Sunday, August 26, 2012

Remembering Neil Armstrong: an American Legend and Ideal Role Model

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) in 1969.

Yesterday, the world lost Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on another world, thus achieving the, to this date, greatest feat of exploration in human history. While the tale of Armstrong the astronaut has been told over and over again and needs no repeating, it is the story of Armstrong the man that should serve as the real inspiration to the youth of American today.

From childhood, Neil Armstrong was fascinated with planes, taking his first ride in an airplane at age 6, which would have been in 1936, scarcely a generation after the Wright Brothers made the first heavier than air flight. At the time, aviation was hardly the routine, take it for granted practice that it is today. How much did Armstrong love to fly? So much so that he became a licensed pilot at age 16, which was before he even got his driver's license.

After finishing high school, Armstrong enrolled in college to study aeronautical engineering. However, come 1949, Armstrong was called to military duty with the Navy, where he served as a test pilot and later fighter pilot in the Korean War. In all, Armstrong flew 78 combat missions. After the war, Armstrong returned to college and eventually completed a master's degree, which was quite a rarity for the time. After college, Armstrong returned to the Navy as a test pilot before being selected to NASA's astronaut class of 1962.

During the middle 1960s, America was locked in what appeared to be a losing race to the Moon with the Soviet Union, which had already accomplished three important firsts: first satellite (1957), first man in orbit (1961), and first spacewalk (1965). After 4 years of training, Armstrong was selected to command Gemini 8. During the mission, which launched in March, 1966, Armstrong got America its first big victory in the space race: the successful docking of two space vehicles. However, the mission nearly ended in disaster when a rocket booster misfired late in the mission, with only Armstrong's cool head and flying skills preventing a tragedy.

As for Apollo 11, the tale has been told an almost infinite number of times and needs no repeating, but it is what happened afterward that merits some real attention, especially in today's world of instant celebrities and egocentricity.
Neil Armstrong, along with fellow crew mates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins returned to Earth as heroes not just to America, but the world. Even the Russians offered congratulations (though probably grudgingly). Now world famous, Neil Armstrong could play his celebrity status to the hilt for personal gain.

He chose not to.

After flying to the Moon, Armstrong retired from spaceflight, staying with NASA until 1971, when he accepted a position as a professor at the University on Cincinatti. Armstrong would stay on there until 1979, when he decided to do something that seemed completely unexpected: return to his roots as a farmer. In the following years, Armstrong kept a low profile, refusing repeated urgings to run for political office and, after learning that signed memorabilia was being sold for profit, he stopped signing autographs altogether (think of how many current celebrities have signed stuff for sale on their websites). Armstrong was also careful with his name and image, refusing repeated offers (and probably handsome payments) from companies wanting to use either, even going so far as to sue when someone went on to ignore his wishes. In victory, Armstrong never kept any of the winnings, preferring to donate to charity instead.

For a life and career that could have served as the inspiration for many books and movies, Armstrong never wrote an autobiography nor signed any movie deals, either. It was only late in life that he finally agreed to work with author James R. Hansen, who wanted to write an Armstrong biography. Needless to say, by refusing such deals, Armstrong left a lot of money on the table, preferring to live the quiet life, instead.

After his death yesterday,
Armstrong's family released a statement that read, in part "[he was a] reluctant American hero [and had] served his nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves."

For today's youth, such a concept seems almost foreign. Between self-worth being measured by the number of Facebook friends (and thus attention) one has, the instant celebrities who often do nothing of value yet serve as ideas of how to become famous (thing Kardashians and cast of “Jersey Shore” among others here), the idea that success should come easy (Neil Armstrong had to do a lot more than ace an interview to get to the Moon), and the all-important idea of “me first,” the current college-age and younger generation can learn a lot from Neil Armstrong the man, an American hero who set foot on the Moon yet never let the drive for fame and profit get the better of him.

RIP, Neil, we'll miss you.

For more coverage:
NASA biography

Neil Armstrong tributes
Interview with John Glenn

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Is NASA on the Verge of Another Golden Age?

In the face of extensive budget cuts that have forced the cancellation of the most ambitious interplanetary science probes, NASA scientists have found a new mission for the agency's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars last week: prove to the American public that planetary science is worth funding at all.
So far, NASA has scored a slam-dunk with its Curiosity Mars rover mission, and the timing couldn't be better.
For NASA, there is a lot riding on Curiosity, far more than the mission itself. For starters, Curiosity is set to be the last flagship mission for the foreseeable future as these most ambitious missions, commonly costing over $1 billion, have been eliminated from NASA's future plans thanks to extensive budget cuts. For the record, Curiosity cost about $2 billion. However, there is hope within NASA that a successful mission may spur the public to be more interested in planetary science. The hope: greater public support in planetary exploration will spur Congress to allocate more funding for NASA, which is to see its planetary science budget drastically cut for the 2013 fiscal year.

So far, things are looking good.

Not since America's return to Mars with the mini
Sojourner rover on July 4, 1997 has there been this much excitement about a NASA mission. Like it or not, the public is fickle.

In 1961, President Kennedy announced that, by the end of the decade, Americans would go to and return from the Moon. In July, 1969, the goal was achieved. By 1972, the Apollo program was over, seen as a waste of money since the Space Race had been won, America's prestige lifted (sorry), and science was not perceived as a worthy goal in and of itself. Now, over 40 years later, Americans no longer have a way to go to the Moon let alone colonize space (or, for that matter, even get into space without hitching a ride with, of all people, the Russians).

In the mid 1970s, NASA launched its Viking missions to Mars as the first robots to touch down on the Red Planet. The main goal: see if Mars was home to and/or is hospitable to life. In terms of the mission, Viking was a smashing success. Unfortunately, the stationary landers found no signs of life and, as a result, NASA would wait nearly two decades for another Mars mission.

People are fickle, especially when it comes to things that cost money.

Sojourner in 1997, the public was, once again, excited by planetary science. At the time, the whole rover concept was a new idea that captivated the public's imagination. Think of it: a RC car-sized, mobile science lab rolling around Mars. If the rover itself weren't enough of a novelty, the method of its landing, namely bouncing in airbags after being dropped from a parachute, was a curiosity in itself. Result: a brief flourish of high-profile, high profile planetary missions, including the Twin Mars rovers, Cassini-Huygens, and New Horizons (still on its way to Pluto).

Unfortunately, come the economic meltdown of 2009 and the non-existent recovery continuing into 2012, the government has had to make cuts to its budget, NASA included. Of its three main spending areas: human spaceflight, planetary science, and maintaining current missions, planetary science found itself on the chopping block. Result: pared-down missions and outright cancellations. When NASA's 2013 budget was announced earlier this year, many space science enthusiasts were left wondering whether planetary science was dead.

Well, hopefully, the
Curiosity mission will breath new excitement into the idea of exploring other worlds in our solar system. So far, Curiosity has succeeded, firmly entering the realm of pop culture, even
spawning a music video and making celebrities out of a few members of the rover team.

Now, while pop culture is all and good for PR purposes, hopefully,
Curiosity's mission and cool science instruments (and, hopefully, exciting discoveries) will go a long way in helping persuade the public, and the government, that NASA is worth funding. With a successful mission and a little luck, a new golden age of planetary exploration could be on the way as, after all, there are a lot of interesting places we could go!

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Friday, August 17, 2012

'We're NASA and We Know It' Music Video a Viral Hit

Who says that NASA isn't hip? Well, they may not be real rocket scientists, but the music parody group Satire dressed up as the Curiosity team and created a nearly 3-minute video based on the Curiosity mission with the lyrics a spoof of LMFAO song “Sexy and I Know It.”

Go here for a link to the video on Youtube. So far, it has over 350,000 hits since Wednesday.

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Monday, August 6, 2012

NASA's 'Curiosity' Just Landed on Mars, See the First Pictures

NASA's latest generation of Mars rover, the $2 billion Curiosity, has just safely landed on the surface of Mars after surviving “7 minutes of terror” and a final descent by “sky crane.” The landing took place as scheduled, at about 1:30am EDT (10:30pm PDT). For the rover itself, the very act of getting to Mars in one piece was in itself an accomplishment for a mission that stood over a 60% chance of failure. For even more good news, the first pictures have already arrived back on Earth.

Needless to say, these are exciting times for NASA and space enthusiasts in general, too.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Curiosity Rover Stands a More Than 60% Chance of Failure

The odds are stacked against Curiosity.

Tomorrow, NASA's Curiosity rover will, hopefully, survive its '7 minutes of terror' and touch down on the surface of the Red Planet after a journey of nearly 9 months. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against NASA's $2 billion rover. When looking back in history at all the attempted missions to Mars, only 30% make it to the destination.

top officials at NASA are
banking on
Curiosity in more ways than one. First of all, the multi-billion dollar rover is the most ambitious mission to Mars to date, being to Spirit and Opportunity what the twin rovers were to the first generation Sojourner rover: a big step-up in scientific capability. Amazingly,Opportunity, which (along with Spirit) was given a mission life of 90 days, is still operating as well as ever on the Martian surface more than 8 years after touchdown (Spirit lasted 6 years). Needless to say, coming in the shadows of these better than wildest dream success stories, Curiosity has a lot to live up to on the science and exploration end of its mission.

Unfortunately, we Earthlings have a very poor track record of getting to Mars, 14 for 40 to be exact.

Last year, Russia lost its Phobos-Grunt mission, which was to land on Martian moon Phobos and return a sample to Earth, after a booster rocket failed to propel the probe out of Earth's orbit. Result: arguably the most ambitious planetary science mission in history burned up in Earth's atmosphere. However, Phobos-Grunt was not the first high-profile failure.

In the 1998-99 mission window, NASA was rocked by back-to-back failures as it lost both its Mars Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander, which carried a separate probe, Deep Space 2. After a post-failure investigation, it was determined that the Polar Lander's rocket engines fired at the wrong time, result: the probe smashed into the Martian surface. As for the Climate Orbiter, the cause of failure was nothing short of embarrassing: human error in the form of different measurements being used by the probe and ground control.

In 1992, nearly 20 years after the successful (but with very disappointing results) Viking missions to Mars, the United States decided to go back to the Red Planet again for the first time since then. Result: the highly-anticipated Mars Observer was lost in-route to its destination.

As for Russia, it has bore the brunt of the failures. Russia (then the USSR) launched its first Mars mission in 1960 but would endure a 11-year (and 11 mission) wait before it finally achieved success with its Mars 3 Orbiter/Lander in 1971. In the next close Mars approach, 1973, Russia would achieve a total and partial success. Since then, no Russian Mars probe has survived, a nearly 40 year 0-for streak culminating with Phobos-Grunt last year.

As for other space powers, Japan's one and only attempt to go to Mars failed and the European Space Agency (ESA) is 1 for 2.

Now, while things look bleak, there is good news: until Phobos-Grunt, every Mars mission since 2000 has been a partial or total success, which does bode well for Curiosity as the track record, while overall poor, is much better for recent missions.

As for Curiosity's (hopeful) landing, it will take place at about 10:30pm Pacific Time on August 5 (or about 1:30am Eastern Time on August 6).

For more:
A complete list of Mars missions (as of 2007)

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