All posts by Steve Shurtleff

Travel on, Star Voyager…

220px-MalcolmScottCarpenterToday we remember Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury 7, who left us to begin his last adventure on October 10th, 2013.

Born on May 1st, 1925 in Boulder, CO, Carpenter followed John Glenn to become the 2nd American to orbit the Earth. A veteran of the Korean War, Carpenter attended Test Pilot School with the U.S. Navy.

Selected for the Mercury Program in 1959, Scott first flew into space on May 24th, 1962. Despite a malfunction causing him to overshoot his landing area by 250 miles, Carpenter’s flight was declared a rousing success by NASA officials based on the 5 successful experiments conducted during the flight.

After an unrelated injury in 1964 prevented him from flying in space again, he took a leave from NASA in 1963 in order to perform oceanic research with the Navy’s SEALAB program, but returned briefly to NASA before resigning in 1967 to continue work with the SEALAB project before retiring from the Navy in 1969 to explore some private endeavors in environmental research.

Though of the Mercury 7, only John Glenn is still with us, none will be forgotten as the inspiration for countless astronauts, scientists, and engineers that followed their adventures.

Malcolm Scott Carpenter, Star Voyager, 1925 – 2013


Relatively simple…

albert-einsteinIf you’ve followed science for more than 2 or 3 minutes, you’ve seen this before:


We’re taught from the start that it means that faster than light (FTL) travel isn’t possible, right?

Wrong. That’s not actually what it says. Let’s look at it in terms of component factors.

E = energy
m = mass (of the object in question)
c = the speed of light, squared in this case

Therefore, it states that the energy needed to move that object increases as the object approaches light speed. It also means that as an object approaches the speed of light, the mass will increase as well. In other words, things get very massive and compressed the closer to the speed of light they travel and it takes more and more energy to move them.

So what does this really mean? It means that we won’t break the light barrier using conventional rockets and propulsion systems. Most people take this to mean that faster than light travel is, and I loathe this word with a passion:


Hogwash. Cars that go faster than 25 mph and breaking the sound barrier were once also considered impossible, until both occured.

So what, then, does it mean for a feat to be impossible? It just means we can’t accomplish that feat today. Tomorrow could be another matter entirely.

E=mc² just tells us that when we do break the light barrier, it won’t be done by accelerating the craft to 186,000 miles per second.

Meaning what?

Meaning that we just have to find another way to do it, and scientists are excellent at changing the rules as they make new discoveries. As Captain Picard once told Mr. Data, “Things are only impossible until they’re not.”

Impossibility is a temporary condition.

And the best way to change it?



Why geeks don’t write fairy tales

It was inevitable…

Rapunzel, illustration by Johnny GruelleOne of the primary goals of Photos to Space is to inspire kids to learn about space. Today, the concept of space travel is increasingly commonplace.

However, it wasn’t always the case. Joe and I were talking about the things kids have access to now that we didn’t have 30 years or so ago. It wouldn’t surprise us if kids today weren’t even familiar with old-fashioned children’s stories.

Herein lay the problem. We both, though we’re now adults, remember the basic themes of the stories, the difference is that now we look at them from the viewpoint of scientists, of a sort.

Consider, as we did, the story of Rapunzel.

The damsel in distress, she lets down her hair for the Brave Knight to climb in order to effect a rescue.

Let’s think about this for a bit.

First off, how far off the ground is the window? Human hair grows at approximately 1/2″ per month, or about 6 inches per year. Given this, assuming the window is only 20′ off the ground, Rapunzel’s hair would have to be, at a bare minimum, 15′ long, as the hair would only have to be close enough to the ground to allow for a safe distance from which to both drop from and grab the end.

We’re going to ignore here that a 20′ vertical jump is not only survivable, but can even be accomplished without injury if the person knows how to land.

This would mean that Rapunzel is at least 30.

But maybe not. Nothing says that the Brave Knight has to start climbing from the ground. Horses were a common means of transport in the era during which the the story takes place, so he could conceivably begin the climb from while mounted. This would take the requisite hair length down to roughly 11′, bringing Rapunzel’s age to 22.

However, this leads to another problem.

A typical set of knight’s armor would weigh somewhere between 40 – 60 lbs. Allowing the benefit of the doubt, if the Brave Knight alone weighed in at only 150 lbs., the Brave Knight in armor would weight somewhere around 200 lbs.

Imagine a 200 lb. weight hanging from the end of your hair. And this doesn’t even take the jerking motion of a vertical, hand-over-hand climb into account. The odds are good that Rapunzel would become rapidly and painfully bald, and that the Brave Knight would end up back where he started, buried under her golden locks.

But have no fear! All is not lost for our beautiful maiden!

Let’s again give the story the benefit of the doubt. Rapunzel herself most likely weighs less than the knight, as she’s been locked up in the tower for at least enough time for it to become known that she’s in need of rescue. It’s entirely possible that food is at least somewhat scarce.

Suppose for a moment that either Rapunzel or the Brave Knight takes this into account. Rapunzel now has the option of tying the end of her hair to something solid inside the tower, lowering the hair between the knot and the roots out the window, and climbing down her own hair to the waiting Brave Knight. Yes, her hair would have to be at least 20′ long for that to work, raising her age back to 40, but that’s ok. She would also find that, upon reaching a position nearing the ground, that the far end of her hair was still tied off, requiring the Brave Knight to draw his trusty sword and sever the “rope”. In other words, she has a choice between losing all of her hair or only some of it.

On the other hand, unless I’m wrong, it’s never clearly stated how long she’s been in the tower. If she’s screaming for rescue after only one day, that may indicate other issues. But let’s assume she’s been up there since the age of 15, for the sake of math. That would mean, assuming again that the Brave Knight begins to climb from the back of the horse, that she’s had 7 years to figure out how to escape on her own, and if 7 years isn’t enough time to do that, I’d question her intellect were I the one trying to rescue her, and if that’s the case, I’d probably not want to mount a rescue in the first place.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why doesn’t she just leave the way she most likely got there to begin with? Why not wait until the door is open and make a run for it? Well, if the door can withstand 7 years of plotting (again, assuming she’s not a complete idiot here) before the Brave Knight arrived, it’s probably going to withstand his efforts as well.

The point?

Maybe she needs a locksmith.

The end.


Our most Cygnificant blog to date…

Antares launch, September 18th, 2013.  Image from

Antares launch, September 18th, 2013. Image from

After a textbook launch of their Antares rocket on September 18th, Orbital Science’s Cygnus resupply craft is on its way to dock with the ISS. It is currently scheduled to attach to the space station after the arrival of the next Soyuz capsule, which will bring crew replacements to the station.

As of September 26th, work is in progress to correct some software and data discrepancies between the ISS and Cygnus, and the cause of the problem has been identified. Testing of the solution is currently being carried out with the aid of a ground-based simulator. Fortunately, neither the craft nor the ISS are in any danger due to the malfunction.

While Cygnus was scheduled to dock before the Soyuz, it was determined that the docking order should be switched. This delay will actually work to the advantage of all concerned, since it will allow more time to test the Cygnus software patch as well as not cause the ISS crew to rush through the arrival of the new crew members.

The rendezvous, which will occur sometime after September 28th, will also allow time to correct the software issue aboard the craft. While awaiting the docking maneuver, Cygnus is undergoing a series of tests to demonstrate the agility of the craft for future resupply missions.

Remember, some problems are actually a blessing.

So congratulations to our friends at Orbital Sciences!


Cygnus successfully docked with the ISS the morning of September 29th. The hatch between to two craft should be opened as of September 30. Congratulations to Orbital Sciences!


“I have a list for you, Dave…”

9 Things You Can Do In Space Right Now

I was looking for a business card in my wallet this morning when I noticed a startling lack of $200,000.

Apparently I won’t be travelling into space today. I’m not counting on going tomorrow either. The odds are good that you’re lacking that kind of funding also.

But you know what? That’s ok, you don’t need it to be involved in space efforts today.

Feast your eyes, here are 9 things you can do – today – mostly without your feet leaving the ground.

1. Get some space training at NASTAR, Basic Suborbital Space Training, $3,000
So even if you’re unable or unwilling to travel into space personally, you can still get a taste of a few things real astronauts do to prepare for a mission. Imagine enjoying a simulated spaceflight after being given an overview of exactly how a pressure suit works, as well as learning how to stay healthy in a zero-gravity environment.

And speaking of zero-gravity…

2. Go Weightless with Zero Gravity Corporation, Zero Gravity Flight Experience, $4,950
Most of us have flown in an airliner at least once. However, once at altitude, odds are that the plane you flew on stayed more or less level until nearing your destination. But where’s the fun in that? Imagine if the pilot started taking the plane through a series of parabolic arcs, during which you got to experience weightlessness while the plane descended?

Still a bit pricey? No problem…

3. Send your face to space with Photos to Space, Basic Photo Flight, $1.95
Ok, so even $3,000 is still high for most of us. You can still participate in space activities in the form of having the photo(s) of your choosing sent in space on a suborbital flight and returned to you along with a certificate and record of the flight data. It makes a great gift, certainly better than yet another necktie or sweater.

Still not your cup of tea? No problem there either…

4. Read all about space on various blogs and news sites
HobbySpace, Parabolic Arc,, IO9, AmericaSpace
Perhaps you’d rather simply take a seat in the stands and watch the action from the sidelines. There are several websites and blogs that can be of use. Believe me, there’s so much information presented on the above blog sites that you could spend several hours a day looking at nothing else.

But imagine being a student with no time to read anything other than a schoolbook…

5. Send a small payload to space with JP Aerospace, PongSat Flights, no cost to students/schools
Ever played table tennis? The ball usually doesn’t get higher than 6 or 7 inches above the table. Big deal. Suppose the ball could get up to 100,000 feet, though. Also, imagine that the ball had whatever you wanted inside it, a small experiment all your own. Well, that can be done today also. Private space is still young, and because of that, it’s important to get young people interested.

What? You’ve already graduated and need a challenging job?

6. Work for an out of this world company like Planetary Resources
One of my favorite movies is about a group of 7 blue-collar workers aboard a mining and refinery ship. Ok, so maybe they have a less than ideal day in the story, but the day is rapidly approaching in which mining in space will be a reality. And in order for that to happen, miners will be essential, for obvious reasons. And yes, I’m sure it will be safe to chase the cat.

But you’d rather stay on Earth and work? Ok, how about…

7. Design and build your own CubeSat, CubeSat kits, $7,500 – $8,750
Imagine not having to imagine building and programming your own satellite. This also can be done today. Maybe you have an idea for an orbiting craft that will do something that nothing currently in space does. It can be done, and you can do it.

Still too pricey? Check this out…

8. Rent time on a real spacecraft like ArduSat, Satellite Rental, $50 – $975
If there’s already a satellite in orbit doing something that interests you, but you’re not satisfied just to follow that craft’s progress, you can involve yourself by leasing time on a satellite already in flight. Think about it. Your name could be counted among those whose names are already immortalized as having contributed to space research.

So unmanned endeavors still just don’t do it for you?

9. Send your own experiment to the ISS with NanoRacks, $30,000 and up
It’s even possible to get your experiment or payload all the way to the ISS and tended to by the astronauts aboard. Expensive for many still, but still a more affordable alternative to a personal journey.

And the list goes on. These are just a few of the ways you can take part in the adventure, and the possibilities are growing with each passing day.

So which will you do?



Walk with me, young Grasshopper…

Spx_Grasshopper_03We used to think that everything that goes up must come down.

Now we know that this isn’t always the case, but most of the time, it still holds true. However, aside from helicopters, not many vehicles can lift off and land in exactly the same spot.

And now, joining a small group of rockets able to accomplish this, we have Grasshopper.

An experimental launch platform developed by SpaceX, Grasshoppers 1.0 and 1.1 are the latest additions to the Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing (VTVL) class of rockets, intended for service as a reusable launch system.

Grasshopper 1.0, revealed in September 2011, stands at 106′ tall and includes a first stage tank from one of their Falcon 9 rockets and a complex multi-legged base which houses additional hardware needed for flight operations, and has already completed several test flights.

The updated Grasshopper 1.1, at 160′, will include folding legs and a larger, updated Falcon 9 first stage fuel tank. With flight testing scheduled to begin between October 2013 and February 2014, Grasshopper 1.1 is expcted to reach testing altitudes of up to 300,000 feet.

With the successful testing to date of Grasshopper 1.0 and testing on 1.1 to begin soon, SpaceX has announced intentions to gradually increase both speed and altitude during successive flights.

When brought into full operation, the Grasshopper platform will open new doors in rapid-turnaround flight opportunities, bringing commercial spaceflight closer and closer to being as commonplace as airline flight is today.

Congratulations, SpaceX!



Captain Kirk ain’t got nothin’ on us!

Group_01_150Twelve days from now, on September 22nd, we’ll be celebrating the launch of the next Away Mission flight with JP Aerospace.

So what makes this particular flight so special?

Well, I’m glad I asked.

This flight will mark the first venture into space of the Astro Corps!

And what exactly is the Astro Corps?

The Astro Corps consists (for now) of Yuri, Riley (aka Kat), and Gene, our 3 intrepid, yet tiny, space voyagers! As well as watching over your photos during the flight as it ascends to about 20 miles, they will be taking measurements of the flight data and some photos of their own of the Earth from above before the return journey.

Even though the launch date is coming up fast, there is still time to submit your photo to ride along with them – just visit and fill out the form near the bottom of the page to share in their adventure!

Also, to get to know the Astro Corps crew, be sure to check out:

Don’t miss out on this historic flight!

And, as always…



In silence, activity

Out-There-iPad-miniMany of you have probably noticed that our blog posts have becmome a bit less frequent than they were. This isn’t due to a decline of any kind, but is very much due to the hubbub related to the release of Out There.

In fact, Out There is taking off nicely, and Photos to Space has not slowed down in the slightest.

You may be thinking that writing Out There doesn’t sound like it would have been that difficult. Part of the process was relatively painless, other parts weren’t, but all of it was very time-consuming.

The first words were laid down back in January of this year, but sometimes things happen that cause projects to be set aside, and this was no different. There were about 2 months in which it didn’t progress at all – our attention was simply needed elsewhere.

Now, here is the wonder of the e-book. Work continued on it until, and this is not an exaggeration, about 10 minutes before the final form was sent to Amazon for release to the public. Before that point, and after the initial draft was completed, it went through no less than 11 proofing and editing passes before it was considered “Ready”.

So who did what?

Most of the initial draft was my doing. However, some of my first work was so unbearably dull that Joe ended up having to do nearly complete rewrites on one or two of the chapters. Fortunately, his style and mine are nearly identical.

One day while taking a break, though, I had put The Shining in the DVD player and found myself viewing the movie in a new way. It occurred to me that maybe the haunting of the Overlook wasn’t what drove Jack mad, it could easily have been the writing process. Not to worry, though, I didn’t end up chasing anyone around with an axe.

After that came the hard part, turning it over to the people who were there to save us from ourselves: the editors, Tracey, Pam, and Julia. Without them, we might as well have never started. Between the 3 of them, nearly all the bugs were worked out (finding them all is highly unlikely, even with 5 sets of eyes looking at something).

In the end, we learned that no one person can write a book on their own.

Does that mean that our first book will be our last?

Not by a long shot.

The 2nd edition of Out There is in the works now, and we’ll be starting on a brand new book very shortly, possibly even this week.

So stay tuned, and as always…


By the way, if you haven’t gotten your copy yet, the full title is Out There: A Small Guide to a Big Universe and it’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes. Please be sure to review it after looking it over!


Let’s see what’s Out There!

Out ThereSo what is out there?

Well, Out There is out there. And it’s waiting for you in here.

After several months of seemingly endless editing, late nights, and lots of coffee, Photos to Space is very pleased to invite you to get Out There.

Our new book, ‘Out There: a Small Guide to a Big Universe’, is now available for Kindle on and, with Apple format for iOS soon to follow.

So what is it about?

It’s about us, and where we fit. It’s about the Universe we live in. It’s about some of those who led the way on our journey Out There, and some of those who follow.

But is it just for the super intelligent?

No. Just as it’s about everybody, it’s also for everybody. It explains the Universe in relation to what we see and do everyday.

Which Earth mountain is taller than Mt. Everest? That’s Out There.

How long it would take to drive to the nearest star? That’s also Out There.

What would it be like to go into a Black Hole? That’s Out There too.

And that’s not all. While it doesn’t cover everything (no book does), it covers some of the really neat phenomena and wonders that await us Out There.

But above all else, it’s about the…


Out There – A Small Guide To A Big Universe


Rain, rain, go away

HD_189733_b_deep_blue_dotWe’ve all been there.

Wake up in the morning, get the coffee, look out the window – and see pouring rain.

Some people, like me, enjoy the rain. Others, not so much.

Now, imagine looking out the window to see rain composed of superheated glass moving horizontally, propelled by 4,500 MPH winds. To make things more interesting, imagine this occuring while the temperature on the other side of the glass was around 2,000 F.

That’s what scientists have found to be happening on HD 189733b, an exoplanet about 63 light-years away, which was first discovered in 2005. A gas giant, HD 189733b has been determined to appear deep blue, due to silicates in the upper atmosphere, meaning that molten glass rain could result when the silicates undergo condensation.

Another odd feature of HD 189733b is that it orbits its star at a distance of only 2,900,000 miles. It’s so close, in fact, that it’s tidally locked to the star, meaning that the same side always faces the star, much the same way that one side of the Moon always faces Earth.

By comparison, the planet Mercury never gets closer to the Sun than about 28,500,000 miles.

Suddenly the gentle showers we get here don’t seem so bad, do they?


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