Tag Archives: NASA

A Journey to Mars

A guest blog post from Nancy Williams, CaSE

Last Friday evening (14 November 2014), Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, gave the Campaign for Science and Engineering’s 24th Annual Distinguished Lecture (listen here). In front of a packed IMAX theatre at the Science Museum, Ellen took us through some of the extraordinary advances in science, technology and engineering resulting from exploration of space, and the challenges even now being worked on by scientists across the world driven by NASA’s journey to Mars.

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: CaSE

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: CaSE

One of the great unknowns for us here on Earth is whether we’re alone in the universe – NASA’s Journey to Mars mission is working to get closer to the answer. Why Mars? The obvious answer would be that it is our planetary neighbour but what makes it an exciting prospect in the search for life beyond earth – is water. Mars is marked all over with signs that water once persisted on the surface – the ragged surface on the red planet could be compared to some of the great geological masterpieces shaped by bodies of water over millennia here on Earth – and then in 2008 the Phoenix lander took a sample of ice.

How do we begin such a search? What next steps do we need to take?

Ellen began by highlighting the importance of international co-operation in order to achieve this grand goal of going to Mars. She outlined tremendous work already achieved through combined efforts – particularly noting the extraordinary Philae landing this month as well as the ongoing work through the International Space Station, saying that in her view such a collaboration is worthy of a Nobel Prize. Although they are extraordinary, exploration by rovers and landers is very slow and limited – having scientists on Mars would dramatically change the scope of exploration and the timescale of discoveries.

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, talks at the Science Museum. Credit: CaSE

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, talks at the Science Museum. Credit: CaSE

We heard of the science, engineering and technology challenges that NASA has mapped out and how they, along with international and commercial partners, are going about finding answers. Getting people safely landed on Mars (and back again!) is not possible, yet – but Ellen said she expects it to happen in the 2030s. To get there, the challenges range from how to safely land a heavy craft in a thin and changing atmosphere, and how to keep Mars clean from contamination by microorganisms from earth, to ensuring that astronauts not only survive the eight month journey and landing but are healthy and able to work once they arrive – for instance combatting the muscle wasting and bone density loss that usually occurs in microgravity.

Another challenge is making the mission as efficient as possible – mass affects everything. NASA astronauts are already able to recycle 80% of the water they use, but as Ellen said – don’t think about that for too long. Other challenges you might not think about straight away – such as making sure dust from Mars isn’t brought into the spacecraft. But when you think about it, at zero gravity dust could cause havoc! But perhaps the dust could be put to good use – with the developments in 3D printers a next step being investigated as part of the ‘in situ resource utilisation’ research is how to use Martian rock to manufacture spare parts, rather than having to transport powder manufactured on Earth.

In the post-lecture Q&A one of the questions was on the timescale of decisions on future missions and investments. This highlighted the disconnect between the short-term, politically driven timescales of public funding and the long-term nature of NASA projects – a challenge not unfamiliar to UK scientists.

And of course in order to achieve NASA’s mission to Mars, and meet the many other great challenges faced closer to home, we need young people with creativity and ambition to become the next generation scientists and engineers. Ellen was animated about importance of inspiring young people about science and certainly did her bit on Friday (I saw one little girl grinning ear to ear holding a shiny new NASA badge)!

It is hard to do justice to the inspirational talk given by Dr Stofan in the awesome IMAX theatre at the Science Museum, so I recommend listening to the audio recording of the lecture itself (here) and you will have to imagine it is accompanied by wonderful images that are 17m tall and literally out of this world.

Obituary: Colin Pillinger (1943 – 2014)

By Doug Millard, curator of Space and Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs. 

Colin Pillinger, the planetary scientist, has died age 70.

Pillinger, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, began his career at Nasa, analysing samples of moon rock on the Apollo programme, and made headlines in 1989 when he and colleagues at the Open University found traces of organic material in a Mars meteorite that had fallen to Earth.

But he is best known for his remarkable and dogged battle to launch Beagle 2 Mars lander, named after HMS Beagle, the vessel that carried Charles Darwin during two of the expeditions that would lead to his theory of natural selection.

A model of the pioneering but ill-fated probe, designed to sniff for signs of life, can be found in the Exploring Space gallery of the Science Museum.

A model of the Beagle 2 Mars lander, on display in the Science Museum.

A model of the Beagle 2 Mars lander, on display in the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

The instruments, such as its camera, microscope, robot arms, mass spectrometer, gas chromatography, drill, and electronics had to fit inside the a compact 33 kg saucer which would unfurl on the surface of the Red Planet .

Although the craft was successfully deployed from the Mars Express Orbiter in December 2003, on which it was piggybacked, confirmation of a successful landing on Christmas Day never came and it became another of the many failed Mars missions.

But it does tell you a great deal about Pillinger’s remarkable personality. He made it happen through a mix of persistence, personality, endless lobbying and show-business flair, enlisting the help of half of the Britpop band Blur (who composed the call sign) and the artist Damian Hirst (who created the spots on the instrument’s camera calibration card).

Beagle 2 did succeed brilliantly in its secondary and perhaps more significant role: enthusing the British about space. It was Colin perhaps more than anyone else who showed the full value and importance of space exploration, and how it fits with that very human capacity to dream.

His wife Judith, and children Shusanah and Nicolas, issued a statement: “It is with profound sadness that we are telling friends and colleagues that Colin, whilst sitting in the garden yesterday afternoon, suffered a severe brain haemorrhage resulting in a deep coma.  He died peacefully this afternoon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, without regaining consciousness. “

British science has lost a star.

Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell inspires the next generation in the Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs on meeting Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell at the Science Museum.

Captain Jim Lovell, the astronaut who led the crew of Apollo 13 to safety after their spacecraft was crippled by an explosion, held an impromptu question and answer session for school children today in the Science Museum.

Apollo 8 & 13 astronaut Jim Lovell at the Science Museum.

Apollo 8 & 13 astronaut Jim Lovell in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module at the Science Museum.

His astonishing adventure, popularised by the film of the same name starring Tom Hanks, began when the Apollo 13 spacecraft lifted off on April 11th 1970 to land Captain Lovell and Fred Haise on the Moon, with Jack Swigert to pilot the command module.

Jack Swigert, responding to a daily request from Earth, switched on the cryogenic fan to stir up the contents of the oxygen tanks. A spark flew from a naked wire, causing an explosion that ruptured the oxygen tank. The lunar mission was doomed 200,000 miles out in space

Swigert saw a warning light that accompanied the bang, and said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

Quick action by the crew, who used the lunar module as a “life boat”, and dazzling improvisation by technicians on the ground salvaged the crippled spacecraft and brought it back to Earth within four days.

Lovell was visiting the museum today to accept the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators’ premier award, its Guild Award of Honour for Aviation Heroism and Professionalism, from “the Flying Judge”, Tudor Owen QC, Master of the Guild.

But, while posing for photographs in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module which is on display in the Science Museum, he decided to take questions from a crowd of schoolchildren who were visiting.

Astronaut Jim Lovell meeting school children at the Science Museum.

Astronaut Jim Lovell meeting school children at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

‘Were you scared when you came back,’ asked one girl. ‘I was scared before I came back,’ came the reply. ‘After I landed I was very happy that I was back on the water and our spacecraft didn’t sink.’

What was the explosion like? ‘It was quite violent, although we did not know exactly what it was at first. We thought maybe a battery had blown up and then we saw oxygen escaping. When that occurred, we knew we had lost an oxygen tank. We actually lost both oxygen tanks.’

How does it feel in space? ‘It is actually very comfortable when you get used to it.’

Lovell flew in space four times; as pilot on Gemini 7 in 1965 and as Command Pilot on Gemini 12, before his two Apollo missions.

He is the only man to have flown to the Moon twice, but not landed on it. He went in orbit around the moon in Apollo 8. Earthrise, one of the most iconic images ever, was taken from the spacecraft.

Earthrise over the moon, taken by the Apollo 8 crew, 24 Dec 1968.

Earthrise over the moon, taken by the Apollo 8 crew, 24 Dec 1968. Credit: NASA

Captain Lovell also met Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper, Technologies & Engineering, who is working on a landmark museum exhibition about Russia’s space pioneers, scheduled for next year. Lovell later remarked that, during the crisis, the Russians had offered help with recovering the command module, after re-entry.

A few weeks ago, fellow Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan also visited Apollo 10. Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon.

With Jeffrey Kluger, Jim Lovell wrote a book about the Apollo 13 mission, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13  Here are some extracts from the book, which was the basis for the later Ron Howard movie Apollo 13:

“A short, muffled blast echoed through the spacecraft. It rocked for a few brief seconds, then settled down and quiet again prevailed. I could tell by Fred Haise’s expression that he didn’t know what had happened. A quick glance over to Jack Swigert told me the same. Jack’s eyes were as wide as saucers.”

“Powering down meant everything. The only items left operating were the radio to talk to Earth and a fan to circulate the atmosphere in the spacecraft. We were flying on the seat of our pants. But again we ran into problems. The altitude control rockets were never designed to control the altitude of the lunar module with a dead 60,000 lb command and service module attached to it, so, without the autopilot, I had to fly it manually. Pushing forward on the controller did not result in a pitch-down motion but some wild gyration in another direction. I had to learn to ‘fly’ all over again.”

“If we came in at too shallow an angle, we would skip off the atmosphere like a stone off water. If we came up too steeply, we would burn up in seconds like a meteor.”

“The procedures called for manually rotating the spacecraft, using our newly acquired ‘flying skills’, to put Earth in the lunar module window. In that window I had mounted a crosshair ‘gunsight’. If I could line up the terminator on Earth, the line between daylight and darkness, with the horizontal line of my gunsight, then the lunar module’s descent engine would be properly positioned to correct our angle of entry into the atmosphere.

We had only one chance to make the manoeuvre: at the point in our flight home when we had just left the sphere of influence of the Moon and had the least forward velocity. Aquarius’s clock had failed, so I told Jack to time the burn with his Omega wristwatch. I had two three-axis attitude controllers in Aquarius, the primary and a back-up. I told Fred to use the back-up controller to maintain yaw control. I would control pitch and roll with the primary controller. Two emergency electrical buttons were located on the left side of the console. One was labelled ‘Start’ and the other ‘Stop’.”

“At the proper time, I pushed ‘Start.’ The engine came on full blast. Fred and I jockeyed Earth in the window. Fourteen seconds later, Jack yelled ‘Stop!’ and I pushed the button. Mission control monitored the burn via telemetry: ‘Ignition!… Thrust looks good… It shut down…Nice work.’ ‘Let’s hope it was’, we replied. Space networks radars soon confirmed that Apollo 13 was comfortably back within the entry corridor.”

“I was in Aquarius, straining to get a glimpse and photograph the service module as it drifted by: ‘OK, I’ve got her… There’s one whole side of that spacecraft missing: right by the high gain antenna, the whole panel is blown out, almost to the base of the engine – it’s a mess.”

“At 142 hours 40 minutes elapsed time, Odyssey slammed into the thin upper air at about 400,000 ft. A pink glow came through our windows, when the atmosphere started to decelerate the spacecraft, and the temperature on the heat shield rose to 5000F. When we reached 40,00ft, the drogue chutes popped out, followed by three beautiful main parachutes. Odyssey splashed into the Pacific Ocean just a mile or so from the USS Iwo Jima on Friday, April 17, after a flight lasting 142 hours, 54 minutes and 41 seconds.”

The last man on the moon

Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, visited the Museum for a tour of our space technologies collections with Curator Doug Millard. Press Officer Will Stanley describes Gene’s encounter with his old spaceship.

Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: Science Museum

Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: Science Museum

This is the Apollo 10 Command Module, sent to the Moon and back by NASA in May 1969 as a dry run for the mission that would put the first men on the Moon. But it’s also known by another name, “Charlie Brown”, and this was how Lunar Module Pilot Eugene A. “Gene” Cernan greeted the module when he saw it this morning in the Science Museum.

I asked Gene what it felt like being reunited with Charlie Brown again, “You take yourself back in time to where you were. The view was out of this world.” And Gene should know. He’s been into space three times: as pilot of Gemini 9A (1966); lunar module pilot of Apollo 10 (1969); and as commander of Apollo 17 in December 1972, the last Apollo mission.

Commander Gene Cernan, pictured in our Exploring Space gallery

Commander Gene Cernan, pictured in our Exploring Space gallery. Credit: Science Museum

As only the 11th person to walk on the Moon – and the last to re-enter Apollo 17’s lunar module – Gene has the distinction of being the last man on the Moon. How long he will keep this unique title is still a matter of debate. “Curiosity is the essence of human existence. We have centuries of exploration on this planet alone. What’s around the corner? What’s across the ocean? It is our destiny to explore,” explains Gene.

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (r). Credit: Science Museum

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (r). Credit: Science Museum

Walking through our Exploring Space gallery with Curator Doug Millard, our conversation turns to the differences between manned and robotic space exploration. “This is the only computer that can respond to the unexpected,” says Gene, pointing to his brain. “You send humans to deal with the unexpected. To bring back things no one expected to find. That’s the purpose of exploration.”

We arrive in front of Apollo 10. “That’s Charlie Brown. I like to feel that by going to the Moon in Apollo 10 for a dry run, we made Apollo 11 far more successful.” Gene turns to us and jokes, “Where were you when Apollo 10 launched? I know where I was! Sat in that.”

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (l) in front of Apollo 10. Credit: Science Museum

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (l) in front of Apollo 10. Credit: Science Museum

His re-entry was one of the most dramatic ever seen. Apollo 10 holds the record as the fastest manned vehicle, reaching speeds of almost 40,000 km per hour (11.08 km/s or 24,791 mph to be exact) during its return to Earth on 26th May 1969. “It was 5 or 6 in the morning and we were like a shooting star coming in,” explains Gene. “On my Gemini mission I could see reds and greens, but for the Apollo 10 re-entry I saw purples and a white hot glow.”

After Gene spots an image of his excursions driving NASA’s Lunar Rover (Moon buggy) on display, I asked which was more fun, driving the rover or piloting “Snoopy”, the lunar module. “Flying Snoopy was pretty exciting, but driving a car in 1/6th of Earth’s gravity. Well if you get the chance, try it. It is a lot of fun. I truly believe we could go back and drive it again, but you might need to replace the batteries,” jokes Gene.

Commander Gene Cernan test-driving an empty lunar rover on the Moon, shortly before Apollo 17 Mission’s first Extra-Vehicular Activity. Image credit: NASA

Commander Gene Cernan test-driving an empty lunar rover on the Moon, shortly before Apollo 17 Mission’s first Extra-Vehicular Activity. Image credit: NASA

“Someone did a hell of a good job building it,” says Gene, looking at Apollo 10. “This not only got us there, it got us back again too. Every man who went to the moon came back.” The round trip to the moon took Apollo 10 eight days. Gene explains how he passed the time, “It was very busy, and pretty exciting. There were all kinds of experiments to do and we were getting ready for challenges ahead. On the way back, you look back and have to pinch yourself. The good news is you had the chance to do it, to go to the Moon. The bad news was that the time went so fast.

Our time is up. Gene takes a last look at Charlie Brown, his former home in space. “In Apollo 10, the three of us, Commander Thomas Stafford, Command Module Pilot John Young and me, we travelled faster than any other human beings ever.” It’s a claim very few can make.

On Thursday 26 September 2013, the Science Museum is offering visitors the rare opportunity to see the interior of the Apollo 10 Command Module via a handheld camera. Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper of Technologies and Engineering will be answering questions about Apollo 10 and the Museum’s Space Technologies collections.

The Science Museum will be also be sharing images and taking questions via Twitter using @sciencemuseum and #Apollo10.

Blue Marble

Apollo 17 – One last view of the Blue Marble

Forty years ago today, on 7th December 1972, Apollo 17 and three astronauts, Commander Eugene Cernan, Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans, and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt, blasted into orbit. The three-day trip was to be the final mission of the US Apollo space programme, and forty years later, humans are still to leave low earth orbit to return to the Moon.

Launch of the Apollo 17 mission

This Saturn V rocket carrying astronauts Eugene Cernan (Commander), Ronald Evans (Command Module pilot) and Harrison Schmitt (Lunar Module pilot), lifted off from the Kennedy Space Centre, Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 7th December 1972.
Credit © National Aeronautics & Space Administration / Science & Society Picture Library

The Apollo 17 crew carried out many scientific experiments and broke several records – the longest time in lunar orbit, longest extravehicular activities on the lunar surface and the largest lunar sample return – as well as producing one of the most iconic and widely distributed photographic images in history: the Blue Marble.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt collecting samples

Schmitt is seen collecting Moon samples by a large lunar boulder, with part of the Lunar Rover in the foreground.
Credit © National Aeronautics & Space Administration / Science & Society Picture Library

Five hours into the Apollo 17 mission, the crew looked back at the Earth, some 45,000 km away, to capture this famous image. The photograph is one of only a few to show a fully illuminated Earth – the Sun was behind the astronauts when the image was captured – and to the crew, our planet appeared like a glass marble, hence the name. 

Blue Marble

This picture, known as Blue Marble, was taken by the crew of Apollo 17, NASA’s last manned lunar mission, on their way to the Moon in December 1972.

Aspiring astronauts of all ages have plenty of opportunities to see iconic space objects when visiting the Museum: A sample of Moon rock, brought back with Apollo 15 is on display in our exploring space gallery, with the Apollo 10 Command module – complete with re-entry scorch marks – on display in Making the Modern World.

Apollo 10, carrying astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan, was launched in May 1969 on a lunar orbital mission as the dress rehearsal for the actual Apollo 11 landing.
Image Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Families can celebrate the 40th anniversary of the last man to walk on the moon with the Legend of Apollo 4D Experience. Feel the impact of a Saturn V rocket launch and join the ground-breaking Apollo mission crew through NASA film archives and 3D computer animation. Legend of Apollo is suitable for ages 4+, flights take off throughout the day and can be booked here.

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