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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

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• Jan. 16, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Your vote on space visions: "It's about damn time!" ... "This is the biggest waste of taxpayer money I've ever heard of!" ... There's no shortage of exclamation points in the e-mail reactions to President Bush's plan to send humans back to the moon and beyond.

Most of the hundreds of e-mails I've received since Wednesday could be summed up in just those terms: "It's about time!" or "What a waste!" But there were some unexpected perspectives as well. You'll find a healthy sampling in the latest feedback file, and if you're dying for more observations, check out NASA Watch's feedback file as well.

NASA Watch's editor, Keith Cowing, also has co-written a series of behind-the-scenes stories for United Press International on how Bush and NASA got to where they are. Here are Part 1 and Part 2.

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Will the plan fly? That depends on whom — and how — you ask: The Associated Press' survey indicates popular support for the idea is tepid at best. And if you ever wanted proof that our online Live Votes are thoroughly unscientific, you need look no further than the thumbs-up contained in the main news story vs. the thumbs-down in this Newsweek story.

If you're looking for fun facts on past lunar missions, former MSNBC.com colleague Alan Taylor has put together just the thing:

"With all of the talk about returning to the moon, I wondered just exactly what we (as humans) have done to date, and could not find a really satisfactory resource, so I compiled my own, called 'To the Moon: Our Journeys to Luna (and Back)'"

"I learned a lot by compiling this, like the fact that humans have sent 105 missions to the moon (only 46 successful), or that turtles reached the moon before men, or that Russia's Lunokhod 1 rover operated on the moon for nearly a full year, or that there are 19 intact spacecraft sitting on the lunar surface (including five rovers — three U.S. and two Russian). Anyhow, you may already know most of this, but I had fun putting this together. It's also sortable by country, success, fate and some other definitions."

Finally, a not-so-fun fact: Today marks the anniversary of the shuttle Columbia's final launch. Check out this   "Today" show video for a review of NASA's turnaround, and brace yourself for soul-searching retrospectives on the Columbia tragedy.

• Jan. 16, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Send your name to a comet: Remember those mini-DVDs that were sent to Mars with the code for more than 3.5 million names burned into them? One landed on Mars with the Spirit rover, and another will be arriving in eight days aboard Opportunity, Spirit's twin. Anyway, we had a letter from Ron and Kathy Fontaine asking whether there was still a chance to send their names on a spacecraft — and Elizabeth Warner, co-curator of the Web site for NASA's Deep Impact mission to a comet, responded thusly:

"Was just going through the Cosmic Log (hoping to find any other hints for the Mars DVD code!) and saw someone's question about submitting their name for the Mars DVD ... well, it's a done deal, as you noted, for the current mission, and you mentioned a future Mars mission, but were you aware of the NASA Discovery mission Deep Impact's campaign to 'Send Your Name to a Comet'?"

"We are collecting names to put on a disk that will be placed on our impactor. The impactor will hit Comet 9P/Tempel 1 in July 2005. The impactor (and disk) will be destroyed in the impact, but the crater it excavates will gives a good view inside a comet, hopefully answering questions about cometary structure and composition, and some of those answers will also lead to answers about the formation of the Solar System.

"Details about the mission are at deepimpact.umd.edu (or deepimpact.jpl.nasa.gov). The campaign ends on 31 Jan 2004!!

"Finally, readers can subscribe to the monthly mission newsletter at http://deepimpact.umd.edu/newsletter/signup.html."

• Jan. 16, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
 N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Life (and death) on Mars
 The Economist: Moon pie in the sky
 Wired.com: Sci-fi scribes like Mars plan
"Nova" on PBS: "Secrets of the Crocodile Caves"

• Jan. 15, 2004 | 11:45 p.m. ET
Old West tale in trouble: Did Billy the Kid hatch a plot with his nemesis, Sheriff Pat Garrett, to fake the outlaw's death in 1881? That's exactly the story that 72-year-old Homer Overton claims he was told by Garrett's widow, according to a sworn affidavit.

It definitely makes for a good Western tale — but Trish Saunders, co-founder of the Billy the Kid Historic Preservation Society, says she just doesn't buy it.

"That is completely bogus," she told MSNBC.com today, "because the story says that Mrs. Garrett told him that in 1940. Well, she died in 1936, which would make that boy 5 years old, at the very oldest, at the time she was living.

"I find it really hard to believe that Mrs. Garrett would reveal such a stupendous, historic secret to a little child of 5."

The dispute over Overton's tale is the latest twist in a 21st-century Old West saga that just won't quit. It's hard to boil down the whole tale to one or two sentences — we've published five chapters so far. But basically, three New Mexico lawmen are citing Overton's story in their effort to exhume the purported remains of the Kid's mother, Catherine Antrim, for DNA sampling. The trio says genetic testing could show whether there's anything to claims that Garrett may have shot the wrong man.

Opponents of the exhumation — including the mayor of Silver City, N.M., where the late Mrs. Antrim is said to be buried — insist there's already ample proof that the outlaw was really shot and buried 123 years ago. Digging up the dead would merely turn the city's cemetery into grounds for a publicity circus, the opponents say.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Jan. 27, and Overton's affidavit will most likely be contested in court at that time. Today, Saunders provided a preview of what the lawmen might face.

"If this is the kind of evidence that's being presented as justification for exhuming Billy the Kid and his mother, we can only hope the presiding judge will reject this claim as complete nonsense," she wrote in a news release. "This would all be funny, but there's so much at stake here. We can't sit back and let priceless landmarks be ruined based on such flimsy 'secrets' that can only be solved by exhuming long-dead corpses of famous Westerners. Who will be next: Wild Bill Hickok?"

• Jan. 15, 2004 | 11:45 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
 Discovery.com: Titanic menu reveals last lunch 
 Scientific American: Doping by design
 BBC: Fossil embryos delight scientists
 Defense Tech: Moon base? Old news

• Jan. 14, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Another space frontier: While President Bush was unveiling his 2020 vision for space exploration, Space Adventures' president and chief executive officer was pursuing his own vision for the future on the other side of the world.

Eric Anderson, whose Virginia-based company has helped send millionaires Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth to the international space station, is traveling around Australia in search of sites for a future suborbital spaceport. A decision on where to build the private space facility would come "definitely this year," he told MSNBC.com.

One of Space Adventures' partners in the embryonic suborbital travel business is Russia's Myasishchev Design Bureau, which is developing the Cosmopolis XXI suborbital spaceflight system, or C-21. Anderson explained that Down Under is a particularly good place to launch the C-21, due to a bilateral agreement between the Australian government and the Russian Aviation and Space Agency.

"What it did was, it outlined a technology transfer framework in which Russian vehicles can be launched here with a minimal amount of additional regulation," he said. Government regulation has been the biggest bugaboo for Anderson and others trying to turn suborbital flight into a profitable business.

NASA regulations complicated the preparations for Tito's flight, the first time the space station took on a paying passenger. So what does Anderson think about NASA's new direction?

"I think it's fantastic," he said. "Perhaps there will be an even greater emphasis on commercialization activities on the space station, post-2010."

Free video
Bush announces moon program
Jan. 14: NBC's Bob Hager reports on President Bush's vision for America's return to the moon.
2010 is when NASA expects to end its role in space station construction, retire the space shuttle fleet and turn its attention full-bore to destinations beyond Earth orbit. If NASA reduces its space station activities, that could make more room for guests who are willing to pay millions of dollars to see the world from 250 miles above.

But Anderson isn't just thinking about future business opportunities.

"It's exciting," he said of the space initiative. "It really does have the ability to rally people. If there is one thing that can be said about President Bush, it's that when he says something he certainly does everything he can to make it happen. People may agree or disagree, but he doesn't waver."

In the nearer term, Anderson is following up on deals to send passengers to the space station aboard Russian spacecraft late this year and next year. Space Adventures hasn't yet released the names of the two would-be space tourists. "We're closer, but we're not ready yet," he said. He also said there's growing interest in future spaceflight opportunities.

"With the fact that space has been in the news so much recently, with the Mars rovers and the policy, and the fact that the economy has been turning around ... I think that there are a lot of people who are thinking that it's the right time to start doing things like this."

• Jan. 14, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:
 Oakland Tribune: Researchers find Big Bang-style quarks 
 Nature: Glimpse of a new type of matter
 New Scientist: Why it's good to be disgusted
 The Onion: What difficulties do Mars rover scientists face?

• Jan. 13, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Space view dimmed: The good news is that the air pressure loss aboard the international space station has stopped, indicating that astronauts were correct on Sunday when they traced the problem to a hissing air hose attached to a window in the Destiny laboratory module.

The bad news is that in the process of stopping up the leak, the window has fogged over, spoiling the astronauts' best view of Earth, according to NBC News space analyst James Oberg. "This is preventing high-quality imaging of Earth surface targets," Oberg writes. "If it is not reversed, it will be a major loss for science operations."

The hose served to equalize pressures between the window's panes and remove condensation. Using an ultrasound listening device, station commander Michael Foale heard the hose hissing on Sunday.

Image: Window and hose
NASA
In a February 2001 photo, space station astronaut Sergei Krikalev peers out the Destiny module's optical-quality window. The U-shaped "flex hose" is visible above his head. The air leak is thought to be located where the hose joins the metal connection fitting.

"The leak was stopped by removing the cable [hose] and capping the two ports that it had connected. ... Apparently as a result, moist air seeping through a seal between the two panes is obscuring the window," Oberg writes.

A replacement hose will be sent up to the station on an unmanned Progress cargo ship due for launch Jan. 29 from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. In the meantime, station managers have decided to go ahead and close off the hatches between modules this weekend, just to make sure they've really caught the leak. That means Foale and his Russian shipmate, Alexander Kaleri, will be confined to the Zvezda service module for a couple of days.

No one yet knows what caused the leak, but there's some suspicion that the hose could have been used as a handhold just a little too often.

• Jan. 13, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Way cool stuff on the Web:
 Master of None: Watch Sony's dancing robots (via GeekPress
 NASA: Handcrafted watches run on Mars time
 Wired.com: Gadget jacket charged up by the sun
 Logarithmic maps of the universe (via Slashdot)

• Jan. 12, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Your space visions: Is it a good idea to go back to the moon, build a permanent base there and use it as a launching pad to Mars and the rest of the cosmos? And even if it is a good idea, will it get any political traction, or will it be consigned to the congressional scrapheap? Although President Bush hasn't yet shared his space vision, his aides are talking — and so are the pollsters.

In contrast to polls indicating that the nays are in the majority, there are more yea votes (and "yay" votes) in the Cosmic Log mailbox, which would lighten NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's heart. What follows is a selection of the feedback — as well as a thoroughly unscientific Live Vote that lets you register your opinion.

After Bush makes his own version of the Kennedyesque "We Choose to Go to the Moon" speech on Wednesday, let me know what you think — especially if you've changed your opinion. (By the way, The Space Review has an excellent primer on what the Democratic presidential candidates think about outer space.)

Dennis McClain-Furmanski, New Haven, Conn.: “I’m sorry, but he can announce anything he likes, and it's not going to make a bit of difference unless and until Congress not only votes on it, but approves the appropriations. Bush Jr. is doing nothing more than Bush Sr. did, playing election-year politics by making big claims he has no intention of following through on. And as pro-space as I am, I can't foresee supporting an effort like this in the face of a trillion-dollar deficit. If that's not taken care of, a future president would be forced to play bad guy to Bush's pretend good guy, and cancel the program until we can reasonably afford it.”

Robert Wilton Dale: “I love this. They talk of reality, but fail to see where the profit lies in going back to the moon. This is one long-term loan that will return a profit and then some. The airheads who say we only gleaned Tang from our last moon program better do some real homework in the medical, mineral and Earth science learned. Small minds beget small goals. Our whole future depends on what we do for Earth from space commerce. The clock is ticking, people.”

Steve Ferreira, Brookfield, Ill.: “I believe in sending people back to the moon. I was not old enough to enjoy the excitement of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon. Now, being 33 years old, I would love to see men and women walk on the moon once again. I believe that missions like this are an inspiration to the youth of our great country. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

Don Smith, Tulsa, Okla.:
“I think that it's about time! The United States has had Congress and corporations engorging themselves while they deal away an American future that could last for eons. This is a priceless heritage, and I want to see it happening.”

Joshua W. Murcray: “I am a fan of anything dealing with space exploration. However, I do have one problem. I hear a lot about the study or the search for other life in the cosmos. I hear and read about the astronomical amount of money that we, as humans, are shelling out in order to fund this research. Meanwhile, here on Earth, our resources are dwindling. Our population is spreading faster than the fires that hit Southern California recently. For years now, governments have spoken of colonizing the moon or Mars as a means to helping lower the drain on Earth’s resources. … My question is, why are we spending so much money on searching for signs of previous life on a dead planet when we should be spending the money on finding quicker ways to colonize the moon and Mars?  I do not believe that it used to hold life, but that the planet was created specifically for us to begin the process to make the planet habitable.”

Rich Richardson, San Juan, Puerto Rico: “If bone density thinning is a problem with the astronauts on their past trips to outer space, how can they make a trip to Mars, which takes seven months?  It’s such a pity that the millions spent on probing outer space cannot be put to better use here on Earth.”

Mike Hawke, Newmarket: “I think it's about we resumed our passion for space exploration. A functioning moon base was the logical progression of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. I know that many people are very disappointed in the ‘scaling back’ of NASA funding over the past few decades!  The current space shuttle was first envisioned by Dr. Robert Gilruth in the late ’60s or early ’70s.  We should pursue some new technology.”

Terry Staggs, Yuma, Ariz.: “Unfortunately, I think Bush's upcoming plans for the moon are DOA. I truly would love to see it. I just don't think the citizenry in the U.S. will lend it enough support to be completed. … When NASA went to the moon before, we naively thought science and technology could and would solve all our problems. Space exploration was a spearhead of technological development. Everyone thought the world would gain much by the efforts and strides taken by going to the moon. They did too, in ways most people still are unaware of. Additionally the Cold War had us honestly scared of what might happen should the Soviet Union get there first. Nukes launched from moon bases? Yikes! In today's world, most no longer have the mystic aura science and technology once held and this effort would not be a spearhead to technological improvements to humanity that previously happened. It's going to be a very hard sell to the public. Hope it works, but unfortunately I'm very skeptical.”

Danny and Saleena Becker, Bremerton, Wash.: “As a child, I remember President Kennedy's statement about going to the moon, and have been waiting for Mars. This is the most exciting time of my life and my daughter's life as far as space exploration yet. Please give us more!!!”

P.K., Somerville, N.J.: “It sounds to me that there is no other option left for the United States, other than looking at the space, after the IT and Internet Revolution. There is not much left for the U.S. to do.”

Lance P. McGraw, Perry, Fla.: “This is an old dream of John F. Kennedy that is finally coming to a reality. It’s time to lay down our petty differences on this planet and explore other worlds. Take all the bombs and weapons of destruction, melt them down to build space vehicles, and explore the seas of stars. I wonder if President Kennedy was not killed we would already have a space station both on the moon and Mars.”

• Jan. 12, 2004 | 7 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:
 Science News: The greatest sounds never heard
 WashPost: Did the Chinese discover America? Skeptics abound
 NASA: New device could improves storm warnings
 Discovery.com: World's largest flower mystery solved

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


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