Peggy Whitson, Chocolate Candies and Mars


Peggy Whitson in the ISS cupola on her 638th day in space.

Peggy Whitson returned to Earth Sunday.

I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Peggy. My first day at Marshall Space Flight Center, 15 years ago last month, Peggy Whitson was in space; the only American astronaut aboard the International Space Station when I began working at NASA.

That was on Expedition 5, the fifth crew of the space station. (This weekend marked the beginning of Expedition 53.) The space station was a whole lot younger then; long-duration spaceflight, at least for NASA, a whole lot newer.

After that mission, Peggy came to Marshall on a tour of the NASA centers to share her experiences with the workforce, along with the STS-113 space shuttle crew that had brought her home. The significance of long-duration missions was really driven home for me during that visit, in the most seemingly trivial of ways.

Among the shuttle crew was astronaut Paul Lockhart, who had the unusual distinction of having been part of both the crew that delivered Peggy to the space station and the crew that brought her home five months later. Normally, an astronaut wouldn’t fly two shuttle flights so close together, but the STS-113 crew ended up needing to call in a backup member, and Paul was tapped to fly.

He and Peggy were both rookies on STS-111, and he talked about how gawky they were in microgravity compared to the veteran astronauts. Peggy was allegedly close to utterly graceless as she floated in orbit for the first time.

When he went back to the station on his second flight, he was more experienced, and moving more easily through the spacecraft. When they got to the space station, Peggy was in another class altogether; not only more graceful than when they dropped her off, but more efficient than any of the astronauts, no matter how many times they’d flown.

This was driven home during the crew’s video of their mission, in a relatively minor way. The astronauts, as astronauts are wont to do, were eating some candy-coated chocolates of a totally non-brand-specific origin. I’d seen footage before of this, and it usually involved astronauts floating through a cloud of the candies, Pac-Manning them into their mouth as they floated, catching what they could. Peggy, however, did not. Peggy reached out into the cloud, and, with a fingertip, began pinging them into her mouth with impressive speed and complete accuracy. Orbital Pac-Man had gone the way of the dinosaurs.

I had the opportunity to experience weightlessness myself five years later, and was provided with some candy-coated chocolates of my own. I decided I was going to Peggy Whitson them. I was wrong. I tried. I failed. Now, granted, I was bad at microgravity in general, but my first effort, from a foot or two away, missed completely. I tried moving it closer. From mere inches, I finally made it to my mouth, the candy bouncing off my teeth before floating away. It was hard. It was hard, and in less than five months in space, Peggy could do it perfectly.

Peggy returned to Earth this weekend with more total time in space than any American astronaut. 665 days, almost 22 months. The better part of two years in space.

Pinging candy-coated chocolates into your mouth in microgravity is hard. But there are tasks that will be required of the first astronauts to sail between the planets, to visit other worlds, that will be far harder. It’s exciting that we are now in a time when astronauts like Peggy Whitson are gaining the experience, and the knowledge, we will need to make those things happen.

Welcome back, Peggy, and thank you.

Summoning A Star


My favorite story to tell about our first date is how I summoned a star for Rebecca.

Hold that thought for a moment, though.

See those picture above? It’s Earth, from space. (Trust me, all this is going somewhere.)

Part of Rebecca’s job in education at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center involves the Sally Ride Earthkam project, a camera mounted aboard the International Space Station that provides students with pictures of Earth from space. Students pick the sites they want, and EarthKAM captures them when it flies over.

Those pictures are some from Rebecca’s work with the students. As luck would have it, they got taken on a cloudy day, but they are, nonetheless, pictures of Earth from orbit that she had a hand in.

So back to that date, and summoning the star.

My version goes like this:

We were already several hours into an awesomely epic first date that had thus far included a Sherlock Holmes movie and two bookstores, and we were walking through Big Spring Park. It was just dark, and there were no stars visible.

So I told her I would summon one for her. I pointed across the sky, and, sure enough, a star appeared in the direction I pointed, shining clearly and brightly, and then cut a path across the sky before disappearing.

I hoped she’d be kind of impressed.

The star, of course, was the International Space Station. I’d known that it would be passing overhead that night, timed things to be outside when it would appear, and then checked my phone really quickly to figure out exactly where it would be when.

While I like the magical romanticism of my version, her version was that she saw me doing something with my phone and then a little bit later the space station appeared, so clearly I must have called in some NASA connection to have the ISS fly overhead.

Frankly, I don’t know that having the ability to put in a request for the International Space Station to do things wouldn’t actually be more impressive than magically summoning stars out of the aether.

Flash forward five years. My magic is still limited to sometimes knowing when that bright star is going to pass overhead. And Rebecca actually does have the ability to put in requests for the International Space Station to do things.

And, yeah, I’m kind of impressed.

Here Be Dragons


Tweet from @ElectronJon:

Good point from @davidhitt on @SpaceX #Dragon: “A private company can now do a thing NASA cannot. The winds of change are blowing.”

When I made the tweet, it was just sort of an off-hand remark about the rendezvous. Having it called a good point made me stop and actually think about it.

And, it’s true. NASA no longer has any capability to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and a private company does. In fact, a private company has arguably done something that NASA has never been able to do, with Dragon’s unmanned rendezvous with ISS.

But this is not a bad thing.

Lots of private companies can do things NASA cannot, from building cars to saving you money on your insurance. And that’s OK.

Under former administrator Sean O’Keefe, NASA had this as its mission statement: “To understand and protect our home planet. To explore the Universe and search for life. To inspire the next generation of explorers …as only NASA can.”

That last bit of the mission statement served two purposes. One, it was a reminder of the goals and capabilities of the agency — to do the things that no one else can do. NASA’s bailiwick is not the mundane; it’s the extraordinary.

But it was also a reminder of NASA’s responsibility to the nation. NASA needs to focus on doing the things that only NASA can do. It would be irresponsible for NASA to waste taxpayer money duplicating the efforts of others instead of investing those funds in its own unique missions. If a task is not one “only NASA can” do, leave it to the others that can do it.

If NASA needs a car, it’s not going to build a car. It’s going to buy a car. Building cars is not an “as only NASA can” task. It’s a task better left to private industry so that NASA can focus on its unique capabilities and responsibilities.

A year ago, within the United States, delivering cargo to the International Space Station was an “as only NASA can” task.

As of last week, it no longer is.

And that’s rather amazing.

Ad Astra, Per Latrina


Per Space.com:

NASA is considering using the International Space Station to practice for a trip to Mars, officials said …

“Clearly, in order to be able to explore beyond low-Earth orbit, we’re going to have to stay in orbit for longer than six months,” space station program manager Mike Suffredini said during a news conference today.

Suffredini said NASA is exploring the possibility of setting up a mock journey to Mars aboard the space station, where astronauts would stay for longer than the usual six months, and would be subject to other conditions that such a trip would impose. …

“It won’t be in the near future,” he said. “It’s probably not reasonable to expect us to be able to do this sooner than two or three years from now.”

First, let me say, I’m for it.

NASA’s lead up to the Apollo program was a perfect example of space exploration done right — test it at home, then do it for real. In order to successfully put footprints in the lunar regolith, certain capabilities were going to have to be developed and demonstrated, including increased spaceflight duration, rendezvous and docking, and extravehicular activities.

The moon is about four days from Earth. Low Earth orbit, on the other hand, is minutes from the surface. So rather than doing all of these for the first time when we went to the moon, all of them were first tested in Earth orbit, where, if something went wrong, home was just a stone’s throw away.

About four years ago, a toilet on the International Space Station failed. NASA took a lot of ribbing for it in the press, but I said then, and maintain now, that if the only thing that happened on the International Space Station was its toilet failing, it would still be worth doing.

Mars is about six months away. And that’s just one way. A mission there would involve a trip of six months out, six months back, plus whatever time is spent on the surface, which arguably should be long enough to justify the travel time.

Someday, humanity will go there. If I were an astronaut, and the toilet for that mission were going to fail, I would sure rather it be during an Earth-orbit test of the equipment than on the way out to Mars, leaving the crew without a toilet for months. Every single system and procedure needed to go to Mars should be tested in Earth orbit, broken, fixed and tested again, so astronauts heading to the Red Planet will know everything that can go wrong, and what to do when it does.

Right now, we have a spacecraft in Earth orbit that is capable of supporting tests the duration of a Mars mission. (I will note, however, that I don’t believe that should be step one — I think it would be much more responsible to first double the current seven-month record of ISS increments, and then move up from there.)

While the details are uncertain and constantly in flux, for the last eight years, the goal of American human spaceflight has been exploration.

It’s high time we can began fully utilizing the assets we have to support that goal.

Happy Birthday, John Glenn


In honor of John Glenn’s 90th birthday, a comic strip Lain, Jesse and I did many years ago before his return to space. For more comics, go here.


And in other space-related news:

— Here’s pretty awesome gallery of recent launches that a friend shared with me.

— I may write more about this later, but a flag flown on the first shuttle mission was left on the International Space Station by the last shuttle mission, and will be awarded to the first U.S. company to fly astronauts to the station. That’s pretty cool.

— Joy of Tech did a final undocking comic that’s not bad.

— Did you know astronauts can’t whistle on spacewalks? Learn something knew every day.

“My Radio Tuned to the Voice of a Star”


Heather talked to the space station Friday.

It was cool.

For those who don’t know, she’s been writing an official NASA blog for a while now.

So way back when, I suggested we should try to set up a downlink for her to talk to the International Space Station as material for her blog.

Downlinks aren’t necessarily that easy to get, but, I figured, if I could get one msyelf years ago, it wouldn’t hurt to try again for her.

Our friends from the education wing of the astronaut office at Johnson Space Center in Houston delivered, big time.

Not only did she get a downlink, she got a downlink while the space shuttle was docked with the space station.

i did my downlink back in 2004. I talked to the entire crew of the space station at the time — two people. U.S. astronaut Mike Foale, who was becoming the first American to spend a year in space, and Russian cosmonaut Sasha Kaleri.

Heather talked to eight people — the entire crew of Discovery, and both U.S. members of the space station crew.

I’m not jealous. Foale and Kaleri were both very interesting, and I had a great conversation with them. Plus, coincidentally, Sasha’s in space again right now. He talked to me on my downlink. He didn’t talk to Heather. We can tell who he likes better.

But that meant every U.S. astronaut in orbit Friday morning was participating in the downlink. The entire focus of America’s human spaceflight program for 25 minutes last week was talking to Heather. That’s kinda cool, too.

(Of course, I guess that was not only true of mine, but I was the focus of all the world’s human space complement. It seems less impressive when it’s just two people, though.)

Preparing for the downlink was a lot of fun. One of the goals of the downlink was to get student involvement, which we did, peaking with having two Marshall interns each ask a question of the astronauts.

But we also had to write several of the questions ourselves, and that was a neat opportunity. I’ve done a downlink before, we’ve both watched several other downlinks, and we’ve done astronaut interviews. We heard all the standard questions and all the standard answers, and challenged ourselves to come up with something different, to get the crews to give us something different.

I think we did a good job of coming up with questions, and I think the crew did a great job of coming up with answers.

The downlink took place in the Payload Operations Control Center at Marshall, essentially the “mission control” for space station science. If there’s something going on with vehicle or crew operations, the astronauts talk to Houston. If they’re talking about science, they’re talking to Huntsville.

It’s a cool room, with the flags of ISS participant nations on the ceiling and patches of supported missions on the wall and console stations with easily a dozen monitors. It was a great setting for the downlink, and it was an honor to be allowed in. (I did mine in a small supply room in the building I worked in. Totally not jealous about that, either.)

It was rewarding seeing the flight controllers enjoying the downlink. One said that in 11 years of watching them, this was the best she’d seen.

Heather did a great job. She was nervous beforehand, but, of course, handled it perfectly.

I suggested the downlink originally in part because I thought it would make for good blog content, but mainly because I wanted Heather to have that experience. I believe firmly in the value of doing things; I believe that hands-on experience gives you an insight and investment that you don’t get other ways.

I was glad she got this opportunity, and proud of what she did with it.

I got to help, too. I was the coordinating line. I stayed on the phone from an hour before the downlink until after it was over, communicating with the folks in Houston that were making the connection, and letting Heather know what was going on. When the downlink was extended three minutes before it was to end, I got to let her know that. (For my downlink, I had to manage both lines myself, with Houston on my cell phone on one ear and ISS on the landline on my other ear. Still not jealous.)

Going to the launch last week also enhanced the experience — Heather was talking to astronauts that she had just seen blast into space in person eight days ago.

It also meant that Caden, her five-year-old who was fascinated by the launch, was sufficiently interested to spend half an hour at 6 in the morning watching astronaut talk to his mom on television. (How many kids can say that? [On a personal note, it amused me that I now can say I have the clout to arrange for the space station to call my girlfriend. How many guys can claim that?])

Caden knew about the downlink, but wasn’t thinking about it earlier last week when he saw an airplane contrail and said, “I think that’s the space shuttle coming back to land.” I told Heather to remind him that the shuttle couldn’t come home until after they talked to her. I think he now thinks his mom has to give the shuttle permission to land. He has an interesting view of what she and I do.

Landing is scheduled for Wednesday. And they have Heather’s permission to come home.

Photos by Emmett Given of NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center.

NASA: Doing What No Else Can Do


The new social networking tool at work has a “Question of the Week” feature that invites users to share. This week’s question was “What is it about NASA that makes you proud to be a part of it?” Only a handful of people had answered when I did, and they started by talking about what they do, so I did, too. Here’s the answer I posted.


I work in education. I’m proud to, but I’m aware that I’m a very small cog in a very big machine.

My team got to be “mission” for STS-118. We were involved in a “real” payload, and when the crew visited Marshall after the mission, we were the ones invited to join them for lunch. But that was the exception. We have nothing to do with putting people into space, with exploring other worlds, with bringing crews home safely, with conducting science on the space frontier, or any of the other sexy things the agency does.

Our job is to help inspire the people who will do those things in the future.

I love my job. A lot. I’m proud to be a part of the agency. But, every once and a while, there comes a moment that reminds me just what this agency is that I’m a part of.

I hear a talk by Alan Bean. I watch a launch of the space shuttle. I talk with astronaut aboard the space station. And I’m reminded just what this agency is.

We do the things that no one else on the planet — or off, which in our case is a necessary distinction — can do. The only reason we can’t say that we do the impossible is because NASA takes those things that are impossible for anyone else and makes them possible.

Who else could have landed men on the moon? Who else could place two rovers, back to back, on the surface of Mars? Who else could deliver a crew of seven people to help construct the International Space Station? Who else could peer into the cosmos the way we have with the Hubble Space Telescope? Who else could inspire the people of America, and of the world, the way NASA has?

Who else? No one. NASA does the things no one else can do. These things must be done, and therefore we must do them.

And we do.

How could one not be proud to be part of an organization like that?