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"At times reaching for the stars means you need the will of a nation, at times you need a large rocket, and sometimes you just need open eyes."

29 Oct 2005 "Mars in the Sunroof"

I've just left my old hometown, which sits "way up" at 39 degrees North latitude, for a return to Texas. The still pre-dawn skies of rural Missouri form a vivid dark arch through tinted safety glass. To my left, a brilliant orb just crests the rubber gasket border above my head. On the right, a three day old cresent Moon forms the opposite border. The familiar stars of Orion, Gemini, and Taurus, plus the bright orb of Saturn, all flow between these two large and inspiring members of our solar neighborhood. The Summer spectacles have receeded from the evening sky, and the Autumn mornings now seem to have the market on bright nearby wonders. Mars will always hold us in wonder; we've just had too many years of hoped-for Martians and tantalizingly close robot encounters, and we want to see more. The scene above me as I drive south in the early early morning makes it easy to get all mushy and sentimental after this visit.

While back home, I toured the little known Morrison Observatory at Central Methodist College in tiny Fayette, Missouri. They have an historic 12 inch Clark refractor circa 1875, which made the first recorded studies of Jupiter's Great Red Spot. http://www.ruralmissouri.org/Octobservatory.html Even in a small school, in the vast grain fields of the Midwest, young astronomy tudents are marveling at the cosmos through a beautiful Victorian-era optical system.

As for my contribution, I brought the little Orion refractor along, and thanks to a nice weather pattern, have had some of the best views ever of this Mars apparition through the small scope. Also got the neighbor kids (8 and 5) out tonight for some double stars and Mars. Here I am, on the same street where my late father first taught me the names of the stars, helping get the next generation of astronomers going. For the record, the Chairman of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association also lives on this street: must be a good place for starwatchers.

Mars' two year orbit means we always have to wait for his next shining apparition. The much-hyped closest approach in human history seems longer than two years ago, yet I still marvel at what a few ten of millions of kilometers can do for a backyard telescope. Of course, like any similar planetary opposition (meaning opposite side of the Earth from the Sun), he's shining with a bright and expressive face. This week has brought us several dust storms raging across the surface, one of which may be caught by Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. Lots of telescope time, especially by amatuers with digital imagers, is being tallied against the only planet besides our own where we can actually see the ground! I'm sure happy to be one of them.

-- JW

28 Sep 2005 "NASA Administrator says Space Shuttle = Bad Move"

-- In USA Today, NASA administrator Dr. Michael Griffin says the Space Shuttle, as well as the International Space Station, were mistakes. He goes on to note how NASA commonly accepts that this was not the right path." --

My gut reaction upon hearing Dr Griffin's words - to use a favorite 1970 term - "Right On!"

My favorite quote from astronaut Michael Collins (I believe he says this in the 1980s PBS series "Spaceflight") sums it all up for me: "What was going to the Moon about? It was about leaving!" And what has the Shuttle progran been about? Staying. From an inspiration standpoint, low Earth orbit is boring, boring, boring. The Shuttle is a very high flying cargo plane. I can tell you from 7 years of working the air mobility business in the Air Force, no one gets excited about transportation. As we know, getting out of Earth's gravity well is pricey, pricey, pricey. Our leaders deliberately squashed an expensive infrastructure, built for what was after all a political decision, based on the politics of the day. They replaced the highly flexible capability of Saturn-Apollo with a system which could not leave, thus strapping us to the Earth for 30 years. We got a compromise spacecraft design, with partly reusable pieces, and a vehicle carrying its dead weight main engines to orbit... and pieces of junk falling and endangering the crews <sigh>. Yeah, I've been sore about this since I was 12 years old.

It's somewhat late to say you're sorry, at least for a lot of folks who were inspired by NASA as kids, only to find the agency turning into a huge, bureaucratic, uninspired, government clone as we grew up alongside them. And after crews lives have been lost twice. Throughout the lean years, I never lost hope, but they sure didn't hurry much about fixing the process until now.

But, thank you for saying what we've all felt. You go, Dr Griffin.

-- JW

25 Sep 2005 "Book Review"

Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, by Andrew Smith, ISBN: 0747563683

With many Apollo-aged astronauts having recently published biographies, and the last full treatment of all the Moonwalkers being 15 years old, I suppose Smith's book was inevitable. The author is an American-born Englishman my same age, so he has much of the same pre-teen recollection of the moon landings - with a bit of British journalism savvy thrown into the mix. Smith makes a few factual errors, but the strength of this work not in the realm of fact and flight data. He is after the Moonwalker's feelings, impressions, and he wants "what-it-was-like" answers. In the case of Al Bean or Ed Mitchell, the somewhat more enlightened views of an artist or New-Ager seem well targeted. However, in the case of a more selective, factually-based fellow like Neil Armstrong or Jack Schmitt, the approach is necessarily less successful. After thousands of talks, interviews and speaking engagements, any author has a tough time pulling good bits from a retired astronaut's brain. All of these men are 70 years or older now, any I don't mean to imply theor memories are becoming foggy, but any recollection or feeling associated with their unique experience is bound to have already taken place. Not many revalations to be had. But, since I have met just three of these Moon Men, I'm always happy to hear their words, and any impressions people have of them. That includes the uglier parts. Smith mentions how several of these men had difficult mental, alchol, family, and relationship troubles, as well as business deals won and lost. Any superlative person, improperly painted with a white-scarf heroic aviator brush, is simply not going to match that image. I don't think Mr Smith was out to smear or "air out" anything here, I think he just really wanted to know how these guys turned out years after performing a very unique job.

So, as a gut-feeler, Smith tries to give us a blow-by-blow impression of what he's sensing during each discussion; how does the astronaut react, express, shift in his seat? I even found myself comparing him to TV journalist Peter Arnett in Gulf War I, when editorialists questioned his sense-and-feel approach to reporting. If he tells you about a former spaceman's thick glasses, smaller stooped stature, and non-stop intellectual ramblings, it's simply because that's the picture before him in the interviewee's seat.

He spends some time explaining why in such a small group of people, half could turn out much differently from one another. This is the notable left seat/right seat effect - that being the mission Commander's crew position versus the Lunar Module Pilot's role. The effect describes the mission mindset of the pairs of men who landed and walked on the Moon. The CDR did the actual lunar flying, and was the onboard decision-maker. This head guy was busy with executive decisions, and meeting mission goals and schedules, while his colleague had more time to ponder. That's the analysis of why LMPs tended toward non-tradtional roles, after being influenced by their deep space voyage on a higher or more spiritual level.

Mr Smith's non-fiction "subplot" is tying in his own recollections of the period - his boyhood home, friends, memories alongside the astronaut interviews. While it sets his reference points for us, I didn't find his stories or thoughts any more revealing or poignent that anyone elses I've shared over the years. Like him, I've noted when these guys were my age, they'd already commanded an expedition to the Moon. The significance of such weighty, high-risk, heavy burdens aren't lost on me. I was a military officer, but have nothing in my resume that could remotely approach that level of over-achiever job performance!

It's tough to wrangle some of these aging spacemen into a modern portrait. Kind of hard to chose to remain a famous ex-astronaut - they're pretty much stuck with that. I think we as U.S. taxpayers generally got our money's worth from their service. Many made a standard military or civil service salary, so it's hard to fault them for using their celebrity still, to earn a living or seek some more time in the public light. Others moved on to other pursuits, and remain quite careful about who they speak with and why. I think this is why so many of us are waiting for Neil Armstrong's long-awaited biography later this year.

-- JW


9 Sep 2005 "Run and Gun, Sun" (NEVER look at the Sun without proper filters for your eyes, telescope, or binoculars!)

Wow, our primary star - Ol' Sol, our Sun, has been putting on a show this week. We've experienced some of the most impressive space weather in 15 years. The Sun's outer layers have kicked off some energetic pieces, which come hurtling through our solar system. When these charged-up particles hit our atmosphere, they give off stuff like gas, electrons, visible light, ultraviolet light and X-rays, which do all sorts of things: cool and uncool. The most famous effect is of course the lovely Aurora Borealis and Austrialis (Northern and Southern Lights). The least famous effect is the way these flares indirectly mess with satellite and long high-frequency radio communications. Long wave radio leaps great distances by bouncing off the ionosphere, and if those ions are being horsed-around by other ionized particles from the Sun, well, it messes up those radio waves.

So, what's causing this? Mostly a big ol' monster of a sunspot - identified, like all sunspots, with a number: 798. If you've ever wanted to get a solar filter for your telescope, this is a great week to do so, because this guy is huge. About 10 planet Earths could fit in the dark pocket, whci his really just a slightly cooler area of the Sun. The Sun's magnetic field moves around, pulling and pushing around the surface, and sometimes it inhibits fresh hot gassy stuff from replenishing itself. This makes a slightly cooler area (relatively, they're still around 6000-7000 degrees F). So, if you want to see the cause of all this solar mischief, have a look at the big dark feature currently rotating into view on the Sun's eastern edge.

-- JW

5 Sep 2005 "The View From Husband Hill"

Mars has truly become a place. Not an abstract object or distant world, but somewhere we can be. We've imagined ourselves there for centuries, yet the folks at JPL and NASA still know when a well-timed, well-constructed image can really perform that illusive task of placing us there. The past week we've been marvelling at a panaorma taken by the hardy and intrepid Mars Exploration Rover "Spirit." Atop a small mountain, named for Space Shuttle Columbia's final commander, the robot's eyes look out over a beautful ocre-colored desert. Before us are a jumble of rocks, jutting darkly among the windblown dustpiles. The horizon is rich with ridges, outcroppings, dunes, and distant places. All around are signs of weather, sun, and bright albedo lit from our nearby star. We see from whence we came: the rover's own tire tracks, interrupted into individual patches by small stones and uneven ground, remind me of the famous ribbed-tread footprints of the Apollo astronauts.

I can really place myself in this scene. Is it because it is so familiar? Were it not for the lack of vegetation, I can almost imagine this is the Sonoran Desert of the U.S. southwest. Does the fact this is a vista, well above the surrounding plain, make it an achievement, a goal attained? It is so human a thought as "climbing a mountain because it is there?" Getting up and taking a good look around is a very human thing, and fortunately our robots are good at mimmicking just that sort of action. We have a number of games, cliches and sayings that involve getting to the top. I think this is what makes it a wonderful picture: it's what you and I want to do - what we would do - if we exchanged places with the robot. Let's hope the next few years allow us to take a few steps closer to that goal.

-- JW

24 Aug 2005 "Return to Fright"

The crew of STS-114 Discovery has been home a week or so, and continues to receive some well-deserved adulation from many around the world. This crew flew an important mission, under tougher-than-average conditions, and in a way that merits sincere congratulations. Surprisingly, they remain in the news - which most would consider a rarity in this manned program. Cynics claim no one pays attention to rocket launches unless they're anticipating another disaster. While I try to view these events with less jaded eyes, and some greater enthisiasm, it's hard not to get frustrated. What seems most notable to me, is how traditional journalists resolutely keep raining doom foam! In the last few NASA news conferences, folks have been going round the same hack questions, and trying to pin down a newly promoted Director of Manned Spaceflight on complex flight scheduling matters for the next mission. March 2006 is a planning target, not a deadline. I kept wanting to yell down the reporters: "We'll fly when we're ready, doggone it!" The phasing of a space launch, especially under constraints of daylight only and space station rendezvous capable, offer the mission builders a lot less flexibility. Some critics are accusing NASA of rushing back to orbit before really fixing all the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's recommendations, and repeating the error of being hastey in shooting for a March 2006 projected lanch date. It's just plain difficult to make all the moving parts fit: getting huge numbers of flight components, crew training, evaluations, tests & retests, and trying to make certain all the layers of management know what's what. Ultimately, the flight test business is a lot of very good, calculated guessing. March is a current best guess. And those guesses will always to some degree bet the lives of the crew. The whole business of leaving our atmosphere on a flame is an unnatural and dangerous act, and yet many of us see very good reasons for doing so. If we're really going after a few new frontiers, we have to be willing to take a few dares.

Too few people realize the complexity of spaceflight, any type of spaceflight, myself included. Yes, I spent a lot of time in an air & space service, and around the aviation community, and I've loved the idea of space travel my whole life. But I'd quickly fall on my head if given any of the many Return-to-Fly Phase II tasks NASA has ahead of it. It's hard not to chuckle at NASA Administrator Griffin's recent comments that we won't be designing any more spaceships that will let anything fall on the crew! As the Shuttle's stages are in parallel, rather than below the Orbiter - or directly under the spacecraft as in Apollo - the crew sits right in the path of anything that might go wrong. Newer designs plan to use a tower-mounted escape rocket, which can pull the crew vehcile off the booster stack in case things go badly underneath them. Ultimately, no one can ever make guarantees about the safety of the crew and the vehicle - only reduce risk. The balance of safety to boldness is a millenia old arguement faced by most civilizations. Someone has to be willing to make the journey, placing themselves and their crews in danger, in order to reach over the next horizon.

-- JW

2 Aug 2005 "The Way Back to the Moon"

As the much-heralded Return to Flight mission of Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery carries on 220 miles above, NASA has released the preliminary concept of operations for their grand new Presidential mandate of going back to the Moon. For us Apollo fans, it looks pretty familiar. The current idea uses two spaceships: a lunar version of the new next generation manned spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV); and a lunar lander sitting on four spidery legs. This is pretty much a repeat of 35 years ago. The new twist is that these spacecraft will launch on two seperate rockets, rather than the single large Saturn booster. This too is a repeat! In 1961, NASA was in the midst of a great debate on what engineers called "the mode." This was a basic decision about how we would get to the Moon, which drove all other factors of designing and building rockets and spaceships. There were three choices: Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR); Direct Ascent (DA); and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR). In EOR, you would launch multiple rockets, each carrying a component of the spaceship - a crew module, a booster rocket, a landing stage, a supply ship, and so forth. Astronauts would link the pieces together around Earth, then take the whole assembly to the Moon. In DA, you took everything you needed on a single huge rocket, and landed the entire spaceship on the Moon. The eventual choice was LOR: take two smaller ships launched on a large rocket, fly them to the Moon together, and then one makes the landing while the other stays in orbit. The difficult portion, from which this mode took its name, was then getting the two ships back together in orbit around the Moon, very far from Earth. Of course, after 7 of the 9 flights to the Moon successfully used this method (I'm not counting Apollo 13's use of the Lunar Module as a lifeboat, nor Apollo 8 which had no LM), it seems LOR was a good choice. So, for the coming decade, we don't have any really heavy lift booster like the Saturn V, and must use existing medium lift boosters, or newer designs made from modified Space Shuttle components. We end up with a combination of EOR and LOR for getting us back to the Moon sometime in the next 10-20 years.

Part of me is enthused about a reheated version of a successful method - Apollo, you did so good, we'll issue new copies! A leading CEV design is a cone-shaped capsule with a service module behind it and an escape rocket on a tower above it. This time it will seat twice as many astronauts (six), and maybe have a real toilet! And the lunar lander may use old space station parts sitting on a new landing stage that looks a lot like the last landing stage. Well heck, a whole bunch of folks tried to say that in 1975: good idea, use what works. Yes, NASA was told it was the Shuttle or nothing back then. The bad call, lamented by the space geek community for decades, was tossing out the old stuff to make room for the new stuff! Rather than keep elements of flight-tested, over-engineered spaceships and boosters such as the Saturn family, NASA opted to go in new directions. Some hardware and design material went to the scrap pile, some to museums, and some stayed in the minds of the NASA team. But lofty aims of economical spaceflight which toss out previously successful models also take a big risk. Maybe the first 40-50 years of spacelfight will always be considered a prolonged flight test program. It's tough, expensive, and dangerous. Or maybe we've taken one lenghty wrong turn.

Emotionally, gloatingly, what I'm really saying is: IN YOUR FACE, SPACE SHUTTLE, Apollo won!! For 25 years NASA has been trying to make a major compromise spacraft work, and unfortunately has lost two crews in the process. Was the Shuttle the best NASA could do under the circumstances 30 years ago? Were the strap-on solid boosters a very dodgy compromise in safety and performance in a manned spacecraft? Was a huge gas tank attached to the Orbiter the only way to make things fit, rather than placing the second stage underneath and away from the crew? I realize many people made very tough decisions on how to build a next generation spaceship, under many pressures and reduced funding. And yet, it sure seems NASA is saying that changable disposable modules, rather than a partly-reusable system, will work best for sending people into space - especially deep space. The Russians have been gloating about a 40 year old Soyuz which still provides excellent service, despite being small and cramped.

Alright, enough perfect hindsight, although I was thinking the same thing as a teenager in 1975. Let's get on with fixing the big picture problem of getting back out there.

-- JW

11 Jul 2005 "A Whiff of Mission Control"

Three simple words that wouldn’t seem enough to encompass a dream come true:  “Level Nine Tour.”  Today fulfilled one of those space enthusiast milestones that we all hope to experience.  Our small group of just 12 lucky daily ticket holders walked across the creaky, often polished floorboards on the third floor of monolithic Johnson Space Center Building 30 and entered THE ROOM.  For a short quarter hour, we took in the experience that is "Historic Mission Control. " THE ROOM…" the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR).  Space history was daily made on these worn carpets, at these pea-green metal consoles, in front of these huge rear projection screens.  We practically raced around the consoles, marveling at the mission emblems beginning at Gemini IV, through the Apollo voyages, to Skylab, and ending with a decade worth of Shuttle missions.  The digital camera was clicking at maximum speed, and no one missed the opportunity to have his or her photo taken in the Flight Director’s seat!  I was on the far side of “Holy Crap I’m standing in Mission Control,” when I suddenly stopped and closed my eyes.  I took a deep breath through my nose.  Here is the stale sweetness of tobacco; the musk of aging fiber and tile; the slight scorch of ozone from decades old electronics; and maybe even a hint of thousands of cups of coffee.   All around me are historic images of telemetry data, Saturn V launches, moonwalks, and the curtained viewing gallery where the famous and important watched the action.  And yet, the consoles are empty.  The rows are devoid of headset cables, styrofoam cups, slide rules, and endless piles of NASA manuals.  The men and women who ran the whole show, to the Moon and back, are long gone.  And suddenly a little whiff puts in me back in their company.  Maybe Gene Kranz is asking the “Trench” for a quick assessment; over there EECOM is tapping on his console; perhaps up the tier Recovery is frowning over a weather report.  Here were long tedious hours hunched over blurry monochrome displays, and thunderous cheers punctuated with lit cigars when mission crews stepped onto the deck of an aircraft carrier after a half million mile trip.  Here the dream of our civilization took place.  From a windowless, white stone cube on a flat piece of east Texas, a unique team watched over Moon Men in their Moonships.

The NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) visitor’s center, appropriately named Space Center Houston, can let you walk in the footsteps of these MOCR heroes.  If you want to see some of manned spaceflight’s most awesome sights, and experience the inside of a true space center, then sign up for one of just 12 seats, three times a week.  For someone raised on, enamored of, or just plain seriously interested in NASA history – this is Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket.

5 Apr 2005 "The Busy Texas Skies"

The night sky is dark and brilliant with stars on our small neighborhood hilltop. I unfold the tripod legs, and settle the telescope on the concrete. Jupiter and Saturn ride high and glowing, and the smell of new hardwood mulch rides the breeze over the garden. As I settle on the chair and start to swing toward the Great Ringed Planet riding nearly at zenith, an unmistakably strong breeze pushes the standing telescope rig into a wiggle. I stare up from the eyepiece, and the skies begin a tour of force. A great rimmed white wall begins sliding rapidly from the west... it is low and growling; a smooth racing face followed closely by a churning boil of darkness. A few flashbulbs of lightning burst from inside the plumes of grey. Inwardly, I curse the weather for starting to ruin my precious observing time, but the amateur scientist in my is watching the advancing energy in the atmosphere with fascination.

The storm cell is now erasing the dark sky at incredible speed - my rough caluculation suggests the rate is over 120 knots - and suddenly Saturn disappears under the murk. Everything above becomes a low, uniform grey. The eastern and western horizons now flash with electric bursts every few seconds, and oddly overhead is still a smooth uniform cloud sheet. What seems like only minutes pass as the trailing edge begins to reach the western horizon. The ragged back of the storm buldges with faces, shapes, wings... sinister forms that threaten to leap to the ground. Now the black sky regains itself at the same blinding speed, and the tempests roll over me with only threats.

My watch claims only 20 minutes have passed since the first wall of white leapt over the ridgeline on my western horizon. The black void reappears with bright pebbles of starlight. In an instant, the empty skies are full! Points of blinking light begin filling each horizon... the low roar of jet engines pierces the quiet hills. Small pairs and quads of wingtip lights are now transiting, circling, and breaking into long slow turns. The Air Force guy in me know these are pilot trainees from Randolph Air Force Base in the latter stages of instruction - the challenging night formation flying tasks. The kid in me is in awe of young men and women moving overhead, sweating through many layers of fire-resistant gear, trying to keep precise intervals between themselves and their wingmen. I'm hoping the rapid weather system hasn't caused them too much worry; I only have to look at it.

The Texas skies are again full with the planets and stars, and young wings of freedom.

-- JW

13 Mar 2005 "Satellite Radio: Been There... in 1991"

I saw some folks chatting about the coolness factor of the new satellite radio systems. You know, the ones which let you listen to commercial-free music, sports, talk from Earth orbit, with a small receiver which may be mounted in a home, vehicle, or even carried? Isn't the idea of listening to a disk jockey in London, giving you some juicy gossip on your favorite band -- and you are sitting in Texas -- just about cosmic? Sure, but I'm less excited about it than some. When I lived in Germany in the early 1990s, we lived too far from an English speaking over-the-air television signal. However, many expat Anglophones were exploring a new technology: a small (1 meter) satellite receiver dish system which provided many English language program services. Of course, the U.S. was also 10 years behind Europe in receiving small dish TV service. But the service provided something else I hadn't expected: radio. Streaming down from geosynchronous orbit was a stream of British Alternative Rock, the usual pop, jazz, and even country and western styles. Many evenings I would sit with a hot cuppa (tea), looking out at a cold, rainy European winter night, and know that a British radio personality was wrapping up a late shift in London -- and his words came to me via a 72000 km (44000 mile) journey through space.

I'm not touting the techno-benefits of one country or another, or even trying to press the point that Europe is doing well on the technology front (witness the successful Huygens probe to Titan earlier this year). I'm just noting that many ideas which seem new actually may have been slightly ahead of their time. Even now, I'm still impressed with the idea of direct satellite reception. It was one of those cool 21st Century things we expected to see. But I guess like many space geeks around the planet, we found it much less of a surprise.

-- JW

13 Feb 2005 "The Plutonian Space Dirt Trail"

Just heard a great presentation on the NASA "New Horizons" mission. Where's this one headed? Only the last place we haven't visited - that is, the only major Solar System waypoint not yet passed by an Earth-made robot: Pluto. Yes, the cold world at the far edge, and the only planet discovered by a United Statesian, Mr Clyde Tombaugh, in 1930. Pluto is actually the only known binary planet in the immediate neighborhood, as it's moon Charon (pronounced "Karen") is half the size of Pluto; plus, both orbit a common gravitational epicenter, rather than the moon going around Pluto like a traditional satellite. You may be aware of the debate on whether Pluto should remain classified a planet, since it is the largest currently known member of a whole bunch of solar system construction leftovers: Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO). This is a ring of chunky rock and ice planetesimals (little planets). At least two other cataloged KBOs are more or less spherical, meaning they were big enough for gravity to form that natural shape. Being round and orbiting the Sun are two big planet characteristics, so the discussions continue as to whether we reclassify Pluto, or grandfather his planetary title. Well, we've got 11 years from now to worry about such matters, because even if NASA makes the January 2006 launch date, and the booster gets the probe going the expected 14km/second velocity, it will take that long to rendezvous with the Pluto system.

So, some Texas-based engineers are building some incredible scientific instruments for this New Horizons probe to carry to the far reaches, but I gotta say I was really impressed by one instrument designed by some students. The back of the probe has the big high-gain antenna dish, which will stay reasonably protected and aimed back home at the sensitive ears of the Deep Space Network. The leading edge of the spacecraft has a big sensor plate, with an attached counter, that will be collecting hits from... dust! Yes, we're counting how many times a tiny chunk of fast-moving space dirt hits the bumper--and doing it for 10 years (!) on the way to the edge of the cosmic neighborhood. Is that wild or what? We really don't know the distribution of dirt on the Solar System! Does it clump near the gravity wells or resonant zones out there around the gas giant planets? Does it get wiffled-around in little eddies by the charged flow of solar wind streaming from the Sun? Are we just bored enough in such a vast region that we'll count the only thing we can find: Interplanetary Dust Bunnies?! Seriously, this is really great science, because we simply haven't had a chance to get this comprehensive a sample of space dust... but I can't help feel a little sad for this robot, zooming through the empty reaches, just barely keeping warm enough with his little nuclear reactor, and only waking up once in a while to count the specks in the wind.

-- JW

4 Jan 2005 "Happy Birthday Anyway, Mars Rovers"

Last year in this forum I really went off about how the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER), Spirit and Opportunity, just didn't get the space geek in my soul very excited. "Mars Needs Drivers!" is what I shouted. As these admittedly marvelous robots pan their big-eyed cameras around an incredibly complex and marvelous world, articulated arms waving, rock drills whirring, and sensor arrays scanning... and yes, leaving those radical red dust donuts in the soil... well, I said we were all missing the human element. I mean, where was the obvious presence, the freeze frame video moment, the face-in-the-lens thing?

Alright, my bad, these machines have done way more than anyone dared imagine. We got 365 days - on Mars, the Great Ghoul and Eater of Space Probes. Not all of them productive mission days mind you, what with all the troubles at first with constant reboots and boogy airbags in the driveway. And I'll never forget the words of NASA Admninistrator (yeah, he's leaving this year, and I reckon some are pleased he is) last year noting how a single human astronaut could have done one Rover's 90 day robot geology mission in a single man-day. Yes, and it would have been at 100 times the cost for every kilometer flown - or some such scary figure - but in the back of my admittedly optimistic head, "On to Mars" is not just a dumb NASA t-shirt slogan. It's a call for really getting energized, on as much a national scale as we can scrape together. As a semi-realist, I note we haven't managed to budge past some new patches, and a few subcontracts for new manned hardware proposals. I know how long national governments can take when they want to do something, and I know how awful a bureacracy NASA can be if they aren't trying very hard. This not quite a year old exploration initiative just needs to live a while longer.

Robot explorers - you're fabulous, Baby. Really. No competition. I just want to witness the first steps on Mars on live TV (well, light speed delayed of course), then see some astronauts drive the rovers themselves. C'mon. Hurry up.

  -- JW

"The Lighter Side of Going to the Moon"