Big Space Weekend

Most of the buzz – deservedly so – has been gathering for the landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover, scheduled to touch down at 1:31 a.m. Eastern late tonight/early tomorrow (0531 UTC, 10:31 p.m. Pacific).  If you have NASA TV, or care to visit the NASA website, you should be able to watch mission control starting sometime this evening.  Watching it in real time is a bit mind-bending, as Mars is far enough away that by the time a message comes in, enough time will have passed for it to be impossible to do anything to affect what happens next.

While there is a video out there by NASA with dueling Star Trek narrations, I won’t take sides. Instead, I offer this description of just how difficult it is to decelerate from 13,000 miles per hour to a soft landing on another planet.

The Rover is on Twitter – @MarsCuriosity if you want to keep track of what it’s doing now and after it touches down on the Red Planet.

The less publicized, but perhaps equally important news is NASA’s Friday announcement of its partners in the next round of Commercial Crew Integration Capability funding.  NASA will partner with Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada corporation in helping them further develop their existing spacecraft for use in transporting humans into space.  Over the next 21 months (until May of 2014), these companies will work on improving their craft and demonstrating to NASA that they are capable of managing human spaceflight missions.

All the vehicles involved would be reusable spacecraft.  Boeing’s CST-100 capsule and SpaceX’s Dragon crafts are both capsule designs, while Sierra Nevada’s Dream Catcher is a spaceplane reminiscent of the recently retired Space Shuttle.  Of the three, only the Dragon has been successfully tested in space, having docked with the International Space Station in May 2012.

For all the complaints in Washington about NASA, I think there’s much to be appreciated.  This weekend should reinforce this.

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