A Day in Astronomy: Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

Image (Credit): Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial. (NASA)

On this day in 2003, the STS-107 mission aboard NASA’s oldest space shuttle Columbia came to a horrible end when the shuttle disintegrated upon reentry. That day we lost crew members David M. Brown, Rick D. Husband, Laurel B. Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William C. “Willie” McCool, and Ilan Ramon. It was just 17 years after losing the crew on the space shuttle Challenger.

At the memorial service for the astronauts, President George W. Bush stated:

This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the human heart. We are that part of creation which seeks to understand all creation. We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness, and pray they will return. They go in peace for all mankind, and all mankind is in their debt. Yet, some explorers do not return. And the loss settles unfairly on a few.

You can learn more about the STS-107 mission here.

Image (Credit): STS-107 crew members David M. Brown, left, Rick D. Husband, Laurel B. Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William C. “Willie” McCool, and Ilan Ramon. (NASA)

Space Stories: Passing of Apollo Astronaut Walter Cunningham, Opal on Mars, and Juno Recovers

Image (Credit): Walter Cunningham adjusts his pressure suit before the Apollo 7 launch on October 11, 1968. (NASA)

Here are some recent stories of interest.

NASA: “Apollo Astronaut Walter Cunningham Dies at 90

Former astronaut Walter Cunningham, who flew into space on Apollo 7, the first flight with crew in NASA’s Apollo Program, died early Tuesday morning in Houston. He was 90 years old. “Walt Cunningham was a fighter pilot, physicist, and an entrepreneur – but, above all, he was an explorer. On Apollo 7, the first launch of a crewed Apollo mission, Walt and his crewmates made history, paving the way for the Artemis Generation we see today,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “NASA will always remember his contributions to our nation’s space program and sends our condolences to the Cunningham family.”

New Atlas: “Curiosity Finds Opal on Mars – a Possible Water Source for Astronauts

NASA’s Curiosity rover has discovered opal on Mars. The deposits may prove to be valuable to future Martian explorers not as jewelry but as a potential source of water. Opal is formed when water weathers silica-rich rocks, forming a solution that settles into cracks and crevices in the rock. Over time, this solution hardens into a solid lump that can be cloudy and dull or a dazzling display of color. Most supplies come from either Australia or Ethiopia, but now a new source has been discovered – Mars.

Space.com: “Juno Spacecraft Recovering its Memory After Mind-blowing Jupiter Flyby, NASA Says

NASA’s Juno probe is continuing to recover its memory at Jupiter after a data disruption interrupted communications between the spacecraft and its operators on Earth following a flyby of the giant planet in December. The Juno spacecraft’s latest flyby of Jupiter, its 47th close pass of the planet, was completed on Dec. 14. But as its operators at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory were receiving science data from the flyby they found they could no longer directly access the spacecraft’s memory. The team successfully rebooted Juno’s computer and on Dec. 17 they placed the spacecraft into “safe mode” with only essential systems operating as a precaution. 

RIP: Astronaut James A. McDivitt

Image (Credit): Astronaut James A. McDivitt. (HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Back on October 13th we lost another Apollo astronaut. James McDivitt, age 93, passed away in his sleep.

Mr. McDivitt, a veteran fighter pilot from the Korean War, was a key part of the Gemini and Apollo missions. Part of NASA’s second class of astronauts, he was commander of the Gemini IV mission in June 1965, which conducted the first U.S. space walk, as well as the commander of Apollo 9, which set the stage for astronauts to land on the Moon.

As Andy Weir, author of The Martian, stated, “Astronauts are inherently insane. And really noble.” We should all remember the noble work of Mr. McDivitt and his peers in the early space program.

For more on Mr. McDivitt’s life, you can visit this NASA press release as well as this Washington Examiner obituary.

Space Stories: Enceladus, Maarten Schmidt, and SpaceX

Image (Credit): Saturn’s moon Enceladus as seen by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Here are some recent stories of interest.

Weather.com: “A Habitable Ocean? Scientists Believe An Essential Life Component May be Abundant on Saturn’s Icy Moon, Enceladus!

Previously, NASA’s Saturn-studying Cassini spacecraft had discovered Enceladus’ subsurface liquid water as well as the plumes of ice grains and water vapour that erupted from cracks in the moon’s icy surface. Analysis of the plumes had revealed that they contain almost all the basic requirements of life as we know it. But while the bioessential element phosphorus is yet to be identified directly, scientists have now found evidence of its availability in the ocean beneath the moon’s icy crust.

WashingtonPost.com: “Maarten Schmidt, Astronomer Who Explained Quasars, Dies at 92

Maarten Schmidt, the Dutch-born American astronomer who explained the mysterious heavenly bodies known as quasars and in so doing helped create the modern picture of the universe, its structure and its history, died Sept. 17 at his home in Fresno, Calif. He was 92.

Space.com: “FCC Denies SpaceX $900 Million in Starlink Funding

The space launch services giant was recently rejected for nearly $900 million dollars in rural connectivity funding from the Wireline Competition Bureau (a branch of the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC). SpaceX characterized that decision(opens in new tab) as “grossly unfair” in its Sept. 9 appeal to the regulator, which is under review.

RIP: Cosmonaut Valery Vladimirovich Polyakov

Image (Credit): Cosmonaut Valery Polyakov. (NASA)

Last week cosmonaut Valery Polyakov passed away at the age of 80 (1942 to 2022). He still holds the record for the longest single spaceflight in history when he was aboard the Mir space station for 437 days and 18 hours during one stay between 1994 and 1995. By the time he retired later in 1995, he had spent 678 days in space.

Russians have a history of long tours in space, including four cosmonauts from the last century who spent at least one year in a single tour:

  • Valery Polyakov – 437 days aboard Mir (1994-95)
  • Sergei Avdeyev – 379 days aboard Mir (1998-99)
  • Vladimir Titov – 365 days aboard Mir (1987-88)
  • Musa Manaro – 365 days aboard Mir (1987-88)

When U.S. astronaut Astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth with cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko from the International Space Station in 2016 after 340 days in space, the Russians were not so impressed according to a story in arsTECHNICA. The story notes cosmonaut Talgat Musabayev, serving as the head of the Kazakh space agency, stated, “Congratulations on your record. Of course it was already done 28 years ago.” 

Image (Credit): The Soviet Mir space station. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)