Memorial Service Honors Columbia Astronauts

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Five years ago, family members of the STS-107 space shuttle crew were waiting at the Kennedy Space Center to hear the double sonic boom that would announce the arrival of the Columbia shuttle returning home from its mission to space. But the sonic booms never came; there was only silence. Today, at the Space Mirror Memorial at the NASA Kennedy Space Center, NASA officials, astronauts and families of the Columbia crew paid tribute to all astronauts who have lost their lives, and called for NASA to continue to learn from the tragedies.

Evelyn Husband Thompson, wife of STS-107 commander Rick Husband said that each of the families are recalling what they went through five years ago in public or private ways. Families of Ilan Ramon and Willie McCool are in Israel for a memorial service there, while the families of Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Mike Anderson and Kalpana Chawla are privately remembering the accident.

The astronauts were returning home from a successful flight when the shuttle broke up on re-entry.

Husband-Thompson, who remarried just three weeks ago said, “Life does go on, and even though we never know what life is going to bring us, there is hope for tomorrow.”

Eileen Collins, who commanded the STS-114 return to flight mission two years after the Columbia accident said that, personally, this was a difficult day for her, and that it was hard to describe the experiences of the past five years.

“I can’t properly put it into words, but our purpose here today is to honor and respect, remember and learn,” she said. Collins said that she has changed because of the accident, and now realizes that spaceflight is even more difficult and hazardous than she originally believed.

“Everyday requires constant attention to detail,” she said.

Remembering the crews of Columbia, Challenger, and Apollo 1, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said, “All astronauts who have sacrificed their lives are pioneers and role models who refused to shy away from seemingly impossible challenges.”

Gerstenmaier spoke frankly about loss and NASA’s mistakes.

“This is a tough time of year for our agency as we pause and remember the loss of our co-workers and friends, and the failure of our engineering design. We feel the deep ache of regret,” he said. “Our memories serve to dedicate ourselves to reducing the risks associated with the hostile environment in which we fly. We must continually challenge our assumptions and test our designs. Only with this attitude can we hope to not be surprised by another tragedy.”

NASA Adminstrator Mike Griffin said, “American’s don’t quit. We’ll never quit. But today we remind ourselves that not quiting can have high costs. Today, we celebrate the people who bore those costs and the people who remain behind them. We don’t forget, we never forget, we can’t forget, we won’t forget.”

Original News Source: NASA TV

“Across the Universe” Day for NASA and Beatles Fans

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NASA will use its Deep Space Network to transmit a song across the universe. And fittingly, the song is “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. On Feb. 4 at 7 pm EST, the song will be beamed towards the North Star, Polaris, located 431 light years away from Earth, and will travel across the universe at 186,000 miles per second.

Former Beatle Paul McCartney thinks this is a great idea. “Send my love to the aliens,” he said in a message to NASA.

If there are any beings near Polaris, they’ll hear the song in about 431 years.

The song’s transmission will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the day The Beatles recorded the song, as well as the 50th anniversary of both NASA’s founding and the beginning days of the Beatles. Two other anniversaries also are being honored: The launch 50 years ago this week of Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, and the founding 45 years ago of the Deep Space Network, an international network of antennas that supports missions to explore the universe.

Feb. 4 has been declared “Across The Universe Day” by Beatles fans to commemorate the anniversaries. As part of the celebration, the public around the world has been invited to participate in the event by simultaneously playing the song at the same time as the transmission by NASA.

John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, characterized the song’s transmission as a significant event. “I see that this is the beginning of the new age in which we will communicate with billions of planets across the universe,” she said.

Even though radio and television signals on Earth ‘leak’ out into space all the time, hopefully NASA can use this event to generate enthusiasm and promote awareness of its history, as well as its plans for future missions.

Additionally, this is a chance for the public to learn more about the Deep Space Network, NASA’s incredibly reliable system of radio antennas that is critical in supporting lunar and planetary exploration. The DSN is used for tracking of spacecraft, sending telemetry and commands, and for deep space navigation. Learn more about the DSN here.

Original News Source: NASA Press Release

NASA Astronaut Survey: No Launch Day Drinking

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A NASA survey of astronauts and flight surgeons released on January 23, 2008 turned up no evidence of launch day drinking by flight crews, contradicting an earlier report by a health care panel that disclosed two instances of drunken astronauts. NASA surveyed 87 of all 98 astronauts as well as all 31 flight surgeons. None reported seeing a crew member heavily drinking alcohol on launch day, or within 12 hours of liftoff.

However, the anonymous survey did find one report of “perceived impairment” in an astronaut during the days preceding launch, which was later was traced to an interaction between prescription medication and alcohol. That astronaut was ultimately cleared for flight and launched into space.

“We really never understood from the beginning exactly what might have led to the comment in the health care report,” said Ellen Ochoa, deputy director of Johnson Space Center and a former shuttle astronaut. “We’ve tried to run it to ground. We haven’t uncovered anything. I don’t know of any issues associated with alcohol before flight.”

The healthcare report was conducted in mid-2007 in the wake of astronaut Lisa Nowak’s arrest. Nowak, who traveled from Houston to Florida to confront another woman about a romantic rivalry involving another astronaut, was arrested for attempted kidnapping and burglary with assault. She has yet to stand trial.

NASA established a panel of aerospace medicine experts, led by U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann, Jr., to look into astronaut mental health. The panel, citing unidentified sources, reported heavy drinking by two astronauts right before launches; one before a shuttle launch and another prior to the launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket. The panel reported that the flight surgeon’s concerns about the astronauts’ impairment were supposedly overruled by management, which created an atmosphere where both astronauts and flight surgeons were reluctant to report improper conduct.

In the new survey, however, conducted in August-December 2007, astronauts and flight surgeons indicated they were not afraid to raise concerns of flight safety, and they felt there is a healthy relationship between astronauts and doctors. But a small number of respondents acknowledged that some astronauts still feel they could lose out on a space assignment if they expressed concerns.

The astronaut survey was conducted and analyzed using both NASA specialists and external academic experts to ensure the study’s validity. “The response rate of the survey was 91 percent, a rate well above what you would normally expect in a survey,” Ochoa said. “That indicates the seriousness with which astronauts and flight surgeons approached this survey.”

The survey focused four areas: the relationship between astronauts and flight surgeons regarding openness of communication, level of trust, and understanding of safety responsibilities; concerns with raising and responding to issues of flight safety and/or crew suitability for flight; knowledge and implementation of policies and procedures detailing astronaut performance and crew assignment; and determining if there was personal knowledge of a US astronaut presenting a risk to flight safety due to alcohol use on launch day.

The 12-hour ban on drinking, which originally an “unwritten rule” is now standard policy. A new astronaut code of conduct is being written, as well.

Dr. Richard Williams, NASA’s chief health and medical officer said that NASA is in a better position today than it was a year ago to detect serious behavioral health problems facing astronauts, and to intervene before it’s too late.

Original News Source: NASA News Release

Should NASA Overhaul Its Vision?

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Is the moon really “so yesterday?” An article in the Jan. 18 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology reported that a group of influential people in the space community will meet in early February to discuss alternatives to NASA’s current Vision for Space Exploration of returning to the moon to prepare for future missions to Mars. But a subsequent letter to the editor in AWST written by Planetary Society President Lou Friedman and Scott Hubbard of Stanford University tried to put the brakes on any notion that the group has already come to a consensus that NASA’s VSE should change direction and destination.

In the letter, Friedman and Hubbard state that the article created “the misperception that the workshop we are organizing at Stanford University has already decided upon a new path for the human and robotic exploration of space. We wish to make it clear that the purpose of the workshop is to examine critically the Vision for Space Exploration in order to prepare for future space policy considerations in a new Administration and new Congress.”

The Aviation Week article reported that the purpose of the February meeting is “to offer the next U.S. president an alternative to President Bush’s ‘vision for space exploration’–one that would delete a lunar base and move instead toward manned missions to asteroids along with a renewed emphasis on Earth environmental spacecraft.”

But Friedman and Hubbard’s letter said, “This point of view is undoubtedly the personal opinion of some participants – but such an opinion is neither a premise nor a presumed outcome of the workshop.” Instead, they said, the workshop will address a many issues of space exploration and the workshop has no predetermined conclusions.

“We have deliberately included a wide range of participants with disparate views, including those who would maintain the status quo. We personally do not know what the conclusions of the workshop will be – or even if there will be a definitive consensus,” said Friedman and Hubbard.

Examining the current Vision is surely a good idea. A Business 101 rule is that once a plan is put into action, you should always stay on top of changing conditions and adjust your plan accordingly, constantly updating and improving. Should NASA consider missions to asteroids instead of the moon? Will going to asteroids get us to Mars more quickly, or is the moon a good, safe place to get our space legs back before moving on?

Hopefully the group meeting at Stanford University in February, as well as the upcoming new political administration in the US, will examine the VSE with open minds, considering both human and robotic missions, and without political agendas.

Another Business 101 tenet is that communication is vital to success. It’s good to see that space exploration is something people are talking about.”

Original News Source: Planetary Society Press Release

NASA Wants Your Opinion on the Lunar Lander

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NASA’s Constellation Program has released an announcement that they are looking for people to evaluate the design of the Altair spacecraft that will land on the moon. So if you work in the science community or in a related industry, NASA wants your opinion. What they are looking for are evaluations of the current developmental concept for the Altair lander and the safety improvements that have been proposed, as well as recommendations for industry-government partnerships.

“By soliciting ideas and suggestions from industry and the science community, NASA hopes to foster a collaborative environment during this early design effort,” said Jeff Hanley, the Constellation Program manager. “Such collaboration will support the development of a safe, reliable and technologically sound vehicle for our crews.”

All you have to do is write a proposal and submit it to NASA by jumping through the various hoops found here. NASA expects to award contracts for the studies of the Altair spacecraft in the first quarter of 2008. A total of $1.5 million is available for awards. The maximum individual award amount is $350,000. The contract performance period is six months.

In NASA-speak, proposals are due “30 days from the issue date of Jan. 11.” By my calculations, that is February 10, which is a Sunday, an odd day to have a proposal due since most of NASA’s offices are closed. Maybe its a subtle hint to get your proposals in early.

The Altair spacecraft will bring four astronauts to the lunar surface, and missions are currently scheduled to begin late in the next decade. NASA plans call for establishing an outpost on the moon through their lunar missions beginning no later than 2020.

The Constellation Program, based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston, manages the Altair Project for NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. Constellation is developing a new space transportation system that is designed to travel beyond low Earth orbit. The Constellation fleet includes the Orion crew exploration vehicle, the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles and Altair human lunar lander.

Find more information about the Constellation Program here.

Original News Source: NASA Constellation Program Press Release

Ulysses Passes Over Sun’s North Pole

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Continuing on its epic journey around the Sun, Ulysses has reached the Sun’s north pole just in the nick of time. In fact, its timing couldn’t be better, just as the Sun begins “Solar Cycle 24”. The probe is in a unique orbit, passing over the solar north and south poles, out of the ecliptic plane of the solar system, giving it an unprecedented view of parts of the Sun we cannot observe on Earth. “Graveyards for sunspots” and mysterious coronal holes lurk in these regions and Ulysses will be perfectly placed, directly above.

The joint NASA and ESA Ulysses mission has been a resounding success in its 18 years of operation since launch on board Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-41) in October 1990. The intrepid spacecraft was helped on it’s way by a gravitational assist by the planet Jupiter which flung it over the poles of the Sun. Quietly travelling in a perpendicular orbit (space missions and the planets usually orbit around the Sun’s equator), Ulysses has been measuring the distribution of solar wind particles emanating from latitudinal locations for one and a half orbits.

As Ulysses passes over the north polar region, the Sun will be observed during a period of minimum activity at this location for the first time. The poles of the Sun are of particular interest to scientists as this is where the fast solar wind originates from open magnetic field lines reaching into space. The dynamics of solar material in this location provides information on how the Sun interacts with interplanetary space and how the solar wind is generated. Observing the solar wind at “solar minimum” will be of massive interest as it may provide some answers as to why the solar wind is accelerated hundreds of kilometers per hour even when activity is at its lowest.

Just as Earth’s poles are crucial to studies of terrestrial climate change, the sun’s poles may be crucial to studies of the solar cycle.” – Ed Smith, Ulysses project scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The dynamics of low altitude magnetic fields in polar regions are also a focus for interest. As 11-year solar cycles progress, sunspot population increase near the solar equator. As the magnetic field is “wound up”, sunspots (and their associated magnetic flux) drift toward the poles where they slowly disappear as the old magnetic field sinks back into the Sun, quite accurately described as sunspot graveyards. Understanding how this cycle works will help to reveal the secrets of the solar cycle and ultimately help us understand the mechanisms behind Space Weather.

Source: NASA Featured News

Meteor Shower Throws Over 100 Meteors per Hour

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With over 100 meteors per hour, the Quadrantid Meteor Shower is one of the latest mergers between Google and NASA, a major asset to space research due to their successful combination of ideas and plans. This peak shower began around 0200 UTC on Friday morning, January 4th, with the jet owned by the founders of Mountain View-based Google flying amongst big science players, such as the SETI research team.

To see this spectacular sight and to partake in a scientific mission, Google carried a team of NASA scientists and their high-technology instruments on board the Google owned Gulfstream V jet, which left the Mineta San Jose International Airport on Thursday late afternoon about 4:30 p.m. Plans were made for a ten-hour flight over the Arctic, returning to home base when the meteor shower mission was accomplished with the resulting data.

The GOOG Google.com Stock Message Board is full of the things that Google has been doing to improve the world—a real biggie was to develop a cheaper solar, wind power for Earth—excellent idea from a company whose corporate motto is to “do not be evil.â€? That plan involved the creation of a research group to develop energy sources that was a cheaper renewable alternative which focuses on solar, wind and any other forms of power through the Renewable Energy “Cheaper Than Coalâ€? project. And of course, lowering Google’s power bill was top of the list before anyone else as a huge incentive.

Last September, as most are aware of, NASA and Google had launched a $2.6 million dollar agreement to let the Google co-founders house their aircraft at Moffett Field while NASA was to be allowed to use it for their science work, such as that of the Quadrantid Meteor Shower. Other prospective plans for Google are to hand out $30 million dollars to any company that successfully comes up with a plan to bring people to the moon. Another plan is to fund a space race through Google’s Lunar X Prize competition.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Controversial NASA Aviation Report Released

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NASA released the results on Dec. 31 from an $11.3 million federal air safety study. The agency previously withheld the report, and came under fire from Congress and news organizations for doing so. Earlier reports said NASA was concerned the data in the report would upset travelers and hurt airline profits. But today NASA administrator Mike Griffin and the head of NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance Bryan O’Connor said the release of the report was delayed to protect both pilot confidentiality and classified commercial aviation information.

“We came across instances in looking at the raw data where information was contained that could have compromised one of those two things,” said Administrator Griffin. “We determined that an independent review of that data was necessary in order to prevent such compromise.”

A panel led by O’Connor reviewed the 16,000 page report and data such as pilots’ names and other confidential information was redacted.

Also, Griffin said there are questions as to the validity of the data in the report, which has not been peer-reviewed.

“We consider the study was not properly organized and not properly reviewed, and that makes the results very difficult to interpret and to use,” he said. The study was conducted by the Battelle Memorial Institute for NASA.

An independent review of the data will be done in the future by the National Academy of Sciences.

Griffin said the original press release highlighting the refusal to release the data used “inappropriate language” to explain the rationale for not releasing the report.

NASA’s survey, the National Aviation Operations Monitoring System (NAOMS), interviewed about 8,000 pilots per year from 2001 until the end of 2004. The program was terminated before moving on to interview flight attendants and air traffic controllers, as originally proposed.

Approximately one million dollars a year was put into this study. Griffin said it is a small fraction of NASA’s overall work, and in retrospect, the study did not receive the attention that it should have.

The report can be found on NASA’s website. Its length makes it difficult to wade through the data. Additionally, some portions of the report that have not yet been edited for confidential information have been left out. NASA will release the remainder of the report as soon as possible.

The original plan for the survey never called for NASA to interpret and analyze the data. The study’s purpose was to develop new methodologies for collecting aviation safety data, and then the data would be transitioned to the aviation safety community.

“NASA conducts research, and this was one element of such research,” said Griffin. “NASA extended the research, which was originally to be concluded in 2004 in order to properly fund the transition of the data and its review. We’ve gone the extra mile with this data and we’ve gone well beyond our original intentions, which is why we’ve brought it to an end.”

It remains uncertain whether any data from the report will ever be used by the aviation safety community. Griffin said it was his understanding that the FAA has “simply moved on from NAOMS,� and that the FAA has over 150 different programs to provide survey data from individuals involved in all areas of air flight.

While NASA didn’t analyze the data, Griffin offered his opinion of what the report surmises: “What the flying public should understand is that they have approximately the same risk of dying from a lightning strike as they do dying from an air transport accident in the United States, which means to say that this is one of the safest forms of travel that human beings have ever invented, and that no one should think otherwise.”

In testimony to Congress earlier this year, Griffin characterized the data in the report as not as valid as he would prefer to have for a NASA report. Griffin said that he still feels that way, and that his concern is that this research work was not properly peer reviewed and the data that was extracted from the survey was not properly vailidated at its conclusion.

The survey purportedly unearthed approximately four times as many engine failures than the FAA has documentation for. “It calls into question the reporting mechanisms rather than the underlying rate of engine failures, which we believe we understand,� Griffin said, adding there are other inconsistencies, as well. “Those kinds of inconsistencies, when we looked at the data, gave us pause for thought, and still do.�

“The value of this will need to be determined by the larger aviation community, which I remind you, does not reside within NASA,” Griffin continued. “All that we at NASA have said is that this survey was not peer reviewed and the data was not validated at its conclusion. It’s up to others whether or not they believe this research has value.”

Griffin had promised to release the report before the end of 2007, and he did so without compromising confidential information that, by law, NASA is prohibited from releasing.

Griffin said this survey doesn’t cast any doubt in his mind about the safety of aviation in the United States. “I did not, having looked at a snapshot of the data, see anything that the flying public would care about or ought to care about,” he said. “But it’s not for me to prescribe what others may care about. We were asked to release the data and we did that.”

The report can be found on the NASA website.

Original News Source: NASA News Audio

Happy Holidays in Space

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NASA is encouraging Earthlings to send a holiday greeting to the members of Expedition 16 on board the International Space Station. NASA’s Homepage contains a link to send your holiday good wishes to the crew with pre-made e-postcards. The sentiment is nice, however the cards seem a little backwards.

One e-card has a picture of the ISS with a caption that says “The View From 220 Miles Up,” while another displays a waving EVA astronaut saying “Wish You Were Here.” These cards are supposed to be to the crew and from Earth, so perhaps more appropriate might be a picture of a snowy holiday scene or a majestic Earth landscape with the caption “Wish You Were Here, But Glad You Are Up There Furthering the Advances of Human Spaceflight.”

But take this opportunity to express yourself to the ISS crew.

And now on to more pressing news from the ISS:

Space shuttle Atlantis’ STS-122 mission to the space station has now been delayed to no earlier than January 10, 2008.

“Moving the next launch attempt of Atlantis to Jan. 10 will allow as many people as possible to have time with family and friends at the time of year when it means the most,” said shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale. “A lot has been asked of them this year and a lot will be asked of them in 2008.”

Additionally, it gives engineers more time to understand the engine cutoff sensor problem that has kept the shuttle on the ground. An original launch of Dec. 6 was scrubbed when the sensors failed in a routine test during fueling of the shuttle’s external tank. The problem re-occurred in subsequent tanking test during countdown on Dec. 9, which caused NASA officials to decide to delay the launch until after the first of the year.

STS-122 will bring the Columbus science module to the station, the European Space Agency’s major contribution to the ISS. In addition to conducting three spacewalks to outfit the new science module, shuttle astronauts would also have done a fourth EVA to inspect a troublesome solar array rotary joint on the ISS’s power-providing solar panels that is contaminated with metallic shavings.

So instead ISS astronauts Peggy Whitson and Dan Tani will do that inspection on a spacewalk on Tuesday, December 18 starting at 6:00am EST. They will also look at another more recent power system problem that could be the result of a micrometeoroid or debris impact. On Dec. 8, two circuit breakers tripped, possibly the result of a space debris impact that might have damaged the mechanism that allows power and data to flow through the rotary joint used to turn the array about its axis.

For the SARJ problem, the starboard SARJ is locked in place because of excessive vibration and the metallic shavings and “bearing race ring” damage that were discovered during a quick inspection during the last shuttle mission. The SARJ has two drive gears and two redundant drive motors.

Whitson and Tani could install new bearings on the undamaged race ring and reposition the motors. The other option is to clean up the contamination and fix whatever is causing the problem.

“Once they have more data, they can make a better assessment of which of those approaches we should do, whether we should clean up the current race ring or just shift over,” ISS Commander Peggy Whitson said in a news conference from the station on Thursday morning. “I think either one’s doable,” she continued. “To me, in my mind, I think it would be probably, from an astronaut’s perspective, easier to just shift to the other race ring rather than trying to clean it up. But we don’t know yet how easy that’s going to be to clean up.”

Kirk Shireman, deputy manager of the space station program at the Johnson Space Center, said in a later news conference that no decisions will be made until engineers have more information about what might be causing the problem. The port-side solar arrays and that SARJ is operating normally.

“The idea is, we’ll conduct the EVA right now, the SARJ inspection and the BGA inspection, and we’ll learn what we need to learn,” Shireman said. “Then we’ll find the most opportune time to go fix it, not only the BGA but hopefully the SARJ. It really depends on how our analysis comes out. We’ll figure out exactly how long we can go with the BGA locked and the SARJ restrictions we have in place.”

Back to some holiday frivolity, since Tani would have returned to Earth with the STS-122 crew, which was originally scheduled to return home around the 19th of December, he wasn’t supposed to be on board the ISS during Christmas. Reporters inquired about his change of holiday plans and how gift arrangements were being handled. When asked, Commander Whitson declined to answer if all Tani would be receiving from her would be a lump of coal, saying she didn’t want to give away the surprise.

The astronauts said they have been hoarding foods like smoked turkey and other holiday-type goodies, saving them for Christmas dinner, so it appears that Atlantis and STS-122 were supposed to deliver the holiday meal. However a Progress re-supply ship will be docking with the ISS on Christmas Day, and one of the first things to be unpacked are hamburgers and fresh tomatoes and lettuce. Since fresh foods are a rare commodity on board the station, an All-American burger will be a welcome holiday treat for the crew.

Expedition 16 has also recorded a holiday message to Earth. Watch it here

Original News Source: NASA Press Release, NASA TV

NASA’s New Look

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NASA unveiled a new look for its website over the weekend, and hopes that blogs, interactive features, and a customizable layout will especially appeal to 18-25 year olds.

A New York Times article reported that NASA is concerned that the social networking generation hasn’t shown enough interest in NASA, and the space agency hopes their new webpage will attract the MySpace crowd. This is the first major overhaul for NASA’s website since 2003, and NASA now hopes to compete with Space.com and CNN’s more chic presentations of space exploration. Numerous rollovers, links, and spectacular graphics can keep a visitor engaged for quite awhile, and readers can now Digg, del.icio.us or StumbleUpon stories that they like or want to share. The “Image of the Day” Gallery also benefited with a much-needed upgrade.

Critical Mass, the company that assisted NASA with the new design, says on their website that NASA’s site will now “inspire, involve and inform” and will unify over 3,500 different sites into a “cohesive information gateway.”

One past criticism of the different NASA webpages is that there was sometimes redundant or conflicting information. Critical Mass and their partner eTouch Systems claim the new site will fuel NASA’s efforts to “reconnect with the public and re-capture significance as one of the world’s most visionary and imaginative organizations.”

Still, Brian Dunbar, Internet Services Manager for NASA estimates that even before the overhaul, NASA’s website received approximately one million unique visitors each month. Not bad for an aging, old-fashioned, 50-year old.

Chime in with your thoughts about NASA’s revamped webpage on the BAUT Forum.

Original Source: New York Times