July 29, 2013
Smithsonian’s traveling exhibition “Suited for Space” came home last week, joining two art shows, “High Art: A Decade of Collecting” and “Searching for Goldilocks,” in the Air and Space Museum’s Flight and the Arts Gallery. “Suited for Space,” which has been touring the country with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) since 2011, illustrates the evolution of spacesuit technology from the early 20th century until the dawn of the shuttle era.
The exhibit features large-scale photographs of spacesuits through the ages, conveying a “visual timeline” of their development in addition to each suit’s unique “personality,” according to curator Cathy Lewis. X-ray footage reveals the suits’ internal intricacy, including numerous joints, rings and ball bearings for flexibility.
Visitors will discover a remarkable range of designs, from the famous suits of Alan Bean and Buzz Aldrin to experimental prototypes that look straight out of science fiction. Lewis considers the suits works of art. “They’re creative products,” she says. “When you’re talking about spacesuits, you have certain principles and functions that you have to follow, and the artistry is in the varying and divergent ways that engineers have approached the same problems.” Spacesuits must strike a balance between providing airtight protection—against radiation, extreme temperatures, contamination and more—and providing maximum mobility for the wearer.
Spacesuits are not, however, built to last. Designed to withstand extreme conditions for short periods of time, these “wearable spacecraft” are too fragile to travel. While “Suited for Space” features no real spacesuits, it does contain a replica Apollo suit and several spacesuit accessories from the Air and Space Museum’s collection, including a glove, a boot and a “fecal collection assembly,” answering the perennial question of how astronauts go to the bathroom in space.
July 25, 2013
For astronauts and personnel at the Kennedy Space Center, long work days had at least one saving grace: a hearty dose of Ivette Jones’ home cooking. The safety instructor’s empanadas and Cuban sandwiches became a launch day tradition and endeared her to NASA staff from Cape Canaveral to Houston.
It all started with STS-116, the December 2006 launch of Discovery (now on view at the Air and Space Museum). Jones was a NASA critical processes instructor, training staff in Space Shuttle hardware, safety regulations and emergency egress. For STS-116, Jones was assigned to learn the duties of the “closeout crew,” a seven-member team that helps strap astronauts in and attends to last-minute launch needs. The closeout crew went above and beyond to teach Jones the entire process, and on the day of her final presentation, Jones thanked them with homemade Cuban sandwiches and flan. “That exploded,” she says with a laugh.
The closeout crew enjoyed the food so much that they asked her to cook for the launch. She cooked for astronauts. She cooked for her three- and four-day training sessions. She cooked lasagna with sofrito, a Latin American sauce of blended vegetables; arroz con pollo, rice with chicken; asopao, Puerto Rican gumbo—which she describes as “the most delicious thing you ever tasted on the planet”—and much more.
Tonight the Smithsonian community will have a chance to sample Jones’ cooking at “Yuri’s Night,” a 21+ after-hours party sponsored by Smithsonian Associates. The event, which takes place at the Ripley Center, celebrates the 52nd anniversary of the first manned space flight by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, as well as the 44th anniversary of the moon landing. Jones’ menu includes guava and cream cheese pastries, coconut cranberry cookies and, of course, her famous Cuban sandwiches and empanadas.
The Cubans and empanadas stuck, she says, because they were the perfect meal for hectic launch days. Jones explains: “You want to give them something that in case something happens and the crew has to go back to the pad, they can just grab it with their hands, unwrap it and eat it quick. I would bring a basket with all the food and they would just go at it!”
Word of Jones’ culinary prowess quickly spread across NASA. “People in Houston know it, the Launch Control Center knows it, everybody at training knows it,” she says. “Every time somebody wants something special, guess who they call?”
For Jones, it was a labor of love. “Working at the Kennedy Space Center did not mean a job,” she says. “It became a personal thing. You’re doing stuff that is important for somebody’s life. You’re doing stuff that if something goes wrong, you pray that [the astronaut] remembers so he can go back to his children. . . . When an astronaut goes to space, he goes with a leap of faith. That’s the kind of commitment you get when you love this thing.”
Twelve years ago, Jones made her own leap of faith to pursue her lifelong dream of working in space flight. As a kid growing up in Puerto Rico, she was inspired by television broadcasts of the Apollo 11 lunar mission. She wrote a letter to NASA and one month later received a package full of pictures and information about the space program—a package that has stayed in her family.
“That little space thing never left me,” Jones says, even after she grew up, got married and divorced, had a son and took a job at Disney World. At age 40, Jones decided to get her college degree, juggling school, work and single parenthood. “It was a burning thing that I just had to do,” she says. “If I didn’t go to school and pursue working for the space program, I knew I was going to have that regret for a long time.”
Jones was accepted into the University of Central Florida’s co-op program, which allowed her to intern part-time at the Kennedy Space Center. NASA recruited her as an instructor immediately after her graduation in 2004. “I’m 52 now and I feel like I’m 20!” she says.
Jones, who is now a human factors coordinator for the Navy, worked at the Kennedy Space Center for 11 years, until the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. She wants people to know that it’s not all about the high-octane drama of launches. “There is so much love and care behind all that to put those six people in the ship,” she says. Her cooking is a part of that close-knit community.
The recipes come from all over—her mother, her Puerto Rican heritage, her favorite cookbooks and television programs—but she likes to give each one her own “twist.” Her empanadas, for instance, are distinguished by two secret ingredients. Will she reveal them? “No,” she says flatly. “But I can tell you that it has meat and cheese.”
May 28, 2013
Gaze at the stars this evening and you will see a rare phenomenon: three planets, all glowing so close to each other that it looks like they might bump. The trio—Venus, Jupiter and Mercury—actually are millions of miles apart, but on this special occasion their orbits are aligned with ours such that they appear side by side.
The Milky Way is home to an estimated 200 billion to 400 billion stars, and as many as 17 billion planets. Amazing things are happening around the cosmos every minute, but it is a treat when we can catch an unusual celestial event just by looking up, without even a telescope.
Tonight and in the coming months, a few of these events will be visible to the naked eye from any backyard in the United States so long as the sky is free of clouds. Be sure to mark your calendars—the events are fleeting, and occur at most once a year.
To make sense of these celestial happenings, we enlisted the help of Kimberly Arcand and Megan Watzke, authors of Your Ticket to the Universe: A Guide to Exploring the Cosmos, recently published by Smithsonian Books. Arcand and Watzke both work as communications officers for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which means they have extensive experience dealing with the cosmos and capturing arresting astronomical images. The two have collaborated before on From Earth to the Universe and From Earth to the Solar System, two projects that bring the universe’s wonders down to earth in breathtaking photographs. Their new book features 240 full-color images from telescopes, observatories and in-space cameras, including the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes and NASA’s Curiosity rover.
“You don’t need a medical degree to know when you’re sick or a doctorate in literature to appreciate a novel,” Arcand and Watzke write. “In the same spirit, even those of us who do not have advanced degrees in astronomy, astrophysics or space science can gain access to all the wonder and experience that the Universe has to offer.”
If this list whets your appetite for more exciting cosmological happenings, check out the book to learn far more amazing facts about the Universe, and peruse some of these lists of even more celestial events taking place this year.
Tuesday, May 28: Conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Mercury
In celestial terms, “conjunctions” are when two or more objects appear really close together in the sky. On this rare night, Venus and Jupiter will come within 1 degree of each other, and Mercury, which has been close to the pair since Friday, will be within 5 degrees of them. According to NASA, the last time triple conjunction occurred in 2011, and another. won’t be seen until October 2015.
The three planets will be most visible 45 minutes to an hour after sunset. In the twilight, look west-northwest and low in the sky. Venus is the brightest of the three planets, and Jupiter will be close above it to the right.
Arcand and Watzke say:
Planets are always fun objects to try to find in the night sky. Because they are closer to us than the stars (other than the Sun, of course), they appear as tiny solid disks rather the just pinpricks of light. This means that the planets appear to be less affected by the blurring effects of our atmosphere, which is what causes the stars to “twinkle.” (But stars don’t actually twinkle. The movements of air and moisture in the Earth’s atmosphere makes the distant light look like it’s changing in ways that it is not.)
Venus and Jupiter are not actually any nearer each other than normal–they just appear to align from our vantage point on Earth. Venus is still closer to the Sun than the Earth, and Jupiter remains in its orbit as the fifth planet out at an average of about 500 million miles from the center of the Solar System.
Fun fact: Venus is often a great night sky viewing target and was long referred to as “the evening star” because of it’s clear and early appearance in the evening. So we’re often wishing on a planet and not a star if we wish up on the first bright light of the evening.
The biggest full moon of 2013! On Sunday at 7 a.m. GMT (that’s 3 a.m. in New York, midnight in Los Angeles), the moon will reach it’s closest point to earth of the year, a mere 221,824 miles away. That’s not quite close enough to touch, but it may look like it is.
Arcand and Watzke say:
As the Moon travels in its orbit around Earth, more or less of the Moon’s disk is illuminated by the Sun. When the Moon is behind the Earth with respect to the Sun, we can see its full face lit up by sunlight. This is what we know as the “full Moon,” and it occurs once every 27 days or so. Use the opportunity of a fully illuminated Moon—especially this big one—to get a really good look at our nearest neighbor in space. The pockmarks are the result of meteors that have struck the lunar surface. Because the Moon has essentially no atmosphere or weather like we do on Earth, these craters have been preserved in pristine condition instead of being erased like those on Earth largely have.
Fun fact: On the occasional times a full moon happens 13 times in a year, instead of 12, the last full moon is called a “Blue Moon”, which is where the phrase comes from.
Two major annual meteor showers, the Delta Aquarid and the Perseid, will be shooting across the night sky throughout most of July and August.
The Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower runs from July 12 to August 23, and peaks from July 27 to 28 with up to 20 meteors per hour. It comes from the debris of comets Marsden and Kracht. It is not highly visible in America, and best seen from the Southern Hemisphere and at low altitudes just north of the equator. Light from the moon, in its second quarter, will block most of the faint meteors from sight, too, but you should still be able to see at least some of the big ones if you’re on the lookout for them.
The Perseid Meteor Shower runs from July 17 to August 24, and peaks from August 11 to 12 with up to 60 meteors per hour. It is produced by comet Swift-Tuttle. Unlike the Delta Aquarid, it is highly visible in the Northern Hemisphere, and peaks during a first quarter moon, which means hardly any light will obstruct the show.
Arcand and Watzke say:
Meteor showers are great to plan summer evenings around. These showers happen when the Earth passes through a cloud of rocks from a comet that has been ripped apart by gravity. While many people want to use binoculars or telescopes in order to get the best views of events in the night sky, meteor showers are actually best viewed with just your eyes. That’s because binoculars or a telescope will limit your field of view. The game in watching meteor showers is to get the widest and darkest view of the night sky.
Fun fact: Despite their nickname of “shooting stars” in popular culture, these are not stars at all. Impress your friends and family by pointing out that these streaks of light are, in fact, pieces of rock and other debris whizzing through the Earth’s atmosphere.
May 21, 2013
The National Air and Space Museum honored the late pioneer astronaut Sally Ride recently with a panel discussion entitled “Sally Ride: How Her Historic Space Mission Opened Doors for Women in Science.”
Ride, who became the first American woman in space aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, was an outspoken advocate for women scientists and improved science education. Her highly decorated career included two trips and more than 343 hours in space, work at NASA’s headquarters, positions on the committees that investigated the Columbia and Challenger disasters and a professorship at the University of California, San Diego. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, which develops science programs, books and festivals for fourth through eighth grade classrooms.
The panel was broadcasted live on NASA TV from the museum’s “Moving Beyond Earth” gallery and moderated by Tom Costello of NBC News. It featured space and science education luminaries Ellen Ochoa, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center; Rene McCormick, director of Standards and Quality at the National Math and Science Initiative; Linda Billings, professor at George Washington University; Dan Vergano, USA Today science writer; and Margaret Weitekamp, the museum’s curator of space history.
The group reflected on Ride’s game-changing influence in a traditionally male-dominated field and her progress in promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, as well as some of the hurdles America still must overcome to ensure gender equality in the sciences, such as lingering cultural stereotypes that prevent women from pursuing STEM careers and a lack of mentors to encourage them. A number of studies in recent years have shown that women still remain significantly underrepresented in STEM careers, particularly at higher levels, so the panel focused on the steps that must be taken to interest girls in science at a young age and to retain this interest as they prepare to enter the workforce.
“I think a lot of it is just trying to educate girls on what careers are like in those fields,” says Ochoa, an astronaut herself who followed in Ride’s footsteps as a PhD student at Stanford and believed in the possibility of being an astronaut because of her. “A lot of girls think it’s very much a solitary career. And while there are women scientists and engineers who may work alone in labs, it’s much more common that it’s more of a team effort.”
Ride had such an influence, Ochoa says, because she insisted on consulting her female colleagues when she had to make decisions about accommodating women in space travel instead of answering on her own, giving women a collective voice in the industry. Also, says Ochoa, “She did such a great job on her mission that whether or not women should be assigned to flights was no longer a question. There were still a lot of people who didn’t want to see women flying in space at the time, but they couldn’t point to any good reasons after her flight.”
In the panel’s audience was Tam O’Shaughnessy, Sally Ride Science’s chief operating officer and Ride’s life partner for more than 25 years. O’Shaughnessy launched the science education program with Ride and three other friends, and the group now is expanding their educational outreach by digitizing the books and trainings they have created to make the materials available online. Ride may be gone, O’Shaughnessy says, but “she’s still part of the company. She was our leader for 12 years, and her vision is part of our DNA now.”
Ride died at 61 last July from pancreatic cancer. Earlier this year, the Space Foundation posthumously awarded her its highest honor, the General James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award.
April 2, 2013
Nearly 30 years ago, moviegoers got an unprecedented look into the lives of the space shuttle astronauts orbiting 280 miles above the Earth. And they witnessed it in extraordinary dimensions—on a five story-tall screen in booming surround sound.
The Dream Is Alive pulled back the curtain on NASA’s Space Shuttle program, giving the public an intimate glimpse into the previously unfamiliar lives of its members. Directed by IMAX co-inventor Graeme Ferguson and narrated by Walter Cronkite, the IMAX classic showed astronauts in full garb, practicing how to move in weightless conditions, using a water tank on land. Once in space, the film revealed the crew’s reactions to watching the world turn as the orbiter circled the Earth at 17,000 miles an hour. It followed the men and women as they worked, ate, exercised and even slept in zero gravity.
“Astronauts have said it’s the next best thing to being there,” says Valerie Neal, the space shuttle curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, of the film that was originally released in 1985. “The theater kind of dissolves and you feel like a part of the film. I had this sense that I was in space with them.”
Shot by 14 NASA astronauts during three shuttle missions, the film includes footage of Discovery‘s 1984 launch and landing, as well as the deployment of several satellites from the spacecraft. It features sweeping panoramas of the Earth, space walks and risky satellite repairs. It puts the audience in the driver’s seat with video filmed from the astronauts’ points of view while training on land—viewers feel as if they are parachuting to the ground, or lurching away from the shuttle in high-speed emergency baskets.
The film premiered during an optimistic time for space exploration—1984 saw nine shuttle missions, seven more than in the program’s first year in 1981. More than 100 missions would launch into space in the next three decades before the program folded in 2011. The Dream Is Alive represented the country’s drive to make space transportation routine. It also introduced the public to a new era of American astronauts, Neal says, one that included women and individuals from more diverse backgrounds.
“That was something of a revelation, and I think it probably played a role in widespread acceptance that this is the way spaceflight should be,” she says. “It shouldn’t be just the cream of the crop of the most elite military jet test pilots, but also people who are scientists and engineers who could be our next door neighbors.”
In the film viewers saw Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, hover in midair while working with her fellow Challenger crew members. Kathy Sullivan joins her, marking the first time two women flew together on a shuttle mission. We watch Sullivan become the first American woman to walk in space as she waves to the camera from outside the window, the white and blue of the Earth swirling behind her. We see Judith Resnik, the first Jewish woman in space, working in weightlessness. To date, more than 50 American women have become NASA astronauts.
The Dream Is Alive was still playing in theaters when Challenger exploded seconds after its 10th launch in January 1986, killing all seven astronauts onboard, including Resnik. The tragedy illuminated the very real dangers of space travel, an aspect of the shuttle program that The Dream hadn’t explored. But Neal says the United States soon saw a surge of public support for the program, suggesting the golden age of American space exploration was not yet over.
“The American public had a sense that the space program was valuable and shouldn’t be halted,” she says.
Now, another generation of space enthusiasts can experience the zenith of the shuttle program, this time on an 86-by-62 foot silver screen. The Dream Is Alive is now showing in the Airbus IMAX Theater in the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Showtimes and ticket information is available here.
The film temporarily joins two of its stars at the Smithsonian. One of the cameras used in the film, which went on to document missions until 1998, arrived at the Institution last April and will soon be installed at the Air and Space Museum’s “Moving Beyond Earth” exhibition. The black camera, which weighs about 80 pounds, shot film with over-sized, 70mm frames, providing more than eight times the area of traditional 35mm film. Such capacity lent to never-seen-before, wide-angle views of the planet’s topography. The space shuttle Discovery landed at the museum shortly after. The famed spacecraft spent 365 days in space during its 27-year career. It flew 39 missions, several of which are chronicled in the film, before it was retired in 2011.