New NASA Documentary Chronicles 50 Years of Spacewalks

Spacewalks have been described by astronauts as magical, amazing, and “holy moly!” This new 30-minute NASA documentary called “Suit Up!” celebrates 50 years of extravehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalks. 50 years ago this year, the first spacewalks were conducted by Russian Alexei Leonov in March 1965 and then American astronaut Edward White followed soon after in June 1965. The documentary features interviews with astronauts past and present, as well as other astronauts, engineers, technicians, managers from the history of spacewalks.

They share their personal stories and thoughts that cover the full EVA experience — from the early spacewalking experiences, to spacesuit manufacturing, to modern day spacewalks aboard the International Space Station as well as what the future holds for humans working on a tether in space.

“Suit Up,” is narrated by actor and fan of space exploration Jon Cryer.

For more info, NASA has a special page with images and more recollections. Also, here is a list of some of the most memorable spacewalks, and here are some 3-D views of humanity’s first spacewalk by Leonov.

What Are The Benefits Of Space Exploration?

Why explore space? It’s an expensive arena to play in, between the fuel costs and the technological challenge of operating in a hostile environment. For humans, a small mistake can quickly become fatal — something that we have seen several times in space history. And for NASA’s budget, there are projects that come in late and over budget, drawing the ire of Congress and the public.

These are some of the drawbacks. But for the rest of this article, we will focus on some of the benefits of going where few humans have gone before.

Spinoffs

Perhaps the most direct benefit comes from technologies used on Earth that were first pioneered in space exploration. This is something that all agencies talk about, but we’ll focus on the NASA Spinoff program as an example. (NASA will be used as the prime example for most of this article, but many of these cited benefits are also quoted by other space agencies.)

The program arose from NASA’s desire to showcase spinoffs at congressional budget hearings, according to its website. This began with a “Technology Utilization Program Report” in 1973, which began as a black-and-white circular and progressed to color in 1976 following public interest. Since that year, NASA has published more than 1,800 reports on spinoffs.

The agency has several goals in doing this. “Dispelling the myth of wasted taxpayer dollars” is one NASA cites, along with encouraging the public to follow space exploration and showing how American ingenuity can work in space.

There are many commercialized advances the program says it contributed to, including “memory foam” (first used for airline crash protection), magnetic resonance imaging and smoke detection. In many cases, NASA did not invent the technology itself, but just pushed it along, the agency says.

An MRI image of the lower back. Credit: NASA
An MRI image of the lower back. Credit: NASA

But as counterpoint to NASA’s arguments, some critics argue the technology would have been developed anyway without space exploration, or that the money spent on exploration itself does not justify the spinoff.

Job creation

Another popularly cited benefit of space exploration is “job creation”, or the fact that a space agency and its network of contractors, universities and other entities help people stay employed. From time to time, NASA puts out figures concerning how many associated jobs a particular project generates, or the economic impact.

Here’s an example: in 2012, NASA administrator Charles Bolden published a blog post about the Curiosity Mars rover landing, which was picked up by the White House website. “It’s also important to remember that the $2.5 billion investment made in this project was not spent on Mars, but right here on Earth, supporting more than 7,000 jobs in at least 31 states,” he wrote.

Hazcam fisheye camera image shows Curiosity drilling into “Windjana”  rock target  on April 29, 2014 (Sol 615).  Flattened and colorized image shows Mount Remarkable butte backdrop.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Hazcam fisheye camera image shows Curiosity drilling into “Windjana” rock target on April 29, 2014 (Sol 615). Flattened and colorized image shows Mount Remarkable butte backdrop. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

But the benefit can cut in a negative way, too. NASA’s budget is allocated by Congress, which means that the amount of money it has available for employment fluctuates. There are also some programs that are highly dependent on grants, which can make stable jobs challenging in those fields. Finally, as the priorities of Congress/NASA change, jobs can evaporate with it. One example was the space shuttle’s retirement, which prompted a job loss so massive that NASA had a “transition strategy” for its employees and contractors.

It’s also unclear what constitutes a “job” under NASA parlance. Some universities have researchers working on multiple projects — NASA-related or not. Employment can also be full-time, part-time or occasional. So while “job creation” is cited as a benefit, more details about those jobs are needed to make an informed decision about how much good it does.

Education

Teaching has a high priority for NASA, so much so that it has flown astronaut educators in space. (The first one, Christa McAuliffe, died aboard the space shuttle Challenger during launch in 1986. Her backup, Barbara Morgan, was selected as an educator/mission specialist in 1998 and flew aboard STS-118 in 2007.) And to this day, astronauts regularly do in-flight conferences with students from space, ostensibly to inspire them to pursue careers in the field.

Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan practice teaching from space.  Credit: "The Lost Lessons"
Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan practice teaching from space. Credit: “The Lost Lessons”

NASA’s education office has three goals: making the workforce stronger, encouraging students to pursue STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and “engaging Americans in NASA’s mission.” Other space agencies also have education components to assist with requirements in their own countries. It’s also fair to say the public affairs office for NASA and other agencies play roles in education, although they also talk about topics such as missions in progress.

But it’s hard to figure out how well the education efforts translate into inspiring students, according to a National Research Council report on NASA’s primary and secondary education program in 2008. Among other criticisms, the program was cited as unstable (as it needs to change with political priorities) and there was little “rigorous evaluation” of its effectiveness. But NASA’s emphasis on science and discovery was also praised.

Anecdotally, however, many astronauts and people within NASA have spoken about being inspired by watching missions such as Apollo take place. And the same is true of people who are peripherally involved in the field, too. (A personal example: this author first became interested in space in the mid-1990s through the movie Apollo 13, which led to her watching the space shuttle program more closely.)

New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth's crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)
New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth’s crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)

Intangible benefits

Added to this host of business-like benefits, of course, are the intangibles. What sort of value can you place on better understanding the universe? Think of finding methane on Mars, or discovering an exoplanet, or constructing the International Space Station to do long-term exploration studies. Each has a cost associated with it, but with each also comes a smidgeon of knowledge we can add to the encyclopedia of the human race.

Space can also inspire art, which is something seen heavily in 2014 following the arrival of the European Space Agency Rosetta mission at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It inspired songs, short videos and many other works of art. NASA’s missions, particularly those early space explorers of the 1950s and 1960s, inspired creations from people as famous as Norman Rockwell.

There also are benefits that maybe we cannot anticipate ahead of time. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a network that advocates looking for life around the universe, likely because communicating with beings outside of Earth could bring us some benefit. And perhaps there is another space-related discovery just around the corner that will change our lives drastically.

For more information, here is a Universe Today article about how we really watched television from the moon. We also collected some spin-offs from the Hubble Space Telescope. You can also listen to Astronomy Cast. Episode 144 Space Elevators.

See What Astronauts See In This Stunning ISS Timelapse


Yes, it’s another time-lapse video made from photos taken by astronauts aboard the ISS. Yes, it’s been digitally remastered, smoothed-over, and set to a dramatic technopop soundtrack. But no, it’s still not boring because our planet is beautiful and spaceflight is and always will be absolutely fascinating.

There. I said it.

The video above “Astronaut – a Journey to Space” is everything that I just mentioned and was compiled and edited by photographer and video artist Guillaume Juin. The original images were gathered from Johnson Space Center’s Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth site, and were captured during ISS missions from 2011 to 2014. Aforementioned dramatic technopop music is by Vincent Tone. Watch it above, or for maximum impact watch it full-screen. (I strongly advise the latter.) Enjoy!

HT to Sploid and fellow EFT-1 NASA Social participant Ailyn Marie for bringing this to my attention.

How Do Gravitational Slingshots Work?

Have you ever heard that spacecraft can speed themselves up by performing gravitational slingshot maneuvers? What’s involved to get yourself going faster across the Solar System.

Let’s say you want to go back in time and prevent Kirk from dying on the Enterprise B.

You could use a slingshot maneuver. You’d want to be careful that you don’t accidentally create an alternate reality future where the Earth has been assimilated by the Borg, because Kirk wasn’t in the Nexus to meet up with Professor Picard and Sir Iandalf Magnetopants, while they having the best time ever gallivanting around New York City.

*sigh* Ah, man. I really love those guys. What was I saying? Oh right. One of the best ways to increase the speed of a spacecraft is with a gravitational slingshot, also known as a gravity assist.

There are times that fantasy has bled out too far into the hive mind, and people confuse a made up thing with an actual thing because of quirky similarities, nomenclature and possibly just a lack of understanding.

So, before we go any further a “gravitational slingshot” is a gravity assist that will speed up an actual spacecraft, “slingshot maneuver” is made up bananas nonsense. For example, when Voyager was sent out into the Solar System, it used gravitational slingshots past Jupiter and Saturn to increase its velocity enough to escape the Sun’s gravity.

So how do gravitational assists work? You probably know this involves flying your spacecraft dangerously close to a massive planet. But how does this help speed you up? Sure, as the spacecraft flies towards the planet, it speeds up. But then, as it flies away, it slows down again. Sort of like a skateboarder in a half pipe.

This process nets out to zero, with no overall increase in velocity as your spacecraft falls into and out of the gravity well. So how do they do it? Here’s the trick. Each planet has an orbital speed travelling around the Sun.

As the spacecraft approaches the planet, its gravity pulls the much lighter spacecraft so that it catches up with the planet in orbit. It’s the orbital momentum from the planet which gives the spacecraft a tremendous speed boost. The closer it can fly, the more momentum it receives, and the faster it flies away from the encounter.

To kick the velocity even higher, the spacecraft can fire its rockets during the closest approach, and the high speed encounter will multiply the effect of the rockets. This speed boost comes with a cost. It’s still a transfer of momentum. The planet loses a tiny bit of orbital velocity.

If you did enough gravitational slingshots, such as several zillion zillion slingshots, you’d eventually cause the planet to crash into the Sun. You can use gravitational slingshots to decelerate by doing the whole thing backwards. You approach the planet in the opposite direction that it’s orbiting the Sun. The transfer of momentum will slow down the spacecraft a significant amount, and speed up the planet an infinitesimal amount.

Messenger's complicated flyby trajectory. Credit: NASA
Messenger’s complicated flyby trajectory. Credit: NASA

NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft made 2 Earth flybys, 2 Venus flybys and 3 Mercury flybys before it was going slowly enough to make an orbital insertion around Mercury. Ulysses, the solar probe launched in 1990, used gravity assists to totally change its trajectory into a polar orbit above and below the Sun. And Cassini used flybys of Venus, Earth and Jupiter to reach Saturn with an efficient flight path.

Nature sure is trying to make it easy for us. Gravitational slingshots are an elegant way to slow down spacecraft, tweak their orbits into directions you could never reach any other way, or accelerate to incredible speeds.

It’s a brilliant dance using orbital mechanics to aid in our exploration of the cosmos. It’s a shining example of the genius and the ingenuity of the minds who are helping to push humanity further out into the stars.

What do you think? What other places is the general comprehension between actual facts and fictional knowledge blurring, just like the “slingshot maneuver” and “gravitational slingshot”?

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

How Big is Rosetta’s Comet?

Pretty darn big, I’d say.

The illustration above shows the relative scale of the comet that ESA’s Rosetta and Philae spacecraft will explore “up-close and personal” later this year. And while it’s one thing to say that the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is about three by five kilometers in diameter, it’s quite another to see it in context with more familiar objects. Think about it — a comet as tall as Mt Fuji!

Artist's impression (not to scale) of the Rosetta orbiter deploying the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau/ATG medialab.
Artist’s impression (not to scale) of the Rosetta orbiter deploying the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau/ATG medialab.

At the time of this writing Rosetta is 35 days out on approach to Comet 67P/C-G, at a distance of about 51,000 km (31,700 miles) and closing. Three “big burn” maneuvers have already been performed between May 7 and June 4 to adjust the spacecraft’s course toward the incoming comet, and after smaller ones on June 18 and July 2 there are a total of five more to go. See details of Rosetta’s burn maneuvers here.

As incredibly sensitive as they are, Rosetta’s instruments — which were able to detect the water vapor coming from Comet 67P/C-G from a distance of over 360,000 km — have even sniffed the hydrazine exhaust from its own thruster burns.

Luckily the remaining burns are relatively small compared to the first three, with the final being very brief, so any data contamination by Rosetta’s own exhaust shouldn’t become an issue once the spacecraft has established orbit in August.

Read more: Rosetta’s Comet Already Sweating the Small Stuff

Launched in March 2004, ESA’s Rosetta mission will be the first to orbit and land a probe on a comet, observing its composition and behavior as it makes its close approach to the Sun in 2015. Click here to see where Rosetta is right now.

Source: ESA’s Rosetta blog

Note: While 3-5 km seems pretty big (especially when stood on end) comet nuclei can be much larger, 10 to 20 km in diameter up to the enormous 40+ km size of Hale-Bopp. As comets go, 67P/C-G is fairly average. (Except that, come August, it will be the only comet with an Earthly spacecraft in tow!)

Support a Good Cause To Win a Trip To Space

Well, technically not space*, but suborbital, and that’d still be way cool! And what’s even cooler is that you can enter to win a trip on an XCOR Lynx Mark II suborbital flight while helping to support a good cause of your choice, courtesy of The Urgency Network’s “Ticket to Rise” campaign. Check out the dramatic spaceflight-packed promotional video and find out how to enter below:

The Urgency Network is an online platform whereby participants can win experience-based prizes by participating in campaigns that are designed to aid and support good causes, many of which assist specific communities in need, awareness groups, and conservation efforts. You earn “entries” for prize drawings by purchasing gift packages from the participating foundations or by donating time, social media presence, or money directly. It’s a way for organizations that might not have (or be able to afford) a large PR department to get funded and gain widespread exposure. Learn more about The Urgency Network here.

In the Ticket to Rise campaign, the grand prize is beyond stratospheric — literally! One lucky winner will experience a ride aboard an XCOR Lynx Mark II suborbital craft, a single-stage space vehicle that takes off from a runway to ultimately coast briefly at a maximum altitude of 328,000 feet (about 100 km), experiencing 4 minutes of microgravity before re-entry and a runway landing. It’s a supersonic 30-minute flight to the very edge of space!

(*Actually, 100 km is right at the von Karman line, so riding the Lynx Mark II past that could qualify you as an astronaut. Just sayin’.)

How a Lynx Mark II flight works (Source: XCOR)
How a Lynx Mark II flight works (Source: XCOR)

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 12.53.52 PMAdd to that you’d be helping any one of dozens of good causes (you can choose from different ones by clicking the “Select a Different NonProfit” text link on the donation page) and it’s a win-win for everyone. And even if you don’t get a seat aboard a spaceship (many will enter, few will win) you can still get some pretty awesome promo offers from the organizations as bulk-entry packages.

Click here to sign up and enter the Ticket to Rise campaign.

The deadline to enter the campaign is 11:59:59 p.m. EDT August 11, 2014. Drawing will be held on August 12. The Lynx flight is dependent on meeting all requirements and passing physical exams and tests by XCOR Aerospace, and although the date is expected to be in the fall of 2015, this is rocket science and things change. Read the official contest rules for all details, fine print, etc.

Is NASA Dead? Not Even Close.

If you’re a frequent reader of Universe Today you know that, despite the end of the Shuttle program and the constant battle for a piece of the federal budget, NASA has a lot on their plate for future space exploration missions. But there are still a lot of people among the general public who think that the U.S. space administration is “dead,” or, at the very least, in the process of dying. Which is unfortunate because there’s actually a lot going on, both in space and in development on the ground.

The video above, released Monday by Johnson Space Center, shows highlights from 2013 as well as some of the many things NASA has in progress. As anyone can see, rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated! (By whom I’m still not quite sure.)

Visit the Johnson Space Center site for more information and updates on current and future missions.

(Tip of the visor to astronaut Clayton Anderson for the video!)

ESA’s Gaia Mission Launches to Map the Milky Way

Early this morning, at 09:12 UTC, the cloudy pre-dawn sky above the coastal town of Kourou, French Guiana was brilliantly sliced by the fiery exhaust of a Soyuz VS06, which ferried ESA’s “billion-star surveyor” Gaia into space to begin its five-year mission to map the Milky Way.

Ten minutes after launch, after separation of the first three stages, the Fregat upper stage ignited, successfully delivering Gaia into a temporary parking orbit at an altitude of 175 km (108 miles). A second firing of the Fregat 11 minutes later took Gaia into its transfer orbit, followed by separation from the upper stage 42 minutes after liftoff. 46 minutes later Gaia’s sunshield was deployed, and the spacecraft is now cruising towards its target orbit around L2, a gravitationally-stable point in space located 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) away in the “shadow” of the Earth.

The launch itself was really quite beautiful, due in no small part to the large puffy clouds over the launch site. Watch the video below:

A global space astrometry mission, Gaia will make the largest, most precise three-dimensional map of our galaxy by surveying more than a billion stars over a five-year period.

“Gaia promises to build on the legacy of ESA’s first star-mapping mission, Hipparcos, launched in 1989, to reveal the history of the galaxy in which we live,” says Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General.

Soyuz VS06, with Gaia, lifted off from French Guiana, 19 December 2013. (ESA - S. Corvaja)
Soyuz VS06 with Gaia (ESA – S. Corvaja, 2013)

Repeatedly scanning the sky, Gaia will observe each of the billion stars an average of 70 times each over the five years. (That’s 40 million observations every day!) It will measure the position and key physical properties of each star, including its brightness, temperature and chemical composition.

By taking advantage of the slight change in perspective that occurs as Gaia orbits the Sun during a year, it will measure the stars’ distances and, by watching them patiently over the whole mission, their motions across the sky.

The motions of the stars can be put into “rewind” to learn more about where they came from and how the Milky Way was assembled over billions of years from the merging of smaller galaxies, and into “fast forward” to learn more about its ultimate fate.

“Gaia represents a dream of astronomers throughout history, right back to the pioneering observations of the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who catalogued the relative positions of around a thousand stars with only naked-eye observations and simple geometry. Over 2,000 years later, Gaia will not only produce an unrivaled stellar census, but along the way has the potential to uncover new asteroids, planets and dying stars.”

– Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration

Gaia will make an accurate map of the stars within the Milky Way from its location at L2 (ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier)
Gaia will make an accurate map of a billion stars within the Milky Way from its location at L2 (ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier)

Of the one billion stars Gaia will observe, 99% have never had their distances measured accurately. The mission will also study 500,000 distant quasars, search for exoplanets and brown dwarfs, and will conduct tests of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

“Along with tens of thousands of other celestial and planetary objects,” said ESA’s Gaia project scientist Timo Prusti, “this vast treasure trove will give us a new view of our cosmic neighbourhood and its history, allowing us to explore the fundamental properties of our Solar System and the Milky Way, and our place in the wider Universe.”

Follow the status of Gaia on the mission blog here.

Source: ESA press release and Gaia fact sheet

Gaia's launch aboard an Arianespace-operated Soyuz on Dec. 19, 2013 from ESA's facility in French Guiana (ESA)
Gaia’s launch aboard an Arianespace-operated Soyuz on Dec. 19, 2013 from ESA’s facility in French Guiana (ESA)

Astronomy Cast Ep. 326: Atmospheric Dust

When you consider the hazards of spaceflight, it’s hard to get worked up about dust bunnies. And yet, atmospheric dust is going to be one of the biggest problems astronauts will face when they reach the surface of other worlds. Where does this dust come from, and what does it tell us about the history of other worlds, and what can we do to mitigate the health risks?
Continue reading “Astronomy Cast Ep. 326: Atmospheric Dust”

Why Is Balancing So Hard After Spaceflights? Astronaut Posture Could Hold Clues

OTTAWA, CANADA – Astronauts appear to hold their heads more rigidly in relation to their trunks after returning to Earth from multi-month spaceflights, which may affect how they balance themselves back on Earth, according to ongoing research.

A note of caution: the sample size is small (six astronauts so far) and the research is still being conducted by the University of Houston and NASA. So this isn’t finalized in any sense. The early studies, however, shows that people returning to Earth may be changing their “strategy”, said Ph.D. student Stefan Madansingh.

“The changing strategy might put you at higher risks of falls as you ambulate around your environment, and if you are on Mars and you fall and break your hip, that is the start of a very bad day,” he said in a speech.

ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli works with an experiment on board the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli works with an experiment on board the International Space Station. Astronauts find it harder to move around on Earth after several months working in the orbiting complex. Credit: NASA

Generally, NASA is interested in learning about changes in cardiovascular, balance and muscle function after six-month spaceflights or more, when they are “like spaghetti people,” Madansingh said. Over the years, astronauts have shown changes in inner eye pressure, bone density, muscles and their balance, among other things.

To obtain the information, NASA has had astronauts walking around a simple obstacle course, which they encourage astronauts to complete at a comfortable walking pace. They’ll weave around pylons, climb ladders and do other simple tasks.

Tests are performed at 180, 60 and 30 days before launch, then one, six and 30 days after landing. (In the shuttle era, astronauts would do these types of tests immediately after landing, but these days there’s a day-long flight from Kazakhstan before arriving in Houston.) Some tests are started from a lying position, and some from a sitting position.

Artist impression of an astronaut on Mars (NASA)
Artist impression of an astronaut on Mars (NASA)

It takes more time for astronauts to complete the obstacle course after coming back from space, Madansingh said, and his ongoing research looks at the relation between the head and trunk as the astronauts are doing so.

As controls, NASA uses bed rest subjects, who are people voluntarily spending 70 days in a head-down position without getting up once, even to go to the bathroom. “I think it’s absolutely bonkers,” Madansingh joked, but added that the bed rest subjects don’t show that same head-trunk changes that returning astronauts do. More research will be needed to learn why, he said.

NASA is putting particular emphasis on these studies as astronauts spend longer times in space. The first one-year International Space Station stay is scheduled for 2015, although some cosmonauts have spent a year or more on the Russian space station Mir.

Madansingh delivered his comments Nov. 15 at the Canadian Space Society annual conference in Ottawa.