No question 2012 will be remembered as a simultaneously joyous and tumultuous year, certainly in politics but also in air and space. As a retrospective of the year just gone, here are my five most significant events in air and space. Like all such lists, it is idiosyncratic and I recognize that others might choose different events. I list them in order of their occurrence—not according to their significance—during the year, along with my reason for including them on this list.
In July, I joined a team from Johnson Space Center and elsewhere in investigating the geology of Apollo Valley with rover-deployed scientific instruments. Apollo Valley is a former 1960s Apollo-era astronaut training site at 3,505 meters (11,500 feet) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The project was funded by NASA's Moon and Mars Analog Mission Activities Program, which funds projects that simulate scientific, robotic, and human aspects of exploring the Moon and Mars, with the goal of designing the most effective, efficient, and well-integrated future missions.
“You put an X anyplace in the solar system, and the engineers at NASA can land a spacecraft on it,” so said actor Robert Guillaume in an episode of “Sports Night.” Amen brother, the team that landed Curiosity proved the truth of that statement one more time with the successful landing of a big rover on Mars in the wee morning hours of August 6, 2012! It was a stunning success.
We are all familiar with the climate on Earth: the seasons, the range of surface temperatures that are just right for being a water world, the oxygen we breathe, the ozone layer that protects us from UV radiation. In short: habitable. So what other bodies in the Solar System might be (or might have been) habitable, and why aren’t they today? Mars probably comes to mind, and for good reason. Mars has the most similar climate to our own, with water ice caps at the poles, seasonal snow, and dust storms. This is because Mars has a similar axial tilt as the Earth, which creates similar seasonal temperature variations.
If all goes according to plan, on November 25th the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity will leave the Earth and begin its journey to Mars. Any delays due to weather or other factors should be accommodated by a launch window that extends until December 18th. The spacecraft will use a new landing system to arrive at its landing site on Mars in August, 2012, and the rover carries an impressive array of scientific instruments.
There is a strange looking car parked in the west end of the National Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington, DC. For now, it is only visible behind its security screen from the second floor landing above. From that vantage, the vehicle’s six wheels, robotic arm, mast, and other protrusions are clearly visible. But since this is the Air and Space Museum, it must be more than just a normal car. Soon the barriers will be gone and the public will be able to view the vehicle up close and personal. And what they will see is a model of the next Mars rover, NASA’s 2011 Mars Science Laboratory. The rover, dubbed “Curiosity” will be launched to Mars later this year and will begin its mission to explore whether places on the Red Planet were ever habitable.
We have been discussing at the National Air and Space Museum the possibility of pursuing an educational workshop on the place of conspiracy theories in modern America, especially as it relates to aerospace history but also in the broader context of our national history.
The staff at the National Air and Space Museum are gearing up for the annual Mars Day!, a celebration of the Red Planet. On July 16 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., visitors at the Museum can partake of a variety of educational and family fun activities throughout the galleries.