Orbiter Atlantis in High Bay 4 of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Feb. 2011. (Stephen Smith)
NASA has announced the start of the latest astronaut selection process, culminating next year in NASA’s choice of a new class of astronauts. NASA’s Kennedy Center Director, Bob Cabana, is a former astronaut and shuttle commander.
He relays a personal note on candidate qualifications:
From: Bob Cabana
Subject: Astronaut Selection Process
Even as we prepare KSC to support human exploration beyond our home planet, NASA is still in the human space flight business, with a permanent crew on the International Space Station (ISS) until at least 2020. That means NASA is going to continue to require astronauts to support ISS operations and provide crew support for development of the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and the Space Launch System (SLS) Programs. As you may have heard, NASA will begin accepting applications in early November for another astronaut class to provide that support. We’ve had a number of folks from KSC selected in the past, and I would encourage you to apply if you’re at all interested.
Here are some of the basic qualifications:
- U.S. citizenship
- Education: Undergraduate degree in engineering, physical or biological science, or math (may be computer science)
- Non-Pilot – 3 years of professional experience (this means after your qualifying degree, and it must be technical—graduate degrees may be substituted for experience)
- Pilot – 1,000 hours of flying time in jet aircraft
- Ability to pass NASA flight physical; some specifics:
- Distant and near visual acuity must be correctable to 20/20
- Blood pressure not to exceed 140/90 in a sitting position
- Standing height between 62 and 75 inches (have to meet anthropometric requirements of a Soyuz capsule)
Competition is within the following discipline groups:
- Physical Sciences
- Biological Sciences
- Flight Test Engineering
- No further breakdown
Here’s a link to more information on the selection process: http://astronauts.nasa.gov/content/timeline.htm
I can tell you this is the best job I have ever had. And the chance to work with the other astronauts is reward enough, even if one were never to fly in space!
Carpenter and Glenn lecture: NASM, June 23, 2011
Glenn noted how keenly he and Carpenter missed the other five Mercury astronauts, no longer with us. Attending this lecture was a rare privilege. I hope many will take this opportunity to enjoy this discussion, and attend a future lecture by this duo. Both were my heroes when I was growing up.
• Glenn – used manual control for last two orbits, after auto thruster failure. Thus too busy to do much science work.
• Carpenter – ate radioactive food for metabolism studies: Can the body process food while in free-fall? (Yes)
• Glenn – Mercury had no computers aboard
. • Glenn – false indication of loose heat shield led to re-entry with retropack still attached, causing flaming chunks of molten metal to whip past his window. Was it the heat shield coming apart? • Carpenter – the heat shield was designed to be jettisoned when the main chute opened, hanging by straps below a canvas bag that acted as an air cushion when the capsule hit the water. This false indication of the air bag being deployed was what caused flight controllers to worry that Glenn’s heat shield was compromised.
• Carpenter – his reentry was colorful due to all the ionized gases thrown off from the ablating heat shield.
• Carpenter – it was great to see the main parachute open!
• Carpenter – learning is fun whether in space or underwater. Enjoyed his SeaLab experience after Mercury.
• Glenn – George W. Bush allotted NASA no new money for the new Constellation lunar program, expecting it would come from ending shuttle and space station. OMB gave NASA no relief, and no new dollars.
I still treasure my copy of “Americans Into Orbit,” from 1964.
Although astronauts can’t hear external sounds in the vacuum of space (there is no “sound” in a vacuum – nothing to transmit vibrations), we can hear plenty of noises inside the spacesuit. Radio headphones crackle with conversations from Houston and the shuttle and station crews. Turning one’s head creates a rustle of communication cables rubbing against the helmet ring. The backpack suit fan blows a gentle breeze from behind the neck. Sound does conduct through the hard fittings of the suit: locking or unlocking a tool from the chest mini-workstation makes an audible click. Latching tethers onto the hip rings, or sliding a power tool into its “holster” on the workstation causes that sliding or tapping sound into the suit. But I don’t recall the suit itself creating sounds: it’s flexible enough to move and bend, and so is not as taut as a drum that might make a noise. The joint motors driving the robot arm are slow-moving and silent, so overall, the predominant impression in the suit is blessed quiet, compared to the constant white noise and clamor of activity and voices inside the shuttle cabin.
Tom Jones, STS-59-68-80-98
I’ll be speaking and signing books on Monday, June 6, at 7 PM. My topic will be “Charting a True Course in Space.” The Martin Museum lectures take place in the Lockheed Martin auditorium, with details at this link. After the talk I’ll sign and sell copies of “Sky Walking,” “Hell Hawks!”, and “Planetology.”
You can be sure I’ll be commenting on this very good Mike Ramirez cartoon:
Take a look at the new videos from the Coalition for Space Exploration. Spread the word about the benefits of space exploration and the need for an ambitious U.S. space program outside the space community, to our fellow citizens. Thanks to the Coalition for continuing to underline the importance of investing in our future.
My article appeared on May 24, 2011, in Popular Mechanics online. Thanks to my editors for publishing the piece and allowing me to run it here.
This week six astronauts aboard space shuttle Endeavour are knocking its last mission to the International Space Station (ISS) out of the park. In July, Atlantis’s final flight will bring down the curtain on NASA’s 30-year shuttle program. However, when Atlantis’s crew calls “wheels stop, Houston!” for the final time, many Americans will be startled to find that the nation has no replacement rocket that can launch astronauts to the ISS, 220 miles up. Fifty years ago tomorrow, John F. Kennedy committed the nation to reaching the moon within a decade. But soon we’ll be unable to reach the space station we largely built and paid for without help.
Until roughly 2015, when American companies hope to produce a commercial rocket and spacecraft that can carry NASA’s crews safely and economically, astronauts will be renting rides on the Russian Soyuz vehicle (at $55 million per seat and climbing). The fact that presidents and congresses have seen this gap coming and failed to close it is a significant gamble, and not just because it’s unclear whether commercial spaceflight will be ready to deliver crews by the 2015 target. NASA has no backup: If the new space startups can’t make a profit on flying astronauts and other customers to orbit, they will hang up the out-of-business sign and walk away. We’d be forced to buy Russian seats indefinitely while starting an expensive crash program to regain access to the ISS.
Once we find a way to reach the station, we face another gap—one of vision. Between now and 2020, the Obama administration proposes nothing more ambitious for the nation in space than operating the ISS in low Earth orbit, where we have been mired since 1972. The president’s single mention last year of a 2025 mission to a nearby asteroid has not led to firm NASA program plans, realistic milestones or funding. This space-policy muddle is already having serious negative effects. NASA is letting go thousands of skilled engineers, technicians and scientists who made the shuttle a success and built the space station. As they scatter to other industries, the nation loses an irreplaceable resource. Congress stepped in and directed NASA to build a rocket and deep space craft, but senators and representatives are not paid to do rocket science. Only the president can propose and execute a coherent policy for space exploration.
To fill this vacuum in space policy, the president should chart a vigorous, well-funded exploration path that finally returns American explorers to deep space, with the twin goals of scientific exploration and the creation of a commercial, space-based economy. Astronauts should lead the way out of Earth orbit by 2020, using a new heavy-lift booster and deep-space craft that will serve the nation for at least the next two decades. Commercial competition can help to create an innovative design, but this is a job for NASA. To see a project of such scale realized, the government will have to fund it.
After tests in lunar orbit, astronauts should embark on a series of voyages to nearby asteroids that are rich in water and other resources. Robot explorers like the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have already found water near the lunar poles, and ground-based telescopes, along with recovered meteorites, tell us that some nearby asteroids harbor minerals comprising as much as 20 percent water. Asteroids are also rich in iron, nickel, rare platinum group metals, and industrial catalysts. Following up discoveries by robot prospectors, astronauts could tap these space natural resources and demonstrate methods to produce water, structural materials and energy to fuel off-Earth industries.
NASA’s mission will not just grow our economy, but also invigorate scientific discovery: The experience and resources derived from asteroids and our moon will lay the foundation for eventual expeditions to the moons and surface of Mars. And it could even lead to the technologies that will protect our society from the threat of a future asteroid impact. This pursuit will drive technological innovation for decades, spurring our high-tech economy and, like President Kennedy’s declaration, inspiring new generations of young scientists, engineers and explorers.
Can we afford it? We’d be foolish not to invest in space. During Apollo, spurred by the Cold War, we spent nearly 5 percent of the annual federal budget on space, winning the space race and sparking a technological revolution. But NASA’s budget has been shrinking for two decades; today, it is just over half a percent of annual spending. The Augustine Committee in 2009 recommended that we commit to a human spaceflight program “worthy of a great nation,” estimating NASA would need only an additional $3 billion above the current $19 billion annually to launch America on voyages into deep space. That would still be less than 0.6 percent of the federal budget, an affordable investment to open this frontier and ensure our technological leadership in the 21st century.
As we debate America’s future in space, we should look for leaders who will build on the shuttle’s success, set ambitious goals and commit the resources to achieve them. Great nations are exploring nations. America’s explorer-entrepreneurs are just waiting for the word “Go!”
Tom Jones is a planetary scientist, veteran astronaut, speaker and author. He flew on four space shuttle missions and helped build the International Space Station. His website is astronauttomjones.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
It will be my pleasure to act as Astronaut Speaker again at my “Future Space” presentation at a Meet the Author event at the Oakton Library in Oakton, VA, on Tuesday, April 26, 2011. The event starts at 7 pm. It is free, but the library requests registration to estimate attendance in advance. Afterwards I’ll be selling and signing copies of Hell Hawks!, Sky Walking, and Planetology. Hope to see you there!
On Friday I’ll be appearing on Fox News for launch commentary for the STS-124 Endeavour launch, at 3:47 pm EDT.
During the week of April 11, 2011, the FBI released some of its investigation records on UFOs. The reports reflect the reality that people do see unexplained phenomena in the sky. Are these sightings evidence for intelligent life elsewhere, or some secret flight testing program?
Much UFO speculation in the past has focused on one of my shuttle missions, STS-80, flown in late 1996. Some have maintained that video shot during this Columbia space shuttle flight provides evidence for unknown objects moving in the night sky. I have reviewed this video (for the first time in 1997), and conclude that it shows commonplace and well-known objects near the shuttle, all of them observed on every shuttle flight. These videos show low-light television camera images of ice particles or man-made debris drifting out of Columbia’s cargo bay, and floating in the vicinity of the shuttle, likely within a few tens of feet of the orbiter.
I have seen these snippets of STS-80 video many times since our flight. These video scenes were recorded by remote control, under ground command, with flight controllers in Houston’s Mission Control operating our low-light TV camera in the cargo bay. As far as I remember, nobody on the crew was looking out the window at these ice crystals or debris particles. Nobody thought anything that our crew observed out the window was of “alien” origin, or something not connected to the shuttle’s routine operations (e.g. a large rotating disk or any such unusual structure). Once you understand what the solar illumination conditions are (orbital twilight, with darkness below and sunlight at our altitude), it’s easy to conclude that the video shows normal small ice and debris particles drifting aimlessly away from the orbiter, with some pieces becoming sunlit as they move out of the shuttle’s shadow. During our science operations, robotic satellite deployments and grapples, and robot arm tests and exercises, we routinely noticed these ice particles and debris catching the brilliant sunlight outside. But these sightings were non-events for us, as we understood what we were seeing completely.
Both the flight crew and Mission Control are always attentive to particles seen outside the windows, or on payload bay cameras. Such sightings could be clues to spacecraft problems, such as a vital piece of equipment that has shaken loose. Those sightings need to be reported ASAP and openly discussed — is it a fuel leak, or a piece off the rudder, or damage to the TPS (tiles), or other bad news? Crewmembers and flight controllers have no reason to ever keep it secret or to keep these discussions off normal radio channels.
Aside from details of specific Defense Department payloads and their deployments, astronauts have no classification regulations or rules preventing anyone from discussing anything they’ve seen or experienced on space flights. No secret non-disclosure signatures, no secret threats, no secret brainwashing–we communicate openly with the public. What we get, you get. What we see that’s unusual, we tell you about.
I have spent many hours gazing out the shuttle windows during my 53 days in orbit, under all lighting and orbiter attitude conditions. The objects seen in the STS-80 videos are ordinary debris particles or ice crystals, some hit by shuttle thruster blasts that cause a change in their motion. Local lighting conditions also change the brightness of some objects as they drift into or out of shadow. I have never seen any evidence in space or on Earth of spacecraft or phenomena not explained by our routine space operations in the shuttle or Space Station programs. My crewmates and I have not seen any evidence for UFOs or spacecraft of “alien” origin or behavior. The STS-80 videos are records of normal space shuttle operations and optical phenomena.
It is regrettable that so many spaceflight-minded young people have their enthusiasms exploited by misinterpretations of such shuttle videos. These inaccurate theories about what the videos show–some naive, some possibly deliberately misleading–waste a great deal of productive energy. Insisting that astronauts have seen alien vehicles is incorrect: a deliberate falsehood. This myth wastes years of healthy curiosity and diverts it to pseudo-scientific wild goose chases, and is a disservice to the fantastic and dedicated work done in orbit by Space Station and shuttle crews, and their support team on Earth. Those still arguing about non-existent UFOs seen by space shuttle crews are wasting their time. Worse, they are misleading young explorers who don’t deserve to miss out on the genuine thrills and wonder of the spaceflight experience, its importance for the advancement of our species, and our understanding of the home planet and our universe.
Tom Jones, PhD
Astronaut on STS-59, -68, -80, and -98
I’m pleased to reprint the account below by Elaine Swierszcz Gaither, recounting her son’s recent return from Afghanistan (with permission):
HOMECOMING 2/6 MARINES, FOX COMPANY, January 4, 2011
To understand the ending of the story, I have to begin at the beginning. In June, our family made a marathon round-trip to Camp LeJeune, NC to bid farewell to our son Josh, a Lance Corporal with the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, who was deploying to Afghanistan. We arrived a scant 90 minutes before departure, barely enough time to hug him one last time, tell him how proud we were of him, to reassure him (and ourselves) that he would be back before too long. I think it was the first time I truly realized how scared he was, how terrified I was. As hard as it was to say goodbye to him, it was almost harder to see the Marines saying goodbye to their children, their pregnant wives, the babies who would be celebrating their first Christmas without their dad. One Marine dad sat on the ground and played one last time with his young son. The families stood in the parking lot as the buses pulled out, waving until they were out of sight. And then a new family formed…a family of those left behind. We hugged, we cried, we gave words of encouragement and strength, we exchanged names, email addresses, and phone numbers. After a bit we were able to tear ourselves away and head home.
As the months crept by we heard infrequently from our Marines, but as soon as one of us did, the word was passed. It didn’t matter that they were in different companies, different parts of Marjah, different jobs. One of our own was heard from, and we celebrated. Facebook became a lifeline for us. Like all families, we mourned each combat loss, celebrated each new member of the 2/6 family added by birth, consoled those whose Marine was injured, shared news about travels and illness. Life went on here in the States, and the family formed in that parking lot was there for support.
In November we were given tentative arrival dates. Each company was assigned a three to five day window; Fox Company was due January 4 – 7. Excitement began to build, a flurry of information about travel arrangements and hotels was exchanged, welcome home banners ordered, and the countdown began. The days dragged on, the holidays came and went without too much celebration. On January 2, we got our 48 hour confirmed notice; Fox Company was due to arrive onboard Camp LeJeune Tuesday, 4 January at 1930 hours. It was time to head back to North Carolina. It was time to welcome our Marine home. I think that Monday was 100 hours long! The students in my classes kept asking me what was wrong…I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t concentrate…I now have a better understanding of ADHD!
We left home at five in the morning on the fourth, seven hours later we were at the hotel in Jacksonville. We headed over to the base mid-afternoon; I had seven cases of Girl Scout Cookies and a huge carton of donated candy to deliver for the reception. We grabbed something to eat at the Commissary, found the rest of our family and friends who had made the trip, and headed over to the Field House. It was time to meet all those wonderful people I had met via the internet, and to say hello again to those I had met in June. Welcome Home signs hung from the bleachers, and the excitement and anticipation was almost palpable. Little ones played on the gym floor, wives clustered together, parents found each other and chatted, other Marines came in, many of them wounded, and waited with us for word that Fox Company was on the ground at Cherry Point, and enroute back to LeJeune. Around 6, cell phones began to ring, word began to spread as more and more of the Marines were calling their wives, their dads, moms, girlfriends…they were on the ground and headed back. Except they were still a good 90 minutes away, and they would first have to go to the Armory to turn in their serialized gear and weapons. The Marines would then march from the Armory to the Field House. The excitement continued to build and the wait became more and more unbearable.
Finally, after hours of waiting, we heard they were at the Armory and then the announcement we were waiting for was made. If quite could be loud, it was. A silence fell over the Field House as the moments of waiting drew to a close. But it was a loud silence…maybe it was all the excited breathing, maybe it was the pounding of all our hearts, maybe it was the sound of joy. The doors swung open and in single file Fox Company began to march in. The roar of the crowd, the applause, all suddenly faded as I glimpsed Joshua coming through the door. I remember saying to someone the next day that it was like giving birth as he emerged into the Field House. I remember bursting into tears. I remember jumping up and down and whispering his name. As the Marines continued to come through the door, I again became aware of the noise, but I could not take my eyes from Josh. As the last Marine entered and stood in formation, the Company Commander (I think) made some brief remarks (I think it had something to do with the mission) and then, I swear, he dismissed the company. I bolted for Josh only to be stopped, because they had not been dismissed. Instead, all the members of Fox gathered around their leader, and they toasted the Marines who were not going to be coming home. Each of them popped open a beer they had been handed just before coming in to the Field House, and drank in memory of their fallen brothers. If there had been a dry eye in that building up until that point, there wasn’t any longer.
The Marines were then dismissed, and I took off again. I got to Josh first, followed by other members of the family, and then his friends. I could not stop touching him. After Josh checked in to his new quarters, and I realized that none of the “civvies” we brought him would fit (he said they had nothing else to do but work out), we went out to dinner…it was, by now, 11pm. At the restaurant, following a Marine tradition, the family presented the now Corporal Gaither with his new NCO Ceremonial Sword. Eventually we found our way back to the hotel and ended what had been a very long, very emotional day.
Almost three weeks later, I find myself still moved to tears by different things. We had delayed fully enjoying the secular aspect of Christmas until Josh began leave. I ordered a Welcome Home Cake with the Marine Corps logo on it. When I went to pick it up, I placed the cake in the bottom of the cart and went about shopping. One man passed me by and said “Semper Fi”. I was too stunned to respond. Another man stopped and asked about the cake. I explained and he said “tell your son thank you. Not many are willing to make that sacrifice so I can live in this wonderful country, and enjoy what we have here. And thank you for giving your son to us.” Then, as I was leaving the store, the guy who checks your cart and receipt asked me if my son had just gotten out of the Marines. I again explained that he had just returned from Afghanistan. The man reached over, hugged me and said “tell him a Vietnam Veteran says I’m glad he made it back and thank you.” After thanking him, I left the store in tears. I hide my tears from Josh when he offers up a short recounting of what he’s been through, what he’s seen. He has talked about bullets hitting the ground near his feet, about a buddy hit in the neck, a child who was shot. He talks about how they killed an animal purchased from a local farmer so the Marines could have something fresh to eat, how they couldn’t drink the water, how the children begged for food. He mentions the school that the Marines built and opened and how the girls wouldn’t go in to it, he talks about the irrigation ditches they had to jump over, how their feet were always wet. And he pulls out of his belongings a pile of small stuffed animals that people sent, and that he kept them to remind him of what he’d done, where he’d been, and how great it was that strangers remembered them.
Our journey with the Marine Corps will probably end in June, unless Josh decides to re-enlist. For many reasons I think it would be a good thing for him to stay in, but I know that would, most likely, mean another combat deployment. I don’t know if I want to go through that again, I do know I will miss being part of a unique family. Semper Fi.
By Elaine Swierszcz Gaither
I’m so glad that Josh and his colleagues are “watching our six”! Thank you for sharing this story, Elaine.