You often hear people — especially non-hacker types — complain that money spent on space travel would be better off spent here on Earth. Of course that ignores one big factor, that space programs have resulted in a host of spin off technologies, many of which you use every day. JPL has an infographic that covers twenty things we wouldn’t have without space travel, and while it could be said that some of these things might have been invented anyway it would doubtless have taken much longer without the necessity and the income from space programs. If you want more detail, Tech Briefs has an interesting interview on the subject of what tech spun off the Apollo program.
Some of the inventions are pretty obvious, and others are more refinements of things that already existed. We all knew NASA pioneered freeze drying for food, for instance. However, some of them are pretty surprising. For example, according to the infographic, NASA asking Black and Decker to develop a moon sample collector led to the Dust Buster.
Given the sheer volume of science going on as the International Space Station circles above our heads every 90 minutes or so, it would be hard for any one experiment to stand out. ISS expeditions conduct experiments on everything from space medicine to astrophysics and beyond, and the instruments needed to do the science have been slowly accreting over the years. There’s so much stuff up there that almost everywhere you turn there’s a box or pallet stuck down with hook-and-loop fasteners or bolted to some bulkhead, each one of them doing something interesting.
The science on the ISS isn’t contained completely within the hull, of course. The outside of the station fairly bristles with science, with packages nestled in among the solar panels and other infrastructure needed to run the spacecraft. Peering off into space and swiveling around to track targets is an instrument with the friendly name NICER, for “Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer.” What it does and how it does it is interesting stuff, and what it’s learning about the mysteries of neutron stars could end up having practical uses as humanity pushes out into the solar system and beyond.
Spaceflight is inherently dangerous. It takes a certain type of person to willingly strap into what’s essentially a refined bomb and hope for the best. But what might not be so obvious is that the risks involved aren’t limited to those who are personally making the trip. The construction and testing of space-bound vehicles poses just as much danger to engineers here on the ground as it does to the astronauts in orbit. Arguably, more so. Far more individuals have given their lives developing rocket technology than have ever died in the cockpit of one of them.
Ultimately, this is because of the enormous amount of energy stored in the propellants required to make a rocket fly. Ground support personnel need to exercise great care even when dealing with “safe” propellants, such as the classic combination of kerosene and liquid oxygen. On the other end of the spectrum you have chemicals that are so unstable and toxic that they can’t be handled without special training and equipment.
One of the most dangerous chemicals ever used in rocket propulsion is hydrazine; and yet from the Second World War to the present day, it’s been considered something of an occupational hazard of spaceflight. While American launch vehicles largely moved away from using it as a primary propellant, hydrazine is still commonly used for smaller thrusters on spacecraft.
But soon, that might change. NASA has been working on a project they call the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) which is specifically designed to reduce modern spacecraft’s dependency on hydrazine. In collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory at California’s Edwards Air Force Base, the space agency has spearheaded the development of a new propellant that promises to not just replace hydrazine, but in some scenarios even outperform it.
So what’s so good about this new wonder fuel, called AF-M315E? To really understand why NASA is so eager to power future craft with something new, we first have to look at the situation we’re in currently.
When it comes to the quest for artifacts from the Space Race of the 1960s, few items are more sought after than flown hardware. Oh sure, there have been stories of small samples of the 382 kg of moon rocks and dust that were returned at the cost of something like $25 billion making it into the hands of private collectors, and chunks of the moon may be the ultimate collector’s item, but really, at the end of the day it’s just rock and dust. The serious space junkie wants hardware – the actual pieces of human engineering that helped bring an epic adventure to fruition, and the closer to the moon the artifact got, the more desirable it is.
Sadly, of the 3,000,000 kg launch weight of a Saturn V rocket, only the 5,600 kg command module ever returned to Earth intact. The rest was left along the way, mostly either burned up in the atmosphere or left on the surface of the Moon. While some of these artifacts are recoverable – Jeff Bezos himself devoted a portion of his sizable fortune to salvage one of the 65 F1 engines that were deposited into the Atlantic ocean – those left on the Moon are, for now, unrecoverable, and in most cases they are twisted heaps of wreckage that was intentionally crashed into the lunar surface.
But at least one artifact escaped this ignominious fate, silently orbiting the sun for the last 50 years. This lonely outpost of the space program, the ascent stage from the Apollo 10 Lunar Module, appears to have been located by a team of amateur astronomers, and if indeed the spacecraft, dubbed “Snoopy” by its crew, is still out there, it raises the intriguing possibility of scoring the ultimate Apollo artifact by recovering it and bringing it back home.
The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission – the flight that first took man to the surface of the moon — is coming up. By the time this post is published, some YouTube channel will invariably be running a real-time-but-delayed-fifty-years live stream of all the mission events, culminating on the wee hours of July 20th where we wait hours for someone to figure out how to open the door.
[CuriousMarc] and space hardware collector [Jimmie Loocke] have a different type of anniversary in mind. They have an Apollo Guidance Computer sitting on a bed in a motel room, and they’re going to get it up and running by July 20th. That’s the plan, at least. This is no easy feat: the Apollo Guidance Computer looks like two 19-inch, 1U rack units, with no standardized connectors to talk to any other hardware. They’ve just figured out the hardest part of this build by making their own NASA-spec contacts. They can now connect external hardware to the AGC, probably for the first time in decades.
As it stands now, there are external ports on the gigantic bricks of aluminum enclosure that comprise the two AGC modules. These ports are just female pin headers, completely unlike any standard that can be found today. However, the folks at Samtec managed to build the male versions of these pin headers for this project. These pins fit the female sockets on one end, and are standard, square-shaped wire wrapped headers on the other. They are mounted in a milled plastic block, and after everything is wired up, [Marc] and [Jimmie] had a direct electrical connection to the Apollo Guidance Computer. The machine lives again.
There’s still a lot of work to do to get these bricks of computer up and running for the 20th, but this is fantastic progress. Already they’re single-stepping the AGC and running the P63 program that landed on the moon. Check out the video below.
When I got the call asking if I’d be willing to fly down to Kennedy Space Center and cover an event, I agreed immediately. Then about a week later, I remembered to call back and ask what I was supposed to be doing. Not that it mattered, I’d gladly write a few thousand words about the National Crocheting Championships if they started holding them at KSC. I hadn’t been there in years, since before the Space Shuttle program had ended, and I was eager to see the exhibit created for the fourth member of the Shuttle fleet, Atlantis.
So you can imagine my reaction when I learned that the event Hackaday wanted me to cover, the Cornell Cup Finals, would culminate in a private viewing of the Atlantis exhibit after normal park hours. After which, the winners of the competition would be announced during a dinner held under the orbiter itself. It promised to be a memorable evening for the students, a well deserved reward for the incredible work they put in during the competition.
Thinking back on it now, the organizers of the Cornell Cup and the staff at Kennedy Space Center should truly be commended. It was an incredible night, and everyone I spoke to felt humbled by the unique experience. There was a real, palpable, energy about it that you simply can’t manufacture. Of course, nobody sitting under Atlantis that night was more excited than the students. Though I may have come in as a close second.
I’ll admit it was somewhat bittersweet to see such an incredible piece of engineering turned into a museum piece; it looked as if Atlantis could blast off for another mission at any moment. But there’s no denying that the exhibit does a fantastic job of celebrating the history and accomplishments of the Space Shuttle program. NASA officially considers the surviving Shuttle orbiters to be on a “Mission of Inspiration”, so rather than being mothballed in a hangar somewhere in the desert, they are out on display where the public can get up close and personal with one of humanities greatest achievements. Judging by the response I saw, the mission is going quite well indeed.
If you have the means to do so, you should absolutely make the trip to Cape Canaveral to see Atlantis and all the other fascinating pieces of space history housed at KSC. There’s absolutely no substitute for seeing the real thing, but if you can’t quite make the trip to Florida, hopefully this account courtesy of your humble scribe will serve to give you a taste of what the exhibit has to offer.