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    • By NASA
      The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) launched together from Cape Canaveral Air Force, now Space Force, Station on June 18, 2009, atop an Atlas V launch vehicle. The primary mission of the LRO, managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, involved imaging the entire Moon’s surface to create a 3-D map with ~50-centimeter resolution to aid in the planning of future robotic and crewed missions. In addition, LRO would map the polar regions and search for the presence of water ice. Although its primary mission intended to last only one year, it continues to operate after 15 years in lunar orbit. The LCROSS, managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, planned to further investigate the presence of water ice in permanently shaded areas of the Moon’s polar regions. The two components of LCROSS, the Centaur upper stage of the launch vehicle and the Shepherding Satellite, planned to deliberately crash into the Moon. Instruments on Earth and aboard LRO and the LCROSS Shepherding Satellite would observe the resulting plumes and analyze them for the presence of water.

      Left: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), top, silver, and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), bottom, gold, spacecraft during placement inside the launch shroud. Right: Launch of LRO and LCROSS on an Atlas V rocket.
      The LRO spacecraft carries seven scientific instruments:
      the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) to characterize the lunar radiation environment; the Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment (DLRE) to identify areas cold enough to trap ice; the Lyman-Alpha Mapping Project (LMAP) to search for ice in the lunar polar regions; the Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector (LEND) to create a map of hydrogen distribution and to determine the neutron component of the lunar radiation environment; the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) to measure slopes and roughness of potential landing sites; the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) consisting of two-narrow angle and one wide-angle camera to take high-resolution images of the lunar surface; and the Mini Radio Frequency (Mini-RF) experiment, an advanced radar system to image the polar regions and search for water ice.
      Left: Illustration of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and its scientific instruments. Right: Illustration of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite and its scientific instruments on panel at left.
      The LCROSS Shepherding Satellite carried nine instruments – five cameras (one visible, two near-infrared, and two mid-infrared); three spectrometers (one visible and two near-infrared); and a photometer. They monitored the plume sent up by the impact of the Centaur upper stage.

      Left: Illustration of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in lunar orbit. Right: Illustration of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite’s Shepherding Satellite at left and Centaur upper stage at right prior to lunar impact.
      On June 23, 2009, after a four-and-a-half-day journey from Earth, LRO entered an elliptical polar orbit around the Moon. Over the next four days, four engine burns refined the spacecraft’s orbit and engineers on the ground began commissioning its instruments. The LROC returned its first image of the Moon on June 30 of an area near the Mare Nubium. On Sept. 15, 2009, LRO began its primary one-year mission to map the lunar surface from its science orbit 31 miles above the Moon.  
      On Oct. 9, 2009, first the Centaur upper stage followed five minutes later by the LCROSS Shepherding Satellite crashed into the Moon’s Cabeus Crater near the lunar south pole. Although the impacts created smaller plumes than anticipated, instruments detected signs of water in the ejected debris.
      In September 2010, LRO completed its primary mapping mission and began an extended science mission around the Moon. On Dec. 17, NASA released the most detailed topographic map covering more than 98 percent of the Moon’s surface based on data from LRO’s LOLA instrument. The map continues to be updated as new data are received from the spacecraft. On March 15, 2011, LRO had made available more than 192 terabytes of data from its primary mission to the NASA Planetary Data System, or PDS, to make the information available to researchers, students, media, and the general public. LRO  continues to deliver data to the PDS, having generated the largest volume of data from a NASA planetary science mission ever.

      Left: First high-resolution image of the Moon taken by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Middle: Mosaic of LRO images of the Moon’s near side. Right: Mosaic of LRO images of the Moon’s far side.

      Left: Mosaic of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) images of the lunar north pole. Right: Mosaic of LRO images of the lunar south pole.
      The LCROSS data showed that the lunar soil within shadowy craters is rich in useful materials, such as hydrogen gas, ammonia, and methane, which could be used to produce fuel for space missions. Large amounts of light metals, such as sodium, mercury, and silver, were discovered. The data revealed that there is perhaps as much as hundreds of millions of tons of frozen water on the Moon, enough to make it an effective oasis for future explorers.
      Thanks to its unique vantage point in a low altitude lunar orbit, LRO’s camera has taken remarkably detailed images of all six Apollo landing sites. The detail is such that not only can the Lunar Module (LM) descent stages be clearly identified, but disturbances of the lunar soil by the astronauts’ boots, the shadows of the American flag are visible at five of the landing sites, and the Lunar Rovers from the last three missions are even visible. The scientific instruments, and in at least three of the landing sites, the U.S. flag left by the astronauts can be discerned. The flag at the Apollo 11 site cannot be seen because it most likely was blown over by the exhaust of the LM’s ascent stage engine when the astronauts lifted off. In addition to the Apollo landing sites, LRO has also imaged crash and soft-landing sites of other American, Soviet, Chinese, Indian, and Israeli spacecraft, including craters left by the deliberate impacts of Apollo S-IVB upper stages. It also imaged a Korean satellite in lunar orbit as the two flew within a few miles of each other at high speed. LRO also turned its camera Earthward to catch stunning Earthrise views, one image with Mars in the background, and the Moon’s shadow on the Earth during the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024.

      Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images of the Apollo 11, left, 12, and 14 landing sites.

      Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images of the Apollo 15, left, 16, and 17 landing sites.

      Left: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) image of Luna 17 that landed on the Moon on Nov. 17, 1970, and the tracks of the Lunokhod 1 rover that it deployed. Middle: LRO image of the Chang’e 4 lander and Yutu 2 rover that landed on the Moon’s far side on Jan. 3, 2019. Right: LRO image of the Chandrayaan 3 lander taken four days after it landed on the Moon on Aug. 23, 2023.

      Left: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) image of Odysseus that landed on the Moon on Feb. 22, 2024. Middle: LRO image taken on March 5, 2024, of the Danuri lunar orbiting satellite as the two passed within 3 miles of each other at a relative velocity of 7,200 miles per hour. Right: LRO image of the Chang’e 6 lander on the Moon’s farside, taken on June 7, 2024.

      Left: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) image of Earthrise over Compton Crater taken Oct. 12, 2015. Middle: LRO image of Earth and Mars taken Oct. 2, 2014. Right: LRO image of the total solar eclipse taken on April 8, 2024.
      The LRO mission continues with the spacecraft returning images and data from its instruments. LRO has enough fuel on board to operate until 2027. The spacecraft can support new robotic lunar activities and the knowledge from the mission will help aid in the return of humans to the lunar surface. 
      View the full article
    • By NASA
      The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), a joint classified project of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), sought to establish a crewed platform in low Earth orbit to obtain high-resolution photographic imagery of America’s 1960s Cold War adversaries. Approved in 1965, the MOL Program envisioned a series of space stations launched from a new pad in California and placed in low polar Earth orbit. Two-man crews, launching and returning to Earth aboard modified Gemini-B capsules, would work aboard the stations for 30 days at a time. Although the Air Force selected 17 pilots and built prototype hardware, the program faced budget pressures and competition from rapidly advancing technologies in uncrewed reconnaissance capabilities, leading to its cancellation on June 10, 1969.

      Left: Patch of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program. Middle: Illustration of the MOL as it would have appeared in orbit. Image credit: Courtesy National Air and Space Museum. Right: Space Launch Complex-6 under construction in 1966 at Vandenberg Air Force (now Space Force) Base in California. Image credit: Courtesy National Reconnaissance Office.
      Announced by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in December 1963 and formally approved by President Lyndon B. Johnson in August 1965, the MOL Program envisioned a series of 60-foot-long space stations in low polar Earth orbit, occupied by 2-person crews for 30 days at a time, launching and returning to Earth aboard modified Gemini-B capsules. Externally similar to NASA’s Gemini spacecraft, the MOL version’s major modification involved a hatch cut into the heat shield that allowed the astronauts to internally access the laboratory located behind the spacecraft without the need for a spacewalk. While MOL astronauts would carry out a variety of experiments, a telescope with sophisticated imaging systems for military reconnaissance made up the primary payload in the laboratory. The imaging system, codenamed Dorian and carrying the Keyhole KH-10 designation, included a 72-inch diameter primary mirror designed to provide high resolution images of targets of military interest. To reach their polar orbits, MOLs would launch from Vandenberg Air Force (now Space Force) Base (AFB) in California. Construction of Space Launch Complex-6 (SLC-6) there began in March 1966 to accommodate the Titan-IIIM launch vehicle. The sensitive military nature of MOL resulted in its top-secret classification, not declassified by the NRO until October 2015.

      The three selection groups of Manned Orbiting Laboratory pilots. Left:  Group 1 – Michael J. Adams, Albert H. Crews, John L. Finley, Richard E. Lawyer, Lachlan Macleay, Francis G. Neubeck, James M. Taylor, and Richard H. Truly. Middle: Group 2 – Robert L. Crippen, Robert F. Overmyer, Karol J. Bobko, C. Gordon Fullerton, and Henry W. Hartsfield. Right: Group 3 – Robert T. Herres, Robert H. Lawrence, Donald H. Peterson, and James A. Abrahamson. Image credits: Courtesy U.S. Air Force.
      The USAF selected 17 pilots in three groups for the MOL program. The first group, selected on Nov. 12, 1965, consisted of eight pilots – Michael J. Adams, Albert H. Crews, John L. Finley, Richard E. Lawyer, Lachlan Macleay, Francis G. Neubeck, James M. Taylor, and Richard H. Truly. Adams retired from the MOL program in July 1966 to join the X-15 program. While making his seventh flight, he died in November 1967 when his aircraft crashed. Finley left the program in April 1968, returning to the U.S. Navy. The second group, selected on June 17, 1966, consisted of five pilots – Karol J. “Bo” Bobko, Robert L. Crippen, C. Gordon Fullerton, Henry W. Hartsfield, and Robert F. Overmyer. The third and final group of four pilots, chosen on June 30, 1967, comprised James A. Abrahamson, Robert T. Herres, Robert H. Lawrence, and Donald H. Peterson. Lawrence has the distinction as the first African American selected as an astronaut by any national space program. He died in the crash of an F-104 in December 1967.

      Group photo of 14 of the 15 Manned Orbiting Laboratory pilots still in the program in early 1968 – John L. Finley, front row left, Richard E. Lawyer, James M. Taylor, Albert H. Crews, Francis G. Neubeck, and Richard H. Truly; Robert T. Herres, back row left, James W. Hartsfield, Robert F. Overmyer, C. Gordon Fullerton, Robert L. Crippen, Donald H. Peterson, Karol J. Bobko, and James A. Abrahamson. Michael J. Adams had left the program and died in an X-15 crash, Robert H. Lawrence had died in a F-104 crash, and Lachlan Macleay does not appear for unknown reasons.
      The only space launch in the MOL program occurred on Nov. 3, 1966, when a Titan-IIIC rocket took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force (now Space Force) Station’s Launch Complex 40. The rocket carried a MOL mockup, without the KH-10 imaging payload, and a Gemini-B capsule refurbished after it flew NASA’s uncrewed Gemini 2 suborbital mission in January 1965. This marked the only reflight of an American spacecraft intended for human spaceflight until the advent of the space shuttle. The flight successfully demonstrated the hatch in the heat shield design during the capsule’s reentry after a 33-minute suborbital flight. Sailors aboard the U.S.S. La Salle (LPD-3) recovered the Gemini-B capsule near Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean and returned it to the Air Force for postflight inspection. Visitors can view it on display at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Museum. The MOL mockup entered Earth orbit and released three satellites. It also carried a suite of 10 experiments called Manifold, ranging from cell growth studies to tests of new technologies. Although the experiments could have operated for 75 days, the MOL stopped transmitting after 30 days, and decayed from orbit Jan. 9, 1967.

      Left: The only operational launch of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program, a Gemini-B capsule and a MOL mockup atop a Titan-IIIC rocket in 1966. Middle: The flown Gemini-B capsule on display at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Museum in Florida. Right: Former MOL and NASA astronaut Robert L. Crippen stands beside the only flown Gemini-B capsule – note the hatch in the heat shield at top.
      By 1969, the MOL program ran several years behind schedule and significantly over budget, and other than the one test flight had not flown any actual hardware. Although no flight hardware yet existed, aside from the long lead time mirrors for the imaging system, plans in May 1969 called for four 30-day MOL missions at 6-month intervals starting in January 1972. However, technology for uncrewed military reconnaissance had advanced to the stage that the KH-10 system proposed for MOL had reached obsolescence. Following a review, the new administration of President Richard M. Nixon, faced with competing priorities for the federal budget, announced the cancellation of the MOL program on June 10, 1969. 

      Left: Prototypes of elements of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) under construction. Middle: Medium fidelity mockup of the MOL crew cabin, with suited crew member and the narrow tunnel leading to the Gemini-B capsule. Right: Former MOL and NASA astronaut Robert L. Crippen stands next to the spacesuit developed for the MOL program. Image credits: Courtesy National Reconnaissance Office.
      Although the sudden cancellation came as a shock to those working on the program, some of the personnel involved as well as some of the hardware developed for it, made their way into other agencies and projects. For example, the Air Force had developed a flexible spacesuit required by the MOL pilots to navigate through the narrow tunnel between the Gemini-B capsule and the laboratory – that technology transferred to NASA for future spacesuit development. The waste management system designed for use by MOL pilots flew aboard Skylab. The MOL laboratory simulator and the special computer to operate it also transferred to NASA. The technology developed for the acquisition and tracking system and the mission development simulator for the KH-10 imaging system found its way into NASA’s earth remote sensing program.

      Official NASA photograph of the Group 7 astronauts – Karol J. Bobko, left, C. Gordon Fullerton, Henry W. Hartsfield, Robert L. Crippen, Donald H. Peterson, Richard H. Truly, and Robert F. Overmyer – transfers from the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program.
      After the cancellation of the MOL program, NASA invited the younger (under 35) MOL pilots to join its astronaut corps. Bobko, Crippen, Fullerton, Hartsfield, Overmyer, Peterson, and Truly transferred to NASA on August 14, 1969, as the Group 7 astronaut class. In 1972, Crippen and Bobko participated in the 56-day ground-based Skylab Medical Experiment Altitude Test, a key activity that contributed to Skylab’s success. Although it took nearly 12 years for the first of the MOL transfers to make it to orbit, all of them went on to fly on the space shuttle in the 1980s, six of them as commanders. In an ironic twist, NASA assigned Crippen to command the first space shuttle polar orbiting mission (STS-62A) that would have launched from the SLC-6 pad at Vandenberg in 1986. But after the January 1986 Challenger accident, the Air Force reduced its reliance on the shuttle as a launch platform and cancelled the mission. Truly served as NASA administrator from 1989 to 1992 and Crippen as the director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from 1992 to 1995. NASA hired Crews, not as an astronaut but as a pilot, and he stayed with the agency until 1994. Of the MOL astronauts that did not meet NASA’s age limit requirement, many went on to have stellar careers. Abrahamson joined NASA in 1981 as associate administrator for manned space flight, then went on to lead the Strategic Defense Initiative from 1984 to 1989. Herres served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1987 to 1990.

      Left: Space shuttle Enterprise during fit checks at the SLC-6 launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force (now Space Force) Base in 1985. Middle: Athena rocket awaits launch on SLC-6 in 1997. Right: Delta-IV Heavy lifts off from SLC-6 in 2011.
      Following cancellation of the MOL program, the Air Force mothballed the nearly completed SLC-6 at Vandenberg. In 1972, the Air Force and NASA began looking at SLC-6 as a pad to launch space shuttles with payloads requiring polar orbits, with the decision made in 1975. Workers began converting SLC-6 to launch the space shuttle in 1979. Although space shuttle Enterprise used SLC-6 for fit checks in 1985, the Challenger accident the following year caused the Air Force to cancel plans to use the space shuttle to launch polar orbiting satellites, and they once again mothballed the pad. Following modifications, small Athena rockets used the pad between 1995 and 1999, the first launches from the facility after 30 years of development and modifications. Another conversion begun in 1999 modified SLC-6 to launch Delta-IV and Delta-IV Heavy rockets starting in 2006, with the last flight in 2022. SpaceX leased SLC-6 in April 2023 to begin launches of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets in 2025.

      Left: Schematic of the optical system of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), including the 72-inch primary mirror at right. Image credit: courtesy: NRO. Right: The Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory on Mount Hopkins, Arizona, in its original six-mirror configuration using mirrors from the MOL Program. Image credit: Courtesy Multiple Mirror Telescope.
      The NRO transferred six surplus 72-inch mirrors from the cancelled KH-10 program to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory for the Multiple-Mirror Telescope (MMT) it built in association with the University of Arizona, located on Mount Hopkins, Arizona. By combining the light of the six mirrors, they achieved an effective light collecting area of a single 177-inch telescope mirror. The MMT operated in this six-mirror configuration for nearly 20 years before a single 215-inch mirror replaced them.
      Read Abrahamson’s, Bobko’s, Crew’s, Crippen’s, Fullerton’s, Hartsfield’s, Peterson’s, and Truly’s recollections of the MOL program in their oral history interviews with the JSC History Office. In 2019, the NRO held a panel discussion with MOL pilots Abrahamson, Bobko, Macleay, Crews, and Crippen, by then free to talk about their experiences during the now declassified program.
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    • By NASA
      4 min read
      Hubble Finds Surprises Around a Star That Erupted 40 Years Ago
      This artist’s concept shows the nova system HM Sagittae (HM Sge), where a white dwarf star is pulling material from its red giant companion. This forms a blazing hot disk around the dwarf, which can unpredictably undergo a spontaneous thermonuclear explosion as the infall of hydrogen from the red giant grows denser and reaches a tipping point. These fireworks between companion stars are fascinating to astronomers by yielding insights into the physics and dynamics of stellar evolution in binary systems. NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak (STScI)
      Download this image

      Astronomers have used new data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the retired SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) as well as archival data from other missions to revisit one of the strangest binary star systems in our galaxy – 40 years after it burst onto the scene as a bright and long-lived nova. A nova is a star that suddenly increases its brightness tremendously and then fades away to its former obscurity, usually in a few months or years.
      Between April and September 1975, the binary system HM Sagittae (HM Sge) grew 250 times brighter. Even more unusual, it did not rapidly fade away as novae commonly do, but has maintained its luminosity for decades. Recently, observations show that the system has gotten hotter, but paradoxically faded a little.
      HM Sge is a particular kind of symbiotic star where a white dwarf and a bloated, dust-producing giant companion star are in an eccentric orbit around each other, and the white dwarf ingests gas flowing from the giant star. That gas forms a blazing hot disk around the white dwarf, which can unpredictably undergo a spontaneous thermonuclear explosion as the infall of hydrogen from the giant grows denser on the surface until it reaches a tipping point. These fireworks between companion stars fascinate astronomers by yielding insights into the physics and dynamics of stellar evolution in binary systems.
      When I first saw the new data, I went – ‘wow this is what Hubble UV spectroscopy can do!’ – I mean it’s spectacular, really spectacular.
      Ravi Sankrit
      Astronomer
      “In 1975 HM Sge went from being a nondescript star to something all astronomers in the field were looking at, and at some point that flurry of activity slowed down,” said Ravi Sankrit of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. In 2021, Steven Goldman of STScI, Sankrit and collaborators used instruments on Hubble and SOFIA to see what had changed with HM Sge in the last 30 years at wavelengths of light from the infrared to the ultraviolet (UV).
      The 2021 ultraviolet data from Hubble showed a strong emission line of highly ionized magnesium that was not present in earlier published spectra from 1990. Its presence shows that the estimated temperature of the white dwarf and accretion disk increased from less than 400,000 degrees Fahrenheit in 1989 to greater than 450,000 degrees Fahrenheit now. The highly ionized magnesium line is one of many seen in the UV spectrum, which analyzed together will reveal the energetics of the system, and how it has changed in the last three decades.
      “When I first saw the new data,” Sankrit said, “I went – ‘wow this is what Hubble UV spectroscopy can do!’ – I mean it’s spectacular, really spectacular.”
      A Hubble Space Telescope image of the symbiotic star Mira HM Sge. Located 3,400 light-years away in the constellation Sagitta, it consists of a red giant and a white dwarf companion. The stars are too close together to be resolved by Hubble. Material bleeds off the red giant and falls onto the dwarf, making it extremely bright. This system first flared up as a nova in 1975. The red nebulosity is evidence of the stellar wind. The nebula is about one-quarter light-year across. NASA, ESA, Ravi Sankrit (STScI), Steven Goldman (STScI); Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)
      Download this image

      With data from NASA’s flying telescope SOFIA, which retired in 2022, the team was able to detect the water, gas, and dust flowing in and around the system. Infrared spectral data shows that the giant star, which produces copious amounts of dust, returned to its normal behavior within only a couple years of the explosion, but also that it has dimmed in recent years, which is another puzzle to be explained.
      With SOFIA astronomers were able to see water moving at around 18 miles per second, which they suspect is the speed of the sizzling accretion disk around the white dwarf. The bridge of gas connecting the giant star to the white dwarf must presently span about 2 billion miles.
      The team has also been working with the AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers), to collaborate with amateur astronomers from around the world who help keep telescopic eyes on HM Sge; their continued monitoring reveals changes that haven’t been seen since its outburst 40 years ago.
      “Symbiotic stars like HM Sge are rare in our galaxy, and witnessing a nova-like explosion is even rarer. This unique event is a treasure for astrophysicists spanning decades,” said Goldman.
      The initial results from the team’s research were published in the Astrophysical Journal, and Sankrit is presenting research focused on the UV spectroscopy at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Madison, Wisconsin.
      The Hubble Space Telescope has been operating for over three decades and continues to make ground-breaking discoveries that shape our fundamental understanding of the universe. Hubble is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope and mission operations. Lockheed Martin Space, based in Denver, Colorado, also supports mission operations at Goddard. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, conducts Hubble science operations for NASA.
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      NASA’s Hubble Finds that Aging Brown Dwarfs Grow Lonely

      Facebook logo @NASAHubble @NASAHubble Instagram logo @NASAHubble Media Contacts:
      Claire Andreoli
      NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD
      claire.andreoli@nasa.gov
      Ray Villard
      Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
      Science Contacts:
      Ravi Sankrit
      Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
      Steven Goldman
      Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
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    • By NASA
      The voyages of the Starship Enterprise came to a sudden and premature end on June 3, 1969, with the airing of the final episode of the Star Trek original television series. Ironically, the show’s cancellation came just six weeks before humanity embarked on its first voyage to land on another celestial body. Although the show ran for only three seasons, it generated a devoted fan base disappointed by the cancellation despite their write-in campaign to keep it on the air. But as things turned out, over the decades Star Trek evolved into a global phenomenon, first with the original episodes replayed in syndication, followed by a series of full-length motion pictures, and eventually a multitude of spin-off series. With its primary focus on space exploration, along with themes of diversity, inclusion, and innovation, the Star Trek fictional universe formed a natural association with NASA’s real life activities.

      Left:  A scene from “The Man Trap,” the premiere episode of Star Trek. Middle: The cast of the original Star Trek series from a promotional ad for the 1968-9 season. Right: A scene from “Turnabout Intruder,” the final episode of the original series. Image credits: courtesy NBC-TV.
      Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry first had the idea for a science fiction television series in 1964. He presented his idea, a show set in the 23rd century aboard a starship with a crew dedicated to exploring the galaxy, to Desilu Productions, an independent television production company headed by Lucille Ball. They produced a pilot titled “The Cage,” selling it to the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) network that then bought a second pilot titled “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” NBC introduced the show to its fall 1966 lineup, with the first episode “The Man Trap” airing on Sep. 8. To put that date in perspective, NASA launched Gemini XI four days later, one of the missions that helped the agency achieve the Moon landing nearly three years later. Meanwhile, Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise continued its fictional five-year mission through the galaxy to “seek out new life and new civilizations.” The makeup of the Enterprise’s crew made the show particularly attractive to late 1960s television audiences. The major characters included an African American woman communications officer, an Asian American helmsman, and a half-human half-Vulcan science officer, later joined by a Russian-born ensign. While the show enjoyed good ratings during its first two seasons, cuts to its production budget resulted in lower quality episodes during its third season leading to lower ratings and, despite a concerted letter-writing campaign from its dedicated fans, eventual cancellation.

      Left: NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher, left, with the creator and cast members of Star Trek at the September 1976 rollout of space shuttle Enterprise. Right: The cast members give the Vulcan salute.
      Despite the show’s cancellation, Star Trek lived on and prospered in syndication and attracted an ever-growing fan base, turning into a worldwide sensation. Often dubbed “trekkies,” these fans held the first of many Star Trek conventions in 1972. When in 1976 NASA announced that it would name its first space shuttle orbiter Constitution, in honor of its unveiling on the anniversary of the U. S. Constitution’s ratification, trekkies engaged in a dedicated letter writing campaign to have the orbiter named Enterprise, after the starship in the television series. This time the fans’ letter writing campaign succeeded. President Gerald R. Ford agreed with the trekkies and directed NASA to rechristen the first space shuttle. When on Sept. 17, 1976, it rolled out of its manufacturing plant in Palmdale, California, appropriately accompanied by a band playing the show’s theme song, it bore the name Enterprise. Many of the original cast members of the show as well as its creator Rodenberry participated in the rollout ceremony, hosted by NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher. Thus began a lengthy relationship between the space agency and the Star Trek brand.

      Left: Star Trek cast member Nichelle Nichols, left, in the shuttle simulator with astronaut Alan L. Bean at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. Middle: Nichols at the controls of the shuttle simulator. Right: Nichols, left, in JSC’s Mission Control Center during filming of the recruiting video.
      During the development of the space shuttle in the 1970s, the need arose to recruit a new group of astronauts to fly the vehicle, deploy the satellites, and perform the science experiments. When NASA released the call for the new astronaut selection on July 8, 1976, it specifically encouraged women and minorities to apply. To encourage those applicants, NASA chose Nichelle Nichols, who played communications officer Lt. Uhura on the Starship Enterprise, to record a recruiting video and speak to audiences nationwide. She came to NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston in March 1977, and accompanied by Apollo 12 and Skylab 3 astronaut Alan L. Bean, toured the center and filmed scenes for the video in Mission Control and other facilities. NASA hoped that her stature and popularity would encourage women and minorities to apply, and indeed they did. In January 1978, when NASA announced the selection of 35 new astronauts from more than 8,000 applicants, for the first time the astronaut class included women and minorities. All distinguished themselves as NASA astronauts and paved the way for others in subsequent astronaut selections. Nichols returned to JSC in September 2010 with the Traveling Space Museum, an organization that partners with schools to promote space studies. She toured Mission Control and the International Space Station trainer accompanied by NASA astronaut B. Alvin Drew. She also flew aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) airborne telescope aircraft managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, in September 2015.

      Left: Nichelle Nichols, middle, with NASA astronaut B. Alvin Drew in the space station trainer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Right: Nichols, center, aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy aircraft.
      Meanwhile, the Star Trek brand renewed itself in 1979 as a full-length motion picture with the original TV series cast members reprising their roles. Over the years, several sequels followed this first film. And on the small screen, a reboot of sorts occurred in 1987 with the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a new series set in the 24th century aboard the Enterprise-D, a next generation starship with a new crew. That series lasted seven seasons, followed by a near-bewildering array of spin-off series, all built on the Star Trek brand, that continue to this day.

      Left: Actor James Doohan visits NASA’s Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center in California in 1967 with NASA pilot Bruce A. Peterson, in front of the M2-F2 lifting body aircraft. Middle: At NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Doohan sits in the commander’s seat of the space shuttle simulator, as NASA astronaut Mario Runco looks on. Right: Doohan, second from left, during his retirement party with fellow Star Trek stars George Takei, left, and Nichelle Nichols, and Apollo 11 astronaut Neil A. Armstrong. Credit: Image courtesy Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times.
      James Doohan, the actor who played Lt. Cmdr. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, the Starship Enterprise’s chief engineer, had early associations with NASA. In April 1967, Doohan visited NASA’s Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center in California, spending time with NASA test pilot Bruce A. Peterson. A month later, Peterson barely survived a horrific crash of the experimental M2-F2 lifting body aircraft. He inspired the 1970s TV series The Six-Million Dollar Man, and the show’s opening credits include film of the crash. Doohan narrated a documentary film about the space shuttle released shortly before Columbia made its first flight in April 1981. In January 1991, Doohan visited JSC and with NASA astronaut Mario Runco (who sometimes went by the nickname “Spock”) toured the shuttle trainers, Mission Control, and tried his hand at operating the shuttle’s robotic arm in the Manipulator Development Facility. In a unique tribute, astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, the first person to step on the lunar surface, spoke at Doohan’s retirement in 2004, addressing him as “one old engineer to another.”

      Left: Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston Michael L. Coats presents actor George Takei with a commemorative plaque. Right: Takei and Robonaut both give the Vulcan greeting.
      George Takei, who played Enterprise helmsman Lt. Hikaru Sulu, and his husband Brad, visited JSC in May 2012. Invited by both Asian American and LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Groups, Takei spoke of leadership and inclusiveness, including overcoming challenges while in Japanese American internment camps during World War II and as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. He noted that Star Trek remained ahead of its time in creating a future when all members of society could equally participate in great undertakings, at a time when the country struggled through the Civil Rights movement and the conflict in Southeast Asia. The inclusiveness that is part of NASA’s culture greatly inspired him. JSC Director Michael L. Coats presented Takei with a plaque including a U.S. flag flown aboard space shuttle Atlantis’ STS-135 mission. He also visited Mission Control and spent some time with Robonaut.

      Left: Star Trek cast member Leonard Nimoy gives the Vulcan greeting in front of space shuttle Enterprise after its arrival in New York in 2012. Right: Expedition 43 crew member European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti gives the Vulcan salute to honor the late actor Nimoy. 
      Leonard Nimoy played the science officer aboard the Starship Enterprise, the half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock. The actor watched in September 2012 when space shuttle Enterprise arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, on the last leg of its journey to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, where it currently resides. “This is a reunion for me,” observed Nimoy. “Thirty-five years ago, I met the Enterprise for the first time.” As noted earlier, the Star Trek cast attended the first space shuttle’s rollout in 1976. Following his death in 2015, European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti paid tribute to Nimoy aboard the International Space Station by wearing a Star Trek science officer uniform, giving the Vulcan greeting, and proclaiming, “Of all the souls I have encountered … his was the most human.”

      Left: Star Trek cast member William Shatner, left, receives the Distinguished Public Service Medal from NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications Robert N. Jacobs in 2014. Middle: Shatner, upper left, moderates a virtual panel at the 2020 San Diego Comic-Con with NASA spacesuit engineer Lindsay T. Aitchison, upper right, NASA astronauts Nicole A. Mann, lower left, and Kjell N. Lindgren, and NASA technology expert LaNetra C. Tate. Image credit: courtesy Comic-Con International. Right: Shatner experiences weightlessness during his suborbital trip to the edge of space aboard a New Shepard vehicle. Image credit: courtesy Blue Origin.
      Captain James T. Kirk, played by actor William Shatner, a life-long advocate of science and space exploration, served at the helm of the Starship Enterprise. His relationship with NASA began during the original series, with references to the space agency incorporated into several story lines. In 2011, Shatner hosted and narrated a NASA documentary celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle program, and gave his time and voice to other NASA documentaries. NASA recognized Shatner’s contributions in 2014 with a Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award NASA bestows on non-government individuals. NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications Robert “Bob” N. Jacobs presented the medal to Shatner. The award’s citation read, “For outstanding generosity and dedication to inspiring new generations of explorers around the world, and for unwavering support for NASA and its missions of discovery.” In 2019, Shatner narrated the NASA video We Are Going, about NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the Moon. He has spoken at numerous NASA-themed events and moderated panels about NASA’s future plans. On Oct. 13, 2021, at the age of 90, Shatner reached the edge of space during the NS-18 suborbital flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle, experiencing three minutes of weightlessness.

      Left: Patch for the Window Observational Research Facility (WORF), including the Klingon writing just below the letters “WORF.” Middle: Astronaut Naoki Yamazaki of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the WORF rack after its installation aboard the space station during STS-131. Right: The STS-54 crew dressed as Starfleet officers.

      Left: The Space Flight Awareness (SFA) poster for the Expedition 21 crew. Right: The SFA poster for the STS-134 crew.
      Elements of the Star Trek universe have made their way not only into popular culture but also into NASA culture. As noted above, Star Trek fans had a hand in naming the first space shuttle Enterprise. NASA’s Earth observation facility aboard the space station that makes use of its optical quality window bears the name the Window Observational Research Facility (WORF). The connection between that acronym and the name of a Klingon officer aboard the Enterprise in the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series seemed like an opportunity not to be missed – the facility’s official patch bears its name in English and in Klingon. Several astronaut crews have embraced Star Trek themes for their unofficial photographs. The STS-54 crew dressed in the uniforms of Starship Enterprise officers from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, the second full-length feature motion picture of the series. Space shuttle and space station crews created Space Flight Awareness (SFA) posters for their missions, and more than one embraced Star Trek themes. The Expedition 21 crew dressed in uniforms from the original series, while the STS-134 crew chose as their motif the 2009 reboot motion picture Star Trek.

      Left: Picture of the Gemini VI launch in the background in the 1967 Star Trek episode “Court Martial.” Credit: Image courtesy of Collectspace.com. Middle: NASA astronaut Mae C. Jemison, left, and actor LeVar Burton in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Credit: Image courtesy CBS. Right: NASA astronauts Terry W. Virts, left, and E. Michael Fincke, right, flank actor Scott Bakula on the set of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005. Credit: Image courtesy CBS.
      As much as Star Trek has influenced NASA, in turn the agency has left its mark on the franchise, from episodes referencing actual and future spaceflight events to NASA astronauts making cameo appearances on the show. The first-season episode “Court Martial” that aired in February 1967 featured a photograph of the December 1965 Gemini VI launch adorning a wall aboard a star base. In the second-season episode “Return to Tomorrow,” airing in February 1968, Captain Kirk in a dialogue about risk-taking remarks, “Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn’t reached the Moon?” a prescient reference to the first Apollo mission to reach the Moon more than 10 months after the episode aired. Astronaut Mae C. Jemison, who credits Nichelle Nichols as her inspiration to become an astronaut, appeared in the 1993 episode “Second Chances” of Star Trek: The Next Generation, eight months after her actual spaceflight aboard space shuttle Endeavour. In May 2005, two other NASA astronauts, Terry W. Virts and E. Michael Fincke, appeared in “These are the Voyages…,” the final episode of the series Star Trek: Enterprise.

      Left: NASA astronaut Victor J. Glover, host of the 2016 documentary “NASA on the Edge of Forever: Science in Space.” Right: Actress Nichelle Nichols appearing in the documentary “NASA on the Edge of Forever: Science in Space.”
      In the 2016 documentary “NASA on the Edge of Forever: Science in Space,” host NASA astronaut Victor J. Glover states, “Science and Star Trek go hand-in-hand.” The film explores how for 50 years, Star Trek influenced scientists, engineers, and even astronauts to reach beyond their potential. While the space station doesn’t speed through the galaxy like the Starship Enterprise, much of the research conducted aboard the orbiting facility can make the fiction of Star Trek come a little closer to reality. Several of the cast members from the original TV series share their viewpoints in the documentary, along with those of NASA managers and scientists. Over the years, NASA has created several videos highlighting the relationship between the agency and the Star Trek franchise. In 2016, NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden led a video tribute to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Star Trek episode.

      In a tribute to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry on the 100th anniversary of his birth, his son Rod, upper left, hosts a virtual panel discussion about diversity and inspiration.
      In 2021, on the 100th anniversary of Gene Roddenberry’s birth, his son Rod hosted a virtual panel discussion, introduced by NASA Administrator C. William “Bill” Nelson, about diversity and inspiration, two ideals the Star Trek creator infused into the series. Panelists included Star Trek actor Takei, Tracy D. Drain, flight systems engineer for the Europa Clipper spacecraft at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, NASA astronaut Jonny Kim, Swati Mohan, guidance and operations lead for the Mars 2020 rover at JPL, and Hortense B. Diggs, Director of the Office of Communication and Public Engagement at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
      The mutual attraction between NASA and Star Trek stems from, to paraphrase the opening voiceover from the TV series, that both seek to explore and discover new worlds, and to boldly go where no one has gone before. The diversity, inclusion, and inspiration involved in these endeavors ensure that they will live long and prosper.
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      June’s Night Sky Notes: Constant Companions: Circumpolar Constellations, Part III
      by Kat Troche of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific
      In our final installment of the stars around the North Star, we look ahead to the summer months, where depending on your latitude, the items in these circumpolar constellations are nice and high. Today, we’ll discuss Cepheus, Draco, and Ursa Major. These objects can all be spotted with a medium to large-sized telescope under dark skies.
      From left to right: Ursa Major, Draco, and Cepheus. Credit: Stellarium Web Herschel’s Garnet Star: Mu Cephei is a deep-red hypergiant known as The Garnet Star, or Erakis. While the star is not part of the constellation pattern, it sits within the constellation boundary of Cepheus, and is more than 1,000 times the size of our Sun. Like its neighbor Delta Cephei, this star is variable, but is not a reliable Cepheid variable. Rather, its brightness can vary anywhere between 3.4 to 5.1 in visible magnitude, over the course of 2-12 years.
      This composite of data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope gives astronomers a new look for NGC 6543, better known as the Cat’s Eye nebula. This planetary nebula represents a phase of stellar evolution that our sun may well experience several billion years from now. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI The Cat’s Eye Nebula: Labeled a planetary nebula, there are no planets to be found at the center of this object. Observations taken with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescopes give astronomers a better understanding of this complex, potential binary star, and how its core ejected enough mass to produce the rings of dust. When searching for this object, look towards the ‘belly’ of Draco with a medium-sized telescope.
      NASA’s Spitzer, Hubble, and Chandra space observatories teamed up to create this multi-wavelength view of the M82 galaxy. The lively portrait celebrates Hubble’s “sweet sixteen” birthday .X-ray data recorded by Chandra appears in blue; infrared light recorded by Spitzer appears in red; Hubble’s observations of hydrogen emission appear in orange, and the bluest visible light appears in yellow-green. Credit: NASA, ESA, CXC, and JPL-Caltech Bode’s Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy: Using the arrow on the star map, look diagonal from the star Dubhe in Ursa Major. There you will find Bode’s Galaxy (Messier 81) and the Cigar Galaxy (Messier 82). Sometimes referred to as Bode’s Nebula, these two galaxies can be spotted with a small to medium-sized telescope. Bode’s Galaxy is a classic spiral shape, similar to our own Milky Way galaxy and our neighbor, Andromeda. The Cigar Galaxy, however, is known as a starburst galaxy type, known to have a high star formation rate and incredible shapes. This image composite from 2006 combines the power of three great observatories: the Hubble Space Telescope imaged hydrogen in orange, and visible light in yellow green; Chandra X-Ray Observatory portrayed X-ray in blue; Spitzer Space Telescope captured infrared light in red.
      Up next, we celebrate the solstice with our upcoming mid-month article on the Night Sky Network page through NASA’s website!
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