Tuesday, 24 November 2015

New Government, New Ministers, New Prominence, But The Return of Old Problems

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen at climate change event, November 23, 2015. CSA photo.
A few weeks have now passed since the 2015 federal election, and the new Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is taking form with a new cabinet and actions to bring its electoral promises to fruition.

Almost every day the new government does something that sets it apart from the ousted Conservative government of Stephen Harper. As I was writing this post, Trudeau met with the provincial premiers, something Harper had refused to do for nearly seven years, and more remarkably, the topic was climate change.

As part of the meeting, the first ministers heard from scientists about climate change, and that part of the meeting was moderated by Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen. The event marked the unmuzzling of scientists working on climate change after the Harper years, and new prominence for our astronauts, for Harper was not known to mix with astronauts except when necessary.

When the new government took office on November 4, the old Industry Ministry was replaced with a Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, with Mississauga-Malton MP Navdeep Singh Bains as minister. In addition, Trudeau named Etobicoke North MP Kirsty Duncan as Minister of Science, and assigned her to work as part of a team led by Bains.

And Marc Garneau, Canada’s first astronaut and a former president of the Canadian Space Agency, also sits at the Trudeau cabinet table as Minister of Transportation.

Since the Liberals refrained from making specific promises relating to Canada’s space program and space industry, space was not a part of the mandate letters given to Ministers Bains and Duncan, and so it remains to be seen what the new government will do about space.

Astronaut Jeremy Hansen with Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan. CSA photo.

Some clues to future directions did emerge last week in the form of speeches by Minister Bains and Sylvain Laporte, the President of the Canadian Space Agency.

Bains, whose riding includes Pearson International Airport and the many aviation contractors that surround it, told the 2015 Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa on November 18 that he has spoken with David Emerson, the former Liberal and Conservative minister who authored the 2012 review of Canada’s aerospace and space policies. This suggests that the Emerson report will inform the new government's future actions.

The next day, CSA President Laporte appeared at the 2015 Canadian Space Summit in Vancouver and gave his first address to a Canadian audience since his appointment in March by the Harper government. Laporte had just met ministers Bains and Duncan for the first time a few days earlier, and so there was little he had to announce. 

Many in the audience at the space summit, which was organized by the Canadian Space Society, hope the Liberals will reverse the tight-money policies of the Harper government that have caused distress to Canada’s space contractors, and a lack of opportunity at home for qualified engineers and scientists, especially those just graduated. So when Laporte was asked about the possibility of new money for the CSA, he replied that he has no news on that front but said he hopes for “constructive discussions” with the new ministers.

Laporte, who has worked within the Canadian government through his career, admitted that he does not have a background in space but aimed to demonstrate in his talk that he is working hard to catch up. He added that he is determined to fulfill his five-year mandate at the CSA.

Given that Innovation is a word that now appears in the name of the ministry that includes the CSA and was also used a great deal in Ottawa under the previous government, Laporte’s speech was also peppered with the word. 

That innovation agenda now faces a challenge. Canada’s second largest space contractor and one whose innovations have found their way into most spacecraft flying today, Com Dev International of Cambridge, Ontario, announced the day  after the Trudeau government took office that it is being sold to the American contractor, Honeywell International Inc.

Although the deal is structured to avoid a review by the federal government, such a review should be considered because of the important role Com Dev plays in Canada’s space industry.

The Com Dev deal recalls the attempted sale of Canada’s largest space contractor, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., to an American contractor in 2008. Faced with concerns about the security implications of the sale, the Harper government wisely blocked the transaction. 

The new Trudeau government will have to consider the fate of both Com Dev and MDA, and soon, given that federal budget cuts to the CSA have adversely affected the two firms and other Canadian space contractors.

Positive feelings envelop the new government today, but the clock is already running on difficult decisions that must be made on the future of Canada’s space industry. 

CSA President Sylvain Laporte addresses the 2015 Canadian Space Summit. Alma Iridia Barranco image via Twitter.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Canada's Space Program, the Election and the New Federal Government

Marc Garneau, the Liberal MP for Notre-Dame-de-GrĂ¢ce-Westmount.

The federal election just concluded on October 19 will be remembered for its result and its length, and by some people for the fact that space emerged as a minor issue.

In its fifty-seven years or so of existence, Canada’s space program has rarely been a matter of controversy, let alone an election issue. And when the 2015 election campaign began on August 2, there was little to indicate that this would change. Maclean’s, Canada’s self-styled national magazine, published a special Space Issue a month into the campaign, and the only mentions of Canada’s space program came in "where-are-they-now" interviews with our astronauts.

But New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair got the space policy ball rolling in the campaign on September 8 when he formally promised $40 million over four years for the Canadian Space Agency’s technology development program as part of his National Aerospace Plan. More recently, the NDP put out a humorous internet meme promoting its space promise.

On September 12, the Canadian Press  quoted a prominent Liberal and a leading New Democrat promising that the CSA would finally get a long-promised and long-delayed long-term plan, and more funds to carry out that plan should their parties form government. 

New Democrat Peggy Nash and Liberal Marc Garneau, who is also Canada’s first astronaut, responded positively to the Canadian Space Commerce Association’s call for the long-term space plan, with Nash pointing to Mulcair’s promise and Garneau suggesting but not promising that a Liberal government would provide more funds. The Conservatives did not respond to the call for a long-term plan.

On October 12, the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) in Canada issued a press release calling for the CSA’s budget to be stabilized, not only in terms of dollars but in terms of buying power. The CSA’s base budget was set at about $300 million in 1999, and it has stayed near that figure since then, despite the major fall in its real value due to inflation and currency fluctuations. SEDS Canada, which represents 11 groups around the country, warned that continued reductions to CSA’s budget threaten Canada’s $3.5 billion space industry and the livelihoods of 8,200 Canadians in highly specialized and highly paid jobs.

Canada’s space budget is a fraction of the U.S. space budget, even on a per capita basis. There are a number of individual hospitals in Canada that have bigger budgets than the CSA. But even when looked at purely as an economic driver and a generator of high technology exports, our space program is one of the best investments Canadian taxpayers make.

But the calls from the students and space advocacy groups, coupled with meagre order books at Canadian space contractors, signify that more help is needed for the space sector than the $40 million promised by the NDP.

This election turned on much larger issues than the CSA. Canadians basically decided that it was time to remove a Conservative government that, amongst other things, muzzled scientists, twisted democratic institutions to its own ends, threatened the rights of minorities for political reasons, and proved to be a poor manager of the economy.

The record of Stephen Harper’s government in space had some good points, notably the decision in 2008 to block Canadian space contractor MDA’s sale to an American competitor. But the CSA suffered from policy neglect and financial cutbacks as the Harper government searched for money for its narrow political priorities. Harper named Gen. Walter Natynczyk, the retired head of Canada’s defence staff, to bring some heft to the top job at CSA, but 15 months later, Natynczyk was moved out of CSA to help the government deal with the consequences of its poor treatment of veterans.

Sylvain Laporte, the longtime civil servant appointed as CSA president by Harper in March, is slated to make his first major speech at the Canadian Space Summit in Vancouver on November 19. 

Now there will be a new Liberal majority government in Ottawa. While the Liberals have made no clear commitments to Canada’s space program, it will have a powerful advocate at the cabinet table. Marc Garneau, who served as president of the CSA between his times as an astronaut and as a politician, probably won’t have direct responsibility for space, but as one of the senior members of Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, he will be in a strong position to bring positive change to Canada’s space program.

If Garneau succeeds as an advocate for the space program, he will bring an end to years of neglect at the hands of both the Harper Conservatives and the Chretien-Martin Liberal government that preceded it. It appears that the agency will need more attention and more new money than any party promised in the election campaign. Justin Trudeau has promised real change, but in space as on Earth we must wait to see if his actions in government live up to that promise.

The NDP's humorous internet meme from the recent campaign.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

New Group Helps Create a Future for the Centre of the Universe

Members of the public enjoy viewing the sky and some popcorn on the side at the DAO's last public observing night for 2015 on September 12. Chris Gainor photo

The lunar eclipse last weekend saw thousands of people around Victoria get out to places like Mount Tolmie, Esquimalt Lagoon, Cattle Point, and other sites with eastern views to see this glorious phenomenon of nature. 

There was another gathering that evening at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on Little Saanich Mountain that marked a step forward for the new organization that is working to revitalize the DAO’s Centre of the Universe visitors and educational centre.

Two years ago, the federal government withdrew operating funding for the Centre of the Universe, a decision that drew strong community opposition both inside Greater Victoria, where I live, and elsewhere in Canada. 

Last summer and this, volunteers from the Victoria Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada held star parties on Saturday nights at the DAO. Visitors on those evenings enjoyed observing through RASC members’ telescopes, tours of the historic Plaskett Telescope, and this year, speakers and exhibits at the Centre of the Universe. During both summers, youngsters enjoyed educational programs put on at the Centre by the University of Victoria’s Science Venture program.

But this setup was only a temporary solution. From the beginning of the effort to save the Centre, it was acknowledged that an organization to coordinate programming there was needed. This summer, the Friends of the DAO Society was incorporated and its board established, including chair Ben Dorman, an IT professional and astronomer, and Don Moffat, who spearheaded the initial effort to save the CU two years ago.

Now the new organization is going to work. It has set up a website http://observatoryhill.org, has begun to appeal for members and contributions, and on eclipse night it held its first event for members at the DAO. More than 120 people of all ages showed up to watch the eclipse and enjoy some hot chocolate and eclipse cookies.

But its aim is to keep the observatory open to the general public. and there are challenges ahead. The dozen Saturday nights the DAO was open to the public this past summer were overwhelmingly popular - hundreds of people came out to each of those evenings, and many were turned away at the bottom of the hill because there was no more capacity on top. As one of the RASC volunteers this summer, I could see just how popular the observing nights are.

The Friends of the DAO is working to increase public access to the DAO in summers to come. Right now it hopes to raise $9,500 to restore school tours to the DAO and improve the educational equipment available at the Centre of the Universe. Once this goal is achieved, the Friends hopes to expand programming at the Centre, keeping in mind that the 100th birthday of the Plaskett Telescope is coming up in 2018.

Please consider joining the Friends and contributing to its crowdfunding campaign. And keep an eye out for new events from this exciting new venture.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Al Gore's Great Idea Produces Memorable Images

A DSCOVR image of the Earth and the far side of the Moon taken on July 16. 2015. Note Mexico and the United States on the Earth. NASA Image

Simply because this was the season where we finally saw close-up photos of Pluto and its moons, the summer of 2015 has been a memorable one for space exploration. And that’s even before considering  Dawn’s close-up shots from the largest body in the asteroid belt, Ceres, and more photos from Rosetta as Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko made its closest approach to the Sun.

But those images have been upstaged in my mind by images from a spacecraft that was launched on February 11 to little fanfare. Today the Deep Space Climate Observatory or DSCOVR is parked in space a million miles away from Earth at the L1 Lagrangian point where the gravity of the Earth and Sun balance the centrifugal forces of the satellite. A number of spacecraft at L1 are gathering data on the Sun, but DSCOVR is taking advantage of the fact that from this point, spacecraft always see the sunlit side of the Earth. 

On July 16, DSCOVR shot a sequence of photos of the Moon passing in front of the Earth. The side of the Moon visible in these photos is the far side, often erroneously called the dark side. The Moon’s rotation rate means that we always see one side of the Moon from Earth, but the other side can only be seen from space. While earlier space probes have shot images of the Earth and the Moon together, none have matched the quality or the perspective of DSCOVR’s photo sequence. 

That photo sequence, which was released on August 5, is only the second photo release from DSCOVR. The first colour image of the whole Earth taken from DSCOVR was released on July 20 to great fanfare, in part because it reminded many people of the famous “Blue Marble” photo of Earth taken from Apollo 17 in 1972. 

Once the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) on DSCOVR is in full operation in September, images of Earth will be posted daily on a dedicated web page. As well, EPIC and other instruments will provide information on changes in Earth’s atmosphere, including the levels of ozone and aerosols. 

The concept of regular photos of Earth from this vantage point did not originate with a scientist, but from Al Gore, who was vice president of the United States in 1998 when he first came up with the idea that was soon turned into a spacecraft called Triana. The idea faced withering political ridicule from Gore’s Republican opponents, and the administration of George Bush, the man who defeated Gore in highly controversial fashion in the 2000 presidential election, put Triana into storage in 2001 instead of launching it.

In 2012, incidently when the Democrats were back in office under Barack Obama, Triana was taken out of storage, taken apart, reassembled, renamed DSCOVR and prepared for its launch earlier this year. Not surprisingly, Al Gore was amongst those who watched the launch from Cape Canaveral.

DSCOVR is a joint project of NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and it is being controlled from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. 

As it was always designed to do, DSCOVR will be also keeping close watch on the Sun, and providing advance warning of particles emitted from the Sun that could affect communications and electrical infrastructure on Earth. We know that solar storms can affect life on Earth - as a resident of Montreal in 1989, I lived through a major power failure that originated with a solar storm - so DSCOVR will be an important part of our space infrastructure.

DSCOVR is four times as far away from the Earth as the Moon, so the Earth and Moon are very close to real scale in its images. And seeing the Moon pass in front of the Earth from that altitude drives home how close the Moon is to our home planet, at least compared to other celestial bodies. 

Other observers have noted that the Moon is quite dark compared to Earth. Although the Moon looks very bright in our night sky, it actually reflects only about eight percent of the sunlight that falls on it. It is a celestial lump of coal. 

When the EPIC camera begins full operations in September, I expect that its web page will become a very popular place. We may even see its images become a regular part of television weather forecasts, and I expect to see more photo sequences from DSCOVR showing the rotation of our Earth and changing weather patterns. Thanks, Al Gore!

Monday, 27 July 2015

Following in Yuri Gagarin's Canadian Footsteps

Cyrus Eaton and Yuri Gagarin in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, August 5, 1961.
thinkerslodgeoralhistories.com image

Pugwash is a village in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia, with a population of about 800 people. Located on Northumberland Strait opposite Prince Edward Island and not too far from the New Brunswick border, its main industries are lobster fishing and salt mining. 

Canada Day in Pugwash was the highlight of my recent visit to Nova Scotia, a trip that included several days in Halifax and an excursion to Baddeck on Cape Breton Island, the site of the first airplane flight in Canada. For someone interested in aeronautics and space exploration, what could top Baddeck? Well, Pugwash could.

A friend I was visiting in Canada’s Ocean Playground wanted to take part in the annual July 1 Gathering of the Clans in Pugwash, and I readily agreed to the excursion. A big reason was that Pugwash is the site of the only visit to Canada (or North America) by Yuri Gagarin, the first human to venture into outer space.

While in Pugwash, I enjoyed some great pipe bands at the Gathering of the Clans, and I was also able to gather some information about Gagarin's historic visit to Nova Scotia.

Gagarin’s visit stems from Pugwash’s political claim to fame, which began in the depths of the Cold War. Cyrus Eaton (1883-1979), a millionaire who was born in Pugwash but resided in the United States once he made his fortune there, set up the first of a series of conferences of intellectuals and scientists in Pugwash in 1957 to discuss issues arising out of the existence of nuclear weapons.

The Pugwash conferences were more warmly embraced by the leadership of the Soviet Union than the United States, and so not long after Gagarin made his historic space flight aboard Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to dispatch Gagarin to Pugwash. 

Immediately after his flight, Gagarin had been feted in Red Square in Moscow and in other capitals of Soviet-aligned countries in Eastern Europe. In July, Gagarin visited Great Britain and met the Queen, and late that month he headed for Cuba and Brazil. On Saturday, August 5, 1961, Gagarin arrived from Brazil at Halifax International Airport, where he was greeted by a crowd of more than 300 people. 

He was immediately driven the 100 miles to Pugwash, passing through villages where curious locals lined the road.  

There was no conference going on at the time, so a program for Gagarin was improvised. He was paraded through the village to a local bandstand where he was entertained by the Amherst Legion Brass Band and the Dunvegan Girls Pipe Band and Dancers, and took in presentations from the Little League, local 4-H clubs and a Red Cross swimming class. Gagarin and Eaton spoke to a crowd estimated at 2,500 people, along with the Soviet ambassador and local dignitaries. A newspaper account called the event “an abbreviated version of the Gathering of the Clans." 

Gagarin also visited Thinkers Lodge, the rambling white wooden house on one of the most spectacular spots in Pugwash that Eaton had donated for the Pugwash conferences, and promised reporters that there would be exciting new Soviet space achievements “very soon.” 

The world’s first spaceman was as good as his word. That evening he went to Eaton’s farm in Deep Cove on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, where he looked forward to a day off from his official duties. But Gagarin was roused early the next morning with news that his backup and friend, Gherman Titov, had been launched into orbit on a 17-orbit, 25-hour flight. Gagarin was granted his wish to return to the Soviet Union, and a few hours later, he was back at Halifax airport, this time with a crowd of nearly 1,000 people to see him off. 

The Illyushin-18 airliner's takeoff was delayed for two hours due to mechanical problems, and Gagarin was cheered by the crowd whenever he appeared during the wait. But in the middle of the afternoon, barely 30 hours after he arrived, he was on his way to Moscow for the celebrations of Titov’s flight.

Although Gagarin would travel widely in the years ahead, he would never return to North America. He died in the crash of his jet aircraft in 1968, and entered the pantheon of Soviet heroes. His popularity has outlived the Soviet Union, and among the many honours he was given during and after his life, his name adorns the trophy that signifies supremacy in the Kontinental Hockey League, Russia’s and eastern Europe’s version of the NHL. 

The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs have also outlasted the Cold War. Pugwash’s continuing work to eradicate the threat from nuclear weapons was recognized in 1995 with the Nobel Peace Prize, which was on view in the Thinkers Lodge in Pugwash when I came to visit, along with photos of Gagarin’s visit. 

The Clan Thompson Pipe Band from Stellarton NS marches by Thinkers Lodge, Pugwash NS, at the Gathering of the Clans on July 1, 2015. Chris Gainor photo

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Celebrating the End of the Beginning of Solar System Exploration

Plutopalooza at Pluto's Diner, July 14, 2015. Chris Gainor photo

New Horizons is now moving away from Pluto after its rendezvous with the King of the Kuiper Belt on July 14, 2015. 

Many people around the world celebrated this historic encounter, notably at the control centre at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. One of the places where a Plutopalooza celebration took place on Encounter Day was near my home in Victoria, B.C.

During the nine-and-a-half years since New Horizons was launched from Cape Canaveral, I have patronized a restaurant in Victoria called Pluto’s Diner. I’ve appreciated its slogan (‘The Hottest Food from the Coolest Planet’), its great food, and its building, a former Pacific 66 service station, complete with its futuristic touches. Some years ago I decided that this would be the perfect place to celebrate when New Horizons reached Pluto.

A few weeks ago, I began to make arrangements, and finally encounter day arrived. New Horizons reached its closest point to Pluto, 12,500 km, early in the morning of July 14 in the Pacific time zone, but the spacecraft was gathering data and wouldn’t contact Earth until later in the day. 

A signal from New Horizons that took four-and-a-half hours to traverse the nearly five billion km from Pluto reached Earth just before 6 p.m. Pacific time, just as Victoria astronomy enthusiasts began to fill the seats at Pluto’s Diner. The clapping and cheering on the NASA TV coverage on the screen at Pluto's signified that New Horizons had survived its encounter unscathed and had gathered a huge amount of data to be transmitted back to Earth over the next 16 months.

Thanks to the presence of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and the University of Victoria Physics and Astronomy Department, Victoria is home to several scientists who are conducting research on Pluto and other objects in the Kuiper Belt in the outer reaches of our solar system. Many of them are part of the New Horizons team. Two Victoria experts on the Kuiper Belt, Dr. Michele Bannister and Ivar Arroway, updated us on the latest findings from New Horizons and the history that led to the encounter. 

Pluto is so small and so far away that not even the Hubble Space Telescope could provide a clear image of this body. The fanciful rendering of Pluto on the restaurant’s neon sign was as good a guess as any of what Pluto looked like. Inside Pluto’s one could find photos of eight planets but not of Pluto. Thanks to a New Horizons image of Pluto released earlier in the day, I was able to present Pluto’s proprietor, Brun Dahlquist, with a real photo of Pluto to display in the diner.

Then it was time to eat, drink and celebrate. We enjoyed the items available on Pluto’s menu as well as decorative and delicious cupcakes from Melissa at Happyditty bakery. 

Amidst the celebrations were memories of Pluto since its discovery in 1930 by a young American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997), some of whose ashes were on board New Horizons. And there were also memories of the great era of planetary encounters, which began in 1962 with Mariner 2’s flyby of Venus, and was concluding at Pluto. 

As we found out the next day, there is still much more to come from New Horizons as it downlinks the data it gathered as it passed by Pluto and its moons. New Horizons is going on to another body in the Kuiper Belt, and other spacecraft are exploring other worlds right now - for example Rosetta and Philae at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and Dawn at the largest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres. 

More robots will explore other worlds, but the Pluto encounter marked the end of the first round of exploration of prominent bodies in the solar system. In Victoria, we were able to mark that milestone in style.

Brun Dahlquist of Pluto's with New Horizons' historic photo of Pluto the day it was released. Diane Bell photo

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

New Horizons at Pluto Marks the End of an Era

One of the better photos of Mars from the 21 sent back to Earth by Mariner 4 in 1965. NASA image
New Horizons is approaching Pluto, just days away from the historic flyby that will give humanity its first look at what once was designated the ninth planet of the Solar System and today is called the King of the Kuiper Belt.

The July 14 encounter will be an exciting for me, but it will also be bittersweet, for it will mark the end of an era in space exploration. The Pluto encounter will mark the end of the first reconnaissance of our Solar System. Spacecraft have provided new and surprising information about every major body in the Solar System, including our home planet.

It all began with Sputnik orbiting Earth in 1957, and within months spacecraft like the American Explorers 1 and 3 and the Russian Sputniks 2 and 3 showed that the Earth was surrounded by a powerful magnetic field, including the Van Allen radiation belts. 

Russian spacecraft struck our own moon and sent back the first photos of its hidden back side in 1959 in the opening shots of the race to the moon that culminated with American astronauts visiting a decade later.

Mariner 2 became the first spacecraft to encounter another planet when it flew by Venus on December 14, 1962.

On July 14, 1965, exactly fifty years before the New Horizons Pluto encounter, Mariner 4 flew by Mars and took the first closeup photos of that world, the first photos to be sent from another planet. Mariner 4’s primitive camera took 21 very rudimentary photos of limited portions of the Martian surface, and Mariner took more than two weeks to transmit the images to Earth. 

Over the years, spacecraft visited the other planets, notably Mariner 10, which flew by Venus and Mercury in the early 1970s, and the two Voyagers launched in 1977 that visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The Voyagers revealed the faces of the many moons that orbited these gas giants, revolutionizing our knowledge of the solar system.

Planetary flybys became big events, and as I wrote in this space last August, I was able to take part in Voyager 1’s encounter with Saturn in 1980, an event that drew media and celebrities to the control centre and helped rewrite astronomical textbooks. 

After Voyager 2 flew by Neptune in 1989, only Pluto remained unseen and unvisited.  Since it is so small and so distant, our best view of Pluto until a few weeks ago was a very low-definition view provided by the Hubble Space Telescope. Now the face of Pluto is being revealed to us.

Once New Horizon’s work at Pluto is done, all of the major bodies of the solar system will be known to humanity. The Solar System contains many more asteroids, moons and comets, and spacecraft will continue to reveal them to us. New Horizons itself will head to another body in the Kuiper Belt once it is done with Pluto. 

That means many more discoveries await us, but the era of the first views of major bodies in the Solar System is drawing to a close. I consider myself privileged to have been a witness to that time.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Book Review: After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program

President Richard Nixon with the crew of Apollo 16, a mission he nearly cancelled. L to r: Charles Duke, NASA Administrator James Fletcher, Nixon, John Young, and Ken Mattingly. NASA Image via Wikimedia.
After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program
By John M. Logsdon
Palgrave Macmillan

If there’s a president whose name is associated with America’s space program, it is John F. Kennedy, who in 1961 challenged NASA to land an astronaut on the moon and bring him home before the end of the 1960s. NASA famously complied, and in the decades that followed the end of the Apollo program in 1972, many people have lamented the state of America’s space program.

While Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson saw to it that Apollo made it to the moon, something that happened six months after he left office, Johnson did nothing to advance the space program beyond that point. The big decisions about the future of the U.S. space program fell on Richard M. Nixon, and the space program from then to the present day has been the product of decisions made by Nixon, who was president from 1969 to 1974.

More than forty years after Nixon left office, there is finally a book that explores Nixon’s relationship with NASA and the decisions he made to proceed with a new human space program to succeed Apollo, the Space Shuttle. The book, After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program, is by John M. Logsdon, the distinguished historian who wrote the best studies of Kennedy’s decision to go to the moon and who headed up George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute for many years.

For anyone who is interested in the history of the U.S. space program, this book is essential reading that contains many truths about the political environment presidents and other politicians face when deciding how much support to give to space exploration.

Nixon took office just as Apollo neared its lunar landing goal, and the pleasant duty of welcoming the astronauts home fell to Nixon. While Nixon admired the astronauts and the values they represented, Apollo was also a legacy of his great rival, Kennedy. After the success of Apollo 11, NASA had plans and equipment for nine more lunar landing attempts, and the story of how the last three missions were cancelled is told here in detail for the first time.

While a souring economy and aggressive budget cutters played their roles, some within NASA were concerned about the dangers the Apollo astronauts faced in their lunar flights. Nixon joined their ranks after the near-loss of the crew of Apollo 13 in 1970, and after three Apollo missions were cancelled, Nixon repeatedly called for the cancellation of the Apollo 16 and 17 missions out of fear of a space disaster in the election year of 1972.

With less than six months to go, Nixon allowed Apollo 16 to proceed because it would happen well after his upcoming trip to China, and Apollo 17 because it would take place after the election. For those many space enthusiasts who still decry the loss of Apollos 18, 19 and 20, this book makes chilling reading.

The fate of Skylab was also up for grabs, along with the shuttle and NASA itself, which was nearly converted to a general-purpose high-technology agency by the Nixon Administration.

The heart of After Apollo? is of course the shuttle, which Nixon announced on January 5, 1972. The story leading up to that decision is a complicated one, involving the attitudes of people at NASA, the Pentagon, and around Nixon. With the exceptional circumstances that led Kennedy to launch Apollo long past, public support for space exploration was low during Nixon’s time in office as Americans felt that Earthbound problems required more attention from their government. But one of those problems was a recession that hit the aerospace industry in California, a state that Nixon needed to win in 1972.

With an eye to NASA as a jobs program, Nixon approved the “full capability” shuttle promoted by the space agency. But to satisfy the goal of budget restraint while the shuttle was being built, the shuttle was not fully reusable, which greatly increased the shuttle’s operating costs long after Nixon left office. The Nixon-era political compromises that shaped the shuttle, including bringing the U.S. Air Force on board the program, also played roles in the loss of two shuttle crews in future years. The resulting program Logsdon termed a "policy mistake,” taking into account its many limitations, not least the shuttle's failure to lower the cost of flying into space.

The shuttle took nearly a decade to develop, and it flew for 30 years. NASA supported the shuttle concept with the idea that it would inevitably lead to construction of a space station in Earth orbit, which duly happened starting in 1998. The last space shuttle mission took place four years ago, and there is still no replacement vehicle for the shuttle. But the International Space Station still forms the heart of the U.S. human space program. This is still Richard Nixon’s space program.

Logsdon began work on this book with some interviews while Nixon was still in office, and his work was enriched with some of the famous tapes from the Nixon White House that illuminate Nixon’s sometimes conflicting attitudes to space exploration. 

After Apollo? is in my opinion the most important work of space exploration history to appear in several years. As the United States begins to transition to the post-Nixon space program, policymakers and those interested in influencing them are well advised to read this book.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Canadian Astronaut Announcement Standard Operating Procedure

Last week to great fanfare the Canadian government announced that it was renewing its commitment to the International Space Station through 2024, joining the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Union in extending its involvement in the ISS beyond 2020.

During that time, Canada’s two remaining active astronauts, Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, will each get a chance to fly to the ISS, one within four years and the other by 2024. "Selection of the CSA astronaut to fly first will be based on mission requirements, which will be discussed with ISS partners during the coming months,” a government news release said.

Both Saint-Jacques and Hansen joined the Canadian astronaut team in 2009 and underwent the two-year NASA training regimen for new astronauts. Saint-Jacques is a medical doctor and Hansen was a CF-18 pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the decision about who orbits first will probably relate to which skill set is in demand when a slot for a Canadian astronaut opens up.

Two years have gone by since Chris Hadfield returned to Earth from his historic turn as the first Canadian commander of the ISS, and Hansen and Saint-Jacques will have to wait their turns as flight assignments are doled out according to the size of the sponsoring country’s contribution to the ISS. Canada’s contributions to the ISS - the Canadarm2, Dextre robot manipulator and the rest of the Mobile Servicing System - play important roles in the maintenance of the station but only amount to a small fraction of the total cost of the ISS.

The two Canadian astronauts have the unenviable task of following Hadfield as the public faces of the Canadian Astronaut Program without having had the chance to fly themselves, and I have seen them carry out the repetitive public relations duties of astronauts with grace and good humour. That extended to last week’s announcement, when the Canadian Space Agency posted a Meme on its Facebook page making fun of the competition between the two men for the next Canadian flight to the ISS.

One question that the remains unanswered is how the two Canadians will make their journeys into space. Julie Payette was the last Canadian to fly on the shuttle, back in 2009 when she visited the ISS in the  middle of Bob Thirsk’s long-duration stay on the ISS. Thirsk and Hadfield got to the ISS on Russian Soyuz ferries, which continue to be the only way to get to the ISS. 

NASA and many U.S. lawmakers hope to shift the work of flying astronauts to and from the ISS to competing spacecraft built by Boeing and SpaceX under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. While both spacecraft are scheduled to start flying astronauts in 2017, funding restraints have already pushed that date back from the originally scheduled 2015 start date.

Last week’s announcement by the Canadian government was hardly surprising given our investment in the ISS up to this time and given the fact that a pullout by Canada would be highly embarrassing and highly contentious with Canada’s major trading partners. 

An election is approaching, and for a government known to wring every ounce of political credit out of everything it does, the publicity surrounding last week’s announcement that Canada is staying the course in space is standard operating procedure in Stephen Harper's Ottawa.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Fifty Years of Mission Control in Houston

NASA's new flight directors on the eve of Gemini 4 in 1965: (l to r) Glynn Lunney, Eugene Kranz, John Hodge and Christopher Kraft. NASA Photo.

This week NASA is marking fifty years since the flight of Gemini 4, the second crewed Gemini flight, which has gone down in history for the first spacewalk by a U.S. astronaut. Gemini 4 was a notable milestone for other reasons as well.

When astronauts Jim McDivitt and Ed White began their flight on June 3, 1965, it was the first to be controlled from the brand new control centre at Houston, Texas, built as part of what is today known as the Johnson Space Center. Previous flights, including the pioneering Mercury flights and the three-orbit Gemini 3 mission earlier that year, had been controlled from a control room near the launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

The control centre in Houston incorporated the latest advances in computers, and included monitors that allowed individual controllers to better keep track of what was happening on board the spacecraft. 

The detailed concepts for the new control centre and NASA’s worldwide tracking network were developed with the help of many of the Canadian and British engineers who had come to NASA in 1959 after losing their jobs when the Canadian government cancelled the CF-105 Avro Arrow. 

Members of this group, including John Hodge, Tecwyn Roberts, Dennis Fielder, George Harris and John Shoosmith, helped design the new control center under the supervision of the legendary Christopher Kraft, NASA’s original flight director and later director of JSC. 

Kraft and others gave Roberts a great deal of credit for the design of the new control centre, which included two separate control rooms surrounded by a number of ‘back rooms’ staffed by management and other specialized personnel. Roberts, who was born in Liverpool of Welsh descent, was the original flight dynamics officer in the Mercury Control Center with the responsibilities of keeping track of the spacecraft at all times and of preparing for upcoming maneuvers. 

In the design of the the new Mission Operations Control Rooms, Roberts incorporated a flexible setup that set the stage not only for the Gemini flights of 1965 and 1966, but also the Apollo flights which were due to launch in the near future. Indeed, the original setup of the mission control rooms stayed in place through much of the shuttle program until a major makeover took place in the late 1990s. 

Before Gemini 4, only one American flight had lasted longer than six orbits - the 22-orbit, 34-hour-long flight of Gordon Cooper that closed the Mercury program in 1963. In every flight up to Gemini 4, Kraft had sat at the Flight Director’s console the whole time, except for the overnight shift on Cooper’s flight, when his deputy, former Avro engineer John Hodge, was in charge.

Gemini 4’s four days in space meant that round-the-clock flight operations would become the norm in the new control centre, and so just before launch, Kraft introduced the new team of flight directors that included himself, Hodge, and newcomers Eugene Kranz and Glynn Lunney. 

All would play key roles in the years to come in Gemini and Apollo. Kranz was on console when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and he became even more famous for his work organizing the rescue of the Apollo 13 mission. Hodge, who had come to Avro Canada from England, was flight director for Gemini 8 when its crew of Neil Armstrong and David Scott faced America’s first crisis in spaceflight when their spacecraft spun out of control due to a short circuit.

But in June of 1965, the first historic event to be controlled from Houston was Ed White’s spacewalk on the third orbit of Gemini 4. White's spacewalk lives in memory thanks to the spectacular photos taken by McDivitt of the event. 

Like the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who had walked in space in March 1965, White encountered problems returning to his spacecraft. But once back inside, he and McDivitt flew on for four days and served notice that the United States would soon overtake the Soviet Union in the 1960s space race. 

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Hubble Space Telescope at 25

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden - who as an astronaut was on the crew that carried the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit in April 1990 - presides over a NASA awards ceremony honouring the people of HST at the National Air & Space Museum, Washington, on April 24, 2015. Chris Gainor photo

I have been on an extended research trip in the United States gathering information for a book on the history of the Hubble Space Telescope since its launch 25 years ago.

The trip began with the celebrations in April in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, marking the anniversary of Hubble's launch on board the shuttle Discovery. During those celebrations, many good things were said about how Hubble overcame its early problems and delivered a trove of knowledge that has upended our view of the universe we live in. 

There is very little I can add to those statements, except to point out the exceptional nature of Hubble's quarter century of service. A handful of space vehicles have lasted longer than Hubble, most famously the Voyager spacecraft that flew by the outer planets of our solar system in the 1970s and 1980s and now are sending back data from the fringes of the solar system, including the famous image of Earth as a pale blue dot almost lost in the glare of the Sun. Other spacecraft have like Hubble also been serviced by astronauts.

But no spacecraft has come close to Hubble in terms of being so transformed during its lifetime of service. After Hubble was launched in 1990, five teams of shuttle astronauts repaired aging equipment on the space telescope and changed out instruments so that the instruments in use today - some installed during the most recent shuttle servicing mission in 2009 - are vastly more powerful than Hubble's original set of instruments.

Since the end of the anniversary celebrations, I have been searching archives for documents and interviewing the people who have worked on Hubble. 

One perceptive comment that has stood out in my mind from this research trip comes from Frank Cepollina - the Goddard Space Flight Center engineer whose brilliant team created the equipment that the shuttle astronauts used to service Hubble and other satellites. "Hubble isn't great because it's serviceable," Cepollina said. "It's great because you can apply Moore's Law every three or four years."

Moore's Law refers to the spectacular growth in computing power predicted by a founder of the computer chip maker Intel fifty years ago. Hubble instruments use computing power and particularly CCDs, charge-coupled devices that have replaced film for gathering images and other light-generated data. The CCDs on board Hubble today are vastly more powerful than the originals from the late 1980s, thanks the explosive enhancements in the power of transistors and computer chips, including CCDs.

Of course, Cepollina's statement will no longer apply, because no further servicing missions are in prospect for Hubble now that the shuttle has been grounded. But some like Cepollina are still working for the day when the new generation of crewed spacecraft being developed in the U.S. can pick up where the shuttle left off in terms of servicing and repairing satellites.

In the meantime, Hubble continues its work of imaging the universe and analyzing the light that comes from it. Astronomers still have to winnow down the requests for observing time, and new uses for Hubble are still coming from astronomers from around the world.

Much of what was said at the anniversary celebrations were things we have already heard before. Perhaps the most important but least publicized words came at a symposium held that week at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. There scientists young and old from many countries discussed what Hubble has taught them and expressed their hopes about the knowledge that could emanate from the space telescope in the coming years. 

As a non-scientist, a lot of what was said was beyond my understanding. But some of the astronomers there assured me that they didn't understand everything either. It will be interesting to see what comes out of that symposium as new ideas to probe the universe turn into new data.

Sadly, these expressions of the brilliance humans are sometimes capable of were overshadowed a few days later when riots and protests took place in Baltimore just a few miles away from the Space Telescope Science Institute, a sharp reminder that humanity still has a great deal to work on in terms of improving life on Earth.