Minnesota’s Menon selected for NASA Astronaut Corps

Anil Menon. Photo: Robert Markowitz, NASA

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.

Dramatic week in crewed spaceflight

Long March 2F carries Shenzhou 13 from Jiuquan, 15 Oct 2021 (franceinfo/CGTN)

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.

Expedition 65 Crew gathered for a feast, 08 Oct 2021. Thomas Pesquet [center, back row] took command the same day. Filmmakers Klim Shipenko [teal shirt] and Yulia Peresild [long hair, back row] were aboard filming Вызов. (NASA JSC)

Filmmakers Klim Shipenko and Yulia Peresild have been aboard the ISS since 5 October filming the space-medical drama Вызов. That mission is planned to end 17 October 2021 with the return of Soyuz MS-18. Their return took a turn for the dramatic as a planned test firing of MS-18’s engines failed to shut off on time, toppling the ISS in a Tony Hawk-style 540 and requiring 30 minutes to correct. In the realm of crew-rated, computer-controlled, liquid-fuelled engines, it is a failure mode that should be unique, except that a similar incident occurred just 3 months ago following the arrival of Nauka, the ISS’s newest segment.

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.

Blue Origin’s webcast featured both a preflight interview and postflight quips from Shatner, which just had to be transcribed.

The stage for the postflight is set as follows:

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.

Virgin Galactic ready for revenue service

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.

Indian astronaut and Virgin Galactic employee Sirisha Bandla was the first non-crew passenger to receive astronaut wings from Virgin Galactic. The wings were presented by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield shortly after VSS Unity landed on 11 Jul 2021. (Virgin Galactic)

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 performs “New Normal” at Spaceport America, 11 July 2021. (Virgin Galactic)

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.

Fly-ND Summerfest to land in Washburn 19 Aug 2021

Summerfest 2021 (Fly-ND.com)

The 2021 North Dakota Aviation Association Summerfest will be an in-person event this year.

The one-day event will take place at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn 19 August 2021 from 0930 to 2030 CT, with an optional golf game at Painted Woods.

Ticket prices vary by activity choices:

  • $25 for lunch and talks;
  • $50 for talks and dinner;
  • $150 for lunch, talks, golf, and dinner.

Friends and Family of Washburn pilot and North Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame member Bill Beeks are especially encouraged to attend.

Fly-ins may land at Washburn Airport (5C8 – AirNav, SkyVector)

Morning lunar eclipse

The Total Lunar Eclipse of 26 May 2021; lighter areas saw more of the eclipse. (NASA GSFC)

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.

Goddard Spaceflight Center’s eclipse page is always an excellent resource to plan future eclipse viewing.

mtDNA helped foresters during Toronto beetle battle

In 2003, a humble cargo pallet set off a 17-year battle that struck at the heart of the Canadian identity. Larvae of the Asian Longhorn Beetle had emerged from their slumber deep inside the cheap timber and found their way into maple trees in Vaughan, Ontario, just a short distance from Toronto, the home of the Maple Leafs.

Dr. Amanda Roe (Natural Resources Canada / Algoma U) lectures 03 Mar 2021 on regional variations in mitochondrial DNA in the Asian Longhorn Beetle, comparing native range and invasion sites.

Dr. Amanda Roe is a researcher in molecular and functional ecology at Natural Resources Canada’s Great Lakes Forestry Centre, and a part-time lecturer at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Dr. Roe lectured on 3 March during Algoma U Research Week 2021 on the work scientists around the world are doing to control the spread of the Asian Longhorn Beetle, a species native to Asia that is a pest in Europe and North America.

Though Asian Longhorn Beetles are seldom seen on the bark of trees, the distinctive holes they make as they burrow through the tree, plus their fairly large size (~35mm) and their speckled body colour makes their presence fairly easy to spot. The beetle populations are also reasonably slow-moving, reproducing only once per year. This allows the relevant authorities – in this case, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Natural Resources Canada – to simply ban firewood movement in the area, identify affected trees, then cut down and burn any nearby tree the beetle might inhabit.

But where, precisely, are these beetles coming from? Molecular ecology makes it possible to go a step farther, and identify the home area that invasive species may have come from. Scientists do this by looking at mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Unlike nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA does not change due to an individual’s parents, but mtDNA does accumulate distinctive variations that can identify members of the same extended family or region.

Scientists have collected an mtDNA database of Asian Longhorn Beetles across their home range in China and Korea, a database that shows distinct geographic variations. So, when the same mtDNA tests are done on a captured beetle from an invasive infestation, the tests can help identify which general region the invader is from. The infestation in Vaughan likely originated from coastal regions of northeastern China or Korea.

Perhaps more importantly, it can help researchers pick up the pieces when initial control measures were ineffective. After the Vaughan invasion had been largely controlled, there was another outbreak of ALB in Mississauga. mtDNA tests showed that the second site was a satellite of the original invasion from Vaughan.

mtDNA can’t do everything, of course: a CSI-style trackback from mtDNA data, leading to a particular shipment or pallet supplier, is science fiction, partly because very few warehouse workers actually catch a beetle in the act of wriggling free. As plastic or metal replacements are also fairly expensive, the simple, cheap solution to the pallet problem is heat treatment and an ISPM-15 stamp.

Following a generation-long struggle that concluded with five years of carefully looking through trees in Toronto and Mississauga for any re-emergence of the pest, CFIA finally declared Ontario to be free of the Asian Longhorn Beetle in June 2020. Early detection makes all the difference in preventing future outbreaks of any invasive species, and members of the public can always help by sharing photos and samples of strange insects they find with agricultural extensions, forestry agencies, or research biologists.

Teamwork will get us to Mars

American scientists are always keenly interested in space travel, and the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting rounded out its coverage of the topic with an 11 February panel on group psychology for Mars missions. The roundtable, moderated by Leslie DeChurch, featured Suzanne Bell and Alexandra Whitmire of NASA, plus scientists Jack Stuster, Noshir Contractor, Dorothy Carter, and Nick Kanas, all of whom have worked with NASA on various projects.

The “Understanding and Enabling Human Travel to the Moon and Mars” panel at the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting (Speakers/AAAS)

One of the assumptions baked into any trip to the International Space Station, or even the Moon, is fast communications with Mission Control. Ground crew is available 24/7 with instant help for anything from tech support to mundane assistance like verbal confirmation of EVA checklists. But it can’t work like that on a trip to Mars. There could be a 45 minute delay to hear back from Earth. For anything urgent, the astronauts aboard can only turn to each other.

That’s why picking the right mix of people for the team is so critically important. Everyone will need to follow at times, lead other times, be prepared for an emergency, and they will need to be willing to do so all while staring at the same faces every day. For a well-adjusted team, it could be the ultimate road trip. But add a few setbacks, and there might be plenty about the voyage that never makes the history books.

As one panelist said, teams will not just need ‘The Right Stuff’, but will need to be ‘The Right Size’. NASA’s most recent plan to get to Mars anticipates a slow three-year round trip with 4 crew, acknowledged to be a bare minimum. With so much to do, a slowdown or lack of cooperation from anyone at any time could jeopardize the whole mission, and the length of the assignment only increases the chances for something to go wrong. A shorter trip (ideally two years or less) with more crew (perhaps 6) would be much more robust against failings in the human element.

Another way to head off the risk of human factors is by using the latest in social science. Researchers continue to collect data in from, dedicated space travel analog missions, isolated workspaces like Antarctic research stations, and careful review of data from past spaceflights, to glean insights on how people work best when stuck with the same small group. Backed up with the latest in social science and information techniques like lexical analysis and social graphing, group psychologists are their refining statistical models, moving from retrospective analysis of past missions, to future predictions of how well a particular social group will hold together over the long-term. Still, mathematical guesses are no substitute for helpful human personality traits, especially Self-Monitoring, the ability to recognize one’s own effectiveness and interact with the group in an appropriate way for the given situation.

All this research about people cooped up for long periods of time has also hit pay dirt as the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has set in. If you’re looking for insight into how to ride out quarantine with or away from your team, there’s tons of NASA Technical Reports on these matters accessible online!

Should that be growing there?

Montana Tech’s Robert Pál joined Huixuan Liao of Sun Yat-sen University and Manzoor Shah of the University of Kashmir on 9 February for a panel discussion on alpine botany, during the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Alpine environments are particularly fertile ground for climate change ecology because broad variation in microclimates can be found over a relatively short distance. As temperatures warm, new types of plants may rise above their former range. As moisture patterns change, areas may become better or worse for the growth of certain species. And lurking everywhere is the persistent threat of new and invasive species: non-native plants that spread and grow in manners that negatively impact the local environment, which may be hard to control once they take root.

Due to COVID-19, science conferences have gone fully remote for 2021. (Speakers/AAAS)

The distinction between a fast-spreading non-invasive plant and an invasive species can be hard to pinpoint, but it often depends on whether it monopolizes an area at the expense of the broader ecosystem. Spotting them in the field can require a keen eye; certain invasive grasses can be notoriously hard to identify, even for experts.

When asked about ways invasive plants can be a solution, rather than a pest, Pál cited some concepts in harvesting invasive species as food, or to tap heavy metals out of toxic soils. Liao mentioned that some fast-growing plants can be used to combat coastal erosion.

When it came to encouraging new scientists, Shah said anyone can feel the excitement of a discovery on an ordinary walk, just by looking around their home turf for plants that look new or out of place, and taking samples to send in to the experts. Pál suggests that students looking to get into the field would benefit from learning the kinds of plants that help and harm their local environment, and further study in botany and ecology.

A selection of other work by Dr. Robert Pál can be found at the Montana Tech digital commons. Among others, the USDA and CFIA have further information so anyone can help slow the spread of invasive plants.

US flights to Winnipeg halted; New quarantine rules in Calgary

At 0230Z 03 Feb 2021, SkyWest 4472 landed in Winnipeg, closing the book on international flights to YWG during the pandemic. Later in the day on 03 February, new restrictions by the government of Canada took effect in order to limit the spread of more contagious variants of COVID-19.

SKW4472 on 03 Feb 2021. (FlightAware/OSM/Fargo Orbit)

The move echoes Canada’s measures earlier in the pandemic that limited most overseas passengers to landing in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montréal. US flights, though not originally limited in the same way, were still rapidly dropped as US carriers reduced service. With the new measures in force, US flights cannot return to Regina or Saskatoon for the forseeable future.

Alberta’s measures to contain the virus now include up to 24 days of quarantine, with 14 days of quarantine for everyone in the household, following 10 days of home isolation for any confirmed positive case. Measures are even stricter at Calgary Airport, with all arriving passengers getting an additional COVID test, a police escort to a quarantine hotel for at least 3 days of isolation, a $2000 fee, and only then, if released, entering into a 14+ day home quarantine.

BAS: 100 seconds to midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists delivered its 2021 Doomsday Clock session on 27 January. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was conducted entirely by remote teleconference.

As always, the Doomsday Clock session is a meaningful watch, and the text report is an equally engaging read. In detail, they explain how humankind has scarcely turned the corner on the dire assessment of 100 seconds to midnight, first issued in 2020.

This year’s live session combined expert insight from The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board with plain talk from statecrafters Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Hidehiko Yuzaki, and Jerry Brown.