25-minute tour of International Space Station by astronaut Sunita Williams

On her last day as the Expedition 33 commander aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Sunita Williams filmed a 25-minute tour of the ISS, complete with explanations of how the toilets work, where the food is stored (American, Russian, and Japanese), demonstrations of exercise equipment, and an inside view of the Soyuz return vehicle.

External photos of the ISS against the curve of the Earth and abstract numbers like a length of 72.8 meters, a width of 108.5 meters, or a pressurized volume of 837 cubic meters can never really give you a sense of just how massive humanity’s outpost in low-Earth orbit really is. At the same time, all the tight squeezes and small compartments illustrate just how small it actually is.

In many respects, the ISS is the culmination of human progress, not just technologically but also culturally. Apollo-Soyuz notwithstanding, the level of cooperation across national boundaries between former enemies — the United States, Canada, Japan, various members states of the EU, and Russia — would have been unimaginable for most of the 20th century. (A college friend trains astronauts in Houston. Her business cards are English on one side, Russian on the other.)

Sunita Williams says in the video that she spent a lot of her down time during her stay on the ISS in the Cupola, gazing down at Earth. You can’t see borders between countries from space…

Via Boing Boing.

The cryovolcanoes of Io

There’s something magical about witnessing geological processes we know here on Earth on a moon hundreds of millions of miles beyond our own Moon. In 2007, NASA’s New Horizons space probe (on its way to Pluto) captured a sequence of images of the “cryovolcano” Tvashtar Paterae erupting into space on Jupiter’s moon Io.

I find this animated GIF of the photos mesmerizing…

Animated GIF of Tvashtar Paterae cryovolcano on Io

7 minutes of terror behind us, years of joyful exploration ahead

24 hours ago, I held my breath with the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as they waited for the Mars Curiosity Rover to roar through the Martian atmosphere, deploy its supersonic parachute, fire its rockets, and get lowered to the surface of the Red Planet via “sky crane.”

Afterward, I stayed up to watch the press conference. In his comments, Adam Steltzner, lead engineer for EDL (entry, descent, and landing) said, “We humans are toolmakers, explorers, agriculturalists, pioneers.

Of all the comments made by NASA/JPL team members last night, this brief comment really struck home. Steltzner weaves the story of this landing of one robotic rover into the fabric of our greater human story — from paleolithic toolmaking, neolithic agriculture, and the spread of Homo sapiens across the globe through our next steps to our sister planets and beyond.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden‘s introduction made me proud to be American, but Adam Steltzner made me proud to be a human being.

Here’s one of the first, low-resolution pictures Curiosity took through a dust cover on a “Haz Cam”:

Curiosity Rover picture

And here’s a spectacular photo of Curiosity parachuting down to Mars, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter:

Curiosity Parachute Landing Spotted by NASA Orbiter [detail]

We can expect high-resolution color photos later this week.

One small step

NASA and space exploration have always been one of the things that makes me proud to be an American. Today in 1969, humans stepped foot on another celestial body for the first time.

Apollo 11 bootprint

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing remains one of the singular achievements of the human race. My hope remains that I will live to see our species send representatives to the Moon again, and then on to Mars.

Visiting the Space Shuttle FFT & touring a B-17 at the Museum of Flight

A couple weeks ago, I watched NASA’s Super Guppy flying in the crew compartment section of the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT). Today, I checked it out while it was being reassembled at the Museum of Flight here in Seattle.

Space Shuttle trainer assembly (1)

Yes, it’s made of wood, but every shuttle astronaut was trained in the FFT, and the last crew even signed their names under the nose — it’s an important part of NASA history. One of the wonderful things about Seattle getting the FFT rather than one of the actual shuttles is that visitors to the museum will be able to go through it, as we can do today aboard the first jet-powered Air Force One, a Concorde, and one of the last B-17 bombers still in flying condition.

As much as I’m anticipating a tour of the FFT, I was most inspired today by a walk-through — more of a crawl-through, really — of that Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The “Boeing Bee” is one of only a handful of B-17’s still capable of taking to the skies. The bomber was manufactured just up the road from the Museum of Flight, and our docent was a retired Boeing engineer, able to rattle off both technical details and war stories with equal panache.

B-17 cockpit (1)

After squeezing around the ball turret, through the radio room, across the bomb bay, and into the cockpit, it wasn’t difficult to imagine how hellish it must have been for the ten-man crew, flying into German flak and fighters. But with thousands of pounds of bombs and eleven .50-caliber machine guns sprouting from just about every surface, the B-17 dealt death to the world below in equal measure.

Standing there in the July sun outside the Museum of Flight, I thought back to a quote I’d just read inside, from James Smith McDonnell, founder of the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation — builder of both fighter planes like the F-4 Phantom II and space capsules for the Mercury and Gemini programs:

“The creative conquest of space will serve as a wonderful substitute for war.”

Perhaps there’ll be a day when we pour as much technology and passion into the conquest of space as we do into conquering each other.