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Randy Cassingham

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Space Archives

  Amazing Factoid

The first non-story commentary to appear in the newsletter:

Interest in the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impact on Jupiter was so intense that people couldn't get enough of it -- despite lukewarm media coverage of the once-in-a-dozen-lifetimes event.

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  The Red Planet

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner rover have completed their primary mission on Mars, returning 9,669 pictures of the surface and a huge amount of other scientific data about our red neighbor.

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  One Small Step for [a] Man

It was 30 years ago Tuesday that Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong piloted the Eagle -- the first manned lunar-landing spacecraft -- to the surface of the moon. He had to land manually, as the onboard computer couldn't process instructions fast enough as they sped toward a field of boulders; landing on them would have surely meant death. But he settled down with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining and, after a few hours of rest, stepped onto the surface of our moon, followed shortly by Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, while Michael Collins circled less than 10 miles overhead in the command module, Columbia.

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  Art Imitating Life

I caught up this week with one of the few TV shows I'm watching -- the newest Star Trek series, Enterprise. The episode I saw this week had the ship come across a comet. A landing party went down to it, blasted out a crater, and took a core sample. (Nitpick for the producers: an 80km comet* doesn't produce full Earth gravity! Sheesh!)

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  Let's Go to Pluto

You already know I'm a space junkie. One of my former colleagues at JPL got a mission to Pluto up and running -- the only planet we haven't sent a probe to yet. It's tough these days to get probes built and launched, not because of technology but politics. A reporter once asked my friend "What is the most difficult part of the mission to Pluto?" He said that was easy: "the part from here to Washington." He was too right: the mission was canceled because, Washington says, at $800 million it was over budget. The problem was it wasn't really over budget: the final cost estimate was actually $496 million. Former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin admitted later that they needed $200 million extra for Mars missions, so they took it from Pluto, which killed that mission. After all, Mars is a sexier planet, in part because it will take so long to get to Pluto (nearly 10 years!)

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  Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

This weekend the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed during its atmospheric re-entry after a successful 16-day mission.

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  Pluto Planet Day

Long-time readers know I have a special place in my heart for the planet Pluto. It's not just that I spent 10 years working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and worked on the precursor project to the probe that's on the way there now. One of my earliest memories is going to the Griffith Observatory (I grew up in L.A. for the first 10 years), and insisting that I be allowed to buy a photograph of the outer planets at the gift shop. I remember Jupiter and Saturn being very clear, and Neptune being a bit fuzzy, and each taking up a quarter of the 8x10 print. In the fourth quarter: a field of stars with an arrow at a point of light labeled "Pluto". I wanted to know why we didn't have a much closer view! (This was definitely several years before Apollo.) I indeed was allowed to get the photo, and I had it for many years. Sadly, it disappeared during one of my moves.

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  Seven Minutes of Terror

"Seven Minutes of Terror" -- that's what NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where I worked for 10 years before leaving to work on True full time, went through yesterday. The Phoenix lander arrived at the top of Mars' atmosphere after a 9-month voyage, and it was moving at about 12,750 miles per hour. It had to "hit the brakes" (mainly with atmospheric drag and a super-high-strength parachute, but also at the end with rockets), and get down to just 5 mph for its soft landing on the surface just 7 minutes later.

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  My Highest Recommendation

Now and then I mention interesting books I'm reading, or TV shows I'm watching. I've found two related TV specials that are so good, I ended up saving them and showing them to my wife, who is also finding them fascinating.

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  Dinner with Neil Armstrong

On Saturday my wife and I had the opportunity to "have dinner with" the first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong. It happened to be almost exactly* 43 years after that spectacular event. Like many kids who grew up in the 60s and watched that history being made, Armstrong was a hero to me, so when I got the opportunity to do this, I of course leapt at it.

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  Curiosity: the Mars Science Laboratory

My writing time this week was interrupted, even I only started in the late evening, because I had my satellite TV tuned in to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where they were monitoring the landing of the latest rover on Mars, Curiosity (the best-named science craft ever); the mission itself is called the Mars Science Laboratory — accurate, if not as inspiring.

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  There Are Still Adventures

It's 2012. There are no more adventures. Been there, done that, seen it, ho hum, right?

Wrong.

There are still adventures to be had in this world, and several of them happened this past week.

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  NASA Outreach on Social Media

As a life-long NASA geek (and former employee of a NASA center), I pay reasonably close attention to the goings on at NASA. I spotted something in my Facebook feed, though, that made me roll my eyes about how not to inform the public about something that should be of great interest.

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  Loyalty Oath

I have quite a bit to say about the lead story this week. Let’s start with the story, from the 23 November 2014 issue:

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