Political Push: Back to the Moon

As someone who grew up during the height of the 1960s “space race”, I’m excited by the thought of a return to the moon. In particular the plan for the first woman to set foot on the lunar surface. The woman who will get the honour will be among NASA’s dozen or so currently active female astronauts, so to a degree I can say that she won’t be unknown to me.  .

My excitement about a proposed return to the moon is significantly tempered by some reservations. I’m not surprised that some of those concerns have also been expressed by someone with far more understanding and knowledge of the matter than myself.

Australian astronaut warns of future risk of deaths in space race

Andy Thomas, Australia’s most accomplished astronaut, who is in the country from the US to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, has expressed severe concerns about the new international space race.

Dr Thomas, the first Australian to walk in space and who lived on the Mir space station for five months, says politics is driving the US to have men back on the moon by 2024, which risks a repeat of past spectacular tragedies.

“The very big risk that I see NASA is facing is that it is under incredible pressure from the administration, the White House, to bring the human return to the moon way earlier than perhaps the engineering should demand,” he said.

“The 2024 date is driven by politics, not by the engineering and that’s a very dangerous thing to do because you can’t change engineering to suit politics. You can change politics to suit engineering.

“We run the risk of killing further astronauts if we have unrealistic schedule pressure”.

I think the following political rhetoric shows that Thomas’s concerns aren’t without foundation.

US Vice-President Mike Pence in March this year said if NASA couldn’t put astronauts on the moon by 2024, “we need to change the organisation, not the mission”.


Mike Pence’s message in that video is clear. A space program that for years has been International in nature, with co-operation between many countries associated with the International Space Station – that for a decade has relied entirely on Russian transport of astronauts between earth and the ISS, and participants from Europe, Canada, Japan, Russia as well as the USA, is soon to be cast aside for American glory.

Just as the United States was first to reach the moon in the 20th Century, so too will we be the first nation to return astronauts to the moon in the 21st Century.

It is the policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years.

Let me be clear. The first woman and next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil

Such nationalistic, backward thinking, cold war era jingoism can only be detrimental to a space program that for the past decade has NEEDED international co-operation. Since the end of the shuttle program, the US has been incapable of putting its own astronauts into space and had to rely on Russian help to do it.

The rush to the moon, presented with clear nationalistic ambition has the potential to end the American manned space program. Such an outcome is potentially only one tragedy away, particularly with super-hyped expectations being raised, mainly for political rather than scientific or technological reasons.

This fast-tracked moon landing program now becomes the priority, bypassing the previous plan for the Gateway,  a type of lunar space station (see illustration below), with international input and co-operation, from which possible future moon landings could be conducted in a more practical and sustainable way.

It seems instead that a risk-laden rush is now being conducted in the hope of achieving an historic moon landing within a possible (probable?) second term Trump presidency.




In Memory of Rick Husband

It’s still several months away the anniversary of the loss of Columbia and its crew, but the following is a continuation of the previous posts about Rick Husband starting with the one marking the date of his birth.

The first video relates to the 16 anniversary of the shuttle loss.

Bringing Columbia Home

A follow-on from my post about Rick Husband.

The aftermath of the Columbia tragedy.

Bringing Columbia Home by Michael D. Leinbach and Jonathan H. Ward

“My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and sadness to our country. At nine a.m., Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas…

“The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.”

[President George W. Bush 2.04pm, Feb 1, 2003]


Bringing Columbia Home tells the difficult story of a tragic milestone of the American space program, the loss of a second space shuttle and its crew.
The scale of the disaster and the challenges that followed are recounted with candour by the authors.

I have clear memories of the loss of the first shuttle, Challenger.

With an early start at work, I switched on the radio to listen to the news while I ate breakfast.

It was all about the Challenger.

What isn’t so clear in my memory is whether I then turned on the TV. I suspect I did, but can’t say for sure. Footage of the shuttle’s destruction was repeated so often afterwards, that I can’t remember when I first saw it.

Something I do remember thinking, was despite the Challenger’s fate, I’d willingly join a shuttle crew even if it was leaving the day after the Challenger’s disastrous launch. But maybe such attitudes are easy for an Australian with no real chance of putting that willingness to the test.

columbia disasterColumbia was different. I know I heard about it, but for some reason I can’t remember the details of when and how.

Maybe because it wasn’t so public and sudden. It wasn’t seen live by millions around the world.

The realisation of what happened was gradual, building up over time as disparate facts came together to confirm the worst.

A loss of contact. Empty skies over a Florida runway. A landing strip countdown clock now counting up.

Reports of countless sonic booms over Texas. Suspected plane crash, gas pipeline rupture, train derailment, earthquake – all proposed as explanations for what was experienced on the ground.

And the rain of debris falling across multiple states.

Michael Leinbach was launch director at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and supervised the launch of Columbia on January 16, 2003. He was also present for the expected return, waiting for the first sight of the returning shuttle prior to landing. The return that didn’t happen.

He then became part of the massive recovery mission when reports of the shuttle’s destruction were confirmed by the discovery of its wreckage throughout a long, wide debris trail.

In Bringing Columbia Home, with co-author Jonathan Ward, he gives his account of the recovery operation: first priority retrieving the crew, then securing as much wreckage as possible to look for the cause of the shuttle loss.

The logistics of the exercise were unimaginable: coordinating thousands of personnel from numerous Government departments, supplemented by countless volunteers, and organising for them to be housed, fed and transported.

As a side issue of the story, one thing that stood out to me was the scale of American bureaucracy, with countless different law enforcement and emergency response organisations – but to their credit potential rivalries between groups were cast aside to get on with the difficult job.

The work of those searching came with a cost beyond the time they committed. The difficult conditions led to the crash of a helicopter and the death of two if its crew.

After weeks of collecting wreckage, came the task of sorting through what had been found, as far as possible reconstructing and examining the parts in a Kennedy Space Centre warehouse, trying to see what had caused the shuttle’s failure.

Most of the initial damage was on the leading edge of the left wing. That evidence confirmed suspicions that the integrity of the heat shielding had been compromised by an impact with insulating foam that had broken away from the main fuel tank not long after launch.

Subsequent testing showed the unexpected force of such a collision with a lightweight substance. Foam pieces fired at a spare shuttle wing surprisingly blasted a significant hole in its protective layer.

Despite the tragic nature of the story, the retrieval, reconstruction and examination of Columbia also had it’s poignant (and even humorous moments). Among the wreckage delivered to the KSC warehouse was a plush toy dinosaur, assumed to be a personal item taken on board by a crew member. However it was determined that no one had taken it on board, and the toy had nothing to do with the Columbia or its crew. Staff at the warehouse adopted the toy as a mascot and one of the astronauts on the team took it with her on a later space shuttle mission.

The Columbia accident, with the loss of its seven crew members and the two searchers, was a profound tragedy, but many people felt that divine intervention prevented things from being worse than they were.

Had Columbia disintegrated two or three minutes earlier, much of its debris would have fallen on Dallas and its suburbs, causing untold damage. A breakup a few seconds later would have sent some of the crew members’ remains into Toledo Bend Reservoir or the Gulf of Mexico, from which they would likely never have been recovered. (p 288)

The human face of the Columbia crew lost on re-entry.

Everyone agrees on two remarkable facts: The Columbia recovery was the largest ground search effort in American history: and it was also one with no internal strife, bickering or inter-agency squabbles. Everone involved had a single goal and worked collectively to achieve it – to bring Columbia and her crew home. (p 289)

See the authors’ blog at https://bringingcolumbiahome.wordpress.com/

STS107 Crew

STS-107 crewmembers included, from left, mission specialist David Brown, commander Rick D. Husband, mission specialist Laurel Blair Sutton Clark, mission specialist Kalpona Chawla, mission specialist Michael P. Anderson, pilot William C. McCool and payload specialist Ilan Ramon. (NASA Photo)



62 Years Ago Today: Rick Douglas Husband (July 12, 1957 – February 1, 2003)

Another space programme related anniversary. The birth of Rick Husband.

High Calling by Evelyn Husband with Donna Vanliere

high callingOn February 1st 2003, space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, killing all seven crew members. Rick Husband was the commander of the mission.

Evelyn Husband and their children, were waiting for Rick’s return at the Kennedy Space Centre, and it became clear that something was wrong when the clock counting down to the shuttle’s return, passed zero and started to count upwards.

Evelyn wrote High Calling only months after she lost her husband.
It is the story of Rick’s desire to become an astronaut, the difficulties he faced trying to be accepted into NASA’s space program, and the Christian faith motivating him, no matter what the career outcomes.

Rick Husband seems to have been a well-liked team leader of a very close-knit crew. Their bond strengthened by the extra time together caused by launch date delays. Husband’s STS-107 mission was leap-frogged by several other missions, their launch finally coming after STS-113.

The flight had added significance with the first Israeli astronaut being part of the crew, increasing security concerns prior to launch.

It’s a challenging book on many levels, that I found potentially raised questions about God, faith in Him, and the value of prayer.

“Why (or how) could God allow such a thing to happen to a crew headed by a devoted Christian?” Considering the outcome, what’s the point of praying for safety and success during a presumed “God given” task?

Are those two questions based upon wrong assumptions about the nature of a person’s faith (in God’s eyes rather than our own), and the reality of God’s will (as it actually is rather than our perception of it?)

Are the potential doubts at the heart of questions like those merely an expression of a lack of appreciation that God’s ways are not our ways? Maybe, what seems like a tragedy and a failure to man is in reality God’s way of moving towards eternal outcomes about which we know nothing and therefore currently can’t appreciate.

Rick Husband faced life with a favoured bible reference  in mind.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”  (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Trusting Him would include being careful not to draw glib and presumptuous conclusions that lead to unwise judgements.  To me that seems to be the message of the book of Job, and it seems relevant to this situation. After incredible suffering, and enduring the theological opinions of well-meaning, but ill-informed friends, Job is addressed by God who highlights the limits of man’s understanding.

Who is this who darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
Now prepare yourself like a man;
I will question you, and you shall answer Me

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?

To what were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?   (Job 39: 2-7) (See Job 38-41 for full discourse)

Rick Husband and Mike Anderson, friends, crewmates on Columbia mission STS- 107 and brothers in Jesus.




Mission patch.

The central element of the patch is the microgravity symbol, µg, flowing into the rays of the astronaut symbol.
The sunrise is representative of the numerous experiments that are the dawn of a new era for continued microgravity research on the International Space Station and beyond.
The constellation Columba (the dove) was chosen to symbolise peace on Earth and the Space Shuttle Columbia. The seven stars also represent the mission crewmembers and honour the original Mercury astronauts who paved the way to make research in space possible.
The Israeli flag is adjacent to the name of the payload specialist who is the first person from that country to fly on the Space Shuttle.

(adapted from here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-107#/media/File:STS-107_Flight_Insignia.svg )



40 Years Ago Today

40 years ago today, NASA’s abandoned Skylab space station crashed to earth in southern Western Australia

Skylab was a US space station launched by NASA in 1973, and was manned by teams of astronauts as it orbited the earth. It collected vast amounts of data and images before being abandoned in space in 1974.

In 1979, NASA realised that Skylab was starting to break up and would re-enter the earth atmosphere, but they were unable to control Skylab’s path, nor could they predict exactly where the pieces might land.

As NASA, and the world’s media, tracked Skylab’s progress in early July 1979, it seemed it could end up anywhere.

In the early hours of the 12th of July, 1979, Skylab crashed on WA’s south east coast, scattering debris across the Nullarbor and the eastern goldfields and causing a worldwide sensation.



From my NASA patch collection.





I obtained my first patches from a stall at a University astronomy night around 25 years ago. I chose two that I thought were significant: the Challenger’s last launch, and the mission with America’s first female astronaut.

Many years after that I received, for Christmas, a full set of patches for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. Since then I’ve started to add others to the collection, including the above Skylab examples.

I Soyuz This Morning.

The International Space Station must feel a lot roomier now, after half the crew came to the end of their mission and returned home.

Earlier today I watched the live coverage on the NASA website, of the Russian Soyuz capsule undocking at the start of its journey back to earth.


On board were Anne McClain (USA), David Saint-Jacques (Canada) and Oleg Kononenko (Russia).

Travel to and from the ISS has been reliant upon the Russian Soyuz, since the end of the American Space Shuttle program almost 8 years ago. Soyuz flights begin and end in Kazakhstan, which has been the home of the Russian space program from it’s very beginning.

(Launched from Baikonur)

landing site


Unlike the watery returns of US space capsules familiar from the Apollo era, the Russians have always had land based returns with their capsules thudding to earth in deserted countryside, the final descent slowed by parachutes and a sudden burst of rockets about one metre before contact.

Photos below: Oleg, Anne, and David, being helped from the capsule after a safe landing.

anne 2.png


Returned Soyuz capsule
returned soyuz


All images are screen shots from the NASA coverage broadcast on https://www.nasa.gov/nasalive this morning (AEST).

Also see https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-television-to-cover-departure-landing-of-astronaut-anne-mcclain-and-space-station

How many astronauts does it take to change a light bulb?


Gloria and I have been following the International Space Station and its crew for the past few months, after seeing it pass overhead back in February.

Since then we’ve subscribed to NASA’s Spot the Station, receiving email advices about when it will be visible from our town. We have seen it many times now, most recently last night. We were hoping for another viewing this evening, but it seems like it will be too cloudy.

The crew inhabiting the station throughout our observation period has come to the end of their mission and will be returning to earth in a couple of days.

In the following video, Anne McClain, one of the three imminent returnees demonstrates the answer to the question “how many astronauts does it take to change a lightbulb?@