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Cosmic Log: July 16-22, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog:  A better space glove ... Return to Mars on Earth ... Watching giant leaps ...  SpaceShipOne's flight plan ... Shunning the shuttle ... and more.

July 22, 2005 | Building a better space glove: NASA's latest contest for new technologies, announced today, focuses on a seemingly mundane item: the gloves used by astronauts during spaceflight.

Compared with the $10 million X Prize for private spaceships, the $250,000 Astronaut Glove Challenge might seem like small potatoes. But Brant Sponberg, program manager for NASA's Centennial Challenges, says it's exactly such small steps that set the stage for future giant leaps.

"With this competition, we are continuing to develop Centennial Challenges' base of smaller, targeted technology prizes and laying the groundwork for our larger competitions," he said in today's news release.

The glove-off is being presented in collaboration with Volanz Aerospace Inc. / Spaceflight America — and NASA says Volanz will administer the contest at no cost to the space agency. Alan Hayes, Volanz's chairman and chief operating officer, told me that corporate sponsorships would go toward the company's costs.

"We're actively negotiating now with two companies that are very interested in this area," he said.

NASA already has announced two other Centennial Challenges, starting with a multiyear effort to foster power-beaming systems and superstrong space tethers. Such technologies could be applied to future interplanetary spacecraft — as well as a space elevator system that could someday hoist payloads to orbital altitudes at a fraction of the current cost.

Another $250,000 challenge would reward efforts to extract oxygen from simulated moon dirt — a technology that would have obvious applications for future lunar colonies.

A better space glove could be put into service long before moonbases or space elevators ever take shape. Right now, spacesuit gloves are so bulky that it's hard to do tasks requiring a lot of dexterity — and they wear out an astronaut's hands pretty quickly, too.

"Reducing spacesuit glove fatigue is a critical technological goal that, if successful, would have an important impact on astronaut performance and mission planning," said Douglas Cooke, NASA's acting associate administrator for the exploration systems mission directorate.

The $250,000 award would go to the team that can design and manufacture the best performing glove within the competition's parameters. Hayes said the competition rules would be firmed up by September, and an initial conference for competitors would be conducted this November (watch the Web site for details). The glove-off itself is scheduled for November 2006.

Here's how the contest will go, according to NASA:

"Each team will provide two gloves for three key tests. First, the forces required to move the fingers and thumb on each glove will be measured. Gloves requiring the least force will be awarded more points. Second, each team will perform standardized dexterity tasks in a depressurized glove box. Teams completing the most tasks within a specified time will win the most points. Third, one glove from each team will be subjected to a burst test. Glove designs that withstand greater internal pressures will be awarded more points."The team with the glove design that wins the most points, while exceeding the performance of existing astronaut glove technologies will win the contest."

The glove contest was proposed more than a year ago by Transterrestrial Musings' Rand Simberg, and NASA had the good sense to pick up on the idea (although Rand suggested a meatier $1 million purse). Eventually, NASA plans to present far more ambitious contests, including an eight-figure prize for the first privately developed robotic moon lander. For more on that and NASA's other challenges, check out Technology Review's interview with Brant Sponberg as well as our own archives on the Centennial Challenges.

July 22, 2005 | Elevator tales: A clever space-age spy plays the starring role in an even more clever short story that has won the top prize in the Clarke-Bradbury Science Fiction International Competition, sponsored by the European Space Agency.

This year's theme was the space elevator, and Australian author Christian Doan was judged the winner for a story titled "Clever." The runner-up was an American, Scott Rolsen, who spun the story of a futuristic culture clash, called "Ervin's Watch."

In the image category, Germany's Lewecki and Britain's Richard Bizley were recognized for their artistic conceptions of space elevators at work. To learn more about space elevators, check out our archives or click on over to the Space Elevator Reference.

July 22, 2005 | Back to the Cape: I'm heading down to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to cover the preparations for the shuttle Discovery's launch, now scheduled for Tuesday. So Cosmic Log postings will be dependent on time and bandwidth. Keep an eye on our "Return to Flight" coverage and NBC consultant Jeff Gralnick's Shuttle Diary, as well as updates from our partners at

July 22, 2005 | Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Christian Science Monitor: The push to privatize spaceflight
'Nova' on PBS: Get set for 'ScienceNOW'
The Economist: Sex and drugsPopular Science: Can Earth-scale engineering save the planet?

July 21, 2005 | Return to Mars on Earth: Once again, researchers in simulated spacesuits are tromping through the midsummer chill of the Canadian Arctic — seeking insights that may ease the way for future explorers on Mars.

Two separate teams are just starting their missions within Haughton Crater on Devon Island, one of the places on Earth judged to be most like Mars: Scientists with the NASA-funded Haughton Mars Project have pitched their tents and turned on their Webcams, while the Mars Society's Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station is once again home to a mission simulation crew.

This is the ninth field season for the Haughton Mars Project — which, among other things, will be testing an autonomous drilling system meant for Mars exploration and studying remote-control agriculture in the Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse. Not so far away from the HMP camp, the FMARS team has begun a series of simulated extravehicular activities.

Why Haughton Crater? The terrain is almost eerily Marslike (except for the water and the occasional snow, of course), with cold, barren conditions that can still harbor hardy strains of life. By studying the biology and geology of the area, researchers can fine-tune strategies that may turn up traces of ancient or extant life on Mars. They can also learn how humans and robots can work most efficiently in extreme environments.

Why two separate groups? When the Mars Society started up the FMARS project five years ago, the organizers were in league with HMP — but as time went on, the two operations went their separate ways, due to financial as well as philosophical differences (as outlined in the book "Mars on Earth"). The Haughton Mars Project is a play-it-straight scientific field operation, while the Mars Society's crew mostly stays in "sim," wearing mock spacesuits whenever they venture outside for their EVAs.

Neither approach is easy. Both teams have to face logistical nightmares, scientific puzzlers and even Canadian "quickmud." To get a complete picture, keep tabs on the HMP field reports as well as the FMARS daily dispatches over the weeks ahead. Next month, the Arctic adventures will be recounted at the Mars Society's annual conference in Colorado.

July 21, 2005 | Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
BBC: Robotics show Lucy walked upright
The Guardian: The arrogant adventurer
Planetary Society: Postmortem on solar-sail setbackSalt Lake Tribune: Teens build a better air-conditioner

July 20, 2005 | Watching giant leaps: Thirty-six years ago, humans made that first "giant leap" to a destination beyond Earth, in the form of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

It's been almost 33 years since our last lunar leap, and ever since then, commentators have been wondering why it's taking so long to jump back.

But when it comes to the Apollo program's effect on the human psyche, we've been reliving those giant leaps for decades — in the media and our imagination.

Here's just a sampling of the moon manifestations:

  • For years, space fans have been celebrating July 20 and the moon landing as a Passover of sorts called Evoloterra.
  • As of this week, even garden-variety bloggers (like yours truly) can send their messages into the cosmos through the new "Blog in Space" site.
  • The Space Frontier Foundation revs up its sixth annual Return to the Moon conference this week as well.
  • A new big-screen 3-D movie, "Magnificent Desolation," will literally bring a new dimension to Apollo mission imagery when it premieres in September.
  • Apollo 11 moonwalker Neil Armstrong's long-awaited authorized biography, "First Man," is due to hit the bookshelves in October.
  • Even Google is marking July 20 with a new moon-mapping feature (zoom all the way in to get the joke).

One of the initial small steps back to the moon — the European Space Agency's SMART-1 probe — will be revisiting the Apollo landing sites from above, and NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is due to follow in 2008. There'll no doubt be other lunar missions, funded by Japan, China, India and even private companies.

Someday, even regular people will be able to feel the thrill that Armstrong felt, either in person or more likely through virtual-reality links. Until then, the best way to get that that thrill is vicariously, through films like "Magnificent Desolation" — or, for that matter, "Space Station," the Imax 3-D documentary that has just been released in a DVD version.

"Space Station" gives you an up-close look at the everyday, not-so-routine lives of the astronauts on the international space station. The 47-minute Imax film, narrated by Tom Cruise, provides plenty of beauty shots of Earth, station and space. But there's a down side to the DVD, compared with the big-screen, goggle-enhanced version: The TV-sized, 2-D view  just doesn't give you the vertiginous thrill of actually being there. For that, you'll still have to get yourself to an Imax cinema.

Nevertheless, the "Space Station" DVD has a significant up side as well, in the form of the extra goodies packed into the disc:

  • A replay of the main feature with commentary from astronaut Marsha Ivins and director Toni Myers.
  • A guided tour of the space station by astronaut Ed Lu.
  • A behind-the-scenes featurette (with a not-to-be-missed discussion of "sweat balls" in space).
  • A gallery of still images.
  • And a video chronicle of the shuttle Endeavour's mission to the space station in December 2001, which gives you an excellent preview of what Discovery's mission will be like once it gets off the ground.

In short, "Space Station" would make the perfect Evoloterra present for the space fan on your shopping list.

July 20, 2005 | Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Slate: Is it time to revamp the periodic table?
Universe Today: Melt through ice to find alien life Human brain's 'mastermind' locatedBrowse through an Area 51 photo gallery

July 19, 2005 | SpaceShipOne schedule set: SpaceShipOne's last flight plan is finally filled out, ending with a ceremonial handover to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum on Sept. 28.

That's the word from Smithsonian spokeswoman Claire Brown, who confirmed the details of a schedule first reported by four months ago.

SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed vehicle to reach outer space, is to make a coast-to-coast farewell tour attached to its White Knight carrier airplane, with a major stopover at the EAA AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wis., next week. After their appearance at the July 25-31 festival, the mated planes will fly to the Washington area's Dulles International Airport on Aug. 1, Brown said.

She said SpaceShipOne will be taken to storage facilities at the museum's Udvar-Hazy Center, near Dulles, for processing and picture-taking out of public view. Then the plane will be trucked to the National Air and Space Museum, on the National Mall, for final preparations — including its elevation to an honored place in the museum's Milestones of Flight gallery.

Software billionaire Paul Allen, who provided the financial backing for the SpaceShipOne project, will sign the documents "accessioning" the plane on Sept. 28, Brown said. Public viewing may begin on that day or on Sept. 29, she said.

Check out the museum's news release from March for more background on the handover, and stay tuned for more details as the big event nears.

| Space tourism at the Cape: Virginia-based Space Adventures, the company that put the first paying space passengers into orbit, is opening an office in the place where the nation's space program began: Kennedy Space Center.

In a news release, the firm said its Suborbital Vehicle and Spaceport Development office will be housed within the Center for Space Education's building, which is also home to the Astronaut Memorial Foundation.

The office will focus on reviewing specifications and the financial details for suborbital space vehicles and proposed spaceport sites, said Eric Anderson, Space Adventures' president and chief executive officer. For now, about five people will be working in the office, he told me.

By itself, opening up another office may not be that big a deal. In addition to its Arlington headquarters, Space Adventures already has satellite offices in Moscow and Tokyo. But Anderson hinted that there's deeper significance to starting up a Florida operation.

"It's no secret that we're interested in looking at Florida as a potential operating location," he said. "The deeper significance is that we are focused on developing suborbital flight, and operating suborbital flights in the United States. And we're going to talk about that when we can talk about it."

Space Adventures already offers tours focused on aviation and space training experiences, and has worked out an agreement to have millionaire inventor Greg Olsen flown to the international space station this fall. Eventually, the company will be marketing suborbital tour packages that include a four-day flight preparation and training experience. Those flights would be provided through the auspices of Space Adventures' spaceship development partners.

At least one spaceship venture, Aera Corp., already has started taking reservations for suborbital flights from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida — but Aera hasn't yet tested its launch vehicle, and Space Adventures spokeswoman Stacey Tearne recently told me that there has been "no interaction" with Aera.

Another Florida-based company, Incredible Adventures, has a business model quite similar to Space Adventures', and has struck its own deals with suborbital spaceship developers.

For more on the aspirations of Space Adventures and its investors, check out this Daily Texan report on Richard Garriott, astronaut's son, entrepreneur programmer and would-be suborbital space flier.

| Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
New Scientist: Simulated society may generate culture
MIT/Williams: Pluto's moon in rare occulation | VideoN.Y. Times (reg. req.): Actress becomes math star
Nature: Why did Burmese elephants vanish?The Onion: What delayed the space shuttle?

| Shunning the shuttle: What's wrong with the shuttle? You can consider that question in the short term, as NASA has been doing over the weekend. At last report, engineers have not yet found the cause of the fuel-sensor glitch that held up Wednesday's attempt to launch the shuttle Discovery.

Then there's the longer-term question: Because the buildup to Discovery's launch is coming more than a year after SpaceShipOne's historic private-sector spaceflight, it's natural to wonder what space entrepreneurs like SpaceShipOne's Burt Rutan would have to say about NASA's setbacks.

Of course, the folks who are familiar with the shuttle program point out that it's much easier to send hundreds of pounds of payload into suborbital space than to put tens of thousands of pounds into orbit. That led me to guess last week that entrepreneurs would separate out the risks by coming up with separate types of vehicles for humans and cargo — an approach taken by NASA as well as Rutan and his partners at Transformational Space (namely, the X-37 vs. the CXV).

But Transterrestrial Musings' Rand Simberg thinks that would be a wrong guess:

"I suspect that to the degree that Burt has given much thought to the matter (probably not a lot — he's focused on his own markets, not NASA's), he would do things the same way that aviation does them — a single aircraft design for both cargo and passengers. The notion that the problem with the shuttle was mixing crew and cargo is one of those popular myths of the old space age, but it's really a red herring."

Simberg says the basic problem is that the shuttle design just isn't as reliable, safe or common-sensical as a spacecraft design has to be. Space consultant Charles Lurio takes that theme as well in this message, speculating on what Rutan would say:

"He'd say something like: What is this idiocy of requiring all four sensors to say the right thing before you launch? Cut the bad one out of the loop and fly with 'only' three saying the tank is full. What's the point of having redundancy if it doesn't allow you to go if one or more of the redundant layers isn't working? As you add more layers of redundancy, the probability of one  of them not being able to work starts to go up. Thus if you require all layers of it to work before you take off, you'll just reach the point where the probability of being able to take off approaches zero."Burt also said something like this about the design of SpaceShipOne: Minimize the number of [mechanical and electrical] systems, and you minimize the chance of something going wrong and stopping you."Which makes the appropriate rhetorical point."Separating payload and people to different vehicles has a relatively tiny relation to increasing the safety and slashing the price. The most important elements include:"1. Design to minimize the complexity and maximize the reliability of engineering systems for the job needed, and to minimize the ground support required."2. Have a vehicle development program built around incremental and low-cost flight testing many times over to shake out the problems and make changes early and cheaply."3. Then, have a market with 'real-world' flight rates, e.g., space tourism with several hundred or thousand flights per year to maximize utilization of your tough vehicles and minimize cost per flight (as well as incrementally further learning how to build and fly them at even lower cost and higher reliability.)"Of course the shuttle failed and fails on all those counts and more."

Here's a selection of other comments on whether the space shuttle is past its prime:

James Barron, Orlando, Fla.: "I work as a materials supplier to the aerospace industry. Since 1993, I have refused to supply any material associated in any way for the space shuttle. In 1993, [shuttle contractor] Rockwell International wanted us to certify some steel to a specification which had been canceled in 1973. We refused, but other companies continue to do so. The specifications were canceled or changed for a reason: There are better materials or specifications that have come out since the space shuttle first came out. The failure of NASA's engineers and administrators to adhere to current specifications and/or change to improved materials is appalling, but no engineer seems to want to put his name on any type of engineering change. I am sorry to say that the space shuttle disaster did not surprise me, nor did the fact that the shuttle did not take off. New technology and material make the space shuttle obsolete. Ironically, President Clinton canceled the North American Space Plane during his first days in office. That program was to be the replacement for the space shuttle, and was designed to land and take off like an airplane with a two-day turnaround. ... We need to redesign the whole space program. I pray every day that not another shuttle goes up. I feel it is a disaster waiting to happen."Terry Staggs, Yuam, Ariz.: "I understand the frustration they [NASA engineers] are encountering. I'm an electronics technician, and basically my job is to fix broken stuff. An intermittent problem is the worst. As a technician, my only recourse is to make an educated guess as to the piece creating the problem and then replace it, hoping that the problem does not return. If so, the next most likely piece is replaced, and so forth. NASA has a little more resources than I to fix this problem, but in the end it comes down to the same. They will probably apply the 'shotgun' approach, which is to replace everything in the system that can be replaced. Unless engineering analysis concludes that it is a design error. That, however, is unlikely, given the history that this system has mostly always worked as it was supposed to. I'm glad I'm not in their shoes. I feel for them, it is a tough problem. Godspeed to the engineers and technicians working on this. They are the real 'wizards' and unsung heroes of the space race! Pocket protectors and the people who wear them rock!!!!"Gary, Murfreesboro, Tenn.: "I don't think America has the courage to pursue space flight anymore. Neither the courage nor the vision. As a child I watched '2001: A Space Odyssey' and, while the ending mystified me, the one message that rang out clearly was that spaceflight would be commonplace by 2001. And if we as a nation had carried our space fervor out of the '60s and '70s and into the '80s and '90s, then who knows how much further we could've gone. But, to coin a phrase, without a vision, the people perish. So, too, dreams of spaceflight."David Powell in New Jersey: "The shuttle peaked in the early to mid-1980s. Shuittle fever was at a high, the people were behind it, and movies like 'Space Camp' were coming out to convince us kids back then that space and the shuttle were only a few years away for 'everyone.' The Challenger disaster and the flight stoppage, and later reduced schedule, signaled a beginning of a slide period, in which no replacement or companion vehicle was developed and the space program waned. NASA had all the generations on board supporting manned spaceflight. They'll have to do something to get the ones who have come up in the 1990s and 2000s, who are more into the techno gizmos they carry in their pockets (and couldn't tell you thing one about how they work, technically) than real-deal spaceflight. With each loss, good people have been lost in the noble cause of space exploration. Also, the orbiter fleet has shrunk, there have been no replacements, and the fleet never attained the size the designers had initially wanted, nor the mission pace that had been forecast. Still, a lot has been learned. Time to go on from there. I also cannot understand why the shuttle electronics were not upgraded. They have had 747s since before shuttles, but their cockpits and avionics get upgrades every year."

For what it's worth, the shuttles do get periodic, extensive upgrades — in fact, Endeavour is in the shop right now for its "orbiter major modification," a process that the other shuttles already have gone through.

Paul Newland: "The Columbia disaster disillusioned even the most stout-hearted of shuttle supporters. We began to put too much faith in a technology that was tried and often true, and took it from the men and women who shaped the technology. As is often repeated, we ignored the warning signs, and now it is looking as if the future of spaceflight will be taken away from the civilian-run NASA, which, after all, was more of a caretaker of the science than the future of it. Perhaps it is about time that the future of spaceflight be put into the hands of the businesses willing to take a chance on the wealth that space has to offer to us. I can foresee a time when NASA will morph into the FAA of spaceflight, more infatuated with safety than with progress. It will be left up to the private sector to move us forward in space, just as it is the private sector that moves us forward in aviation. It's just too bad that money will be the driving force behind the next steps into space, where once it was hope for the future."Mike Shafer, Seattle: "What we need is the same 1960s mentality, taking higher risks in the name of exploration and excitement. The private sector is supplying this through venues such as the X Prize and will continue to play the entrepreneurial ticket while NASA figures out where its arthritis pills are. NASA came close to a working replacement for the shuttle with the X-33 program, but of course slashed the program when it was 95 percent complete and a billion dollars lost. NASA has turned into a dinosaur, lumbering over its territory with an old but powerful might, slaughtering any new predators entering its domain. NASA needs a complete reorganization, placing some dot-com whiz kids behind the wheel and restaffing its ranks with fresh, unjaded college graduates."Dennis McClain-Furmanski, Arlington, Texas: "'What would Burt do?' He would not say something like 'the indications are not consistent with what a transistor failure would indicate.' He would say 'the transistor is bad' or 'the transistor is not bad,' because he would have found out. As likely as not he would have offered to test it himself. Not that testing a transistor is difficult — it usually requires a minute with an ohmmeter — but he's just the kind to make sure the job gets done and done right, even if he has to do it himself. And he doesn't accept corporate-speak weasel words as a substitute. That's why he succeeds."Marion Hall, Trenton, Mich.: "Rutan should stick to blimps, as he has more than enough hot air to circumnavigate the earth many times over. His little trick plane will never withstand the heat from re-entry at 12,000 mph plus. NASA has paved the way with the efforts of many brave souls and the genius of many extrordinary minds. Rutan has benefited from their discoveries and inventions, as we all have as a nation. There is nothing magical or exceptional in his achievements. It's all been done before. Many times."Carolyn, Pascagoula, Miss.: "They are going to continue having problems until they finally put one up there named the 'Enterprise.' I mean ... some things are just sacred. Anyway, that's my theory."

| Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:
The Guardian: How the housefly evades a swat
Xinhuanet: Pig sperm in space?
Science @ NASA: The devils of MarsScience News: Dr. Feynman's doodles

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