March 22, 2013
Parts of the F-1 rocket engines that may have launched the first space mission to put a man on the moon were recovered from the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday.
Organized by billionaire Jeff Bezos, a team of scientists has spent the past three weeks off the coast of Florida retrieving components of submerged engines from NASA’s Apollo space launches. The pieces have lost the serial numbers that identify the specific spacecraft to which they belonged.
The team had plenty of underwater pieces to choose from; 13 F-1-powered Apollo rocket ships with five engines each blasted into orbit from Florida’s John F. Kennedy space center between 1967 to 1973, dropping the spent engines into the ocean during their ascent. In a blog post this week, Bezos called the remains “an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines.”
Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon and owner of the private rocket company Blue Origin, announced a year ago that he intended to bring back at least one engine from the Apollo 11 mission that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969. He made the attempt by guiding remotely operated vehicles almost three miles beneath the ocean’s surface to collect the various pieces. Without serial numbers, though, they must now rely on restoration efforts to find clues to the engines’ former spacecraft. There is no public timetable as to when it will be determined which mission these engines were a part of.
“We’re bringing home enough major components to fashion displays of two flown F-1 engines,” Bezos wrote in his blog. “The upcoming restoration will stabilize the hardware and prevent further corrosion. We want the hardware to tell its true story, including its 5,000 mile per hour re-entry and subsequent impact with the ocean surface. We’re excited to get this hardware on display where just maybe it will inspire something amazing.”
Paul Ceruzzi, chair of the Space History division at the National Air and Space Museum, says it would be “very significant” if the engine pieces’ connection to Apollo 11 were confirmed. “The actual stuff that went to the moon with Apollo 11 is really small, so this would be one of the few original pieces from that mission.”
They would have a tremendous emotional impact as well, he adds: “Here we have this mission that was so outrageous at the time and seems even more so today, and yet we did it.”
Bezos has stated that he hopes the restored engines will make their way to the Museum of Flight in Seattle, but Ceruzzi says that parts of the engines also could end up in the Air and Space Museum. The murkiness of the laws governing international waters and the artifacts discovered within them will likely delay such a decision for a while. ”It remains a possibility,” he explains, “but we won’t know until their ownership is settled, until we find out whether or not they are from Apollo 11 and of course until NASA offers them to us.”
According to Ceruzzi, the Air and Space Museum plans to refurbish its Apollo 11 exhibit sometime in the future, possibly in tandem with the 50th anniversary of the spacecraft’s moon landing in 2019. An authentic engine from the spacecraft could “give visitors a sense of the magnitude of the whole Apollo mission, and be a way to get people into that story,” he says.
“It’s all very early right now,” he emphasizes. “But there’s a genuine excitement about the recovery.”
March 13, 2013
The National Air and Space Museum has a $50,000 toilet. It’s functional, and it answers one of the greatest engineering puzzles of the 20th century: How do you pee in space?
The “space toilet” is a replica of the waste collection systems used aboard NASA’s five space shuttles—Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavor—which launched into space on 135 missions between 1981 and 2011. Missions often lasted longer than 10 days, so astronauts needed a reliable way of relieving themselves while floating around and doing research.
How they managed to go is the most common question astronauts are asked, says Mike Mullane, a veteran of three space shuttle missions and author of Do Your Ears Pop in Space and 500 Other Surprising Questions about Space Travel. It’s also one of the most frequent questions heard from visitors to “Moving Beyond Earth,” the exhibition that features the replica space toilet in a full-scale model of a space shuttle’s living quarters.
The subject is so popular, says museum staffer Michael Hulslander, because “it is truly universal.” The first thing he thought when planning the exhibition was “oh my god, we need a toilet.”
The space toilet doesn’t look all that different from the Earth-bound toilet in your home bathroom (its base is larger, its bowl is smaller and it has an elephant trunk-like tube—for context, look past the right chair in this image of Discovery’s middeck), but months of research and testing go into each model to ensure it runs maintenance-free for the duration of a mission. And research costs add up: the price tag on the actual space shuttle toilet that flew on Endeavor? About $30 million.
Each shuttle had only one toilet, so “they had to work,” says Hulslander. (And they did, mostly.)
While the more recent space toilet models used on the International Space Station do more and cost less than those aboard NASA’s shuttles (these range in the ball park of $19 million; one even purifies urine into potable water), all space toilets rely on the same basic system to remove waste: differential air pressure. Liquid waste is sucked into a plastic funnel on the end of the trunk-like tube and deposited into the base’s urine container, which vents into space when filled. Outside, the urine sublimates and eventually turns into gas. Solid waste goes straight into the bowl, Earth-style, where it is stored for the remainder of the flight. Jettisoning solid waste would ”just be bad for business,” Hulslander says, because it would send a projectile hurtling 17,500 m.p.h. through space—unlikely to hit anything, but better safe than sorry.
When using the liquid waste tube, female astronauts tend to have an easier time with funnels than male crewmembers, because female funnels are cup-shaped and adhere to the body when the toilet’s pressure is turned on. The men, meanwhile, use a small cone, which they must hold close enough to themselves to collect waste, but not so close that they get vacuumed in.
“We do not want men docking,” cautions Scott Weinstein, a crew habitability trainer at NASA, in a video on space toilet training.
For solid waste deposits, the toilet has foot straps and thigh braces to help astronauts stay in place, and air-tight bags on hand for toilet paper disposal. Astronauts spend a lot of time in training sitting on space toilets to learn how to create a strong seal and how to align themselves properly. In Houston, the Johnson Space Center has a bathroom with two space toilets for practice. One model is fully functional. The other, a “positional trainer,” has a video camera beneath its rim, and a television monitor on a table in front of it. Astronaut Mike Massimino calls this second toilet “the deepest, darkest secret about space flight” in the training video.
“This takes a lot of glamour out of the business when you go for training,” Mullane says about his first encounter with the positional trainer.
Astronaut Tom Jones, another seasoned space veteran, spent 52 days in orbit on four space missions. He says that while “everybody laughs” at training, “you realize that you can’t hold it for 18 days. You’ve got to be able to use the system. And you want to be efficient at it, because it takes time away from what you really should be doing.”
Jones never lost a sense of novelty using the space shuttle toilet, though, even with its steep learning curve. On his third trip into space, aboard Columbia, he remembers glancing at the privacy curtain that covered the shuttle’s toilet and often seeing socks where a head should have been. His crewmate Story Musgrave liked to pee upside down.
“Don’t just use the bathroom like you would on the ground,” Musgrave would remind him. “Take advantage of being weightless and try out some new things.”
“I never got bored,” says Jones. “You go about these things with a smile on your face thinking this is amazing. This is really strange and really wild.”
Astronauts also used the toilet’s closed-off space on the shuttles for changing clothes and wiping themselves down with bath towels. On Jones’ missions, crewmembers stored their towels in grommets along the toilet’s wall; in the absence of gravity, the towels’ ends floated straight out into the small compartment like kelp in the ocean. When Jones had to go, he would float through this mini towel forest to the shuttle’s hatch window next to the compartment, fasten the curtain behind him and stare into the cosmos as he relieved himself into a $30 million glorified vacuum cleaner.
“Yeah, it’s a pretty neat bathroom,” he says.
March 1, 2013
According to a new proposal from astronomers and professors Avi Loeb and Dan Maoz, signs of life may be awaiting detection in the shadows of death. Looking to the abundance of dying stars known as white dwarfs, Loeb and Maoz devised a simple way to search for oxygen in the atmosphere of exoplanets which orbit around white dwarfs much the way Earth orbits the sun. Loeb says the theory could yield results within the decade with the launch of NASA’s James Webb Telescope in 2018.
The pair published a paper in February, ”Detecting bio-markers in habitable-zone earths transiting white dwarfs,” outlining their theoretical research. In it, Loeb, chair of Harvard University’s department of Astronomy and director of the Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC) within the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, explains that though a white dwarf is simply the cooling core of a dead star, its radiant heat and light can host life on orbiting planets for billions of years.
“We know of a few thousand of those planets by now and there must be many more out there. And a key question is, if a planet is quite similar to Earth in terms of its rocky material; and if it’s the right distance from the furnace, the central star that keeps it warm so that adequate water can exist on its surface; would the chemistry of life naturally arise, and would life exist the same way it does on Earth?” Loeb says it’s a difficult question to address with theory alone. “The best way to approach it,” he says, “would be to try and observe other planets, and search for indications of life.” And that rather than visiting those places, Loeb recommends searching “for signatures of molecules that are naturally produced by life and the most generic one is oxygen.”
Recent research suggests not only that there are plenty of exoplanets out there like our own, but that they are often paired with and orbiting white dwarfs. According to Loeb, “Somewhere between 15 to 30 percent of [white dwarfs] show evidence of rocky material on their surface, and such material would not be there unless there was rocky stuff around them,” meaning that these are the exoplanets that could potentially sustain life.
With this in mind, Loeb and Maoz postulated that researchers could find oxygen by measuring the atmospheric transmission spectrum of these planets as it passes in front of a white dwarf. Unfortunately, the pair will have to wait until 2018, when the launch of the James Webb Telescope is scheduled. The measurements have to be taken outside the Earth’s atmosphere, where oxygen concentrations can alter the incoming light.
In the meantime, Loeb plans to use the results of an upcoming survey of stars to identify prime candidates for the space telescope to measure. “One can follow up on the sample of white dwarfs that is found by this survey and search for examples of where we see evidence of a planet transiting a white dwarf and, if it’s the right distance, that would be a very good candidate for JWST to look at.”
The researchers estimate that a sample size of some 500 white dwarfs will be needed, to account for a variety of alignments between planets and their stars, but he’s optimistic about the potential to find something.
“I think if we have the technology, we should do it,” he says. “There are several examples in the history of astronomy where people hesitated.” Most recently, he says, researchers were not given observation time to search for exoplanets. “Even though it was feasible technologically, they said no we won’t give the time for that because it’s speculative and the chance is very small that there would be a Jupiter close to a star.” Of course, “only a decade later these Jupiters were found by chance, and it opened completely this field of exoplanets.”
Loeb, who sprinkles his lectures with talk of religion and philosophy, says the lesson is to remain open-minded. “The way to make discoveries is not to have a prejudice and just to explore the universe because our imagination is quite limited.”
In the end, Loeb says his proposal is actually simple, a hallmark of his approach to physics that has earned him a Chambliss Astronomical Writing Award from the American Astronomical Society for his book, “How Did the First Stars and Galaxies Form?“