It’s less than two weeks old but July has been a very eventful month for American science and the beginning of a very busy month for me. Those following my Twitter account (@bravelittlemuon) this past weekend learned pretty quickly that I was live-tweeting the Space Shuttle Atlantis’ final launch from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as a part of NASA’s phenomenal #NasaTweetup program. In summary, NASA invited 150 followers of its @NasaTweetup account to get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit KSC and get the VIP treatment on the condition that for 48 hours all we did was tweet. Seeing the space shuttle from about 1500 feet and talking with an astronaut on board the International Space Station (ISS) about the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) was really, really, cool. Like really cool… and all in the name of public outreach†. I tip my many hats to NASA for a job well done.
The Space Shuttle Atlantis is just about to break the sound barrier (Photo mine). Click for the high-res version.
One thing that caught me off guard this weekend was how many times I was asked, “As a scientist, are you worried that the shuttle fleet’s retirement means the end of science in space?” I grin whenever I hear that question because if anything NASA is just getting started. The AMS detector, for example, is an honest-to-goodness particle detector that was built at CERN and installed on the ISS during a previous shuttle mission (STS-134). Its purpose is to measure the relative abundances of matter & antimatter, as well as test dark matter models. The new SUV-sized Mars rover, Curiosity, is expected to launch later this year and will be able to measure the composition of Martian rocks and boulders thanks its shoulder-mounted laser. (Personally, I say we rename it “Johnny V.”) By knowing the precise composition of Martian soil we will learn if the ground was (still) able to support vegetation. Long gone are the days of experimenting with ants in micro-gravity considering that vegetables are now grown on the space station. I was told by NASA science coordinators about the half dozen ISS projects currently in the pipeline (read: proposals not publicly available, yet), one of which included an artificial gravity experiment.
NASA is getting out of the ferrying business, so what? Consider this: these are the people who stuck a couple of humans on the moon because some guy dared them††. After that, these same people (and their international counterparts!) built a space station. A SPACE STATION! With all due respect, I think NASA’s time is better spent sending people to Mars or another star system. FTL drives, anyone? So if anyone tells you that the Space Administration is past its prime, just send them over to its Current Missions web page. By the way, there is a telescope (Kepler) currently looking for habitable planets outside our solar system. I will not even begin to go into all the practical applications that have resulted from space research. Additionally to our American readers, if you feel NASA should doing more science tell your representatives in Congress; I’ve done it.
A picture of the Space Shuttle Atlantis I took fewer than 24 hours before its launch. Click for the high-res version.
As I mentioned at the top, July is a very busy month for me. I actually wrote the draft of this post somewhere over Kentucky/Tennessee on my way back to Madison to attend the “Coordinated Theoretical-Experimental Project on QCD Summer School on QCD Analysis,” or CTEQ for short. Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) is what we call the theory of the Strong Nuclear Force; it explains why protons and neutrons behave the way they do. Expect something soon about the fact that particle physicists like to spend their summers indoors, or in Aspen.
† You can read more about Science Outreach in a previous QD post, here.
†† Okay, this guy may have also been the President of The United States.