Tag Archives: Museum of Flight

The inside story on the Curiosity rover

Rob Manning has been sending things to Mars for 34 years. A Whidbey Island native who was inspired about space by the far-out stories he read in National Geographic and Colliers, Manning is now the Mars Program Engineering Manager for the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab‘s Mars Exploration Program. He gave a talk this month at the Museum of Flight based on his book, Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014).

Rob Manning

Rob Manning, chief engineer for Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory, gave a talk about the rover June 18 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Manning opened his presentation by showing the now-famous video of the JPL crew during the “seven minutes of terror,” the lag between the moment of Curiosity’s landing on Mars and the moment when the team finally learned it had been a success. Engineers were laughing and crying and backslapping. Emotional engineers?

“We were very relieved,” Manning joked, noting that a lot of money had been spent on the mission and many of them had been working on it for many years. “We know how fragile these systems can be even though we put in an enormous amount of work to make them as reliable and sturdy as possible.”

“These are human enterprises,” he continued. “They are not built by institutions, they’re not built by abstract organizations. They’re just a bunch of people working together trying to make sure they didn’t make a mistake.”

NASA lost interest in Mars for a while after the Viking landers found a pretty sterile and hostile environment. Manning’s first mission was Mars Pathfinder, which he jokingly calls “the easy one.”

“One way to get good at something is to start simple,” Manning said, noting that the landing system for Pathfinder, which he called “a brick with wheels,” was even less complicated than that of Viking.

Manning said that each mission teaches lessons, even missions that fail, such as the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander. He said the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are essentially modified Pathfinders. Spirit and Opportunity, roving geologists, confirmed there was once water on Mars. The discovery raised questions that the roving geologists couldn’t answer, but that a roving geochemist could.

“The trouble is roving geochemists have a laboratory with all of this big lab equipment,” Manning said. “So we needed to figure out a way to take the lab equipment, shrink it down, put it in a rover, and send it to Mars.”

That became Curiosity, which Manning said has been doing great work.

“We’ve basically proven that Mars was a wet place, it had oceans, it had seas, it had a lot of water long ago,” he said, adding that early, simple life forms could have been perfectly happy there. Were they? We don’t know yet.

Next up is Mars 2020, which will collect rock and soil samples on Mars for a potential future return to Earth.

“We haven’t had the name-the-rover contest yet,” Manning joked. Its design will essentially be based on Curiosity, though in this case they are going to re-invent the wheels. Curiosity’s wheels have been punctured by sharp rocks that are essentially immovable, locked in place in Martian sediments.

“This is a failure of our imagination,” Manning said. “We had sharp rocks in our Mars yard (where they test out designs on Earth), but they weren’t glued down.” He said 2020’s wheels will be similar, but stronger, and not much heavier.

Manning’s current work is on that mission, and he’s also busy cooking up ways to slow down and land even larger and heavier spacecraft with an eye toward a possible human mission to Mars in the 2030s. Manning said that, because of its thin atmosphere, “Mars is not a very good place to land.”

We expect they’ll come up with a way to do it.


One-sided race to the Moon nearly derailed

It’s a popular narrative that the race to land a man on the Moon in the 1960s was launched by President John F. Kennedy in a speech to Congress in May of 1961, and was a gung-ho, nonstop effort until the goal was achieved in 1969. In fact, the space policy expert Dr. John M. Logsdon says the whole thing was nearly undone in 1963.

John Logsdon

Space policy expert Dr. John Logsdon spoke June 13 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Logsdon is the founder and longtime director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University and author of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and After Apollo?: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He gave a talk titled, “John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and the American Space Program” last weekend at the Museum of Flight.

Logsdon pointed out some interesting contrasts between the two presidents. Richard Nixon was an early space booster, arguing for a civilian space agency when he was Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower. Some historians think of Nixon as the father of NASA. Meanwhile Kennedy didn’t have much interest in space until the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April of 1961. This got Kennedy’s attention, and he gave his advisors the task of coming up with a space effort that the United States could win. Their answer was landing on the Moon, and that became Kennedy’s goal.

“It had very little to do with a view of humanity’s future in space or some romantic image of the space frontier,” Logsdon explained. “This was a Cold War, deliberate act of competition, seeing space as an area to demonstrate which social system, which governmental system was superior.”

Ramping up space spending

“Kennedy not only talked the talk, but he backed up his rhetoric with commitment,” Logsdon added. “This was a war-like mobilization of human and financial resources.”

Indeed, the NASA budget nearly doubled the first year and more than doubled again the second, and the skyrocketing cost came under considerable criticism. Kennedy was sensitive to this for a couple of reasons. He was concerned about the political impact of the Apollo program losing support, and worried that spending on space could be a negative in his 1964 re-election campaign. There was some talk of cutting the budget or relaxing the end-of-decade timeline for the goal. Kennedy also spoke openly of making the quest for a Moon a cooperative venture with the Soviet Union. Logsdon said that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev originally expressed some interest in the idea, but was talked out of it by advisors worried that cooperation would reveal that the Russians really didn’t have lunar launch capability.

The one-sided race

“The United States was racing only itself,” Logsdon said of that lack of capability. “The Soviet Union, as of September of 1963, didn’t have a lunar program” and, in fact, didn’t decide to try until 1964.

“It was not reality as long as Kennedy was president. It became reality by the end of the decade,” Logsdon said.

Kennedy visited the launch center in Florida on Nov. 16, 1963 and was impressed by the rockets and the facilities.

“This visit excited Kennedy,” Logsdon said. “He came away from the visit full of regained enthusiasm for the program.”

On Nov. 21 Kennedy made a speech in San Antonio in which he said that the conquest of space must and will go ahead. He was assassinated the next day, and that ended any possibility that Apollo would be scrubbed. It became a memorial to the fallen president. Logsdon said it is interesting to speculate about what might have happened if JFK had lived or if Khrushchev had said “yes” to collaboration.

Logsdon said he doesn’t see Kennedy as a visionary in terms of humanity’s future in space.

“He was rather a pragmatic politician that saw a leadership-oriented space program as in the national interest in the particular situation of the early 1960s. He chose the lunar landing as a way of demonstrating the capabilities of this country,” Logsdon said.

Nixon and Apollo

Nixon was sworn in as president six months to the day before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon with Apollo 11.

“Unlike Kennedy, who saw space in geopolitical and foreign policy terms, Nixon viewed the space program as an issue of domestic politics: of technology, of innovation, of job creation, of something that is part of what the government does to stimulate society,” Logsdon said.

He contends that Nixon made three key decisions about space. He didn’t set a grand goal like going to the Moon or Mars. He opted to treat space exploration as just another one of the things that government does, nothing special. And his administration approved the space shuttle, though Logsdon said they chose to, “build a program around the shuttle without a long-term goal for the shuttle to serve.”

Logsdon said there may have been some wisdom there. A big goal, and an accompanying big budget, could have been a target, while a small, sustainable space program didn’t attract much opposition.

“Nixon was totally convinced of the importance of human spaceflight and of keeping astronauts in orbit, and that human spaceflight was essential to a U.S. leadership position,” Logsdon said. “He was intrigued by the various national security uses of the shuttle, which never happened.”

Naturally, electoral politics entered into it as well. The shuttle program created jobs in California, and Nixon needed to win California to gain re-election.

Logsdon is an engaging speaker and used a lot of video and audio clips in his presentation. His books are worth a look for anyone interested in the history of the space program. To buy the books click the links or book covers above, or visit the Seattle Astronomy Store.

More reading:


Seattle Astronomy calendar, week of June 15

Summer arrives in the Northern Hemisphere this week, there will be an array of public astronomy events, and we celebrate a couple of anniversaries of women in space.

The Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 17 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. As of this writing, the guest speaker presentation was still listed as TBA; watch the SAS website for updates.


The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the University of Washington. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Later that evening, starting at 9 p.m., the University of Washington will host one of its bi-monthly open houses at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. Rebecca Kemmerer, a senior in physics and astronomy, will give a talk titled, “Stars and Their Place in the Milky Way.” Kemmerer’s presentation will include a discussion of the different types of stars in our galaxy and the ways that their masses influence how they are born, live, and die. It’s free, but reservations are strongly encouraged for the talk; the classroom is small and fills up quickly! Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand to give tours of the observatory and, if weather permits—and we’re optimistic it will!—will offer a look through the facility’s vintage telescope.

Women in space

Two anniversaries of women in space come up this week. Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union became the first woman in space when she flew on Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. That flight is still the only solo space flight by a woman. Twenty years and two days later, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman to fly in space when she launched on the crew of the Challenger and STS-7. Ride has been on our pages a lot of late. Her birthday was May 26, and we also enjoyed Lynn Sherr‘s recent biography of the astronaut, Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space (Simon and Schuster, 2014). Sherr was in Seattle last year and spoke about Ride.

Busy Saturday of astro events

There will be a lot to choose from for astronomy enthusiasts on Saturday, June 20. The day’s festivities kick off with a talk by Rob Manning, the chief engineer for the Mars rover Curiosity. Manning will talk about his book, Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014). The talk will be at 2 p.m. at the Museum of Flight. For our money the landing of Curiosity on Mars was one of our greatest engineering achievements. Here’s a chance to get the inside story. Pick up the book in advance. Manning will sign copies after his presentation.

Summer begins Sunday at the solstice, which happens at 9:38 a.m. Pacific time. Saturday evening Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info will host a solstice sunset watch at Solstice Park in West Seattle, with the gathering beginning about 8:45 p.m. for the sunset, which will be at about 9 p.m. Enevoldsen is a NASA Solar System Ambassador, and this will be her 25th seasonal sunset watch at the park. They’re fun and informative!

The Seattle Astronomical Society will host two public star parties June 20, at Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Both will begin at 9 p.m., weather permitting. The Tacoma Astronomical Society also plans a public night Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. Presenter Chuck Jacobsen will talk about the Sun, and, weather permitting, members will be on hand with telescopes for a look at what’s up in the sky.

Happy Father’s Day

In case it slipped your mind, Father’s Day is June 21, and we think dear old dad would love a telescope, eyepiece, or astronomy book as a present! There’s a lovely selection of such things in the Seattle Astronomy Store!


Seattle Astronomy calendar, week of June 8

A visit from a space policy expert and a bunch of astronauts on the town highlight this week’s space and astronomy events in the Seattle area.

Dr. John M. Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University and a leading expert on and historian of space policy, will visit The Museum of Flight this week. Logsdon will talk about his book, After Apollo?: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program, in a lecture at the museum at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 13. The book is one in a series of Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology, which includes Logsdon’s 2010 tome John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.

This will not be the first visit to Seattle for Logsdon this year; he spoke on a similar topic at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society held in town back in January. Read our coverage of that talk and pick up the book in advance. Logsdon will sign books after his talk.

Astronauts on the town


Astronaut cavorts at Kubota Garden on Earth Day in this Museum of Fight photo.

Museum of Flight fans are probably familiar with Astronaut, a character who has been a staple in the museum’s advertising and social media since he came on board in 2012. You’ll be seeing a lot of Astronaut around town this summer. As part of its 50th Anniversary celebration this year, the museum has created the public art project Astronauts on the Town. Artists have decorated 25 six-foot-tall fiberglass versions of Astronaut, and they will be on display at various public locations around town, with deployment beginning Friday.

No doubt many selfies will be taken with Astronaut during the course of the summer. All 25 statues will return to the museum in September for an anniversary event.

Planetarium show on Bainbridge Island

BPAAThe Battle Point Astronomical Association offers a planetarium show this Saturday, June 13 beginning at 8:30 p.m. The topic will be “Exploring our Solar System.” Dr. Erica Saint Clair will discuss six decades of exploration of the solar system with landers, rovers, and probes. It’s an especially timely topic as New Horizons speeds toward its July encounter with Pluto.

If the weather is good they’ll also open up the Edwin Ritchie Observatory and have other telescopes available for viewing the heavens. The event is free for association members, $2 donation suggested for nonmembers, $5 for families.


Seattle Astronomy calendar, week of May 4

Local organizations are hosting special space and astronomy events and other regular astro-club functions are on the docket for this week.

The Museum of Flight observes Space Day as part of its Free First Thursday May 7. Local astronomy clubs will be there with telescopes for viewing—Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn are all great targets this week. In addition, NASA Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs will give a presentation about the Hubble Space Telescope. Space Day runs from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. The Hobbs talk will start at 7 p.m.

PacSci arches

The arches at the Pacific Science Center. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The Pacific Science Center observes Astronomy Day Saturday, May 9 starting at 10 a.m. and running all day. It will be a day of arts and crafts, planetarium shows, and other fun activities. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand with solar telescopes for safe viewing of the Sun, if the Sun is indeed out that day. Guest presenters include retired astronaut Dr. Nick Patrick, who will give a talk at 2 p.m., and Dr. Tom McCord from the NASA Dawn mission, who will speak at 3 p.m. Find the full schedule on the PacSci website.

Tacoma Astronomical Society

The Tacoma Astronomical Society holds its monthly meeting Tuesday, May 5 at 7:30 p.m. in room 175 of Thompson Hall at the University of Puget Sound. Then on Saturday, May 9, they’ll have a public observing night from 9 p.m until midnight at the Fort Stielacoom campus of Pierce College. Presenter John Finnan will talk about binocular astronomy—a rewarding and inexpensive way to get started in the hobby.

Back at TJO


The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the University of Washington. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Wednesday night, May 6, is open house night at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. The event runs from 9–11 p.m. Two talks by UW undergraduates are scheduled. Riley Harris will give a talk at 9 p.m. titled, “The State of the Planet, The Future of Space Travel.” Harris will run down the history of space travel, take an honest look at the current state of Earth, and explore the possibilities for future space travel and colonization. At 9:30 p.m. Kyle Musselwhite will give a talk titled, “Hey, What’s That Sound? The Universe!” Musselwihite will outline relationships between the history of science and musical thinking, then discuss why music is a useful tool for conceptualizing certain properties of the universe (especially time and distance). Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand to give a peek through the observatory’s vintage telescope if weather permits. Reservations are strongly suggested for the talks.

Everett society meets

The Everett Astronomical Society holds its monthly meeting Saturday, May 9 beginning at 3 p.m. at the Evergreen Branch of the Everett Public Library.


Space policy dean, Curiosity engineer to speak in June at Museum of Flight

Our copy of Aloft, the member magazine of the Museum of Flight, arrived in the mail today bearing news of two interesting space talks planned for the museum in June.

John M. Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute and considered by many to be the dean of U.S. space policy, will discuss his new book, After Apollo?: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program. The book is part of the series of Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology. In it, Logsdon takes a look at how President Nixon and his administration impacted post-Apollo space policy. Logsdon gave something of a preview of his presentation here in Seattle at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January. You can read our coverage of that talk to learn that Logsdon doesn’t think very highly of Nixon’s approach. Logsdon is scheduled to speak at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 13, 2015 in the William M. Allen Theater at the museum.

The following weekend Rob Manning will be in town to tout his aptly titled book, Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014). Manning, who is indeed the chief engineer for the mission, will discuss the challenges of getting such a large and complicated robot safely to Mars to conduct science. Manning’s talk, also in the Allen Theater, will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 20.

You can pick up copies of the books by clicking the links or cover photos above, or by visiting the Seattle Astronomy Store. Keep track of any schedule changes by watching the Museum of Flight website. These events are so new that, as of this writing, they weren’t yet listed on the museum’s online calendar. We’re planning to cover both talks.


At SpaceUp Seattle

We’re up and running at SpaceUp Seattle at the Museum of Flight!

SpaceUp agendaAs we reported earlier this week, SpaceUp is an unconference, at which all of the participants can suggest topics and decide what to talk about. It really works! Here’s a photo of the agenda for today–dozens of topics were suggested and the most popular made the grid, easily moved around with masking tape!

I’m at the first session, an overview of Blue Origin. There are also folks here from SpaceX and Planetary Resources. But there also will be civilian-led topics, including discussions of space law, storytelling, and how to get more public support for space travel and exploration.

SpaceUp Seattle goes on today and tomorrow. We’ll file occasional dispatches.