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One small step for a bat, one giant leap for batkind


A bat that was clinging to space shuttle Discovery’s external fuel tank during the countdown to launch the STS-119 mission remained with the spacecraft as it cleared the tower, analysts at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center concluded.

Based on images and video, a wildlife expert who provides support to the center said the small creature was a free tail bat that likely had a broken left wing and some problem with its right shoulder or wrist. The animal likely perished quickly during Discovery’s climb into orbit.

— Siceloff, Steven. “Bat Hung onto Shuttle During Liftoff“, NASA/John F. Kennedy Space Center, March 17th, 2009.

bat_sts_external_tank02But oh, what a death.  A free-tailed chiroptera, immortalised forever in the annals of spaceflight.

Interestingly, this is not the first attempt by the flying mammals to get into orbit. A previous bat-astronaut landed on the shuttle Columbia during the countdown for STS-90, but aborted his ride-along when the engines ignited.  This latest hitchhiker apparently stuck to his mission profile, at least past the launch gantry.

NASA was not able to confirm whether the bat made it into space, or was sloughed off as the shuttle accelerated through supersonic and hypersonic flight on its climb to low earth orbit.

What is clear though, is that on that glorious day of March 15th, 2009, this bat went higher, farther and faster than any other chiroptera.  And for a brief moment, he became the greatest bat-pilot anyone had ever seen.


“In the hours before Discovery’s liftoff, NASA’s Final Inspection Team (called the “ICE team”) investigated whether the creature would pose a risk to the shuttle if its body impacted the orbiter’s sensitive heat shield tiling. Ultimately, NASA officials signed a waiver confirming that the bat was safe to fly with.

“The bat eventually became ‘Interim Problem Report 119V-0080’ after the ICE team finished their walkdown,” the memo said. “Systems Engineering and Integration performed a debris analysis on him and ultimately a Launch Commit Criteria waiver to ICE-01 was written to accept the stowaway.”

This isn’t the first time a bat has attempted to travel into space. Another bat was seen clinging to the side of the external tank attached to the shuttle Endeavour on its  STS-72 flight in 1996. That one maybe have been a bit more cautious, though: It flew away to safety right before launch.

Coincidentally, an astronaut aboard that flight, Koichi Wakata of Japan, also flew on Discovery this week, making him the first spaceflyer to share two rides with bats. Discovery’s STS-119 mission is headed to the International Space Station to drop off the final segment of the lab’s backbone truss and set of solar array panels.”

— Clara Moskowitz.  “Bat’s fate after shuttle launch appears grim“, MSNBC/Space.com, March 18th, 2009.

Go with God, 119V-0080.

Apollo docking system

apollo15_csm_dockApollo XV CSM Endeavour in lunar orbit, as seen from LM Falcon.  August 2nd, 1971.

I have always wondered about the mechanical specifics of how the Apollo command/service module (CSM) and lunar module (LM) docked.  Specifically, when you see photos of the CSM pre-docking, it has this spindly, pointy thing (known as the docking probe) poking out the very top (or front) of the capsule.  And yet the same area also forms part of the docking tunnel with the LM, allowing the crew to transfer internally between the two spacecraft.

So what happened to the docking probe after docking, when the crew needed to transfer?  Did NASA just hire extremely thin contortionist astronauts, who could squeeze by it?

Nope, the probe is a tab too bulky for that.  Turns out that the probe is removable, and collapses like an umbrella.  The astronauts remove it by hand after the automatic docking latches lock on to the LM and seal the two spacecraft together.  Before they undock, they reinstall it.

Through the magic of the internets, the man responsible for the design and development of the docking system, Mr. Ken Bloom, describes the mechanism in a 4-page article here.

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The Good Earth


Forty years ago today, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders were half-way through a dangerous and epic journey, over 230,000 miles from home. TIME magazine recounts some of the story:

But on Christmas Eve the crew got busy. Settling Apollo 8 into orbit around the moon was a high-wire maneuver that involved turning the ship backward and firing its powerful service propulsion engine for precisely four and a half minutes — an eternity in a business in which barely a breath from a thruster is enough to set a ship spinning off course. The engine burn was designed to slow the spacecraft down just enough to ease it into a lunar orbit without losing so much altitude that it crashed into the moon instead. Orbital mechanics also demanded that the maneuver occur on the dark side of the moon, entirely out of radio contact with Earth. At 68 hours and 58 minutes into their journey, the crew buckled in and vanished around the moon’s far side.

— Jeffrey Kluger.  “Remembering Apollo 8, Man’s First Trip to the Moon“, TIME, December 24th, 2008.

This is their iconic television broadcast on December 24th, 1968; a reading of Genesis I 1-10, NKJV.

Aliens! I seen ’em!

alien_video Some dingdong in Denver claims to have video proof that aliens visited a fellow Colorado resident (hat tip to Darcey at Dust My Broom ).  Wonderful.  Footage so grainy and indistinct that a convenience store security camera would be ashamed of shooting it.

Here’s the thing, though.

If any such notional aliens existed and actually had visited Earth, my sense is they need more help from us than we need from them.

They have enough smarts to cross interstellar distances, but not enough to invent a camera with a telephoto lens—something humans managed to do back in 1891.  No sir, these aliens have to conduct all of their reconnaissance with the Mark I eyeball.  Maybe they were wondering why their OnStar system failed to kick in and they needed directions to the nearest mechanic.

They can evade SPACECOM’s tracking radars and penetrate the North American ADIZ easily enough, but they haven’t got the smarts to build a few UAVs that can loiter overhead and collect data.  Humans, however, had been sending automated probes to other planets for a few decades before any astronaut ever set foot on another celestial body.

There may well be aliens out there in the galaxy, but I’ve yet to see a UFO claim that conclusively demonstrates remote sensing technology on par with—let alone superior to—our own.

RELATED: Popular Mechanics brings the rational smackdown to Stan Romanek’s little video epic.

Like I mentioned above, the thing that sets off my skeptic alarm for any number of alien visitations is that there is no internal consistency or logic to their methods.  They operate stealthy craft but have zero concern for humans seeing them out in the open?  They can’t, apparently, operate ROVs or UAVs sophisticated enough to keep tabs on us without the guy on the ground being aware that he’s under surveillance?  Cripes.  We can do that stuff today.  And in all of these supposed visits, no alien craft or being has ever left behind equipment, packaging, or any kind of non-terrestrial artifact?

As a thought experiment, imagine how we would react if we discovered a sentient, intelligent but less-technologically-developed species living on a celestial body in this solar system.

Would we immediately race over there with a planetary lander and play peek-a-boo into their homes?  Or would we be inclined to park a few surveillance birds in orbit and see what the hell was going on, first?  Maybe develop some sort of exo-atmospheric ROV that we could use to fly at high altitude and get higher-resolution images and data, without unnecessarily endangering human (or alien) lives.  Spend a few decades observing their world, its environment, its civilisations and their organisation, and what sort of technology they did have.  Perhaps try to figure out how to communicate with them, so that when we did get to the planetary lander stage, we wouldn’t be climbing out of the lander, unfurling the flag, and watching astronauts die needlessly.  Planetary exploration is not an inexpensive venture; and it really is all about conservation of scarce resources and opportunities in order to maximize the quality of data that you get back.

Now ask yourself why none of these alien visitations demonstrate anything close to that level of forethought and intelligence.

There was a demon that lived in the air

They said whoever challenged him would die.

Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate.

The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way.

He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass.

They called it the sound barrier.

(Just because the prior post reminded me of Sam Shepard, and seeing this movie instantly reverts me to ten years old again.)