A spacecraft with breathable air and crew seats is orbiting the Moon for the first time since 1972.
Around 1241 UT 16 Nov 2022, zipping along as low as 130 km over the far side of the Moon, NASA’s Orion capsule burned its AJ10 onboard engine to leave its sun-centred transfer orbit and begin circling the Moon.
For the remainder of its roughly two weeks near the Moon, the capsule will complete its checkouts at a fairly high altitude in a retrograde flight path.
Orion’s last mission was a launch abort test in 2019. It’s one of three space capsules used by NASA, including Crew Dragon and Starliner. Of these, only Orion will be travelling to the Moon for NASA.
The Artemis I mission is intended to prove that all flight hardware is ready to send astronauts looping around the Moon (Artemis II, 2023 or 2024). Afterward, a further mission would land humans to the Moon, (Artemis III, as early as 2025).
It just doesn’t happen every year. It was called off two years ago, and it didn’t quite take flight this year, either. The Grand Forks AFB Air Show, this time simply called “Northern Thunder”, couldn’t get away from Grand Forks’ defining feature: the wind.
Not only was it gusting to almost 20 m/s, it was coming from the wrong direction for takeoffs and landings. Even if the base had extra runways, they would never be built facing into the rather unusual direction.
Not everything at an air show is airborne, of course: Though a few announced planes didn’t quite make it to the tiedowns, this was more than offset by the surprise visit of a CC-130J Super Hercules, which drew a huge crowd despite being placed just about the farthest from the food and port-a-potties.
Not past local noon, the wind shot up violently, sending aircrew scrambling to check their lines and chalks, while visitors with loose items soon found themselves deprived. As nothing had taken to the skies, the event program turned to the occasional pull of the Shockwave, essentially a semi-truck with an afterburning jet engine stuck on the back. Loud and flashy, it kept spirits up during the lengthening wait for the return of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds to the Grand Forks skies.
By 1800 UT, there was a thick black cloud clinging to the ground around the airfield. This dirty air should have been hot and acrid with jet wash, but was instead a hazy, gritty Minnesota soil sample, carried on the raging southeast gale that turned hats and corn chip bags alike into wrathful FOD. It was time to visit the food trucks.
Vendors from all over the region were onsite; among the more impressive drives, Cookies For You brought baked cookies and frozen cake pops from Minot. Magic Bean, also from Minot, brought its black van and baristas, and Fargo’s Mi Barrio Dominican Cuisine brought a unique flavour.
Overall, it was a great event for young learners, a chance to grab squeeze toys, pop can coozies, and air-themed stickers and mission patches, or to hang out of the door of a refuelling tanker, sit in the hotseat of a fighter jet, or spin around the turret of an air defence system.
For older or wiser folks, there were a few tables from institutions doing fundraisers or fly-ins, or perhaps the beer garden for those not in a rush to drive back. Stick around and you might learn something about these metal beasts, the people who flew them and knew them, or even hear an RCAF corporal waxing on about the merits of Lobster Poutine.
As the haze only grew by 1900 UT, any would-be pilots had no choice but to save their kerosene for some other time. The show previously known as “Thunder Over the Red River” will still be looking for its first aerial event since 22 May 2010. And since the one before that was in 2006, there’ll be a fair while to wait again.
Vaccines are widely available in the US and Canada for walk-in service at medical providers and pharmacies. Many areas are still operating dedicated immunization clinics. Vaccines are safe and effective, including against the omicron variant of concern. Vaccines are now available for all age groups.
As of June 2022, travel restrictions have largely ended for travellers with up-to-date vaccinations. Be ready to show proof of vaccination when crossing national borders. Canada also requires use of the ArriveCAN app or website.
Jenny Dauer of the University of Nebraska and Noah Feinstein of the University of Wisconsin participated in a discussion of how to boost science literacy and engagement at the AAAS virtual conference on 20 February 2022.
Feinstein’s talk clearly addresses the weaknesses that science both has, and appears to have, and asks the public not necessarily to blindly trust, but to show “appropriate respect” for the knowledge generated by science, and to forgive some of the imperfections in scientific institutions, traits shared by all human endeavours.
Dauer also delves into the complexity of teaching students with certain ideas or positions that are ensconced in their personal identities, and discusses some approaches to better engage them to improve their receptiveness to new science that conflicts with their worldviews.
The two talks were part of a three-talk session presented at the AAAS conference, “Learning about Science Literacy from the Covid-19 Pandemic”, which moderated by Felicia Kessing of Bard College. The third talk in the session, on science engagement with disaffected communities, was given by Raj Pandya of the American Geophysical Union.
Dr. Anil Menon, M.D. of Minneapolis, Minnesota, has already had a distinguished career in the Air Force, including service as ground Flight Surgeon for the SpaceX Demo-2 mission. Now, he can add Astronaut Candidate to the list.
Among the other announced candidates this year, Dr. Andre Douglas, Ph. D. is also no stranger to the Midwest: In 2012, while serving in the US Coast Guard, he graduated from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor with a master’s degree in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering.
The role of astronaut has changed considerably since the heroic era of the 1960s, when the peak crop of the nation’s test pilot schools were raided for jack-of-all-trades. Though still versatile and trained for everything, in orbit, a particular astronaut will have Command, Pilot, or Mission Specialist duties. Some astronauts never fly into space, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work. The NASA Astronaut Corps, based at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, is a vast talent pool frequently tapped to play important roles as program managers and consultants for NASA and other important engineering efforts. All receive basic pilot training and frequently get loggable hours in a variety of aircraft.
NASA’s selection of just 10 astronauts shows the constraints on the position. With Crew Dragon fully operational, and other options like Starship and Starliner close to coming online, NASA’s agenda is now limited more by budget than rocket hardware for possibly the first time since Skylab.
With the continued bustle of activity in the private space sector, Menon’s participation in SpaceX flights is a reminder that the day may quickly come when NASA can select an astronaut candidate who has already flown to space.
Shenzhou 13 left Jiuquan aboard a LM2F on 15 October 2021 at 1623 UT, carrying Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping, and Ye Guangfu to the Tiangong space station. Shenzhou 13 is the first mission to Tiangong that will last 6 months, following Shenzhou 12 earlier this year, which lasted 3 months and inaugurated the new station.
Shenzhou 13 may be the last mission to “turn out the lights” and leave Tiangong crewless. Next year, after Shenzhou 14 bolts two new modules onto the Tianhe station core, Tiangong should be ready for continuous use.
Though far more modest in scale, the nascent space tourism industry officially entered the glitz-and-glamour age as Blue Origin rolled out the red carpet (well actually, the blue steps) for William “Bill” Shatner. Shatner blasted off alongside three others in RSS First Step from Blue Origin’s launch site in Culbertson County, Texas, leaving earth’s atmosphere behind for a few minutes after liftoff on 13 October 2021 1449 UTC.
Shatner, the 90 year old Canadian actor, has done everything from Shakespeare to spoken-word albums, but is most famous for the starring role of Starfleet officer James T. Kirk in 79 TV episodes, 21 animated installments, and 7 feature films in the Star Trek franchise between 1967 and 1994. On 13 Oct 2021, he harvested the space seed his performances planted in the hearts of generations of technologists and set his own toes in the cosmic ocean. Upon landing, he returned the favour by interpreting his experience with the full powers of a master wordsmith.
Landing in the dusty West Texas desert, the parachute ropes strewn around the capsule were wrangled in by pickup trucks and attendants like an oversize county fair ride. Each passenger lurching out of the capsule’s short hatch had high-fives and hugs awaiting as they stepped down the blue stepstool into a gaggle of well-wishers rushed in through the sagebrush.
The others took quickly to their kin, as it was plain what the film crew was waiting for – the words of William Shatner — whose words began to flow in his traditional stream-of-consciousness with dramatic pause and emphasis. After trading a few words with Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos, Shatner set into his observations.
“Not only is it different from what you thought, it happens so quickly.”
“You know, the impression I had, that I never expected to have, is you’re shooting up — in this blue sky –” Shatner paused as the crowd showered themselves with champagne.
“What you have done — everybody in the world needs to do — this. Everybody in the world needs to see, and think about it.”
“It was unbelievable. Unbelievable, I mean, the little things, the weightlessness — but to see the blue colour go WHIP BY YOU! And now you’re staring into blackness. That’s the thing…” Shatner’s fingers outstretched as his hands grasped upward.
“The covering of blue — this sheet, this blanket, this c– this comforter of blue that we have around us, we think ‘Oh, that’s a blue sky’ and then suddenly you shoot through it all, as though you whip off a sheet when you’re asleep, and you’re looking into blackness, into black ugliness, and you look down, there’s the blue down there, it’s the black up there that’s — it’s just — ” Shatner motioned upward, then downward toward the ground.
“There is Mother Earth, comfort, and there’s …” Shatner motioned upward again. “Is there death? I don’t know! Is that Death? Is that the way Death is?”
Shatner zinged his right hand upward. “WHOOP! And it’s gone… Jesus…”
“It was so moving…” Shatner said, his hands tented over his face in surprised wonder.
“This experience, it’s something unbelievable. You see, yeah, y’know, you’re weightless, my stomach went up, ‘this is so weird’ – but not as weird as the covering of blue, this is what I never expected.”
“Oh, It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, the sky, and the thing, and the gradual,’ it’s all the truth, but what isn’t truth, what is unknown– until you do it, is– There’s this peril. There’s this soft blue. Look at the beauty of that colour, and it’s so THIN! And you’re through it in an instant!”
“It’s… what of… how thick is it? Is it a mile?” Shatner brought Jeff Bezos into the conversation to ponder the math.
“The atmosphere? Depends on how you measure it, maybe 50 miles,” Bezos replied.
“But you’re going 2000 miles an hour, so you’re through 50 miles, at whatever the mathematics says, you know–” Shatner turned his hands upward again.
“It’s like a beat and a beat and suddenly you’re through the blue! And you’re into black! And you’re into- y’know it’s rough, it’s mysterious, and galaxies — but what you see is BLACK. And what you see down there is light, and that’s the difference. And not to have this?” Shatner motioned to the ground.
Shatner turned to Bezos and clasped his shoulders. “You have done something. I mean, whatever those other guys are doing, what it — that isn’t — they don’t –“
“I don’t know about that. What you have given me, is the most profound experience I can imagine.” Shatner, reaching up again, was overwhelmed to the point of tears. Bezos removed his sunglasses.
“It’s odd, I’m so — filled with emotion about what just happened — I– I– just– It’s extraordinary. Extraordinary.” Shatner hugged Bezos.
“I hope I never recover from this. I hope I can– maintain what I feel now. I– I don’t want to lose it, it’s so…” Shatner sighed. “So much larger than– than me and life… It hasn’t got anything to do with the little green men and the moon and the auras, it has to do with the enormity and the quickness and the suddenness of the life and death, and the — oh my god…” Shatner and Bezos went into a brief exchange about beauty before Shatner retrieved his next thought.
“What I would love to do is communicate as much as possible, the jeopardy! The moment you see how vu– the vulnerability of everything, it’s so small! This air– which is keeping everyone alive– is thinner than your skin! It’s a- It’s a- It’s a sliver, it’s immeasurably small, when you think in terms of the universe. It’s ah, It’s n- It’s negligible, this air. Mars doesn’t have it!” Shatner grasped out for his next topic.
“And when you think of the way carbon dioxide changed to oxygen, what is it, 20% or so, that level that sustains our life- It’s so THIN! To- To- To dirty it– I mean, that’s another whole subject.”
In the early days of space tourism, when companies had only capsules on drawing boards and pockets filled mainly with hope, their marketing teams courted movie stars and musicians to buy tickets for cash and a PR boost. However, Bill Shatner was a notoriously hard ‘get’.
When asked to pay for a ticket on Virgin Galactic, Shatner famously turned it around on them, asking ‘how much will you pay ME?’ — well, by that standard, Blue Origin doing the job for free is an absolute bargain, and one that enriched humanity with the gravitas that Shatner can access as he explains what he felt to the rest of us.
Other people have travelled to space, made music, or written poetry in space. We have dispatched journalists and yes, other film actors were whizzing above his very head in a much classier orbital slot.
But Shatner is something else. In a way, we have all taken the trip with him. Or, at the very least, knowing even the first thing about the man, we will never hear the end of it.
VSS Unity flew its first non-crew passengers 11 July 2021. Virgin Galactic employee Sirisha Bandla strapped in for the ride alongside business mogul and adventurer Sir Richard Branson and four crew today. Branson’s personal faith in the machine marks a milestone of its own, and signals the imminent launch of Virgin Galactic’s long-promised space tourism service.
Bandla and Branson were joined on the flight by fellow Virgin Galactic crew Beth Moses (astronaut trainer) and Colin Bennett (operations engineer). Also aboard were pilots Dave Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci.
The spaceflight kicked off when mothership WhiteKnightTwo released VSS Unity over Spaceport America in New Mexico. Unity then crossed the McDowell Line and reached an apogee of 86 km around 1528UT, just two minutes into flight. Unity‘s time in free flight was just 14 minutes from airdrop to landing, of which perhaps three minutes were usable zero-G for the passengers.
Today’s flight marks a stepping stone on the long journey that began when aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan first conceived of SpaceShipOne in 1994. Rutan’s team was the only viable competitor for the 10 M$ Ansari XPrize, winning it in 2004. Afterward, Sir Richard Branson stepped in, forming Virgin Galactic, a joint venture to develop the vessel into a viable space tourism platform, but the effort suffered a major setback when two test pilots were killed in VSS Enterprise on Halloween 2014 in a crash traced to the vessel’s wing locking system. The sister ship flown today, which was first named Voyager, did not reach space until late in 2018.
The spectacle around the event also was also marked by Sir Richard’s unique touch as a media mogul. Any crewed spaceflight has a telecast; it’s traditional to get a panel of engineers, astronauts, and press officers calling out flight events and colour commentary. It’s another thing entirely to get Stephen Colbert. There have been musical interludes at spaceflights, but these have often been pompous, operatic, set to the tune of a Sousa march. Few have been as memorable as Khalid serenading the crowd with a new R&B single, “New Normal”.
Khalid, an artist from nearby El Paso, plans to fly on Virgin Galactic on an upcoming flight, and got an early welcome to the astronaut club from Colonel Hadfield on the sunny tarmac while Unity was unloaded and its crew awaited its astronaut wings. Khalid is signed to RCA Records, rather than Virgin EMI, which is no longer affiliated with the Virgin Group.
A lunar eclipse greeted early risers on 26 May 2021. Earth’s shadow totally covered the moon for a few minutes at about 1119 UT. This was about the time the moon was setting over North America, and was after sunrise in the far north of Alberta and Saskatchewan.