Carl Sagan Passes Away

Carl Sagan, a noted astronomer and populizer of science, died of pneumonia in Seattle December 20, after a two-year battle with bone marrow cancer. He was 62.
     [Image of Carl Sagan]Sagan, the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory of Planetary Studies at Cornell University, gained wide public attention over fifteen years ago with his critically-acclaimed PBS television series Cosmos, and a book of the same name.
     Later, he co-authored Comet with his wife, Ann Druyan, and wrote Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space in 1994. An earlier book about evolution, The Dragons of Eden, won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction.
     "As much as any scientific figure of our time, Carl described for an entire generation -- the generation of the Space Age -- the true wonders of the universe around us," NASA Administrator Dan Goldin said in a statement. "His unbelievable ability to explain the complexities of space and space exploration inspired people to look up in the night sky in wonder."
     Sagan, who earned a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Chicago in 1960, did early research on Venus, proving that a greenhouse effect existed there, creating extremely high surface temperatures. He also studied Mars and the dynamics of the dust storms that sweep across its surface.
     When denied tenure at Harvard University in the late 1960s, he accepted an offer to create the Laboratory of Planetary Studies at Cornell, now a leading center of research in the field. Sagan was also the first editor of Icarus, one of the first journals devoted exclusively to publishing planetary science papers, from 1968 to 1979.
     Sagan had been battling bone marrow disease for the last two years, and had been treated for it at the Fred Hutchinson Center in Seattle. He had returned to the center for additional treatment in December and died there.
     Sagan is survived by his wife, a sister, five children, and one grandchild. The family has requested contributions in his memory be sent to either The Children's Health Fund of New York or The Planetary Society.

Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas Win EELV Contracts

Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas won contracts December 20 as finalists in the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, a $1.4 billion program to build the next generation of military rockets.
[Illus. of Delta IV]     The two aerospace giants will each receive $60 million contracts to finalize work on their designs over the next 17 months. The Air Force will pick a winner in 1998, with a first launch planned for 2001.
     McDonnell Douglas submitted a proposal for a series of rockets known as the "Delta IV", based on the Delta II booster currently in use and the Delta III heavy-lift rocket in development. The Delta IV series would be able to launch payloads from 2,180 kg (4,800 lbs.) to 15,000 kg (33,000 lbs.) Lockheed Martin's proposal called for boosters based on its Atlas IIAR and Titan vehicles, with similar payload capabilities.
     "This milestone in the EELV program is a big step towards reasserting the United States into a competitive position in the global marketplace," said Harry Stonecipher, president and CEO of McDonnell Douglas.
     One company that will win regardless of the final selection of the EELV is Pratt and Whitney. The company is providing rocket engines to both companies, including the RD-180, a joint venture with the Russian company NPO Energomash. Based on the highly successful Russian RD-170 engine, the RD-180 is the first rocket engine developed in a joint Russian-American project. Lockheed Martin will use the RD-180 in a rocket derived from the Atlas IIAR.

Ariane 5 Launches Scheduled for 1997

Two test flights of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle have been scheduled for mid and late 1997, the European Space Agency announced on December 17.
[Illus. of Ariane 5]     The first of the two test flights is scheduled for July 1997. If successful, a second test flight, with a commercial satellite as payload, would take place the following November
     The first test flight of the Ariane 5 failed in June 1996 when the booster went out of control and was destroyed less than a minute after launch. The problem was traced to a software error in the guidance system of the rocket.
     "What we have done is not only to correct this mistake of software but to review all the software, all the interfaces, all the integration in terms of software architecture," Francis Avanzi, chief operating officer of Arianespace, said.
     Arianespace hopes to launch 32 to 34 commercial satellites between 1998 and 2000 using the Ariane 5, assuming it is qualified for commercial use after the 1997 test launches.

Challenger Debris Washes up on Florida Beach

Three pieces of debris from the shuttle Challenger washed up on a Florida beach south of the Kennedy Space Center in December, nearly eleven years after the accident which destroyed the orbiter and killed the seven astronauts aboard.
[image of Challenger debris]     Two pieces, one 1.8 x 4.5 m (6 x 15 ft.) and the other 0.3 x 1.5 m (1 x 5 ft.), were found on a beach at Cocoa Beach, Florida, on the morning of December 17. A second, smaller piece, measuring 25 x 40 cm (10 x 15 in.) washed ashore the following morning.
     All three pieces are believed to come from the left wing of the orbiter, and one of the pieces appeared to be a wing flap. All three pieces were encrusted with barnacles, but pieces of thermal tiles were still visible, aiding in the identification of the pieces.
     The reason why the three pieces appeared on the beach a little over a month shy of the 11th anniversary of the explosion is unclear. Meteorologists speculate that active tropical storm seasons in recent years may have altered ocean currents, nudging the pieces closer to shore.
     "It's somewhat surprising that after all these years you still have pieces washing ashore," Kennedy Space Center spokesman Bruce Buckingham said.
     Only about half of the debris from the Challenger was recovered after the January 28, 1986, explosion. The new debris will be checked by NASA engineers to verify from where on the orbiter the pieces came. The pieces will then be placed with the other debris from the orbiter, sealed in an abandoned missile silo at Cape Canaveral.

Bion Spacecraft Launched

Russia launched the Bion-11 spacecraft December 24, carrying two monkeys and a host of other plants and animals for a two-week international mission to study the effects of weightlessness on living beings.
[Illus. of Bion]     The spacecraft was launched by a Soyuz-U booster from the Russian launch facility at Plesetsk, near the Arctic Circle. Russian officials reported that the spacecraft successfully reached orbit.
     Two monkeys on the spacecraft have been the subject of animal rights protests, particularly in the United States. Activists claimed the monkeys were subject to cruel surgical treatments to prepare them for launch.
     NASA officials have stated that those claims have been greatly exaggerated, and point to independent review panels which verified that the project treated animals well and performed useful science.
     Those reviews have now swayed some activists, including four members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who protested the mission at NASA Headquarters October 31.
     Such protests have not taken place in Russia. "The public here has never protested," the Russian newspaper Izvestia reported, "either because we are more science-conscious -- or because we don't even know how to treat human beings humanely."
     The two male macaques, Lapik and Multik, share the Bion capsule with flies, snails, newts, seeds and bacteria. The capsule will return to Earth on January 7.

Scientists Challenge Mars Life Findings

Microscopic features in a Martian meteorite described last year as evidence of ancient primitive life on the Red Planet may instead have a geological origin, a group of scientists reported in late December.
[Image of      In a paper published in the current issue of the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, a team of researchers claims that microscopic features found in meteorite ALH 84001 that were identified by a NASA and Stanford University team as microfossils were created by geological activity.
     According to University of Tennessee geologist Harry McSween, one of the members of the team, their analysis of samples of the meteorite found "whiskerlike" grains of magnetite, which they state has only been seen on Earth to be created by gas escaping from volcanic vents, not by living creatures.
     In addition, they found a "screwlike axis" down the middle of the claimed fossils, which they also say is evidence for a geological, not biological, origin for the features.
     McSween and one of his co-authors, Case Western Reserve University planetary geologist Ralph Harvey, published a separate paper in Nature shortly before the NASA announcement, which claimed that the carbonates in ALH 84001 were formed at high temperatures due to an impact event, which would have precluded the formation of life.
     Despite his findings, McSween still thinks it's possible life once existed on Mars. "But even if there's no evidence of life in this meteorite, it's still plausible that Mars was an abode for life at one time," he told the Associated Press.

U.S., Russia, Launch Reconnaissance Satellites

The United States and Russia each launched military satellites on December 20, with the United States breaking tradition by announcing the launch in advance.
[Image of Titan IV launch]     A Titan IV rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 1:04pm EST (1804 UT) December 20 on a due-south trajectory, evidence for being placed in a polar orbit.
     The National Reconnaissance Office provided no details on the spacecraft other than to report that it separated from the rocket as planned fifteen minutes after launch.
     It's believed that the rocket carried a "Lacrosse" series reconnaissance satellite that uses radar to provide high-resolution images regardless of weather or time of day.
     The same day, Russia launched Kosmos-2336, satellite described by a Russian official as one to be used "in the interests if the defense ministry". Analysists believe the satellite is a navigational satellite.
     On December 11 Russia launched Kosmos- 2335, a photographic reconnaissance satellite. The country had been without such a satellite since the last one burned up in the atmosphere on September 28, the Russian media reported.

Koptev: Russian Role in International Space Station in Jeopardy

The head of the Russian Space Agency reported that the agency is so short of funds that its role in the International Space Station project is in jeopardy, the Associated Press reported.
[Image of Mir]     Yuri Koptev told a meeting of the Russian Cabinet on December 19 that funding for the agency is now so small that continued operation of the Mir space station must be questioned.
     According to Koptev, Russia has boosters for only 11 of the 27 launches planned for 1997. Shortages of boosters have delayed the return of many recent Russian crews on Mir.
     Last month, NASA confirmed that it had received word from Russian officials that construction of the Russian- built Service Module for the International Space Station had fallen eight months behind, delaying plans for launching the first crew to the station from May 1998 to early 1999.
     NASA is reportedly looking at other options, including scrapping the Russian module for an American version.
     Koptev said the budget for Russian space efforts had fallen 80 percent since 1989. He presented a plan to the cabinet which called for a bigger budget and assumption of debts incurred by the space agency, but no further details were released.

China Training Cosmonauts in Russia

A pair of Chinese cosmonauts are currently in training in Russia for a future joint mission with Russia, while China plans for its own manned spaceflight program.
     A spokesman at Star City, the Russian cosmonaut training center, said Chinese cosmonaut candidates We Jie and Li Qinlung were currently in training for a mission scheduled for launch in 1999.
     "They will study space navigation, astronomy, the equipment of an orbital station and other subjects, including an intensive course of physics," a spokesman told Reuters.
     The two will also study Russian in preparation for the joint mission.
     At the International Astronautical Federation meeting held in Beijing in October, Chinese officials announced their plans to launch a manned mission by the end of the century. At the time they also said they had sent several cosmonaut candidates to Russia for training.

Other News

According to reports in the January 3 issues of the Orlando Sentinel and Florida Today, former astronaut and Air Force Maj. Gen. Roy D. Bridges Jr. is the likely candidate to succeed Jay Honeycutt as director of the Kennedy Space Center. Bridges piloted the shuttle Challenger on a 1985 mission. Bridges told the Sentinel that he is interested in the job.

Momentum is building for including Robert Lawrence on the Astronaut Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center. Lawrence, an Air Force major, had been selected for the Air Force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory project but did not fly in space before dying in a fighter crash in 1967. He was thus not classified as an astronaut and not included on the memorial with 16 other astronauts who died on missions or in training. However, a December 20 letter from Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall to the Astronaut Memorial Foundation (AMF) "highly recommended" that Lawrence's name be added. Jim DeSantis, president of the AMF, was not persuaded, telling Florida Today that the letter was a "continuing copout" by the Air Force and asking for further clarification.

[Ilus. of space ride]Looking for a way to experience spaceflight but can seem to find a way to get into space? Casey Aerospace Corporation (CAC) may have the solution, if you don't mind being earthbound. The company announced plans December 16 for a $50 million training and education center that would offer a "comprehensive weightless spaceflight experience", according to a company press release. The training sessions would conclude with a flight on a aircraft performing parabolic maneuvers to provide brief moments. It won't come cheap, either: the company estimates the cost of the program to be $10,000, with first flights from a central Florida facility in 1998. CAC officials have experience with spaceflight: the president is former astronaut Ed Gibson, and Sally Ride and Norm Thagard are serving as consultants.

Several small Mars meteorites were sold at an auction in New York December 14. A tiny 0.1 g piece of the Zagami meteorite sold for $550, while a 1.3 g sample sold for $2,000. A 2.57 g sample of the Nakhla meteorite sold for $4000, but the largest one available, a 7.6 g sample of Zagami, went unsold when the largest bid, $11,000, failed to meet an unknown minimum... If larger meteors interest you more, keep your eyes on NBC in February. The network has been running promotions for a miniseries called "Asteroid", where a 4-mile (7-km) asteroid threatens to collide with Earth. It looks to be a disaster movie in the finest tradition of Irwin Allen...

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