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Cosmic Space

After 20 years, life on space station is due for a change

Twenty years ago today, the first crew moved into the International Space Station, kicking off what’s turned out to be the longest continuous stretch of habitation in any spacecraft. Now the space station is gearing up for another change of life.

The station’s first occupants — NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko — may not be as well known as, say, Neil Armstrong or John Glenn. But they did blaze a trail for the nearly 240 spacefliers from 19 countries who followed them to the orbital outpost.

Leading up to Nov. 2, 2000, the space station was envisioned as a steppingstone to the moon, Mars and beyond. Although the station never reached its potential as a literal way station for journeys beyond Earth orbit, NASA still talks up its value as a proving ground for future moon missions.

More than 3,000 science experiments have been conducted on the space station over the past 20 years, focusing on topics ranging from zero-G microbiology and plant growth to the ways in which long-duration spaceflight affects the human body and psyche. Perhaps the best-known experiment is the study that compared NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s in-flight health status with that of his earthbound twin brother, former astronaut (and current Senate candidate) Mark Kelly.

The study raised questions about the potential impact of weightlessness and space radiation on long-term spacefliers. Over the course of nearly a year in space, Scott Kelly was found to have developed a heightened immune response to his self-administered flu shot. His genes also recorded a higher level of DNA repair than his brother’s, and the patterns of gene expression changed (although he was still genetically identical to his twin brother, despite what you may have heard).

NASA ranks the experiment involving the Kelly twins among the top 20 breakthroughs in space station science and technology. But you could argue that the most significant space station experiments relate to commercialization on the final frontier.

Back in 2012, SpaceX’s robotic Dragon capsule became the first privately built, commercial spacecraft to rendezvous with and resupply the space station. This year, an upgraded SpaceX Dragon made history as the first private-sector spaceship to carry humans into orbit — with the space station as its destination.

So what’s next? Next year may well see the first filming of a big-budget Hollywood movie in orbit, starring Tom Cruise — courtesy of a startup called Axiom Space, acting in concert with NASA and SpaceX. Axiom aims to have its own habitation module affixed to the space station by as early as 2024, as a preparatory step for a standalone outpost in low Earth orbit.

Meanwhile, Texas-based Nanoracks is getting set to have its Bishop Airlock sent to the space station sometime in the next couple of  months, as part of a SpaceX Dragon shipment. Like Axiom’s habitation module, the commercial airlock is seen as an opening move that could eventually lead to free-flying orbital outposts.

Boeing, the prime commercial contractor for the space station, is part of the team for Axiom’s module as well as for Nanoracks’ airlock. (Seattle-based Olis Robotics and Stratolaunch have also been on Nanoracks’ outpost team.)

If commercial space ventures follow through on their ambitions, it may not be long before private-sector astronauts outnumber the space station’s government-supported crew, which has ranged between two and six over the past 20 years.

NASA’s current plan calls for commercial entities to take over management of the space station’s U.S. segment in the years ahead. Theoretically, that would free up government funding to focus on the next “steppingstone to the moon and Mars” — a moon-orbiting outpost known as the Gateway.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture may well play a part in building the Gateway, by virtue of its partnership with Maxar Technologies. Blue Origin has also floated its own proposal for an orbital outpost, and is leading a lunar lander consortium that includes Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. SpaceX and Boeing are sure to be in on the next steps in space exploration as well.

In the years ahead, will the International Space Station become a shopworn space arcade, replaying the latter days of Russia’s Mir space station? Will it be deorbited, following in Mir’s fiery footsteps? Or could the world’s first international outpost in space undergo the orbital equivalent of urban renewal, backed by private investment?

The space station’s status as a steppingstone to Mars may be fading fast. But its time as a steppingstone to commercial activities and a commercial workforce on the final frontier may be just starting.

Further reflections on 20 years of life on the space station:

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Cosmic Space

Moon rovers win Washington state landmark status

Three hot rods on the moon are now official Washington state historic landmarks, thanks to a unanimous vote by a state commission.

The thumbs-up, delivered on Friday during a virtual public hearing organized by the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, provided state landmark status to the rovers that Boeing built at its facilities in Kent, Wash., and that NASA sent to the moon for the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions.

King County awarded similar status more than a year ago, but the state commission’s 9-0 vote — delayed for several months due to the coronavirus outbreak — literally takes the landmarks to the next level. The rovers are now eligible for listing in the Washington Heritage Register.

California and New Mexico set the precedent for declaring landmarks on the moon. Those states laid claim to the Apollo 11 site, by virtue of their connection to the scores of artifacts left behind at Tranquility Base.

Washington state’s connection to the rovers widens the range of lunar landmark locales to the Hadley-Apennine region (Apollo 15 in 1971), the Descartes Highlands (Apollo 16 in 1972) and the Taurus-Littrow region (Apollo 17 in 1972).

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NASA revives formerly forbidden ‘worm’ logo

NASA logo on SpaceX rocket
The NASA “worm” logo appears on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that’s due to launch a Crew Dragon spacecraft as early as next month. (SpaceX Photo)

NASA is restoring a squiggly graphic representation of its acronym, known as “the Worm,” to a place of prominence, 28 years after it was consigned to the dustbin of space history.

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Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden dies at 88

Retired astronaut Al Worden, who was once called the “loneliest human being” because of his role as Apollo 15’s command module pilot in 1971, died in his sleep in Houston on March 17 at the age of 88, his family announced.

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Boeing-built moon buggies win landmark status

Astronaut John Young and lunar rover
Apollo 16 astronaut John Young collects samples near the mission’s lunar rover in 1972. (NASA Photo)

King County now has three landmarks that are out of this world. Literally.

Tonight, the King County Landmarks Commission unanimously approved historic landmark designation for the Boeing-built rovers that were left behind on the moon by the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions nearly a half-century ago.

The landmark decision, delivered during a meeting in Kent, Wash., came in response to a request from Kent city officials and the Kent Downtown Partnership. Why Kent? That’s where the Boeing assembled and tested the lunar rovers.

“Above all, the designation for the City of Kent acts as a reminder of the dedicated engineers who changed history through the creation of the Lunar Roving Vehicles 50 years ago,” Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said in a statement. “The momentous recognition for Kent Valley allows for continued education and remembrance of the tangible impact these vehicles have had on space exploration indefinitely.”

The next step will be to win landmark recognition from Washington state and get the rovers added to the Washington Heritage Register.

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Apollo anniversary brings tributes and questions

A Saturn V rocket is projected on the Washington Monument during a 17-minute multimedia presentation celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Fifty years after Apollo 11’s moonwalkers took one giant leap for humanity, luminaries including President Donald Trump and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — the world’s richest individual — paid tribute to the achievement and looked forward to the future of spaceflight.

Today’s observances were about more than memories: There were also fresh questions about where that future might lead — plus a Russian rocket launch that resonated with references to the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1960s.

The marquee observance on today’s anniversary of the landing on July 20, 1969, came at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where Vice President Mike Pence invoked the legacy of the Apollo program and hailed NASA’s initiative to send astronauts to the moon once again by 2024.

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Mission Control’s unsung heroes revisit Apollo

Mission Control, 1969
Flight directors are on duty at NASA’s Mission Control Center during the Apollo 10 mission in May 1969. Gerry Griffin is in the foreground, Glynn Lunney is seated to his right, and Milt Windler is standing behind them. Chris Kraft, director of flight operations, is standing in the background. (NASA Photo)

This episode of the GeekWire Podcast is part of the Destination Moon podcrawl, organized by Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Fifty years ago, it took a special kind of person to work in NASA’s Apollo Mission Control: Take Gerry Griffin and Milt Windler, for example.

Both men got their degrees in aeronautical engineering and became jet fighter pilots — but when NASA needed flight controllers for the space race against the Soviets, they answered the call and traded their cockpits for control panels. Both were elevated to flight director roles in the wake of the Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts in 1967. There was one key requirement for the job: winning the approval of Chris Kraft, director of flight operations at Mission Control in Houston.

“Chris Kraft decided he needed more flight directors to make it to Apollo, and in those days, if Chris wanted you to be a flight director, you were a flight director,” Griffin said during a recent stopover at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. “Nowadays you have to go through a certification process. …”

“We probably wouldn’t have made the cut,” Windler joked.

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Moonshot tales highlight little-known twists

Scene from "8 Days"
Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins (played by Patrick Kennedy) looks out at the moon in a dramatization that’s part of “8 Days: To the Moon and Back.” (BBC Studios)

Even after 50 years, it’s still possible to find new angles on one of history’s most widely witnessed events — as this year’s retellings of the Apollo 11 moon saga demonstrate.

The golden anniversary of the historic mission to the lunar surface in July 1969 provides the hook for a new wave of documentaries showing up in movie theaters and on video screens. Perhaps the best-known example is “Apollo 11,” which capitalized on recently rediscovered 70mm film footage from NASA’s vaults as well as 19,000 hours’ worth of audio recordings of Mission Control conversations.

But “Chasing the Moon,” a six-hour documentary series that premieres July 8 on PBS, freshens the Apollo story in different ways. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Robert Stone goes back to the roots of the U.S.-Soviet moon race and brings in perspectives that rarely get a share of the spotlight.

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Apollo 11 flight manual goes on the road

Apollo 11 Lunar Module Timeline Book
The Apollo 11 Lunar Module Timeline Book sits in a display case at the Living Computers Museum + Labs, with a picture of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in the background. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module Timeline Book that sat between Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin for the moon landing 50 years ago is going up for auction, at a price that’s expected to amount to as much as $9 million — but first, it’s going on display.

Today, for one day only, the ring-bound flight manual is on exhibit inside a glass case at Seattle’s Living Computers Museum + Labs. From Seattle, the book travels on to Palo Alto, Calif., for another one-day preview Thursday at the Pace Gallery. Then it’s off to Christie’s auction house in New York for a showing from July 11 to 17.

Christie’s is featuring the book as the marquee item in a 195-lot auction of space artifacts and memorabilia scheduled for July 18, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission.

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Jeff Bezos sizes up the past and present space race

Caroline Kennedy and Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos checks out a framed facsimile of a note bearing the signatures of three Mercury astronauts, given as a gift by Caroline Kennedy. (JFK Library Foundation Photo / Tom Fitzsimmons)

Back in 1962, President John F. Kennedy said he chose to have Americans go to the moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard. Today, billionaire Jeff Bezos said it’s still hard — and in some ways, it’s even harder than it was in the ’60s.

Bezos, the world’s richest person by virtue of his status as the founder of Amazon and the Blue Origin space venture, laid out his argument during a discussion with the late president’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Today’s “JFK Library Space Summit” was a daylong affair that drew luminaries ranging from Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg.

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