Saturday, December 22, 2007

This made me laugh today/this week/this month

Catching up on funnies:

Working on the space station: Day 1: Comic where the artist takes reader suggestions for the character's actions. Quite funny, especially if you've ever played an adventure game.

Giant Spider attacks Space Shuttle: "One thing is for certain: there is no stopping them; the ants will soon be here. And I for one welcome our new insect overlords." - Kent Brockman

LRO Lego Model: The Lego model has successfully completed all qualification testing and passed its final acceptance review. The project management is also using this as a test of the LRO team members' ability to problem solve in preparation for I&T. Ron Kolecki will be on call for the mandatory inspection points. Dave Everett will verify the technical integrity. Craig Tooley will make sure you stay on schedule. Good luck, and may the frictional force be with you.

Happy Holidays from Mike Griffin: The Twelve Days of Christmas and the Vision for Space Exploration.

Mars Rover Jr.: It takes pictures of rocks! Also sometimes drills in them.

Roving the Moon (?)

The House Omnibus spending bill, which was also passed by the Senate last week, contained some pretty specific language in it:
In 2005, NASA selected a team for the development of a lunar lander spacecraft consistent with the goals set forth in the Administration's Renewed Spirit of Discovery and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2005 (Public Law 109155) which called for a robust lunar robotic program, including robotic lunar landers. The National Research Council's report: The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon further supports robotic precursor missions to the Moon's surface and the valuable scientific resource such missions will provide for returning humans to the Moon. The Appropriations Committees agree that the NASA selected mission is of critical importance for the exploration vision. For this purpose, $42,000,000 is provided for this lunar lander mission.

From Senator Shelby's press release:
The Program Management Office for NASA’s Lunar Precursor and Robotic Program (LPRP) is based at Marshall Space Flight Center. The program includes the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, LCROSS and Lunar Robotics Lander missions. These missions will gather critical data for the return of the United States to the moon and the potential for a long-term presence there. The bill includes a total of $271.5 million for LPRP, of which $42 million will be for the Lunar Lander mission and another $20 million will be for the program management office for activities associated with the Marshall Space Flight Center. The LPRP management office will be directly involved in the planning and oversight of future lunar robotic missions, integrating lunar data from NASA and other international missions, oversee technology development, and lead NASA’s public outreach and education activities for understanding the lunar environment.

“The LPRP program is an invaluable tool for the scientists and engineers at NASA to determine the best course of action when returning to the moon,” said Shelby. “The President, Congress and the scientific community have repeatedly pointed out the importance of a robotic lunar lander as a precursor to manned flights to the moon. I am glad the bill recognizes this need and Marshall’s role in accomplishing it.”

A couple things are playing out here. As NASA is underfunded in its ambitious Exploration program, it decided to cut the RLEP-2 lunar lander last year, saying all it needed for return to the Moon was "a good map." That might be true if you want to just land once, look around, and fly away. But this return to the Moon (we hope) will be so much more than that. The RLEP-2 mission was designed with two main objectives: characterize potential landing sites from the ground, with an eye on resources like hydrogen/water, and test critical human mission components like automated precision landing and structures.

There are a lot of ideas out there for ultra-low-cost lunar missions, like little rovers for the Google Lunar X-Prize and other small sats. I'm all for creative design of lunar micro-orbiter or micro-landers. They could send back some cool photos or movies, and it would certainly generate a lot of excitement, which is political capital. But, those class of spacecraft can't do the real tasks that scientists and engineers need as part of renewed exploration - that is, sophisticated sample analysis at multiple sites, self-similar platforms to test human lander components, and sample return. To accomplish these significant tasks, we need a more serious investment. Even if you think NASA costs are bloated, try cutting them in half. The MER rovers cost $850 to launch. Cut it in half, then half again for a single lander - you're still over $200M.

So, while RLEP-1 (aka Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) will get our "good map," there's still a lot of work to be accomplished by a serious lander, designed to address outstanding engineering and science goals that benefit planning across all of NASA. So keep your fingers crossed! I definitely am - combining lessons in design, operation, and public value of the MER rovers with forward-looking science and exploration goals on the Moon can't be anything but totally exciting - and why I came to work for NASA.

Friday, December 14, 2007

What I did last week

Last Friday I gave a short talk on a panel called Forging the Future of Space Science: The Next 50 Years. It was a really fun event celebrating the 2nd International Geophysical Year. The main reason I'm aware of the first Geophysical Year in 1957 is that is when the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was built, establishing a long-term, permanent human presence at the center of the Antarctic continent. I've been to Antarctica twice now with the Antarctic Search for Meteorites, and I know firsthand how much amazing science about our planet - biology, oceanography, volcanology, paleontology, meteorology and climate science, and of course astrobiology and space science - are uniquely enabled by the South Pole and other Antarctic outposts providing vital support and logistics. So it's personally fitting for me to be talking about building a permanent human outpost on the Moon during the 2007 IGY.

It was fun to spend my 10 minutes gushing about the Moon. My main point is that the first time we went to the Moon, planetary science was in its infancy and we were learning how to explore another planet. The knowledge we gained from those missions gave us a framework for thinking about terrestrial planets - things we consider fundamental now, like that they are made of rocks that form through normal igneous processes, they are differentiated into a core, mantle, and crust, and impact craters extensively modified the surface. Then we happily went off, using this knowledge to explore other planets. But we never took that knowledge back to the Moon, to understand the Moon as a unique planet in its own right. The chance to have an outpost and study the lunar South Pole in the same way we've come to be able to work in Antarctica would be an amazing scientific and human accomplishment.

But, setting my 10 minutes of soapbox grandstanding aside, I had a mindblowing day, meeting some giant people who live here in Huntsville. Ernst Stuhlinger spoke first - he is one of the original von Braun rocket team, who emigrated to the US after WWII and jumpstarted the US Space PRogram here in Huntsville, and who went on to serve as associate director for MSFC. I had dinner with Jan Davis, a shuttle and space station astronaut, and Dave Williams, currently President at the University of Alabama Huntsville, but who made his career in iron meteorites and was my ANSMET tentmate Lysa's undergraduate advisor. It's a small, small world.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Workin' on the weekend

This weekend, I'm volunteering to help move Spirit along. We've just passed the autumnal exuinox on Mars and are sliding into winter, which means the sun is getting low on the horizon and Spirit needs to start tilting toward it. The team has decided to have Spirit winter over on the north side of Home Plate, this great volcanic feature we've been investigating for a while now. We were hoping to get to more exotic territory before Spirit had to stop for the winter, but this year was compounded by the huge summer dust storms - remember when that howling wind actually cleaned the solar panels off? Well, as they say, what goes up must come down, and Mars dust is no exception. Spirit's solar panels are now coated in dust and as the amount of sun and heat declines, so does hope for dust devils. The thick coating of dust has reduced power on Spirit even in advance of the wintertime.

Adding urgency to our mission to keep Spirit safe and healthy is the fact that the rover got trapped in a sand pit on top of Home Plate for a week or so. The always-skillful rover planners extricated Spirit and now she is perched on the edge of the world - as you can see in this Navcam image. Now we're doing some short drives along the edge to map out the slopes and rocks and find a good place for Spirit to slide down the edge and achieve a pretty exciting 25 degree northerly tilt. We're hoping that the tilt and a power conserving winter plan will allow Spirit to survive the depths of a second Martian winter and go on to explore more of Mars come springtime.

The truth is, I really miss spending my time with the rovers, so I'm more than happy to come in on the weekend and get back into the guts of operations. It's also very cool that the many other people it takes to plan a rover drive sol are willing to come in on their days off to make this work. This is the second weekend in a row that the JPL engineers and the science staff came in to shepherd Spirit along. Big love to all of them!