More fireballs in the sky, Antares ignites, Mars beckons

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Published on: February 23, 2013

Feb. 23, 2013

There was another report in the news on Friday of a fireball in the sky over Southern California. The glowing green object was caught on camera as it burned up, with the spectacle lasting just a few seconds.

When I read of the incident I smiled to myself, not really because of the actual news itself, but because of the way it made news.

The story is another example of the kind of journalism that annoys me to no end, helped prompt me to quit being a reporter more than eight years ago, and concerns me now because of how stories like this could affect the public’s perception of our space program.

Whether it’s space-related or not, you see these kinds of stories after every major national or international event as local media outlets scurry to find their own example of the same thing happening, well, locally.

For example, if there is a big, tragic airplane crash somewhere, then for the next few days we will hear about every little hiccup at the local airport in which a pilot has trouble but then safely lands without anyone getting hurt, and then the reporter says this incident follows on the heels of a bunch of other aviation-related non-events, which they then list and wrap up with pictures from the original devastating crash.

Then you can almost bet that after the report the news anchors at the desk will look at each other and say something that will suggest in a flippant and doomsday manner that it appears no one is safe when they fly, even in our little town.

And now we’re seeing this same sort of media phenomenon with meteors shooting through our sky.

A week ago a 150-foot-wide asteroid flew past the Earth at a distance of more than 17,000 miles on the same day a much smaller space rock slammed into the atmosphere over Russia and set off a shockwave that damaged buildings, hurt more than a thousand people and made international headlines — as it properly should.

Unfortunately, since then every little harmless and common streak in the sky that was caught on camera has been reported by someone on TV as though the sky is now falling, and proving once again that it’s only news if you have pictures of it.

I was particularly amused by the reports last weekend of a meteor seen over South Florida that got the whole bunch of uninformed masses down there in a tizzy thanks to all the local news media who reported the story as though they had just realized meteors can appear anywhere at any time.

The reports prompted all sorts of responses on Twitter that were published as part of the news report, including one guy who tweeted “Now a meteor flew over Miami!? What’s going on in the world!!! Freaked out.”

Imagine how badly that guy would be truly freaked out while watching one of the meteor showers that normally takes place each year – or if the Miami Marlins actually won a game.

Well there is another old saying in media circles that says whether its bad news or good, just spell my name right. So perhaps it shouldn’t matter whether the media gets this asteroid/meteor/shooting star story straight or not.

So long as they are talking about it we can only hope this increased awareness by the public of what’s happening over our heads every day will be helpful as another way to highlight the importance and relevance of our space program to our lives.

There were two other space-related items in the news this week that caught my eye and are worth mentioning.

The first has to do with Orbital Science’s new Antares rocket, which is the booster designed to carry the company’s Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station.

For the first time an Antares rocket on Friday was test fired while remaining bolted to its launch pad in Virginia, and the early word is that everything went as expected. That bodes well for the company’s plans to launch their first demonstration mission to the space station later this year.

You may recall that Orbital Sciences and SpaceX have contracts from NASA to deliver supplies to the orbiting outpost. SpaceX with their Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft have already begun their deliveries, and now with Antares and Cygnus, Orbital Sciences hopes to join the club.

You may also recall that in deciding where to stage their launch operations, SpaceX chose to take advantage of the existing and unused Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, meanwhile, elected to bypass Florida’s Space Coast, much to the dismay of our local space leaders, and keep their operations closer to home by working with NASA and the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island to construct a brand new launch pad.

While Wallops has supported launches to orbit in the past, it has primarily been home to sub-orbital sounding rockets of late. But local efforts there to compete with other states and become a home for commercial space operations have begun to pay off with rockets such as the Antares.

Friday’s apparently successful static test firing is another step toward growing Virginia’s share of the commercial launch market, and further proof that Florida cannot take for granted its historic role as home to America’s premier rocket ranch.

Finally, it was announced last week that multimillionaire Dennis Tito, the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station, will be hosting a press conference this week to announce plans for some kind of privately funded trip to Mars that will aim to take place in 2018 when Earth and Mars are aligned in an optimal way for such a mission.

The space community is on fire with speculation about what it is exactly that Tito has in mind. Does the trip involve humans or is it just a robot probe? Will it enter orbit around Mars, perhaps fly by and come right back to Earth, or will it land on the Red Planet?

Fellow space cadet Jeff Foust, a first-class guy who knows his stuff, did a little digging and learned Tito has written a technical paper that is to be presented at a conference in a few weeks and which describes a bare bones, round trip Mars fly by mission that would include two astronauts.

The crew would have to live in what amounts to survival mode for the entire 500-plus day trip, with just enough food and water to get by. There may not be a lot of living space in the capsule, which many assume will be a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. It would be by no means luxurious in any way. They’ll be lucky if they get to take sponge baths.

Imagine two people living together for 18 months while locked up and sealed inside a van down by the river, with everything they need to survive packed inside, and very possibly unable to get rid of any waste that accumulates. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be historic.

The technical paper by Tito may be a coincidence in terms of what he is about to announce, or it may indeed be the plan. We should learn more this week. But whatever the details, this is an extremely bold move and has the potential to become the most important and sensational adventure in space since Apollo.

I recommend paying very close attention.

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