I love this 1965 image from NASA’s archive. The caption reads:
Gemini Water Egress Training. Astronauts John Young and Gus Grissom are pictured during water egress training in a large indoor pool at Ellington Air Force Base, Texas. Young is seated on top of the Gemini capsule while Grissom is in the water with a life raft. Waiting in the rear, Frankie “bow-tie” Kornacki, Grissom’s bookmaker, patiently awaits payment for a string of bad college football bets. Grissom prolongs training, suggesting “another go-round”, hoping to avoid the expected unpleasantness
Click the image for a bigger version.
Of course it turns out that the planetary scientists opted not to demote one planet but to promote three new ones. Brilliant. I can see Michael Hanlon’s Daily Mail story already: “Dumbing down is out of control: now even frozen lumps of rock qualify as planets. What next: asteroids?”.
Remarkably, it looks like the new planets will actually produce better horoscopes. All these teeny-tiny ultra-distant mini planets somehow enhance astrology’s… er… resolution. Happily, it looks like Vedic Astrology is also unaffected by the addition of three new planets to the zodiac.
Indian astrologers only use the first six planets (up to and including Saturn) anyway and although one of the new planets, Ceres, actually sits between Mars and Jupiter, it’s unlikely to change your horoscope much because it’s so small.
Switching between Big Brother Live (this has to be the best ever, right?) and NASA TV is entertaining. NASA’s 24/7 output is mind-blowing – a sort of hyper-purposeful parody of reality confinement shows like BB.
I can’t wait for week 10’s Big Brother Task, which is called ‘Crew Swap’. For 48 hours, Anthony, Craig, Makosi, Derek, Eugene and Kinga have to run the space shuttle (Makosi is captain) and the shuttle crew have to hang around picking their toes in the BB House. Naturally, during the 48 hours they have to do each other’s chores, so the shuttle crew will have to learn to ride a unicycle and make cheese on toast while the BB crew will have to repair the heat shield and replace a gyroscope on the ISS. Seriously, though, run NASA TV in the background and, every now and then, it’ll chirrup into life and tell you something you never knew. In the meantime, while you’re waiting for something to happen, you can see Earth’s best views in real time from a high orbit.
My kids, of course, are unimpressed. “These images are coming from 400km up there in space to dishes all over the planet, where they’re packaged up and sent to a studio in Florida (probably via space again) and then they’re edited and sent out to a web server somewhere and then across the Internet to us here. And all this happens in half a second”. “yes Dad. Can you find the Cartoon Network web site for me?” I suppose that’s what happens: the only people impressed by new technology are the ones who know what it’s actually doing – the old-timers. We exist in a permanent glow of awe and amazement. Everyone else sort of vaguely assumes that’s what computers have been doing since about 1970…
No point taking a microphone to space. No sound in a vacuum. In thirty years of increasingly hyper-real media coverage of space exploration we’ve never, ever heard space. Just those crackly radio transmissions across the void (and all those made up noises in Sci-Fi movies). That’s what makes these sounds, the first ever recorded on another world, so mind-blowing.
The picture is a 360° composite taken during the descent at about 8km from the surface. There are many more images at the ESA’s Cassini-Huygens web site.
You’ve got to love Radio 4’s brilliant Cassini-Huygens total immersion radio experience. Listen to this lot and you’ll know about as much as a grown-up with a day job should reasonably know about Saturn and the extraordinary Cassini-Huygens mission . There’s a Real stream of an excellent half hour documentary called Running Rings Around Saturn that went out last week and, if you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you’ll find an hour of extended interviews with the three principle scientists interviewed for the programme, one of whom, John Zarnecki, has been working on the mission for the whole of its 17 year life.
It’s midnight GMT. What are you watching? On Channel 4, Jackie Stalone is out of the house. On BBC 2 Cassini’s baby Huygens (after a 3 billion kilometre flight) has arrived on Titan’s surface. I learn from the Open University’s terrifically enthusiastic coverage that that surface is hard – perhaps clay or frozen snow. Photos during Huygens’ descent suggest there may be an ocean and water courses, sonar says there’s some high cloud, surface images show boulders or snowballs. Holy shit.
The bit that, as usual, humbles me most: the scientists who have worked for 17 years for a two-and-a-half hour mission. Right now, they’re skipping around the ESA‘s control room like my kids. The guy who spent twelve years working on the force meter (an instrument whose working life, now over, amounted to one twentieth of a second) says the data so far shows a surface like ‘creme brulee’ (crunchy on top, soft underneath). The imaging guy is desperate to get back to the 300 or so pictures Huygens was able to return via its one working radio channel – so far he’s seen only ten. I’m speechless, really.
Why is this video from SpaceShipOne’s Winning X Prize Mission so impressive (I mean, apart from the fact that this guy just flew an aeroplane about the size of a double bed to space and back)? Is it because of the team’s unlimited American self-confidence? Or because of the acres of competence and sophistication on show? Or because of the awe-inspiring ambition embodied in a mission like this? Or is it because, somewhere about half way through the return to earth, the pilot, Brian Binnie, apparently has to reboot the spaceship?
While you’re at it, compare this with the infinitely sadder NASA video from a few weeks ago.
As usual, the space scientists leave me open-mouthed with wonder. Latest preposterous challenge: getting stuff into space is expensive – rockets and space-suits and beef stroganoff in a tube and all that – so why not forget the big bang and winch your satellite up a long cable ‘anchored’ 100,000 km up there in an orbit way beyond geo-stationary (that’s about three times the circumference of the earth so you’re going to have a pretty good view from the top of your cable). Groovy carbon nano-tubes are going to make this possible – there’s nothing strong enough to make that cable from yet.
Once the materials have been invented it’s just a matter of setting aside a few trillion dollars and a very large proportion of the earth’s energy budget to get the thing built and then to power the elevators up to orbit (no elevator could carry enough fuel for a 100,000 km climb and you can’t just plug it into the wall so you’ll have to power it from a laser or an energy beam down here on the surface). The elevator idea holds out the promise of twice-daily runs to any orbit you like (about a quarter of the way to the moon, in fact). Speed will be an issue – at walking pace it’s going to take you three years to get to the top – but if it’s really cheap, who cares?
This is how you test the resilience and optimism (and sanity) of a human being. You ask him to work for 14 years on a space science project, you grant his wish and send his path-breaking probe to gather specks of the solar wind (at a fascinating and mysterious location called Lagrange-1), you successfully return the probe to earth orbit, you even allow him his crazy Burt Reynolds fantasy of grabbing it during its descent using stunt helicopter pilots… and then you crash his precious probe into the desert at 150 miles per hour. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful and so pathetic as this little film of Genesis tumbling (and tumbling) silently to earth today.
Of course, in the very, very long run, it’s going to be our readiness to make the best of a cock-up like this (and Beagle 2 and Columbia and so on…), to pick ourselves up and to keep trying, that confirms our humanity and that gives us the slightest chance of exceeding the bounds of our home planet one day…