Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Looking to Hubble's Future and to Hubble's Successor

Artist's conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Space Telescope Science Institute

On my recent trip to the Washington D.C. area to begin work on the history of the Hubble Space Telescope, I spent most of my time at the Goddard Space Flight Center in the Maryland suburbs of the American capital.

The control centre for Hubble is located at Goddard, and much of the development work for the space telescope was done there. Although my work is of necessity focused on Hubble's past, the engineers and scientists  at Goddard and at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore are, not surprisingly, looking to the future.

Hubble is nearing its twenty-fifth anniversary on orbit, and it has been nearly six years since the final space shuttle servicing mission upgraded its systems. Nonetheless, there is a great deal that can be done to keep Hubble operating, including changing operating procedures to minimize wear and tear on the spacecraft. The hope is to keep HST operating through the year 2020.

When Goddard staff draw up procedures designed to prolong Hubble's lifetime, they can test them on equipment that faithfully reproduces Hubble's systems. Because of Hubble's advanced age, some computer systems in these simulators resemble computers from the early days of personal computers in the 1980s.

At present, Hubble is still going strong, and with its relatively new instruments, it is delivering the best science of its career on orbit. When its systems age and force an end to its working life, a new space telescope should already be in operation.

That new instrument is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will be much larger than Hubble and operate at a much greater distance from Earth. The Webb Telescope will reside about a million miles from Earth at a point where the gravity of the Earth and the Sun balance each other out, and its mirror, which will be seven times the size of Hubble's, will operate at very low temperatures behind a gigantic sunshade.

JWST will be most sensitive to light in the infrared portion of the spectrum, which is not visible to human eyes. By concentrating on this light, the Webb Telescope will be able to peer even deeper into the history of the universe than Hubble.

The Canadian Space Agency, which was not involved in the creation of Hubble, is joining HST partners NASA and the European Space Agency in JWST. Canada is contributing a Fine Guidance Sensor that will help aim the telescope, and the Near-InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), an instrument that will help Webb search for distant objects in the universe and for planets orbiting other stars. 

JWST is scheduled to be launched in 2018, and scientists hope that Hubble will still be operating at that time so that both instruments can obtain data from the same objects that can be compared, which will increase the value of the Hubble data.

The Webb Telescope is now being assembled at Goddard, and one of the highlights of my recent visit was to have a look at JWST inside its cleanroom in Building 29. Once JWST is assembled, it will undergo rigorous testing at Goddard and at the Johnson Space Center to make sure that it will be able to withstand the rigours of launch and the vacuum of space. 

JWST can be seen behind the railing along the upper centre of the photo, taken December 11 at the NASA Goddard Space Center. The silver object at left is an instrument for JWST near the end of the black booms that will hold telescope's secondary mirror. One of the golden mirror segments for the main mirror can be seen at right. Chris Gainor photo

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Visiting Two Pieces of the Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2,  on display at the National Air and Space Museum. The holes in its radiator mark impact craters that were removed for study. Chris Gainor photos

My work on the history of the Hubble Space Telescope's operations in space began last week with a visit to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where Hubble is controlled, NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. There I met some of the talented people who keep HST operating who I will call on to help me tell the story of Hubble's nearly 25 years on orbit.

I also made another stop in Washington at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. In my last blog entry, I included a photo from a previous visit to that museum where I stood in front of the Structural Dynamic Test Vehicle that was used as a stand-in for Hubble. Last week I returned to that spot to see two instruments that were part of the space telescope for fifteen years. 

At the heart of Hubble's history is the fact that its instruments could be changed out by astronauts who flew to the telescope aboard the space shuttle and serviced it. After those two instruments were returned to Earth, the Smithsonian put them on display next to the Hubble test article.

Both were placed on board HST in the historic first servicing mission in December 1993 that restored Hubble's eyesight after it was discovered that Hubble's main 2.4-meter mirror was defective. 

One instrument is known as COSTAR (for Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement), which acted much like a pair of glasses in that it changed the path of light going to Hubble's instruments to correct for the main mirror's defect. Instead of lenses, COSTAR used a set of ten sophisticated mirrors to do the job. Not only did the mirrors, each of which are about the size of a dental mirror, have to be ground to the correct shape, COSTAR had to move each mirror to the right place to direct light to the correct path for each instrument.

Close-up of the pick-off mirrors from HST's COSTAR instrument, now on display at the National Air and Space Museum.

The other instrument is the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 or WFPC2. It too was installed on Hubble in December 1993, and this instrument took many of Hubble's most famous images of the heavens, including the Hubble Deep Field image which when released in 1996 gave us our deepest view of the universe, which took us 12 billion years back in time. 

Both COSTAR and WFPC2 were removed from Hubble and returned to Earth on the final shuttle HST servicing mission in May 2009. By then, all new instruments on Hubble carried their own corrective optics, which meant that COSTAR was no longer needed, and the spaces occupied by COSTAR and WFPC 2 were taken by more advanced and up-to-date instruments. 

On show at the Smithsonian, COSTAR looks unremarkable, rather like a metal box the size of a phone booth. COSTAR's most interesting exterior feature is found on one corner, where  one can see those small and sophisticated mirrors on mechanical arms that extended to allow the mirrors to "pick off" the light from HST's main mirror. 

WFPC2 is a different story. Shaped something like a baby grand piano, the camera includes a radiator on one side that was exposed to space throughout WFPC2's 15 years on Hubble. Today that radiator is full of holes. When the instrument was returned to Earth, its radiator was pocked with scores of craters from micrometeoroids and small pieces of space debris. Each crater area was removed from the radiator for study of the growing problem of impacts on orbiting space vehicles. 

Both these instruments have stories to tell about the Hubble Space Telescope, its development, and the environment where HST still flies. 

Hubble is supposed to be directed to a destructive re-entry over an isolated part of the Earth once its work is done. More than five years after the last shuttle servicing mission, Hubble is still going strong, so the question of how much longer it will be able to operate remains a matter of speculation. Even though much of this historic telescope will be lost after HST ends its operational career, instruments such as the two I visited at the Smithsonian will remain on display for people to see and consider.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Pursuing the History of the Hubble Space Telescope

Visiting the full-scale test article for the Hubble Space Telescope in 2006. Randy Attwood photo

In the coming spring, astronomers and many other people will be marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. 

In that quarter century, our view of the universe has been revolutionized, thanks to a large part - but not entirely - to the Hubble Telescope. Today we know that the universe is expanding at an increasing rate, much to the surprise of astronomers and physicists. These scientists are now trying to understand the reasons for that accelerating growth, suggesting that a mysterious "dark energy" is the reason.

Hubble has allowed us to measure the age of the universe more accurately than ever. Today it is believed to be 13.7 billion years old, give or take a few hundred million years. Hubble's famous Deep Field and Ultra Deep Field photos have looked back in time and picked out galaxies from the early years of the universe.

While planets orbiting other stars were first discovered in the 1990s using Earthbound telescopes, Hubble and more specialized space telescopes have provided more information about these planets, with Hubble taking the first visible light photo of such an object.

But what most non-scientists remember are Hubble's amazing photos that go from nearby planets to stellar nurseries and from exploding novae to mysterious nebulae and evolving galaxies.

In addition to these and many other discoveries, Hubble has caused major changes to NASA and more importantly, to the way astronomy is done, both by professional astronomers and even rank amateurs like me.

Hubble is revealing the stories of our universe, but the space telescope's quarter century of operations have generated their own stories. And finding and telling those stories and looking for their meaning will be my job for the next few years.

Under a contract with NASA, I will head a group producing this history and a database of documents and interviews on the history of the HST. My colleague and mentor Dr. Robert W. Smith, now at the University of Alberta, wrote the definitive history of how Hubble was conceived and built in his 1989 book, The Space Telescope: A study of NASA, science, technology and politics

My book will pick up the story on April 24, 1990, when the shuttle Discovery carried HST into orbit. Soon horrified scientists discovered that the telescope's main mirror was misshapen, but in late 1993 the first shuttle mission dedicated to repairing and updating Hubble installed equipment that corrected the defective mirror and allowed the Hubble Telescope to live up to its original promise and exceed it. 

Since then, four more teams of astronauts have visited HST and performed needed repairs. When the administrator of NASA in 2004 decided to cancel the last repair mission due to safety concerns in the wake of the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, an aroused public caused NASA reverse itself and fly that mission in 2009. Five years on, Hubble is still operating well, but  the end of the shuttle program in 2011 means that Hubble is now nearing the end of its own mission, since further repairs will not be possible.

Collecting and writing all that history is going to be a big challenge. The photo above showing me standing in front of the full-scale Structural Dynamic Test Vehicle for HST on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., represents what I see as the dimensions of the task ahead. 

Watch this space for my adventures as I chase the history of Hubble. And, yes, I'll continue to keep an eye on other developments outside of Earth's atmosphere.

An article I wrote in 2010 on Hubble can be found here:  http://www.canadianspace.ca/2013/11/the-hubble-space-telescope-and.html

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Commercial Space's Disastrous Week

A Virgin Galactic image of SpaceShipTwo in flight.

Virtually every film about the early history of the space age contains a sequence of rocket failures, including exploding Atlases, a cartwheeling Thor, and a Titan slumping back onto the launch pad. Those aging film clips were a graphic reminder that launching rockets is an unforgiving business, and even the smallest mistake can lead to catastrophe.

When America's private space industry finally got off the launch pad in the last few years, it seemed to have escaped the failures that had dogged those earlier generation rockets. These new rocket firms, sometimes referred to as NewSpace, had finally arrived, and as I reported in this blog a month ago, they took centre stage at the  International Astronautical Congress in Toronto.

That all ended last week, it appeared, when an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded a dozen seconds after its launch on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, followed three days later by the loss of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, along with the life of one of its two pilots. 

Orbital Sciences, which built the Antares rocket, has a long track record going back thirty years. Orbital has enjoyed many successes but also its share of failures. Initial reports about the failure point to Russian engines Orbital purchased and refurbished, but investigations are still ongoing. Meanwhile, the ISS was replenished by a Russian Progress freighter that was launched just a few hours after the Antares failure, and a SpaceX Dragon freighter is slated to deliver more supplies to the station in December.

The Virgin Galactic crash has not surprisingly gained more attention because of the loss of co-pilot Michael Alsbury and the serious injuries suffered by pilot Peter Siebold, along with the fact that SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry paying customers to the edge of space. More than 700 people, including Hollywood celebrities, have paid $250,000 to book a flight with Virgin Galactic.

When Sir Richard Branson set up Virgin Galactic a decade ago after the success of SpaceShipOne in the competition for the $10 million X Prize, he hoped to be flying paying customers within three or four years. Instead, testing of SpaceShipTwo and its mother ship have taken much longer than expected, and a first flight with passengers had slipped to 2015 before the accident.

Until the Halloween crash, Branson and Virgin Galactic had been criticized for excessive caution, but since then, there have been many suggestions that Virgin Galactic was pushing too hard, especially with its troublesome rocket system. These theories about its rocket have been undermined by the revelation that SpaceShipTwo broke up following an accidental deployment of wings that were supposed to slow the craft later on in flight.

As with the Antares loss, we will have to await the result of the investigation into SpaceShipTwo before reaching conclusions. 

To me, the failures were not a surprise, simply because of the unforgiving nature of rocketry and space flight, and the fact that these vehicles were built by human beings. There will be more failures in the future, and they won't discriminate between public and private builders.

There has also been some commentary about the fact that the SpaceShipTwo pilots put their lives in jeopardy in the cause of joy rides for the wealthy one per cent. While I deplore growing income disparity in the United States, Canada and elsewhere, I don't agree with this critique of Virgin Galactic.

Most super rich people waste their money on overpriced real estate, overpowered cars, gated communities, right-wing politicians, and other frivolities.

In the case of Virgin Galactic's high-priced suborbital flights, the ticket buyers are helping open space to many others who can only dream of escaping Earth. 

Today, fewer than 600 people have gone into space since the first human left Earth more than 50 years ago. After the initial enthusiasm for space flight in the Cold War, taxpayers have become increasingly reluctant to pay for ambitious space programs. 

If space is to be opened up, it will be left up to private space flight providers and to the people who can afford those expensive flights. Over time, as more people fly, even on joy rides, and demand grows for space flights, the cost of those flights will go down.

The sacrifices made by Michael Alsbury and Peter Siebold will be as important to a future where space is open to many people as those that have previously been made by the astronauts and cosmonauts who died in earlier space disasters. Hopefully the lessons learned from last week's events will quickly lead to safer and more frequent access to space.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Canada's Space Program Loses its Leader

CSA President Walter Natynczyk (left) unveils CSA commemorative coin with astronauts David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen at the recent International Astronautical Congress in Toronto. CSA photo

The Harper government is in trouble with Canada's veterans. Traditionally a constituency that supports the Conservatives, veterans are upset with major changes to their benefits, disputes over treatment of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and ham-handed treatment by the Minister of Veterans Affairs that have created a sense of betrayal.

We are already being subjected to volleys of taxpayer-funded commercials that suggest that the Harper government is behind our veterans, but even this fix isn't working. So on Wednesday Prime Minister Harper announced that Gen. Walter Natynczyk, a former chief of staff of the Canadian Forces, is being brought in as Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs to clean up the mess.

For the last fifteen months, Natynczyk has been the President of the Canadian Space Agency, and his appointment there had raised hopes that the agency would regain direction after years of neglect by the Harper government and the Liberal government that preceded it.

As a rather small agency in the Ottawa firmament, the CSA has usually received little attention from the top levels of the federal government, regardless of who is in power.

The Harper government made a good call in 2008 when it blocked the sale of Canada's largest space contractor to an American firm, but since then the CSA has suffered under cutbacks imposed as part of the Harper government's goal of balancing the budget.

During Natynczyk's short time as president, the CSA was given a policy framework that fell short of a long-awaited new space policy, but the framework marked modest policy progress. Insiders gave Natynczyk credit for getting the troubled Radarsat Constellation program back on track.

At the International Astronautical Congress a month ago in Toronto, Natynczyk was left to deal with the fallout when the Harper government denied visas to top Russian and Chinese space officials for political reasons.

But his promotion to the sensitive post at Veterans Affairs suggests that the government was happy with Natynczyk's performance.

Luc Brûlé, who became vice-president of the CSA earlier this year after having held management jobs at the agency since 1991, has been named as interim president. Chances are, Brûlé will be filling in until after the federal election takes place next year as the CSA continues to await badly needed new policy directions.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Bringing Canadian Space Enthusiasts Together

RASC Executive Director Randy Attwood addresses the Canadian mixer at the  IAC in Toronto. Chris Gainor photo.

Conventions provide great opportunities to meet people, and the recent International Astronautical Congress in Toronto was no exception to this rule. Canada's excess of geography means that people like me who live far away from centres such as Toronto and Montreal have few opportunities to network with other Canadians who share common interests.

Having drawn more than 3,000 delegates from around the world, the IAC featured many gatherings of smaller groups, including one that brought together Canadians who support space exploration.

Some belong to professional groups such as the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute and the Canadian Space Commerce Association, or advocacy groups like the Planetary Society and the Canadian Space Society. 

As an American-based organization, the Planetary Society is focused on NASA's planetary exploration program. The Canadian Space Society is working on expanding its membership base beyond central Canada as it tries to make its voice heard in Ottawa in support of Canada's space program.

Probably the biggest space-related organization in Canada is the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, which has more than 4,500 members across the country.

The primary interest of most RASC members of course is astronomy, but many of them closely follow space exploration. The RASC has been focused on providing services for its members, and it has occasionally lobbied to support Canadian professional astronomers. But it has rarely ventured into speaking out about Canada's space program.

The Canadian mixer at the IAC was a rare occasion where members of these various groups could gather to talk about their work and their hopes for Canada's future in space.

Although it will be many years before the IAC returns to Canada, another opportunity to bring Canadian space  enthusiasts together will take place next May 20 to 24, when the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) comes to Toronto.

The ISDC is an annual event sponsored by the National Space Society, an American group that supports more and greater activities in space. The ISDC draws astronauts and top flight speakers from NASA and American space contractors. It has only once before taken place outside the United States - in Toronto in 1994.

Next year's ISDC will attract many Canadian space enthusiasts, which will permit further discussion about how to promote Canada's space program. That could include more joint activities involving Canadian space organizations. 

The recent meeting at the IAC was a "getting to know you" session, and the upcoming ISDC in May will offer a chance for more concrete cooperation between Canadian space organizations, both in making the conference a success and in working together afterwards to promote and build Canada's space industry.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Commercial Spaceflight Comes to the Fore at Toronto Congress

Model of Next Generation Canadarm at IAC 2014 inspected by group including CSA astronaut Jeremy Hansen (second from right). Chris Gainor photos.

The 65th International Astronautical Congress, the third to take place on Canadian soil, will likely be remembered for marking the coming-of-age of commercial provision of human spaceflight. Sessions devoted to that topic at last week's congress at the Toronto Convention Centre were standing room only affairs in big rooms, unlike previous congresses, where commercial human spaceflight sessions took place in small and unfilled rooms.

The rise of commercial human spaceflight shows that the space policy of the Barack Obama administration is taking hold, especially with September's announcement that Boeing and SpaceX had been contracted to supply astronaut ferry services to the International Space Station, hopefully starting in 2017. Since the space shuttle flew its last mission in 2011, U.S. astronauts have been dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to the station. 

Boeing and SpaceX had major presences in the trade show at the Toronto IAC, as did Sierra Nevada, which  after the NASA decision against it is looking for other customers to buy into its Dream Chaser space plane concept. Sierra Nevada has also resorted to asking the courts to overturn NASA's decision to choose its competitors.

NASA officials explaining the turn to commercial provision of spaceflight services compared these spacecraft to trucks. When the U.S. government needs trucks today, it buys vehicles designed and built by private industry rather than designing its own trucks and having them built to those specifications. That policy is already in operation with SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft delivering supplies to the ISS.

NASA Associate Administrator  Bill Gerstenmaier told one session that NASA's current vision means far greater change than simply what spacecraft are used to carry crews to the ISS. Once the station is retired, perhaps as soon as ten years from now, radical changes could be in store for spaceflight in low Earth orbit (LEO).

Gerstenmaier said LEO should become the place where the private sector uses the space environment to improve life on Earth, providing services such as remote sensing of Earth and using the space environment to develop new materials.

If he were handed the money to build another ISS, Gerstenmaier said he wouldn't take it. "If you give your money to me, I'll take it and go explore." The targets of NASA's  exploration plans include the planet Mars, asteroids, the Moon, and other bodies in the solar system.

Much of that exploration will likely be done with the Orion spacecraft being built  for NASA by Lockheed Martin. Orion got its start under the Bush space policy a decade ago, and the first test launch of Orion is slated for December.

Model of Orion Spacecraft on show at IAC 2014.

Other commercial providers of spaceflight were also present at the congress. Virgin Galactic, whose plans to carry paying passengers on suborbital flights have been repeatedly postponed, updated delegates on their problems with propellant for their SpaceShipTwo vehicle and hopes to begin full operations next year. Tickets are available for $250,000 a ride. Far more expensive are commercial trips around the Moon being offered on Russian spacecraft by Space Adventures Ltd. at $180 million. 

Canada Plays Politics

A tradition at these congresses is for the heads of the world's major space agencies to gather. The leaders of the Russian and Chinese space programs were conspicuous by their absence from Toronto, and the reason turned out to be the Harper government 's decision to refuse them visas. 

In the case of Russia, many countries have sanctioned the Putin government for its illegal takeover of the Crimea and complicity in the destruction of a Malaysian Airlines aircraft, but Canada seems to be the only country extending these sanctions to space activities. Earlier this year, Canada had pulled a Canadian navigation satellite off a Russian rocket and at the congress it announced that the satellite would instead be launched by India.

Russia didn't have a booth at the IAC 2014 trade show, but Ukraine did.

Many delegates believe that the denial of visas to Russian space program officials, including well-known cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, constituted a victory of the Harper government's domestic political imperatives over Canada's international reputation. Most space programs today, especially Canada's, rely on international cooperation, and the Canadian government's handling of these visas could have unexpected repercussions.

Canada's space program, including the Canadian Space Agency's remaining astronauts, David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen, were front and centre at the congress, but with budgetary restraint being the order of the day at the CSA, there was little new on show except for Canadian contractor MDA's plans for a next-generation Canadarm for use on Orion and other spacecraft, new Earth-facing cameras slated for installation on the ISS by Vancouver high definition image provider Urthecast, and Toronto Italian espresso maker Lavazza's unveiling of a prototype espresso maker for the ISS.

While these products portend only minor changes, the rise of commercial human spaceflight means big changes in the field of spaceflight. With NASA leading the way by supporting commercial space providers, other space agencies, corporations and individuals may find it easier to book seats into Earth orbit.

In place of the Soyuz ferries and the ISS of today, tomorrow's space traveller may be able to choose between a number of commercial providers to get into orbit, where they will be able to visit space stations built by private providers, such as Bigelow Aerospace and its inflatable modules. And NASA astronauts, perhaps accompanied by Canadian astronauts and others, may fly beyond Low Earth Orbit to new destinations in the solar system. That's the vision spelled out at the Toronto congress, but events on Earth will ultimately tell whether this vision becomes reality.

The two most famous attendees at the congress were former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, and Bill Nye the Science Guy, who is doing a great job as the new face of the Planetary Society. I bumped into Nye on the first day of the congress. 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Looking Back at Canada's Last International Astronautical Congress

Commercial Displays at IAC 2004. Chris Gainor photos.

Next week I will be in Toronto for the 65th International Astronautical Congress, the world's biggest annual meeting of people involved in the exploitation and exploration of space.

This annual event first took place in Paris in 1950, and it has rotated around the world since then, taking place last year in Beijing and scheduled for next year in Jerusalem. The meeting at the Metro Convention Centre, which goes from September 29 to October 3, is the third to take place in Canada - the IAC also took place in Montreal in 1991 and in Vancouver in 2004.

These meetings draw thousands of delegates, including astronauts, leaders of space agencies, managers, engineers, scientists, business people, lawyers, and even historians like me.

I took part in the Vancouver IAC ten years ago, and as the Toronto IAC approaches, I am reflecting on what has changed and not changed in space in the decade that has passed since the Vancouver meeting.

That meeting opened on October 4, 2004, which was not only the 47th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik but an historic day for space in its own right. That day SpaceShipOne completed the set of flights to the edge of space that won it the $10 million Ansari X Prize, heralding a new era of private space flight. That news created expectations that the day when tourists would be able to fly on short suborbital flights to the fringes of space was only a couple of years off.

A decade later, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is still undergoing test flights and except for the handful of multi-millionaires who have been able to afford scarce seats on Soyuz spacecraft flying to International Space Station, the dream of space tourism remains on hold. No doubt this prolonged delay would have surprised those hopeful attendees at the Vancouver IAC in 2004.

Although Virgin Galactic's work to establish suborbital space tourism has moved at a slower and more deliberate pace than had been expected, it has met no serious setbacks, and there are hopes that the first flight with tourists on board will happen in the next year or two.

Other private space efforts have moved ahead in the past decade, usually with the help of governments.

At IAC 2004, I picked up a t-shirt and cap promoting a then-new firm called SpaceX, which has since created the Falcon 9 rocket that has established itself as a new force in the space launch field, and the Dragon spacecraft that is already carrying supplies to the ISS. Although a recent SpaceX experimental launch failed, the fifth Dragon delivery mission to the ISS arrived at the station this week, and SpaceX won the go-ahead last week from NASA to build a spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the ISS. The firm has prospered to a large degree because of the Barack Obama administration's policy of supporting private space launch providers.

The success of SpaceX relates to another event from 2004 - the George W. Bush administration's decisions to end the Space Shuttle program, which duly happened in 2011, and replace the shuttle with a new booster and spacecraft. The Bush administration's replacement program still exists as the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft, which are still years away from operational flight. These vehicles are competing with new rockets and spacecraft being created by SpaceX and other private sector providers supported by the Obama policy.

China's first astronaut, Yang Liwei (right), appears but doesn't speak at the Vancouver IAC.

Another big event at IAC 2004 related to China's space program. Late one day, word arrived that the next morning China's first astronaut, Yang Liwei, would make his first North American appearance at the IAC. Less than a year earlier, Yang had rocketed into space aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft, serving notice that China was a rising space power.

Even though most of the astronauts who attended the IAC attracted little notice, Yang's appearance caused near pandemonium. In spite of the short notice, one of the larger rooms in the Vancouver Convention Centre was packed at the announced time of Yang's appearance, and he got a standing ovation from the large crowd as soon as he arrived.

Yang never spoke during the presentation about his flight, leaving all the talking to an official of the Chinese space agency. Cameras flashed throughout his appearance.

I was scheduled to give a paper at the same time, but everyone, including me, wanted to see the world's newest space hero. So we adjourned our history session and I gave my paper later that morning once Yang had gone.

Since then, China's human space program has moved at a deliberate pace. Four Shenzhou spacecraft with larger crews on board have followed Yang into orbit, the last two docking with China's first space station, Tiangong-1. China has also sent spacecraft to the Moon, most recently a robot that soft landed and then deployed a rover.

But more controversially, China has also developed military capabilities in space, notably an anti-satellite weapon that was used destroy a satellite in 2007, creating a serious and ongoing space debris problem. Tense relations between China and the United States caused NASA to reduce its presence at last year's IAC in Beijing.

Another 2004 event that reverberated at the Vancouver congress was NASA's successful landing of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars, signifying the resuscitation of NASA's Mars exploration program. Today Opportunity is still roaming the red planet, along with the larger Curiosity rover that landed two years ago. The Toronto congress takes place a few days after NASA's MAVEN spacecraft and India's Mars Orbital Mission were successfully inserted into orbit around Mars. The latter event has served notice that India has joined the ranks of the world's great space powers.

As the world's space industry heads to the Toronto congress, all these issues from ten years ago are still active. 

As well, the Toronto meeting will take place under the shadow of the ongoing tensions arising out of Russia's attacks on Ukraine that have pitted Russia against the United States and other space powers, including Canada.  Aside from some verbal threats, these tensions haven't yet affected the operations of the ISS.

Like other spheres of economic activity, the space industry is emerging from the protracted economic troubles that got under way in 2008. Activity in space by private firms and government agencies took hits from the recession, and next week we will see how far the space industry has bounced back.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Thoughts on the History of Technology

What do historians of technology do? Many people may think that we simply track the parts that go into the machines that we use in our lives and the systems that make modern life what it is. Or that we look at the individuals who are associated with various technologies, such as Thomas Edison or Bill Gates.

These topics are but a small part of our studies. The interaction of society and technology is a complicated one, and by studying this interaction we can learn a great deal about how technology and society evolve.

In explaining why we study the evolution of technology, I often start off with seemingly simple questions: are the technologies we use determined by the physical qualities of the devices involved? Or do people determine how these devices develop and are used?

An example I like to use when dealing with this question concerns stairs. When I display a photo of stairs being confronted by a person in a wheelchair, no one needs to be told what the person in the wheelchair is thinking. The person is wondering why there are only stairs and not a way of moving up or down that accommodates their disability.

Once buildings were equipped only with stairs, but today more buildings include other options such as ramps to help people get up and down regardless of their abilities. To put only stairs in a building was a conscious decision made by people, not something dictated by physics. And the fact that today buildings are routinely created to be accessible to all is a result of social change resulting from persons with disabilities and others advocating for this change.

Historians of technology look at questions like this, and at the design and use of things like the automobile. Why do our cars have certain capabilities and not others? Why and how did the internal combustion engine become the primary power source? Why not steam engines or the electric car? It's much more complicated than the superiority of one type of engine over another. It involved people making certain choices and sometimes acting to close off other choices for a variety of reasons.

In the matter of space exploration, we look at why it has progressed in the way it did. Why have humans gone to the Moon already? And why has no one gone back for more than four decades?

The history of technology is a relatively new discipline. Some date it to 1958, when the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) was formed, although it certainly goes back farther as part of the older discipline of the history of science.

Thomas P. Hughes 1923-2014

Earlier this year, we lost one of the great historians of technology and one whose writings influence my own work, Thomas Parke Hughes, who passed away in Virginia at the age of 90.

Hughes is probably best known for his 1983 book, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930, which compares how electrical power systems were set up in those years in Britain, Germany and the United States. While on the face of it, this is a dry subject, Hughes' account contained many insights about technology and the societies he covered in that book.

For example, early British power systems were private, small and highly decentralized. During this time, Britons moving just a few blocks would have to deal with a different power system and a different power provider with their own voltages and plug designs. Perhaps it was just as well that they had far fewer appliances back then! Germany had more centralized power systems that moved easily from private to state control, and the U.S. has been served by large private providers who fought ferociously against public power. The Great War that started 100 years ago led to greater centralization of power systems in all these places.

In that book, Hughes introduced ideas about phases in the development of technological systems, starting with invention and development, then technology transfer to and from other systems, followed by system growth and technological momentum as more people become dependent on a particular system. He also raised the idea of the technological reverse salient, where a system component does not progress along with other parts of the system in question, affecting the evolution of the whole system.

In American Genesis: A Century of Innovation and Technological Enthusiasm in 1988, Hughes wrote about how American culture was shaped by technological change and widespread popular enthusiasm for new technologies.

Two more recent works returned to technological systems. Rescuing Prometheus (1998) looked at the rise of systems engineering in the world of Cold War missile systems with the SAGE computer system and the Atlas missile, an area where I have done much of my historical work, and then its fall in large infrastructure projects in American cities, followed by its subsequent return in computer systems leading to the internet.

In Human Built World in 2004, Hughes discussed the interfaces between society and technology, arguing for a seamless web between the human and technological realms.

Hughes did not believe in technological determination and neither do I. But that doesn't mean that there isn't a complex interplay between technological systems and the societies they live in, with technologies affecting and being affected by political, social, and economic factors as well as their own physical properties.

Historians of technology such as Thomas Hughes have given us many insights about how technology affects our lives, and how society and social forces have shaped the technologies that we increasingly depend upon in our lives. These insights help us anticipate what the technological changes of today and tomorrow may bring.

Thomas P. Hughes, 1923-2014.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A Great Summer at the Centre of the Universe

RASC volunteers and telescopes at the DAO on September 6. Chris Gainor photo.

The first summer of public outreach at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory since last year's closure of the Centre of the Universe educational centre has gone in the books as a major success.

Large crowds came out for Saturday night public observing at the DAO, and space camps held for young students were also well supported. Having said that, this year's public outreach was not trouble free, and a lot of work needs to be done in the coming months to ensure that public outreach continues on a more permanent basis.

Last summer, the National Research Council of Canada, which runs the DAO, announced that the Centre and its public outreach work would close, although the DAO's research work would continue as it has for nearly 100 years. The Centre closed at the end of that summer.

By then, the public in Greater Victoria had shown its concern about the NRC's action by signing petitions supporting the Centre, and large crowds came out for the Centre's final public events.

In November, a meeting facilitated by Saanich South MLA Lana Popham brought people from the community and concerned groups together to begin the job of reconstituting public outreach at the DAO. The effort won support from the NRC, and for 2014, the Victoria Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada agreed to hold public observing nights at the DAO similar to what it had done before the Centre opened in 2001. 

The University of Victoria's Science Venture program agreed to hold space camps for children in Grades 3 to 8 at the Centre of the Universe building this summer. Science Venture is reported to be happy with the response to their space camps.

This year's public observing at the DAO began on May 3, Astronomy Day. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate, but more than 200 people came to the DAO anyway to tour the historic Plaskett Telescope. The story was similar when summer Saturday observing sessions resumed on July 5. After that, the weather was nearly perfect for most of the next six public observing sessions over the summer, with crowds usually exceeding 400 people for each session.

Last Saturday, so many people turned up that traffic jams formed on West Saanich Road, and many people were turned back. Capacity for both people and cars at the observatory is limited, and this is a problem that will have to be addressed for next year.

For each public observing night, RASC volunteers showed visitors planets, stars and other celestial objects through their own telescopes, while other volunteers conducted tours of the Plaskett Telescope, which in four years will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its opening. I helped out inside the Plaskett and had the privilege of working alongside telescope operator Dave Balam, who is one of the world's top experts on asteroids.

Visitors to the first observing night in August got to meet CBC Quirks and Quarks host Bob McDonald, who received a certificate from Balam stating that an asteroid has been named after him.  Lana Popham and her friends arranged for popcorn and hot chocolate for visitors to the DAO for last Saturday's summer finale.

For observing nights next year and in the future, the RASC is thinking about ways to improve programming, perhaps with lectures about astronomy.

The next step is to create a non-profit entity to operate the Centre of the Universe and outreach programs at the DAO. Don Moffatt, who spearheaded last year's petition to save the Centre, has set up a Friends of the DAO - Dominion Astrophysical Observatory group on Facebook, and everyone who is interested in keeping public outreach alive at the DAO is urged join this group.

Before public activities return to the DAO next year, those of us involved in this year's successes hope to have news about the new entity and new public outreach activities on Observatory Hill. While there are many ideas being discussed for future years, we must keep in mind that the observing sessions were run by volunteers, and volunteer time is not an unlimited resource, and funds for new programs are scarce.

Everyone mentioned above deserves thanks for all the hard work they did to make this summer's observing possible. I would like to give a special thanks to  the NRC and its staff at the observatory for all their help.

This year, the RASC Victoria Centre is celebrating its 100th anniversary. In June the Victoria Centre held a hugely successful General Assembly for RASC members from across Canada, something that also involved a major volunteer effort. Once that was over, Victoria Centre members pulled off this summer's observing nights. Kudos to all the RASC volunteers for creating a memorable centennial celebration!

Visiting the historic Plaskett Telescope at the DAO, September 6. Sherry Buttnor photo.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

A Visit to Seattle's Shuttle Simulator

The Space Shuttle Simulator at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Chris Gainor & Audrey McClellan photos.

Three years ago, the U.S. Space Shuttle program came to an end after 135 flights to Earth orbit over thirty years starting in 1981. While NASA and private companies continue to develop new spacecraft to replace the shuttle, the artifacts of the shuttle program are moving into museums around the United States.

The three remaining shuttles in the fleet went on display at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, the Smithsonian Institution's Udvar-Hazy Center just outside Washington, D.C., and the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Another shuttle used for flight tests but never flown in space is on display at the Intrepid Museum in New York City.

More than twenty museums had bid for the shuttles, and one of the more prominent unsuccessful candidates for a shuttle was the Museum of Flight on the south side of Seattle, alongside the King County Airport at Boeing Field.

As a consolation prize, the Museum of Flight got the full-scale shuttle simulator from the Johnson Space Center in Houston that every shuttle crew trained in as they prepared for their flights. On visits to Houston in the 1990s, I saw that the simulator was constantly in use.

After the move to Seattle, this simulator opened to the public in November 2012 in the specially-built Charles Simonyi Space Gallery, named after the Microsoft Office creator who is the only person to have paid for two trips into space aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (one of Simonyi's Soyuz capsules is also on show in the gallery).

Seattle is close to my home in Victoria, and I recently had the chance to visit the Museum of Flight and the simulator.

Inside the payload bay looking toward the cabin.

The simulator includes the shuttle's payload bay, and visitors can a good sense of the shuttle's large dimensions from outside and from walking inside the payload bay, something that isn't possible with flown shuttles. Hanging above the payload bay are full-scale replicas of an Inertial Upper Stage, a Boeing rocket that was used to boost payloads from the shuttle's low Earth orbits to much higher orbits or into trajectories around the Sun, and a large scale model of the Hubble Space Telescope.

For me, the highlight of the visit was a tour of the shuttle cabin, something that is available only on weekends and holidays and for extra cost. The cabin was where most of the work was done during this simulator's lifetime, and it bears the marks of more than 30 years of wear and tear. This is the reason the number of tours of the shuttle cabin are sharply restricted. But for anyone who wants to literally follow in the footsteps of the astronauts, the extra cost of this tour is well worth the price.

Shuttle Simulator flight deck

The habitable space inside the shuttle consists of the flight deck and the mid deck, each about as big as a bathroom in an average house. The flight deck includes the cockpit where the commander and pilot sat during launch and re-entry, and a control panel at the back that includes controls for both the spacecraft and the Canadarm that moved payloads around the payload bay, which is visible out of two large windows.

Visitors can't sit in the pilot and commander seats on the tour, but next to the simulator is a computerized cockpit mockup where visitors can try their hands at landing the shuttle.

Back control panel on the flight deck. The Inertial Upper Stage is visible through the window.

Directly below the flight deck is the mid deck, which is accessed by two ladders from the flight deck (unnecessary in space when one can float between the two levels) and the side hatch of the shuttle. The mid deck is lined with lockers containing gear for the flight, the compartment containing the shuttle toilet, and access to a tunnel leading to an airlock or the space station when the shuttle and station were docked, or to scientific modules that sometimes flew in the payload bay. The mid deck, which lacks windows, served as the sleeping station for shuttle crews, who used sleeping bags.

The half-hour tour of the shuttle cabin gives one a good sense of the close quarters that crews had to deal with on shuttle missions that sometimes lasted longer than a fortnight. And these accommodations were roomy compared to the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft that earlier astronauts flew, or even the Russian Soyuz ferries that today carry cosmonauts and astronauts to the ISS.

Note the signs of wear and tear on these mid deck lockers

In part because the United States has yet to settle on a new spacecraft to carry its astronauts into space, the shuttle still symbolizes America's space program to many people despite its retirement. The shuttle's place in history is still a matter of discussion and some controversy, something that is not addressed in this exhibit aside from information on the deaths of two crews on the shuttle.

That being said, the shuttle simulator adds a great deal to the Museum of Flight's space exhibits. The museum is best known for its great collection of vintage aircraft, including Boeing airliners produced in the Seattle area, and aircraft from the First and Second World Wars. The museum also owns a Concorde supersonic transport, and one of the Boeing 707s that served as Air Force One in the 1960s, along with a Super Constellation decked out in the livery of Trans Canada Airlines, the predecessor of Air Canada.

In part because Boeing was not as involved in early space programs and the shuttle as other contractors (some of which Boeing has absorbed in recent years), the Museum of Flight's space collection has been stronger on replicas than actual flown spacecraft.

Visitors can see full-scale replicas of the Mercury spacecraft and the Apollo Command Module and Lunar Module ascent stage. As well, the museum has a full-scale replica of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, which was manufactured by Boeing, and the Destiny module from the ISS, which visitors can walk through, along with a many artifacts from the space program, including space suits and equipment used by the astronauts.

For anyone who is interested in aircraft or spacecraft, the Museum of Flight is a must-see destination in the Pacific Northwest.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Canada's Space Story on its Stamps and Currency

Canadian stamp from 1966 honouring Alouette II

This is an updated version of an article I wrote in 2003 on Canada's stamps and currency related to space exploration.

In addition to my interest in space exploration, I also collect stamps. So it is no surprise that my collection includes stamps about space exploration. And Canadian stamps on this topic are of course of special interest.

As a semi-official form of recognition, postage stamps also reflect the interests of the government and society in general. In this case, Canadian stamps reflect the moderate degree of interest Canadians have in their own space program.

This moderate level of interest is shown in how Canada marked its early space achievements. When Canada launched its first satellite into orbit in 1962, the there was no stamp issued to mark the event. Instead, the first stamp related to Canada's space program honoured Canada's second satellite.

A five-cent commemorative stamp featuring Alouette II was issued on January 5, 1966, a few weeks after the satellite's launch. Yet no Canadian stamp was ever issued for Alouette I. In the absence of another explanation for ignoring this "first," it appears that politics was involved.

Back in the 1960s, Canada had a conservative stamp issuing policy, and the post office was a government department headed by a politician who sat in cabinet.

In 1962, when the first Alouette was launched, John Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservative government was on its last legs and was replaced a few months later by a new Liberal government under Lester Pearson. The Conservatives never took the opportunity to honour the first Alouette with a stamp, and the Liberals waited to put out a stamp until a satellite had been launched on their own watch.

Both Alouettes conducted research on Earth's ionosphere, a layer of the atmosphere that reflects radio waves. In the days before communications satellites, the ionosphere and its changes had major impacts on long-range communications.

Prior to the Alouette stamp, only four Canadian stamps contained any reference to outer space. A 1953 wildlife set included a polar bear on a two-cent stamp with a background suggestive of the Aurora Borealis, and a 15-cent definitive issued in 1954, showed a Gannet flying in front of the Big Dipper and Polaris, the North Star. Canada's two 1964 Christmas stamps depicted the Star of Bethlehem.

Three other stamps from this period also relate to space. Canada joined the U.S. and other countries in issuing a special stamp for the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, an event closely tied to the birth of the space age. Canada's stamp shows a microscope and a globe. Another 1957 commemorative shows explorer David Thompson using a sextant.

And on February 23, 1959, a five-cent commemorative honoured 50 years of flight in Canada with a design showing the Silver Dart, the first aircraft to fly in Canada, and three jet aircraft that bear a striking resemblance to the CF-105 Avro Arrow. This stamp design is rich with irony because the Arrow had been cancelled just three days before the stamp came out. Only five of the Arrows ever flew, and 32 engineers who lost their jobs when the Arrow was cancelled moved south and found work with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where they played important roles in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.

After the Alouette stamp, Canadian space stamps were few and far between for nearly two decades. An Olympic ceremonies set issued at the time of the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics shows a communications satellite on the eight-cent value between two Olympic torchbearers. A communications satellite appeared 10 years later in the Expo 86 set marking the World's Fair in Vancouver.

1986 Canadarm Stamp

In 1985, Canada honoured the flight of its first astronaut, Marc Garneau, with a 32-cent Canadians in space stamp. In 1986, a set of Canadian technical achievement stamps included one featuring the Canadarm or shuttle Remote Manipulator System that has been an integral part of the space shuttle. Another stamp in the set depicts the g-suit, which is widely used by pilots and astronauts to protect against blackout.

Canada issued two 42-cent space achievement stamps that are probably its best known space stamps. One stamp showed the Anik E2 communications satellite, and another stamp bore a hologram showing the Space Shuttle above Canada. The hologram stamp, Canada's first, is popular with collectors because of its many varieties.

Later in the decade, a technology set issued in 1996 included an aerospace technology stamp, but the design emphasized the "aero" part of the term. The design of the 1995 stamp commemorating the 125th birthday of the Province of Manitoba includes a Black Brant sounding rocket that is produced in Winnipeg by Bristol Aerospace.

Five of the 68 stamps in Canada Post's Millennium Collection set in 2000 touch on space themes. The Canadian space program stamp depicts the Alouette, ISIS, Hermes, Anik and RADARSAT satellites, along with the Canadian remote manipulator system installed on the International Space Station. The Space Shuttle appears on a stamp featuring the Imax film technology developed in Canada, and a communications satellite is shown on a stamp featuring Canada's largest telecommunications company, Bell Canada Enterprises. Canadian inventor George Klein, whose inventions include the STEM (storable tubular extendible member) antenna used on Canadian and American spacecraft, appeared on his own stamp. And Abraham Gesner, the inventor of kerosene, also has a stamp in this set. The invention of kerosene, which was used in the Saturn V and many other rockets, was also honoured with a Canadian 37-cent stamp in 1988.

Later in 2000, Canada Post issued a set of four Stampin' the Future stamps, which included two with a space theme. The stamps were designed by children and are similar to an American set issued at the same time to coincide with the World Stamp Expo 2000.

In 2002, a set of stamps featuring tourist destinations included a $1.25 stamp showing the Aurora Borealis, which draws tourists to Canada's north. A 48-cent stamp honouring St. Mary's University in Nova Scotia shows a student at a telescope.

Canada Post put out its largest issue of space stamps ever on October 1, 2003, when it honoured the eight Canadian astronauts who have flown in space with a sheet of eight self-adhesive stamps that include holographic stamping and micro-embossing. The 48-cent stamps represent missions flown on NASA space shuttles by Canadian astronauts Marc Garneau, Roberta Bondar, Steve MacLean, Chris Hadfield, Robert Thirsk, Bjarni Tryggvason, Dave Williams and Julie Payette. The bottom of the sheet depicts one of the high points of Canada's space program, the "handshake" between the Canadian-built robot arm on the shuttle Endeavour and the Canadarm2 aboard the International Space Station.

Roberta Bondar Stamp from 2003
Like the hockey all-star sets around that time, the astronaut set broke Canada's traditional prohibition on stamps for living persons outside of the Royal family. That rule was been officially lifted after that time, and since then many other living Canadians have appeared on our stamps.

Canada's role in creating a satellite-borne system to assist in search and rescue operations was acknowledged in a set of four search-and-rescue stamps issued on June 13, 2005. The four stamps depict search-and-rescue operations, along with a Russian Nadezdha or COSPAS satellite, and an American NOAA Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite. Both satellites also appear on the margins of the issue's miniature sheet. In 1979, the U.S., the Soviet Union, Canada and France set up the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite rescue system in a rare example of Cold War cooperation. Canadian-built search-and-rescue receivers were put on U.S., Russian and French satellites, and the system began operation in 1982.

On June 30, 2006, Canada Post marked the 100th anniversary of the Atlas of Canada with a 51-cent stamp. The stamp has no space theme, but the margin of the stamp's pane shows a satellite orbiting the Earth to obtain data from Earth orbit for today's Atlas of Canada. The "satellite" closely resembles the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, which were launched in the 1970s and explored Jupiter, Saturn and the outer Solar System.

Although Canada has a strong tradition of excellence in astronomy, it was only in 2009 that Canada issued its first stamps dedicated to the science. On April 2, Canada Post put on sale two 54-cent stamps and a souvenir sheet in honour of the International Year of Astronomy. The year was celebrated to mark 400 years since telescopes were first pointed at the skies.

One stamp shows the Horsehead Nebula in Orion and the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory near Victoria, B.C., which was the world's largest telescope for a few months after it was completed in 1918. The other stamp shows the Eagle Nebula in Serpens and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii, which began operations in 1979. The margin of the souvenir sheet and a booklet containing the stamps also contain photos of other astronomical objects.

In recent years, Canada Post has issued definitive stamps featuring Canada’s maple leaf flag. A set of five “permanent” domestic rate stamps issued in January 2011 included a design showing the Canada wordmark, which incorporates the flag, on the Canadarm in space. The five stamps were issued in booklets of ten self-adhesive stamps and in souvenir sheet form.

In 2011, 2012 and 2013, Canada Post issued stamps featuring the twelve signs of the zodiac. The four constellations depicted each year included traditional drawings of the constellation sign overlaying a star map of the constellation. The dozen stamps, all with a "permanent" domestic rate value, were issued in booklet and souvenir sheet forms.

Other Countries

Canadian space achievements have also made their way onto stamps from other countries.
In 1968, Barbados issued a set honouring World Meteorological Day that included a stamp depicting a large cannon built by a Canadian team headed by Dr. Gerald Bull.

The High Altitude Research Program (HARP) launched projectiles into high trajectories, but funds were cut off before Bull could attempt a satellite launch using the cannon. While some research was conducted at a site on the U.S.-Canada border in Vermont and Quebec, a cannon was built in Barbados with help from the U.S. military.

In 1987, the Soviet Union marked the success of the COSPAS-SARSAT search-and-rescue program with a souvenir sheet.

From the U.S., the 1981 space achievements set of 1981, and the $3.00 Challenger stamp of 1995 show the Canadarm on the shuttle, and the Canadarm appears on shuttle stamps from other countries, notably Germany's 1975 shuttle definitive. Alouette was featured in a 1966 Polish space set and a 2012 souvenir sheet from Mozambique. Marc Garneau, Canada's first astronaut, appeared on the Gambia's sheet of stamps in 1994 marking the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11.


Because all Canadian satellites and astronauts have been launched outside Canada, commemorative envelopes or covers marking these launches are available with cancellations from these foreign launch sites. An Alouette I launch cover from its Vandenberg Air Force Base launch site in California is illustrated.

Cover cancelled at Alouette I launch site on its launch date

Commemorative "tracking" covers from Canadian locations exist for early U.S. human space flights, especially Apollo flights. These covers are of limited value because no U.S. human spacecraft flew over Canadian territory until the Skylab program in 1973.

More information on space stamps is available from the website of the Space Topic Study Unit in the U.S. and the Astro Space Stamp Society in the U.K.

The best online source of information on Canadian stamps is the Canadian Postal Archives.

Coins and Currency

A Canadian spacecraft made its first appearance on our paper currency on a $100 bill that the Bank of Canada circulated from 2004 to 2011. The back of the bill showed RADARSAT-1 flying over a map of Canada.

In 2013, Canada's new $5 bill was put in circulation, complete with a depiction of a spacewalking Canadian astronaut near Canada's contribution to the ISS - the Dextre remote manipulator hand and Canadarm2. The design was unveiled by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield during his stint in 2013 as commander of the ISS.

Four Canadian coins also relate to space. A $20 coin issued in 1996 as part of a series marking the history of Canadian aviation depicts the Avro Arrow and Jim Chamberlin, who helped design the Arrow and went on to design the Gemini spacecraft for NASA. In 2006, the Royal Canadian Mint honoured astronaut Chris Hadfield's installation of Canadarm2 on board the International Space Station with two coins, one a $300 gold coin and the second a $30 silver coin. For the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, the mint issued a $30 silver coin.


"Canada's Space Story On Its Stamps," The Astrophile, November-December 2003, 251-254.

"Canada's 40-Year Spaceflight Heritage," The Astrophile, May-June 2003, 118-123.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Looking Back at Our First Close-up of Saturn

Ray Bradbury at the 1980 Voyager Saturn Encounter at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Chris Gainor photo

This entry records my impressions from my visit in November 1980 to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for Voyager 1's encounter with Saturn. It is adapted from an article I wrote for Spaceflight magazine in August, 2004, on the occasion of the Cassini spacecraft's arrival in orbit around the ringed planet. In the ten years since, Cassini and the Huygens spacecraft it dispatched to the surface of Titan in 2005 have further revolutionized our views of the Saturnian system.

Cassini's arrival at Saturn marked the first visit by a spacecraft to the ringed planet in nearly 23 years. Only three spacecraft had gone there before, all of those visits taking place in a narrow two-year time span – Pioneer 11 on September 1, 1979, Voyager 1 on November 12, 1980, and Voyager 2 on August 26, 1981.

Pioneer 11’s mission was mainly as a pathfinder, proving that spacecraft could survive the rigors of passages through the asteroid belt, the Jovian and Saturnian magnetic fields, and Saturn’s ring plane. Its primitive imager gave scientists and the public only a taste of the views Jupiter and Saturn offered.

Both Voyagers had passed by Jupiter in 1979, providing stunning views of the planet and its moons, most memorably the active volcanoes on Io. As Voyager 1 approached Saturn in the fall of 1980, more than the usual amount of anticipation was in the air at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Much of the future of planetary exploration hinged on the success of this encounter, because Voyager 1 had the dual mission of passing close to both Saturn and its moon Titan, the only moon in the solar system known in 1980 to have an atmosphere.

Titan's importance was shown by the fact that Voyager 1's path by Titan would direct it away from the orbital plane of the other planets. Only if Voyager 1 succeeded in getting data from Titan on its way in toward Saturn would Voyager 2 be freed to take a path by Saturn that would direct it to Uranus and hopefully Neptune. A failure of Voyager 1’s Titan encounter would mean that Voyager 2 would be directed to pass close to Titan, and that path would exclude further Voyager planetary encounters.

We know today that both Voyagers succeeded – Voyager 1 obtained its crucial data from Titan and Voyager 2 visited in its turn Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 1’s encounter with Titan wound up raising more questions than it answered, and those questions inspired the European Space Agency to send the Huygens probe to Titan's surface in 2005 after riding aboard  Cassini to the Saturnian system.

I was privileged to be one of the journalists at JPL covering Voyager 1’s dramatic encounter with Saturn and Titan, and my memories of that event provide an interesting backdrop to the discoveries that Cassini and Huygens have been making. In a dispatch to my newspaper, I described the findings of those few days in November 1980 as a “knowledge explosion.”

When it came to coining superlatives to describe the encounter, I had plenty of competition.  In addition to the scientists and engineers at JPL, there was a crowd of nearly 1,100 reporters and science fiction fans, including a number of celebrities, whose activities were chronicled by a reporter from People magazine.

Science fiction great Ray Bradbury came to JPL and declared: “This is another of those days that will be remembered a billion years from now. We are privileged to be here and be a part of it.”

Carl Sagan, then at the height of his fame as the star of television's Cosmos, rubbed shoulders with the media horde to shoot segments for a news programme on an American TV network. Many past leaders of the space program, including former JPL director William Pickering, joined the crowd. A large British media delegation was headed by Patrick Moore.
California Governor Jerry Brown spent several hours at JPL on encounter day, accompanied by his science advisor, former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart.

Brown repeated his contention, which even then sounded tired, that "resource efficiency and technological innovation are the keys to the future."

One of the biggest celebrities was a short, stooped man with a shock of white hair,
Clyde Tombaugh, who 50 years earlier had discovered Pluto. He autographed copies of his new book on a recent spate of discoveries about the planet he had discovered as a young man.

Most of the information was given out in daily morning press briefings, which drew standing room only crowds to JPL's von Kármán Auditorium. After scientists presented the latest photos and other data, journalists vied with one another for the first and best questions.
A large model of Voyager dominated one wall of the auditorium, and formed the backdrop for television news reporters and interviews. The crowds grew and contracted in direct relation to the proximity of the Nov. 12 encounter.

There was activity in the press area almost around the clock that week as Voyager 1 sent home a seemingly ceaseless stream of photographs that flashed in their raw forms onto television screens at the Voyager control centre at JPL.

Following the daily press briefings, reporters lined up to pick up their own copies of the best images. The photo office just outside the auditorium was adorned with a cartoon showing a hand clutching a photo of Saturn sticking out of an ocean surface, circled by shark fins. Most reporters still used typewriters and telephones to file their stories, since the internet, word processors, portable computers and even fax machines were still in the future.

Even before most reporters arrived for the encounter, Voyager 1 had sent back dramatic photos showing the structure of Saturn’s rings, including ringlets and hundreds of divisions that showed the rings to be similar to a phonograph record. Late in encounter week, scientists had found between 800 and 1,000 ringlets circling Saturn within the six major ring systems extending 480.000 kilometres from Saturn.

As Voyager flew by, the rings had more stunning surprises. The Cassini Division and the Encke Division were found not to be gaps in the rings at all, but ring systems that do not reflect as much light as brighter rings.

Intertwined "braids" and “knots” in the outermost ring appeared to defy the laws of orbital dynamics. “Spokes" were found in Saturn's major ring, apparently caused by interaction between the rings and Saturn's magnetic fields. Talk of shepherd moons filled the air at JPL.
“In this strange world of Saturn’s rings, the bizarre becomes commonplace,” said Dr. Bradford Smith, the head of Voyager’s imaging team.

Saturn's atmosphere defied predictions that it would be topped by haze, and instead revealed Jupiter-like bands, storms and spots.

Saturnian moons Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys. Dione. Rhea, Hyperion and Iapetus, were found to be made up mainly of ice, and all with the exception of Enceladus, which was not well placed for Voyager 1’s cameras, were seen to be peppered with craters.

Mimas, the closest large moon to Saturn, was photographed with a crater 130 km across, one quarter the diameter of Mimas. A photo of the crater and its central peak drew gasps at a press conference and a comment from Dr. Smith: “This is not an optical illusion.” Soon photocopies of the Mimas photo, complete with additional lines to make the moon look like a dead ringer for the Death Star from Star Wars, circulated around JPL and elsewhere.

The photos of Titan, on the other hand, were a disappointment. Titan's orangeish atmosphere obscured the surface. But Voyager’s instruments found Titan’s atmosphere to be deeper and denser than expected. Expectations of a methane atmosphere were dashed when Voyager’s instruments showed that Titan's atmosphere is made up mainly of nitrogen, the element that makes up 78 per cent of Earth's atmosphere. Methane makes up a few percent of Titan's atmosphere and dominates the haze atop Titan's clouds.

Titan, which long had been thought to be the largest moon in the Solar System, lost its title due to Voyager’s measurements to the Jovian moon Ganymede, although the matter remained in some question pending information on Neptune’s moon Triton.

As Voyager 1 moved away from Saturn, Dr. Smith proclaimed himself “stunned” by the images. “I cannot recall being in such a state of euphoria over any previous planetary encounter. We have learned more about the Saturnian system in the last week than we had in all previous recorded history.”

The amazing photos and data from Saturn and Titan opened the door for Voyager 2 to fly on to Uranus and Neptune. And the following August when Voyager 2 arrived at Saturn, the crowds of press and celebrities at JPL were even larger than for Voyager 1.

But despite Voyager’s success, apprehension hung over JPL the week Voyager 1 went by Saturn. Everyone knew that Voyager 2’s Saturn encounter would be the last planetary encounter by a U.S. spacecraft for at least five years. It was already being labelled by some pessimists as "the last picture show.”

The U.S. space program was ending a decade that began with the heights of Apollo on the Moon and Mariner at Mars, followed by years of cuts that grounded both NASA’s human and planetary programs.

President Jimmy Carter had shown little interest in space exploration during his term of office. And eight days before Voyager 1’s arrival at Saturn, Carter had been defeated in the 1980 presidential election by Ronald Reagan, who ran on a platform of major reductions to government spending.

 As a result, concerned NASA officials were present in force in the von Kármán Auditorium to court reporters in hopes of tapping public support.

 Angelo Guastaferro, NASA's director of planetary programs, surprised many reporters when he asked them for suggestions on how NASA could improve its image and get support for more missions to the planets.

And a press conference marking the culmination of the Voyager program became a discussion of the causes of the looming hiatus in planetary exploration.

Bruce Murray, then the director of JPL, said Voyager showed the potential of what America can do, but explained the hiatus this way: “As a people, we broke our concentration.”
Andrew Stofan, another NASA official, blamed over-optimism in the development of the space shuttle, which was then still five months away from its first flight. While the vast amounts of money needed to develop the shuttle in the 1970s starved other programs, Stofan added that NASA had ordered only enough large launch vehicles to support programs until the shuttle was due to begin flying in 1979.

Guastaferro said one casualty of the Shuttle delays was the Galileo spacecraft, which had been scheduled for a shuttle launch in 1982 toward a mission in orbit around Jupiter.
The NASA officials also discussed how shuttle problems were delaying the Solar Polar mission, a two-spacecraft international effort, and how political problems were besetting the Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar (VOIR) spacecraft.

"What scientists want to do in the later part of this century will be more difficult to describe and defend" than the Voyager missions or the 1976 Viking landings on Mars, said NASA’s John Naugle. Those future missions included a Saturn orbiter, a Titan orbiting imaging flight, and encounters with comets. NASA was talking with European nations about sending a mission to Halley's comet in anticipation of its close approach to the Sun and Earth in 1986.

As we know now, NASA’s planetary exploration program was put on the back burner for most of the 1980s, with the exception of Voyager 2, which encountered Uranus in 1986 and flew by Neptune and its moon Triton in 1989. Voyager 2 found Triton to be smaller than Jupiter’s four large moons and Titan, although Triton was found to possess a thin atmosphere.

NASA did not launch any new planetary missions until 1989, when the shuttle returned to service following the Challenger disaster in 1986.

Galileo was launched that year and it didn’t begin its mission at Jupiter until 1995. The Solar Polar Mission was reduced to the European Ulysses spacecraft, which was launched from the shuttle in 1990. VOIR was replaced by the less ambitious but very successful Magellan spacecraft, launched by the shuttle in 1989. A European spacecraft is exploring Venus from orbit today, and an American spacecraft is orbiting Mercury.

NASA never did launch a craft to Halley’s comet, but European, Soviet and Japanese spacecraft probed the comet, followed by NASA spacecraft that have since visited other comets. This week the European Rosetta spacecraft went into orbit around a comet.

After a two-decade hiatus interrupted only by the failed Mars Observer spacecraft, NASA returned to Mars in 1997. Among the many spacecraft that have gone to Mars since then, two rovers are today roaming the surface of the red planet.

And now Cassini is entering its second decade of exploring the Saturnian system. Together with Huygens, Cassini picked up on the exploration of Titan where Voyager 1 left off in 1980. I
n less than a year, the New Horizons spacecraft will give humanity its first close-up view of Pluto. 

Voyager 1 image of Tethys, Dione, and Saturn, November 3, 1980. NASA photo