Friday, June 21, 2013

Sir Arthur C. Clarke finally going to outer space on Sunjammer solar sail spacecraft

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Famed science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke is finally headed for space — five years after his death.

Though the author of “2001: A Space Odyssey” died in 2008 in Sri Lanka, scientists from NASA today announced plans to send his DNA into orbit around the sun in 2014 aboard the Sunjammer, an astonishing solar-powered spacecraft.

Called the Sunjammer Cosmic Archive (SCA), the flying time capsule is a first in the history of space travel, carrying digital files of human DNA including Clarke’s aboard the sun-powered space ship.

The DNA is to be contained in a “BioFile.” Other so-called MindFiles, including images, music, voice recordings, and the like, provided by people all around the globe, will also be included in the cosmic archive for future generations — or perhaps other civilizations — to see.

“Clarke certainly imagined himself going to space someday, and that day is finally arriving,” said Stephen Eisele, vice president of Space Services, Inc., a NASA contractor on the project. The name Sunjammer comes from the writings of Clarke, but the goal is all-encompassing.

“The Sunjammer Cosmic Archive enables all of us to go to outer space,” he said.

The archive is one part of an amazing new NASA mission based on a vision outlined by astronomer Johannes Kepler, in a letter to Galileo in 1610: deployment of a technology that harnesses the light of the sun to propel spaceships.

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For NASA, Mars Beyond Reach Without Budget Boost

If NASA continues to be funded at its current levels, a manned mission to Mars could be permanently beyond reach, space industry experts say.

When asked how soon astronauts could potentially set foot on Mars under NASA’s current budget constraints, Thomas Young, the former executive vice president of Lockheed Martin, says the outlook is bleak.

“With the current budget, bear with me, I would probably say never,” Young said during a meeting of the U.S. House of Representative’s space subcommittee today (June 19).

Steven Squyres, the principal investigator for NASA’s Opportunity rover now exploring Mars, agreed. Squyres, an astronomy professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., also gave testimony before the House subcommittee.

Young said that if the public and government officials treat a mission to Mars with the importance of the first mission to the moon, it is possible to put boots on the Red Planet in a little more than a decade from now.

“Mars is harder; there are a lot of significant issues to resolve before going to Mars,” Young said. “But I think that if we had the same national commitment to it [as we did to going to the moon], I would say by 2025, we could land on Mars.”

The current draft of NASA’s budget produced by the House asks the space agency to develop a roadmap that will define the technical capabilities needed to send humans to Mars sometime in the future.

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

House bill threatens $1 billion in NASA funding cuts

A draft NASA authorization bill floated by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee would eliminate funding for the Obama administration’s proposed asteroid retrieval mission and cut overall agency spending by about $1 billion, lawmakers said Wednesday.

The proposed $16.8 billion funding package would focus NASA’s long-term efforts on Mars exploration, set pre-determined milestones for development of commercial manned spacecraft — including a non-negotiable deadline for first flight — and sharply cut funding for Earth sciences.

“This authorization bill reflects a sincere effort to maximize return to the taxpayer while working to protect America’s role as the world leader in space exploration,” Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., chairman of the Subcommittee on Space, said in opening remarks.

“It is realistic and reflective of the hard choices we must make as a nation and provides support for agreed-upon priorities. The stark reality is that if we fail to reform mandatory spending, discretionary funding for space, science and research will continue to shrink.”

He said the proposed “authorization discussion draft” was consistent with the 2011 Budget Control Act, mandating automatic spending cuts — sequestration — in the absence of legislation to trim $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit.

Given the current budget environment, Palazzo said the Obama administration must focus on NASA’s core programs, including the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, needed for missions to a variety of deep space targets; the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle that would carry astronauts beyond the moon; space science; and the International Space Station.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Closing the chapter on the space shuttle

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The decades-long assignment started with covering the first space shuttle launch, Columbia, on April 12, 1981. A recent visit to Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A wrapped up the story for me. Often we cover assignments not knowing how long it will take, and my part in coverage of NASA’s space shuttle program seemed as if it would last forever. With the landing of the shuttle Atlantis on July 21, 2011, however, we thought the assignment was over.

But it wasn’t complete yet. With the shuttles headed for public display, the assignment continued a bit longer in order to cover the preparation and their ultimate departure from the space center.

Longtime members of our Reuters shuttle photo team, Pierre DuCharme and Scott Audette, joined me for a final look at the historic pad before it would be demolished to be reconfigured for the next U.S. manned spaceflight program. We were hosted by NASA Photo Editor Ken Thornsley and our longtime NASA media escort and friend, Charlie Parker, a retired NASA engineer.

The pad was the focus of so many years of shuttle launch coverage, along with the sister pad, 39B, which has been dismantled and is now being reconfigured as a multi-purpose launch pad. Soon, the Pad A structure will be removed as well. Pad A has been used for more manned missions than any pad at the Kennedy Space Center or the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, including Apollo 11, the first manned landing on the moon, the first and last space shuttle launches and many in between.

Our tour, led by NASA’s Pad Operations Manager Steve Bulloch, began with entering the massive air conditioning support rooms beneath the pad. Beneath the pad, we were shown the amazing Apollo-era Emergency Escape System, which included a slide system and a domed ‘blast room’, built on springs to absorb shock and sealed by massive blast doors, to protect Apollo astronauts and pad crew members if a problem occurred in the final moments before launch. The system was never used. After so many years of shuttle and expendable rocket launch coverage, we had no idea the escape system even existed.

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