Sputnik and The Shadow of the Moon

sputnik.gifThis fine John Noble Wilford/NY Times article on the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s launching of the Sputnik sattelite is a timely prompt to pass along the trailer for Ron Howard’s widely-anticpated documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, which opened last week in Houston at the Angelika and the Greenway theaters.

The Hubble Telescope Picture Archive

hubble telescope pic.jpgAfter more than a decade of fascinating discoveries and pictures, the Hubble Space Telescope got some good news last week — NASA announced a Space Shuttle mission to repair and upgrade the observatory, which will be the fifth servicing mission for the Hubble.
Take a moment to review this fascinating archive of 100 of the best Hubble pictures and marvel at this wonderful conduit to viewing the universe.

Remember the space shuttle?

NASA4.jpgAlthough seemingly already mothballed, NASA chief administrator Michael Griffin announced late last week that NASA will launch the space shuttle Discovery as planned on July 1. It will be only the second shuttle flight since the shuttle Columbia disintegrated over north Texas on February 1, 2003 during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
As noted earlier here, Griffin proposed the shelving of the space shuttle program by 2010 even before he became NASA’s chief administrator, and the latest mission will be the first of about 15 more flights between now and that projected cut-off date. The purpose of most of those missions is to continue construction and maintenance on the International Space Station and service the Hubble Space Telescope.
The Chronicle’s Eric Berger — who, by the way, is the best science blogger around — speculates here that Griffin’s patience for the space shuttle program is scant and that the upcoming Discovery mission is a “make or break” mission for the program. Consequently, if problems arise during any of the next few shuttle flights, then don’t be surprised when Griffin terminates the remaining shuttle flights and moves on. As noted earlier here, it’s time.

Mike Mullane has the Right Stuff

Mullane.jpgLongtime NASA shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane has written a new book, Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut (Scribner 2006) and, based on this Keith Cowing/SpaceRef.com review, the book appears to be a rollicking good time:

This is not a kiss and tell book (although it gets close on several occasions). Mullane doesn’t mince words and repeats what one person said to another (to the best of his recollection). This includes multiple times when Mullane said/did something dumb and regrettable. I suspect that the people depicted learned long ago what Mullane thought of them – so the tales contained in this book may not be a surprise to those folks – but they may find reading about these episodes to be a bit unsettling.
This book certainly shows a side of NASA that NASA Public Affairs Office would rather not have people read. NASA focuses (with some obsession) upon the positives, on the strength of the corps and its members. No flaws, no shortcomings – no weaknesses allowed. The net result is a homogeneous generic notion of what an astronaut is. While there may be a few people in the astronaut corps that come close to matching this image, Mullane smashes that generic notion. In more ways than outsiders might imagine, astronauts are just like the rest of us in more ways that NASA PAO would have you think.

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NASA shakeup continues

NASA3.jpgAs noted in this earlier post, new NASA chief administrator Michael D. Griffin is shaking things up at the space agency. This Washington Post article reports on Mr. Griffin’s latest moves, which include the building of a less political and more scientifically-oriented management team to implement the initiative to return humans to the moon by 2020 and eventually send them to Mars. One particularly interesting part of the article is the following:

“[Mr. Griffin] wanted to be NASA administrator for a long time and has given a lot of thought to what has been done well or badly,” one congressional source said. “Because of that, he is not going to take a year or two to get to know the organization.”
Instead, the sources said, he expressed dismay that NASA over the past several years had put a lot of people in top management positions because of what one source described as “political connections or bureaucratic gamesmanship — not merit.”
Several sources spoke of a corps of younger scientists and engineers, including Griffin, who had been groomed in the 1970s and 1980s as NASA’s next generation of leaders only to be shoved aside during the past 15 years. They said Griffin hopes to bring them back.
“The people around him will be quite outstanding,” one source said. “The philosophy is that good people attract outstanding people. This is going to be a very high-intensity environment, and NASA needs experienced, outstanding people.”

New NASA chief is shaking things up

NASA_logo.gifThis Washington Post article reports on new NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin‘s ambitious plan to shave four years off the timetable for building a next-generation spaceship to replace the obsolescent space shuttle. Dr. Griffin’s accelerated plan is to launch the new spaceship by 2010.
As noted in this previous post, Dr. Griffin faces entrenched opposition within the federal government and from government contractors to his efforts to revitalize NASA. This is story worth following closely, for its outcome will have a dramatic impact on the future of U.S. spaceflight, NASA, and the local Houston economy.
Update: Aerospace engineer Rand Simberg comments on Mr. Griffin’s initiatives in this TCS piece.

Rocket Boy disses the Space Shuttle program

NASA.jpgHomer Hickam, the former NASA engineer and author whose brilliant October Sky was made into one of the best family films of the past decade, urges President Bush to discontinue the obsolescent Space Shuttle program in this devastating Wall Street Journal op-ed ($), in which he observes:

I left NASA in 1998 to pursue a writing career. I’m glad I did, because I could no longer stand to work on the Space Shuttle: 24 years after it first flew, what was once a magnificent example of engineering has become an old and dangerous contraption. It has killed 14 people and will probably kill more if it continues to be launched. It has also wasted a generation of engineers trying to keep it flying on schedule and safe. Frankly, that’s just not possible and most NASA engineers in the trenches know it. Einstein reputedly defined insanity as repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. The Shuttle program is a prime example of this.

Mr. Hickam describes a phenomena of big governmental agencies that Robert Coram examined in regard to the Defense Department in Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War — i.e., the tendency of power elites in governmental agencies to perpetuate their pet projects at the expense of progress and innovation. Secretary Rumsfeld is confronting much the same inertia in the Defense Department as he attempts to transform America’s military, a topic that is addressed in these earlier posts. This is not a story that the MSM covers to any meaningful degree, but it remains one of the most important to America’s survival as a superpower.

CEO news

After a couple of years of shareholder unrest over the direction of the Walt Disney Co., the company’s board yesterday named veteran Disney insider Robert Iger to replace Michael Eisner as the company’s CEO. Mr. Iger was Mr. Eisner’s choice to to succeed him. Here are the previous posts over the past year on the turmoil at Disney.
The theory behind the appointment of Mr. Iger is that he is best suited of all the candidates to continue Disney’s recent financial success because of his experience with the inner workings of the unique Disney culture. On the other hand, some Disney board members are still smarting over the choice of Mr. Iger over over outsider Meg Whitman, the eBay Inc. CEO who interviewed for the job a week ago but almost immediately withdrew her name from consideration because she felt the Disney board favored Mr. Iger.
Consequently, Mr. Iger’s selection is unlikely to bring immediate peace to the fractured Disney boardroom, in which dissident board members Roy E. Disney and Stanley Gold have already criticized Mr. Iger’s selection as being a sham orchestrated by by Disney Chairman George Mitchell.
Meanwhile, Eliot Spitzer is about to carve another notch in his belt as this NY Times article reports that Maurice R. “Hank” Greenberg, who turned American International Group Inc. into a financial services industry giant over the past generation, is planning to step down as chief executive amidst concern on the company’s board over investigations into certain of the company’s structured finance transactions with a Berkshire Hathaway insurance unit. Here is an earlier post on Mr. Spitzer’s investigation into AIG’s practices.
Mr. Greenberg’s imminent departure from AIG is a stunning reversal for the New York-based financial-services titan. Mr. Greenberg is one of America’s most successful CEO’s, and has personally transformed AIG over the past 40 years from an obscure property-casualty insurer into one of the world’s largest financial-services companies. Its market capitalization of almost $170 billion makes it one of the world’s most valuable companies, and Mr. Greenberg is one of the company’s largest individual shareholders.
Finally, President Bush on Friday picked John Hopkins University physicist Michael Griffin to lead the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to replace Sean O’Keefe, who left NASA earlier this year after three years in the top job to become chancellor of Louisiana State University. Dr. Griffin will become the space agency’s 11th administrator.
For the past year, Dr. Griffin has headed the space department at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. It is the lab’s second-largest department and specializes in projects for both NASA and the military. Dr. Griffin has a fairly incredible academic background, which includes a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and five master’s degrees — aerospace science, electrical engineering, applied physics, civil engineering and business administration. Before taking over the space department at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Griffin was president and chief operating officer of In-Q-Tel, a CIA-bankrolled venture-capital organization and, earlier in his career, Dr. Griffin worked at NASA as chief engineer and as deputy for technology at the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.
Last year, Dr. Griffin was a part of a team of experts who recommended that NASA retire the space shuttle by 2010, send astronauts back to the moon by 2020, and then mounting human expeditions to Mars and beyond. The report recommended retiring the space shuttle in order to accelerate work on a spaceship that could carry astronauts to the international space station and ultimately to the moon.

Posner on planning for unlikely catastrophes

Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge, law professor, economics and law guru, and author Richard Posner has written — in light of the recent Indian Ocean Tsunami disaster — a timely new book, Catastrophe: Risk and Response (Oxford, Oct. 1, 2004), in which he argues that governmental planning for even unlikely disasters makes economic sense. Peter Singer reviews Judge Posner’s new book here.
Judge Posner summarizes his argument in that regard in this Wall Street Journal ($) op-ed, and makes the following point that should give pause to those who advocate further cuts in NASA’s budget:

An even more dramatic example [of lack of planning for unlikely disasters] concerns the asteroid menace, which is analytically similar to the menace of tsunamis. NASA, with an annual budget of more than $10 billion, spends only $4 million a year on mapping dangerously close large asteroids, and at that rate may not complete the task for another decade, even though such mapping is the key to an asteroid defense because it may give us years of warning. Deflecting an asteroid from its orbit when it is still millions of miles from the earth is a feasible undertaking. In both cases, slight risks of terrible disasters are largely ignored essentially for political reasons.
In part because tsunamis are one of the risks of an asteroid collision, the Indian Ocean disaster has stimulated new interest in asteroid defense. This is welcome. The fact that a disaster of a particular type has not occurred recently or even within human memory (or even ever) is a bad reason to ignore it. The risk may be slight, but if the consequences, should it materialize, are great enough, the expected cost of disaster may be sufficient to warrant defensive measures.

A man with “the Right Stuff”

Earlier this week, Astronaut John Young resigned from NASA. I was dismayed with the short shrift that the local newspaper gave to the retirement of this legend in spaceflight — indeed, there is not even a mention of Mr. Young on the Chronicle’s spaceflight section.
But make no mistake about it, John Young is an American hero. Mr. Young served as a NASA astronaut for an incredible 42-year career, which included spending more than 800 hours in space. His unprecedented career began with the first manned flight of the Gemini program in 1965, included two Apollo moon missions, and concluded with two flights on the space shuttle, including its first flight. John Young is the longest serving astronaut of them all.
Mr Young was a US Navy test pilot when he signed up for the second astronaut class in 1962. His first mission was to pilot the first manned voyage of the Gemini program — Gemini 3 — which was the first American space flight to have more than one astronaut on board. In 1966, Mr. Young commanded Gemini 10, which performed the first dual rendezvous procedures during a single mission.
Three years later, and two months before Neal Armstrong set foot on the Moon, Mr Young performed the test mission to the Moon in Apollo 10, in which he orbited the Moon in the command module. He subsequently returned to the Moon in 1972 as commander of Apollo 16 in which he piloted the lunar module to its perfect landing and drove a mooncraft 16 miles across the surface of the Moon. Including the liftoff from the Moon’s surface, Mr. Young was the the first man to blast into space seven times.
In 1981, Mr. Young piloted the space shuttle?s inaugural flight and guided the Columbia to a perfect runway landing, which was also a first. Two years later, Mr. Young commanded the Columbia in his sixth and final mission. He is also the only astronaut to pilot four different kinds of spacecraft.
And although a NASA lifer, Mr. Young never compromised his aviator principles for his position in the agency. In 1987, he was abruptly removed as NASA’s chief astronaut when he accused NASA’s chiefs of putting “launch schedule pressure” ahead of safety in the wake of the Challenger accident. His criticism was later vindicated by the report of the Presidential Commission that investigated the Challenger accident.
Just like the late astronaut Gordon Cooper and his fellow Mercury astronauts, John Young has “the Right Stuff.” Here’s hoping for a long and fulfilling retirement for this local Houston and American hero.