TIME space

What I Learned Watching SpaceX’s Rocket Explode

It felt terrible, but lives will be saved in the future

By now, everyone knows the outcome of the story. On the morning of Sunday, June 28, SpaceX CRS-7 launched in spectacular fashion from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Just two minutes and 19 seconds into flight, the Falcon 9 rocket and cargo-laden Dragon capsule exploded above the Atlantic ocean, incinerating approximately 4,000 pounds of supplies to be delivered to the ISS. The cause remains unknown.

Rundowns of the items aboard CRS-7 have been circulated throughout news reports and abbreviated in terse, 140 character tweets: student science projects, privately-funded experiments, food, water filtration systems, hardware, oxygen. The astronauts aboard the ISS are safe until October. The Russians launched a resupply mission last week; the Japanese have one set for August. Surely we can’t all fail.

I watched the Falcon 9 lift off that sunny morning in June while standing atop an empty causeway at Kennedy, as close as any civilian could hope to get to a launch. By the time CRS-7 failed, it was only a small speck of light high above my head. I squinted into the bright sun and craned my neck, turning to the woman beside me and asking: “Was that separation or an explosion?” We weren’t sure.

When the failure was confirmed by nearby NASA employees, I felt a sinking in the pit of my stomach, like waking up from a good dream and feeling it all slip away. Thankfully, there were no humans aboard the Dragon capsule that day. But all American space missions in today’s experimental age of public-private partnerships are defined by a sense of potential, carrying a degree of hope — the hope that one day, blasting equipment and human beings out of Earth’s atmosphere could be as routine as a neighborhood grocery run. While CRS-7’s failure won’t single-handedly kill that dream, it does remind us that future is a little father off than we might have thought.

I was on site at Kennedy to witness the launch that morning thanks to something called a NASA Social, part of a program run by the space agency’s public affairs department that invites high-profile social media users to get the same access to a launch or other major event afforded to the credentialed press.

On the morning of Friday, June 26th, approximately 48 hours before launch, 30 people assembled in the nondescript Press Annex that sits on site at Kennedy Space Center in direct view of the famous VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building). I was among them, an eager participant in NASA Social. Investment in unconventional social media ambassadors is nothing new for NASA. Its Curiosity Rover has been sending updates from Mars via a colorful Twitter account that boasts nearly 2 million followers, more than most sentient beings. But allowing space geeks with little connection to mainstream news outlets access to an otherwise inaccessible experience is a smart exercise in public relations.

“Our target audience is humanity,” NASA Social Media Manager John Yembrick told us of the NASA Social program. Our group was stuffed with such strange bedfellows as PhDs in theoretical physics and geology, a former wrestling star, a fashion photographer, Florida natives and a woman who flew from Australia. Human beings with vastly different skill sets and social audiences united for three days to furiously tweet, post, share, like and tag every second of the adventure.

We spoke with the likes of NASA Chief Scientist for the International Space Station Dr. Julie Robinson, SpaceX Vice President Hans Koenigsmann, and Microsoft’s Alex Kipman, who arrived carrying a HoloLens augmented reality headset he hopes will revolutionize communication between astronauts and Earth. We met young students who described an experiment they would launch on CRS-7: a genius proposition to use earthworms for trash composting aboard the space station. We toured the facilities where spacecraft are assembled and parts are created. We saw the second of two identical International Docking Adaptors meant to standardize the ISS docking process for different companies and countries; the first was already loaded on the ill-fated Dragon, now lost.

If NASA’s goal with the NASA Social program is to pay service to the Space Believers while cultivating new ones, it’s a rousing success — the sense of potential was palpable among the group. But none of that energy can change this immutable rule: space is hard, and we have much to learn. In his reply to my Facebook post about the loss I felt after watching the Falcon 9 rocket disintegrate into oblivion, NASA Astronaut Ron Garan offered the following: “The lessons learned from the failure will save lives down the road when Dragon launches crew.” He’s right, of course. But it’s still difficult to get swept up in the excitement of space travel, only to be confronted with an explosive reminder of how far the future remains.

Erin Sharoni is a Creative Strategist at biotech startup InsideTracker, a writer for DJ Mag and an electronic dance music DJ and producer.

TIME space travel

NASA Says New Horizons Pluto Probe Is Okay After a Scary Glitch

pluto new horizons
NASA

We could finally get a clear picture of Pluto on July 14

NASA said Sunday its New Horizons space probe remains on track for a historic flyby of Pluto after the mission suffered what appeared to be a nail-biting glitch.

Team scientists were on edge this Fourth of July when the New Horizons spacecraft entered “safe mode” just 10 days before its final destination, briefly cutting out communications with Earth before reconnecting, NASA said in a statement. Investigators said the anomaly was caused by an operational glitch that will not compromise the quality of the mission. New Horizons was launched in 2006 and has already traveled 3.5 billion miles.

“I’m pleased that our mission team quickly identified the problem and assured the health of the spacecraft,” said Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science. “Now — with Pluto in our sights — we’re on the verge of returning to normal operations and going for the gold.”

The New Horizons mission is expected to provide the first close-up observations and detailed measurements of the icy dwarf planet when it approaches Pluto at about 7:50 a.m. ET on July 14. To date, NASA said, only Voyager 2 has explored the far reaches of our solar system, though the spacecraft did not visit Pluto.

TIME space travel

Resupply Ship Reaches International Space Station After String of Failed Attempts

"Feels like Christmas in July," the astronauts said

A Russian resupply spacecraft docked on Sunday at the International Space Station (ISS), delivering long-awaited supplies to the crew after a string of failed attempts.

The unmanned Progress 60 cargo craft docked at 3:11 a.m. E.T. after taking off two days earlier from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, NASA said in a statement. The spacecraft was carrying 106 pounds of oxygen, 926 pounds of water, 1,940 pounds of propellant and 3,133 pounds of spare parts. “Feels like Christmas in July,” the astronauts reported, though the crew had enough supplies to live and work safely aboard the ISS until October.

The success of Progress 60 came after a series of failed resupply attempts, including the explosion of an unmanned SpaceX rocket in late June and the burn-up of another Russian resupply spacecraft in May.

TIME space travel

Watch Explosive New Video of SpaceX’s Rocket Landing Test

The April test ended unsuccessfully

SpaceX on Thursday released new video of an April landing test of the Falcon 9 rocket that nearly ended in success — until it tipped over and exploded.

Unlike previous footage, this video comes from a tracking camera that followed the first stage Falcon 9, or the part of the rocket that detaches from the cargo vessel bound for the International Space Station, according to SpaceX. A rocket’s first stage normally falls back into the ocean — a harmless but expensive loss. If the Falcon 9 could land successfully, it would mark a huge step towards SpaceX’s goal of more efficient spaceflight.

Another landing test is scheduled for June 28 shortly after the Falcon 9 launches at 10:21 a.m. ET from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The event is subject to weather and other delays.

TIME space travel

NASA Prepares ‘Flying Saucer’ for Take Off

NASA flying saucer
NASA/JPL-Caltech

The disc-shaped spacecraft was designed for more spacious flights to Mars

Correction appended, June 4

NASA will launch a disc-shaped vehicle into space on Wednesday, in order to test a roomier spacecraft designed for long-haul missions to Mars.

The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator will lift off from a launchpad off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii, carried into the stratosphere by a massive high-altitude weather balloon. The vehicle will detach from the balloon and blast off at four times the speed of the sound, soaring to a peak altitude of more than 22 miles above the Earth.

MORE: 20 Breathtaking Photos of the Earth From Space

“As NASA plans ambitious robotic science missions to Mars, laying the groundwork for even more complex human expeditions to come, the spacecraft needed to land safely on the Red Planet’s surface will become larger and heavier in order to accommodate explorers’ extended stays on the Martian surface,” read a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the peak altitude the spacecraft will reach. It is more than 22 miles above the earth.

TIME space travel

Watch This Vine of Jeff Bezos’ Rocket Taking Off

The BE-3 engine had a test flight on April 29

Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin appears to have had a successful test flight of its New Shepard rocket on April 29, as seen in a Vine posted by the company on Thursday.

The rocket uses a BE-3 engine and has 110,000 pounds of thrust, according to the company. Had any astronauts been on board, Bezos said in a statement, they “would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return.”

TIME space

Bill Nye Wants Your Help to Build His ‘Revolutionary’ Solar Spacecraft

Watch the video featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson

Bill Nye the Science Guy wants to make space exploration more accessible for everybody, but he wants your help to make it happen. This week he launched a Kickstarter campaign for a LightSail, a very lightweight CubeSat (cube satellite) that relies on energy from the sun to get around instead of the heavy fuels typically used by spacecraft.

“Photons (particles of light) have no momentum, but they are pure energy, and they have momentum,” Nye explained in a recent Reddit AMA. “So, in the vacuum of space, we can design a very low mass spacecraft with a very large reflective area, and it will get a continuous push.”

More than 2,700 backers have so far donated close to $160,000 to the project, which has a goal of $200,000 and met its half-way point within 24 hours of its Kickstarter launch. If the campaign successfully reaches its goal, LightSail will be launched from the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket next year.

“We are advancing space exploration by lowering the cost of sending space crafts way out into space,” Nye says in the video, which also features physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. “This democratizes space…one your’e up there you can fly to the moon or beyond to other planets.”

TIME People

6 Things We Learned From Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Reddit AMA

Bill Nye attends The 7th Annual Shorty Awards on April 20, 2015 in New York City.
D Dipasupil—Getty Images for The Shortly Awards Bill Nye attends The 7th Annual Shorty Awards on April 20, 2015 in New York City.

Find out what he thinks about space exploration, Chipotle and life

TV personality Bill Nye the Science Guy hosted a Q&A on Tuesday, answering questions about his latest endeavor and science in general.

Nye, who’s the CEO of the engineering non-profit The Planetary Society, first tackled questions relating to LightSail, the organization’s crowd-funded project to develop a tiny spacecraft that’ll use solar power to sail inexpensively and indefinitely. Of course, the Redditors were all wondering: Why? Here’s how the Science Guy explained it:

LightSail™ will demonstrate that we can greatly reduce the cost of missons to other worlds in our Solar System, e.g. the Moon and Mars. It will be another step in democratizing space. It will enable more of us to learn more about what’s up up there.

So it wasn’t a surprise that when asked about Google’s driverless cars—which the tech giant acknowledged on Tuesday aren’t perfect—the Science Guy had only good things to say:

I can imagine a future with cities having nothing but electric driverless cars. You’d call for an automated taxi from your wrist-held device. There would very few car wrecks, and cities would be quieter and cleaner. Those of us, who really want to drive, can party on out there on the open roads. Driverlessness will be more common than airplane autopilots.

Nye also praised Tesla’s Powerwall, a home solar panel-powered battery that’s been labeled by some as “another toy for rich green people”:

It’s a good idea. Energy storage is the key to humankind’s future. Tesla has repurposed their car batteries for home energy storage. I have 4 kilowatts of solar panels. With these batteries, I could keep my food cold for a few days off the grid. It’s a good start on a world changing idea.

For those who wanted to talk about something more relatable, Nye also had a few things to say about Chipotle’s decision to eliminate all genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) from its ingredients. The burrito chain’s campaign has elicited pushback from scientists who argue that GMOs should not be linked to health or environmental damages:

Removing GMOs seems like a marketing idea. Let’s see if it works. If they can provide the quality that customers want at the price customers want, well, that’s the free market at work. Consumers may find that they prefer vegetables that have more flavor and more nutritional value from modified crops, in which case Chipotle may have to change back or get outcompeted. Also, if other companies are able to raise more food on less land, they may do an end-run around Chipotle’s marketing by showing that their crops actually have a lower environmental impact. Let’s all stay tuned.

And, of course, there was an attire-related question. One commenter asked, “How possible would it be to solar power a bow tie?” The answer is pretty great:

Yes, I do it all the time. We don’t see things; we see light bouncing off of things. So whenever a bowtie is out in sunlight, its image is powered by the Sun. If you want to put small solar panels on a bowtie and spin a propellor on your head, well, knock yourself out.

Last, Nye had a simple science tip for a Redditor wondering about his controversial view that racial differences aren’t rooted in science, but rather “tribalism”:

O wouldn’t it be great, if everyone on Earth understood that we are, in fact, all one species. It feels like that would be a great step toward all of us getting along with each other. We are one species. It’s provable. It’s science.

TIME space travel

This Is How Ants React in Space

Catherine Ledner—Getty Images

With surprising agility, study finds

Ants aboard the International Space Station showed a surprising ability to regain their footing as they slipped and tumbled through zero gravity, according to a new study that released an ant colony in space just to see what would happen next.

The ants were ferried on a supply rocket to the International Space Station in 2014, where researchers observed how different species might adapt their search habits to a radically new environment.

“The ants showed an impressive ability to walk on the surface in microgravity, and an even more remarkable capacity to regain their contact with the surface once they were tumbling around in the air,” researchers wrote in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Researchers say the results could offer deeper insights into how ants conduct searches of new terrain without centralized commands, an area of particular interest in robotics, and also an area of comedic interest first explored by a prescient episode of the Simpsons:

TIME space travel

The Opportunity Mars Rover Finally Completes a Marathon

But it wasn't exactly a fast race

NASA Mars Rover Opportunity Marathon
NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/NMMNHSThis map shows NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover’s entire traverse from landing to Marathon Valley. The rover completed its first Red Planet marathon Tuesday — 26.219 miles (42.195 kilometers)

The first marathon on Mars was finally completed Tuesday by NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover—and it only took about 11 years and two months.

“This is the first time any human enterprise has exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of another world,” John Callas, the rover’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a celebratory statement. “A first time happens only once.”

Opportunity landed on the Red Planet on Jan. 25, 2004, with an “original three-month prime mission” but since then been driving around and stopping to perform scientific research. As of Tuesday, Opportunity is on the west rim of Endeavor Crater—nicknamed “Marathon Valley”—where it continues to research the planet’s ancient wet conditions.

Opportunity previously broke a record last year when it overtook the former Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 moon rover as the off-Earth rover that had traveled the most distance.

“This mission isn’t about setting distance records, of course; it’s about making scientific discoveries on Mars and inspiring future explorers to achieve even more,” said Steve Squyres, the rover’s principal investigator at Cornell University. “Still, running a marathon on Mars feels pretty cool.”

Opportunity and NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover are the only operating rovers on Mars. NASA’s previous rover, Spirit Mars Rover, became stuck in soft soil in 2009 and ceased communication with scientists in 2010.

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