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Dear readers,

We're not sure if Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin were watching Sunday when SpaceX's Crew Dragon lifted off from Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral for its first fully operational mission—but the odds are pretty good that they were. Astronauts from past eras of space travel tend to keep up with the doings in the modern one. Either way, the overall audience for the launch was big—NASA's site carried it live, as did the cable news channels. But of all the people who were watching, it was Lovell and Aldrin whose attention would be the most important, or at least the most poignant.

In 1966, 54 years earlier to the day, the pair splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean after a nearly four day, 59-orbit mission in their Gemini 12 spacecraft. The flight was close to flawless. The crew successfully docked with an uncrewed Agena spacecraft, while Aldrin logged more than five hours outside the Gemini over the course of three separate spacewalks. The tenth and final flight of the Gemini series, it was by any measure a perfect capstone.

"In 10 manned Gemini missions since March, 1965," read the next day's New York Times, "Gemini astronauts demonstrated their ability to rendezvous and link up with target vehicles, fire a target Agena's rocket to climb to a record altitude, fly for 14 days without any ill effects and bring their crafts to precise landings."

NASA
Astronauts James A. Lovell Jr. (left), command pilot, and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., pilot, receive official welcome as they arrive aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Wasp, Nov. 15, 1966.

All of those achievements were essential dress rehearsals for getting astronauts to and from the moon. But Gemini's success was as much about hardware as it was about piloting acumen. Those 10 flights over the course of 20 months factored out to one crewed mission every eight weeks, with Geminis rolling off the assembly line at McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis, getting mounted atop their Titan boosters and rocketing into space with a regularity that was unimaginable only a few years earlier.

SpaceX is aiming to achieve a similar gas-up-and-go capability—and in some ways it already has, with more than 100 launches since 2008. But only two so far have been crewed: the current four-person mission, and the first, experimental one, which carried two astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) back in May. Because space station crews stay aloft for six months at a time, there is no need for the company to match Gemini's pace, at least when it comes to crewed missions. But with astronauts' lives on the line, it is very much aiming for the same reliability—a thought echoed by outgoing NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine after last weekend's launch.

“This is another historic moment,” he said. "[But] make no mistake: Vigilance is always required on every flight.”

Space—as people say over and over—is hard; the shopworn nature of the phrase makes it no less true. Nov. 15, 2020 was a very good day for SpaceX and the nation as a whole. We will need many more good days to see that space continues to be explored routinely, reliably and, far and away most importantly, safely.

—Jeffrey Kluger


IMAGE OF THE WEEK
NASA

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft took off with its four-person crew in a blaze of fire on Nov. 15. A little over a day later, it was pictured serenely and silently drifting in for its docking with the ISS.


WHAT WE’RE READING

Scientific bounty headed for space station

Now that SpaceX is solidly in the business of flying crews to the International Space Station, it's easy to overlook the yeoman's work it continues to do in sending uncrewed resupply missions to the station, too. NASA hopes to change that, with a new release highlighting the deeply cool science that will soon be taking place on the station, after the Dec. 2 launch of SpaceX's next cargo flight.

Among other things, the shipment includes human heart tissue chips—living cardiac cells embedded in a three-dimensional chip that astronauts can use to study how heart cells adapt to extended periods in zero-gravity. That's no small thing, since the heart has to work a lot less hard to pump blood in space than it does on Earth, where every beat battles gravity. Given that no single astronaut has spent more than a year or so in space, it's important to learn how the heart may (or may not) handle Mars-bound missions that could stretch two years or longer.

Also ready to ship: meteorite samples infused with living microbes that interact with rock, releasing minerals and metals in a process known as "biomining;' the technique could one day be used at scale to harvest lunar or Martian resources.

The fabulous flying Sergeys

It's hard enough to tell spacewalking astronauts apart—what with their reflective visors and androgynously inflated suits. So things got even more confusing earlier this week when Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov slipped into their Orlan spacesuits and drifted through an ISS airlock for a long stretch of outdoor work. As Space.com and others report, to make things easier, mission controllers addressed neither by their names, instead designating Ryzhikov as "EV1" and Kud-Sverchkov "EV2;" EV stands for "for extravehicular." Kud-Sverchkov also wore blue stripes on his suit, while Ryzhikov wore red.

But there was much more on the line than just telling one crewman from the other. The cosmonauts were preparing the station for the arrival of a long-delayed Nakua laboratory module, which has been in development since 2007 and is finally ready to fly sometime next year. To make room for Nakua, the crew will disconnect and jettison the venerable Pirs module, which has served as a docking node for incoming Soyuz spacecraft and as an exit portal for spacewalks. The ISS—a work in progress for more than 20 years—continues to change and grow.

A bad day for an iffy rocket

No matter how much work and money goes into building satellites, space telescopes and crewed spacecraft, none of them are going anywhere unless they first survive a fiery ride to space aboard a rocket that, by definition, is little more than a giant cylinder of explosive fuel. And sometimes things go awry—like on Nov. 16, when a Vega rocket, built by the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, malfunctioned after a launch from French Guiana. Lost in the accident, as SpaceNews reports, were Spain's first Earth observation satellite and a French satellite designed to study the atmosphere.

While occasional accidents are inevitable, there was more than the usual finger-pointing this time around, as it marked the Vega's second failure in three attempts, dating back to July 2019, when a United Arab Emirates satellite was lost. In Vega's defense, its first 14 launches were successful, but in a "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" industry, that carries little weight.

"I want to present my deepest apologies to my customers for this mission," said Stéphane Israël, CEO of Vega maker Arianespace, in a statement. The cause of the accident has since been traced to the upper stage of the four-stage rocket, which nearly made it to space before veering off course.

A female NASA administrator at last?

It was bad news for Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) when she lost her reelection bid on Nov. 3—but it could be good news for NASA. After 62 years and 23 different administrators or interim administrators, a woman has never held the top job. Horn, currently the chair of the House Science Committee's space subcommittee, could at last break that streak.

President-elect Joe Biden has a lot of cabinet-level posts to fill before he gets around to making a NASA pick. But Biden has been clear that he wants diversity in his administration, causing many in Washington to raise Horn's name. If she gets the job, she might bring a refreshing frankness; the kabuki rules for potential appointees ahead of a new administration calls for humble demurrals about being honored simply to be considered, but in an interview with SpaceNews, Horn was more candid. Asked about the NASA job, she said it “would be an exciting opportunity” and touted her subcommittee role as an important resumé item.

“It would provide some good insight and help continue the momentum that’s been building on moon to Mars.” In addition to frankness she might also bring toughness, having introduced a House authorization bill that criticized aspects of NASA's lunar exploration program for, among other things, relying on a public-private partnership to develop a lunar lander, rather than leaving that work in the hands of NASA, as it was in the Apollo days.

Farewell, Aricebo

Puerto Rico's Aricebo observatory went into service in 1963, and since then it has done consistently important work—and also earned screen time in the movies Contact and GoldenEye. But Aricebo will soon be no more, with the National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the observatory, preparing to decommission it this year.

As Space.com reports, the observatory's death knell occurred earlier this month after a major support cable snapped. But its hard times started in 2014 when an earthquake that struck Puerto Rico damaged the facility. Aricebo was mostly spared serious damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017, but more earthquakes this year caused it to be shuttered for inspection, and the coronavirus pandemic has kept most of its staff at a distance, complicating maintenance. Finally, inspections were done and repairs on a minor support cable began on Nov. 6. No sooner did the work get underway, however, than the much more critical main cable snapped. That was it for the 57-year-old facility.

"NSF prioritizes the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory’s staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate," said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan in a statement. "We will be looking for ways to assist the scientific community and maintain that strong relationship with the people of Puerto Rico."

To our readers: The space newsletter will be taking a break next week for Thanksgiving. Have a safe and happy holiday and we'll see you again on Dec. 4.


THANKS FOR READING

TIME Space is written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME and the author of 10 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8 and two novels for young adults. Follow him at @jeffreykluger. It is edited by Alex Fitzpatrick.

We welcome any feedback at space@time.com.

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