Category Archives: Spaceflight

Another Moonwalker Gone: Apollo 14 Astronaut Ed Mitchell Has Died at 85

Edgar Mitchell poses next to the U.S. flag on the Moon during Apollo 14, Feb. 1971 (NASA)

Edgar Mitchell poses next to the U.S. flag on the Moon during Apollo 14, Feb. 1971 (NASA)

The world has lost one of its special treasures: retired Navy captain and former NASA astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell, LM pilot for Apollo 14 and one of the 12 men who walked on the Moon, died on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016 at the age of 85.

His passing brings the number of humans alive who have stood on the surface of another world down to 7 and, as of Feb. 4, none of them from Apollo 14.
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NASA’s First Fallen: Remembering the Tragedy of Apollo 1

This is a reprint of a post from 2013, updated for the 2016 date.
Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee in front of Launch Complex 34 at Kennedy Space Center on January 17, 1967 (NASA/KSC)

Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee in front of Launch Complex 34 at Kennedy Space Center on January 17, 1967 (NASA/KSC)

Today marks the 49th anniversary of one of the worst tragedies to befall NASA and human spaceflight: the fire that broke out in the Apollo 204 (later renamed Apollo 1) command module during a test exercise at Kennedy Space Center in 1967, claiming the lives of primary crew astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.

While it’s certainly not a pleasant thing to think upon, the Apollo 1 catastrophe had an undeniable impact on NASA’s Moon mission. Although it resulted in the death of three talented young men in the prime of their careers it forced NASA’s engineers to redesign the Apollo spacecraft with more safety in mind which, ultimately, contributed to the success of the entire program. Without these redesigns the Moon landings might not have occurred just a couple of years later. Despite the horror of what happened on Jan. 27, 1967, Grissom, White, and Chaffee’s tragic deaths were not in vain.

The following is a full account of the Apollo 1 fire, as told on the NASA history site.

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Astronaut’s Green Thumb Grows the First* Flower in Space

"Space Flower," the first flower grown on orbit (NASA)

“Space Flower,” the first zinnia flower grown on orbit (NASA)

Say hello to the first* flower unfurled in space! This picture, shared on Jan. 16, 2016 by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, shows a plant that has – thanks to some TLC from Kelly – managed to produce the first-ever zinnia blooms in low-Earth orbit and in fact the first flower grown outside of Earth’s biosphere. (Edit: read disclaimer below.)

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Plutonium is Back on the Menu, Future NASA Missions!

Plutonium dioxide glows with the heat of its natural decay inside a protective cylindrical shell of graphite. (DOE/Idaho National Laboratory)

Plutonium dioxide glows with the heat of its natural decay inside a protective cylindrical shell of graphite. (DOE/Idaho National Laboratory)

While I highly advise against humans making a meal out of it (despite my headline) the radioactive element plutonium has long been a staple energy source for many of NASA’s space missions, from Apollo’s ALSEPs to the twin Voyagers to the Curiosity rover.* But the particular non-weapons-grade flavor that NASA needs — plutonium dioxide, aka Pu-238 — has not been in production in the U.S. since the late ’80s; all the Pu-238 since then has been produced by Russia.

That is, until now; researchers at the Department of Energy‘s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee have successfully produced the first Pu-238 in the U.S. in 30 years. 50 grams (about one-tenth of a pound) of plutonium dioxide have been manufactured at ORNL, and once the sample has undergone testing to confirm its purity large scale production** will begin.

“This significant achievement by our teammates at DOE signals a new renaissance in the exploration of our solar system,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Radioisotope power systems are a key tool to power the next generation of planetary orbiters, landers and rovers in our quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe.”

Watch a video below from the DOE celebrating this new milestone.

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Watch Incredible High-Speed Footage of the Apollo 11 Saturn V Liftoff

The Saturn V line of heavy launch vehicles used for NASA’s Apollo program were to this day the most powerful rockets ever used, and this video shows an intimate on-pad view of the ignition and liftoff of the one that carried Apollo 11 into space on July 16, 1969. Captured at 500 frames per second, the mesmerizing 8 minutes of footage represent 30 seconds in real time (as described in the video by Mark Gray of Spacecraft Films.)

Why? Because watching giant machines ride controlled mega-explosions into space will never not be fun!

You can view a similar high-speed video of the Apollo 13 Saturn launch here, and check out some of the interesting Apollo 11 post-launch “B-roll” footage captured by the many cameras set up around the pad below:

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The Hammer-Feather Drop: Watch Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott “Do a Science” on the Moon

On August 2, 1971, at the end of the last EVA of the Apollo 15 mission, Commander David Scott took a few minutes to conduct a classical science experiment in front of the TV camera that had been set up just outside the LM Falcon at the Hadley Rille landing site. Scott, a former Air Force pilot, recreated a famous demonstration often attributed to Galileo (which may or may not have actually been performed by the astronomer in Pisa in 1586) that shows how objects of different masses react the same way to gravity when dropped – that is, they fall at the same rate.

By performing the “acceleration test” in the vacuum environment of space (but where there is still an observable downward pull of gravity) the element of air resistance is negated – especially on such a low-mass and low-density object as a falcon feather – thereby creating a more “pristine” setting for the centuries-old experiment than could ever be achieved on Earth.

According to a report on the mission’s science objectives: “During the final minutes of the third extravehicular activity, a short demonstration experiment was conducted. A heavy object (a 1.32-kg aluminum geological hammer) and a light object (a 0.03-kg falcon feather) were released simultaneously from approximately the same height (approximately 1.6 m) and were allowed to fall to the surface. Within the accuracy of the simultaneous release, the objects were observed to undergo the same acceleration and strike the lunar surface simultaneously, which was a result predicted by well-established theory, but a result nonetheless reassuring considering both the number of viewers that witnessed the experiment and the fact that the homeward journey was based critically on the validity of the particular theory being tested. ” (Joe Allen, NASA SP-289, Apollo 15 Preliminary Science Report, Summary of Scientific Results, p. 2-11. Source.)

Launched on July 26, 1971, Apollo 15 was the first of the “J” missions capable of a longer stay time on the moon and greater surface mobility, thanks to the use of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV).Learn more about the Apollo 15 mission here.

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