The Enterprise shuttle prototype, currently on exhibit at the Smithsonian's
Udvar-Hazy Center, undergoes an inspection to make sure it can be ferried safely
to a new museum. Enterprise's departure would make way for Discovery's arrival.
Today's launch of the space shuttle Discovery represents a couple of firsts for the space program - but it also sets the stage for a series of "lasts," followed by a grand shuffle of space artifacts in museums across the country.
This mission marks the first time that four women have been in orbit at the same time, and the first time two Japanese astronauts have been in space simultaneously. But if NASA's current schedule holds, Discovery's launch will stand as the last to take place in darkness. And every flight going forward will be the last scheduled outing for each orbiter: Atlantis in May, Endeavour in July and Discovery in September.
Discovery is on the most clearly charted path to posterity: It's the oldest orbiter in operation, having entered service in 1984. It's also taken on the most flights (38), including the return-to-flight missions after the Challenger and Columbia tragedies as well as the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope. And now it's in line to be the last space shuttle to fly.
During today's post-launch news conference, Mike Moses, the space shuttle program's launch integration meeting, couldn't explain why Discovery has had such a leading role in the program's history. "I don't know what word to use," he told reporters. "'Voodoo' is the phrase that comes to mind."
NASA officials probably had that history-making voodoo in mind as well when they offered Discovery to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum for display. As far as NASA is concerned, Discovery is the only orbiter with a specific final destination: the museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, near Dulles International Airport in Virginia. But even that trajectory is a bit, shall we say, up in the air.
"From the Smithsonian's perspective, it's not yet a done deal, only because they need to raise the funds to bring Discovery there," said Robert Pearlman, founder and editor of the CollectSpace.com. The Web site is a prime online watering hole for space history enthusiasts who are following the shuttle shell game.
NASA estimates that preparing and orbiter for display and ferrying it to its destination for exhibit will cost $28.8 million - and so that has become the "price tag" for acquiring a shuttle. Recipients also have to convince NASA that they have the wherewithal to provide a climate-controlled, indoor exhibit space for the shuttles.
About 20 potential buyers have responded with proposals. "Whether all 20 of those are serious proposals ... we don't know, because NASA is not releasing the identities of those who have responded," Pearlman told me.
Some shuttle-seekers are very serious. New York's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, for example, is soliciting petition-signers and enlisting the state's U.S. senators as well as the governor and Arizona's John McCain to go after an orbiter.
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, is on the list of front-runners - as is Seattle's Museum of Flight in Seattle, which has been considering the construction of a $12 million shuttle-sized gallery as part of a "Field of Dreams" strategy. ("If you build it, they will come.")
The visitor centers for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas and Kennedy Space Center in Florida are also on the list, for obvious reasons.
"Kennedy Space Center is the easiest of the bunch," Pearlman said. "They don't really have to move it anywhere." The plan, at least in the short term, would be to refurbish one of the orbiter processing facilities on NASA center grounds to become an exhibit space.
NASA is due to make a decision on the destinations for Atlantis and Endeavour in July, and the selected museums would have to be ready to take delivery by the end of 2011. But the disposition of those two orbiters is just the initial round in the shuttle shuffle.
The National Air and Space Museum, for example, already has the shuttle Enterprise, a flight-test orbiter that never went into space. To make room for Discovery, Enterprise will be flown to a different museum - most likely one of the also-rans in the competition to get Atlantis or Endeavour.
There'll still be plenty of shuttle artifacts for museums that don't get an honest-to-goodness shuttle. Several sites already have full-scale shuttle mockups, such the Explorer at Kennedy Space Center and the Pathfinder at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
NASA is on track to distribute full-scale cockpit trainers to museums as well. "My understanding is that at least one is going to the National Air and Space Museum," Pearlman said. Unlike the flown orbiters, these mockups can be remodeled to visitors what a shuttle looks like on the inside. One of the mockups currently in use at Johnson Space Center, the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory, "has flown more simulated orbits in space than any of the real orbiters," Pearlman noted.
As orbiters, mockups, simulators and other shuttle artifacts filter out from NASA, museums may pass along their less treasured items to other venues - just as the National Air and Space Museum intends to move out Enterprise to make room for Discovery.
Some of those hand-me-downs could conceivably give museum visitors more of an up-close-and-personal encounter with history than seeing an actual shuttle. For instance, you might be able to take a ride in a shuttle simulator that was actually used by the astronauts.
"Ideally, people could experience what it's like to ride in the space shuttle," Pearlman said.
To experience what it might be like to see a retired shuttle, check out CollectSpace's gallery of exhibit concepts. There's a thread on the Web site's discussion forum that passes along reports about where the shuttles might end up.
For the time being, however, there's another, less complicated way to see a space shuttle with your own eyes: Look up in the sky.
Luis Alvarez / AP
Electrical consultant Antony Anderson holds up an electronic chip from an
acceleration pedal assembly during a news conference at the National Press Club
in Washington to discuss Toyota's sudden acceleration problems.
Could cosmic rays affect electronics here on Earth? Yes, absolutely. Could cosmic rays be what's causing the mysterious accelerator problems in Toyota cars? Maybe. That's one of the reasons why a NASA engineering team has been called in to assist in a federal investigation.
The team - drawn from the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, or NESC - serves as the space agency's rapid-response unit for engineering expertise. It was set up in the wake of the 2003 Columbia tragedy, in response to investigators' concerns that NASA didn't have an independent safety watchdog.
Since its formation seven years ago, NESC has taken on more than 100 engineering and safety assessments, said Keith Henry, a spokesman at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. "They range all the way from the shuttle and the International Space Station to interplanetary missions, Hubble, earth satellites and aviation questions," he told me.
However, the Toyota investigation apparently represents a new frontier: "To our knowledge, this is the first time the NESC has done anything related to automobiles," Henry said.
Nowadays, that's not as big a leap as you might think. Automobiles are relying more heavily on electronics for control systems. Just as the aviation industry adopted fly-by-wire systems, the automotive industry is moving toward drive-by-wire. "There isn't that much difference anymore between spacecraft, aircraft and modern automobiles," Henry observed.
Some suspect Toyota's troubles are the result of electronic glitches, and those are issues that will get close attention from the NASA engineers. Glitches could be caused by electromagnetic incompatibilities, or corrosion, or metal stress effects such as "tin whiskers," or elusive single-event effects such as cosmic-ray hits.
The cosmic-ray connection
Cosmic rays? Hitting cars? The connection made headlines last month when the Detroit Free Press reported that subatomic particles from outer space were being considered as a potential cause of the accelerator glitches. The report cited an anonymous memo sent to the National Highway Transportation Safety Board, complaining that "the automotive industry has yet to truly anticipate" the effects of cosmic radiation.
Earth's atmosphere stops most of the dangerous cosmic rays that zoom in from outer space, but some particles get through nevertheless. If those particles hit electronic chips, they can spark unpredictable little jolts of energy in the circuitry, potentially flipping bits out of their proper state. In space, cosmic rays can scramble the brains of a Mars orbiter. At high altitudes, they could bring an airplane to the brink of disaster. And on the ground, they can crash computers and reset routers.
Engineers try to make sure that the circuits they design are robust enough to weather cosmic rays, and Toyota insists its electronics are not at fault. But experts say that as the circuitry in our cars gets more sophisticated, cosmic rays become more of a concern.
"Modern electronics are more and more susceptilble to the phenomenon," said Dave Walsh, principal member of technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. "The smaller and more integrated the circuits are, the more likely you are to find it, unless you design around it."
Lloyd Massengill, director of engineering at Vanderbilt University's Institute for Space and Defense Electronics, agreed. "The single-event problem tends to get worse with scaling, that's for sure," he told me.
Two years ago, Intel senior scientist Eric Hannah said it was just a matter of time before the cosmic-ray problem started affecting cars. "It's strange, but this is the reality we're moving into as we get smaller and smaller circuits," he told the BBC.
Has that time now arrived? It's too early to say for sure, but NASA's engineers may well help provide an answer. "Right now what they're doing, besides getting the team together, is designing the testing program and getting parts from Toyota," Henry told me. The testing program will almost surely include blasting electronic components in a particle accelerator. That's a standard method for measuring vulnerability to cosmic rays.
The Toyota accelerator investigation, led by the NHTSA, is due to be completed by late summer. The National Academy of Sciences' Transportation Research Board will also be studying the issues surrounding automotive electronics on an industrywide basis over the course of the next 15 months.
The cost of the two studies combined is expected to amount to $3 million, according to the Department of Transportation. Henry said NASA's contribution will be equivalent to the time of nine full-time employees over a period of six months, although more than nine people will be involved. The DOT will reimburse the space agency for its costs, which are budgeted at $1 million.
NASA behind the wheel
This may well be NESC's first foray into automotive engineering, but NASA has delved into the field before. The space agency's wind tunnels have been used to improve the aerodynamics of race cars and semitrailer-trucks. One recent study, conducted in cooperation with other research groups, came up with more efficient designs for semis that could saves billions of dollars a year in fuel costs.
NASA engineers also have played supporting roles in developing technologies to clear the air in automobiles, produce better batteries for electric vehicles and build cars more efficiently with robots.
Then there's the "child presence sensor." Engineers at Langley adapted a sensor system originally used on the space center's research aircraft to go into a child's car seat. The sensor can tell when a child is sitting in the seat, and transmit a coded signal to a pocket-sized alarm hanging from the driver's key chain. If the driver leaves the child in the seat and wanders too far away from the car, the key-chain alarm sounds a warning.
"We have demonstrated the technology, and it's out there if someone wants to license it," Henry said.
What will those rocket scientists think of next?
For more technological spinoffs from space, check out this database from NASA's Innovative Partnerships Program. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."
NASA / JPL / Univ. of Ariz.
Click for slideshow: Dust dunes make rippling patterns on the floor of Samara
Valles, one of the longest ancient valley systems on Mars. Click on the picture to
see a slideshow of "HiWish" imagery from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The scientists who control the high-resolution camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have been taking requests, and now they've started to deliver Red Planet pictures to follow up on hundreds of suggestions from the public.
"Some people get into model railroading or Civil War re-enactments. My thing is exploring Mars," James Secosky, a retired teacher in Manchester, N.Y., said in a NASA advisory. Secosky's suggestion was among about 1,000 sent in to the "HiWish" imaging program, which was set up in January by the team behind the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE.
The scientists evaluated those suggestions, and this week they released the first eight HiWish selections. The new views take an up-close look at sights such as a boulder-strewn plain, layered ice deposits, the slopes of a volcano and dusty highlands that may hide signs of volcanic activity.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the people's choice program was "a prime example of what we call participatory exploration."
"To allow the public to aim a camera at a specific site on a distant world is an invaluable teaching tool that can help educate and inspire our youth to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math," Bolden said.
The HiRISE program follows up on people's choice opportunities that have been offered by Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey and even the Hubble Space Telescope. The HiWish selection process is based on more than just the prettiness of the prospective picture: When you make a suggestion via the HiWish Web site, you're asked to provide a scientific reason for the observation.
"What we hope is that people become more interested in science and appreciate this opportunity to explore another world," the University of Arizona's Alfred McEwen, principal investigator for the HiRISE team, said in the NASA advisory. "We appreciate fresh thinking outside the box and look for things we may not have chosen otherwise. It's good to have a lot of eyes on Mars."
Emily Lakdawalla, a planetary scientist who is now best-known as the Planetary Society's top blogger, acknowledged that requiring a scientific justification "may be a little intimidating" for some people. But the requirement helps ensure that the HiWish program generates high-quality prospects rather than off-the-cuff, pin-the-tail-on-the-planet suggestions.
Lakdawalla was the one who suggested taking a picture of a dust-covered highland that may or may not be an ancient volcano - and today she posted a detailed analysis of the resulting picture. Her first impression? "It's very dusty," she told me. "It would have been nice if it had not been so dusty, but I guess that's something I have to learn."
She wrote a research paper about the area that was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research back in 2001, and was hoping to follow up on that with the new imagery. Lakdawalla said characterizing the nature and extent of volcanic activity could help scientists determine whether Mars is merely like Earth's moon, "with a little wind and water action on top," or is a truly active planet with a long and complex geological history.
It remains to be seen whether Lakdawalla will be able to glean anything publishable from her HiWish picture. But publishing isn't really the point. "The point is, I got to put in a suggestion and get a picture back from Mars," she said.
Over the past decade or so, even folks who don't make their living as professional astronomers have become increasingly adept at processing the imagery from other people's space probes. You can see the evidence of that on Web sites such as UnmannedSpaceflight.com, or in amateur flythrough videos such as the ones available via Mars3D.com.
Today, legions of amateur astronomers are helping the professionals scan the skies. Hundreds of thousands of Internet users are sifting through astronomical databases. And amateur image wizards are making increasingly cool contributions to the world of space visualization. Once those wizards sink their teeth into HiWish and similar "participatory exploration" programs, the sky's the limit ... literally.
Participate in an exploration:
Do you have additional suggestions for "participatory exploration"? Share them as comments below. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."