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The View from Space: Mir, Mars and Medals

By John Holliman

April 8, 1998
Web posted at: 10:42 AM EDT (1042 GMT)


In this story:

Thank you

You are great readers. The point was made again in the e-mail I got after my rough week in Jonesboro, Arkansas, last week. Included with your questions about space were dozens of notes with thoughts about the Jonesboro shootings and our coverage. I appreciate you.

Now onto space, where things are usually more civilized. There's a major meeting of international space experts in progress this week in Colorado Springs, CO. It's the U.S. Space Foundation's symposium. It started Tuesday night, and I was the host for the opening ceremonies. We honored people whose work you should be familiar with.

The award goes to...

Donna Shirley, the voice of Pathfinder from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was presented with the Douglas Morrow Outreach Award. It's an award I'm familiar with since I accepted it last year for CNN's space coverage. Shirley and her team at JPL brought the Pathfinder Mars lander and rover into the minds and hearts of the public in the United States and around the world. You've seen her on CNN numerous times, and although we have talked a lot on TV and on the phone, it was my first opportunity to meet her in person. She's as excited about space as I am, and she shared the Morrow award with her colleagues at JPL.

The other award winner was Gen. Thomas Moorman, who has led the U.S. military into space over the past two decades. Moorman has stayed out of the spotlight, but in his last military role before retirement, he was vice chief of staff of the Air Force. He was director of space systems in the Air Force Secretary's office and helped the Air Force's intelligence agencies recover from the Challenger disaster. You may not know this but the space shuttle was the major carrier of military spy satellites before Challenger. The Air Force had to build the infrastructure for unmanned spy satellite launches when the satellites themselves were too big for most unmanned rockets. He also led the Air Force space command into the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991.

Mir successes and failures

Andy Thomas gave CNN viewers and Internet users an update this week on his Mir experiments. He's still working with weightless medical equipment to grow tumors in space, and after weeks of frustration, the experiments seem to be working a little better. He has been busy helping Mir's two cosmonauts, who are in the middle of a marathon series of spacewalks to complete between now and the end of the month.

Two cosmonauts attempt to repair solar panels on Mir   

The cosmonauts have not been as successful outside the Russian station as Andy has been inside. Talgat Musabayev and Nikolai Budarin went out April 1st to work on solar panels, but because of difficulty getting Mir's airlock hatch opened, they were unable to do much. They went out again this Monday to stabilize the solar panel on Mir's Spektr module, damaged in last summer's space wreck. It's not going to make electricity again, but because it's broken almost in half, it could flop against the delicate instruments on the outside of Mir if it's not reattached more firmly than it has been.

This spacewalk started on schedule, but the cosmonauts had trouble attaching all the required braces to the panel. They finally finished but did not have enough time to accomplish the second major mission of this walk - beginning work to replace the space station's main steering engine.

To keep Mir on course, there are rocket engines located around the station. The most effective one is located at the end of a tower, or boom as the Russians call it. Over the past several months, ground controllers have noticed the fuel tank for this steering rocket has been getting low. As the spacewalk progressed, the rocket ran completely out of fuel. That meant the spacewalk couldn't continue and the cosmonauts were forced to go back inside and activate another engine to keep Mir on course.

Andy Thomas   
During much of last year, the failure of steering computers and other parts caused the station to drift away from the proper orientation toward the sun, so its batteries were drained and the gyrodines that keep it correctly oriented stopped working. Russian ground controllers want to prevent that problem from ever happening again.

Andy Thomas was able to make some spectacular movies of the cosmonauts at work. You've probably seen at least some of the pictures here and on CNN television. There will be more spacewalk movies transmitted from Mir this week and next as the series of spacewalks continue. The next three are scheduled for April 11, 17 and 22.

Just look at that face

Did you see the face on Mars this week? The Mars Global Surveyor sent some pictures back to Earth, showing the Cydonia region of Mars. You'll remember that several years ago, scientists used computers to enhance some of the pictures from Cydonia and they published a picture that looks like a face. At the time, NASA poo-pooed the idea of a face on Mars, because there was no other evidence of life on the red planet's surface.

Pictures of the so-called "face on Mars," taken by the Mars Global Surveyor   
With the release of the new Cydonia pictures, you can take another higher resolution look at the region which seems to have regular structures around a central outcropping of something.

Many of you e-mailed me in the past 6 weeks charging that NASA was trying to cover up the presence of the face and saying that NASA would not allow Global Surveyor to take pictures of Cydonia. At the time, I called NASA and asked about the possibility of Cydonia pictures, and they said, of course, they'd be taking pictures of the region. As it turns out, these pictures are the first ones released by the Global Surveyor team of anything up close on the Martian surface.

CNN talked to Arden Albee, a Jet Propulsion Lab scientist, about the new Mars pictures. He says when the first Viking pictures were enhanced more than 10 years ago, some NASA scientists joked that it looked like a face, but that no one at NASA really believed the face was a signal created by intelligent beings. These new pictures, he says, are 10 times better than the ones taken by Viking, and the resolution after more computer enhancement is completed, should be extremely good.

NASA has decided to let the new pictures speak for themselves and not make any comment on whether it's evidence of life on the red planet.

Mars Global Surveyor   
To quote Albee, "NASA will not be making any conclusions. Individual scientists, like myself, might make conclusions, and just looking at the preliminary ones, it looks like natural features. It has been interpreted for a long time by the people who map that region of Mars as an area where extensive erosion of a soft unit had occurred. For example: there are craters that are perched up on pedestals because they compacted and made that soft material harder. Then it eroded all around them leaving these perched craters. So there are features like that which we have known for a long time. That's the nature of it."

Albee says Global Surveyor will take two more sets of pictures of Cydonia in the next couple of weeks, and these additional pictures could help solve the riddle of the face, once and for all.

Just so you'll know, Surveyor is also taking pictures of both Viking lander sites and the Pathfinder landing site, and those pictures, while probably not as controversial, should be available on the Web this week too at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov.

Getting under your skin

Space Shuttle Columbia is on schedule for its Neurolab mission April 16. On board - human guinea pigs and doctors galore. The purpose of Neurolab is to travel to space to study something very close to all of us, the inner-space inside our own skin. The United States declared the 1990s the decade of the brain, and NASA's contribution to better understanding the brain and how it works is Neurolab. Twenty six different experiments are loaded inside Columbia's spacelab module.

The Canadian Space Agency has an astronaut on board this trip and has designed a couple of the experiments. Dave Williams is a surgeon who will be flying the shuttle for the first time. He's the lead doctor who will be testing neurological reactions to space travel.

There are two purposes for finding out about neurological changes in space. It will be good to know before sending humans on long-duration missions such as to Mars. But even more important say some of the ground-based doctors involved in mission planning is what we'll learn to help people on Earth. If you've ever gotten out of bed and felt dizzy or had trouble maintaining your balance, you will find out something from the experiments taking place during the 16-day mission.

CNN plans to interview some of the astronauts in a special program during the flight. We'll get an astronaut's-eye view of Earth and talk to an earthbound explorer who has seen the planet from most of its oceans in our special broadcast. We won't know the exact time of our interview until the shuttle is launched, but check in here to find out when it's going to be on television.

When I started putting these weekly reports together, the folks at CNN Interactive told me that one of the best things about the Web was that you could write as much or as little as you wanted from week to week. After a quick note last week, I've had all the time I need to let you know what's happening in my world of space, and next week I expect to have lots more to report from the Space Symposium. Talk to you then.

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