Final Blast

Atlantis & the Last 
Flight of the Shuttles

In the end, it happened on schedule almost to the minute: despite the threatening weather, the last mission for the Space Shuttles began at 11:29am 10 years ago today. A record crowd witnessed the launch, aware that their children won’t get to see a show like that.
Four astronauts headed to the Space Station and when they came back 16 days later, it was all over: the Shuttle Program’s 135th mission, its 30-year history, and possibly NASA’s leading role in space exploration. Our hearts skipped a beat when that era drew to a close.
The future then pointed to what’s happening now: space is a mostly private and commercial enterprise, and a new toy for billionaires. Science now takes a backseat and the technology that made possible the reusable space buses is at least 50 years too old.
It’s been a long way since NASA’s glorious days. After getting us to the Moon, it seemed to have lost its plot. Public interest plunged, federal funds dried up, and criticism mounted for running expensive programs with little hard-science research breakthroughs to account for.
Not much more may be expected from corporations whose main goal may be to fly celebrities to sub-orbital hotels to engorge their bottom line. Still, routine maintenance flights to the ISS and the Hubble Space Telescope will be needed and NASA is the go-to for that.
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Read Also:
* The Last Detour
* Enterprise
* Welcome Home

In this era of diminishing ambitions, grandstanding, and a general malaise that we are no longer the people who get to accomplish great things, a few sobering realities have already settled in. Among them is that we badly needed that dream then and that we badly need it now.
As the Shuttle Program ended after three decades fueling our collective imagination to fly ever higher, to dare above our limits, to seek what’s out there, we began a new, more humble journey through the far side of our starstruck dreams. It hasn’t been a happy ride.
It’ll take more than our usual drive to discover, reach out, and transcend. To go where no one has gone before we need to put down our smartphones. Otherwise, only the powerful and those they employ will ever blast off from the Earth as the shuttles did so many times.
But even if we decide to send only rich dopes, or robots, or drones, or mini-satellites, we’ll still need to put our heart into it, something a bit rare lately. Someone will need to dream of blasting into the Space Station but who’ll even don a spacesuit if they don’t know how worthwhile it is to take a shot?
To dream is a serious business and it almost never gives returns from the get go. We must find ways to inspire our kids to believe that it’s worth trying. Even if we, as far as reality and the space program are concerned, are officially giving it all up today.
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(*) Originally published on July 8, 2011.

Heavenly Palace


As Tiangong Crashes Down,
Star Dreams Remain Aloft

Has the world gone mad? A camelback rider could’ve said that about the Sphinx in 2550, then under construction. And so could a tourist during the rare pink snowstorm that blanketed Europe the other week. Some may say it about the Chinese space station’s plunge into Earth.
It’s reassuring to see that reality can still top whatever buffoonery the orange rerun of Mr. T. may come up with. What? NASA is inviting people to add their name to the cargo of that soon-to-be launched sun probe? Well, nature has a couple of penguins taking selfies for you.
Not all is fun and cookies however, in the realm of the bizarre and out of whack. Like some nut, high on proving that god existed, who crashed her car on a pole on purpose, with her two kids strapped in the back seat. They all lived but god’d better not help her get back the children.
Or a guy who ran the cops to the ground, and beat a record that shall not speak its name (or get on the Guinness Book): he spent 47 days without going to the bathroom. They wanted to recover some drugs they say he’d swallowed, but after watching him on the throne for six weeks straight, they couldn’t take it anymore and just gave up.
Guess what science came up with, just so we’re clear we have no idea what we carry around in our bowels? Not one but two unknown human organs in less than a year: the mesentery and the interstitium. They’re with us since our bodies got the latest upgrade, circa 30,000 years ago, among the biggest organs in the body. But only now got their own billing.

WE WILL BE LIVING AMONG STARS
The man sitting on the White House toilet, tweeting, is quickly running out of tricks to cover up his con, but life, in the words of that great Jurassic Park philosopher, will always find fresh ways to shock and awe us. Even when it takes, say, a couple of thousand years. Or we’re unaware of its wonders.
Shorter and much more recent is our history building space stations. Since way before the Skylab ended six years of watching over us and precipitously rained in pieces over the Australian town of Esperance, of all places, in 1979, we’ve been trying to stay aloft each time longer.
Mir, which lasted 15 years and managed to survive the breakup of the Soviet Union, before breaking up itself and falling back to Earth in 2001, upped the ante. And the beloved International Space Station, the current title holder that completes 20 years in orbit this November, is still sitting pretty on the night sky.

THE FALLING BROKENDOWN PALACE
Do not blame the Chinese for trying. Here’s a land where the impossible takes place everyday. For millennia. From building a quasi-replica of Paris to having a number of metropolises sitting on empty, awaiting its much slowed down population growth, China gets it. But Tiangong 1, its first space station, is coming back to Earth.
Where? No one knows. The prototype was not supposed to last pass the two-year mark, in 2013, anyway. These things cost a lot to maintain. They say the next one will be bigger and better than this small but highly-sophisticated space bus. Still, a refrigerator-sized leftover chunk may surviving reentry. So look out.
Even if what goes up has to come down, eventually, whatever happens above has been considerably better, and nobler, that what’s going on down here. For to keep people up there takes our best and the absolutely limit of our capacity as living beings. Astronauts make us proud.

CHERISH THE FRESH & THE UNEXPECTED
Yes, the world has gone completely insane. But just as it’s crucial to know all about thorns, let’s not forget to caress the petals. The fiery universe, or universes, are expanding to the speed of life, but we’ve been given a bubble to breathe in and grow. We’re the guardians of the guardians that protect us.
We’re not excelling at it, that’s for sure. But let’s not confuse (more)
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Read Also:
* Space Droppings
* Ungrounded
* Meanwhile, Up There

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Space Snacking

As Mars Pays a Visit, NASA
Wonders What to Eat Up There

The Red Planet is upon us this week, as it’s closest to Earth in its 2-year orbit. While backyard astronomers or simply stargazers go into their usual frenzy of Internet commentary and great photos, astrophysicists continue researching ways for our first visit to a planet other than our own. It won’t be easy.
Practical considerations such as what to wear and how to live up there assume epic proportions, as do issues of safety and comfort. Nothing is as hard, though, as to figure out what astronauts will eat during the trip, and specially, once they’re there. NASA, for example, started a four-month program to develop a healthy diet fit for astronauts.
Open to anyone, the program will also address the fact that space travelers seem to crave spicy foods and sweet and sour things. The technology of growing and recycle food in space will have to be greatly improved too if we’re to survive in such inhospitable conditions.
These are but a few of the so far insurmountable obstacles that the estimated three-year trip presents to earthlings. We still don’t even have a suitable rocket to take us there, nor the sources of renewable fuel are sufficiently up to par to supply us with the energy necessary for the journey. And never mind getting into the psychological challenges such a gruesome enterprise would represent.
So, while this is not even Mars’s closest approach to Earth, being at a mere 63 million miles from us, it’s still fun to gaze at its fuzzy surface where the rovers Spirit and Opportunity wander about and the Phoenix lander now sits silently, and at the Gale Crater where the Curiosity Continue reading

Countdown

Last Blast for
Pioneer Shuttle

JUST IN: NASA decided to postpone the launch of Discovery until at least Nov. 30. The space shuttle was to leave for his last trip tonight. Technical problems led to repeated postponements of three launch.

Just like a veteran actor after almost 30 years worth of risky performances, NASA’s oldest space shuttle, the Discovery, seems to be having the jitters about taking off one last time. The Florida weather was said to be the latest culprit for the delay. But there were gas leaks earlier in the week, an electrical glitch of some kind the other day and heaven knows what else. That’s why those close to the bird are fooled by none of it.
For them, it’s just the natural anxiety that comes from having to

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Also read:
Back for Good
Up, Up and Away
Final Shuttle

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perform a difficult task one last time, after so many years of a flawless record. After all, the Discovery is the fleet’s busiest Continue reading