Moons of Earth and Saturn

The New York Times has kept me busy of late. In the special section commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I had two pieces: one on the future of the American astronaut corps, and another on the haunting restoration of the Apollo Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center. Another piece I am particularly proud of is the announcement of a mission to Titan, the mysterious moon of Saturn, and the only place in our solar system other than Earth with standing liquid seas.

Image credit: The New York Times

Image credit: The New York Times

NASA Announces New Dragonfly Drone Mission to Explore Titan
(The New York Times)

Because of the nature of its atmosphere, Titan is a very Earthlike place. Chemically, it is much like our world’s primordial past. The surface pressure of Titan is one-and-a-half times the surface pressure of Earth, and the same sorts of interactions between air, land and sea take place. Titan thus has familiar geology. Methane on Titan plays the role that water plays here. Its methane cycle is analogous to Earth’s water cycle. It has methane clouds, methane rain and methane lakes and seas on the surface.

“There’s going to be a tremendous change in the fabric of how we see Titan as a world,” said Dr. Ralph Lorenz of Applied Physics Laboratory, the Dragonfly project scientist in an April interview. He predicted that features of Titan will be, “recognizable, but different in flavor from what you see on Earth and Mars.”

That might include the things that wiggle. Complex organic molecules fall from its atmosphere onto the surface of Titan, gather over long periods of time and can be processed further. If cryovolcanoes erupt on Titan’s surface, as data from the Cassini spacecraft suggests, the organic material can mix with liquid water. Sunlight, at the same time, drives the moon’s photochemistry, introducing energy to a system primed for life.

NASA Reopens Apollo Mission Control Room That Once Landed Men on Moon
(The New York Times)

Apollo mission control had been abandoned in 1992, with all operations moved to a modernized mission control center elsewhere in the building. Center employees, friends, family — and anyone, really, who had access to Building 30 — could walk in, take a seat, take a lunch break and take pictures.

While they were there, they might take a button from one of the computer consoles. Or a switch or a dial, anything small — a personal memento from an ancient American achievement. The furniture fabric and carpet underfoot grew threadbare. The room was dark; none of the equipment had power. Wires hung where rotary phones had once sat. The giant overhead screens in front of the room were damaged, and the room smelled of mildew. Yellow duct tape held carpet together in places.

“You knew it wasn’t right — you just knew,” said Sandra Tetley, the historic preservation officer at the Johnson Space Center. “But it was not a priority. We are an organization that’s moving toward the future, so there is not a budget to do things like this.”

The project began in earnest six years ago. The anniversary loomed, and that was the catalyst to fix up mission control, and to do it right. “We wanted to meet a high standard to restore it, and we were able to meet this 50th anniversary,” Ms. Tetley said.

As New Space Race Beckons, Astronauts Face Identity Crisis
(The New York Times)

Christopher Ferguson trains from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. A recent day for him was typical: five hours in a launch simulation with the mission operations team. He trained alongside Sunita Williams, herself a two-time space flier and veteran of the space station.

Halfway through the session, the two swapped roles, preparing for situations that might arise on an actual mission. The balance of the day was spent planning timeline management when inserting a crew into a rocket, so that when the hatch closes, all the right things are on the inside, and all the right things are on the outside.

The difference between Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Williams is that Mr. Ferguson does not work for NASA. He works for Boeing and will fly on the first crewed mission of Starliner. Boeing and SpaceX are part of Commercial Crew, a NASA-supported program that has tasked American companies with building spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the space station. NASA has relied on Russia’s space program for launching astronauts since the last shuttle returned to Earth in 2011.

A Roundup of Recent Work

It’s been a busy few weeks. Here are a few recent pieces I have had written, and snippets of each.

Neptune’s Moon Triton Is Destination of Proposed NASA Mission
(The New York Times)

Visits to the outer solar system are usually conducted as NASA flagship missions that cost billions of dollars, like the recently concluded Cassini mission to Saturn or the Europa Clipper spacecraft set for launch in the 2020s.

While these projects have produced significant achievements, smaller, less pricey missions also might advance planetary science. On Mars, for instance, no single spacecraft did everything, but in aggregate and over time, the robots sent there revealed the planet’s watery past and set the stage for future astronauts.

That’s why the scientists behind Trident proposal, which will be formally presented to NASA later this month, are seeking support under the agency’s highly competitive Discovery program, for missions that are supposed to cost less than $500 million.

Europa Mission Gets New Instrument to Look for Signs of Habitability
(Scientific American)

NASA is changing one of the key scientific instruments on Europa Clipper, its next major mission to the outer planets of the solar system, and has brought in a scientific luminary to lead it, project leaders announced today. Clipper is set to orbit Jupiter and study Europa, the icy Jovian moon, across multiple flybys. Earlier this month, NASA headquarters terminated the mission’s ICEMAG magnetometer instrument, citing overruns in its estimated budget. The move left the spacecraft without an essential tool to study Europa’s interior ocean, where astrobiologists hope extraterrestrial organisms might be found.

Margaret Kivelson, a professor emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles, will lead the effort to develop a simplified magnetometer to replace ICEMAG. The instrument will measure Europa’s magnetic field and gather data on the ocean’s depth and salinity. Kivelson previously led the magnetometer team on the spacecraft Galileo, which orbited Jupiter in the 1990s. She is credited with discovering the ocean beneath Europa’s ice shell.

How NASA’s Opportunity Rover Made Mars Part of Earth
(Smithsonian)

MER came in the aftermath of failed mission proposals by Ray Arvidson, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis; Larry Soderblom of the U.S. Geological Survey; and Steve Squyres, a professor at Cornell University. Each of the three had been beaten by David Paige of University of California, Los Angeles, whose ill-fated Mars Polar Lander was selected for flight by NASA.

“During an [American Geophysical Union] meeting, I stopped Steve in the hall,” says Arvidson. “I said, ‘I’m a pretty sore loser. How about you?’ And that was the start.” Arvidson, Squyres and Soderblom merged their various teams and set about writing a joint proposal to get a rover on the Martian surface.

NASA Considers a Rover Mission to Go Cave Diving on the Moon
(Smithsonian)

Once it reaches the bottom of the pit, Kerber says, Axel would explore the cavern floor, providing humanity’s first close look at the subterranean realms of the moon. The rover would carry six times as much tether as it needs, so however far the bottom of the cavern is, Axel should be able to descend deeply enough to discover what waits below.

“The bottom of the pit is total exploration. We have enough time to just see what the heck is down there. We are thinking a monolith,” Kerber jokes, “or a big door covered in hieroglyphics.”

The Odyssey of OSIRIS-REx

Earlier this year, I covered the rocket launch of OSIRIS-REx, a spacecraft that will visit an asteroid, study it, collect a sample, and return to Earth. My account of the launch has been published by The Week. I really do think it's the best thing I've ever written and I hope you enjoy. Here is a little snippet:

The tail of flame is about as long as the rocket itself, but it is not orange. It's not even fire, really, as you understand fire to be. It is white. It hurts the eyes. It's like staring at a concentrated burst of manufactured sun. It's not the flamethrower's discharge, but that of the welding torch. It is blinding. It doesn't billow. It's all business, this white welding torch. So pure and focused and controlled.

The smoke is produced by ignited liquid oxygen and liquid kerosene. It is the color of cigarette smoke, and at ignition it shrouds the launch complex bottom to top, pad to candlestick-like lightning rods. The rocket rises above. The smoke follows the rocket up. It's a skywriter, this thing, drawing smoothly some great, fine arc to heaven. The higher it gets, the whiter the smoke, purer, purer, purer, until at last it seems humankind has surpassed the cloud itself as an object of stainless wonder against a curtain of blue.

You can read the whole story here.

NASA's Spaceship Factory

Last week I visited NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to view the newly-built Orion pressure vessel. I found the whole thing to be a deeply moving experience, and a glimpse of the kind of future we all want desperately for our grandchildren, and for the human species. I am very proud of this essay that came out of the event. It's published at Mental Floss, and I hope it finds a good audience. A little sample:

Michoud looks like a place where things are built. Spacecraft, yes, and rockets—the biggest ever imagined—but things all the same. With only slight changes, it could be a place where cars are manufactured, or supercomputers, or valves, or motors. Michoud is like the world's greatest high school metal shop, only instead of turning wrenches to automatic transmissions, the men and women here apply tools to spacecraft. Sheets of metal roll in the front door, and spaceships and rockets roll out the back.

The facility is located on the outskirts of New Orleans, amidst vast footprints of vacant land. Across the street from Michoud is a Folgers Coffee plant, leaving the air outside redolent with the soft bitterness of a newly opened bag of ground coffee. That itself is striking—the mix of coffee, concrete, cars, and cranes. This is where science fiction is realized, and it's all so normal. The workers here are some of the smartest people in the world doing some of the most challenging and important work in the world, but they seem like true workers in the grandest human sense of the word, the kinds of men and women otherwise seen with sleeves rolled up on wartime propaganda posters. Together we can do it! Keep 'em firing!

Read the rest here.