kottke.org posts about space

Spinning Tethers for Space Propulsion

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2019

I love rocket launches. They are loud, carry cool things into space, and last a surprisingly long time considering how fast the rocket is already traveling when it clears the tower. But I think we’re going to look back on this era of space travel and marvel that launches & rockets were our only means of getting things into and around space (planetary gravity assists notwithstanding). We’re already moving in that direction; the initial tests of a space sail inspired by Carl Sagan have been promising. Another space propulsion idea is to use spinning space tethers to whip smaller, slower space vehicles from relatively low altitudes to higher orbits or even to the Moon, Mars, or beyond. This video from Kurzgesagt explains how these tethers work and what we could do with them.

I believe Neal Stephenson wrote about space tethers (or something very similar) in Seveneves.

Neutron Stars and Nuclear Pasta. Yummy!

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2019

The latest video from Kurzgesagt is a short primer on neutron stars, the densest large objects in the universe.

The mind-boggling density of neutron stars is their most well-known attribute: the mass of all living humans would fit into a volume the size of a sugar cube at the same density. But I learned about a couple of new things that I’d like to highlight. The first is nuclear pasta, which might be the strongest material in the universe.

Astrophysicists have theorized that as a neutron star settles into its new configuration, densely packed neutrons are pushed and pulled in different ways, resulting in formation of various shapes below the surface. Many of the theorized shapes take on the names of pasta, because of the similarities. Some have been named gnocchi, for example, others spaghetti or lasagna.

Simulations have demonstrated that nuclear pasta might be some 10 billion times stronger than steel.

The second thing deals with neutron star mergers. When two neutron stars merge, they explode in a shower of matter that’s flung across space. Recent research suggests that many of the heavy elements present in the universe could be formed in these mergers.

But how elements heavier than iron, such as gold and uranium, were created has long been uncertain. Previous research suggested a key clue: For atoms to grow to massive sizes, they needed to quickly absorb neutrons. Such rapid neutron capture, known as the “r-process” for short, only happens in nature in extreme environments where atoms are bombarded by large numbers of neutrons.

If this pans out, it means that the Earth’s platinum, uranium, lead, and tin may have originated in exploding neutron stars. Neat!

Behold Our Dazzling Night Sky When the Milky Way Collides with Andromeda in 4 Billion Years

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 21, 2019

This is what our night sky is going to look like in 3.9 billion years:


Wow! So what’s going on here? Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers at NASA have predicted that our own Milky Way galaxy and the nearby Andromeda galaxy (M31) will collide about 4 billion years from now. As part of the announcement from 2012, they produced a video of what the collision would look like and a series of illustrations of what our sky will look like during the collision process.1

In 2 billion years, Andromeda will be noticeably closer in the sky:


By 3.75 billion years, it will fill a significant chunk of the sky. And the Milky Way will begin to bend due to the pull of gravity from Andromeda:


In about 3.85 billion years, the first close approach will trigger the formation of new stars, “which is evident in a plethora of emission nebulae and open young star clusters”:


Star formation continues 3.9 billion years from now. Could you imagine actually going outside at night and seeing this? It’s like a nightly fireworks display:


After the galaxies pass by each other in 4 billion years, they are stretched and warped by gravity:


In 5.1 billion years, Andromeda and the Milky Way will come around for a second close pass, their galactic cores blazing bright in the night sky:


And finally, in 7 billion years, the two galaxies will have merged into a single elliptical galaxy nicknamed Milkdromeda:


Interestingly, despite the galactic collision and the dazzling view from Earth, it’s extremely unlikely that any individual stars will collide because of the sheer amount of empty space in galaxies.

  1. I mean, assuming there will still be someone or something standing on the Earth 4 billion years from now to witness it. Presumably whoever’s around will have solved light pollution by then? The bigger worry is that according to the timeline of the far future, Earth will be uninhabitable long before an collision occurs (average surface temp of 296 °F in 2.8 billion years). Toasty!

Beading the Cosmos

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2019

Margaret Nazon

Inspired by some photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, Margaret Nazon began in 2009 to make beaded artworks of stars, galaxies, planets, and nebula. I love her representation of the Milky Way, pictured above. Nazon grew up in a First Nation community in Canada’s Northwest Territories and in this interview she talks about using traditional materials for her cosmic drawings.

I consider my art to be “abstract.” Aboriginal people have used animal skins, bones, seeds, quills and rocks for decoration, and I figured it would fit in my artwork. I was given buttons made of caribou bones as a gift and I decided I should try to incorporate a solid piece of bone into one of my galaxy pictures. Viewers loved that. I spent last December in Salt Spring Island B.C. One of my friends asked if I was going to incorporate B.C. rocks or shells in my work and I thought that was a great idea. I started receiving rocks and shells as inspiration. Just recently a Gwich’in friend gave me willow seeds to use. The Gwich’in people used to use willow seeds to decorate their clothing.

(via brain pickings)

The First Photograph of the Far Side of the Moon from 1959

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2019

With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the Soviet Union kicked off the Space Race and for the first several years (arguable up until the Moon landing in ‘69), they dominated the United States. One of their “firsts” in the early years was taking the first photo of the far side of the Moon 60 years ago this month.

Dark side of the Moon 1959

Astronomer Kevin Hainline wrote a fascinating account of how the Soviet’s Luna 3 spacecraft took the photo and then transmitted it back to Earth.

First off, Luna 3, the first three-axis stabilized spacecraft, had to reach the Moon to take the pictures, and it had to use a little photocell to orient towards the Moon so that now, while stabilized, it could take the pictures. Which it did. On PHOTOGRAPHIC FILM.

And it gets WILDER because these photos were then moved to a little CHEMICAL PLANT to DEVELOP AND DRY THEM. That’s right, Luna 3 had a little 1 Hour Photo inside. Now you’re thinking, well, how do you get those actual photos back to the Earth?

How indeed? The spacecraft faxed the photos to Earth. A few years later, when the Soviets’ Luna 9 took the first photo on the Moon’s surface and went to transmit it back to Earth, a group in the UK was able to read the signal with a fax machine and the resulting image was published the next day on the front page of the Daily Express.

The Comet

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2019

Director Christian Stangl and composer Wolfgang Stangl used millions of photos (that’s right, millions!) taken by the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko to make this short video that makes the mission feel like sci-fi a la Alien or District 9.

How to Mail a Package (From Space)

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 04, 2019

Randall Munroe’s new book, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems, just came out and Wired has a lengthy excerpt: How to Mail a Package (From Space).

How to Mail a Package (From Space)

Getting an object down to Earth from the International Space Station is easy: you can just toss it out the door and wait. Eventually, it will fall to Earth.

There’s a very small amount of atmosphere at the ISS’s altitude. It’s not much, but it’s enough to produce a tiny but measurable amount of drag. This drag sooner or later causes objects to slow down, fall into a lower and lower orbit, and eventually hit the atmosphere and (usually) burn up. The ISS also feels this drag; it uses thrusters to compensate, periodically boosting itself up into a higher orbit to make up for lost altitude. If it didn’t, its orbit would gradually decay until it fell back to Earth.

This shipping method has two big problems: First, your package will burn up in the atmosphere before it ever reaches the ground. And second, if it does survive, you’ll have no way to know where it will land. To deliver your package, you’ll have to solve both these problems.

Fun fact: a piece of paper drifting down from orbit might move slowly enough not to burn up on reentry.

SpaceX Starhopper Rocket Test

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 28, 2019

SpaceX took its Starhopper rocket out for a little test run in Texas the other day, taking off and then landing about 300 feet away after reaching a height of about 500 feet. Spacehopper is a prototype of the company’s Starship spacecraft & rocket, which they plan to fly to and land on the Moon and Mars.

I’ve written about the wonder of SpaceX’s reusable rockets before, but the Starhopper test in particular seems like some deeply sci-fi shit, like what society imagined future space travel would look like. The ship looks and moves like something straight out of a late 60s Dr. Who serial.

The Hubble’s New Portrait of Jupiter

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2019

Jupiter Hubble 2019

A photo of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in late June was recently released by NASA. Among other things, it shows just how much smaller, redder, and rounder the Great Red Spot has gotten.

The Great Red Spot is a towering structure shaped like a wedding cake, whose upper haze layer extends more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) higher than clouds in other areas. The gigantic structure, with a diameter slightly larger than Earth’s, is a high-pressure wind system called an anticyclone that has been slowly downsizing since the 1800s. The reason for this change in size is still unknown.

The spot was “once big enough to swallow three Earths with room to spare” but has been shrinking steadily since a brief expansion in the 1920s. As the storm contracts, it has stretched up into the Jovian atmosphere.

Because the storm has been contracting, the researchers expected to find the already-powerful internal winds becoming even stronger, like an ice skater who spins faster as she pulls in her arms.

Instead of spinning faster, the storm appears to be forced to stretch up. It’s almost like clay being shaped on a potter’s wheel. As the wheel spins, an artist can transform a short, round lump into a tall, thin vase by pushing inward with his hands. The smaller he makes the base, the taller the vessel will grow.

Recently amateur astronomers have observed “flakes” or “blades” coming off of the storm and dissipating into the larger atmosphere, a formerly rare phenomenon that now seems more common.

The Hubble photographs also yielded a rotating view of the planet as well as a very cool stretched-out photo of the surface:

Jupiter Hubble 2019 Stretch

The Entire Plane of the Milky Way Captured in a Single Photo

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 26, 2019

Entire Galaxy

By photographing two separate nighttime scenes, one in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere, amateur astrophotographer Maroun Habib cleverly produced this dazzling image of the complete galactic plane visible from Earth.

Is it possible to capture the entire plane of our galaxy in a single image? Yes, but not in one exposure — and it took some planning to do it in two. The top part of the featured image is the night sky above Lebanon, north of the equator, taken in 2017 June. The image was taken at a time when the central band of the Milky Way Galaxy passed directly overhead. The bottom half was similarly captured six months later in latitude-opposite Chile, south of Earth’s equator. Each image therefore captured the night sky in exactly the opposite direction of the other, when fully half the Galactic plane was visible.

See also The Earth Rotating Beneath a Stationary Milky Way, which went viral after I posted it two weeks ago. (via @surfinsev)

The Earth Rotating Beneath a Stationary Milky Way

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2019

In most time lapse videos you see of the night sky, the stars wheel through the sky as the heavens revolve around the Earth. But that perspective is really only valid from our particular frame of reference standing on the Earth. What’s actually happening is that our tiny little speck of dirt is twirling amid a galactic tapestry that is nearly stationary. And in the video above, you see just that…the Earth rotating as the camera lens stays locked on a motionless Milky Way. Total mindjob.

See also the fisheye views of the Earth rotating about the stabilized sky in this video.

Update: Another time lapse of the Earth rotating underneath the stars:

Live TV Coverage of the Apollo 11 Landing and Moon Walk

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2019

Apollo 11 TV Coverage

You’ve heard by now that it’s the 50th anniversary of the first humans landing on the Moon. On July 20, 1969, 50 years ago today, Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon and went for a little walk. For the 11th year in a row, you can watch the original CBS News coverage of Walter Cronkite reporting on the Moon landing and the first Moon walk on a small B&W television, synced to the present-day time. Just open this page in your browser today, July 20th, and the coverage will start playing at the proper time. Here’s the schedule (all times EDT):

4:10:30 pm: Moon landing broadcast starts
4:17:40 pm: Lunar module lands on the Moon

4:20:15 pm - 10:51:26 pm: Break in coverage

10:51:27 pm: Moon walk broadcast starts
10:56:15 pm: First step on Moon
11:51:30 pm: Nixon speaks to the Eagle crew
12:00:30 am: Broadcast end (on July 21)

Set an alarm on your phone or calendar!

This is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done online…here’s what I wrote when I launched the project in 2009:

If you’ve never seen this coverage, I urge you to watch at least the landing segment (~10 min.) and the first 10-20 minutes of the Moon walk. I hope that with the old time TV display and poor YouTube quality, you get a small sense of how someone 40 years ago might have experienced it. I’ve watched the whole thing a couple of times while putting this together and I’m struck by two things: 1) how it’s almost more amazing that hundreds of millions of people watched the first Moon walk *live* on TV than it is that they got to the Moon in the first place, and 2) that pretty much the sole purpose of the Apollo 11 Moon walk was to photograph it and broadcast it live back to Earth.

I wrote a bit last year about what to watch for during the landing sequence.

Two other things. You can also experience the landing and Moon walk live at Apollo 11 in Real Time. And it looks like CBS News is doing a livestream of Cronkite’s coverage of the landing on YouTube starting at 3:30pm. Nice to see them catching up! :)

Neil and Buzz Barely Got Out of the Infield

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2019

Apollo 11 Baseball

With the 50th anniversary of the first crewed landing on the Moon fast approaching, I thought I’d share one of my favorite views of the Moon walk, a map of where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon, superimposed over a baseball field (bigger). The Lunar Module is parked on the pitcher’s mound and you can see where the two astronauts walked, set up cameras, collected samples, and did experiments.

This map easily illustrates something you don’t get from watching video of the Moon walk: just how close the astronauts stayed to the LM and how small an area they covered during their 2 and 1/2 hours on the surface. The crew had spent 75+ hours flying 234,000 miles to the Moon and when they finally got out onto the surface, they barely left the infield! On his longest walk, Armstrong ventured into center field about 200 feet from the mound, not even far enough to reach the warning track in most major league parks. In fact, the length of Armstrong’s walk fell far short of the 363-foot length of the Saturn V rocket that carried him to the Moon and all of their activity could fit neatly into a soccer pitch (bigger):

Apollo 11 Soccer

Astronauts on subsequent missions ventured much further. The Apollo 12 crew ventured 600 feet from the LM on their second walk of the mission. The Apollo 14 crew walked almost a mile. After the Lunar Rover entered the mix, excursions up to 7 miles during EVAs that lasted for more than 7 hours at a time became common.

Video of the Complete Descent of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2019

The Apollo Flight Journal has put together a 20-minute video of the full descent and landing of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module containing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969.

The video combines data from the onboard computer for altitude and pitch angle, 16mm film that was shot throughout the descent at 6 frames per second. The audio recording is from two sources. The air/ground transmissions are on the left stereo channel and the mission control flight director loop is on the right channel. Subtitles are included to aid comprehension.

Reminder that you can follow along in sync with the entire Apollo 11 mission right up until their splashdown. I am also doing my presentation of Walter Cronkite’s CBS news coverage of the landing and the Moon walk again this year, starting at 4:10pm EDT on Saturday, July 20. Here’s the post I wrote about it last year for more details. (thx, david)

The Atlas of Moons

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 11, 2019

Atlas Of Moons

From National Geographic comes The Atlas of Moons, an interactive reference to all of the major moons in our solar system, from the Earth’s own moon to the Galilean moons of Jupiter to Charon, which forms a binary system with Pluto.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t fully aware that some of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s major moons orbited their planets so quickly — Europa takes 3.6 days to complete an orbit, Io once every 1.8 days, and Mimas speeds around Saturn every 22.6 hours.

How to Watch the South American Solar Eclipse

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 02, 2019

Today, July 2, 2019, just after 4:30pm ET, a total solar eclipse will be visible in parts of Chile and Argentina. Because most of you, I am guessing, are not currently in those parts of Chile and Argentina, the best way to watch the eclipse is through any number of live streams, three of which I’m embedding here:

I was lucky enough to see the eclipse in 2017 and it was a life-altering experience, so I’ll be tearing myself away from the USA vs England match for a few minutes at least.

Beautiful Maps of the Solar System’s Asteroids and the Topography of Mercury

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 17, 2019

Remember how last week I told you about Eleanor Lutz’s An Atlas of Space?

Over the past year and a half I’ve been working on a collection of ten maps on planets, moons, and outer space. To name a few, I’ve made an animated map of the seasons on Earth, a map of Mars geology, and a map of everything in the solar system bigger than 10km.

Well, she’s posted her first two projects: An Orbit Map of the Solar System (a map of more than 18,000 asteroid orbits in the solar system) and A Topographic Map of Mercury.

Atlas Of Space

Atlas Of Space

As promised, Lutz has posted the source code for each project to her GitHub account: Mercury topography, asteroid orbits. What a great resource for aspiring data visualization designers. Stay tuned to her site, Twitter, or Tumblr for upcoming installments of the atlas.

Update: Lutz’s third map in the series is out: The Geology of Mars. And here’s the link to the code and how-to on Github.

Atlas Of Space

Update: Lutz’s fourth map has been released: an animated map of the Earth cycling through all four seasons. Link to the code on GitHub.

Also, she’s made high-res wallpapers available for download in a number of different aspect ratios…check out the links at the bottom of the post.

Update: Today’s installment of the atlas presents a view from our solar system: The Western Constellations (source code on Github).

Atlas Of Space

This week’s map shows every single star visible from Earth, on the darkest night with the clearest sky. The map also includes all of the brightest galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters from W.H. Finlay’s Concise Catalog of Deep-sky Objects. I illustrated the familiar Western star patterns — or asterisms — in blue and gold, as well as the scientific constellation boundaries in red.

Update: Holy moly, I think Lutz’s Topographic Map of Mars might be her most beautiful one yet.

Atlas Of Space

Update: I couldn’t keep up with all of Lutz’s additions to her atlas. You can check out all of the installments in the archive, including the last part (for now), The Geology of the Moon.

The Apollo 11 Mission in Realtime

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 17, 2019

Apollo 11 Realtime

Well, this is just flat-out fantastic. Ben Feist and a team of collaborators have built Apollo 11 In Real Time, an interactive presentation of the first mission to land on the Moon as it happened.

This website replays the Apollo 11 mission as it happened, 50 years ago. It consists entirely of historical material, all timed to Ground Elapsed Time — the master mission clock. Footage of Mission Control, film shot by the astronauts, and television broadcasts transmitted from space and the surface of the Moon, have been painstakingly placed to the very moments they were shot during the mission, as has every photograph taken, and every word spoken.

You can tune in in real time beginning July 16th, watch/experience it right now from 1 minute before launch, or you can skip around the timeline to just watch the moments you want. As someone who has been hosting an Apollo 11 in real time thing for the past 9 years, this site makes me both ridiculously happy and a little bit jealous.

I’ve only ever seen footage of the first moonwalk in grainy videos as broadcast on TV, but this site shows it in the original resolution and it’s a revelation. Here’s the moonwalk, beginning with some footage of the folks in Mission Control nervously fidgeting with their hands (skip to 5:18:00 if the video doesn’t start there):

The rest of the video for the entire mission can be found here…what a trove. This whole thing is marvelous…I can’t wait to tune in when July 16th rolls around.

The Biggest Nonmilitary Effort in the History of Human Civilization

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 14, 2019


Charles Fishman has a new book, One Giant Leap, all about NASA’s Apollo program to land an astronaut on the moon. He talks about it on Fresh Air with Dave Davies.

On what computers were like in the early ’60s and how far they had to come to go to space

It’s hard to appreciate now, but in 1961, 1962, 1963, computers had the opposite reputation of the reputation they have now. Most computers couldn’t go more than a few hours without breaking down. Even on John Glenn’s famous orbital flight — the first U.S. orbital flight — the computers in mission control stopped working for three minutes [out] of four hours. Well, that’s only three minutes [out] of four hours, but that was the most important computer in the world during that four hours and they couldn’t keep it going during the entire orbital mission of John Glenn.

So they needed computers that were small, lightweight, fast and absolutely reliable, and the computers that were available then — even the compact computers — were the size of two or three refrigerators next to each other, and so this was a huge technology development undertaking of Apollo.

On the seamstresses who wove the computer memory by hand

There was no computer memory of the sort that we think of now on computer chips. The memory was literally woven … onto modules and the only way to get the wires exactly right was to have people using needles, and instead of thread wire, weave the computer program. …

The Apollo computers had a total of 73 [kilobytes] of memory. If you get an email with the morning headlines from your local newspaper, it takes up more space than 73 [kilobytes]. … They hired seamstresses. … Every wire had to be right. Because if you got [it] wrong, the computer program didn’t work. They hired women, and it took eight weeks to manufacture the memory for a single Apollo flight computer, and that eight weeks of manufacturing was literally sitting at sophisticated looms weaving wires, one wire at a time.

One anecdote that was new to me describes Armstrong and Aldrin test-burning moon dust, to make sure it wouldn’t ignite when repressurized.

Armstrong and Aldrin actually had been instructed to do a little experiment. They had a little bag of lunar dirt and they put it on the engine cover of the ascent engine, which was in the middle of the lunar module cabin. And then they slowly pressurized the cabin to make sure it wouldn’t catch fire and it didn’t. …

The smell turns out to be the smell of fireplace ashes, or as Buzz Aldrin put it, the smell of the air after a fireworks show. This was one of the small but sort of delightful surprises about flying to the moon.

Space Robot Roll Call

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 12, 2019

Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society filed a report on humanity’s current roster of spacecraft currently exploring the solar system (and beyond).

Probe Report 2019

Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 are now past their prime mission and are in their extended mission phases. Their companion SmallSat, Longjiang-2, will crash into the Moon on 31 July to bring its mission to an intentional end. Parker Solar Probe is near aphelion as of 1 July and will reach its third death-defying solar perihelion on 1 September. BepiColombo completed its near-Earth commissioning phase on 5 April and is now settling into its long-cruise phase. Earlier this year, the ESA-JAXA Mercury mission was racing ahead of Earth on an inside track, but its elliptical orbit has now taken it farther from the Sun than Earth, allowing Earth to catch up. It will return to Earth’s neighborhood in April 2020 for a flyby.

I counted roughly 30 different probes and rovers in operation, most of them gathered around the Moon and Mars. Sure, where’s my jetpack and flying car and all that, but the fact that humanity has more than two dozen robots currently exploring the solar system seems pretty futuristic to me.

Wikipedia also has a page listing currently active probes and of course there’s the lovely & informative spaceprob.es as well.

An Atlas of Space

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2019

Atlas Of Space

Eleanor Lutz is one of my favorite data visualizers (previously) and she’s about ready to drop her new project: An Atlas of Space.

I’m excited to finally share a new design project this week! Over the past year and a half I’ve been working on a collection of ten maps on planets, moons, and outer space. To name a few, I’ve made an animated map of the seasons on Earth, a map of Mars geology, and a map of everything in the solar system bigger than 10km.

Over the next few weeks I want to share each map alongside the open-source Python code and detailed tutorials for recreating the design. All of the astronomy data comes from publicly available sources like NASA and the USGS, so I thought this would be the perfect project for writing design tutorials (which I’ve been meaning to do for a while).

Ahhh, look at those colors! Lutz is going to be posting a new map from the project periodically over the next few weeks so follow her on Tabletop Whale, Twitter, or Tumblr to tune in.

Update: I’m keeping track of the projects that make up the atlas as they are released in updates to this post.

Chasing the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   May 31, 2019

In July, American Experience will air Chasing the Moon, a 6-hour documentary film about the effort to send a manned mission to the Moon before the end of the 1960s.

The series recasts the Space Age as a fascinating stew of scientific innovation, political calculation, media spectacle, visionary impulses and personal drama. Utilizing a visual feast of previously overlooked and lost archival material — much of which has never before been seen by the public — the film features a diverse cast of characters who played key roles in these historic events. Among those included are astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Frank Borman and Bill Anders; Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet premier and a leading Soviet rocket engineer; Poppy Northcutt, a 25-year old “mathematics whiz” who gained worldwide attention as the first woman to serve in the all-male bastion of NASA’s Mission Control; and Ed Dwight, the Air Force pilot selected by the Kennedy administration to train as America’s first black astronaut.

Among the stories not usually told about the Moon missions is that of Ed Dwight, NASA’s first black astronaut trainee:

Since 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, there’s a *lot* of stuff out there about the Space Race and Apollo program, but this film looks like it’s going to be one of the best. The film will start airing on PBS on July 8 and the Blu-ray & DVD comes out on July 9. There’s a companion book that will be available next week.

Nichelle Nichols’ 1977 NASA Recruitment Film for Space Shuttle Astronauts

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2019

In this NASA promotional film from 1977, Star Trek star Nichelle Nichols takes a tour of the Johnson Space Center with Apollo 12 astronaut Al Bean and urges viewers, especially women and people of color, to sign up to be astronauts on NASA’s Space Shuttle program.

As one of the first black women to play a lead role on television, Nichols was a role model for women and people of color, particularly those interested in science, space, and engineering. When she was she thinking of quitting Star Trek, Nichols met Martin Luther King Jr. at a NAACP fundraiser and he talked her into staying on the show. She recalled King telling her:

Do you not understand what God has given you? … You have the first important non-traditional role, non-stereotypical role. … You cannot abdicate your position. You are changing the minds of people across the world, because for the first time, through you, we see ourselves and what can be.

So when NASA came calling, Nichols used her position well:

She relayed her response to NASA with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “I am going to bring you so many qualified women and minority astronaut applicants for this position that if you don’t choose one… everybody in the newspapers across the country will know about it.”

Nichols credited Star Trek with the success of her recruiting efforts. “Suddenly the people who were responding were the bigger Trekkers you ever saw. They truly believed what I said… it was a very successful endeavor. It changed the face of the astronaut corp forever.”

Among the recruits drawn to NASA by Nichols’ efforts were Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Ronald McNair & Judith Resnick, who both died in the Challenger accident, Guion Bluford, the first African-American in space, and Mae Jemison, who was the first black woman in space. The diversity of the latest batch of NASA astronauts-in-training is a testament to Nichols’ and NASA’s joint efforts as well. (via open culture)

The Martian Base in the Gobi Desert

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2019

Mars Base Gobi

A Chinese company called C-Space has built a simulation of a Mars base in the Gobi desert. Currently used for educational purposes, the company plans to open “Mars Base 1” up for tourism to give visitors a glimpse of what living on Mars would be like.

The facility’s unveiling comes as China is making progress in its efforts to catch up to the United States and become a space power, with ambitions of sending humans to the moon someday.

The white-coloured base has a silver dome and nine modules, including living quarters, a control room, a greenhouse and an airlock.

Alan Taylor featured some photos of Mars Base 1 recently.

Mars Base Gobi

Mars Base Gobi

It’s all a little surreal, even before you get to the 2001 monolith:

Mars Base Gobi

The DIY Astronaut

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2019

Ever since he was a kid, Cameron Smith has wanted to go into space. This desire persisted into adulthood, and the Portland State archaeology professor has spent the past several years constructing a series of homemade pressurized spacesuits to achieve that dream. In this video, Smith talks about his quest and we witness his preparations for testing a spacesuit he built for under $1000 by taking it up in a balloon to a height of 63,000 feet.

You can read more about Smith and his project in the Journal of Critical Space Studies.

Smith’s journey to the upper atmosphere calls to mind the devil-may-care mindset typical of the early days of space exploration, when air force pilots on both sides of the Iron Curtain risked their neck to advance human spaceflight and secure military advantage in orbit. These pilots were the first humans to test experimental new pressure suits that were meant to sustain life in the upper atmosphere and beyond, and there was little assurance that they would ever return from these crucial tests alive.

And yes, you can totally buy old Russian and Soviet spacesuits on eBay.

The first photo of a black hole

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Apr 10, 2019

The first photo of a black hole

Ok, this is pretty cool. We have the first photo of a supermassive black hole, from imagery taken two years ago of the elliptical galaxy M87 (in the constellation Virgo) by the Event Horizon Telescope project. The EHT team is a group of 200 scientist that has been working on this project for two decades. The image was created using data captured from radio telescopes from Hawaii to the South Pole and beyond using very long baseline interferometry.

The image, of a lopsided ring of light surrounding a dark circle deep in the heart of the galaxy known as Messier 87, some 55 million light-years away from here, resembled the Eye of Sauron, a reminder yet again of the power and malevolence of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.

Now is a good time to (re)read Jonathan Lethem’s early novel, the absurdist physics love story As She Climbed Across the Table.

Update: Vox’s Joss Fong has a good 6-minute video that explains how the photo was taken:

And this video by Veritasium is even more meaty (and this one too):

US Postal Service Unveils 50th Anniversary Apollo 11 Stamps

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2019

Apollo 11 Usps

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, the USPS is releasing a pair of stamps with lunar imagery.

One stamp features a photograph of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin in his spacesuit on the surface of the moon. The image was taken by astronaut Neil Armstrong. The other stamp, a photograph of the moon taken in 2010 by Gregory H. Revera of Huntsville, AL, shows the landing site of the lunar module in the Sea of Tranquility. The site is indicated on the stamp by a dot.

These pair nicely with the US Mint’s Apollo 11 commemorative coins.

Apollo 11 Mint Coin

(via swissmiss)

A Huge Collection of Apollo 11 Press Kits

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 19, 2019

When Apollo 11 landed two men on the Moon and returned them safely to Earth, thousands of people at NASA were joined in the effort by dozens of companies that did everything from building the spacecraft to providing the cameras for the mission. Each of those companies was understandably proud of their involvement and wanted to use the mission to drum up interest in their products and services. Marketing strategist David Meerman Scott has been collecting the press kits produced by the Apollo contractors and has made them available online for free download in PDF format.

What a trove! Here are a few of my favorites. First is the kit from Fisher, who provided the pens that Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins wrote with during the voyage.

Apollo Press Kits

The final requirement was to see if the pen could still write after all that torture. NASA required that each pen write 1,653 feet of continuous traces, or for about 4 1/2 hours. The three pens were placed in an automatic writing machine and far out passed the qualifications. The first pen wrote for 54 hours and 50 minutes and 15,346 feet. The second finished after 18,303 feet. The third, writing on a new, highly absorbent paper, still wrote for 7,484 feet.

Fisher still sells a version of the original Apollo 11 space pen.

After the astronauts came back from the Moon, they were quarantined for 21 days to ensure that the crew had not returned with any harmful Moon germs. Stouffer’s, the frozen foods company, was contracted by NASA to provide some of the astronauts’ meals in quarantine.

Apollo Press Kits

A typical astronaut dinner will consist of short ribs of beef, potatoes au gratin and tossed green salad. Stouffer’s has been selected to provide from its retail line a major portion of the entrees and side dishes for the astronauts. Ease of preparation, purity, quality and variety as well as taste and appearance were the main reasons for NASA’s selection of Stouffer’s foods.

Hasselblad provided the cameras for the mission.

Apollo Press Kits

Grumman made the Lunar Module, the capsule that carried Armstrong and Aldrin to and from the surface of the Moon.

Apollo Press Kits

I could keep going on these all day. What a terrific resource. Scott, along with Richard Jurek, is also the author of Marketing the Moon, a book about how NASA sold the Apollo program to the American public. (via steven heller)

Stacey Abrams, Star Trek Superfan

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 08, 2019


Georgia politician, almost-Governor, and Democratic superstar Stacey Abrams has a secret to her success: she loves Star Trek. In particular, she loves my favorite Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In explaining her approach to politics as a black Democratic woman in a state controlled by white Republican men, she devotes several pages to a pivotal scene from “Peak Performance,” an episode from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

In the episode, Data, the preternaturally pale android with a greenish cast to his skin, is playing Strategema, a game that appears to be some incredibly complicated form of 3-D holographic chess, against a humanoid grandmaster named Kolrami. Data cannot defeat Kolrami, he discovers, but he can outlast him, drive him into a rage and force him to quit the game, which is itself a kind of victory.

Ms. Abrams writes that this has helped her focus her own thinking. “Data reframed his objective — not to win outright but to stay alive, passing up opportunities for immediate victory in favor of a strategy of survival,” she says in the book. “My lesson is simpler: change the rules of engagement.”

Stacey Abrams

This sparked some predictably joyous reactions among Star Trek fans:

And the following thoughtful thread from Manu Saadia (@trekonomics) on the history of progressive politics, as modeled in the Star Trek universe:

It actually is possible to overthink this. All of this about politics and the imagination and utopian possibilities is true. But at the same time, ultimately, it’s just a really cool show. It’s one we grew up with. And as politicians get younger, it’s one we’ve always had with us, framing our background on entertainment, war, morality, politics, economics — everything.

The world the original Star Trek entered was one where space was only beginning to open, as a direct consequence of the nuclear and geopolitical crisis than enveloping the planet. Now, we have all new geopolitical crises to deal with. Star Trek offers a surprisingly resilient fictional framework for understanding most if not all of them. That’s a powerful tool. It’s foolish to pass it up.

Oh, and Ms. Abrams — keep bustin’ ‘em up.

Video of a Japanese Space Probe Touching Down on an Asteroid

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2019

In this video released by JAXA, the Japanese space agency, you can see an on-board view of the Hayabusa2 probe touching down on an asteroid called Ryugu.

The blast you see is the probe firing a bullet made of tantalum at the surface in order to collect a sample. Here’s a photo of the landing site. From Wikipedia:

When the sampler horn attached to Hayabusa2’s underside touched the surface, a projectile (5-gram tantalum bullet) was fired at 300 m/s into the surface. The resulting ejecta particles were collected by a catcher at the top of the horn, which the ejecta reaches under their own momentum under microgravity conditions.

This is the first of three samples that are scheduled to be collected by Hayabusa2. The third sampling will try to collect material located under the surface of the asteroid. To achieve this, a separate gun will detach from the probe and fire a copper bullet at the surface, blasting a hole in the surface and exposing “pristine material”. Meanwhile, the probe itself will deploy a separate camera to watch the bullet’s impact, scoot out of the way to avoid debris, and then come back in a couple of weeks to collect a sample from the resulting crater, which will then be returned to Earth along with the other two samples. Ingenious! I love it when a plan comes together!