The View from Space: of Mars and men
By John Holliman
Web posted at: 10:25 AM EST (1025 GMT)
In this column:
just got back from a week of vacation, and what a week in space news
I missed. Barbara Morgan gets ready to change from schoolteacher to
astronaut, and Eileen Collins is named by the president and first lady
to be the first female shuttle commander.
The latest Mir spacewalk went sour when the crew couldn't get the hatch
opened. A serious problem was avoided when ground controllers told
the cosmonauts to stay inside and worry about the spacewalk later.
It's coming up after a Progress supply ship with new bigger wrenches
gets to Mir next month.
By the way, they found ice on the moon. This may not sound like much
to you, but it's a very, very big deal. Ice on the moon, enough to support
hundreds of humans for decades, means that the future of interplanetary
space travel could be the near future, rather than the distant future.
Ice can be melted into water, and the water can be converted into oxygen
and hydrogen, the two most important elements of space fuel. Since it's
already on the moon, we wouldn't have to bring it there, saving billions
of dollars in space travel to get beyond Earth's immediate neighborhood.
This is really great news and something we'll be talking more about
in the weeks ahead. These findings from Lunar Prospector confirm the
evidence provided a couple of years ago by the Pentagon-launched Clementine
lunar mapping probe.
That's the history lesson. It'll teach me not to take a few days off!
Here's what's coming up in the next few days. Another piece of International
Space Station hardware is being tested in the United States this week. The first
few years of the new space station will depend on Russian-built Soyuz
escape capsules to bring crews home in an emergency. The long-term rescue
vehicle is being tested at Edwards Air Force base in California this
week. It's called the X-38 and will be able to bring six astronauts
home at a time, compared to three at a time for Soyuz.
X-38 will hook up to a docking port on the space station and will be
dropped away toward Earth if it's needed. The craft looks like the 1957
Plymouth Fury I drove in college. It has huge tail fins in the back
and has a white top and black bottom. The thing that's most striking
about the rescue ship is its huge parafoil. This is a huge parachute
which spreads to 5,500 square feet to allow the spaceship to land softly.
It will be guided to land by remote control.
The X-38 has flown attached to a B-52 bomber in the past, to make
sure it will hold together in flight. This week's test will see the
mock-up dropped from 23,000 feet and get to the ground on its own. The
test has been postponed several times because of weather and
mechanical problems. Thursday is the next scheduled try, and we'll
have coverage on CNN and here on CNN.com.
While that's going on in the desert, the Senate Commerce Committee
will be debating how to make money from space. The committee is debating
a bill that would cut government red tape which keeps many private groups
from getting involved in spaceflight. The government now can license
a private group to launch a satellite or spaceship, and this is done
all the time, but until now, there's been no way for the government
to give the go-ahead to the return to earth of a non- governmental spacecraft.
Also included in the bill are provisions which would tell NASA to consider
letting private contractors operate the new space station after it's
built, and require the Pentagon to use private launch services to put
satellites into orbit, rather than the more expensive option of using
their own in-house launch services.
Another interesting provision in the bill would allow the United States to
use excess missiles designed for nuclear warheads for commercial
launch vehicles. When I was in Moscow, I saw dozens of Proton rockets
which had been converted from nuclear warhead carriers to commercial
Speaking of private-sector space launches, the $10 million
prize has attracted lots of entrepreneurs and would-be astronauts to
the space race. The prize, announced in 1996, gives the money and a
huge trophy to the first group which can launch a space ship at least
62 miles above the Earth and return it safely with a passenger aboard.
At least 16 groups are vying for the prize, including one led by Burt
Rutan. Rutan, you'll remember, invented the Voyager airplane that flew
non-stop around the world. But he's not the only contestant by any means.
There's a United Airlines captain who lives down the road from me in
Stone Mountain, Georgia, who is in the running to pilot a 70-foot long
ship called Mayflower II into orbit from the Gulf of Mexico. Vaughn
Cordle is 43 years old and has broken numerous aviation records, but
he wants to be the first civilian rocket pilot to travel to space. His
team wants to launch on July 4, 1999. Based on all we know, the Mayflower
II effort would be the first one of the entrants to try to get to space.
If it launches on schedule, we'll watch it together.
was hoping NASA's final attempt to reach Pathfinder on the surface of
Mars would be successful. After hours of trying to reach the rover or
the lander, Jet Propulsion Lab scientists said they'd failed and declared
the little rover that could officially dead. I'm not so sure. As the
weather on Mars warms, It's possible scientists might give Pathfinder
one more long distance call... just in case. Don't be surprised if the
rover wakes up and again sends back pictures to Earth of our red neighbor.
Also, don't forget the next series of Mars probes that have been built
and are being tested for launch over the next year.
John Holliman's column, The View from Space, appears every Wednesday