Tag Archives: NASA

No doubt about it: There’s life out there — somewhere

It can be said of many retired people that we have too much time on our hands and too much time to fill our heads with goofy thoughts.

So, when NASA announced the demise of the Mars rover Opportunity the other day, I was filled with just a touch of sadness, but also with gratitude that the 90-day mission lasted 15 years and that NASA was able to collect mountains of data from the Red Planet.

My wife joked that Opportunity didn’t spot any “little green men” traipsing around the Martian surface..

Then I began thinking as I’ve done my entire life. I believe with every fiber of my being that there is life “out there, somewhere, deep in the void.”

I know what the Bible says about God creating humankind in his image. And I believe those words. I also believe the Great Creator was capable of placing life well beyond little ol’ Earth, an insignificant speck in the vast expanse of space.

I cannot even begin to grasp the size of the universe. I mean, “forever” is, well, a distance that none of us can fathom. I’ll just leave it at that.

Therefore, my limited understanding of statistical probabilities tells me that somewhere out there — way, way beyond anything we’ve ever laid eyes on — there must be a planet orbiting a star that has atmospheric conditions capable of sustaining life.

What does it look like? Beats me. Would that life necessarily be oxygen/nitrogen breathing life? Not necessarily. Does that life necessarily mean it is more advanced than we are? No. It might be mere vegetation. Or some sort of creature we cannot define.

Has this life visited Earth? I don’t believe for one second that we have been seen up close by any extraterrestrials.

Opportunity bit the Martian dust after fulfilling its mission far beyond what scientists had hoped it would accomplish. It didn’t see anything. Just remember: Even a journey of tens of millions of miles into “deep space” hardly constitutes a journey that covers the expanse of our universe.

Look at this way: How many grains of beach sand would it take to fill the oceans? Yep, it’s likely even bigger than that out there!

Opportunity declared dead; mission more than accomplished

That had to be the longest 90 days in human history.

A machine that landed on Mars 15 years ago was intended to be on duty for three months. Then the rover named “Opportunity” just kept on collecting data.

Yes, for 15 years the rover traipsed across the Martian surface sending data back to NASA scientists who had launched the ship.

Opportunity went silent eight months ago. NASA tried for most of the past year trying to awaken the rover. It was unable to do so.

This week, NASA “called it,” declaring Opportunity officially dead. The space agency won’t try any more to resuscitate the machine.

Mission accomplished, Opportunity

I have to say that as much as I love the notion of human beings traveling into space, I am mighty impressed with the work being done these unmanned probes that NASA launches.

They fly into the sun, they orbit Venus and Mercury, they fly to the farthest reaches of our solar system, probing Jupiter and Saturn, the asteroid belt. They send back amazing data and make incredible discoveries — such as evidence of water on Mars!

Opportunity performed its mission . . . and then some!

All that said, I hope I am still around to watch the first human beings thrown off from Earth and toward Mars.

That, I believe, would be a seriously “giant leap for mankind.”

Still mourning a national tragedy

It was a Saturday morning 16 years ago. The phone rang. A colleague of mine at the Amarillo Globe-News was on the other end of the call. “Did you hear about the shuttle Columbia?” he asked. No. “It broke up on re-entry,” he said.

I blurted out a four-letter word, then rushed to the office to prepare an editorial for the next day’s newspaper.

The demise of the Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003 had special resonance with the readers of our newspaper. Its commander was a son of the Texas Panhandle, U.S. Air Force Col. Rick Husband.

You see, Col. Husband never really “left” Amarillo, the city of his birth and where he came of age. Yes, he would go on to graduate from Texas Tech University, enter the Air Force, earn his wings, fly high-performance jet aircraft and eventually become an astronaut.

He returned home often. My wife and I had the pleasure of meeting him one Sunday at the church we attended. He came to deliver a message from the pulpit. His wife, Evelyn, grew up at First Presbyterian Church and Kathy and I became acquainted with her late parents, Jean and Dan Neely.

Columbia broke apart on re-entry after completing a 16-day mission in Earth orbit. It had been a resounding success. However, unbeknownst to the crew, a piece of debris hit the leading edge of the wing on liftoff, puncturing a hole in it. Re-entry into the atmosphere created intense heat and, thus, the ship caught fire and disintegrated.

I want to mention one more example of Rick Husband’s eternal connection to Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle. You see, he was one of six Americans on the seven-member crew; the seventh was an Israeli officer. Of the American heroes aboard the Columbia, all but one of them were interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

It took recovery crews some time to find the remains of the crew in East Texas. When they found Rick Husband’s remains, they brought them to Amarillo and buried him at Llano Cemetery.

Rick Husband came home . . .  where he belonged.

Lander gives us InSight into Mars

I am such a space junkie, even when human beings aren’t at the center of daring missions into deep space.

The InSight lander has touched down on Mars. It’s beginning to send back startling, stunning and astonishing pictures of the Martian surface. The picture above shows a portion of the lander with the barren Martian landscape in the background.

The journey took 205 days to complete. The InSight’s mission is to probe into the Martian dirt to give us some clues to the origin of the planet and whether there is any sign of life, past or present, on the planet.

I loved watching the NASA ground technicians cheering, hugging, high-fiving each other when they realized the space ship had made its landing safely.

My excitement over the success, so far, of this unmanned vehicle makes me hope my heart will be able to withstand the excitement if and when we send human beings to the fourth planet from the sun in our solar system.

I also hope I am still around to watch it happen. If so, I plan to do what I did when I was a kid and the Mercury astronauts took off on their Earth-orbiting missions: I would get up early and wait with great anxiousness for the rockets to take off from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

In the meantime, I am going to cheer NASA’s success in landing the InSight vehicle on Mars.

Given all the political furor and grief we’re experiencing here on Earth, this flight gives us a good reason to smile.

Trump buries report that disagrees with climate-change screed

Donald John Trump won’t admit this, but he doesn’t know anything about science. For that matter, neither do I. Thus, I am left to heed the analyses given by actual scientists, people trained to study things that go far above my level of understanding.

Climate change, for example.

The federal government itself has issued a report that says the hazards presented by Earth’s changing climate are going to accelerate. The National Climate Assessment is done by living, breathing experts on this stuff.

What’s the president’s response? He doesn’t believe them. He has buried the report because it disagrees with his own “belief” that climate change is a hoax. He’s said so repeatedly. He stands by his view about climate change. It’s made up. Fabricated. A product of “fake news.”

He tweets idiotic messages that take note of a cold spell and asks, “Where’s global warming?” As CNN’s Chris Cillizza has declaredA warming planet doesn’t mean there won’t be cold days. Or even cold weeks! Or months! It means that, in the long seep of history, the planet is getting hotter and hotter. And that those changes in the climate produce more wild and unpredictable weather events, like tornadoes and fires.

Scientific agencies such as, oh, NASA, take note of the evidence they have witnessed over time: ice caps are shrinking, sea levels are rising, Earth’s annual mean temperatures are increasing.

Humankind is burning too many fossil fuels that are spewing carbon gases into the air; we human beings are encroaching on natural habitat, level vast expanses of forest, taking down trees that replace carbon dioxide with oxygen.

The president doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand what’s happening. He continues to repeat the lie that climate change is a hoax, that it’s not actually happening.

His own National Climate Assessment says the exact opposite.

Who do you believe, a politician/serial liar or the experts who study these matters intensely? I’m all in with the experts.

Space Force: Its relevance is diminishing

The more I think about the idea creating a Space Force — the less I think about it … if you know what I mean.

Donald Trump wants to create a new military branch devoted exclusively to fighting enemies in outer space.

As I ponder it, I think: Huh? Doesn’t NASA have that responsibility already? And doesn’t the U.S. Air Force have a Space Command that devotes its considerable intellectual power, know-how and technology to defending us from attacks that might come from beyond our atmosphere?

We’ve got the North American Aerospace Defense Command — a joint U.S.-Canadian operation. There’s also the Strategic Air Command. The Navy has its own capabilities as well.

Yet the president wants to commit $8 billion more in defense spending to create a Space Force? Where’s he going to get the money? Don’t anyone even think of suggesting he should take the funds from domestic programs the Trump administration wants to gut anyway.

The notion of a Space Force has given late-night comics plenty of grist for their joke writers. I won’t go there, although I was amused to hear Vice President Mike Pence extend “greetings from the president of the United States” in a tone of voice suggesting he was talking to a roomful of extraterrestrials.

Ex-astronaut: Space Force ‘redundant’ and ‘wasteful’

That settles it. Donald Trump’s idea of establishing a new military branch is a non-starter. If you’ll pardon the pun, it shouldn’t get off the ground.

He wants to create a Space Force, which would operate in outer space. According to one notable former astronaut, the idea is “redundant” and “wasteful.”

So said Mark Kelly, a former shuttle and International Space Station astronaut. I want to add that Kelly also is married to former U.S. Rep. Gabby Gifford of Arizona, who was gravely wounded  when she suffered a gunshot wound to the head. Kelly and Gifford have become staunch gun-control advocates and have become as well staunch foes of Donald Trump.

That all said, Kelly offers an expert’s view of this Space Force idea.

“There is a threat out there,” Kelly said, “but it’s being handled by the U.S. Air Force today, doesn’t make sense to build a whole other level of bureaucracy in an incredibly bureaucratic [Defense Department],” he added.

The Space Force idea is too expensive, especially at a time when we’re acquiring even more national debt and while the annual budget deficit is exploding. Moreover, it makes no sense to duplicate the efforts to patrol outer space by existing military branches, which — by the way — are the finest in the world.

Let’s ground the Space Force before it takes off.

What do we call those who enlist in the ‘Space Force’?

Space Force? Is that a new military branch?

It’s no longer sufficient that our Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard comprise the finest and most sophisticated military force the world has ever seen.

The Trump administration is taking the first steps toward establishing a new military branch with its theater of operations to be in outer space. Beyond our atmosphere. Somewhere in the great beyond.

Call me skeptical, but I don’t get it.

I have to concur with the skepticism expressed this past June by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who said, “That’s a serious subject. It’s one that I would have a hard time supporting. All of our branches have the space element and it’s working. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

What’s more, what do we call the enlistees? Astro-soldiers, extraterrestrial sailors or Marines, spacemen and women?

There once was a time in this country where we were concerned about the “militarization” of space. We were once locked in a Cold War with the communists in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Yes, we wanted to protect ourselves against attack from those two powers. President Reagan initiated a Strategic Defense Initiative, aka Star Wars, which established an anti-missile defense system.

Now, though, the Trump administration wants to create a whole new military service. They call it the Space Force.

I recall back in the 1960s, when NASA was considering who should be the first astronaut to set foot on the moon. NASA had been spooked a bit by the Soviets’ concern over reported U.S. plans to militarize the lunar surface. Its astronaut corps was full of active-duty military personnel.

NASA instead chose a civilian astronaut, Neil Armstrong, to take that “giant leap for mankind” as a symbolic gesture that sends the message that the United States had no intention of militarizing the moon.

Now we want to create a Space Force?

As Sen. Inhofe noted, our existing armed forces all have space elements that are working quite well.

Finally, can we really and truly afford the cost of creating this military branch?

How about returning to the moon? How about going farther?

President Kennedy already had initiated the race to the moon. The United States was a distant second to the Soviet Union when he declared his intention to ensure that we “send a man to the moon and return him safely to the Earth” by the end of the 1960s.

Then the president implored us on. “We don’t do these things because they are easy,” he said. “We do them because they are hard.”

Well, Americans got to the moon first. It was 49 years ago today that the late Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder onto the moon’s dusty surface and pronounced, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”

He thrilled the folks back home. Not just in our country, but everywhere. Perhaps even in the Soviet Union.

Mission accomplished.

We sent several more missions to the moon. Astronauts planted flags, dug up lunar dirt and brought it back, they drove around on “lunar dune buggies,” and one of them — the first American in space, the late Alan Shepard — even hit a chip shot that went for “miles and miles.”

Then we stopped going to the moon. It became too expensive. The public lost interest. We won the race. The act of launching three people into space aboard a flaming rocket carrying many thousands of pounds of flammable fuel no longer fascinated the American public.

I am one American who lived through that exciting time. I want them to return.

Subsequent presidents have given somewhat tepid support for the initiative of returning to deep space. The end of the Cold War in 1991 removed the Soviet Union from the world landscape. The Soviet descendants, though, have continued to send explorers into space. They now carry passengers with them. Some of them are Americans.

I am acutely aware of the expense of such exploration. However, it was what we were put on this Earth to do, to reach beyond our planetary comfort and to learn more about the world beyond.

Donald J. Trump has continued the presidential push — such as it’s been — to return one day to space. I want NASA to redevelop its own manned program. It’s what we do — and we do it well.

My sense is that enough time has passed since the last moon mission that we’ll get quite excited when the next rocket blasts off into the heavens with crews that will take the next “giant leap for mankind.”

Another NASA celebrity astronaut leaves us

There once was a time when astronauts were celebrities. We knew their names. We followed their careers. We got up early to watch them blast off from the Cape Canaveral, Fla., launch pad.

Another such astronaut — and please pardon this intended pun — has left this Earth for keeps. Alan Bean died today at age 86.

He was the fourth man to walk on the moon, aboard Apollo 12 in November 1969. He made the flight to the lunar surface with the late Charles “Pete” Conrad.

Alan Bean didn’t achieve the kind of celebrity status of, say, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, the seven men selected to fly in the initial Mercury missions, or most of the Gemini astronauts who came along later.

Bean was among those picked for the third group of space pioneers, the Apollo program. He joined NASA in 1963 after serving as a Navy test pilot.

My years in the Texas Panhandle makes me remind you that Bean hailed from that part of the world. He was a native of Wheeler, a tiny town east of Amarillo.

My most glaring memory of Bean’s time on the moon stems from some innovative measures he took to deploy a camera on the lunar surface. The camera wouldn’t start taking images. What did Bean do? He grabbed a hammer and beat on the device! Then it worked.

NASA doesn’t have a manned space program of its own these days. We’re sending our astronauts into space aboard Russian rockets. I’m trying to imagine how Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would react to that bit of aerospace irony.

Back in the day, though, Alan Bean was among those individuals we prayed for when they rocketed into space. As President Kennedy said about the goal of sending astronauts to the moon and returning them safely, “We don’t do these things because they are easy. We do them because they are hard.”

Alan Bean and his colleagues just made it look easy. It wasn’t. He needed to beat on a state-of-the-art camera with a hammer to enable the device to record his history-making adventure for the rest of time.

May he now rest eternally.