On July 14th, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) released the most detailed map of Mars to date. The USGS compiled data from four orbiting spacecraft over the course of more than 16 years to make the map, which, according to researchers working with the project, should add significantly to our understanding of the Red Planet.
The four spacecraft used in making the map include three NASA spacecraft—Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter—as well as the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Probe. Among the many insights that the map provides is the fact that the Martian surface is older than scientists previously believed; according to researchers, three times as much surface area formed during the Early Noachian Epoch—the first major geologic time period—than previously thought. This period is characterized by a high rate of meteorite impacts, the likely presence of water, and widespread erosion, and it lasted from about 4.1 to 3.7 billion years ago. Researchers also say that this new map could provide valuable information about possible future landing sites on the Martian surface.
After completing 200 orbits of the Earth for nearly thirteen days, Atlantis made its 33rd — and final — landing on July 21st, 2011, as STS-135 was the final mission of the Space Shuttle program. For thirty years, a generation of astronauts embarked on a wide range of dynamic missions utilizing the five shuttles that comprised the Space Transportation System (STS). As humanity’s first reusable spacecraft, these robust shuttles provided the means for two of NASA’s finest achievements — launching the Hubble Space Telescope and constructing the International Space Station.
"The space shuttle changed the way we view the world, the way we view the universe," STS-135 Commander Chris Ferguson said soon after landing. "America’s not going to stop exploring. Thanks for protecting us and bringing this program to a fitting end."
Since the completion of STS-135 three years ago, NASA still remains unable to send Americans to space, and must rely upon the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos for passage to the ISS. Hoping that an American-based commercial alternative would be available by 2015 under the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), NASA had an original contract with Roscosmos at roughly $62.7 million per seat aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. However, because of the failure on Congress’ part to fully fund the CCP at optimum levels, that goal was made impossible. Still requiring a means to transport Americans to and from the ISS, on April 30th, 2013, NASA was forced to extend that contract until 2017.
This extension also comes at a price. The price of one Soyuz seat now requires NASA to pay Roscosmos approximately $8 million more, at $70.7 million/seat. Tell Congress that you support fully funding the Commercial Crew Program and that you want to end NASA’s dependence on expensive Soyuz trips:
“It’s been a long way, but we’re here.” - NASA Astronaut Alan Shepard
While NASA has been sending American astronauts into space for over half a century, it all began with one - Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. An American test pilot, Shepard was selected as one of the first seven astronauts by the then newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Coined the ‘Mercury 7’, NASA’s first batch of carefully selected and trained individuals were to pilot the manned spaceflights of the Mercury program. In January 1961, Alan Shepard was selected from this group to pilot the Freedom 7 mission which would make him not only the first American in space, but the first human to reach this threshold.
Unfortunately, due to delays by unplanned preparatory work, the flight was postponed nearly seven months after the initial planned date. In this time, more specifically less than a month prior to Shepard’s flight, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin would leapfrog Shepard to become the first person in space and to orbit the Earth. On May 5, 1961, Shepard piloted the Freedom 7 mission and became the second person, and the first American, to travel into space.
Following his involvement with Mercury and Gemini, Shepard would command America’s third successful lunar landing mission - Apollo 14. The first mission to successfully broadcast color television pictures from the surface of the Moon, Shepard piloted the Lunar Module Antares to the most accurate landing of the entire Apollo program.
On July 21st 1998, at the age of 74, Alan Shepard succumbed to leukemia.
While today may belong to the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, it’s important not to forget another important anniversary for NASA - the landing of the Viking 1 spacecraft on Mars!
On July 20th, 1976, the Viking 1 lander separated from the orbiter and touched down at Chryse Planitia, a flat lowland region in the northern hemisphere of Mars. Immediately following touchdown, the lander made history by taking and transmitting the first complete photograph taken from the surface of Mars. The image (http://goo.gl/6C5L6m) was of the Viking 1 lander’s foot as an indication of how far it had sunk into the Martian surface. Between itself and its companion, Viking 2, this historic photograph was just the first of more than 50,000 images taken from the Martian surface, as well as from orbit, and transmitted back to Earth.
What makes Viking 1 especially worth noting is that it was not only the first attempt by the United States at landing on Mars, but it was also the first spacecraft to successfully do so and perform its mission. While the Soviet Mars 3 mission was the first to achieve a soft landing of a spacecraft on Mars it stopped transmitting data 15 seconds after landing. During those few seconds of transmission, it sent the first partial photograph taken from the surface of Mars although nothing was identifiable in it.
During its operation on the Martian surface, Viking 1 became the record holder for longest Mars surface mission at 2307 days, until Mars Rover Opportunity took the record in 2010.
The phrase “Tough and Competent” was created by NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz and became the rallying cry of NASA and the Mission Control crew after the Apollo 1 disaster.
"Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’ I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did. From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control."- The Kranz Dictum
Gene Kranz served as Flight Director for a number of NASA milestones, including Apollo 11, the “successful failure” of Apollo 13, and the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994. Please be sure to checkout another great video from our friend Mike Dawson and his Assignment Universe project.
The Apollo 11 astronauts had an unique chance to view the Earth from a completely different perspective, most specifically, Earthrise from lunar orbit. This perspective creates a newfound appreciation for our pale blue dot, as philosopher David Loy describes:
“To have that experience of awe is to, at least for the moment, let go of yourself, to transcend the sense of separation. So it’s not just that they were experiencing something other than them, but that they were, at some very deep level, integrating and realizing their interconnectedness with that beautiful blue-green ball.”
To the observer, borders seem to disappear as countries flow seamlessly into one another. Like a singular organism, Earth becomes something more than a map of divisions based upon ideology and geography. Those who share this vantage point see Earth as one ecosystem, with all parts artfully woven together to create a perfect home for millions of plant and animal species. Conflicts between nations become less apparent, and the need for a united planetary society to protect our beautiful home becomes increasingly obvious and imperative.
This realization of the interconnectedness of all life on Earth and the need to protect it, dubbed the Overview Effect, has been reported among astronauts from the Apollo program all the way through to the current International Space Station astronauts.
Astronauts are counted among the few who get to observe the Earth from the outside with the naked eye. For those of us on the surface, NASA continues to release stunning images and video from their Earth-orbiting spacecraft. Let’s keep their funding coming, so that all of humanity has the chance to learn about the importance of our beautiful home in space!
"A scientific colleague tells me about a recent trip to the New Guinea highlands where she visited a stone age culture hardly contacted by Western civilization. They were ignorant of wristwatches, soft drinks, and frozen food. But they knew about Apollo 11. They knew that humans had walked on the moon. They knew the names of Armstrong and Aldrin and Collins. They wanted to know who was visiting the moon these days."- Carl Sagan
After traveling four days and more than 238,900 miles, the Lunar Module Eagle began its descent to the surface of the Moon. Very early on, however, it became clear to Aldrin and Armstrong that their telemetry was incorrect as they recognized lunar landmarks were being passed too early. At approximately 6,000 miles above the surface, numerous guidance computer program alarms distracted the crew as they communicated with flight controllers. Mission Control engineers soon reassured the Eagle to continue with the descent as it was determined that their system was being overloaded with extra tasks not necessary to land on the Moon. After looking out of the window a few moments later, Armstrong was forced to take semi-manual control as he noticed that the navigational systems were guiding them towards an area comprised of boulders and an uneven landing surface. This manual override would require Aldrin to call out velocity and altitude data before landing fuel ran out. After a somewhat frantic period, the Lunar Module safely landed on the moon on July 20th, 1969 — with about 25 seconds of fuel remaining.
As an estimated 600 million people watched, Neil Armstrong became the first ambassador of the planet Earth to walk on another world. For over 2.5 hours, he and Buzz Aldrin captured the imagination of our species as they performed various scientific and geological experiments. Along with planting an American flag, a commemorative plaque marking this monumental human achievement was mounted to the Apollo 11 Lunar Module — and remains as a relic of humanity’s first journey on the Moon.
“We came in peace for all mankind. That statement really to me was a very symbolic one — not just of our mission, but of the entire Apollo effort.”- Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot
Apollo 11 was arguably our most exciting adventure, and over the span of three years, NASA sent a total of 12 astronauts to explore the Moon. However, not since 1972 have human beings been beyond low-Earth orbit. Please watch our video, The Spirit of Apollo, and consider what raising the NASA budget will once again do for our society.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of The Day the Earth Smiled.
On July 19th, 2013, people from more than 40 countries around the world and 30 U.S. states shared images of themselves waving at Saturn as part of NASA’s Wave at Saturn event. The event recognized the same day that NASA’s Cassini spacecraft turned back toward Earth and took our picture as part of a larger mosaic of the Saturn system. Normally, a spacecraft can’t turn back and image Earth directly because the sun’s rays would interfere with its cameras, but Cassini was able to take stunning images of Saturn with Earth in the background because Saturn itself came between Cassini and the sun, eclipsing the potentially damaging rays. The Day the Earth Smiled was the third time ever that the Earth was imaged from the outer solar system.