behalf of Gene Cernan’s family:

A funeral service for Capt. Eugene A. Cernan, who passed away Monday at the age of 82, will be conducted at 2:30 p.m. CST on Tuesday, Jan. 24, at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, 717 Sage Road in Houston.

NASA Television will provide pool video coverage of the service.

The family will gather for a private interment at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin at a later date, where full military honors will be rendered.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Grand opening ceremony for the ‘Heroes and Legends’ attraction on Nov. 11, 2016 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida and attended by more than 25 veteran and current NASA astronauts. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA Orders Additional Astronaut Taxi Flights from Boeing and SpaceX to the ISS

Boeing and SpaceX commercial crew vehicles ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in this artists concept. Credit: NASA

In a significant step towards restoring America’s indigenous human spaceflight capability and fostering the new era of commercial space fight, NASA has awarded a slew of additional astronaut taxi flights from Boeing and SpaceX to carry crews to the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA’s new announcement entails awarding an additional four crew rotation missions each to commercial partners, Boeing and SpaceX, on top of the two demonstration fights previously awarded to each company under the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) initiative, in a Jan. 3 statement.

However, the newly awarded crew rotation missions will only take place after NASA has certified that each provider is fully and satisfactorily meeting NASA’s long list of stringent safety and reliability requirements to ensure the private missions will be safe to fly with humans aboard from NASA and its partner entities.

And NASA officials were careful to point out that these orders “do not include payments at this time.”

In other words, NASA will pay for performance, not mere promises of performance – because human lives are on the line.

“They fall under the current Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contracts, and bring the total number of missions awarded to each provider to six,” NASA officials announced.

Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The goal of the CCP program is to ensure robust and reliable crew transportation to the International Space Station in this decade and beyond – using American rockets and capsules launching from American soil.

A further goal is to end America’s sole reliance on Russia for transporting American astronauts to and from the space station using Russia’s Soyuz crew capsules.

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle’s in July 2011, NASA astronauts and its partners have been 100% dependent on Russia for rides to space – currently to the tune of over $80 million per seat.

By awarding these new contracts, Boeing and SpaceX should be able to plan further ahead in the future, order long lead time hardware and software, and ultimately cut costs through economy of scale.

“Awarding these missions now will provide greater stability for the future space station crew rotation schedule, as well as reduce schedule and financial uncertainty for our providers,” said Phil McAlister, director, NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development Division, in a statement.

“The ability to turn on missions as needed to meet the needs of the space station program is an important aspect of the Commercial Crew Program.”

Each spaceship can deliver a crew of four and 220 pounds of cargo, experiments and gear to the million pound science laboratory orbiting Earth at an altitude of appox. 250 miles (400 km). They also serve as a lifeboat in case the occupants need to evacuate the station for any reason.

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2018. Credit: NASA

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in September 2014 worth $6.8 Billion to complete the development and manufacture of the privately developed Starliner CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut transporters, respectively, under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

The CCP initiative was started back in 2010 under the Obama Administration to replace NASA’s outgoing space shuttle orbiters.

However, launch targets for first fight by the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon have been repeatedly postponed from 2015 to 2018 – in the latest iteration – due to severe and extremely shortsighted funding cutbacks by Congress year after year.

Thus NASA has been forced to order several years more additional Soyuz taxi seat flights and send hundreds and hundreds of millions of more US dollars to Putin’s Russia – thanks to the US Congress.

Congress enjoys whining about Russia on one hand, while at the same time they put America’s aerospace workers on the unemployment line by curtailing NASA’s ability to move forward and put Americans back to work. There is ample bipartisan blame for this sad state of affairs.

The Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon are both Made in America.

The Boeing Starliner is being manufactured at the Kennedy Space Center inside a repurposed and renovated former Space Shuttle Orbiter Processing hangar. This author has visited the C3PF facility periodically to observe and assess Boeing’s progress.

The honeycombed upper dome of a Boeing Starliner spacecraft on a work stand inside the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The upper dome is part of Spacecraft 1 , the first flightworthy Starliner being developed in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Indeed, Boeing has already started construction of the first flight worthy Starliner – currently dubbed Spacecraft 1- at KSC this past summer 2016.

Looking inside the newly upgraded Starliner mockup with display panel, astronauts seats, gear and hatch at top that will dock to the new International Docking Adapter (IDA) on the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SpaceX Crew Dragon is being manufactured at company headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Blastoff of the first SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on its first unmanned test flight, or Demonstration Mission 1, is postponed from May 2017 to November 2017, according to the latest quarterly revision just released by NASA last month in Dec. 2016.

Liftoff of the first piloted Crew Dragon with a pair of NASA astronauts strapped in has slipped from August 2017 to May 2018.

Launch of the first uncrewed Boeing Starliner, known as an Orbital Flight Test, has slipped to June 2018.

Liftoff of the first crewed Starliner is now slated for August 2018, possibly several months after SpaceX. But the schedules keep changing so it’s anyone’s guess as to when these commercial crew launches will actually occur.

Boeing’s uncrewed flight test, known as an Orbital Flight Test, is currently scheduled for June 2018 and its crewed flight test currently is planned for August 2018.

“Once the flight tests are complete and NASA certifies the providers for flight, the post-certification missions to the space station can begin,” NASA official said.

Fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket like this one will launch the Boeing CST-100 Starliner to the ISS. Note the newly installed crew access tower and crew access arm and white room. Here is is carrying the EchoStar XIX satellite from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Meanwhile the rockets and launch pads for Boeing and SpaceX are also being developed, modified and refurbished as warranted.

The launch pads for both are located on Florida’s Space Coast.

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon will launch on the company’s own Falcon 9 from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of commercial and human rated Falcon 9 rockets as well as the Falcon Heavy, as seen here during Dec 2016 with construction of a dedicated new transporter/erector. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

A crane lifts the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016. Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com