State of NASA: A visit to Goddard Spaceflight Center

“The state of our NASA, is strong” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden emphatically stated.  This was the mantra of the press conference on February 9th, broadcast to all NASA centers as well as to NASA TV at 1:30pm eastern time.  The State of NASA event was a powerful event to attend, and I feel truly honored to have been present at Goddard Spaceflight center for this historic occasion.  This event was focused on the present and future of our space program.  With a special emphasis on the importance and necessity of exploration and scientific understanding of our solar system and of our home world, Earth.

The passion in Bolden’s voice was clearly audible as he outlined the importance of this great organization, as well as the future plans for the exploration of our solar system, as well as our home planet.  But perhaps his most moving moment was his recollection of the past.  He recalled growing up as a young african american in the segregated south and the struggles that he faced.  He never imagined that today, he would be leading our nation’s space program.  We truly have come a long way as a country, and our space program is better for it, both in terms of diversity and gender equality.  As Bolden pointed out, our latest class of astronauts is 50% female and 50% male for the first time in history.

NASA has contributed to our overall quality of live in ways that most people don’t realize.  In fact by some estimates, for every $1 we put into NASA, we get nearly 7$-14$ return.  There was an excellent article in Forbes with an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson about this.  As we look forward to future human crewed missions to Mars, we need to keep these benefits in mind.  The technology and innovation that are created out of necessity for these upcoming missions will be invaluable to industry and indeed our civilization as a whole.  Bolden made the claim that “every american will benefit from our journey to Mars.”  I wholeheartedly agree.  He also underscored the importance of our Earth science program, to understand our home planet, as he put it, “the most important planet.”  NASA has a huge role to play in our understanding of our climate and our planet as a whole.

JWST Mirror assembly at NASA Goddard.

In addition to the State Of NASA press conference, this event was also a NASA Social, where members of the public, particularly those with blogs and/or social media presence, can apply to attend and document the event.  I attended the event hosted at Goddard Spaceflight Center and was treated, along with the other attendees, to a tour of the facility, including a visit to the clean room where the James Webb Space Telescope is currently being assembled!  This, for me, was by far the highlight of the day.  As we ascended the staircase to the glass wall overlooking the clean room, I became very excited.  I could hardly breath as I looked out onto the massive structure that holds the segmented primary mirror assembly, as well as the arm which holds the secondary mirror.

JWST Secondary Mirror arm.
JWST Secondary Mirror arm.

Seeing this monument to our collective intelligence as a species in person, was an indescribable experience.  This artifact of our technological civilization will help us to understand our universe by looking deeper into the observable universe than the Hubble Space Telescope is capable of doing, and will also help us understand the atmospheres of nearby planets, among many other scientific objectives.  This massive telescope will be sent to our Earth-Sun Lagrange point L2, roughly 1.5-million kilometers away from Earth.  Someday soon in the near future, we will be able to look back at this telescope and point to our new understandings that were made possible by this great instrument, just as we have (and continue to have) with Hubble and other great space missions.

We also toured the area which housed their enormous vacuum chambers for testing spacecraft.  Below is one image of the chamber which will be used to test the JWST.

Thermal Vacuum Test Chamber for JWST
Thermal Vacuum Test Chamber for JWST




We also got a personal briefing on another space telescope currently planned for 2018, called TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which will study the whole sky over a period of two years during its primary mission looking for exoplanets orbiting nearby star systems.  If Kepler is any indication, this will prove to change our understanding once again about the amazing number of planets out there in our galaxy.  I’m extremely excited about this mission in particular, because it will show us exoplanetary systems which are much closer to us than those discovered by Kepler.  This will allow us to better characterize their atmospheres (with the JWST and other observatories) which may ultimately help us to find planets with conditions that are potentially favorable to life.  Such planets would also make excellent targets for SETI search operations.  It was a privilege to hear about this mission from some of the scientists that work directly on this mission.

It was my great honor and pleasure to be invited to attend the NASA Social at Goddard Spaceflight Center on February 9th.  I want to thank those that organized this event, which was truly a one of a kind experience.


NASA’s Rich History: A visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum


Next week, I will be at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, on Tuesday February 9th, for the State Of NASA event, held simultaneously across all NASA centers. I will be live tweeting the event, and posting an article later that evening. Use the Links on the side-bar to follow Stellar Aperture on your favorite social media platform, and follow the #StateofNASA hashtag for more information. This event will focus on the future of our remarkable space program.

But for this week’s post, I would like to focus on where we have been. Or more specifically, on the rich inspirational history of spaceflight that has advanced our culture in so many ways.

Last November, I attended the American Astronomical Society Division For Planetary Sciences annual meeting in DC. While I was there, I was able to carve out a little time to visit the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to see first hand some of the most amazing artifacts that our civilization has ever produced. My sense of awe was completely overloaded. A feeling of hope and optimism towards humanity’s future was impossible to ignore as I walked among these inspiring expressions of our collective intelligence. I was able to make time to visit both the museum in DC, as well as the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia where the Space Shuttle Discovery is housed. It is truly awesome feeling to walk beneath the wings of a Space Shuttle.

Mercury-Atlas 10 / Freedom 7 – II

Let’s start at the beginning of human spaceflight in the US, with the Mercury program. These small capsules had only room for a single spacefaring occupant, and tightly at that. The Mercury capsule design, first flown by Alan Shepard (the first US astronaut in space) on the historic Freedom 7 mission on May 5th 1961, was very similar to the capsule shown on the left. This particular capsule, which was intended to be the Mercury-Atlas 10 mission, nicknamed the Freedom 7 – II, sadly never actually flew. For museum goers this is actually quite fortunate however, because it affords an opportunity to see a near pristine Mercury capsule in its complete orbital configuration. You can literally peek into the window on the side, which was an absolute thrill for me, to see what Alan Shepard would have seen back when it all started. Truly remarkable.


Next up are the Gemini. A two astronaut space capsule, which allowed for greater capability, including the first US space walk performed by Ed White aboard the Gemini 4 mission. It is important to note, that the first space walk was actually performed by Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, about 4 months prior. That said, this was a stepping stone which allowed US astronauts to learn to operate outside their spacecraft, which would later lead to the eventual moon landing.

Apollo 11 Command Module

The biggest thrill for me, by far, was seeing the actual Apollo 11 Command Module! I literally almost walked right past it, and then turned around to look at something, and it was right in front of me. The feeling I experienced is difficult to describe. I found simultaneously with a huge smile along with tears welling up in my eyes. I almost couldn’t breath. It was as if I had been looking for it my whole life, and there it was right in front of me. Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins rode in that very spacecraft on the way to the moon that summer in 1969. The Command Module was one of three components of the Apollo 11 mission, and was the only one returned to Earth. It was quite literally breathtaking to see. I stood there for quite a while just enjoying every rivet, every panel, and indeed every scorch mark on it’s surface.

Buzz Aldrin Apollo 11
David Scott Apollo 15

Also breathtaking were some of the actual space suits worn by the Apollo astronauts, with lunar dust still visible on surface of the space suits! This was a real treat to see, and was absolutely wonderful to examine with my own eyes. The image on the left is one from Apollo 15, worn by David Scott. The image on the right, was worn by none other than Buzz Aldrin himself on Apollo 11. Outstanding.

Lunar Lander Replica

The full scale replica of the Apollo Lunar Lander was awe inspiring. I had no idea how large it really was until I stood next to its feet. It was a giant insect like monster that frankly I’m amazed anyone could pilot down to the surface of the moon. It is a testament to the engineering ingenuity and the unparalleled piloting skills that NASA somehow coordinates in concert.

Space Shuttle Discovery

And of course, the Space Shuttle Discovery! The size of this spacecraft makes one feel quite minuscule standing underneath it. I spent nearly an hour walking around the Shuttle, taking pictures of nearly every square centimeter of its surface. That morning, I arrived at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center just as they opened, and I practically ran in when they opened up the little gate at the top of the staircase that led down to the hangar floor. I went straight for the shuttle, and started taking pictures.

There were of course many other artifacts, from a full scale replicas of Skylab, the Viking Mars landers, and a variety of equipment, space suits, helmets, and gloves. I could go on for hours. This Included a display of one of the most inspiring missions of our space program, the Apollo–Soyuz spacecrafts docked together. This mission is particularly inspiring to me because it represents scientific and cultural cooperation at a time when our two nations were locked in bitter cold-war. At a time when suspicions were high, and the dangers of war presented an ever present tension, we somehow found a way, through space travel, to come together in a grand gesture of peace. And indeed, this tradition holds true even today on the International Space Station, where many nations come together in scientific collaboration, regardless of our differences. This to me is a symbol of hope, and a foundation for our future. Space offers us a way to heal our divisive wounds that we have inflicted upon one another throughout the ages. We can come together as a species, one whole planet Earth, and venture out into the cosmos. Space seems to bring this out in us and we should embrace it. It is truly our only chance to evolve past our technological adolescence to become a long lived peaceful civilization. We can get there if we will it to be so.


Stay tuned space fans.  Tuesday promises to be a very exciting day, be sure to follow on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ for all the details as they happen.


Upcoming NASA Social: State Of NASA

Greetings space fans!  Quick post today.  I am pleased to announce that I will be attending the upcoming NASA Social event on February 9th, the “State of NASA”.  I was scheduled to attend the previous NASA Social event, on January 25th at Goddard Spaceflight Center, but it was canceled due to the blizzard, and so they moved me to the February 9th event.  I am extremely excited and honored to take part in this event, and will post more details as they are available.

On February 9th, I will live-tweet the event at @StellarAperture, topped off with a blog post at the end of the day detailing the days events.  Stay tuned!