Stunning Image, Heartfelt Poetry Could Become Icons of Space Age

Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson reflects on the view from the ISS's Cupola. Credit: Doug Wheelock/NASA


Undoubtedly, this picture has what it takes to become an iconic image of human spaceflight, much like Apollo 8’s Earthrise or Bruce McCandless’ untethered spacewalk. Here, astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson looks down at Earth from the Cupola on the International Space Station, likely reflecting on both her home and her home in space. Everyone I know who has seen this image has just melted, with a sigh that says, “Oh, wow — that is just amazing!” (It made today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day.) My initial thoughts were that this is the one of the most poetic image of human spaceflight I have ever seen. And sure enough, Stuart Atkinson (the guy who I nominate at the Poet Laureate of Space) was inspired by this image, too. He has written a magnificent, heartfelt poem that captures the spirit –as well as the technology — of this image, and very likely sums up Caldwell Dyson’s thoughts as she gazes out the Cupola windows.

Read “Blue” by Stuart Atkinson:


Ignoring the tsunami of technology humming behind her,
The chaos of cameras, computers and calculators
Covering the walls, she shuts her eyes and smiles.
This isn’t what she imagined as a girl.
In all those classroom daydreams she always saw herself
Looking down – or up – at the world from high above – or below –
Beside a plate-sized portal, straining to glimpse
Some small portion of the planet spinning silently beyond
The scratched and fingerprint-smeared glass, unable to see
More than mere hints of the colours, shadows and shapes
Shown in all the books and magazines…

But this…

Earth is there… everywhere…
A ball of burning blue close enough to touch.
Painted on the heavens in all its Van Gogh glory
It fills the sky, overflows her sight,
A startling Stargate of colour in an ocean of emptiness.
Even with her eyes closed she still sees its azure glow,
Feels its sapphire shades blazing in the ink-black night.
In the work-day-over darkness, Earthlight
Washes her face like cool rain as painfully beautiful
Whirls and whorls of milk-white cloud swirl
O’er the world below and she knows, in her aching
Heart, that long after she has returned to Terra,
To walk barefoot on its dew-drenched grass and
Splash in its ocean’s surging surf a part of her
Will always be here, at this window, gazing down
Upon the Earth.

© Stuart Atkinson 2010

Thanks to Stu for allowing us to publish his poem, a Universe Today exclusive! To see more of his poetry and imagery, check out his websites, Cumbrian Sky, and Road to Endeavour.

Seeing the Space Station is Something to Smile About

The International Space Station shows up in this image taken by the University of Hertfordshire's All-Sky Camera located at Niton, Isle of Wight. Credit: Dr. Lucy Rogers/University of Hertfordshire


I know I always smile when I see the International Space Station in the night sky, but here the sky itself appears happy, with the ISS crossing the field of view of the Niton All-Sky camera. With a long exposure, a “star trail” forms as the space station moves across the sky. 🙂

The camera is located on the Isle of Wight and operated through the University of Hertfordshire. Check out the camera’s website — there a some great “unusual” images” which include meteors, atmospheric phenomena and even wildlife making an appearance.

Hat tip: Adrian West on Twitter.

Best of Earth from the ISS

Fire scars in Australia are featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 5 crewmember on the International Space Station (ISS). Bright orange fire scars show up the underlying dune sand in the Simpson Desert, Credit: NASA

The International Space Station has been orbiting the Earth every day for over 10 years, and the astronauts all say their favorite pastime is looking at the Earth. During the past 10 years, the crews have taken some great pictures of our planet, and these images provide a unique look at our world. These are just a few of the spectacular views of Earth from the space station.

Continue reading “Best of Earth from the ISS”

Ten Years Of the ISS in Pictures

Dextre, a large robotic manipulator to help with outside maintenence of the ISS was added in October of 2007. Credit: NASA


Ten years ago, the first Expedition crew arrived at the International Space Station. Here’s a look back in time at how the station has changed and grown, and some of the people who were there to make it happen.

And if you’re really feeling the love for the ISS today, check out our 2008 article, “I Heart the ISS; Ten Reasons to Love the International Space Station.”

The configuration of the ISS when the first expedition crew arrived on Nov. 2, 2000. Credit: NASA

Expedition Two crewmembers Yury Usachev (left), mission commander, Jim Voss, flight engineer, and Susan Helms, flight engineer, share a dessert in the Zvezda Service Module. Credit: NASA
This image was taken on April 21, 2001 during Expedition 2; the first large solar arrays were added during the STS-100 space shuttle mission. Credit: NASA
The Expedition Five crewmembers in the Destiny laboratory on the ISS. From the left are cosmonaut Valery Korzun, mission commander; astronaut Peggy A. Whitson, who became the ISS’s first science officer, and cosmonaut Sergei Treschev. Credit: NASA
The Microgravity Science Glovebox was added to the Destiny lab on the ISS during Expedition 5. Credit: NASA
The Expedition Six crew pose for a crew photo in the Zarya module on the ISS; Don Pettit (front), science officer; cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin (left back), flight engineer; and astronaut Ken Bowersox, mission commander. Credit: NASA
During Expedition 6, the space shuttle Columbia accident occurred, and the shuttle program was on hold. ISS astronauts Don Pettit (left) and Ken Bowersox had to do a variety of maintenance tasks outside the ISS that normally visiting shuttle crews would have taken care. Credit: NASA.
It was rather lonely times for awhile on the ISS -- with no space shuttles flying, only two crewmembers were able to be on board the ISS. Here are Expedition 7's Yuri Malenchenko and Ed Lu. Credit: NASA
The Russian Soyuz vehicle serves as transportation and rescue vehicle for the ISS. Credit: NASA
New Crew member? No, this is the European Matroshka-R Phantom experiment, which operated during Expedition 12 in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station. Matroshka, the name for the traditional Russian set of nestling dolls, is an antroph-amorphous model of a human torso designed for radiation studies. Credit: NASA
Stuff happens it space. During a spacewalk, Expedition 16 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin noticed damage to a multi-layer insulation (MLI) protective blanket on the Zarya module. The damage, he noted, was apparently from a micrometeoroid impact. The date the damage occurred is unknown but has had no impact to vehicle operations. Credit: NASA
Shuttles returned to flight in July of 2005, and this is how the ISS looked when space shuttle Discovery visited, the first shuttle visit in over 2 years. Credit: NASA
The ISS as it looked in June of 2007, during the STS-117 mission. Credit: NASA
The backbone of the ISS is the huge truss, brought up to the ISS in smaller segments, which are still huge by themselves. Dave Williams, STS-118 mission specialist from Canada works outside the ISS, helping to attach the Starboard 5 (S5) segment, and works on the forward heat-rejecting radiator from the station's Port 6 (P6) truss. Credit: NASA
A look inside the Harmony node that was brought to the ISS in on the STS-120 mission in 2007. Credit: NAS
Sunita Williams, Expedition 15 flight engineer, works on a science experiment in April of 2007. Credit: NASA
Backdropped by the thin line of Earth's atmosphere and the blackness of space, a portion of the International Space Station is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 20 crew member aboard the station. in May 2009. Credit: NASA
A torn solar array panel in the ISS, which was installed during the STS-120 mission. See below for the repair job. Credit: NASA
The repaired solar array, fixed by STS-120 astronauts. Credit: NASA
European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Hans Schlegel, STS-122 mission specialist, works on the new Columbus laboratory that was installed in February 2008. Credit: NASA
Astronauts work on adding the Japanese logistics module-pressurized section in March of 2008 during the STS-123 mission. Credit: NASA
Dextre, a large robotic manipulator to help with outside maintenence of the ISS was added in October of 2007. Credit: NASA
A motley-looking crew of the Expedition 17 and 18 crewmembers in the Harmony node in Oct. 2008. Credit: NASA
Here's how the ISS looked durng the STS-128 mission in September of 2009. Credit: NASA
During the STS-130 mission in Feb. 2010, the Cupola and Tranquility Node were added. The Cupola provides unprecidented views of Earth and space from the ISS. Credit: NASA
How the ISS looked during the STS-130 mission in February 2010. Credit: NASA
The Russian Mini Research Module was added in May of 2010 on STS-132. Credit: NASA
NASA astronauts Shannon Walker (left), Expedition 24/25 flight engineer; Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Expedition 23/24 flight engineer; and Doug Wheelock, Expedition 24 flight engineer and Expedition 25 commander, pose for photo in the Poisk Mini-Research Module 2 (MRM2) of the International Space Station.
How the ISS looks today (as of this writing), and as it looked following the STS-132 mission in May of 2010. Credit: NASA

For a complete list of pictures of each of the ISS Expedition crews, see NASA’s gallery which shows all those who have served on the space station over the past 10 years.

10 Years of the ISS: First Commander Reflects on Anniversary

Ten years ago today US astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko arrived at the fledgling International Space Station, after launching in a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on October 31, 2000. This began a decade of continuous human habituation on board the station. The station’s first commander reflects on his mission and the past 10 years.

Oh Canada! Hadfield Named First Canadian Commander of ISS

Hadfield's personal mission patch. Credit: collectSPACE

Congratulations to one of our favorite astronauts, Chris Hadfield from Canada. Today NASA and the Canadian Space Agency announced Hadfield will be heading to the International Space Station in 2012, serving as Flight Engineer for Expedition 34, and then transitioning to Commander midway through his 6-month stay when Expedition 35 begins. Hadfield will be the first Canadian to serve as Commander for the ISS. His ebullient style and passion for space exploration — evident in the video above from today’s announcement (Hadfield speaks in both French and English, so don’t worry if you’re not fluent in one or the other) should make for a lively and enlightening time on the ISS.

“This honor is beyond words,” Hadfield said at today’s announcement. “To have this opportunity is extremely challenging, extremely exciting and extremely rewarding. It still is two years away, I still have to pass two more of the toughest physicals on Earth before they’ll let me get in that Soyuz and dock with the space station… To be trusted … with the entire station on behalf of all the world’s space faring nations, but specifically Canada is a tremendous honor that we all can share.”

While there have been several great ambassadors for the wonders of space exploration who have served on board the ISS, Hadfield is one astronaut who can truly share what the experience of spaceflight is really like. See our interview with Hadfield where he describes what it is like to go on a spacewalk. (Or you can listen to the interview on the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast here.) He also has a great description of how to go the bathroom in space.


Above is Hadfield’s mission patch, in the shape of a guitar pick, which is symbolic of Hadfield’s musical interests with an emphasis on science and art, a distinguishing feature of Expedition 34/35, says Robert Pearlman from collectSPACE.

Joining Hadfield will be US astronaut Tom Marshburn, and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko will also serve as flight engineers for the Expedition 34 mission. Astronaut Kevin Ford and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin were previously announced as the other crew members for Expedition 34, which begins when Soyuz 31 undocks from the station in October 2012.

Expedition 35 will begin with the undocking of Soyuz 32 in March 2013. At that time, Hadfield will serve as station commander, with Marshburn and Romanenko continuing as flight engineers. The three additional crew members for Expedition 35 have yet to be assigned.

Hadfield and Marshburn have already completed an expedition together on the NEEMO (NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations) underwater habitat, so they should make a great team in space. You can read Universe Today’s interview with them during their mission under the sea.

Sources: NASA, SpaceRef, CSA

Space Station Twitter Crew Returns Home

The Expedition 23 crew from the International Space Station landed safely in their Soyuz-17 spacecraft, concluding their five-and-a-half-month stay in space. Commander Oleg Kotov and Flight Engineers T.J. Creamer and Soichi Noguchi were welcomed by sunshine on Wednesday morning in Kazakhstan (11:25 pm EDT Tuesday). This crew may well be remembered as the ‘Twitter Crew’: Creamer posted the first “live” Tweet from space on Twitter from the now functioning internet on the ISS, which he helped to get up and running. Noguchi’s use of Twitter to post hundreds of images from space documented and shared his experiences in space like no previous astronaut, as he garnered over 250,000 Twitter “followers,” and his images were featured on many blogs and news sites.
Continue reading “Space Station Twitter Crew Returns Home”

Final Shuttle Flight Will Be Delayed at Least Until November for AMS Switchout

Mission patch for STS-134, which will carry the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the ISS. Credit: NASA


A switch-out of the magnet for a much anticipated particle physics experiment on the International Space Station will force NASA to delay the final flight of the space shuttle until at least November, and change which orbiter and crew will fly the final space shuttle mission. The $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer was scheduled to head to the ISS in July of this year, but recent thermal vacuum tests showed the superconducting magnet that was originally planned to power the experiment would have only worked 2-3 years. An ordinary magnet, which doesn’t need to be super-cooled will last for a decade or more – and given the ISS has been given a longer life, it seems to be the best option. “I don’t think it’s correct to go there for three years where there is a chance to do physics for 18 years,” said Dr. Samuel Ting, AMS Principal Investor, in an article in the New York Times.

NASA officials said today they still are evaluating the exact day in November, as they must schedule the mission to fit around other resupply and crew flights to the ISS, with the Russian Progress and Soyuz vehicles.

The AMS is designed to search for various types of unusual matter by measuring cosmic rays, and will help researchers study the formation of the universe and search for evidence of dark matter and antimatter.

Changing the magnet means the AMS won’t arrive at Kennedy Space Center before August and shuttle workers need time to get the payload ready to fly inside the shuttle’s cargo bay.

Atlantis at the pad for the STS-132 mission. Credit: Alan Walters ( for Universe Today

The upcoming flight of the shuttle Atlantis (STS-132) remains on schedule for launch no earlier than May 14. But Endeavour was scheduled for the AMS flight in July, which will now move to no earlier than November. Discovery’s STS-133 flight (bringing up the Leonardo MPLM as a permanent storage module) stays on the schedule for September 16. So while the schedule changes, numerical order is restored!

Another possible change to the shuttle schedule would be if the decision to fly what is called STS-335, the Launch On Need mission, a shuttle ready to go as a rescue ship for the last scheduled mission. Many shuttle supporters say since Atlantis would be ready to fly that it should fly. No decision has yet been made, however.

Even if the final flight or flights get delayed into 2011, funding is not a problem, as Congress anticipated possible delays and provided funds for shuttle operations into early next year.

Liquid helium would have been used cool the superconducting magnet’s temperature to near absolute zero. But tests showed the helium would dissipate withing 2-3 years, leaving the seven-ton experiment useless. The ISS has been extended to at least 2020, and possibly as long as 2028.

Sources: New York Times, Orlando Sentinel

ISS to get ‘Man Cave’ Complete with Robot Butler

Cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko floats inside Leonardo during its first flight to the ISS. Leonardo will become a permanant module later in 2010. Credit: NASA


There might be a new favorite hang-out for astronauts aboard the International Space Station later this year. The Multi Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) known as Leonardo – which will be going to the ISS on the upcoming STS-131 mission carrying cargo and supplies — will be transformed after the mission into a Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM), and brought up to stay on the station on STS-133 as a storeroom for supplies. But it might also become a haven to get away from it all.

“The thought is, the PMM might become sort of a ‘man cave’,” said Mike Kinslow, the Boeing payload manager out at Kennedy Space Center. “It won’t have all the background noise of fans, computers and other equipment running like in the laboratories, so it will be a quieter atmosphere that might appeal to the astronauts during their off-duty hours.”

No plans for a big screen TV Kinslow said, but there will be ports for computers, and since internet is now available on the ISS, Leonardo could be the location of choice to compose emails to loved ones back home, or do a little Twittering.

Another interesting piece of hardware scheduled to fly on the PMM is the Robonaut 2, NASA’s second generation of dexterous robots with a human-like torso that can work with tools and one day are envisioned to be able to do EVA work outside the ISS. But for now, R2 will be tested inside the station in zero-g. “It will be used on orbit for routine maintenance indoors only.” said Kinslow, “This is not an external unit.”

It has a “head” with a vision system, with hands that can do work, controlled by virtual-reality-like operation. Any chance R2 could be programmed to serve drinks or bring food into the man cave?

See our article on how General Motors is going to use R2 for manufacturing cars.

Turning Leonardo into a permanent module will take some work, said NASA Payload Manager Joe Delai. “Once it returns from this flight we will beef up the external shield and change things internally to become a permanent module. It will be about a four month process to get it ready.”

Leonard being attached to the ISS on a previous mission. Credit: NASA TV

The MPLMs were built in Italy, but are owned by the U.S. and provided in exchange for Italian access to U.S. research time on the Station. Four modules were built; three flew to the ISS. STS-131 will be Leonardo’s seventh trip to space.

Kinslow said shields for an MPLM are lighter weight because they are only meant to be on orbit for 2 weeks at a time. “Leonardo will be plated with a multilevel Kevlar blanket, the same type of exterior shielding other modules have, which is similar to armor plating, to protect against meteorite or debris impact. Internally, not a lot of changes will be made,” he said. “It already has a ventilation system like a normal module, but will need a computer system and a few other additions.”

Leonardo won’t be outfitted with a sleep station or crew quarters because it might be in a more vulnerable position for radiation or debris hits. “They don’t really want crew to get in and sleep because of the shielding,” Kinslow said. “It will be a storage module, and we’re discussing putting exercise equipment in there.”

The PMM will be berthed on the Node 1 nadir, or Earth-facing port. Leonardo measures about 6.5 meters (21 feet) long and 4.5 meters (15 feet) in diameter.

STS-131 is currently scheduled for an April 5 launch, and STS-133 is shooting for a September 2010 launch.

Just a note on the ISS internet: T.J. Creamer, who is on board the station now told Universe Today that they aren’t able to have streaming video or download large files. “In terms of download speeds – you know, back in the old days, it kind of compares to 9.6 and the 14.4 kilobyte modems, so it’s not really fast enough to do large file exchange or videos, but it certainly lets us to do browsing and the fun reading we want to do, or get caught up on current events on that day. It’s a nice outreach for us, and of course you’ve heard about the Twittering which is a nice feature that we can partake in also.”

Peggy Whitson: A Heroine of Science and Technology

Astronaut Peggy Whitson Photo: Cambria Harkey


This post is part of Ada Lovelace Day, which is a worldwide effort to get as many people as possible to blog about a heroine of science or technology. Ada was a mathematician who lived in the 1800’s who created the first computer program. Yep — you read correctly — a computer in the 1800’s. It was actually a device called an analytical engine, which was an important step in the history of computers. You can read more about Ada and Ada Lovelace Day here.

The person I chose to write about is a goddess of both science AND technology. She is a biochemist and an astronaut. She was the first science officer on board the International Space Station and later become the first female commander of the ISS. She helped get some of the initial science programs going on the on the space station, and as commander oversaw a period of one of the biggest expansions for the station, coordinating the additions of European and Japanese laboratory modules. Her name is ….

Dr. Peggy Whitson

Perhaps I have always been drawn to Whitson because she grew up in a rural, agricultural environment, as I did. But I have always found Whitson to be endearing because of her easygoing and friendly personality. But yet, she must be almost a “slave-driver” and perfectionist when it comes to her work. During her expeditions on the ISS, Whitson earned a reputation for high achievement, which prompted mission planners to assign the crew extra work every day. NASA called it “The Peggy Factor.”

“We account for the fact that Peggy is going to do things more efficiently, and that she likes to work some on her time off, and so she’ll accomplish more,” said NASA deputy station project manager Kirk Shireman.

Whitson works with a science glove box on board the ISS. Credit: NASA

First some the details about Whitson: she graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1981, and received her doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University in 1985. She worked as a Welch Postdoctoral Fellow before joining NASA in 1986.

From 1989 to 1993, Whitson was a research biochemist for NASA. During that time, she also served as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Texas and Rice University. In 1995, she became co-chair of a combined American and Russian working group, and a year later she was named an astronaut candidate.

Whitson flew her first space mission in 2002 as a flight engineer to the International Space Station as part of the Expedition 5 crew. While there, then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe gave her the title of first NASA Science Officer. Of course, she took some ribbing about being like “Spock,” the science officer on the original Star Trek, but she came to enjoy using the phrase “Live Long and Prosper.” During that mission she performed 21 experiments in human life science, microgravity sciences and commercial payloads.

During her second stint on the station, Expedition-16 in 2007-2008, she was named the commander.

I could go on about her accomplishments, but perhaps even better would be to let Whitson herself tell about her experiences in space. During her stays on the ISS, she wrote “letters home” to family and friends, answering questions and sharing details of her days in space.

Here’s what she had to say about doing science on the ISS:

I set up the first experiment inside the microgravity sciences glovebox this week. Tomorrow, I will do the powered checkouts of the glovebox and the next day start up the experiment. It is ssssoooo cool, getting to do science in space!!! This week we are also doing the urine collections for the renal stone investigation…and while I suspect this won’t be especially fun to collect the samples, I do think it’s one of the best experiments (I am biased, of course, since it is my experiment!).

In reading her letters, I found it interesting that she did amateur astronomy while on board the space station!:

One evening, I had dimmed the lights inside the module so that I could better watch the Earth/stars. I watched the sun set as we moved into the shadow of the Earth. I was pleasantly surprised a few min later to see a half-moon rise into view from behind the Earth. As the stars started popping into view, I was surprised again, as I saw a satellite pass by above us, looking so much like one of the other stars, but moving across the field of “constant” stars. I had never thought about the fact that I could, as one of those satellites, actually see another! And then I saw a second! Amazing.

Whitson during an EVA at the ISS. Credit: NASA

Whitson has conducted six spacewalks. Here’s how she described her first one:

My first look, as I poked my head out the hatch, was amazing! I previously compared the view of being in space to having lived in semidarkness for several years and having someone turn on the lights. Well, the view from my helmet, continuing the same analogy, would be like going outside on a sunny, clear day after having lived in semidarkness for years! If it gets better than this, I’m not sure my mind would be able to comprehend it!

And in this letter home, she waxes poetically about seeing Earth from space. She also talks about how people on Earth can watch for the ISS in the night sky, which is something that I love to do, and so it was interesting to read her perspective on that as well:

Although all the views of our planet are incredible and varied from our viewpoint up here on the Station, with the colors, textures, and lighting changing as we orbit…the most impressive view is the curve of the planet at the horizon. That curve is the special place where it is possible to see the layers of atmosphere extend beyond the surface to meet with the blackness of space beyond. Relative to the size of the Earth, it seems impossibly thin, less than a finger-width. The atmosphere carries all the shades of blue in that thin band, closest to the planet a glowing blue, like sunlit water over white sand, extending to the deepest blue-purple mixture that holds the blackness at bay.

As the night-side of the planet slips by beneath me, it carries on the fringes of darkness the colors of a sunset on the clouds below. The Station is still lit by the sun, despite the fact that we have already crossed the terminator between day and night below us. This is the timeframe when Station is most visible to folks on the ground, just before their dawn or after their dusk. A small bit of sunlight reflected off of our structure, illuminates us moving across their darkened sky. As the terminator approaches the horizon, the sun shows a blinding face that burns the atmosphere with molten reds and oranges before seemingly melting itself into the darkness, leaving a royal blue line that dissipates more slowly as the stars come out from hiding. Less than an hour passes before our path around the planet brings us back to the royal blue curve, signaling sunrise, as the process reverses itself. I am sure that after I return, I will again miss watching the curve of the Earth.

You can read more of Whitson’s letters home here.

Whitson’s ride home from space after Expedition 16 was more dramatic than expected. A malfunction made the Soyuz enter Earth’s atmosphere at a steeper angle than normal and the crew experienced “ballistic” descent at eight times the force of Earth-normal gravity. But, thankfully, everything turned out OK.

Whitson is currently chief of NASA’s astronaut office at Johnson Space Center.

Sources: Official NASA Astronaut bio, Orlando Sentinel