9 October 2009
NASA's Ames Research Center is right across the creek from the Googleplex. Last night they organized a marathon event leading up to the impact of LCROSS on the Moon.
Ames is a really interesting place. Here's a scale model of the space shuttle in front of the world's largest wind tunnel. Its 80x120 foot cross-section allows for testing of full-scale airplanes, parachutes and wind turbines.
Dominating the complex is Hangar One. This magnificent building was originally designed to house giant airships. It was home to the USS Macon, a flying aircraft carrier. Both ends feature giant doors set on rails. I parked my bicycle next to it on the photo below for scale. Hangar One is a nationally registered historic monument which means they can't demolish it. So the plan is to strip the paneling off it leaving a naked steel skeleton, then quietly wait a few years for it to rust and collapse on its own. This two-step approach is similar to the way they disposed of the historic Apollo 11 launch tower.
The Impact Night event was well attended. There were about a thousand people who watched through the night as LCROSS and its Centaur booster plummeted towards the Moon. The Moon started out as a full disk, then got progressively more detailed until Loss Of Signal.
The expected highlight came four minutes before LCROSS impact when its two-ton Centaur booster (which was flying ahead of LCROSS) hit the Moon. All the mission engineers were expecting a big explosion and a massive upheaval of debris which would be analyzed for the presence of water ice. The result was mysteriously underwhelming. The Moon ate the Centaur without a trace. It will be interesting to see how the data analysis from Keck, Hubble, LRO and others plays out over the coming weeks.
Here's a shot of the event: The soon-to-be bombarded Moon is rising behind the giant screen which was replaying vintage Apollo 11 launch footage. The two red aircraft warning lights belong to Hangar One which is looming behind the screen.
Early in the evening a TV crew cornered me and asked whether I thought I'd see a colony on the Moon in my lifetime. I responded, "Definitely, the question is whether there will be any Americans on it." The interviewer grinned ear to ear knowing he'd just found the quote he needed for that night's broadcast. [It's true: Unless current funding rates or launch strategies change, Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India and Bigelow will all have established lunar outposts by the time America makes its first one-week visit in 2040. Though personally I don't care who gets off this rock as long as someone does.]