From my ReliablePlant2017 keynote audience: “Dr. Tom Jones was magnificent. He was inspiring. And he told us things I hadn’t heard before.” Thank you to Noria Corporation for their sponsorship of my address. www.AstronautTomJones.com
23 years ago on STS-59, Endeavour, we were 114 nautical miles up on April 14 when we snapped this 90mm Linhoff image of the Valley of the Lakes in western Mongolia. One of our Space Radar Lab 1 science targets was that snowcapped range of the Altai Mountains at lower left (for geological faulting and glacier studies). North is toward the upper right. These lakes always appeared to us as a string of aquamarine gems strung delicately together, and weather permitting, we saw them as often as three orbits each day on my “Blue Shift” (nighttime in Houston). A good photo for Earth Day.
Here’s the NASA caption: STS059-L17-031 Valley of The Lakes, Western Mongolia April 1994
The snow-covered Altai Mountain system, trending northwest-southeast, straddles the border between western Mongolia and extreme northwest China. The Altai Mountains separate two very large, desert, sparsely inhabited regions—the Valley of the Lakes in western Mongolia and the Dzungarian Basin in northwestern China. The brownish intermontane basin of the Valley of the Lakes region shows an assortment of desert landforms—alluvial fans, inland river deltas, intermittently flowing streams, and dry lakebeds. The four larger lakes captured in this photograph are Uvs (the northernmost lake partially obscured by cirrus clouds); Hyargas (immediately south of Uvs); Hara and Doroo (south of Hyagas); and Har Us (west of Hara). Each of these lakes is fed by the runoff from glaciers and snowmelt from mountains. When this photograph was taken, most of these lakes were partially covered with ice. The intermittently flowing Dzavhan River, which runs generally east to west toward three of these lakes, is a very narrow watercourse that dramatically stands out against an otherwise barren landscape. Two sizable Chinese lakes are visible southwest of the Altai Mountains.
Ireland seen from STS-59, Endeavour: 4-17-94 (NASA STS059-L13-5)
Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, we look down on west central Ireland from the flight deck of shuttle Endeavour, STS-59, the Space Radar Lab 1 mission. In this 90mm lens, Linhoff camera image taken from 113 nautical miles up, we see the coast of west central Ireland. North is to the upper left. Galway Bay is the straight-edged bay at left center, with the Aran Islands at its mouth. North of Galway Bay is the curved shoreline of Lough Corrib. Lough Mask is just to the north, shaped like a snowboard. At bottom center in this image is the valley of the Shannon River, and at right center, the forked southwestern end of Lough Derg. Lough Ree is at upper right.
The peninsula at the center left is Connemara. The north coast of Ireland is at upper left. The city of Galway is visible at northern, inland edge of Galway Bay. Limerick is seen as a gray patch at the upstream end of the Shannon River estuary. Shannon Airport is nestled on the north bank of the Shannon River, on the peninsula just left of bottom center.
If you look carefully, you can just see a four-leaf clover.
NASA Image Caption: STS059-L13-005 West-Central Ireland April 1994
The west-central region of Ireland is presented in this low-oblique, north-looking photograph. Numerous lakes are scattered across the landscape as reminders of the continental glaciers that once covered the entire region. Glaciation resulted in much of Ireland having thin soil that will not support significant vegetation growth despite 40 to 80 inches (100 to 200 centimeters) of annual precipitation. The western coastal area is classified as humid temperate with cool summers and no specific dry season. The higher elevations of 1000 to 2000 feet (300 to 600 meters) usually appear tan or light brown, which indicates a lack of forested vegetation. Pastoralism is the dominant agricultural pursuit in west-central Ireland. This photograph shows a representative section of the west coast of Ireland, which contains peninsulas, bays, and islands. Viewing clockwise from north of Galway Bay are several large lakes—Corrib and Mask immediately north of the bay, Ree to the northeast, and elongated Derg south of Ree. Several cities are barely visible—Galway at the northeast end of Galway Bay and, to the south, Shannon on the north bank of the Shannon River; and Limerick on the south bank of the Shannon River.
The crew of STS-68, Space Radar Lab 2, on Endeavour. Throughout our training syllabus, we were guided through the frantic schedule of classes and simulator sessions by our training team. Without their expertise, we would never have been ready in time for our planned Aug. 18 launch date.
The FFT trainer, once in Bldg. 9, is now at the Seattle Museum of Flight, still bearing the scuff marks from the boots of dozens of crews sliding down the exterior using their “Sky Genie” escape ropes.
Our crew of six included two EVA-qualified astronauts: Jeff Wisoff and Steve Smith. They trained for an unexpected spacewalk on STS-68, if needed for repairs or emergency closure of the payload bay doors or latches. As Jeff and Steve worked through their syllabus, including four underwater sessions covering most orbiter repair tasks, I visited to refresh my memory on their tools and to take some photos of them as they prepared to plunge into the 25-foot-deep pool. I’d trained for this same job on STS-59, a few months earlier. Here, Jeff is fully suited, on the donning stand, and ready to begin his training class. Steve Smith is on the other side of the stand. Crewmate and Endeavour pilot Terry Wilcutt took the photo.
Terry and I discussed Steve and Jeff’s work poolside at the Weightless Environment Training Facility in Bldg. 29 at Johnson Space Center. This building had once housed the Apollo-era centrifuge, but with the advent of the shuttle, the centrifuge gave way to the new WETF swimming pool for EVA training. The building also housed control consoles, life support systems, tool storage, a medical office, and diver and astronaut locker facilities. An ambulance was always parked at the WETF entrance during suited runs underwater.
We all had a chance to drive the M113 APC, below, just in case we had to evacuate an injured crewmember from the blast bunker and get him to a nearby helipad.
Our crew posed on the launch pad next to Endeavour during the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test activities. This swingarm carries flammable, gaseous hydrogen away from the external tank during launch preparations. It’s amazing to get so close to this massive machinery, even more startling to realize you’re going to ride it off the planet.
The AstroVan (below) is now on display near Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Will it roll again? Here we’re loose and joking, but the atmosphere’s a little more tense on the day of the real ride to the launch pad.
As we waited for our strap-in and countdown rehearsal aboard Endeavour, we took some photos atop the launch pad.
Steve and I would work on the Blue Shift together with Dan Bursch while in orbit. Steve rode uphill in the MS-1 position on the flight deck, next to flight engineer and MS-2 Dan Bursch.
Our countdown rehearsal ended with a mock pad abort and an emergency egress from the crew module to the escape slide baskets on the western, or far side of the 195-foot level.
Following lunch back at crew quarters, we headed back to the pad for an afternoon press conference near the blast bunker on the pad perimeter road.
On the shot below, the slide wires for the escape baskets are visible, reaching back to the 195-foot level at Pad 39A. It was a hot August day on the Florida Space Coast.
Two days before launch, 20 years ago, for STS-68. The crew arrives at the Cape beach house for BBQ with family members. Left to right: Steve Smith, Mike Baker, Tom Jones, Terry Wilcutt, Jeff Wisoff, and Dan Bursch. NASA had rented us some nifty Chrysler LeBaron convertibles. (below, NASA 9-28-94)
The day before launch, our food technicians start loading the contents of the fresh food locker: Wheat Thins in ziplocs, tortillas into dark green packages, squeezable cheese spread, picante sauce packets, peanut butter, empty water pouches, my TastyKake chocolate cupcakes and butterscotch krimpets, and (ahem) white packets of high-fiber cookies.
After our pad abort on August 18, we were all eager to go. Here are the four “Hairballs” from the 1990 astronaut group flying on STS-68: Jones, Wilcutt, Wisoff, and Bursch. In the background of the suit room, we see Hoot Gibson (chief astronaut) in the blue flight suit, with tan-suited Dave Leestma (chief of Flight Crew Operations) on the right. We would shortly walk to the Astrovan for our ride to Pad 39A.
In the photo above, LIz and I posed in front of Endeavour as part of our spouse’s tour before heading to night viewing with our friends and family. We were able to see the ship from top to bottom, from the White Room down to the flame trench beneath the mobile launch platform on Pad 39A. Likely taken Aug. 17, 1994. For more info on STS-68, see: http://www.AstronautTomJones.com
The Earth dominates the STS-59 crew insignia, reflecting the focus of the first Space Radar Laboratory (SRL-1) mission on our planet’s surface and atmosphere. The golden symbol of the Astronaut Corps emblem sweeps over the Earth’s surface from the orbiter Endeavour, representing the operation of the SIR-C/X-SAR (synthetic aperture radar) and the MAPS (Measurement of Air Pollution from Space) sensors. The astronaut emblem also signals the importance of the human element in space exploration and the study of our planet. Using the unique vantage point of space, Endeavour and its crew–along with scientists from around the world–will study the Earth and its atmosphere to better understand our environment. The star field visible below the Earth represents the many talents and skills of this international SRL-1 team in working to make this “Mission to Planet Earth” a scientific and operational success. (This patch was designed by the crew of STS-59).
I’ve written about the Space Radar Lab 1 mission, STS-59, in my book, “Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir.” But here I’ll add some details not included in the book, and some of the many hundreds of photos our crew returned to preserve our memories of these superb 11 days in space. I’ll add thoughts and photos during the coming eleven days, with the idea that the post can become an archive for the STS-59 crew and team.
As soon as we entered quarantine in late March in Houston, shuttle managers postponed the April 7 launch a day for engine turbopump inspections. Then our first launch attempt on April 8 was postponed because of high winds at Kennedy Space Center, violating the runway crosswind limits for the orbiter in case of an emergency return to the Cape. Our crew sat strapped in on the pad for about five hours as we waited for the winds to abate, but they never did. The parachute pack and its emergency oxygen bottles become extremely annoying after five hours strapped in the seat. The scrub under clear blue skies was a disappointment, but we were coming back the next day.
This was my first space shuttle launch, and it lived up to my expectations in every day. Jolts, rumbles, screaming slipstream penetrating the cabin walls, 2.5 g’s during first stage–I could barely register all the physical and emotional sensations during the 8.5 minutes of ascent. I was gratified to have Linda Godwin seated to my left on the middeck — a veteran and friend I could turn to for reassurance during this vibration-filled ride to orbit. We were smiling the whole time, but behind the smile is a lot of prayer. After a full minute at 3 g’s, with the Mach meter at 25, I thanked God when we arrived in orbit–Main Engine Cut-Off–and weightlessness.
Sid, Jay, Rich, Kevin, Linda, and I were about to experience an incredibly rewarding Mission to Planet Earth.
Our job on SRL-1, STS-59, was to act as the space component of the Space Radar Lab science team, deployed all over the world. We commanded the orbiter to point at our 400+ science targets, monitored the maneuver execution “flown” by Endeavour’s computers after our data entries, changed high rate recorder data tapes, and took voluminous science photography to provide “ground truth” about environmental conditions that might affect the radar return from the science targets. Our crew split into two shifts, Red and Blue, to run SRL around the clock. Linda Godwin led the activation on flight day 1. The Blue Shift woke up about 10 hours into the flight and took over for our first full science shift — Jay, Rich, and me. Linda, Sid, and Kevin went promptly to bed after a very long day. We soon settled into our 12-hour shift routines and explored the world for another ten days.
Our crew had 14 different cameras aboard to document our science targets. A big Linhof shot a 4×5-inch negative, using box magazines which we reloaded in a light-tight bag every night. We had four Hasselblads with 70mm film, each armed with a different lens for science photography (40mm, 100mm, 250mm, and an infrared filter atop a 250mm lens). We used Nikons for in-cabin photography using 35mm film. And we used payload bay video cameras to record the swath being seen by the radar with each data take. Here’s a shot of one of our “Decade Volcano” targets, the Philippines’ Mt. Pinatubo.
Each work shift on the aft flight deck was run on the clock: a constant stream of orbiter maneuvers, recorder tape changes, and intense video and still photo sessions focused on the science targets below (or above, from our point of view on the flight deck). We took turns entering the maneuvers on the flight plan into Endeavour’s computers, changing and managing the 50 Gb tape cassettes, and spotting and documenting science targets with our cameras. After each target we typed entries into a laptop documenting the weather, dust, and precipitation conditions over the science site. Night passes were a bit calmer, because the photography requirements went away for the most part. We also called down fires and other environmental phenomena of interest to the Measurement of Air Pollution from Satellites team. In between, we grabbed snacks and established comm with HAM radio operators around the globe. One generous HAM arranged to patch me through on a phone call to Liz, back in Houston. We spoke clearly across the miles; me over Hawaii, Liz with the kids back in Houston, until Endeavour carried me over the horizon. Priceless.
From Endeavour’s commander, USAF Col. (ret.) Sid Gutierrez:
Great! My best memories are of the crew and the Southern Aurora. It was a great group of folks to work with both on the ground and in Space. I remember the comment Linda made during an interview that generated that strange response from the ground. I would like to forget about the air in the water and everything that went with that. Chili falling asleep on the middeck while sending Emails late at night. Jay maneuvering the vehicle under Chili’s watchful eye. Rich and I waiting for anyone to get sick so we could actually give a real shot. I remember your enthusiasm at seeing all of it the first time and your incessant comments into the tape recorder so you could piece all this together later. And I remember the incredible feeling as we blacked out the lights and floated through the Sothern Aurora – like passing thorough something that was alive. But most of all I remember being able to eat a juicy hamburger with tomato and lettuce after we landed and then heading home to wives, husband and all the kids. Great memories! (April 12, 2013)
The varied science targets across the globe required all of us to learn many aspects of Earth system science: geology, volcanology, forestry, ecology, hydrology, oceanography, agriculture, pollution monitoring, desertification, and radar remote sensing theory, among others. One of my favorite “others” was archaeology, where our team used the SIR-C and X-SAR radars to probe dry sands and soils and reveal traces of ancient cultures beneath. The experiment mapped extensive “radar river” drainages beneath the Saharan sands, traced the Silk Road along the margin of the Takla Makhan desert, and zeroed in on caravan routes to the lost trading city of Ubar on the Arabian peninsula. Aboard Endeavour we carried a 200,000-year-old hand axe, recovered by USGS colleague Jerry Schaber in the 1980s from the banks of one of the Egyptian radar rivers. There aboard the most sophisticated technological tool of the late 20th century, we contemplated a floating example of the “high tech” used by Homo Erectus back when the Sahara was a grassy savannah, teeming with game. What technology will we possess in another 200 millennia? Will the space shuttle even be remembered? I, for one, can never forget it!
Just out of frame on the left of this Alaska coastline is Veniaminoff volcano, one of the many active peaks on the peninsula. Here we see ocean currents and eddies made visible by the reflected sunlight, corroboration of ocean surface features observed by the radar lab. What a visual treat as well.
An example of our crew science photography is shown below. This frame came from our 250mm lens on the large-format Linhof camera, mounted in the starboard overhead window of Endeavour’s flight deck. Sometimes we used the other Linhof body and shot handheld frames, just sighting over the lens barrel at the ground below. The Linhof magazines contained about 100 shots, and we had to reload them from film canisters while “off shift” on the middeck.
These bunks were on the starboard side of Endeavour’s middeck, stacked 4-high. Since each shift, Red and Blue, was off duty for 12 hours, we hot-bunked in the top three and used the bottom bunk for storage. Each station contained a reading light, fresh air vent, sliding privacy door, and a fleece sleeping bag. As this was my first flight, I didn’t realize that there were two bags in each bunk, clipped one atop the other, so I think I just hot-bunked in the same bag as Chili, probably. I slept in long pants, a T-shirt, and sweater, as it was a bit cool in the bunk. I even stuffed a sock in the vent to cut down on the cold breeze at “night.” I drifted off to sleep most nights with a Walkman playing a cassette for a few minutes; more than once I woke up to find the player drifting above my face, still delivering some soft music. In the morning, it would be tough to find the door in the pitch-dark compartment: turning over in the bag in free-fall meant that I had no way to determine which way was down, up, or the side that held the door. Groping around to find the reading light would usually set me straight. I had these bunks on three of my missions–they were quite comfortable, quiet, and private for sleep.
May 2013: I just returned from a trip to the Mediterranean, and viewed Mt. Vesuvius from the Bay of Naples and the lovely town of Sorrento, Italy. Here is the incredible view of this active volcano from our SRL-1 imager. Vesuvius last erupted in 1944, nearly 70 years ago. It is long overdue for another outburst. Three million people live in the Naples area. Evacuation will be a huge challenge. May the mountain sleep for a long time.
SRL-1 added to our knowledge of the Earth’s impact history, by examining scars left by collisions with asteroids and comets. Here is the Aorounga impact cratter in northern Chad. Although the main crater (shown here) is visible to astronauts from orbit, our radar scans revealed (beneath the sands) two additional candidate craters. Aorounga may be a crater chain, caused by the impact of a string of comet fragments, or an asteroid accompanied by a couple of moonlets. I spent hours searching the landscape below for the circular forms of impact craters; it’s a pattern the human eye easily locks onto from orbit.
Flight Day 9 called for a thorough pre-landing check of our reentry systems. The pilots, with Rich, our flight engineer and MS-2, stepped through hydraulic systems, flight computers, auxiliary power units (APSs), and thrusters to verify proper operation. We observed systematic thruster firings from the flight deck, and watched our elevons on the wing trailing edges rise and fall, driven by the now-awakened APU’s and hydraulic systems. Endeavour was coming fully alive; all was in readiness for entry the next day.
Landing for our STS-59 crew came too soon, after 11 days in orbit. We had planned a 9-day mission, but our flight control team anticipated that power conservation aboard Endeavour would extend our mission to ten full days. Good power management by our payload team and Mission Control (and our keeping the lights and electricity consumption to a minimum in the cabin) secured that extra day. Our reentry was planned for April 19, but Kennedy Space Center weather prevented a return to the Florida landing site. We waved off the landing and returned to limited Earth observations for a final day; my Blue Shift went to bed immediately for 6-8 hours, then took over from our Red Shift for final cabin stowage and payload deactivation.
On April 20, weather at Kennedy was still NO-GO, so we targeted Edwards AFB in California for landing. Our crew was disappointed to not be heading for our families in Florida, but satisfied to be heading back to Earth with our successful science mission completed. Reentry over the nighttime Pacific was a spectacular experience–the plasma pulsing around our cockpit windows provided a mesmerizing light show that I’ll never see equaled. I was perched upstairs in the MS-1 seat next to Rich Clifford, MS-2. We aided the pilots, Sid and Kevin, as they guided Endeavour into southern California and our line-up for landing at Edwards.
Ripping over the California coast at more than Mach 5, it seemed to me that we’d never slow down enough to make the Edwards runway–I agreed with Sid’s assessment that “we’re headed for a landing in Arkansas!” But our flight computers were right on the money. Sid took control and put us gently on the concrete of Runway 22, an exhilarating touchdown for all of us aboard. Read about the entire return to Earth in “Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir.” Great landing, Sid and Kevin! Thanks a million for bringing us all home.
Post-landing, I felt laden with extra weight, as if my launch and entry suit were made of lead. That video camera feels like fifty pounds. Getting out of the seat took every bit of strength I could muster; I had to force my muscles to slide over and lower my “two-ton” body down the ladder.
The ground crew is the first to sample the interior atmosphere of our sealed spacecraft, after six people have lived in that volume for 11 days. Our noses were used to any aromas, but they no doubt smelled the combined odors of our wet trash bin, the shuttle waste control system compartment, our dirty laundry, and six bodies who hadn’t showered in more than 10 days. They may have wanted to just close that hatch up again!
The Space Shuttle Orbiter Endeavour is towed into Orbiter Processing Facility high bay 1 after its return to KSC on May 2, 1994. Endeavour was flown to Florida by 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base in California after completion of the STS-59/SRL-1 mission. Endeavour began its processing for its next spaceflight, the STS-68/SRL-2 mission, then scheduled for August 1994.
The highest peak outside of Asia, Aconcagua is in the lower left of this image from our STS-59 mission aboard Endeavour. This tortured region of the Andes caught our eye as we crossed South America’s western margin during our Space Radar Lab 1 mission. We were 116 nautical miles high when our crew took this Hasselblad 70mm film image, using a 250mm telephoto lens. North is to the upper left in this image, and the lighting shows that the Andes Mountains were drenched in late afternoon sunlight. Roads crossing this region of Argentina (Aconcagua is just east of the border with Chile) follow the deeply incised valleys in this image. The triple valley junction at lower right shelters the town of Puntada Vacas along Highway 7. Uspallata is at upper right, in the desert valley below the foothills. Aconcagua is not a volcano, but is lifted by the subduction of the Nazca plate beneath the South American plate just off the shore of Chile.
Wikipedia says about Aconcagua:
Aconcagua (Spanish pronunciation: [akoŋˈkaɣwa]) is the highest mountain outside Asia, at 6,961 meters (22,838 ft), and by extension the highest point in both the Western Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. It is located in the Andes mountain range, in the Mendoza Province, Argentina, and lies 112 kilometers (70 mi) northwest of its capital, the city of Mendoza. The summit is also located about 5 kilometers from San Juan Province and 15 kilometers from the international border with Chile. The mountain itself lies entirely within Argentina and immediately east of Argentina’s border with Chile. Aconcagua is one of the Seven Summits.
On most of my passes across the Pacific on STS-59, I used that 30 minutes to take a break from the camera work and headed down to the middeck to grab a snack. But when I could see our ground track would take us over historic, even hallowed, terrain, I’d make sure to try and grab a picture. That was the case on April 12, 1994, when I shot the volcanic island of Iwo Jima with a 250mm lens mounted on a 70mm Hasselblad film camera. So many American and Japanese died in the ferocious fighting of February and March 1945: 26,000 Americans were casualties, including 6800 killed in action. Japanese losses totaled 22,000–the entire garrison. Only 216 surrendered.
The savage fighting, however, secured Iwo Jima as an airfield for fighter escorts and an emergency landing base for Japan-bound B-29 Superfortresses. The lives of thousands of U.S. airmen were saved by the Marines’ sacrifice in capturing Iwo Jima. As General James L. Jones, 32nd Commandant of the Marine Corps, said, “The valor and sacrifice of the Marines and Sailors who fought on Iwo Jima is, today and forever, the standard by which we judge what we are and what we might become.”
Just looking at the island from space drew me in to a story familiar from my reading of history; it is impossible to forget the dedication of soldiers on both sides, now allies in space as well as on Earth.
NASA Image Caption: Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands April 1994
The largest of three Volcano Islands, Iwo Jima can be seen in this view from the south. Iwo Jima is nearly 5 miles (9km) long, and 2 miles (4 km) wide and covers an area of 8 sq. miles (21 sq. km). Mount Suribachi, 546 feet (167 meters) high, on the south side of the island (lower left), is an extinct volcano. The main industries are sulfur mining and sugar refining. Iwo Jima was the scene for one of the severest battle campaigns in United States history during World War II. The battle began on February 19, 1945 against a Japanese force of over 22000 troops, who were well fortified in the numerous caves that make up the island topography. Casualties were high on both sides. The island was completely taken by United States forces on March 15, 1945. The photograph acquired of the United States flag being raised by U.S. Marines on the top of Mount Suribachi is one of the most famous photographs ever taken and inspired a memorial being built near Washington, D.C. honoring the United Stated Marine Corps. (NASA STS059-210-033)
San Francisco Bay, taken by the crew of orbiter Endeavour on Space Radar Lab 1. The crew took this image from about 120 nautical miles up, on April 14, 1994. North is to the left. At top, the delta of the combined Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers spreads into San Francisco Bay. Variations in water color caused both by sediment load and by wind streaking strike the eye. Man-made features dominate this scene. The Berkeley/Oakland complex rims the shoreline of the main bay to the right (south), and San Francisco fills the peninsula in the foreground. Salt-evaporation ponds contain differently-colored algae depending on salinity. The low altitude (less than 120 nautical miles) and unusually-clear air combine to provide unusually-strong green colors in this spring scene. Hasselblad 70mm film camera with 100mm lens.
It’s easy to see the San Andreas fault stretching from upper left to lower right across the mouth of the Bay, the Golden Gate. Its famous bridge is visible crossing from San Francisco at right to Marin County at left. The Oakland Bay Bridge crosses over Treasure Island as it connects San Francisco and the Oakland area on the eastern Bay shore. Golden Gate Park is the rectangular, green swath just sought of the bridge. I was in San Francisco last January and enjoyed some delicious Chinese food in Chinatown. No good Chinese food in space! (STS059-213-009; 9-20 April 1994)
Endeavour’s crew took this Hasselblad 70mm film view, using a 40mm lens, of the island of Madagascar’s west coast, with the Betsiboka River flowing northwest into the Mozambique Channel off East Africa. We were 114 nautical miles up on April 18, 1884 when we snapped this shot. We are looking southwest in this view. The Betsiboka, says Wikipedia, is:
…a 525-kilometre (326 mi) long river in central-north Madagascar. It flows northwestward and empties to Bombetoka Bay, forming a large delta. It originates to the east of Antananarivo. The river is surrounded in mangroves. The river is distinct for its red-coloured water, which is caused by river sediments. The river carries an enormous amount of reddish-orange silt to the sea. Much of this silt is deposited at the mouth of the river or in the bay.
The heavy sediment load is dramatic evidence of the catastrophic erosion of northwestern Madagascar. Removal of the native forest for cultivation and pastureland during the past 50 years has led to massive annual soil losses approaching 250 metric tonnes per hectare (112 tons per acre) in some regions of the island, the largest amount recorded anywhere in the world.
Earth-orbiting astronauts always mark the Betsiboka with a photo, updating the destructive process of erosion and sediment runoff on Madagascar, where scarcely 20% of the original rain forest remains. I hope the island nation’s citizens begin the slow, but steady process of reforesting their home, so its environment can regain its health and support a wiser, and more prosperous, human population. However, poverty and an ineffective government continue to put pressure on the remaining forest. [May 1, 2017]
Here’s the view across Scandinavia from my first shuttle mission, STS-59. North is at upper right. We’re looking west past Denmark at lower left, Sweden at center and right, and the snow-capped mountains of Norway at top center. At lower left, Copenhagen, Denmark, lies across the strait from Malmo, Sweden (just north of that little T-shaped peninsula off Sweden’s southern tip). That’s Oland island at right off Sweden’s eastern coast. At center left is the Kattegat, the enclosed sea between Denmark’s Jutland peninsula and Sweden. The Skagerrak is the strait, top left, winding between Jutland and Norway, and feeding into the Kattegat. At top, we can clearly see the snow line as spring advances southward. This is about as far north as our orbit (57-degree inclination to the equator) would carry us. This view brings a geography textbook–or Google Maps–to life!
NASA Image Caption:
Southern Sweden, with its plethora of lakes, is visible in this west-looking, high-oblique photograph. The lakes were created when the continental glaciers scoured this area and then receded, allowing the countless depressions to fill with water. In addition to numerous smaller lakes that are generally aligned in a north-south orientation, two large lakes—larger Lake Vänern and Lake Vättern—can be seen toward the northern edge of the photograph. The dark green area inland from the coast is forested lands. A small part of the Baltic Sea is pictured off the southeast coast of Sweden, and the Skagerrak and Kattegat, the waterway entrance into the Baltic Sea, are shown off the southwest coast of Sweden. Although no specific details can be ascertained at this scale, the four main landforms of Denmark (viewing west to east)—a peninsula (Jylland) and three islands (Fyn, Sjelland, and Lolland)—can be seen along the southern edge of the photograph. (STS059-223-065)
U.S. space policy experts are looking for hints from President-elect Trump’s transition team on how they will view and change NASA’s space exploration goals, particularly in the highly visible area of human spaceflight. Change is certainly on the way.
President Obama said publicly in October that the nation’s clear goal is to send humans to Mars on a round-trip expedition sometime in the 2030s. Initial expeditions will eventually lead, he said, to extended visits and a permanent outpost. He noted that NASA is working with industry to develop new, space-qualified habitats to “sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space.” NASA’s NextSTEP program has asked industry teams to propose an array of habitat technologies that can be tested at the ISS, and eventually in lunar orbit.
The President also stated that U.S. space leadership will benefit us in areas of energy, medicine, agriculture, and artificial intelligence, while delivering a better understanding of Earth’s environment.
I was surprised that President Obama spoke about space during October: it’s a topic that is very rarely on his radar screen since his “we’re going to an asteroid” speech of April 2010. Of course, he directs an agency, NASA, that often talks about our Journey to Mars, but this is to my mind the first time the President has stated that “humans to Mars” is a declared U.S. goal.
A clear goal for NASA and the nation in space is all to the good. The president is right about the benefits to the US of deep space exploration. Space exploration will also help us expand our economy into space to create new jobs, energy production, and research facilities in space.
But the President has not followed up on his own rhetoric. The fact is that in 2010 the president canceled our planned return to the Moon, substituted a call for an asteroid mission in the mid-2020s, then provided no funds to achieve that goal. Now, nearly 7 years later, he’s proposed a Mars goal, but has neglected the hard work needed to fund and build consensus toward it.
For example, his budget for NASA has not kept pace with the Mars goal. President Obama is not funding:
- The new rockets and spacecraft which will be needed to reach the 2030s Mars goal. The Space Launch System and Orion by themselves cannot reach Mars. This booster and spacecraft are already being slow-walked by the administration, even before the SLS has made its first test flight (now scheduled for late 2018).
- Nuclear propulsion to reduce Mars trip times and thus, radiation exposure.
- Radiation shielding and countermeasures for astronauts on 3-year-long roundtrips to Mars (needed to prevent cancer and neurological damage).
- A plan for creating and testing the reentry and landing technologies needed for landing humans on Mars. So far, we have managed to put just a ton at a time on Mars—once. We’ll need to land at least 25 tons at at time for any piloted mission.
- Methods to tap water ice or water-bearing minerals on the Moon and on asteroids, and process them into rocket fuel and life support oxygen and drinking water.
Despite NASA’s oft-touted Journey to Mars and the President’s October declaration of Mars as a national spaceflight goal, his NASA budget does not provide funding that can eventually achieve that objective. The President’s Mars goal is just 20 years away, but we have a tremendous amount of technical and biomedical homework still ahead of us. We are not tackling this list of tasks at a pace to put humans on Mars by 2035.
The biggest challenges are radiation protection, and the technology to land big habitats and return vehicles for astronauts. Just slightly less daunting are the technologies needed for life support systems and deep-space habitats to support crews on Mars expeditions. These living spaces will need radiation shielding (perhaps a cosmic-ray-absorbing jacket of water, or sandbags of regolith mined from the Moon or asteroids). NASA is already researching deep space habitats with industry teams through its NextSTEP program in 2016.
The way to actually reach Mars, rather than just talk about it until the next administration, would be to start building and testing the needed spaceflight systems as soon as possible, accomplishing short-term milestones and building on those to achieve a true deep space presence.
Life support and spacesuit testing should move to the International Space Station immediately. By 2020, put a crew aboard the new Orion and Space Launch System (SLS) and conduct visits to a habitat around the Moon. Crews would stay for about a month while operating surface rovers on the lunar far and near sides. Commercial firms would build the rovers and ship cargo and supplies to the lunar orbit habitat.
With five years of habitat testing and experience, assemble in Earth orbit the elements of a near-Earth asteroid mission: habitat, propulsion, power, radiation shielding, and an Orion return spacecraft. Launch a crew to a nearby asteroid, on a mission lasting 6 months to a year, taking American astronauts millions of miles from Earth.
With a couple of near-Earth asteroid missions accomplished, NASA would have the skills to lead an international partnership to the Mars system, aiming for a mission to the Martian moons in the early 2030s. The proven deep space habitat would be married to a new propulsion and power system (a nuclear reactor system) to reach Mars orbit and an encounter with the small moons Deimos and Phobos.
Propellant for this mission could be mined from the Moon or furnished from nearby asteroids, extracted by robots. Use of space resources from the Moon, asteroids, and Mars system will drop the cost of eventual expeditions to the red planet.
With astronauts in Mars orbit in the 2030s, extracting water (and propellant) from the minerals there, we could then land habitats and power systems on Mars itself, there to be readied by robots for the arrival of a human expedition. A US-led, international Mars expedition could be safely undertaken by 2040.
To undertake this American expansion to and beyond the Moon, the NASA budget must rise, but not dramatically. After losing 3 percent in buying power over the past five years, NASA’s budget should be raised from $19 billion to $25 billion over the next 5 years. That new total is still just 0.6% of $4 trillion federal budget. If the new president makes this initial commitment and then keeps the NASA budget pacing inflation after 2020, we will show the U.S. is serious about expanding into deep space.
A clear goal—dominance of space between the Earth and the Moon—and a long-range plan to search for life on Mars with human explorers will preserve our leadership in space exploration, and bring new wealth from space technology and new-found space resources into our economy. That’s another way to revive American fortunes at home and around the globe.
Tom Jones is a PhD planetary scientist, veteran astronaut, and author of the new Smithsonian Book: “Ask the Astronaut: A Galaxy of Astonishing Answers to Your Questions on Spaceflight.”
(reprinted with permission of Aerospace America magazine)
By Tom Jones
A newly discovered asteroid will orbit in loose formation with Earth for centuries. Its presence reminds NASA exploration planners of attractive opportunities for robotic and human exploration as they examine varied paths toward deep space and Mars.
In April, astronomers sifting through images from the University of Hawaii’s Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System in Maui discovered a faint near-Earth asteroid, now designated 2016 HO3. Analysis of its orbit soon showed that the 50- to 100-meter-wide object circles the sun on a path very much like Earth’s, f lying formation within a few million miles of our planet for at least the next century.
The discovery of HO3 underscores the practical possibility of exploring nearby asteroids as a way to gain valuable deep-space experience in preparation for journeys to Mars. A skeptical Congress seems unwilling to fund NASA’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, a crewed mission to an asteroid fragment placed in lunar orbit. HO3 and other, even more accessible asteroids may serve as alternate destinations: far enough beyond the moon to test astronauts on a multi-month, deepspace expedition, but not nearly as challenging and risky as a full-up, multi-year journey to the red planet. A reasonable path toward Mars may take astronauts from a lunar orbit outpost, to one or more near-Earth asteroids, and then to the Mars system in the 2030s.
Because of HO3’s relative proximity, “we refer to it as a quasi-satellite of Earth,” Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in an article on nasa.gov. “Our calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth’s companion for centuries to come.”
As HO3 alternately races ahead of and falls behind Earth in its yearly trek around the sun, it ranges out to about 100 times the moon’s distance, then closes to as few as 38 lunar distances: from 38 million down to 14.7 million kilometers. Other asteroids make closer approaches to Earth, and can be reached with less rocket propellant. But what makes HO3 special is that it’s always around for a visit: It offers a launch opportunity every year for the next few decades.
Other typical near-Earth asteroids offer only periodic, infrequent launch windows. HO3’s discovery is a timely reminder to NASA that if it wants to get astronauts out beyond the moon in the 2020s or early 2030s, either HO3 or another attractive target is nearly always within range.
Sifting the skies
HO3’s discovery resulted from NASA’s ongoing survey of the inner solar system for potentially hazardous objects. Since 1998, when Congress directed NASA to search for near-Earth objects such as comets and asteroids large enough to cause global damage if they struck Earth, the space agency has been funding a growing array of dedicated search telescopes and the astronomers who operate them.
Today, the NASA search program’s $50 million annual budget covers search, orbit cataloging, asteroid deflection research and spacecraft mission definition. It also identifies candidate targets for NASA’s planned Asteroid Redirect Mission, ARM, in which robotic spacecraft would lift a 10- to 20-ton boulder from an asteroid and nudge the fragment into lunar orbit. Once stabilized there, an Orion astronaut crew would rendezvous with the object, examine it, and carry samples to Earth.
NASA-funded telescopes are discovering close to 2,000 near-Earth objects each year; the program has found 98 percent of the nearly 15,000 of those cataloged so far. NASA today is working to fulfill a 2005 congressional mandate to find asteroids capable of causing regional damage on Earth, meaning those 140 meters or larger in diameter. It has already cataloged an estimated 95 percent of those larger objects (based on near-Earth object population statistics and the rate at which search telescopes “rediscover” known objects). As of July 13, 1,714 objects in the catalog — some 12 percent — were termed “potentially hazardous,” capable of colliding with Earth in the distant future. None poses a significant threat of impact within the next century.
HO3 joins dozens of other known near-Earth asteroids, NEAs, accessible to human explorers. NASA filters NEA discoveries through its NEO Human Spaceflight Accessible Targets Study, or NHATS, identifying objects whose orbits make possible roundtrip expeditions by robots or humans in 450 days or less, and a total mission velocity change, rV, of 12 kilometers per second or less (think of rV as a stand-in for how much rocket fuel you’ll need to fly the mission). President Obama set a goal of an astronaut expedition to an asteroid in its native, solar orbit by mid-2020s. But when it became evident under the president’s budgets that the combination of Orion, the Space Launch System booster, deep-space propulsion and a habitation module would not be ready by the end of the 2020s, NASA proposed the Asteroid Redirect Mission instead. With ARM, astronauts could visit an asteroid fragment delivered to lunar orbit no earlier than 2026, but NASA would still fulfill the presidential asteroid directive, after a fashion.
Does HO3 offer NASA a new, game-changing asteroid target? Veteran astrodynamicist and former NASA Johnson Space Center flight dynamics officer Dan Adamo told me in an email that although 2016 HO3 has long-term proximity going for it, it’s hardly the most attractive target out there. Writes Adamo: “As of July 11, 2016, a total of 1765 NHATS-compliant near-Earth objects was known. Of these, 566 near-Earth objects can be accessed with shorter round-trip durations than any 2016 HO3 mission. Likewise, 184 NHATS-compliant near-Earth objects can be accessed with less delta-V than any 2016 HO3 mission.”
In fact, HO3’s orbital tilt, or inclination, of 7.77 degrees imposes a significant velocity-change penalty on visiting spacecraft. By contrast, the NEA 2000 SG344 has an inclination of just 0.11 degrees, yielding a minimum mission velocity change of 3.56 kilometers per second, according to Adamo. In 2029, for example, a five-month roundtrip to SG344 requires a velocity change of only about six kilometers per second.
Nevertheless, HO3’s loitering behavior makes it a regularly accessible exploration target: a launch window to it is always handy. In any given year, for example, a 154-day round trip to HO3 could be mounted for a total velocity change of roughly 12 kilometers per second. Stretching the mission duration to one-year reduces the velocity change to 6.1 kilometers per second–significantly less than landing that same spacecraft on the moon, which takes about 9 kilometers per second. Both HO3 missions would include eight days of surface exploration time at the asteroid.
Where next–if anywhere?
Although far from the optimum candidate, HO3’s discovery in our celestial backyard keeps asteroids, along with the moon, in the conversation as targets for science, human exploration and possible commercial exploitation. It’s a timely discussion: If ARM does not win support in 2017 from a new administration and a skeptical Congress, near-Earth asteroids like HO3 represent the closest physical destinations for astronauts beyond the moon. By the mid-2020s, NASA should have flown its Orion spacecraft and SLS booster several times. By adding habitation and propulsion modules to Orion, NASA would then be able to dispatch astronauts to nearby objects like HO3. NASA is already conducting habitation module studies, and such extra living space could be available a decade from now for an asteroid roundtrip.
But such a deep-space journey will still confront planners with many of the risks of a Mars expedition: radiation exposure, the effects of prolonged free-fall, and psychological isolation as Earth recedes to the size of Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot.” Supply considerations are daunting, too: a crew of four would need to pack almost 2.5 metric tons of food for a one-year asteroid roundtrip. Still, an asteroid expedition would be less challenging in terms of time, distance, and logistics than the two-plus-year journey to the Martian moons and back. An NEA mission could offer NASA just the right-sized first step on the road to Mars.
More accessible NEAs like HO3 and SG344 will be found in the coming decade, offering NASA more asteroid targets of opportunity. NASA could team with robotic mining companies to send small robotic scouts to a promising few. By the mid-2020s, Orion and SLS should be ready. If ARM delivers its asteroid boulder to lunar orbit, astronauts should visit it forthwith. But in case ARM is detoured, NASA is probably already thinking of how to reorient its exploration hardware: from lunar orbit, to “local” near-Earth object missions, to eventual journeys to the Mars system. Although I think NASA’s interest in human Mars exploration is genuine, the proof of that commitment will be its willingness to seek approval and funding for an earlier deep-space foray, millions of kilometers beyond the Earth-Moon system. A near-Earth asteroid expedition is just such a “no kidding” step toward Mars, far more daunting than a return to the moon (whose advantages I’ve discussed in recent columns). A NASA serious about Mars must move beyond talk, and actually do. Near-Earth asteroids represent just the terra incognita needed to demonstrate that seriousness of purpose. ★
Author’s Note: NAMING ASTEROIDS–An asteroid’s initial designation is assigned by the Minor Planet Center following a formula based on the year of discovery, two letters and, if need be, further digits. 2016 HO3, for example, was discovered in 2016, in the second half of April (H), and was the 89th object discovered in the latter half of April (O3).
(Dec. 6, 2017 entry:)
Twenty-one years ago, my Columbia crewmates (Ken Cockrell, Tammy Jernigan, Story Musgrave, and Kent Rominger) and I were still a day away from landing in Florida, and snapping Earth photos as fast as our index fingers could hit the shutter button. This Hasselblad 70mm photo was taken on Nov. 28, 1996 as we soared over the Arabian peninsula. This region of the Middle East is one of the most recognizable landscapes seen from space, thanks to its unique geographical features. Here’s the NASA caption:
A view to the west showing Asia in the foreground and Africa in the background, as photographed by the space shuttle Columbia crewmembers. The Mediterranean Sea is to the upper right and the Red Sea to the lower left. Sinai Peninsula is between the two with the Gulf of Suez above and the Gulf of Aqaba below. The Suez Canal connects the Gulf of Suez with the Mediterranean Sea. The triangular shaped dark area beyond is the Nile River Delta. The thin green fertile valley of the Nile crosses the photograph from a point at Cairo (near dark triangle area) past the great bend at Luxor with Thebes and the Valley of the Kings, and on the left into the Nubian Desert with the Aswan High Dam at the very left edge of the photograph. To the horizon is the Western Desert of Egypt and Libya. The foreground is the northwest portion of Saudi Arabia, an area known as the Hejaz with the southern portions of Israel and Jordan to the lower right. (NASA STS080-745-004)
(Nov. 27, 2017) As winter comes on here on the US East Coast, it’s easy to imagine the attractions of the warm, sun-kissed beaches of Hawaii. Twenty-one years ago on Columbia, STS-80, my crew gazed down at the island of Oahu–and wished we could just spiral down for a few days of relaxation. Here’s the NASA caption (modified by me to fit this “north at top” image):
The capital of the state of Hawaii was photographed by the crew members aboard the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Columbia on Nov.25, 1996. North is at top. The western portion (left part of photograph) of the well eroded extinct volcano is quite visible under clear skies. The northeastern coastal area and Koolau Range of mountains, which runs the length of the island (30 miles) are cloud-covered. This is the windward side of the island (great for surfing) and the warm moist Pacific winds sweep up the mountains thus causing the clouds and an unusually high rainfall. The city of Honolulu is along the lower right side with the Honolulu International Airport clearly seen. To the left of the airport is the narrow entrance to Pearl Harbor and nearby Hickam Air Force Base. The narrow sand beaches of the Waikiki Beach resort area, just left of Diamond Head – on the lower right, appear as narrow white lines along the coast to the right of the airport and port of Honolulu. The sharp point at the leftmost portion of the photo is Kaena Point. The cliffs there are so steep that there is no developed roadway, although a narrow gauge railway was carved into the cliffs and operated the first half of the century. (NASA STS080-758-065)
A keeper: Mount Everest is the pyramidal peak at center, at the end of the longer arm of the V-shaped valley at bottom center. Tibet is to the bottom (north), with Nepal at top, beyond Everest. Rongbuk Glacier flows to the north (bottom) while Khumbu Glacier flows to the south from Mount Everest. Many other glaciers are visible. The snow level is about 4,000 meters south of the divide or crest, and about 6,000 meters north of the divide (bottom of image), in the rain shadow. We always used the V-shaped valley as a pointer to find Everest from our orbital vantage point, 220 nautical miles up. (NASA STS080-733-001–19 Nov.-7 Dec. 1996)
My Key West entry comes 21 years after our STS-80 flight aboard Columbia: 18 days of complex satellite operations and maneuvers, coupled with outstanding opportunities for Earth photography.
I’ve been to Key West several times; the city is now in the middle of its recovery from Hurricane Irma in 2017. The Keys and their surrounding waters are one of an astronaut’s favorite terrestrial landmarks. Haven’t had my last visit to the Keys, or its fresh seafood restaurants and Cuban-style coffee.
NASA caption: The view shows the city of Key West, bottom mid-right, with Marathon Key, near top middle left, and the edge of the Straits of Florida, the dark water on the right edge. Clouds form over the cooler waters of the strait. The runways at Boca Chica Key Naval Air Station are seen near Key West. The bottom can be seen clearly in the shallow water, the deeper water has depths of over a half a mile. The thin line of the Overseas Highway can be traced east from Key West. Prior to a hurricane in 1935, this route was a railway line.
The Pic Tousside volcano on the Tibesti Plateau in northern Chad, photographed from STS-80, Columbia. (NASA sts080-722-13)Crossing the Sahara wastes in orbit on Columbia, our crew captured this view of the Pic Tousside volcano, using a 250mm lens on a Hasselblad 70mm film camera. The volcano is an eye-catching landmark on the way from Morocco to the Nile Valley. Note the numerous cinder cones at the top of the photo on the mountain slopes; the black basalt lava flows are running downhill, of course.
NASA’s Earth Observatory site says the following:
The Tibesti Mountain Range in northern Chad is one of the world’s least-studied volcanic regions. A look at the area from space, however, must intrigue volcanologists. One of the Tibesti Mountain’s features is Tarso Toussidé.
Looking like the result of a giant inkwell tipped on its side, Tarso Toussidé underwent a violent eruption in the recent geologic past, and the remains of that eruption have stained the ground black. The volcano ejected tephra, fragments of rock and volcanic glass, lava, and ash. Tephra does not last on the landscape as long as consolidated volcanic rocks such as tuff or lava, so the presence of tephra suggests fairly recent activity. In the middle of the field of dark tephra is Pic Toussidé, a lava dome poking out of the current caldera.
Volcanoes often sport multiple calderas, particularly as the primary site for eruptive activity shifts over time. East of Pic Toussidé are two calderas, the southern one bearing a white splotch roughly 2 kilometers long. This white color could result from salt. Water pooling in the caldera would not have an outlet, and as the water evaporated, minerals such as salt would be left behind.
My Columbia crewmates and I took this shot on STS-80 with a 70mm Hasselblad film camera using a 100mm lens. On December 5, 1996, our altitude over the northeastern plains of India was about 185 nm. Master geologist and astronaut instructor Bill Muehlberger wrote the caption above; Bill helped teach the Apollo astronauts their geology skills, and he took my Hairball astronaut class to the field in New Mexico to teach similar lessons. At the southern base of the Himalaya (bottom center) is the Brahmaputra River, flowing from east to west (right to left) on its way to join the Ganges. The Brahmaputra River (also called as “Burlung-Buthur” by the Bodo people of Assam), called Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan language, originates on the Chemayungdung Glacier located on the northern side of the Himalayas in Tibet. The river is 3,848 km (2,391 mi) long. The river flows around and through the eastern ranges of the Himalaya and returns in the lower part of the photo, flowing to the west, to join the Ganges.
The Tibetan Plateau is the tan area at upper left. The spidery lake at left edge of the photo is Yamzha Yumco. Lhasa, Tibet lies just to the north. The Jiali tectonic fault slashes across Tibet from upper left to right. At far right center, the Brahmaputra emerges from the mountain front and carries an immense load of silt and sand toward the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean. Geologists estimate that the Brahmaputra transports approximately 13 million tons of suspended sediment per day during floods. This is one corner of the world where erosion is tearing the Himalaya down almost as fast as they are pushed skyward.
This STS-80 Columbia image, shot with a 250mm lens on a Hasselblad 70mm body, shows one of our favorite Sahara targets, the Aorounga impact crater, which may be a chain of 3 circular impact craters. Radar images from STS-59, Space Radar Lab 1 (April 1994, my first mission), revealed what looks like two smaller craters to the northeast. This entire frame is about 25 miles across.
From NASA’s Earth Observatory: Aorounga Impact Crater is located in the Sahara Desert, in north-central Chad, and is one of the best-preserved impact structures in the world. The crater is thought to be middle or upper Devonian to lower Mississippian (approximately 345–370 million years old) based on the age of the sedimentary rocks deformed by the impact. Spaceborne Imaging Radar (SIR) data collected in 1994 suggests that Aorounga is one of a set of three craters formed by the same impact event. The other two suggested impact structures are buried by sand deposits.
The concentric ring structure of the Aorounga crater—renamed Aorounga South in the multiple-crater interpretation of SIR data—is clearly visible in this detailed astronaut photograph. The central highland, or peak, of the crater is surrounded by a small sand-filled trough; this in turn is surrounded by a larger circular trough. Linear rock ridges alternating with light orange sand deposits cross the image from upper left to lower right; these are called yardangs by geomorphologists. Yardangs form by wind erosion of exposed rock layers in a unidirectional wind field. The wind blows from the northeast at Aorounga, and sand dunes formed between the yardangs are actively migrating to the southwest.
We took this image from Columbia on November 24, 1996, from an altitude of 188 nautical miles. Mount Pinatubo is an active stratovolcano on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines. On all my flights (which all came after the 1991 eruption), I’ve observed the downhill migration of volcanic ash from the summit and its crater lake. The crater lake and mud flows are seen very well here, after the 1996 monsoon season. Note the now-closed Clark Air Force Base (and now reopened commercial airport) on the plains at lower right.
From Wikipedia: Before 1992, Pinatubo was heavily eroded, inconspicuous, and obscured from view. It was covered with dense forest which supported a population of several thousand indigenous Aetas people.
The volcano’s eruption on June 15, 1991 produced the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century (after the 1912 eruption of Novarupta in the Alaska Peninsula). Complicating the eruption was the arrival of Typhoon Yunya (Diding), bringing a lethal mix of ash and rain to areas surrounding the volcano. Predictions at the onset of the climactic eruption led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from the surrounding areas, saving many lives. Surrounding areas were severely damaged by pyroclastic flows, ash deposits, and, subsequently, by the lahars caused by rainwaters re-mobilizing earlier volcanic deposits. This caused extensive destruction to infrastructure and changed river systems for years after the eruption.
The volcano’s Plinian / Ultra-Plinian eruption on June 15, 1991 produced the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century after the 1912 eruption of Novarupta in the Alaska Peninsula. Complicating the eruption was the arrival of Typhoon Yunya (Diding), bringing a lethal mix of ash and rain to areas surrounding the volcano. Predictions at the onset of the climactic eruption led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from the surrounding areas, saving many lives. Surrounding areas were severely damaged by pyroclastic flows, ash deposits, and, subsequently, by the lahars caused by rainwaters re-mobilizing earlier volcanic deposits. This caused extensive destruction to infrastructure and changed river systems for years after the eruption.
NASA text by my colleague, volcanologist Dr. Cindy Evans: In early 1991, Mt. Pinatubo, a volcano north of Manila on the Philippine island of Luzon, had been dormant for more than 500 years. Few geologists would have guessed that it would produce one of the world’s most explosive eruptions in the twentieth century. Indications of unrest started a few months before the June 1991 eruption, but the size and impact of the eruption were completely unexpected. During the June 12-15 eruptive climax, the top of the mountain was blown off, lowering the elevation by roughly 150 m. About 8 to 10 km2 of material (Scott, et al., 1996) spewed out of the volcano onto the surrounding slopes. The eruption forced evacuation of more than 50,000 people, and effectively shut down two major US military bases (Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base); it was ultimately responsible for taking several hundred human lives.
Before the eruption, Mt. Pinatubo was a forested, deeply dissected and unimposing mountain on Luzon’s Bataan Peninsula. Although the upper slopes were steep and not well suited for agriculture, the lower slopes were heavily populated and supported extensive rice fields.
During the eruption, the upper slopes of the mountain suffered immediate destruction. The climactic explosions of June 14–16, 1991, blasted away the summit of Pinatubo, blew down surrounding forests, and rained hundreds of cubic meters of loose sand and gravel down on the mountain’s upper slopes. Floods of hot volcanic slurries were responsible for long-lasting damage downslope.
Astronauts did not observe the June 1991 eruption of the volcano—but they have routinely monitored subsequent changes around Mt. Pinatubo. The eruption had two major environmental effects which are readily documented from low-Earth orbit: the distribution of vast quantities of sulfur dioxide aerosols into the stratosphere; and the post-eruption mudflows, or lahars, which are recognized as the major natural hazard from the eruption.
This image of Ayers Rock and the Olgas (Uluru and Kata Tjuta) and the surrounding terrain was captured by the crew of space shuttle Columbia during the STS-80 mission; it was taken on Dec. 6, 1996, from an altitude of 202 nautical miles. We always looked for a chance to shoot Uluru on our passes over Australia, and this was a particularly nice pass, captured with a 100mm Hasselblad lens on 70mm film. I trained for both my Space Radar Lab missions at Ayers Rock and the Olgas with a NASA team flying the agency’s DC-8 aircraft out of nearby Alice Springs. Fellow STS-59 astronaut Linda Godwin and I drove 5 hours from Alice Springs to visit these famous rock formations. In this image, Uluru is at right, with Kata Tjuta and its highest promontory, Mt. Olga, on the left. Lake Amadeus is at top.
From NASA’s “Visible Earth” website: Seen from ground level, this majestic sandstone rock formation stands 348 meters (1,120 feet) tall and is 3 kilometers (1.85 miles) long. Uluru is the ancient name used by Indigenous Australians; Ayers Rock is the name that was given to the landform by explorer William Christie Gosse in the 1800s. Uluru is one of Australia’s major tourist attractions (more than 270,000 visitors in 2014), with operations run by people from the small town of Mutitjulu. A 16-kilometer (10-mile) road circles the rock, and a disused airstrip lies near the town.
Uluru and a similar striking landform known as Kata Tjuta (Mount Olga) are part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, created as a UNESCO site in 1994 for cultural preservation and protection. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are remnants of sediments eroded from an ancient mountain range that existed about 550 million years ago. The sediments were subsequently buried and compressed to form harder rocks—called arkose and conglomerate by geologists. These rocks were later tilted from their original horizontal orientation by powerful tectonic forces. Views from above now clearly show the hundreds of originally flat-lying layers that make up Uluru. Softer and younger sedimentary rocks were then eroded away, leaving the more resistant rocks exposed to form the present-day landforms.
Uluru is thought by native peoples to have been created by ancestral beings during the Dreamtime, which has been described as the essence of aboriginal culture and spirituality. The rock is regarded as one of the ancestors’ most impressive pieces of work. Ancient paintings throughout its caves and fissures describe this relationship, keeping Dreamtime traditions alive. The proximity of the Mutitjulu settlement to the rock symbolizes the spiritual connection between the local people and Uluru.
From NASA’s Earth Observatory website: In the heart of the Australian Outback, a massive block of red sandstone rises up out of the near-perfect flatness of the eroded landscape. Called Uluru, or Ayer’s Rock, this giant is a monolith 348 meters (1,142 feet) high, 3.6 kilometers (2.2 miles) long, and 9.4 kilometers (5.8 miles) around. It is the largest single rock known in the world. Tourists come from all over the country and the world to watch sunrise and sunset bring the colors of the rock to life.
Centered in the scene, Uluru appears a more subdued orange-red than the surrounding desert soils. These reddish soils and their location in the heart of the Outback give rise to the region’s nickname as Australia’s “Red Center.” Trees and other vegetation surround the base of the rock, giving the impression of streams of turquoise waters flowing out of the rock. The rock is carved and scoured by eons of erosion by wind and water. To the Aboriginal people, many of these features are part of the religious mythology through which they describe their existence and history in the region.
…Located in the Northern Territory of Australia, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park hosts some of the world’s most spectacular examples of inselbergs, or isolated mountains. The most famous of these inselbergs is Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock). An equally massive inselberg located approximately 30 kilometers (20 miles) to the northwest is known as Kata Tjuta. Like Uluru, this is a sacred site to the native Anangu or Aboriginal people. An English-born explorer named the highest peak Mount Olga, with the entire grouping of rocks informally known as “the Olgas.” Mount Olga has a peak elevation of 1,069 meters (3,507 feet) above sea level, making it 206 meters (676 feet) higher than Uluru.
Kata Tjuta is comprised of gently dipping Mount Currie Conglomerate, a sedimentary rock that includes rounded fragments of other rock types (here, primarily granite with less abundant basalt and rhyolite in a coarse sandy matrix). Geologists interpret the Mount Currie Conglomerate as a remnant of a large fan of material rapidly eroded from mountains uplifted approximately 550 million years ago. Subsequent burial under younger sediments consolidated the eroded materials to form the conglomerate exposed at the surface today.
Runways of the shuttle landing facility (top center) and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s “Skid Strip” (near the tip of Cape Canaveral) are visible. At top center are the shuttle launch pads, 39A and 39B; we launched from Pad 39B (northernmost/topmost pad). Indian River is at left, the Banana River at right, next to the Cape. The old ICBM Row launch pads (Mercury and Gemini) are clearly visible north of Cape Canaveral. I left Earth four times from this place–pretty special.
Monterrey is the capital and largest city of the northeastern state of Nuevo León, in Mexico. The city is anchor to the third-largest metropolitan area in Mexico and is ranked as the ninth-largest city in the nation. Monterrey is located in northeast Mexico, at the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental.
Monterrey Image Caption (NASA): Potrero Garcia and Potrero La Mula are breached salt-cored folds immediately north of the Sierra Madre Oriental and Monterrey. [Portrero Garcia is the triangular formation at upper left.–TJ] Individual limestone layers can be resolved in this beautifully detailed view, as can the tilt of the layers outward from the center of the fold (anticline). Most of the salt has been eroded from the core of the structure, but what remains is now being mined. In Las Grutas de Garcia (Garcia Caverns) the limestone bedrock has been dissolved and both limestone and gypsum formations decorate the cave.
Our STS-80 crew took this shot of Great Exuma Island and the Tongue of the Ocean on Dec. 3, 1996, from 185 nautical miles above the Bahamas. This is one of the loveliest ocean areas visible to orbiting astronauts.
A NASA caption says: This extraordinary image captures the meeting place of the deep waters of the Tongue of the Ocean and the much shallower, completely submerged Grand Bahama Bank. This platform reef drops off quickly into the branch of the Great Bahama submarine canyon that because of its shape is called the Tongue of the Ocean. The vertical rock walls of the Canyon rise 14,060 feet from their greatest depth to the surrounding seabed, which is why the water is so dark in color compared to the reef. The shallowest parts of the reef are no more than three to seven feet deep; so shallow, in fact, that in the northeast corner of the image you can zoom in and see large wave-sized ripples of sand on the bottom. Like so many other biological structures, the ribbon-like form of the reef maximizes surface area and thus the number of organisms that can colonize the structure. The closest land is the Bahama Islands of Great Exuma, less than 16 miles to the east [right side of the image], and Andros about 27 miles to the west.
From 187 nautical miles up, our Columbia crew imaged the island of Maui and Kahoolawe (lower left) on Nov. 25, 1996. Lanai is to the far left. The West Maui volcano is under clouds, but the sharply incised ravines running down to Lahaina and Kanaapali Beach show how much rainfall the mountain intercepts. Central Maui is clear, as are the resorts along the west-facing South Maui coast. Kahului airport is visible on the north central coast. The green slopes of Haleakala volcano (dormant) are visible at right. Haleakala National Park includes the volcano’s summit, at about 10,000 feet. A line of cinder cones follows the southwest rift zone up to the summit; darker, more recent lava flows mark the site of the most recent eruption on Maui, just before 1800 on the southwest tip of the island opposite Kaho’olawe. Haleakala’s summit caldera has been heavily eroded by heavy rains, creating a wide summit valley that drains both to the south, north, and east.
NASA’s Earth Observatory says:
In 1907, writer Jack London scaled a towering mountain in eastern Maui, the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands. When he reached the top and looked east, he was confronted with an otherworldly scene. “Far above us was the heaven-towering horizon, and far beneath us, where the top of the mountain peak should have been, was a deeper deep, the great crater, the House of the Sun,” London wrote. “The tie-ribs of earth lay bare before us. It was a workshop of nature still cluttered with the raw beginnings of world-making.”
That is not to say the area is not rich with signs of volcanic activity. “This floor, broken by lava flows, and cinder cones, was as red and fresh and uneroded as if were but yesterday that the fires went out,” London noted. “The cinder-cones, the smallest over four-hundred feet in height and the largest over nine-hundred, seemed no more than puny little sand hills, so mighty was the magnitude of the setting.”
…There is less vegetation in the valley—which comprises much of the national park—than to the north and east of the mountain because the valley lies in a rain shadow. Prevailing winds drop rain on the eastern and northern sides of the mountains because moisture gets squeezed from the air as it flows up and over the slopes. The cinder cones—steep conical hills around volcanic vents—appear as small mounds in the middle of the valley.
While London was correct that the lava flows are young, his time scale was a bit off. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, radiocarbon dating suggestions that the most recent eruption occurred between 1480 and 1600. The oldest exposed flows are 1.1 million years old, though geologists think the shield volcano began building itself up about two million years ago.
Haleakalā National Park was created on August 1, 1916, as part of Hawaii National Park. At that time, the park also included Kilauea and Mauna Loa. However, in 1961, the volcanoes of Hawaii and Maui were separated into different parks. The name Haleakalā is Hawaiian for “House of the Sun.” In Hawaiian mythology, a god named Maui climbed the mountain and lassoed the Sun’s rays to lengthen the day.
Our photo from STS-80 shows the lower tip of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Mt.Sinai is just to the right of upper center amid a welter of crustal faults. Mount Sinai is a 2,285-metre (7,497 ft) moderately high mountain near the city of Saint Catherine in the Sinai region. It is next to Mount Catherine (at 2,629 m or 8,625 ft, the highest peak in Egypt). It is surrounded on all sides by higher peaks of the mountain range. (Wiki) North is at top right.
From NASA’s caption: Low sun angle and excellent focus reveal details of three prominent sets of faults and fractures (and subordinate ones) in the 500-600-million-year-old bedrock of the Sinai Peninsula. Displacement as great as 4000 m is documented on faults in the southwest. Younger, more northerly faults crosscut those of northeasterly and northwesterly trend; the younger faults reflect a change in the direction of extension in the Red Sea rift from NE (55 degrees) at ~25 million years ago to almost N (10-20 degrees) at present.
We are standing in front of the external tank on the ET Hydrogen Vent Umbilical and Intertank Access arm, at the 167-foot level on Pad 39B.
Below, a lovely view of Earth’s surface at sunset, with thunderstorms casting long shadows.
In Columbia’s airlock, Story Musgrave (hands at left) is pulling on Tammy’s right glove as we ready for our Thanksgiving spacewalk on Nov. 28, 1996. (It was thwarted by a loose screw that jammed the airlock outer hatch mechanism.) Tammy was EV-1, the lead spacewalker; note the red stripe on her suit backpack. Connected to her suit’s DCU (display and control unit, on her chest) is the service and cooling umbilical (SCU), bringing ship’s power, oxygen, and water to the spacesuit while in the airlock. We would remove that connection just before opening the outer hatch at vacuum. Her backpack portable life support system (PLS) is still mounted to the airlock wall. Story would release the backpack from the wall mount before exiting the airlock and closing the hatch leading to the middeck.
With tools, cameras, and body restraint tethers, we were loaded for bear for this EVA. It’s amazing that we could actually maneuver inside that shower-stall-sized airlock, but free fall gave us full access to the head space in the airlock, easing the crowding problem.
Story and I are enjoying breakfast in the galley on Columbia’s middeck, port side. Columbia’s nose is to the right. That gray drawer suspended at upper right is a food tray containing a few days’ worth of meals. I’m having a breakfast burrito of sausage and eggs. Story has an oatmeal package in his hand. Our food trash will go in that clear plastic bag on the left side near the airlock. Just behind us is a blue stack of drawers called the MAR, the middeck accommodations rack, with a food tray and drink bags velcroed to it. Behind story to the left is the open door to the bathroom, the WCS (waste collection system) compartment.
One of my jobs on the STS-80 mission was to manage the overall wiring setup for our many combinations of cameras, video recorders, laptops, and Space Vision System video processors. Here you see me with the labyrinthine Photo-TV checklist on Columbia’s starboard side, aft flight deck (payload bay windows to right). The black box is a video tape recorder, or VTR. A Canon video camera is just to the right of my chin. The “4-5-6-7” pouches contain the Sky Genie escape ropes that we’d use to exit the flight deck out the overhead window, after a landing emergency. (Not much call for those ropes 220 miles up). That’s a St. Christopher (patron saint of travelers) medallion floating on a silver chain around my neck.
Taco washes his hair using rinseless shampoo. Fill a shampoo pouch with hot water, squirt onto scalp, lather up. Dry with a clean towel (seen at upper right). Comb or brush. Taco here is on the middeck, with the side hatch area behind him. On an 18-day mission, personal hygiene in Columbia’s small cabin was an important obligation, especially after a workout.
With Earth visible over Story’s shoulder, he monitors the Wake Shield satellite trailing us on Columbia by about 30 miles. The commander’s orange pack parachute is visible at left. Story had mounted his Wake Shield laptop atop the pilot’s (Kent Rominger’s) seat back, a perch only possible in free fall. The laptop received data from Wake Shield via an output cable from the shuttle’s Pulse-Code Modulation Master Unit, the PCMMU (puck-a-moo).
On Columbia’s middeck, Story helps Ken Cockrell don his launch and entry suit (LES). Story is forward at the middeck lockers; Taco is near the port-side hatch, over there to the left of the blue MAR rack. Story’s reentry seat next to the MAR is already installed to Taco’s right (he didn’t sit in it during reentry). The circular, clear cover at upper left is the UV hatch filter usually installed over the side hatch window. At far left is the gray metal box containing the escape pole, rigged for bailout in an emergency. Those blue velcro squares below it are on the hatch surface itself, which in flight is part of the waste collection system compartment–the shuttle’s bathroom.
Rommel and Tammy work on the starboard side of the middeck with the Capillary Action Pumped Loop science payload. They are taking video and watching one of the experimental runs, showing fluid in motion in free fall via capillary action, a possible system for removing heat using a working fluid without moving parts, like motors and pumps. Experiments like these were a daily activity for all of us aboard Columbia.
In this shot I’m “standing” next to my flight deck seat (left) on entry day. No doubt that is the deorbit prep checklist I’m holding. I’m wearing my launch and entry suit; I’ve got the parachute harness on already; the ‘chute is already in place on the seat. Hung on the side of the seat is my gray intercom box and a thermoelectric chiller to circulate cold water through my long underwear during reentry. Over on the port side (right) is a gray Canon video camera. Those windows behind me look back into the payload bay. Surrounding me are the hundreds of switches and controls of the aft flight deck–part of our home for 18 days on the STS-80 mission.
On Columbia’s middeck, mission specialist astronaut Tammy Jernigan has just finished washing her hair. She’s using the life support system’s fresh air outlet hose (which everyone calls the elephant trunk) to speed the drying process considerably. Unfortunately for her, it’s not hot air–just cool, clean, conditioned air. The forward equipment lockers are to the left, our sleeping bunks at rear, and the airlock just out of view to the right. Note the meal pouches waiting for preparation at lower right. Behind Tammy’s head you can see one of our individual toiletry kits, a Personal Hygiene Kit, or PHK. Below Tammy’s left elbow is a stowage bag, probably holding some of our dirty laundry after nearly 18 days in orbit.
Was this a terrific moment? From the flight engineer’s seat (MS-2), I could feel Columbia settling gently toward the xenon-lit runway ahead, with Taco handling the landing beautifully. Rommel was calling out the speed and altitude–we were right on the profile. Touchdown was so smooth I had to look at the computer display on the panel to see that the software had moded over to “I’m on the ground” operations. Wow–smooth as silk! Taco brought the ship to a stop and commented: “My knees are shaking!” He’d just received a blast of adrenaline for the final approach, and now we were stopped and he could enjoy his great landing. I’ve seldom been so exhilarated. Back on Earth after 18 days–longest shuttle mission in history!
NASA Caption: Just prior to dawn, the space shuttle Columbia heads for a landing on Runway 33 at the Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) to successfully complete a 17-day mission. Landing occurred just before dawn, at 6:49 a.m. (EST). The landing was the 33rd at KSC for the Space Transportation System (STS). Crew members on STS-80 were astronauts Kenneth D. Cockrell, mission commander; and Kent V. Rominger, pilot; along with Story Musgrave, Tamara E. Jernigan and Thomas D. Jones, all mission specialists.
Three of our crew visited the factory in Promontory where our flown STS-80 boosters had been returned for cleaning, disassembly, and reuse. We are standing by the aft end of our booster; the nozzle was jettisoned during descent to splashdown, and the aft skirt has been removed. Inside, the rubber insulation lining the steel booster casings is visible. The exhaust temperature of the booster in flight is about 5,000 degrees F, while the insulated steel of the casings never gets above ambient temperature during firing. An engineer told us that as far as the steel was concerned, the stresses of STS-80 launch, ascent and booster splashdown made for an unremarkable, “ho-hum” day. The people who built and prepared these boosters for flight held our lives in their hands, and we are still grateful for their professionalism and expertise. Longer, five-segment boosters like our four-segment shuttle boosters will power the mammoth Space Launch System rocket.