A new Mars rover has landed at the Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Surface System Test-Bed (SSTB) is nearly identical to the MER twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity that landed on Mars in 2004. What makes the SSTB different, however, is that it was designed for use on Earth.
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.
Preparation of the upcoming Time and Navigation exhibition is in full swing, and objects are being installed in cases throughout the gallery. In fact, the gallery became a little more shiny just in time for the holiday season thanks to a delivery from our friends at the Naval Research Laboratory.
Did you ever read a “choose-your-own-adventure” book as a kid? What about watching old episodes of Law & Order on cable? I enjoyed both, since it always felt like I was really working to solve a problem, either on my own or vicariously through Detective Lennie Briscoe (played by the incomparable Jerry Orbach). Sometimes, my job as a curator at the National Air and Space Museum benefits from my love of solving a mystery, and researching the collection of space cameras gave me that opportunity starting in 2004.
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.
Astronaut Alan “Dex” Poindexter joined fellow Space Shuttle commanders and crewmembers at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center recently to welcome Discovery to its new home in the Smithsonian. Poindexter commanded the next-to-last Discovery mission, STS-131, in 2010. He also served as pilot on Atlantis for the STS-122 mission in 2008. Both shuttle crews delivered equipment for construction of the International Space Station. Poindexter joined the astronaut corps in 1998 in the midst of a distinguished career as a naval aviator, first as a fighter pilot, then as a test pilot. He served two deployments in the Arabian Gulf during operations Desert Storm and Southern Watch in the early 1990s.
“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.
Mars has long held a special fascination for humans—in no small measure because of the possibility that life either presently exists or at some time in the past has existed there. In his classic work Cosmos, Carl Sagan asks an important question: “Why Martians?” Why do Earthlings not similarly obsess over “Saturnarians” or “Plutonians?” As a planet resembling our own, Sagan concludes, Mars “has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our earthly hopes and fears.” NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover is scheduled to land on the Red Planet in the early morning hours of August 6, 2012 EDT. Thus, “Why Mars?” is a question that we will seek to answer for visitors to the National Air and Space Museum.
Unlike many astronauts, Sally Kristen Ride did not dream of going into space since childhood. She was already in her mid-twenties, completing her Ph.D. in physics, when the idea dawned. NASA was recruiting women to apply to become astronauts for a spacecraft that had not yet flown: the Space Shuttle.