Who Are The Most Famous Astronauts?

There have been many astronauts who have made tremendous contributions to our knowledge of space. But asking “who is the most famous?” is somewhat tricky. For one, its a bit subjective. And second, it can be hard to objectively measure just how important and individuals contributions really are. Surely, all astronauts are deserving of recognition and respect for their bravery and contributions to the pursuit of knowledge.

Nevertheless, in the course of human space exploration, some names do stand out more than others. And some have made such immense contributions that their names will live on long after we too have passed away. So without further ado, here are just a few of the most famous astronauts, along with a list of their accomplishments.

Yuri Gagarin:

As the first man to ever go into space, no list of famous astronauts would be complete without Yuri Gagarin. Born in the village of Klushino in the Smolensk Oblast on March 9th, 1934, Gagarin was drafted into the Soviet Air Force in 1955 and trained in the use of jet fighters. In 1960, he was selected alongside 19 other pilots to join the newly-formed Soviet Space Program.

Yury Gagarin before a space flight aboard the Vostok spacecraft. April 12, 1961 Credit: RIA Novosti
Yuri Gagarin before a space flight aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft, April 12th, 1961. Credit: RIA Novosti

Gagarin was further selected to become part of the Sochi Six, an elite group of cosmonauts who formed the backbone of the Vostok program. Due to his training, physical size (as the spacecraft were quite cramped), and favor amongst his peers, Gagarin was selected to be the first human cosmonaut (they had already sent dogs) to make the journey.

On April 12th, 1961, Gagarin was launched aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and thus became the fist man to go into space. During reentry, Gagarin claimed to have whistled “The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows”, and reportedly said, “I don’t see any God up here” when he reached suborbital altitude (which was falsely attributed).

Afterwards, he toured the world and became a celebrity at home, commemorated with stamps, statues, and the renaming of his ancestral village to Gagarin. The 12th of April is also known as “Cosmonauts Day” in Russia and many former Soviet-states in his honor.

Gagarin died during a routine training exercise in March 27th, 1968. The details of his death were not released until June of 2013, when a declassified report indicated that Gagarin’s death was caused by the error of another pilot.

Alan B. Shepard Jr.:

In addition to being an astronaut and one of the Mercury Seven – the first seven pilots selected by NASA to go into space – Shepard was also the first American man to go into space. He was born November 18th, 1923 in Pebble, California and graduated from the United States Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree. While in the Navy, Shepard became a fighter pilot and served aboard several aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean.

Alan Shepard prepares for his historic flight on May 5, 1961. Credit: NASA
Alan Shepard prepares for his historic flight on May 5, 1961. Credit: NASA

In 1959, he was selected as one of 110 military test pilots to join NASA. As 0ne of the seven Mercury astronauts, Shepard was selected to be the first to go up on May 5th, 1961. Known as the Freedom 7 mission, this flight placed him into a suborbital flight around Earth. Unfortunately, Alan was beaten into space by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin by only a few weeks, and hence became the first American to go into space.

Shepard went on to lead other missions, including the Apollo 14 mission – which was the third mission to land on the Moon. While on the lunar surface, he was photographed playing a round of golf and hit two balls across the surface. After leaving NASA, he became a successful businessman. He died of leukemia on July 21st, 1998, five weeks before the death of his wife of 53 years.

Valentina Tereshkova:

Another famous Russian cosmonaut, Tereshkova is also internationally renowned for being the first woman to go into space. Born in the village of Maslennikovo in central Russia on March 6th, 1937, Tereshkova became interested in parachuting from a young age and began training at the local aeroclub.

After Gagarin’s historic flight in 1961, the Soviets hopes to also be the first country to put a woman into space. On 16 February 1962, Valentina Tereshkova was selected to join the female cosmonaut corps, and was selected amongst hundreds to be one of five women who would go into space.

In addition to her expertise in parachuting (which was essential since Vostok pilots were to parachute from the capsule after reentry), her background as a “proletariat”, and the fact that her father was a war hero from the Russo-Finnish War, led to her being selected.

Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova photographed inside the Vostok-6 spacecraft on June 16, 1963. Credit: Roscosmos
Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova photographed inside the Vostok-6 spacecraft on June 16, 1963. Credit: Roscosmos

Her mission, Vostok 6, took place on June 16th, 1963. During her flight, Tereshkova orbited Earth forty-eight times, kept a flight log and took photographs that would prove useful to atmospheric studies. Aside from some nausea (which she later claimed was the result of spoiled food!) she maintained herself for the full three days and parachuted down during re-entry, landing a bit hard and bruising her face.

After returning home, Tereshkova went on to become a cosmonaut engineer and spent the rest of her life in key political positions. She married fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev and had a daughter. After her flight, the women’s corps was dissolved. Vostok 6 was to be the last of the Vostok flights, and it would be nineteen years before another woman would go into space (see Sally Ride, below).

John Glenn Jr.:

Colonel Glenn, USMC (retired) was a Marine Corps fighter pilot and a test pilot before becoming an astronaut. Due to his experience, he was chosen by NASA to be part of the Mercury Seven in 1959. On February 20, 1962, Glenn flew the Friendship 7 mission, and thus became the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth and the fifth person to go into space.

John Glenn enters his Friendship 7 spacecraft on On Feb. 20, 1962. Credit: NASA
John Glenn enters his Friendship 7 spacecraft on On Feb. 20, 1962. Credit: NASA

For his contributions to spaceflight, John Glenn earned the Space Congressional Medal of Honor. After an extensive career as an astronaut, Glenn retired from NASA on January 16th, 1964, to enter politics. He won his first bid to become a US Senator in 1974, representing Ohio for the Democratic Party, and was reelected numerous times before retiring in January of 1999.

With the death of Scott Carpenter on October 10, 2013, he became the last surviving member of the Mercury Seven. He was also the only astronaut to fly in both the Mercury and Space Shuttle programs – at age 77, he flew as a Payload Specialist on Discovery mission (STS-95). For his history of service, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

Neil Armstrong:

Neil Armstrong is arguably the most famous astronauts, and indeed one of the most famous people that has ever lived. As commander of the historic Apollo 11 mission, he will forever be remembered as the first man to ever walk on a body other than Earth. Born on August 5th, 1930, in Wapakoneta, Ohio, he graduated from Purdue University and served the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics High-Speed Flight Station before becoming an astronaut.

Neil A. Armstrong inside the Lunar Module after EVA
Neil A. Armstrong inside the Lunar Module after EVA. Credit: NASA

In accordance with the Holloway Plan, Neil studied at Purdue for two years and then committed to three years of military service as a naval aviator before completing his degree. During this time, he trained in the use of jet aircraft and became a test pilot at Andrews Air Force base, meeting such personalities as Chuck Yeager.

In 1962, when NASA was looking to create a second group of astronauts (after the Mercury 7), Armstrong joined and became part of the Gemini program. He flew two missions, as the command pilot and back-up command pilot for Gemini 8 and Gemini 11 (both in 1966), before being offered a spot with the Apollo program.

On July 16th, 1969, Armstrong went into space aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft, alongside “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins. On the 20th, after the lunar module set down on the surface,  he became the first person to walk on the Moon.  As he stepped onto the lunar surface, Armstrong uttered the famous words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

After retiring from NASA in 1971, Armstrong completed his master’s degree in aerospace engineering, became a professor at the University of Cincinnati, and a private businessman.

On Augusts 25th, 2012, he died at the age of 82 after suffering complications from coronary artery bypass surgery. On September 14th, his cremated remains were scattered in the Atlantic Ocean during a burial-at-sea ceremony aboard the USS Philippine Sea.

For his accomplishments, Armstrong was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.

James Lovell Jr.:

Lovell was born on March 25th, 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio. Like Shepard, he graduated from the US Naval Academy and served as a pilot before becoming one of the Mercury Seven. Over the course of his career, he flew several missions into space and served in multiple roles. The first was as the pilot of the Apollo 8 command module, which was the first spacecraft to enter lunar orbit.

He also served as backup commander during the Gemini 12 mission, which included a rendezvous with another manned spacecraft. However, he is most famous for his role as commander the Apollo 13 mission, which suffered a critical failure en route to the Moon but was brought back safely due to the efforts of her crew and the ground control team.

Lovell is a recipient of the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is one of only 24 people to have flown to the Moon, the first of only three people to fly to the Moon twice, and the only one to have flown there twice without making a landing. Lovell was also the first person to fly in space four times.

Original crew photo. Left to right: Lovell, Mattingly, Haise. Credit: NASA
Original crew photo, (left to right) Jim Lovell, Thomas K. Mattingly, and Fred W. Haise. Credit: NASA

Dr. Sally Ride:

Sally Ride became renowned in the 1980s for being one of the first women to go into space. Though Russians had already sent up two female astronauts – Valentina Tereshkova (1963) and Svetlana Savitskaya (1982) – Ride was the first American female astronaut to make the journey. Born on May 26th, 1951, in La Jolla, California, Ride received her doctorate from Stanford University before joining NASA in 1978.

On June 18th, 1983, she became the first American female astronaut to go into space as part of the STS-7 mission that flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger. While in orbit, the five-person crew deployed two communications satellites and Ride became the first woman to use the robot arm (aka. Canadarm).

Her second space flight was in 1984, also on board the Challenger. In 1986, Ride was named to the Rogers Commission, which was charged with investigating the space shuttle Challenger disaster. In 2003, she would serve on the committee investigating the space shuttle Columbia disaster, and was the only person to serve on both.

Sally Ride communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck during the six-day mission in Challenger, 1983. Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Sally Ride communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck during STL-7 in 1983. Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Ride retired from NASA in 1987 as a professor of physics and continued to teach until her death in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. For her service, she was given numerous awards, which included the National Space Society’s von Braun Award, two NASA Space Flight Medals, and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Chris Hadfield:

Last, but certainly not least, there’s Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut, pilot and engineer who became famous for his rendition of “Space Oddity” while serving as the commander of the International Space Station. Born on August 29th, 1959 in Sarnia, Ontario, Hadfield became interesting in flying at a young age and in becoming an astronaut when he watched the televised Apollo 11 landing at age nine.

After graduating from high school, Hadfield joined the Canadian Armed Forces and spent two years at Royal Roads Military College followed by two years at the Royal Military College, where he received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1982. He then became a fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, flying missions for NORAD. He also flew as a test pilot out of Andrews Air Force Base as part of an officer exchange.

In 1992, Hadfield became part of the Canadian Space Agency and was assigned to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, as a technical and safety specialist for Shuttle Operations Development. He participated in two space missions – STS-74 and STS-100 in 1995 and 2001, respectively – as a Mission Specialist. These missions involved rendezvousing with Mir and the ISS.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to serve as commander of the ISS. Credit: CTV
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield performing his rendition of “Space Oddity”. Hadfield is the first Canadian to serve as commander of the ISS. Credit: CTV

On December 19th 2012, Hadfield launched in the Soyuz TMA-07M flight for a long duration stay on board the ISS as part of Expedition 35. He became the first Canadian to command the ISS when the crew of Expedition 34 departed in March 2013, and received significant media exposure due to his extensive use of social media to promote space exploration.

Forbes described Hadfield as “perhaps the most social media savvy astronaut ever to leave Earth”. His promotional activities included a collaboration with Ed Robertson of The Barenaked Ladies and the Wexford Gleeks, singing “Is Somebody Singing? (I.S.S.) via Skype. The broadcast of this event was a major media sensation, as was his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity“, which he sung shortly before departing the station in May 2013.

For his service, Hadfield has received numerous honors, including the Order of Canada in 2014, the Vanier Award in 2001, NASA Exceptional Service Medal in 2002, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. He is also the only Canadian to have received both a military and civilian Meritorious Service Cross, the military medal in 2001 and the civilian one in 2013.

Universe Today has interesting articles on Neil Armstrong, “Buzz” Edwin Aldrin, and the enduring legacy of Apollo 11.

If you are looking for more information, you should check out famous aviators and astronauts and astronaut biographies.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on the US space shuttle.

Sources:
NASA: Alan Shepard Jr
NASA: Neil Armstrong
NASA: John Glenn
NASA: James Lovell Jr.
NASA: Sally Ride

Weekly Space Hangout – April 26, 2015: Special Cosmoquest Hangoutathon Edition

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)
Nancy Atkinson (UniverseToday.com / @Nancy_A)

Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – April 26, 2015: Special Cosmoquest Hangoutathon Edition”

Weekly Space Hangout – April 24, 2015: Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One
Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein)
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – April 24, 2015: Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One”

Tributes Mount As Sally Ride’s 30th Anniversary In Space Approaches

Sally Ride was only 32 years old when she flew into space for the first time 30 years ago, in June 1983. She died last year at 61, at an age that many considered very young. In that generation of time, however, the exploits of America’s first woman in space in flight and education touched countless Americans.

This week, the accolades are piling up for the two-time space flyer. Besides her astronaut exploits, she was a Rogers Commission investigator of the 1986 Challenger explosion and the founder of Sally Ride Science, which encourages children to pursue careers in science, technology, education and math (STEM).

In the past few days alone, Ride generated a bunch of posthumous tributes:

– She will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom sometime later this year;

– NASA made a new internship program named after her;

– The EarthKAM science instrument (which includes participation from students) on the International Space Station will bear her name.

And that’s not all. There were also star-studded public ceremonies devoted to her memory.

Student dancers from the North Carolina School of the Arts perform during a  national tribute to Sally Ride at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on May 20, 2013. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Student dancers from the North Carolina School of the Arts perform during a national tribute to Sally Ride at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on May 20, 2013. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Music, art and science all met at a gala at Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Monday (May 20). The performances focused on things that had meaning to Ride, NASA stated, including a performance of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and a reading of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.”

Speakers at the event included astronaut Leland Melvin (now NASA’s associate administrator for education), astronaut Pam Melroy (a former space shuttle commander), and Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.

“I’m thrilled to pay tribute to Sally because her dedication and superb talent cemented the value of women’s contributions in space and in science, smoothing the path for all women to achieve success,” stated Melroy.

“Sally showed the world what was possible, opening the eyes of millions of women and men to what could be. Her achievements in space inspired a generation of young women, and her achievements in STEM education will pass that legacy of inspiration on to future generations.”

The Smithsonian also held a lecture in honor of Ride’s memory on May 17.

The 1.5-hour lecture (which is just above this text and definitely worth your time to see) includes commentary from a cross-section of space experts on Ride’s legacy. Speakers represented everything from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to NASA’s Johnson Space Center to USA Today.

“We all admire Dr. Ride, but I don’t know that everyone in the room appreciates fully and remembers fully the history of what she accomplished,” said Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the Smithsonian’s space history division who focuses on women in aviation, in opening remarks to the event.

Weitekamp pointed to investigations in the 1950s concerning women in space, showing that they could have advantages over men: they’re smaller (easier to fit in a spacecraft) and at the time were linked to studies showing women have fewer pulmonary problems, a higher tolerance to pain, and better performance in isolation tests.

She also cited early forays for women in space, including Lovelace’s Women in Space program, which she characterized as the first thorough physiological investigation of how women fare in that field. You can read more about their exploits on this NASA page.

What do you think is Sally Ride’s greatest legacy? Share your thoughts in the comments.

New Scripps Research Ship Will Honor Astronaut Sally Ride

Dr. Sally K. Ride, physicist, NASA astronaut, and first American woman to fly in space, will be honored with a U.S. Navy research vessel bearing her name, which will be operated by and homeported at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“Dr. Sally Ride inspired millions of people, especially young women and girls, to reach for the stars,” said U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “Naming the Navy’s new ocean research vessel in her honor is a fitting tribute to her legacy of innovation and discovery.”

Dr. Ride died at her home in La Jolla on July 23, 2012, after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.

Sally Ride was a NASA astronaut for 11 years before joining the UCSD faculty as a physics professor.
Sally Ride was a NASA astronaut for 11 years before joining the UCSD faculty as a physics professor and director of the California Space Institute.

Dr. Ride was selected for NASA’s astronaut corps in 1978 and became the first American woman in space aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983. In 1989, she joined the faculty of UC San Diego as professor of physics and was director of the university’s California Space Institute.

“We are touched by the extraordinary honor that this ship is being named for Sally Ride, who, after serving our nation as a pioneering and accomplished astronaut, served on the faculty of UC San Diego for nearly two decades,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla in a Scripps press release. “Her commitment to teaching and inspiring young minds is legendary and we take tremendous pride in this prestigious and well-deserved honor for her legacy and for UC San Diego.”

According to Gary Robbins in an article for the San Diego Union-Tribune “It is common for a research vessel to be named after an explorer or scientist. Scripps’ current fleet of Navy-owned ships includes the Roger Revelle, which bears the name of the late UC San Diego scientist who helped pioneer the study of global warming. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Cape Cod, Mass. is getting a ship named R/V Neil Armstrong.”

Rendering of the R/V Sally Ride
Rendering of the R/V Sally Ride

Designed to operate globally, R/V Sally Ride will continue the Scripps legacy of conducting pioneering ocean exploration and research critical to our understanding of our planet, our oceans, and our atmosphere. As a shared-use, general-purpose ship, R/V Sally Ride will engage in a broad spectrum of research in physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and climate science, including research missions with relevance to the Navy.

As a seagoing laboratory supporting research and education, the new ship will feature modern research instrumentation to fuel scientific exploration, including mapping systems, sensors, and profilers that will investigate features from the seafloor to the atmosphere.

“I can’t think of a more perfect name for the Navy’s new research vessel. Dr. Ride was a trailblazer in every sense of the word in the fields of science and engineering. Dr. Ride’s namesake ship and its crew will continue her legacy of courage, determination, and spirit of discovery.”

– U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif.

R/V Sally Ride is currently under construction at Dakota Creek Industries Inc. in Anacortes, Washington, and is scheduled for launch in 2015.

Read more on the Scripps news site here, and watch a video on the naming of the vessel below:

Source: Scripps News

NASA’s Tribute to Sally Ride

Sally Ride

NASA officials, fellow astronauts and the family of Sally Ride gathered in Houston at the Johnson Space Center on Sept. 18, 2012. They remembered Ride’s life and the legend she leaves behind. An oak tree — one of most enduring types of trees — was planted and dedicated in Ride’s honor. It sits among 62 other trees dedicated to astronauts and space pioneers in a grove located JSC.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012 after a courageous 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. “She lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, commitment, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless,” wrote the team at Sally Ride Science — the science education company Ride founded — on the day of her death.

Sally Ride, First American Woman in Space, Passes Away

Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, died today, July 23, 2012. She was 61 years old.


Dr. Ride flew in space twice, first in 1983 aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, then again aboard Challenger in 1984. She was the President and CEO of Sally Ride Science, a science education company that creates programs and products for students and teachers in elementary and middle school with a focus on encouraging girls. Dr. Ride was also a Professor of Physics (Emerita) at the University of California, San Diego. She received her B.S in Physics, B.A in English, and M.S. and PhD in Physics from Stanford University.

Sally died peacefully July 23 after a courageous 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, commitment, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless.

“Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism – and literally changed the face of America’s space program. The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sally’s family and the many she inspired. She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly.”

– Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator

For more information visit http://www.sallyridescience.com/.

“I didn’t really think about it that much at the time . . . but I came to appreciate what an honor it was to be selected to be the first to get a chance to go into space.” 

– Dr. Sally Ride, former NASA astronaut

(NASA/JPL video from July 2008)

Photo and video: NASA

1st Student Selected MoonKAM Pictures Look Inspiringly Home to Earth

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The first student selected photos of the Moon’s surface snapped by NASA’s new pair of student named Lunar Mapping orbiters – Ebb & Flow – have just been beamed back and show an eerie view looking back to the Home Planet – and all of Humanity – barely rising above the pockmarked terrain of the mysterious far side of our nearest neighbor in space.

Congratulations to Americas’ Youth on an outstanding and inspiring choice !!

The student photo is reminiscent of one of the iconic images of Space Exploration – the first full view of the Earth from the Moon taken by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1 back in August 1966 (see below).

The images were taken in the past few days by the MoonKAM camera system aboard NASA’s twin GRAIL spacecraft currently circling overhead in polar lunar orbit, and previously known as GRAIL A and B. The formation-flying probes are soaring over the Moon’s north and south poles.

The nearly identical ships were rechristened as Ebb and Flow after Fourth grade students from the Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, Mont., won the honor to rename both spacecraft by submitting the winning entries in a nationwide essay competition sponsored by NASA.

“The Bozeman 4th graders had the opportunity to target the first images soon after our science operations began,” said Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., to Universe Today.

“It is impossible to overstate how thrilled and excited we are !”

The initial packet of some 66 student-requested digital images from the Bozeman kids were taken by the Ebb spacecraft from March 15-17 and downlinked to Earth March 20. They sure have lots of exciting classwork ahead analyzing all those lunar features !

“GRAIL’s science mapping phase officially began on March 6 and we are collecting science data,” Zuber stated.

Far Side of Moon Imaged by MoonKAM
This image of the lunar surface was taken by the MoonKAM system onboard NASA’s Ebb spacecraft on March 15, 2012. The 42.3-mile-wide (68-kilometer-wide) crater in the middle of the image (with the smaller crater inside) is Poinsot. Crater Poinsot, named for the French mathematician Louis Poinsot, is located on the northern part of the moon's far side. The target was selected by 4th grade students at Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Montana who had the honor of choosing the first MoonKAM images after winning a nationwide contest. NASA/Caltech-JPL/MIT/SRS

GRAIL’s science goal is to map our Moon’s gravity field to the highest precision ever. This will help deduce the deep interior composition, formation and evolution of the Moon and other rocky bodies such as Earth and also determine the nature of the Moon’s hidden core.

Engaging students and the public in science and space exploration plays a premier role in the GRAIL project. GRAIL is NASA’s first planetary mission to carry instruments – in the form of cameras – fully dedicated to education and public outreach.

Over 2,700 schools in 52 countries have signed up to participate in MoonKAM.

Ebb and Flow - New Names for the GRAIL Twins in Lunar Orbit
4th Grade Students from Bozeman, Montana (inset) won NASA’s contest to rename the GRAIL A and GRAIL B spacecraft and also chose the first lunar targets to be photographed by the onboard MoonKAM camera system. Artist concept of twin GRAIL spacecraft flying in tandem orbits around the Moon to measure its gravity field Credit: NASA/JPL -M ontage: Ken Kremer

5th to 8th grade students can send suggestions for lunar surface targets to the GRAIL MoonKAM Mission Operations Center at UC San Diego, Calif. Students will use the images to study lunar features such as craters, highlands, and maria while also learning about future landing sites.

NASA calls MoonKAM – “The Universe’s First Student-Run Planetary Camera”. MoonKAM means Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students.

The MoonKAM project is managed by Dr Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut.

“What might seem like just a cool activity for these kids may very well have a profound impact on their futures,” Ride said in a NASA statement. “The students really are excited about MoonKAM, and that translates into an excitement about science and engineering.”

“MoonKAM is based on the premise that if your average picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture from lunar orbit may be worth a classroom full of engineering and science degrees,” says Zuber. “Through MoonKAM, we have an opportunity to reach out to the next generation of scientists and engineers. It is great to see things off to such a positive start.”

MoonKAM image from NASA’s Ebb Lunar Mapping orbiter. This lunar target was selected by the 4th graders at Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Montana who won the contest to rename the GRAIL probes in a nationwide essay contest. NASA/Caltech-JPL/MIT/SRS

Altogether there are eight MoonKAM cameras aboard Ebb and Flow – one 50 mm lens and three 6 mm lenses. Each probe is the size of a washing machine and measures just over 3 feet in diameter and height.

Snapping the first images was delayed a few days by the recent series of powerful solar storms.

“Due to the extraordinary intensity of the storms we took the precaution of turning off the MoonKAMs until the solar flux dissipates a bit,” Zuber told me.

“GRAIL weathered the storm well. The spacecraft and instrument are healthy and we are continuing to collect science data.”

The washing-machine sized probes have been flying in tandem around the Moon since entering lunar orbit in back to back maneuvers over the New Year’s weekend. Engineers spent the past two months navigating the spaceship duo into lower, near-polar and near-circular orbits with an average altitude of 34 miles (55 kilometers) that are optimized for science data collection and simultaneously checking out the spacecraft systems.

Ebb and Flow were launched to the Moon on September 10, 2011 aboard a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida and took a circuitous 3.5 month low energy path to the moon to minimize the overall costs.

The Apollo astronauts reached the Moon in just 3 days. NASA’s next generation Orion space capsule currently under development will send American astronauts back to lunar orbit by 2021 or sooner.

NASA has just granted an extension to the GRAIL mission. Watch for my follow-up report detailing the expanded science goals of GRAIL’s extended lunar journey.

One of the first two remote images of Earth taken from the distance of the Moon on August 23, 1966 by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft. Credit: NASA

…….

March 24 (Sat): Free Lecture by Ken Kremer at the New Jersey Astronomical Association, Voorhees State Park, NJ at 830 PM. Topic: Atlantis, the End of Americas Shuttle Program, Orion, SpaceX, CST-100, Moon and the Future of NASA Human & Robotic Spaceflight