alexpgp: (Engineering)
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter managed to capture an image of Curiosity descending to the Martian surface under its parachute. Both the delivery and this photo are just amazing.


(Kudos to whoever drew the box around Curiosity and its parachute! I'm sure I never would have found them otherwise.)

Seriously, an impressive achievement! Congratulations to all involved!
alexpgp: (Liftoff!)
There's been some buzz this week about the prospect of finding the body of Andrew Irvine, one of the two men who died in an attempt to scale Mount Everest in 1924. The interest apparently lies not as much with Irvine's body, as it does with a Kodak camera he was known to have taken with him on the expedition, and not so much with camera, really, as with the film it contains. After much speculative discussion, experts have declared there is reason to believe that, if the film is recovered and kept frozen, it may give up some usable images.

Mountain climbing is a tough racket, and Everest is reknowned as a harsh mistress. The mountain was, after all, the inspiration for one of history's most fundamentally honest answers to a reporter's question. When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, George Mallory – Irvine's partner in that fatal 1924 climb – replied, "Because it's there!"

One man who knows exactly how tough Everest can be is former astronaut Scott Parazynski. One year after a back injury cut short his attempt to climb Everest, he gained the summit in May 2009, carrying - among other things - rocks from the Moon. Those samples, along with a small rock sample from the top of Everest, are now destined to travel to the International Space Station aboard the next Space Shuttle mission.

I don't know Scott very well, but my work at NASA did throw us together a few times over the years, both directly and indirectly. I first met him back in the mid -1990s, at about the time he was declared ineligible to fly aboard the Russian Soyuz space capsule because he was two inches taller than the height specified as acceptable by Russian flight surgeons. Talk about disappointment!

Over the years, my clearest memory of Parazynski is of a training session at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which houses what has to be the world's largest swimming pool. The pool is about 40 feet deep and contains over 6 million gallons of water. Submerged under the surface are mockups of various chunks of station hardware with which astronauts work in space. The idea behind working submerged in water is that, properly balanced to near-perfect neutral buoyancy, the experience is said to closely mimic what it feels like to work in the weightlessness of space.

The Lab's pool area is also really photogenic - expansive, well-lit, colorful, and brimming with activity - and my assignment that day was to interpret for a Russian news crew that was filming a news story about the space program. Initially, there wasn't much for me to do as the crew unlimbered their camera equipment and focused on the action around Parazynski and another crew member as the pair prepared to suit up for their training run.

By the time we arrived, the astronauts were already there, wearing special "undergarments" with a number of narrow plastic tubes embedded in the fabric. Water circulating in these tubes keeps the body of a suit's occupant cool, which is important, because without such regulation, the suit would get unbearably hot pretty quick. After a few moments spent chatting with the divers who were going to assist in the training, the astronauts sat down on the floor, extended their legs, and awkwardly wriggled into the lower part of their suits.

Once that was done and the boots were properly attached, the half-suited astronauts were ready to don the top portion of their suits. Everyone involved in the process - including Yuri, a Russian cosmonaut I had worked with on several occasions and a crewmate of Scott's - took their time to make sure all the seams and joints were properly sealed.

Watching an astronaut don a space suit torso at the NBL is pretty amusing, because the astronaut looks like he's "dancing" into it with arms raised above his head, aided by many twists, turns, bumps, and grinds. It reminded me of someone doing the limbo, rotated vertically. Eventually, the upper portion of the suit was mated to the lower, the helmet was locked in place, final checks were made, and the hard part was over. Everyone except NBL staff members cleared away from the suited astronauts.

Yuri came over to stand by me as the staff strapped the astronauts to the platform, which was then hauled into the air, swung out over the water, and lowered slowly into the pool. Once the platform and its encapsulated human cargo was submerged, divers would unstrap the suited astronauts and tow them over to where they would start their training run.

As the news crew continued to document the lowering of the platform into the pool, Yuri looked up and around the hall, and I followed his gaze. Overhead, on the opposite side of the pool, was the control room, where the training director and his cohort monitor the goings-on using a bank of video monitors and voice loops. Behind us, above a row of international flags, was the visitor's gallery.

That day, the gallery windows were crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with kids, doubtless on field trips with classroom groups. A few of the students waved down at us and Yuri waved back. He caught me looking at him and smiled.

"I remember going on field trips like that when I was a boy," he said. "Although we never visited anything as cool as this!" He spread his arms a little to embrace the pool and its surroundings.

"Where did you go?" I asked.

"Once, our teacher took us to visit a glider field near our city," he said. "Seeing those gliders... up close... getting to sit in one...," he paused, giving his head a little shake, "that was when I decided I wanted to fly more than anything else in the world."

The crew completed filming at the NBL, interviewed Yuri later that afternoon, and finished their day with more camera work, shooting a segment at the JSC "rocket park," a collection of rockets and engines that is, for many, an iconic image of space exploration. As the crew put away its camera and sound equipment, I took out my own camera and took some photographs of my own., for no reason except, perhaps, to somehow say "I was here!"

If the film in Irvine's camera does show that he and Mallory attained Everest's summit 30 years before Edmund Hillary accomplished the deed, there are some that some say the images will rewrite the history books, though I tend to doubt it. One thing I do not doubt, though, is how utterly cool it is to have acquired the skills to be able to passionately pursue a goal "because it's there!"

Throw Back Week - Intersection Variation

My previous topic: Moments of Devastating Beauty
My topic this time: Current Events
URL of current event story:

My partner is [ profile] furzicle. Her entry is here.


If you liked my and [ profile] furzicle's entries, please visit the poll for this week's LJ Idol and make sure you cast your votes! Voting closes at 8 pm EST on Wednesday, February 3.
alexpgp: (Default)
On the fourth attempt to launch a privately developed vehicle into orbit, Falcon 1 has achieved a nominal insertion. I happened to catch the webcast, and it was a pretty sight!

Six years, 500 people and a company called SpaceX.

alexpgp: (Liftoff!)
LJ friend [ profile] platofish asks, in a comment to yesterday's Sputnik post:

The Apollo project resulted in man setting foot on the moon - do you agree with that statement? Did we really manage this feat with relatively primitive tools, given the problems we seem to have with the current fleet of shuttles, etc.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Apollo project put humans on the moon and returned them to the Earth, and not once, but several times, and that this was done with - by contemporary standards - very primitive tools.

And I don't doubt this was a strong contributing factor to the success of Apollo.

Recall that the goal of the program was pretty simple: put a man on the moon and return him to Earth. To do this, a hugely wasteful but hugely effective scheme was adopted of constructing a gargantuan launch vehicle, parts of which would be discarded when no longer required. The original vehicle was 36-stories high; the part that left Earth orbit for the moon was about the length of a semi-trailer, and the part that finally returned to earth was about the size of a Volkswagen minibus.

By comparison, flying a reusable vehicle is a lot more complicated because there's lots more to worry about, hardware-wise, which is further burdened by the fact that you're trying to accomplish more things (deliver station modules, conduct science and medical experiments, and deploy, capture, and repair satellites, among others). More flexibility means more headaches. Reusability means more headaches.

Project Apollo was also not subject to the kinds of budgetary constraints that the Shuttle program has had to operate under, and when money is no problem, fundamental flaws in project concept or design are more easily alleviated, in my opinion. I have in mind here the rework that occurred in Apollo after the fire that killed Grissom, Chaffee, and White. (Had the same approach held for the Shuttle program, the auxiliary SRBs would never have been designed to be reusable, of if they had been, such a design would've been scrapped pronto after what happened with Challenger.)

And finally, the kind of sclerosis that develops in bureaucratic organizations had not yet developed in the NASA of the late 1960s. Apollo 7 flew in space a few months short of two years after the Apollo 1 crew died in what amounted to an beta version of the spacecraft; the revamped Apollo featured a new hatch design, new cabin materials, properly insulated plumbing and wiring, and almost 1500 modifications to correct wiring problems.

The first Shuttle return-to-flight took place a few months short of three years after Challenger died with its crew, and while the list of changes implemented is impressive, besides completing an extensive redesign of the O-ring system that ostensibly caused the accident, a number of other changes were made as well, to improve landing safety, reorganize project management, and identify and reduce risk in general. I haven't really followed the changes implemented in the second return-to-flight procedure, but it bore fruit 2-1/2 years after Columbia was lost with its crew, and I wouldn't doubt it was as broad-ranging, as bureaucratic efforts are wont to be.

By comparison, despite some early problems, the Russian Soyuz design has been remarkably reliable, and I think this has quite a bit to do with its inherent simplicity, but I think I've blathered on for quite too long. Hope this answers your question.

alexpgp: (Default)
The day got off to a pretty fast start, with 930 words committed to phosphor by 9:30 am (though a lot of that chunk was a repetition of the obligations of the Contractor, rephrased for the Customer). Still, I was able to get halfway through my goal for the day by noon, despite distractions.

In the afternoon, despite additional distractions and a trip to the Sam's Club, I managed to get within 700 words of my goal by 4 pm, and after returning from the drive, walking to the Kroger's to pick up The Departed, and watching Rick Steves galavant about Naples on the local public TV channel after getting back from the store, I sat down for a final "push" and actually overshot my goal by a couple of hundred words.

* * *
While at Sam's I noted the display of a book that, on first impression, tweaked my curiosity, as it purported to relate the story of what happened in the ISS program both aboard the station and on the ground after the Columbia tragedy. I have since forgotten the title of the book and the author, but I have not forgotten part of the blurb on the inside flaps of the cover, which I think painted a grossly unfair picture in a very short time.

Specifically, the blurb paints a strange picture of the Soyuz space craft, which is the station's "Assured Crew Return Vehicle," which is NASA-speak for "lifeboat." Soyuz spacecraft have a 6-month life on orbit because the seals between the Soyuz and the station, which keep atmosphere from leaking into space, are only rated for that period. As a result, Soyuz spacecraft are routinely replaced, being flown up by new crews (occasionally accompanied by "space tourists") and deorbited by old crews.

Somehow, in the space of a few words, however, whoever wrote the blurb painted a picture of a highly untrustworthy craft, hoping (I suppose) to entice the reader into buying the book to see how the apparently marooned station crew gets out of their predicament. For all I know, the book may actually be pretty good, but the advertising definitely turned me off, for now.

Time to go watch the DVD and exercise my fingers. :^)

alexpgp: (Default)
My week long assignment got off to a good start, as the end client decided to take the Russian delegation to... the Johnson Space Center!

Actually, they were taken next door, to "Space Center Houston," which is a privately run entertainment/education enterprise that works closely with JSC, the most salient example of which is running trolley trains filled with tourists from their facility to the MCC and Building 9 (the mockup facility).

The last time I was at Space Center Houston was back in early 1998, when Omega, the Swiss watch company, launched a new line of watches designed with space travelers in mind. To mark the event, Omega rented the auditorium at Space Center Houston and also the time of both Talgat Musabaev and Nikolai Budarin, who were the crew aboard Mir at the time, for very nearly two orbits (which must've cost a small fortune, which in turn explained the high price of the - to my eye - rather ordinary-looking watches Omega had designed).

I recall that Alexander Kaleri and Tom Stafford, among a sizeable crowd, were present for the product launch, which was interpreted by - guess who? - yours truly and simulcast to Cthulu-knows-where, around the world or something. The event was the one and only time I conducted a lengthy voice exchange directly with an orbiting space station, even if it was for the purpose of relating what someone else had said (if you don't count the time spent checking the comm link during the early part of the crew time rented).

In any event, today's visit went well. I never realized that folks with JSC badges can get into the Space Center Houston facility for free (so it was probably a good thing I brought along my badge, especially since the 8 other people in the group got a discount for being "with me").

After the tour and some time for souvenir shopping, the group went to Kemah for a late lunch at the Aquarium, one of a number of Landry's restaurants around town, and everyone got way too much to eat. The main attraction at this restaurant is a cleverly arranged "aquarium" that rises through the center of a spiral staircase from the ground floor to the main dining hall, where there is a large "aquarium in the round" with a number of salt-water fish, including specimens that look like small tuna, some redfish, and a handful of sharks.

I'm now expecting to be picked up tomorrow from here at 5 am instead of 6 am, but I figure I can sleep in the limo if push comes to shove. On the other hand, I probably shouldn't try to go to sleep too late, especially since I've sent off the large job I finished yesterday and finished translating the shorter job that's due Tuesday.

I need to double-check the stuff I'm taking with me, as I'll be gone for pretty much the whole week.



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