This morning Space X launched the first full version of their Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The company’s rocket underwent a successful test launch back in July, and this launch successfully put their Dragon capsule into orbit. The capsule orbited earth for about 3 1/2 hours, then re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, where it will be recovered later this afternoon. This was the first successful commercial spaceflight involving re-entry and recovery. The Dragon capsule is under contract to NASA to carry cargo to the International Space Station. Space X is in a battle to also win a contract from NASA to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS once the Space Shuttle is retired next year. A slightly different version of the Dragon capsule would be used for this, atop the same Falcon 9 rocket. This test’s success puts Elon Musk’s Space X much closer to that goal.

I am quite confident that Space X, or whatever other commercial spaceflight company that wins the NASA contract, will be able to cheaply and safely get our astronauts to and from the ISS. There is absolutely no reason NASA should devote more than basic oversight and money to this task. What NASA needs to focus its efforts on now is going beyond the ISS- to asteroids, to Mars, and even farther than that.

In other news, Mozilla has adopted two Red Pandas (aka firefoxes) and is streaming their activities live at http://firefoxlive.mozilla.org. What’s most awesome about this is that they’re being kept at the Knoxville Zoo, right here in Tennessee. I DARE you to watch the videos of them and not smile. (Via Candice Burnside)

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The Senate and the House of Representatives have both passed their own versions of Obama’s proposed budget for NASA. As I’ve mentioned here before, Obama’s plan to abandon the Constellation program and leave American access to low earth orbit in the hands of the private sector was met with a good bit of criticism, both from Republicans and Democrats alike. Though I supported (and still support) his initial plan, I figured we would end up with some sort of compromise in the end. Not surprisingly, that’s where we’re headed now that the Senate and House versions have come out. I don’t have the time nor the willpower to type out the gritty details of the differences, but in a nutshell, the Senate wants to extend the space shuttle by another mission or two, slash funding for commercial space companies in half, accelerate the development of a heavy-lift rocket based on current shuttle booster technology, and slash funding of research into advanced technologies. For a more detailed comparison between Obama’s plan and the Senate plan, check out this article on Universe Today.

The House plan, which was issue by the House Science and Technology Committee (chaired by TN’s own Bart Gordon) is even worse. They want to slash funding for development of commercial access to low earth orbit by MUCH more than the Senate version, and like the Senate they want to speed up development of a heavy-lift rocket. The biggest problem is that the House version essentially brings back Constellation. For more detailed info on the House version, check out this article on Space.com.

I’m by no means a politician or an economics expert, but I’m firm in my belief that if NASA keeps focusing money and effort on access to LEO/the ISS, then we are spinning our wheels and making no progress. NASA cannot keep funding and worrying about getting our astronauts to and from the ISS AND worry about/fund our exploration into the rest of the solar system at the same time.

Today President Obama will speak at the Kennedy Space Center and unveil his updated vision for space exploration to the public and to NASA. The original plan he put forth in Feb. was met with harsh criticism because it canceled the entire Constellation program and left the job of getting astronauts to the International Space Station and low-earth orbit entirely in the hands of private industry after the scheduled termination of the Space Shuttle program in 2015. A few days ago intentionally-leaked information hit the blogosphere and rumors abound about what his updated plan will look like. The biggest rumors are that he’ll be injecting an additional $6 billion over the next few years specifically targeted at development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle. This rocket would primarily be for getting parts of a larger spacecraft into orbit, and no doubt that larger spacecraft will be intended to take humans to Mars and other solar system destinations. The other big rumor is that he wants to bring back one component of the gutted Constellation program- the Orion crew capsule. Instead of being the primary method of getting US astronauts to the ISS, however, it will simply serve as a US escape capsule attached to the ISS. This would alleviate the problem of US astronauts relying on the Russian Soyuz capsule as an escape pod. More on these rumors can be found at Universe Today and Space.com.

I will be watching the live coverage of Obama’s speech on NASA’s website. The streaming video starts at 12:30pm CDT, and Obama’s speech is scheduled for 1:40pm CDT. I’m looking forward to seeing just what he has in mind and how well he sells the idea to the skeptics and naysayers.

For the record, as I’ve said before, I’m totally behind his plan, and not just because I’m a liberal and I voted for him. NASA has gotten into a rut ever since the Apollo era, mostly due to political bullshit. They’ve done some awesome stuff, but the drive to explore new horizons has largely been lost. With the budding new private spaceflight industry there’s no reason why NASA can’t utilize them to do the simple, routine tasks of getting us to the ISS and low-earth orbit. NASA would be spinning its wheels and wasting money to focus on that task. To fulfill its original purpose, NASA need to focus its efforts getting us further into our solar system- Mars, asteroids, and robotic explorations to places like Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus, and Jupiter’s moon Europa, all of which have exciting potential as homes for microbial extraterrestrial life.

So tune in to Obama’s speech at 1:40 today, and in the meantime, check out astronomer Neil Degrasse Tyson’s comments on NASA’s future, from a recent Q & A session at the University of Buffalo.

(Via Bad Astronomy)

It’s been a minute since I mentioned the NASA budget/direction controversy, so here’s a bit of an update:

Lots of NASA employees and contractors in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral have launched a campaign against Obama’s budget cuts/change of direction for NASA. They are doing this because when the shuttle program winds down later this year, and the Constellation program gets ousted altogether, there won’t be nearly as many jobs in the area. That’s a legitimate concern, but in the big picture, I say it’s a necessary evil. Besides, these people are engineers, scientists, etc… they are all very smart and quite capable of finding work in other areas, maybe even for the private companies like SpaceX that will take over the duties of getting cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. I am all for Obama’s plan, because it pushes NASA to look ahead into exploring the rest of our solar system. That’s where the REAL science/discoveries happen. In reality the space shuttle is a dinosaur- it’s expensive to maintain, and it’s not safe. It has no bailout system whatsoever, so if something goes wrong (see: Challenger and Columbia), the astronauts inside are screwed. It is most definitely an impressive piece of engineering, but it’s time to move on. NASA can NOT continue spinning its wheels, never getting us past the ISS and/or low Earth orbit. NASA needs to focus its efforts/money on projects like the VASIMR plasma rocket engine, which could cut a spacecraft’s trip to Mars from 6 months to roughly 40 days. The new commercial spaceflight companies will be more than capable of handling NASA’s cargo and low Earth orbit needs much sooner than NASA could on its own via the Constellation program. End of rant.

In some happier science news, Google is developing a new thermal mirror energy system that could cut the cost of electricity to 5 cents per kWh. This would make solar thermal energy much cheaper than coal. These stations are made up of a huge array of mirrors arranged so that they create one gigantic parabolic mirror. The parabolic shape reflects all the sunlight into one point, at which a heat-collecting device is mounted (on top of a tower), which in turn heats water into steam that runs a turbine to generate power. Naturally this system is only good for areas which receive a lot of sunlight such as deserts, but if Google can make them cheap to build, they could play a big part in getting the world weened off of fossil fuels for energy production. As I’ve said before, we shouldn’t be fiddling with ways to cleanup our use of fossil fuels, we should be focusing eliminating our dependence on them altogether. (Via EcoGeek)

Finally, the earthquake that rocked Chile over the weekend may have actually shortened the length of a day. Granted the current estimate is that our day was shortened by only 1.26 milliseconds, but that’s still pretty amazing. Not only did the day shorten, but the figure axis was also offset by about 3 inches. Think of how big this planet is… that earthquake had to release an unfathomable amount of energy to actually alter its axis! (Via Space.com)