Making The Cut

Last November, NASA announced it was accepting applications for its next class of astronauts. Probably one of the more obscure jobs you’ll find listed on the federal government’s USAJobs.gov website, NASA received nearly 6,400 applications by the end of the application period that ended on January 27. By the end of May of next year, those 6,000-plus applications will undergo a rigorous selection process that will result in nine to fifteen new NASA astronauts.

NASA Astronaut Group 20

"The Chumps" - NASA Astronaut Group 20, including 5 international mission specialists. Click for larger image. Image Credit: NASA

The last astronaut class — Group 20, nicknamed “The Chumps”  1 — was selected in 2009, when nine men and women made the cut. While the 2009 class hasn’t made it to space yet, all of them have finished their training and have begun their first technical assignments inside NASA’s Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and of them, one (Michael Hopkins) has been assigned to a space mission in which he is currently undergoing mission-specific training for.

The number of applications for Astronaut Group 21, was only topped by the number received in the late 1970s, when NASA was recruiting the first astronauts to fly the Space Shuttle.

A lot happens between now and August of next year, when the Astronaut Candidate Class of 2013 reports to the Johnson Space Center.  The process involves background checks, medical evaluations, and interviews.  Finalists will be determined at the end of this year, with the Astronaut Candidate Class being announced next May. (Check out Candidate Selection Process timeline.)

For those that applied, good luck! I look forward to meeting our next batch of NASA astronauts.

For more information on the NASA astronaut program, visit the Astronaut Program website.


  1. For the past couple of decades or so, the next group of selected astronauts is named by the previous class. Group 17, “The Penguins” named Group 18, “The Bugs”. The Bugs went on to name Group 19, “The Peacocks”. The Peacocks then went to name Group 20, “The Chumps”. We’ll have to wait and see what name The Chumps have in store for Group 21.

Tortoises In Space: An Homage to Shelled Explorers

Tortoises In Space
Now that I have your attention…

When you think of animals that have been sent to space, what comes to mind? Humans of course, but maybe you also remember the first “higher primate” in space1, Ham the Chimpanzee (or Enos, the first primate to orbit the Earth). Or perhaps the dog Laika — the first animal to orbit the Earth2 — comes to mind. And of course, we’ve sent mice and insects and other organisms into space in the name of research as well.

What probably doesn’t immediately come to mind, however, are tortoises. But tortoises were exactly what the Soviets decided should be among the first animals to circle the Moon.

The Soviet’s Zond (translated: probe) program consisted of two distinct objectives. The first missions, Zond 1, 2, and 3, utilized the 3MV3 planetary probe and were designed to explore Mars and Venus. Zond 1 and 2 failed en route to their respective objective targets, while Zond 3 captured photos from the far side of the Moon on its way out on a Mars trajectory, though the timing wasn’t such that it would encounter the red planet.

Zond 5 Tortoises

Zond 5 Tortoises. Credit: RKK Energia.

Fueled by the “Moon race” between the United States and the Soviets, the following Zond missions employed the Soyuz 7K-L1 spacecraft and were all focused on the Moon. Zond 4 reached a distance of approximately 300,000km (186,411 miles) from the Earth before returning. Its trajectory took it on a course 180-degrees away from the Moon, and there are conflicting stories as to whether or not the Soviets intentionally sent the spacecraft on that course, or if there was a malfunction. It re-entered Earth’s atmosphere out of the Soviet’s control and was remotely detonated at an altitude of 10-15km (6-9 miles), and a couple of hundred kilometers off of the coast of Africa.

Finally, Zond 5 launched on September 14, 1968. Aimed for the Moon, it contained a biological payload including wine flies, meal worms, plants, bacteria, and… two Russian tortoises. Zond 5 took a circumlunar trajectory, which means it looped around the Moon, but didn’t go into multiple orbits around it. Think of a big, lop-sided, figure-eight, with the Earth within a large loop and the Moon within a smaller one. This is very similar to the emergency trajectory that Apollo 13 took, following the disastrous malfunctions that plagued that craft on its way to the Moon.

Circumlunar trajectory of Apollo 13

The circumlunar trajectory of Apollo 13 - Credit: AndrewBuck

The tortoises spent a week in space before splashing down in the Indian Ocean. The tortoises reportedly lost 10% of their body weight during their trip, but remained active and showed no loss of appetite. These tortoises became among the first Earthly lifeforms to complete a lunar flyby and return safely to Earth, proving it possible, and paving the way for future vertebrates such as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Scientists examining the Zond 5 tortoises.

Scientists examining the Zond 5 tortoises. - Credit: Energia.ru

Zond 5 wasn’t the end of the line for our half-shelled cosmonaut friends; Zond 7 and Zond 8 each carried multiple tortoises. Tortoises then came out of a 5-year retirement to be sent up again, aboard Soyuz 20 in 1975. This time, they were in for the long-haul, spending a total of 90.5 days in space and consequently breaking the record for the longest amount of time an animal had spent in space. Finally, in February of 2010, the Iranian Space Agency sent up their first biological payload into a sub-orbital flight; aboard were two turtles.4,5




So now you know the story of tortoises in space. From being among the first animals to take a trip around the Moon, to breaking records for time in space, tortoises are very much a part of “animaled” spaceflight. Like all of the others that have made Earth’s space programs successful, I tip my hat to the shelled reptiles for their contributions.


  1. Monkeys had gone into space as early as the late 1940’s, though it wasn’t until 1957 when Laika, the dog, became the first animal to orbit the Earth.
  2. And unfortunately, Laika was the first animal to die in orbit, as well.
  3. Third-generation, Mars/Venus
  4. Yes, I’m aware that there is a difference between tortoises and turtles, but the definitions can actually vary depending on which country you’re from. I haven’t been able to find out the specific species of the Testudine Iran sent to space, so they may or may not be tortoises. To be mentioned in this article, I say close enough!
  5. And apparently, at least 64 people are outraged enough by this that they’ve “Liked” a “Save Turtles From Iran’s Space Program” Facebook page.

Remembering Columbia

It was 9 years ago today, that the shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry, minutes away from its scheduled landing.

Crew of STS-107

Crew of STS-107, last flight of shuttle Columbia - Source: NASA

Lost that day, (as pictured above, L to R) were: David M. Brown, Rick D. Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William C. McCool, and Ilan Ramon.

Today, we remember the crew of STS-107 and thank them for their service.


"An Entirely New Type Of Space Transportation"

On January 5, 1972; 40 years ago today:

“I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970’s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980’s and ’90’s. – President Nixon on the announcement of the Space Shuttle program.

President Richard M. Nixon and Dr. James C. Fletcher, NASA Administrator, discussing the proposed Space Shuttle.

President Richard M. Nixon and Dr. James C. Fletcher, NASA Administrator, discussing the proposed Space Shuttle. Jan 5, 1972

[Image Credit: NASA]

40 years ago today, President Nixon announced the development of the Space Shuttle Program, which was retired in 2011.

I personally consider myself a member of the “Space Shuttle Generation”. The program’s maiden manned-voyage came just a year prior to my birth and I’ve spent my life fascinated by the program. It was a great disappointment to me to see the program retired last year — especially with no system ready to replace it.

Christmas Eve Earthrise

On Christmas Eve, 1968, one of the most iconic space images of all time was taken. The beautiful Earthrise image was taken by William Anders, aboard Apollo 8 — the first manned mission to the Moon (to orbit, not land).

Photo of Earth Rise from Apollo 8

(Click image for full-sized version / Source: NASA)

The words of Commander Frank Borman, as taken from the transcript of the mission, are quite fitting of what it must have felt like to see such a sight:

“Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!”


Thank You Discovery

Lift-off of STS-133, final mission for Discovery.

Lift-off of STS-133, final mission for Discovery. / Source: NASA


That’s it.

On March 9, 2011, space shuttle (technically, orbiter) Discovery landed at Kennedy Space Center after its final mission in space. This marked the conclusion of Discovery’s 38th mission (STS-133), from which it will retire as NASA’s hardest-working orbiter in the shuttle fleet. Discovery was NASA’s workhouse and many related it as the shuttle fleet’s eldest sibling. Here is a small list of Discovery’s amazing accomplishments over its 27-year history of spaceflight:

  • Discovery got its names from historical sea-faring ships, primarily HMS Discovery which was commanded by Captain James Cook during his third and final voyage (1776-1779). Henry Hudson also searched for the Northwest Passage in a ship named discovery in 1610-1611. 1
  • Discovery performed 39 missions and took 246 astronauts to space.
  • In April 1990, Discovery released the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit
  • Discovery carried Russian cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev, to space. The first Russian to ever fly in a NASA spacecraft.
  • Discovery spent a total of 365 days in space, orbited Earth 5,830 times and traveled 148,221,675 miles
  • Discovery was the first shuttle to fly after both the Challenger and Columbia disasters.
  • Discovery's Final Landing

    Discovery's Final Landing / Source: NASA and 46blyz.com

    As someone who considers himself a member of the “Space Shuttle Generation”, it’s sad to see Discovery retired; however, I have positive feelings about being able to live in a time to watch her in action.


    1. That mission didn’t turn out so well for Henry Hudson, not only did he fail to find a water-route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, his crew mutinied and sent him adrift in a small boat. He was never seen again.

Right Place Right Time: Good Luck Discovery

Talk about being at the right place at the right time. A few lucky passengers on a commercial jet flight leaving Orlando got a unique view of the shuttle Discovery’s final launch. Lucky for us, one of those passengers recorded a video.

What a fantastic perspective to view Discovery’s final voyage from.

Ham: The Mercury Program's First Astrochimp

Last week, we recognized sad and tragic events in space history; with the anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire and the Challenger disaster. Today, we lighten things up a bit with a look back in space history and introduce you to the Mercury program’s first astronaut: Ham.

50 years ago today, a chimpanzee named Ham1 was strapped to a rocket and launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a 16 minute, 39 second sub-orbital flight. The flight was part of NASA’s Mercury Project which sent the first American into space.

Chimpanzee Ham and technician go over equipment in preparation for launch.

Chimpanzee Ham and technician go over equipment in preparation for launch. – Source: NASA

The NASA publication, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, gives an explanation of Ham’s mission:

Having the same organ placement and internal suspension as man, plus a long medical research background, the chimpanzee chosen to ride the Redstone and perform a lever-pulling chore throughout the mission should not only test out the life-support systems but prove that levers could be pulled during launch, weightlessness, and reentry.

Levers could be pulled, and just about as well as they could be pulled in training on Earth. In fact, Ham’s reaction time was only .02 of a second slower than his performance of the same task on Earth.

During the flight, Ham’s capsule suffered from a partial loss of pressure; however, Ham’s spacesuit saved him from harm. All said and done, Ham returned to Earth in great physical shape, save a bruised nose.

The famous "hand shake" welcome. Chimpanzee Ham is greeted by recovery ship Commander after his flight on the Mercury Redstone rocket.

The famous “hand shake” welcome. Chimpanzee Ham is greeted by recovery ship Commander after his flight on the Mercury Redstone rocket. – Source: NASA

After his flight, Ham spent the next 17 years living at the National Zoo, in Washington D.C. He made numerous television appearances, and appeared in film with Evel Knievel. He died of natural causes in 1983, at the age of 26. Ham has a grave at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico.

So today, we look back 50 years and remember Ham and thank him for his contributions to space science.

 

  1. Technically, he wasn’t named Ham until after his successful mission and return to Earth. Until then, he was simply, #65. This is reportedly because officials were concerned with the bad publicity that would result if an unsuccessful mission was compounded with a named chimp. His handlers, however, called him Chop Chop Chang.

Remembering Challenger

25 years ago today, seven explorers gave their lives in the pursuit of scientific understanding. 73 seconds after lift-off, Challenger broke apart and disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean.

Crew of Challenger STS-51-L

Crew of Challenger STS-51-L

We remember Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair; (back row) Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.

We thank them for assisting in this planet’s quest to reach for the stars.