We Landed on the Moon

Today, the Chinese Space Agency’s Chang’E-3 spacecraft successfully touched down on the surface of the Moon. A few hours later, a small rover called Yutu (Jade Rabbit, in Chinese) successfully set foot onto the lunar surface.

Screen caps taken from a Chinese state television feed show the view from a side-looking camera mounted to the lander of the Yutu rover deploying from a ramp onto the surface of the Moon on December 14, 2013 CNSA / CCTV / Emily Lakdawalla
Screen caps taken from a Chinese state television feed show the view from a side-looking camera mounted to the lander of the Yutu rover deploying from a ramp onto the surface of the Moon on December 14, 2013
CNSA / CCTV / Emily Lakdawalla

Incredible! Emily Lakedewalla has more animations like this on her blog, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Chang’E-3 and Yutu aren’t alone at the Moon. Orbiting above are the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the recently-launched Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). That means that as of today, we have multi-national, peaceful, scientific exploration of our Moon.

As Sean Carroll noted, the Chinese certainly deserve credit for this accomplishment, becoming only the third nation in the history of humanity to soft-land a spacecraft on the Moon.  But I admit to a certain twinge of frustration that this accomplishment comes at a time when the United States is seriously considering a budget that slashes funding for NASA, particularly its planetary exploration program. There’s simply no sensible reason the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nation – the only one to ever send humans to the Moon, for crying out loud – to be considering such a cut in funding like this.

Who knows, perhaps China’s lunar landing will spurn public pressure on Congress and the administration to reconsider the proposed budget for NASA.  In the meantime, I’m glad that other countries like China are stepping up and advancing the frontier.

Yes, the Chinese are proud, and they deserve to be. But we should all be proud because this is first and foremost a human endeavor. This is what we are capable of when we choose to do great things. This is humanity at its best.

LADEE Launch Recap Part 2: Out to the Launch Pad!

After our morning briefing, we took a break for lunch. When we came back, we went in for the Pre-Launch briefing:

Afterward, we were treated to a presentation on our understanding of the Moon by LADEE Project Scientist Dr. Sarah Noble.  The presentation was conducted at the NASA Visitors’ Center at Wallops Flight Facility in a Science on a Sphere exhibit. This was my first experience with one of these devices and it is really quite amazing. Essentially, a sphere is suspended from the ceiling in the middle of a room. A projector in each corner displays 1/4 of the image onto the sphere, combining to create a full “3D” image of whatever sphere-shaped object you’re looking at, in our case, the Moon:

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I want one of these

Even better, the system was able to demonstrate LRO topography data:

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LRO topography data

We then took a break and I did a little shopping in the gift shop. As it turned out, they were giving away free LADEE-branded Moon Pies:

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Of course it’s vegan: It doesn’t contain any actual food of any kind

And during the break, I got to say hello once again to well-known Hubble Hugger John Grunsfeld:

Me and John Grunsfeld
Meeting one of my heroes

Then it was back to the briefing room, this time for the science briefing:

Mom alert: At the 18:00 mark, I ask a question about the predicted count rate.

With the briefings concluded, it was time for a trip to the launch pad itself. The team from Orbital Sciences were finishing up some Hazardous Operations (HazOps) when we arrived. All rockets have explosives on board to blow up the vehicle in case something goes wrong. However, the crews install inhibitors to prevent an accidental detonation of the vehicle while they’re working on it. At L-1 days, these inhibitors are removed and the vehicle is fully armed. The crew were completing this process just as we arrived. As a result, we had to keep our cell phones in Airplane mode so we wouldn’t set the thing off and incinerate the vehicle (and ourselves along with it.)

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Holy Mackrel! Photo by Tom Wolf

And that was just the first day.

PS: You can find my entire set of LADEE launc photos on Flickr

LADEE Launch Recap Part 1: Introductions and a Special Briefing for the NASA Social Team

So much happened during the two days of our NASA Social Meetup at the LADEE launch, a single blog post of any substantive detail is a post that may never get published, let alone read. So instead, I’ll try to break it up into smaller bits to have a play in the weeds a little. Since much has been written about the launch by others far more capable than I, I’ll try to stick to how things went from my own personal perspective.

The first thing we did on Thursday was meet in the press room to receive a special welcome and introductory briefing that was broadcast live on NASA’s Educational Channel to classrooms around the world. Not a bad way for us and a lot of students to learn about the LADEE mission together. Here’s the video:

Over the course of the two days, we attended several briefings, including the official press briefings which were broadcast on NASA TV. But this first one for NASA’s educational channel turned out to be far and away the most comprehensive. If you have the time, watch the whole thing and you’ll learn about the spacecraft, the science objectives, and the launch operations. Also, I’ll put our level of questions against the traditional media any day.

In the interest of brevity, and of my mom, I’ll quickly highlight the bits where I pose some questions.

Our first speaker was John M. Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. He welcomed us and talked about how excited he was to see us returning to the Moon with LADEE and exploring a part of the lunar environment that is largely unknown to us. Grunsfeld is one of my heroes because as an astronaut, he flew on three servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope. As an astronomer himself, NASA couldn’t have asked for a better person to run the space science side of the NASA house.

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John Grunsfeld during a NASA Social at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013 on Wallops Island, VA. Photo Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

At the 18:00 mark, I asked Dr. Grunsfeld what it was like to be the last person to touch the Hubble Space Telescope. He gave a response that was as accurate as it was humble: he didn’t actually touch Hubble directly since he was wearing the thick rubber gloves in his EVA spacesuit. In fact, every technician who ever touched Hubble wore gloves of some kind. But he quickly pivoted to suggest that tens of thousands of people actually touched Hubble over the last 24 years since its launch, and during the 15 years of its development before it was launched. A humble answer indeed.

Grunsfeld also spoke about what it was like to ride the Space Shuttle into orbit. He’s a great storyteller and if you don’t have time to watch the whole video, just watch the first segment with Grunsfeld.

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Dr. Sarah Noble, LADEE Program Scientist. Photo Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

Up next was Dr. Sarah Noble, program scientist for LADEE. At the 36:00 mark, I ask her about what overlap LADEE might have with other lunar missions currently in progress. She points out that there are currently three other lunar missions in progress right now: the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which is currently making detailed measurements and imagery of the lunar surface, ARTEMIS, which is monitoring the Sun / Earth / Moon environment. The LRO and LADEE teams are currently working to figure out how they might be able to work together, while the ARTEMIS team will most likely be able to give the LADEE team weather reports based on solar activity hitting the Moon.

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Bob Barber, LADEE Spacecraft Systems Engineer at NASA Ames Research Center. Photo Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

Next was Bob Barber, the LADEE Spacecraft Systems Engineer from NASA Ames in California. LADEE is Ames’ baby – it was designed and built there and will even be flown from there as well. A big first for LADEE is the use of the Common Spacecraft Bus (CSB) architecture. CSB is an attempt to make spacecraft easier (and therefore cheaper) to build for a given range of missions. LADEE is the first spacecraft to use the CSB approach:

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An Ames developed component of the LADEE spacecraft, called the Modular Common Spacecraft Bus architecture, will demonstrate how to build a first class spacecraft at reduced cost. Image Credit: NASA.

LADEE looks eerily similar to the Apollo Command and Service Module, but there’s no way the tapered shape at the top has anything to do with aerodynamics or even fitting into the fairing of the Minotaur V, so I asked what was up with that at 56:04. It turns out that the tapered angle gives them a way to get extra solar power in case they ever find themselves tipped away from the Sun for some reason.

Like I said, the whole thing is well worth your time watching if you really want to learn about LADEE. It’s also a great way for us space geeks to watch and go “HEY! I know that guy/girl!!!” every time the camera points to the audience.