The Moon and Earth

China’s Chang’e 5-T1 is the latest in a series of robotic missions to eventually return a lunar sample to Earth. Its mission is to “simply” travel to the Moon and return to Earth. Just a little run around the neighborhood. But as it was coming around the far side of the Moon, it snapped this image that should make us all stop and marvel:

The Chang'e 5 test vehicle captured this beautiful view of Earth over the far side of the Moon on October 28, 2014. Credit: CNSA
Earth over the far side of the Moon on October 28, 2014. Full size image. Credit: CNSA

You’ve got to click to see the full-sized image. It’s a perspective that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Yes, similar views were captured during the Apollo program, but nothing quite like this. Our Moon’s far side is so very different from its near side that it almost looks like an alien world. Most of the maria regions are on the near side, and thanks to tidal forces, we can never see the far side of the Moon from Earth. And yet, it’s our Moon. And there we are, on that small blue/white sphere in the distance.

I first spotted this image on the Planetary Society’s blog and it’s cool to see it getting passed around. I think images like these are crucial to our survival. Hopefully, as we continue to “grow up” as a species, we’ll better understand how finite our planet really is, how alone in the dark we really are. And how lucky we are to be alive to see it like this.

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 4: 3…2…1…

With two solid days of briefings and tours under our belt, it suddenly began to feel very real. There was going to be a launch tonight, and we were going to see it. After dinner, we returned to the NASA Visitors Center at Wallops. It was early in the evening and VIP guests were starting to come in. With four hours to go before launch, it felt like the calm before a storm.

Monitor at the Visitors Center
LADEE on the launch pad at L-4 hours, 37 minutes

What might have seemed like an eternal wait was pleasantly shortened for me when I ran into Dana Berry, an old friend from the Space Telescope Science Institute days. If you don’t know who Dana is, I can guarantee you’ve seen his work. Dana is a highly sought-after digital artist whose work has been used to visualize many of NASA’s missions, including Hubble, Chandra, and now LADEE.

Admiring some of Dana’s handiwork. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

At 7:45, we returned to the press room to get ready to head out to the viewing area. By this time, it was becoming less of a calm and more of a storm.

NASA Social is GO for launch.

But we had one more briefing to go, by none other than the NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden!

NASA Administrator (and former Shuttle astronaut) Charles Bolen. DUDE!

Bolen thanked us for coming to the launch and for spreading the word. He told us that for all of NASA’s public outreach assets, they still don’t communicate with the public very well. But NASA Social allows NASA to enlist the public as citizen journalists to spread the word in a personal way that no amount of media power can do.

You all are now part of the NASA team, whether you like it or not.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (we liked)

Then he did something that was incredibly amazing. He asked for Kim Alix, a K-5th-grade science lab teacher from North Carolina. After her selection to come to the NASA launch, she sent Bolen an email thanking him for the opportunity. He was so moved by her message that he wanted to thank her personally in the only way he knew how:

Bolden leads from the top, and does what we need to do more of as a country.

Bolden told us that as the son of two teachers, he laments the lack of respect (and compensation) teachers get from the public. As luck would have it, there were several teachers in our group who were particularly appreciative of his comments. As the son of a teacher myself, I thanked him in return.

Bragging rights: I was sitting right in the front for this bit. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

With our final pre-launch briefing out of the way, it was time to board the bus and head out to the viewing area. Escorted by police, we were taken to a location just 2 miles from the launch pad, adjacent to the VIP viewing area. There in the distance, but plain as day, stood the Minotaur V rocket. My iPhone’s camera hardly does the view justice, but you might be able to get an idea just of how close we were to the launch pad:

My binoculars are set up!
See that white blob just above my binoculars? That’s it, baby!

The next 2 hours may as well have seemed like two minutes. The excitement, and nervousness, were palpable. But there was one more surprise left. Jessica from NASA Ames asked me if I would like to appear on NASA Edge’s coverage of the launch. Um, okay…

Jessica took Kimberly Knight and myself to the VIP viewing area. There we met up with fellow NASA Social members Kim Alix and iVy Deliz who themselves were getting ready to be interviewed on NASA Edge.

NASA Edge is an unscripted video podcast that has all of the production values of a proper TV show. Best of all, these guys get paid to cover launches!

Good work if you can get it.

In between interviews, they’d cut to a pre-recorded segment, or the live feed of the launch pad, giving the next interview a chance to set up. Kim and iVy went next, and they knocked right out of the park:

Chris from NASA Edge interviews Kim and iVy.

Now, by this point, we were in the final 1/2 hour before launch. My excitement and nervous energy were already pretty high, and this is what I saw next:

As if I wasn’t nervous enough.

In 5…4…3…

Blair from NASA Edge interviews Kimberly and myself.

With just a few minutes to go before launch, we were quickly driven back to the viewing area. And then this happened:

Richard Drumm‘s brilliant video of the launch. Set this to high definition and go full screen. You’ll be glad you did.

I mean, how cool is that? The cheers following the initial launch were for the successful ignitions of the Minotaur’s second and third stages. The vehicle was right on the money!

Afterward, we got back on the bus to return to the visitors center for the last time. The bus was filled with the glow of cell phones showing their pictures, the sounds of videos, and shouts of “My friend saw it from New Jersey!”, “My buddy posted an amazing picture from Brooklyn!“, and so-on.

It was a party bus.

We got back to the Visitors center and by this point, most of our group had gone home. But a few of us die-hards stuck around for the post-launch briefing at 2:30 am.

Post launch briefing about to begin

The briefing ended, we said our goodbyes, and headed back to our hotels.

LADEE was on its way to the Moon.


The two days of our NASA Social flew by in a blink. I met some really great people there, and if I have one regret it’s not getting a chance to meet every single one of them.

I did get to meet several of the hard working people behind the scenes at NASA Social. It takes a lot of work to organize and run these events, and their professionalism was exceeded only by their enthusiasm.

I’m extremely grateful for those whose videos and images I used, especially to Tom Wolf who makes my camera phone images look like, well, camera phone images. Thanks man.

LADEE is on its way to the Moon to study the lunar atmosphere, for no other reason than because we are curious. A lot of brilliant people worked together to pull off this launch, and will continue to do so to make this mission a success. Yes, there was a big ol’ American flag and a NASA meatball on the side of the rocket, and I’m certainly proud of that. But this doesn’t just represent what NASA can do, or what the United States can do, but what we as human beings can do when we really want to explore our universe.

This is Humanity at its best.

LADEE Launch Recap Part 3: Touring Wallops Flight Facility

Day two of our NASA Social Meetup began with lunch at the cafeteria, which was a good thing since that meant we didn’t have to begin until 11:30 on Friday. Afterward, we began a tour of Wallops Flight Facility which was super cool. Wallops does a lot more than launch rockets and all of them are cool in their own unique way.

At the balloon shop. Photo courtesy Tom Wof
At the balloon shop. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf, a professional photographer and a fantastic guy. See his full photo set at SmugMug. When you’re done, be sure to hire him.

Our first stop was to the Scientific Balloon Shop. The balloons made here can stay aloft from days to months at a time at altitudes of 100,000+ feet – right at the edge of space itself. And these things are huge, sometimes inflating to be the size of the Superdome!

Best of all, balloon teams launch all over the world, including Antarctica. Good work if you can get it!

Balloons will take you all the way up to the top of Earth’s atmosphere, but if your science requires you to be in space, you may need to fit your payload into one of these babies:

Bristol Aerospace Sounding Rocket

Suffice to say, this bit was pretty cool, and we had a lot of fun taking pictures of this particular rocket.

Constance and Amanda taking pics while Ulysses looks on like a Steely-Eyed Missile Man. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf
Constance and Amanda taking pics while Ariel looks on like a Steely-Eyed Missile Man. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

Here I am doing my best impression of a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.

#RocketsF&*kYeah #AmericaF&*kYeah

Our tour continued to the shop where science payloads are assembled, integrated, and tested. Following that, we went into what at first looks like a machine shop, except it’s one where they turn stuff like this:

Boring aluminum tubing

…into stuff like this!

Rocket Parts, F&*k Yeah! Photo courtesy Tom Wolf
Rocket Parts, F&*k Yeah! Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

The whole time people were taking selfies, and Jim Way decided to go all meta on me:

#MetaRocketShopSelfie Photo by Jim Way

By this point, we were starting to run a little late so we made a quick stop at the Launch Control Center

People who launch rockets sit here.

Our final stop on today’s tour was to a hangar that were housing both of NASA’s Global Hawk aircraft. If you’re not familiar with NASA uses these two vehicles for their Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel missions.

One of NASA's two Global Hawk UAVs
One of NASA’s two Global Hawk UAVs

Unlike traditional manned Hurricane Hunters, these aircraft are capable of flying well above the storm and can take data of the entire atmospheric column all the way through to the ground.

It takes two crews to fly the Hawks, one stationed at wherever they are based from (in this case, Wallops) to handle takeoff and landing. Once aloft, control is transferred to the science team in Ohio who fly the mission from there. Very impressive stuff!

That’s a friggen Global Hawk behind me. You’re damn right I’m impressed! Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

With our tour complete, it was time to head back to the Visitor’s Center for a series of briefings from the instrument scientists, engineers, range safety officers, and all sort of people we would have loved to have heard from if it wasn’t so late in the day and we were getting hungry.

One highlight though was a team of engineers from Navajo Technical University who 3-D printed an amazing model of LADEE:

Cutaway model of LADEE, 3D printed by Navajo Tech. I want one of these. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf
Cutaway model of LADEE, 3D printed by Navajo Tech. I want one of these. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

Even better, the model came apart into segments, which really showed off the Common Spacecraft Bus design!

After the briefings, we broke for dinner. But we had to hurry back because the parking lot was going to be packed with VIPs.

It turns out there was a rocket launch happening that night.