See the latest from NASA at:

For a roster on U.S. Astronauts, see:

Pre-Apollo, from NASM:

Who’s in Space NOW? See:

Space Travel’s Effect on the Human Body: and

From Arizona State University: ATTENTION TEACHERS: Be sure to check out the “Teacher’s Toolbox” on this website. 


Aviation Week Webinar: Momentous Times for the Space Industry: (no cost, but registration is required).

June 4, 1984, forty years ago: Challenger astronauts James van Hoften and George Nelson repaired the failed attitude control system on NASA’s Solar Maximum satellite. Being able to launch satellites, and service/repair important ones like Solar Max and the HST, was one of the primary tasks of the Shuttles. For more on the Solar Max repair, see:

3D-MAT! Shielding a spacecraft from frictional heating during re-entry has been a problem since the dawn of the Space Age. Material that ablates (vaporizing and carrying heat away from the vehicle) has been a mainstay. It still is, but in a more refined version. NASA’s 3-Dimensional Multifunctional Ablative Thermal protection system “is a thermal protection material developed as a critical component of Orion, NASA’s newest spacecraft built for human deep space missions. It is able to maintain a high level of strength while enduring extreme temperatures during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere at the end of Artemis missions to the Moon.” The development of 3D-MAT came about as engineers tried to solve re-entry protection for the Orion spacecraft now under construction. 3D-MAT is “a material woven with quartz yarn and cyanate ester resin in a unique three-dimensional design. The quartz yarn used is like a more advanced version of the fiberglass insulation you might have in your attic, and the resin is essentially a high-tech glue.” For more about ED-MAT and its development, see:

C-3PO Sells Toys; H-3PO Supports Human Spaceflight: Intrigued (enraged?), Star Wars fans? Or anybody else? Then check out the Houston: We Have a Podcast, season 1, episode 336 at:!

May 4, 1961: Victor’s Bad Day Before Al’s Big Day: May 5 is the 63rd anniversary of Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital flight, the first manned mission of the Mercury program. Naturally, it generated a lot of publicity, which overshadowed now little-remembered tragic news from the day before. LtCdr Victor Alonzo Prather Jr. was a flight surgeon in the Navy’s Medical Corps, assigned to Project RAM, which was tasked with the development of the Space suits that would be needed by Mercury orbital flights and later astronaut projects. Dr. Prather conducted a series of successful tests of the B.F. Goodrich Mark IV pressure suit underwater, then moved to a high-altitude test program for the suit. The most vigorous test of the Mark IV was conducted on May 4, when Prather and Malcolm Ross rode the Strato-Lab V high-altitude balloon, the largest balloon used to that date, to 113,740 feet. Their suits performed as designed, protecting Ross and Prather from temperatures as low as -137° F and pressures as low as 0.09 PSI. The flight of Strato-Lab V lasted almost ten hours. It was launched from the aircraft carrier USS Antietam (CV-36), stationed in the Gulf of Mexico, and the aeronauts had hoped to actually be able to land back on board, but they were prepared to splash down and be recovered by helicopter, the same as was planned for the Mercury missions.

After demonstrating that the Mark IV suits worked well, the aeronauts began an uneventful descent. As soon as they descended to breathable air, they opened the faceplates of their helmets. A landing on the carrier was not possible, but the water landing and recovery had been rehearsed, so both were confident in their safe recovery. After splashdown, things went seriously awry. The recovery helicopter lowered a hook (without orders to do so at that time) to hoist the aeronauts aboard. Cdr Ross gestured to LtCdr Prather to go first, but Prather demurred. Ross stepped into the hook’s harness contrary to proper procedure and almost fell out of it, but was taken aboard the helo without further incident. Prather waited below on a float attached to the Strato-Lab V gondola. The hook was lowered to him, and he stepped into it, but in doing so, his other foot pushed the float away from him and he fell into the water. The helo crew was not overly concerned, thinking Prather’s suit was water-tight. The suit was, but not with the faceplate opened. Prather’s suit flooded, and he drowned. [The same thing almost happened to Gus Grissom after his Mercury flight.]

Prather’s widow and two children were invited to the White House, where President Kennedy gave her the posthumous Navy DFC for her husband’s heroism and extraordinary achievement. Ross and Prather were also recognized with the 1961 Harmon Trophy for Aeronauts. Their flight is recognized to this day as the highest ever for a manned balloon by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, which counts only those flights where the crew is aboard for the flight’s duration, which leaves out three subsequent balloon ascensions in which the crew parachuted from the balloon gondola while aloft (Nicholas Piantanida on 2/2/1966; Felix Baumgartner on 10/14/2012; and Alan Eustace on 10/24/2014).

NICER Will Work Nicer When Serviced: The International Space Station has an X-ray telescope attached to it called the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer, NICER for short. It’s been producing valuable data for years, but last May astronomers noted that observations made during the ISS’ “daytime” were being interfered with by sunlight entering the device’s sensitive detectors (“nighttime observation are unaffected). NICER was installed on the ISS robotically, and was not designed to be servicing once installed. However, both spacewalk and robotic solutions to the problem were assessed, and the former was found to be promising. Repairs via spacewalk have already been successful with the HST, the Solar Maximum Mission satellite, and the ISS-mounted Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. The necessary fix has been planned, and the equipment to make NICER nicer will be launched for the ISS later this year. For more about this repair work, see:

Have You Ever Wondered about Living in Space? There’s a lot to consider when planning any long-term mission, but especially so when you are going to be in a totally hostile, resource-less environment! A number of issues arise, among them: how your body responds to long-term free-fall; how you would eat in Space, or even grow some of your own food; and more. You can find out much more about these topics at:

DARPA’s Working on a Railroad (On the Moon!): DARPA has a ten-year plan underway called “Lunar Architecture (LunA-10) Capability Study,” and has selected Northrop Grumman to “study a concept to develop a railroad on the Moon that could transport humans, supplies, and other resources.” Northrop will assess the relative merits of rail versus road transportation and to analyze “constructing the railroad using autonomous robotic arms and lunar rovers. This would include grading lunar regolith and preparing the foundation, as well as placing, aligning, joining, inspecting and repairing tracks.” One possible need for longer-distance transport (hundreds of kilometers) might be transporting lunar regolith “from a Moon mine to a processing facility where oxygen could be extracted. In addition to sustaining life, oxygen might also be used as rocket propellant or to generate electricity in combination with hydrogen in a fuel cell.” Talk about thinking ahead! For more information, see:

Eileen Collins became the first female Space Shuttle pilot on STS-63 in 2005, and then became the first female to command a Space Shuttle mission on STS-93, launched on July 23, 1999. She grew up in Elmira, New York, at the same time I was growing up there, and a few years ahead of astronaut, and future Item of the Week subject, Douglas Wheelock. She worked her way through school, but found time to pursue her love of flying, sparked by seeing the numerous sailplanes flying from Elmira’s Harris Hill, the home of the National Soaring Museum. She put herself through a degree program at the Corning Community College, then earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics and economics from Syracuse University, then an MS in Operations Management from Stanford in 1986. She was a math instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy from 1986-1989, all while serving as a test pilot at Edwards AFB. She became a NASA astronaut in 1991. She retired from NASA in 2006, receiving a number of medals and awards along the way, including a DFC. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995, the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2009, and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2013, and won many other awards, medals, and accolades.

STS-93 was an important mission, carrying the Chandra X-Ray Observatory spacecraft to orbit, the heaviest load ever flown on any Shuttle. It was the 26th mission for the Space Shuttle Columbia, which by then was showing its age. The launch had been scheduled for July 20 (with the three Apollo 11 astronauts in attendance), but was aborted at T-7 seconds, cut off by a controller receiving a bad telemetry signal. Columbia suffered a partial failure of one of its engines after it did launch three days later. The problem was within allowable limits, but caused the one engine to run hotter than normal and for all three main engines to cut-off a bit prematurely. Col. Collins managed the problem without difficulty (earning a DFC in the process), but Columbia went down two missions later, with the loss of all hands.

Undaunted, Col. Collins served again as the Space Shuttle Commander for STS-107, the post-Columbia “Return to Flight” mission, a flight beset by some other equipment problems that had required using parts from other Shuttles as replacements. It must have taken a lot of courage to fly under such circumstances! 

One final honor remained, one near and dear to my heart. When I was in college, I was also a member of the Elmira-Corning Astronomical Society, which had a 16” telescope in an observatory not far from Corning Community College. As a member, I had observatory access any time, and would frequently enjoy looking at the Moon when I was home from school. Not long after that, CCC took over ownership and management of the observatory, and I am pleased to report that my former stomping ground is now officially the Eileen Collins Observatory!

UPDATE: Eileen Collins Documentary! Astronaut Eileen Collins is the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle and the first woman to command a Shuttle mission. She wrote a book with Jonathan Ward, a fellow Solar System Ambassador and successful author, called “Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars.” It’s a great read. The book is being made into a documentary, directed by Hannah Berryman, set to be released next year. 

Find Out More About Science on the ISS: Check out “Upward,” the “Official Magazine of the ISS National Lab,” here: It’s put out by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, in partnership with NASA. It has a lot of information about the ISS, including a really good education page.

Why Go to Space? See how NASA answers here:

National Air and Space Museum On-line Exhibition on Human Spaceflight: Check out the UHC’s spaceflight artifacts at:!

How Much Water Does the Moon REALLY Have? There is strong evidence that there is interstitial water in those few areas on the Moon that are always shaded from the Sun. Optimistic planners for crewed missions returning to the Moon look at that water, which has accumulated slowly over the lifetime of the Moon, as a resource for an inhabited base, and perhaps even for fuel to lift off the Moon’s surface. But how much water is really there? [Never mind the issues of utilizing, and hence, ruining the scientific value of, such an ancient source of potential information.]

Well, recent work at the Southwest Research Center indicates that maybe the estimates of lunar water abundance were much too high. The data from the LCROSS spacecraft’s intentional impact on the Moon (Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite) showed that water did indeed come out from the impact site, a crater fairly young by lunar standards, but at a fairly low rate. Apparently, the rate at which water was frozen out onto permanently-shadowed areas was higher in the distant past that it has been in the past billion years or so, leading to an overestimation of how much water is actually present. For a summary of this work, see here; for the paper in Science Advances, see here.

Remember the Book, “High Frontier,” written by Gerard O’Neill back in 1976? It was about building large-scale human habitats in Space, using matter shot into location from the Moon, and building large solar cell arrays that could generate power and send it back to Earth. One of the key capabilities such a model would require was the ability to generate a lot of power for use in building and living in such a habitat. A six-year test of new light-weight solar cell technology could be the answer to the power supply requirement. A team of investigators at the University of Surrey in the UK report that they have had success in building a low-mass, high-efficiency solar cells that are very durable and cheap to produce. For more on this development, see:

NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Economy: “One of NASA’s strategic goals is to ‘Lay the foundation for America to maintain a constant human presence in low Earth orbit (LEO) enabled by a commercial market.’ To achieve that goal, NASA is committed to developing a robust low Earth orbit economy and enabling both the supply side (i.e. future low Earth orbit destinations providing services for a fee) and the demand side (i.e. need for on-orbit services for Government requirements or to produce products of commercial value).” For more information, see:

NASA has been partnering with a number of outside providers for launch services for some time, and recently signed an agreement with Axiom Space to provide for the fourth private flight for astronauts going to the ISS. Such transition from government-sponsored to purchased orbital services is consistent with the Low Earth Orbit Economy goals of NASA.

NASA Versus the Kraken: Motion/Space sickness can plague astronauts and seafarers alike, and its effect on astro/cosmonauts can seriously degrade their performance. NASA has used giant centrifuges and torture chamber reject devices like the MASTIF for decades to train astronauts to tolerate high-g forces and vertigo-inducing maneuvers. But that was back in the Project Mercury days. 

The U.S. Navy also has an interest in research that would mitigate the deleterious effects of motion sickness. They built a diabolical device they call the Kraken, a giant device at Wright-Patterson AFB that can replicate different flight profiles involving motion in multiple directions. NASA will be using Kraken to study vertigo and the means to combat it in more detail. For more information on NASA and the Kraken, see:

By the way, the astronaut that was mentioned in the story linked to above, Douglas “Wheels” Wheelock, was no stranger to spaceflight. I had the pleasure of being his escort during one of the launch events at KSC a decade ago. He’ll be the subject of a future Item of the Week.