Tag Archives: #whyspacematters

Happy Anniversary, Humans in Space!

November 2, 2000. It was a dark night on our planet. More than 200 miles above Earth’s surface, a Soyuz rocket began a slow dance in the bigger darkness of space. The docking sequence took three hours and forty minutes. At its end, the International Space Station welcomed the first of hundreds of human residents. The outpost has been inhabited ever since.


Expedition One crew members pose after water survival training. From left: Flight Engineer and Russian Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev; International Space Station Commander and U.S. Astronaut Bill Shepherd; Soyuz Commander and Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko. Credit: NASA

Bill Shepherd, Yuri Gidzenko, and Sergei Krikalev passed 4 busy months on the ISS. First, they moved in. Critical life support systems waited to be set up. Supplies needed unpacking. After waking up the station and settling themselves, the astronauts hosted visiting crews, received unmanned spacecraft, made improvements to the station, and conducted research. Their work set the precedent for the next decade and a half of sustained experimentation in low Earth orbit.


Shepherd rehearses an extravehicular activity (EVA) mission in Russia’s Hydrolab training facility. Scuba divers stand by to assist. Aquatic neutral buoyancy practice is a key component of astronaut training around the world. Credit: NASA

Since Expedition One, over two hundred astronauts and scientists have spent time on the ISS. Cool-burning flames have been studied and extinguished in microgravity. Lettuce has flourished in space. Students have peered through digital windows from their classrooms into our planet’s most distant human-operated research lab.

The station has built a foundation of knowledge about space travel’s effects on the human body. That knowledge is expanding even further thanks to identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. Scott recently broke the record for most time spent in space, just over halfway through his year of orbital residence. Mark holds down the fort on the ground. The Twins Study includes ten independent investigations of everything from physiology to behavioral health to space-induced genetic changes.


Veggie, the plant growth system used on the ISS, basks in energy-efficient LED light. Credit: NASA/Orbital Technologies

These are just a few of the many imaginative, futuristic ISS experiments bringing home big benefits. Technology driven by space-based farming research keeps produce fresh in supermarkets worldwide and aids food preservation in developing countries. Climate scientists use the unique perspective of low Earth orbit to better predict and respond to natural disasters. The Twins Study deepens our understanding of ourselves as a species. Space poses unique problems that stretch the margins of human creativity and cleverness. Rising to these challenges not only brings us closer to interplanetary travel, it also motivates life-changing science right here on Earth.

#WhySpaceMatters: The Next Martian

Space simulations are a big part of the AstroCamp experience, and they’re more relevant now than ever. #whyspacematters

“Exploration enables science and science enables exploration.” This is one of the seven pioneering principles of NASA’s game plan for Martian exploration, released to the public last week. The technology required for interplanetary colonization is in the works– and entering the mainstream. Thanks to collaboration between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the production team behind The Martian, everyday people are enjoying unprecedented exposure to honest rocket science. Charles Elachi, director of JPL, describes the film as a “reasonable representation” of what’s to come, and with good cause.

Ion propulsion is already a reality. The Deep Space Network has maintained communications with spaceships far more distant than Mars for decades. Precision landing technology capable of planting a MAV-like spacecraft in a habitable location years ahead of its human crew is on the way, as is an autonomous system for synthesizing rocket fuel from local ingredients. SpaceX and NASA are independently building long-distance spacecraft; both have passed recent key flight tests and continue to inch closer to readiness.


Ion engines like the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT), shown here, made history by propelling the Dawn mission to dwarf planets Vesta and Ceres.

The hardware and software are developing swimmingly, but it’s more than that. Humanity is gearing up to step outward.

Phase one: spacefaring Earth does its homework. Astronaut scientists explore what happens to the human body when it goes without gravity for many months at a time. They grow lettuce outside our planet’s atmosphere, experiment with advanced fire safety, and test the long-term life support systems that will eventually shepherd our species far from home. This phase has been under way for years. So far, it’s a monumental success.

Phase two: the proving ground. Current space activity takes place in low Earth orbit (LEO). Mars is several months’ journey away. Before committing a crewed ship to such an odyssey, NASA plans to train and troubleshoot in a middle-ground zone– the space around the moon. This region will host early versions of deep-space habitats and other interplanetary technology.

The proving ground phase also features an unmanned mission to capture a small asteroid and put it into lunar orbit, where it will be explored and analyzed by tethered humans as extravehicular activity practice. That’s right… the moon will have a mini-me!

Finally, phase three: Earth independence. It’s a true pioneering endeavor, one that has galvanized some of the brightest problem-solving minds of recent generations. Human footprints on Mars may be a busy few decades away, but the steps between here and there are clear and surmountable.


Campers practice interplanetary exploration in the Mars: Valles Marineris simulation. Valles Marineris, the largest known canyon in the solar system, would stretch from Los Angeles to NYC on Earth.  

In recent years, an unofficial JPL slogan has emerged. It characterizes the can-do approach, hard work, and imagination that have defined the Mars exploration program so far: dare mighty things. It’s inspirational because, as a space-exploring species, we keep living up to it.

NASA’s road map to Mars falls right in line with this operating philosophy. Read the full report here: NASA Mars Road Map

#WhySpaceMatters: NASA’s Anniversary

If you’d like to know what’s out there in the universe, it’s an awfully exciting century to be alive! From Vostok to Hubble to New Horizons, ambitious feats of engineering are bringing our corner of the cosmos into fuller detail and color all the time. At AstroCamp, we’re all about harnessing the wonder of space exploration as fuel for passion and inquiry. We hope that some of the students who peer through our telescopes into the deep, dark beyond will keep looking and pushing the boundaries of human knowledge as part of the next generation of scientists.


Campers at AstroCamp are #whyspacematters!

Space matters because it stimulates curiosity, drives innovation, and lends context to our existence on Earth. It matters because it changes our perspective on everything. In honor of NASA’s anniversary, here are a few mind-bending ideas that show #whyspacematters to us.


Campers get a closer look at the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. Credit: Andy Balendy

Look up at the night sky. You are experiencing a tiny gravitational pull from every star and planet you see, and hundreds of billions that you don’t see. Even weirder, your body is pulling back on each one! If you replaced the sun with a black hole of the same mass, Earth’s orbit wouldn’t change, but 8.3 minutes later we’d get very, very cold. That’s the amount of time it would take for the sun’s last light to reach Earth.

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Two black holes (shown in purple) in spiral galaxy Caldwell 5. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DSS

When you look out into space, you’re also looking back in time. The average distance to a star you can see with the naked eye is in the ballpark of 100 light-years. This means the image your eyes receive is about 100 years old. The closest star to earth is 4.22 light-years away. If it mysteriously disappeared right this second, we’d have no idea until 2019! The Milky Way and its nearest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, are on course to collide in roughly 4 billion years, as our sun nears the end of its life. Galaxies are mostly empty space, so the odds of things actually smashing into each other are remote, but any life forms present at that time will witness a complete transformation of the night sky.

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New Horizons LORRI image of Pluto, 7/14/2015. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Over 70 years ago, within the memory of many people alive today, no spacecraft had ever left our home planet. As of this writing, 533 people have orbited Earth. 12 have walked on the moon. A telescope the size of a school bus floats in space, probing the history of the universe. Robots study nearby worlds on our behalf. Voyager 1, which has been sailing towards the distant stars since 1977, is now three times as far from the sun as Pluto, over 12 billion miles away from Earth… and counting!

Happy Anniversary NASA! Here’s to the bright future of exploring the great unknown.


We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. AstroCamp is a hands-on physical science program with an emphasis on astronomy and space exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and astronomical happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree in Physics or Astronomy, however it is not uncommon for them to have a Masters Degree or PhD. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science, space and astronomy information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit www.astrocampschool.org for additional information. Happy Reading!