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    In Brief: ISS to Test NASA's Hydroponics Pod

    SpaceX's third contracted cargo run was supposed to launch on Monday--a Dragon capsule ferrying 2.5 tons of supplies to the International Space Station. But a helium leak in the first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has delayed that launch until the end of this week. Among the tools, equipment, and food supplies being sent to the ISS are a new batch of experiments to join the over 100 already being conducted at any time on board the station. One notable new experiment is Veggie, NASA's prototype of an expandable plant chamber to grow lettuce seedlings in space. These plants will be grown on "pillows" in the device, which expands to 12x15-inches, the largest plant growth chamber yet sent to space. Astronauts will test the culinary and health potential of the space lettuce, and NASA also expects the experiment to have psychological benefits. Space gardening could be a legitimate pastime for astronauts.

    What Astronauts Do When There’s Nothing to Do

    Whether it’s stoplights, your doctor’s office, or a popular restaurant on Saturday night, waiting is an inescapable aspect of modern life. For many of us, the pain of waiting is rarely much worse than being behind some indecisive couple at the Redbox kiosk. But even that trivial torment can be eased with time-killing apps on your phone. Now imagine that you have a few hours to kill before fulfilling your life’s greatest ambition, with practically nothing to do, all while firmly strapped to a fully reclined seat atop a few million pounds of highly explosive fuel…and no smartphone to check Twitter. That was the situation that many Space Shuttle astronauts found themselves in. That stoplight doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

    Much has been written about the experience of riding a spaceship to orbit…but what about the wait to get started? (photo credit NASA)

    When astronauts arrived at the launch pad via the gleaming Astrovan motor home, there was much more to do than just pile into the shuttle and light the engines. There could have been up to seven astronauts on any given flight, and just strapping them into their seats took nearly an hour. Then the entry hatch had to be closed, sealed, and pressure checked…along with a laundry list of other vital tasks. When all was said and done, an astronaut could find themselves in that seat for as long as five hours before liftoff. I don’t even want to sit in my La-Z-Boy for that long, much less be shackled with a five-point harness to a rigid seat that was designed for lightness above all else.

    While physical comfort (or lack thereof) is one element of sitting on the launch pad, the mental aspect of processing the pending, and rather dramatic events must have been equally unsettling. Whether their primary emotion was excitement, fear, or something else entirely, I don’t see how anyone could dismiss the fact that launching into space is a very big deal. The last few hours of the countdown were likely among the least frenetic periods since the crew had begun training for the flight months--or years--earlier. The ways in which astronauts coped with this forced inactivity while perched at the edge of such a rare and dynamic human experience are surely as varied as the people themselves.

    In Brief: My Love Affair with Modern Planetariums

    I've got cosmology on the mind this week. Not only has Fox's new Cosmos show debuted (it's pretty good!), but there was of course the big announcement on Monday of astrophysicists' confirmation of cosmic inflation theory. Erin did a lovely job explaining the concept in layman's terms, and you should listen to this episode of San Francisco public radio's Forum program with local astronomers and physics professors discussing the details of the report.

    Stories like those do a great job communicating heady science concepts to non-scientists, but I'm not sure how effective they are in inspiring more interest in astronomy and cosmology. That's why I'm such a big fan of modern-day digital planetariums, like the Morrison Planetarium at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. I wrote about it for Maximum PC (PDF) when it first opened in 2009, and we've followed up with stories about the technologies that turn these domed rooms into universe simulators. You can even run that software at home. The current show at the Morrison Planetarium is Dark Universe, an exploration of the Big Bang and Dark Matter, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It's a collaboration with the Hayden Planetarium at the ANHM, so you can watch it in New York as well. It's a fantastic space show that's also pretty audacious--it visualizes concepts that we not only can't see, but that astronomers are still figuring out for themselves.

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    Tested Explains: What The Heck is Inflation Theory?

    If you were conscious on Monday you probably heard there was big news out of the physics community. So big, in fact, that there’s already talk of Nobel prizes and jokes about Einstein patting himself on the back for being proven right...again. Let’s be honest though, big physics news is always kind of hard to understand. There’s always GeV’s and B-modes and jargon and, well, math. So, in the event that you’d actually like to understand what the heck everybody is talking about right now I called up my favorite theoretical physicist, CalTech’s Sean Carroll, to help explain the theory of inflation for those of us that don’t do physics. Here it is, in the simplest possible terms.

    Image credit: California Academy of Sciences

    The universe is the same everywhere we look. No matter where we point our telescopes out into the 14 billion light years of space in all directions, we see the same density of stuff. Same amount of matter and number of galaxies. Same gravitational field. The universe is even basically the same temperature everywhere.

    The theory is that in the very first fraction of a second after the big bang happened, the universe expanded into existence.

    It’s awfully smooth, flat, and uniform -- and there’s gotta be a reason why. Inflation theory explains. Simply put, the theory is that in the very first fraction of a second after the big bang happened, the universe expanded into existence. In other words, everything, everywhere existed all at once and it happened faster than the speed of light.

    That’s it. Pretty simple, right? Well, it sounds simple. Until you try to prove that it’s true. Since we can’t go back in time to watch the creation of the universe (whomp whomp), the best way to know that theory is right is to look for leftovers of its aftermath. So scientists have been trying to spot evidence that the rapid inflation of the universe messed with gravity.

    NASA's Project Morpheus' Sixth Free Flight

    NASA's Project Morpheus is a prototype autonomous lander designed for vertical takeoff and landing, developed as a testbed for future spacecraft that will help NASA deliver cargo and payloads to support future crewed missions to the Moon and even asteroids. From NASA: "the 6th free flight of the Bravo vehicle flew to 467 feet (142m), altitude and then traversed 637 feet (194m) in 36 seconds, including diverting course mid-flight, before landing in the hazard field 56 feet (17m) from its original target (simulating hazard avoidance). Initial data indicates a nominal flight meeting all test objectives. The vehicle flew its pre-planned trajectory flawlessly." I love the simulated Moon surface that's the target area for the lander.

    The Space Shuttle’s Controversial Launch Abort Plan

    Just about every aspect of spaceflight harbors dangers that are both obvious and concealed. Yet, it is launch and landing that create the most white knuckles and bated breaths. These concerns are well-founded. Getting into orbit requires harnessing unfathomable quantities of volatile energy with laser beam precision. Coming home necessitates somehow dissipating a similar volume of energy within comparably narrow margins of error. As risky as those two endeavors may seem, one NASA plan for the Space Shuttle combined launch and landing into a single 25-minute ride with presumed risks that far exceeded the sum of its parts: the Return To Launch Site (RTLS) abort.

    The first space shuttle mission was briefly considered as an intentional RTLS test flight. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

    As the name implies, RTLS was a plan to land a malfunctioning Space Shuttle on the runway at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the shadow of the launch pad that it recently departed. It sounds easy, right? Surely, it’s just like going back home to make sure you turned off the oven. In actuality, there is much more to it than that. Throughout the Shuttle program’s 30-plus years, there was continuous debate over the validity of the RTLS scenario. Skeptics claimed that the RTLS checklist was nothing more than busywork to distract the astronauts as they rode out an irreversible doom. Even the man who commanded the first Space Shuttle flight (STS-1), astronaut John Young, expressed that “RTLS requires continuous miracles interspersed with acts of God to be successful.”

    The good news is that the shuttle’s retirement has made the RTLS argument merely an academic one. Of the 135 Space Shuttle launches, only one (STS-51F on 7/29/85) experienced an abort-inducing failure during ascent. In the case of 51F, they safely made a lower-than-planned orbit and carried out the mission. All of the other flights cleanly avoided the dubious honor of settling the RTLS bet.

    In Brief: NASA's Super Ball Bot

    NASA has employed wheeled rovers and humanoid robots to assist in space exploration, but it's really neat to see them explore robotic designs that don't conform to what we typically think of when we imagine a robot. The design of rovers like the MSL Curiosity make them good for multi-purpose functions--it's basically a science lab on wheels--but are costly to launch and deploy. A new Super Ball Bot design eschews rigid form for the idea of tensegrity: a structure that can compress and unfold on command. Think of it as a smart set of motorized and interlocking tent poles that can maneuver around uneven environments and reach places deemed too dangerous for wheeled robots. NASA engineers are figuring out how to adapt their traditional robotics know-how to this design concept, but are eyeing Titan as a potential first destination for this new type of robot. The following video from IEEE Spectrum shows a prototype Ball Bot in action.

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    Our Favorite Photos Taken by Astronauts

    Most of us will likely never have the opportunity to go into space. But we can all live vicariously through the experiences of astronauts, made all the more accessible with Skype calls and high-definition video journals. Watching Chris Hadfield show us how he cuts his nails in the micro-gravity environment of the International Space Station is enthralling, and it's easy to forget that these astronauts are scientists carrying out important research on these missions. That makes it even more impressive to consider that they also have to document their journeys in their downtime; they're astronauts first, photographers second. But what photographers they are. NASA makes publicly available thousands of photos taken by astronauts, from the first Mercury flights to the trips to the ISS. Here's my pick for a few of the ones I think are the most impressive.

    Adam Savage's Mercury Spacesuit Replica

    A double dose of space awesomeness! Adam shares with us two prized possessions: a perfect replica of the coveted NASA-issued blue flight jacket worn by Apollo astronauts, and a recreated silver full-body pressure suit used in NASA's Mercury missions. Yep, it's the iconic U.S. Navy Mark IV suit designed by B.F. Goodrich Company and worn by astronauts like John Glenn. Watch the unedited suit test here!

    Inside Adam Savage's Cave: Space Glove Vacuum Chamber

    For a friend's birthday present, Adam recently made this mock vacuum chamber and airtight space glove from scratch, and shows us how it works. The vacuum box is part prop and part puzzle--the user has to manipulate a set of nuts and bolts to complete a circuit and activate a sign. Best birthday present ever!

    JPL's RoboSimian Disaster-Response Robot

    "Meet RoboSimian, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's official entry at the DARPA Robotics Challenge in December 2013. Also known as "Clyde," the robot is is four-footed, but can also stand on two feet. It has four general-purpose limbs and hands capable of both mobility and manipulation. It came in 5th place out of 16 entries." The New York Times has a great overview (and video) of the competition and all the robots that competed. The winner of the competition was SCHAFT, a biped robot created by students from the University of Tokyo's Department of Mechano-Informatics.

    Artifacts of Apollo: Collecting Memorabilia from the Space Race and Beyond

    [Editor's note: This story was originally published on August 16, 2012. We're resurfacing it this week as part of our tribute to the great feature work that writer Wes Fenlon has done with Tested, as he embarks on his new career in games journalism.]

    People tend to miss it, when they first walk into Robert Pearlman's office; their eyes are immediately drawn to the glass display cases full of astronaut flight suits, or the decades-old dehydrated food packets, or the bits of parachutes used to lower space capsules into the ocean half a century ago. He might tell them about the ballpoint pen he has that was used by astronauts on Skylab for two months in 1973, or a pressure glove worn into space by Russian cosmonaut Ulf Merbold in a 1994 Soyuz mission.

    But at some point, visitors will turn around and see it resting against a wall: a four-foot-by-four-foot, 200 pound hatch built for the International Space Station.

    The giant slab of metal "definitely monopolizes the conversation from that point forward," said Pearlman, whose home in Houston, Texas doubles as an office for CollectSPACE, a website he established in 1999. The ISS hatch--officially called a "common berthing mechanism hatch"--is one of only two in private hands. Pearlman is one of those two thanks to a CollectSPACE community member, who spotted the hatch in a Huntsville, Alabama recycling yard. Pearlman paid to have the hatch shipped to his home in Houston, Texas, where it now sits among 15 glass display cases and boxes of space artifacts there's simply no room to display.

    Pearlman's collection comes with the job--or, perhaps more accurately, his job was born out of an endless passion for all things space. In 2003, he turned CollectSPACE into a full-time occupation, covering space history, current events (like the recent landing of Mars Rover Curiosity, which he witnessed from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California), and, of course, memorabilia.

    CollectSPACE's message board serves as a home for space fans like Pearlman. Despite its attachment to one of the most important endeavors in human history, the hobby of space collecting had no real organization in the 70s, 80s and 90s. "There weren't conferences. There weren't conventions," said Pearlman. "[Collecting] really was in small pockets around the country."

    Pearlman and I talked about how the Internet changed that, and how CollectSPACE grew to reach a readership of 4.5 million. But mostly he talked about artifacts of the space program, the rarest pieces every collector dreams of owning, and the magic ingredient that turns any relic into a must-have: moon dust.

    Tour Bus Diaries: BEST. DAY. EVER.

    OK, this was, like, a crazy amazing day. I barely know where to begin. Barely. But here goes.

    Last night, as I was going to bed, I decided to see what kind of fun things there were to do with the gang while in Huntsville. I knew that Huntsville had a significant role in the American space program, so I looked up museums and found pay dirt: Space Camp! It's in Huntsville. I checked their hours and planned to bring the boys to the Space Camp museum when we all got up. Awesome.

    I had no idea how awesome things were about to get.

    At 9 a.m. Kelsey, one of our crew, knocks on the door. Turns out that Kelsey had been through Huntsville six years before and had been offered something really cool to do by one of the local crew, but she couldn’t do it then. He’d told her that the next time she came to Huntsville, she should look him up.

    So she did. He remembered. What was his offer? To scuba dive in the astronaut tank at SPACE CAMP! And they were willing to take me and the boys. What? In the words of Keanu: "Woah!"

    So we drove over there, and everyone at Space Camp couldn’t have been nicer. The tank we were to dive in was ideal: 95 degrees, 30 feet in diameter and 25 feet deep, with basically an underwater jungle gym inside.

    The purpose of the tank is to give the kids at Space Camp a feeling of what it’s like to be an astronaut in 0-G. We spent about an hour underwater doing all sorts of great fun stuff like playing basketball with bowling balls, assembling some complex structures underwater, and generally swimming around and having a blast. The boys did great their first time SCUBA diving. They now are dying to get certified AND to come back to Space Camp next summer.

    It gets better.

    The History of Fallen Astronaut: Man's First Sculpture on the Moon

    In 1971, two years after Apollo 11 landed the first men on the moon, Apollo 15 made a lesser-known historical footprint. Astronaut David Scott was the first to drive the lunar rover around the surface of the moon, but that wasn't his only achievement as the commander of the Apollo 15 mission. He also created a small memorial on the moon with a plaque dedicated to astronauts and cosmonauts who had died in service to the quest for the stars. Beside the plaque he places a small aluminum sculpture, three and a half inches tall, a human being in the abstract.

    The sculpture came to be known as Fallen Astronaut, and was only briefly mentioned by the Apollo 15 astronauts as a tribute to their comrades when they returned to Earth. For decades, it was all but forgotten--but that was after it became the focal point of a controversy involving David Scott, NASA, and artist Paul van Hoeydonck, who created the Fallen Astronaut sculpture. Slate has the story about this forgotten piece of NASA history, told with interviews with van Hoeydonck and Scott, now in their 80s.

    Photo credit: NASA

    Fallen Astronaut started with an idea at the Waddell gallery in New York, where van Hoeydonck was exhibiting his work. The gallery's director proposed getting one of the artist's sculptures on the moon, and the idea stuck. Two years later, van Hoeydonck found himself rubbing elbows with astronaut David Scott in Cape Kennedy. Scott was interested in getting a sculpture on the moon, and van Hoeydonck had only two months before the launch to create it.

    Perhaps more than most sculptures, Fallen Astronaut was formed by the demands of its environment. "There was the matter of fabricating a sculpture tough enough to survive on the moon, where daytime temperatures can hit about 250 degrees Fahrenheit and nights swing to about 250 below zero," writes Slate. "Van Hoeydonck approached Milgo/Bufkin, a Brooklyn-based foundry that started out making horse carriages but had evolved into a leading fabricator of metalwork for artists, to solve the dual aesthetic and technical challenge.

    " 'The sculpture had to be small, and I was told by Scott that it was not allowed to be any race—not black, not red—not male, not female, and able to resist extreme cold and hot. So I had to design a thing like that,' van Hoeydonck says. The retro-futurist and spiritual overtones of his other sculptures mostly got weeded out in the process."

    Fallen Astronaut made its journey to the moon in July 1971. But for months after, controversy was brewing.

    Who Owns the Artifacts Abandoned on the Moon?

    On Saturday, China made its first contact with the surface of the moon. An unmanned lander touched down on the moon's surface, letting loose a rover that will spend the next three months rolling around and studying the lunar surface. The Chang'e probe and Yutu rover make China only the third country to land (and not crash) a craft on the moon, and was man's first return to the Moon since 1976.

    China likely won't be the last country to make a controlled moon landing, and soon there may be craft landing on the moon that don't represent a country at all. XPRIZE, for example, is currently pushing for a controlled robotic landing on the moon.

    The recent flurry of interest and activity surrounding moon landings has raised an interesting question: Who owns the stuff on the moon? We don't mean the moon itself. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty clearly stated "the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind; outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States; outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means."

    But what about the things left behind on the moon? The golf balls Alan Shepard hit, the footprints NASA astronauts left, the relics, and even debris, left over from NASA's many lunar landings?

    Photo credit: NASA

    Those artifacts are the subject of an interesting Smithsonian Mag piece, which studies the nebulous rights and claims that relate to objects left in space. It's not quite as scary a subject as the issue of space rights was back in the 1960s, when the Outer Space Treaty was enacted. Back then, you can find plenty of examples of lunar US and Soviet military bases in sci-fi and pop culture. The Treaty also specifically banned nuclear weapons being deployed on the moon for, well, pretty obvious reasons.

    "Failed instruments at lunar landing sites might reveal engineering missteps, the way a sunken ship on earth could tell us something about its commanders or passengers."

    Even after the treaty, and after both countries mostly stopped lunar exploration, the idea of a lunar base stuck around. A US-Soviet shootout on the moon was even a plot point in Clive Cussler's 80s thriller Cyclops. The trash astronauts left behind isn't exactly a contentious issue, by comparison. But it's still important.

    Smithsonian Mag points out that you can read a list of nearly all the objects NASA has left on the moon. The list takes up 18 pages. It includes equipment like bubble level indicators and sun compasses, a feather and hammer used in an experiment, the seat of a spacecraft. NASA left a lot of stuff on the moon, and anthropologist Beth O'Leary says they should be protected.

    Smithsonian Mag writes: " 'These sites are time capsules,” says Beth O’Leary, an anthropologist at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. They host valuable artifacts for archaeologists and anthropologists who want to study humanity’s growing space heritage. Failed instruments at lunar landing sites, for example, might reveal the engineering or management missteps behind them, the same way the sinking of a ship on earth could tell us something about its commanders or passengers. Archaeologists might even want to study the DNA of microbes in the astronauts’ waste for clues to the diet and health of these early pioneers. 'People’s idea is that archaeologists are interested in 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago,' O’Leary says, 'but here we’re talking about the modern past.' "

    With China's recent landing, and more landings likely in the near future, the preservation is worth thinking about. But the United States can't exactly pass a law demanding the preservation of space relics, when it doesn't have any claim to jurisdiction over the moon itself. O'Leary got California and New Mexico to list Apollo objects in their historic registries, which offers a very small, symbolic form of protection, but nothing binding.

    NASA's Morpheus Flies Free in Kennedy Test

    NASA's Project Morpheus is a prototype autonomous lander designed for vertical takeoff and landing, developed as a testbed for future spacecraft that will help NASA deliver cargo and payloads to support future crewed missions to the Moon and even asteroids. "The first free flight of a Morpheus prototype lander was conducted Dec. 10, 2013, at Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility. The 54-second test began with the Morpheus lander launching from the ground over a flame trench and ascending approximately 50 feet, then hovering for about 15 seconds. The lander then flew forward and landed on its pad about 23 feet from the launch point."

    How NASA Detects Exoplanets

    We've previously written about how astrophysicists detect planets outside our solar system, and this education video produced by NASA Goddard succinctly summarizes the process of studying exoplanets without being able to directly see them. "Since the early 1990's, astronomers have known that extrasolar planets, or "exoplanets," orbit stars light-years beyond our own solar system. Although most exoplanets are too distant to be directly imaged, detailed studies have been made of their size, composition, and even atmospheric makeup - but how? By observing periodic variations in the parent star's brightness and color, astronomers can indirectly determine an exoplanet's distance from its star, its size, and its mass. But to truly understand an exoplanet astronomers must study its atmosphere, and they do so by splitting apart the parent star's light during a planetary transit."

    CAT Project Aims to Propel CubeSats to Space with Water

    CubeSats, the small, square, inexpensive satellites loved by startups and academics, are changing how we study the Earth and space. For example, Skybox Imaging wants to massively increase the satellite coverage of Earth's surface with a fleet of CubeSats. Once the small satellites hitch a ride with an outgoing spacecraft, they can relax in Earth's orbit and collect data. But what if they could leave Earth's orbit and journey to Mars, or beyond? Wouldn't that require them to be far more expensive? Not according to Benjamin Longmier, Ph.D., who's heading up the CAT project. His solution: Propel CubeSats with water.

    CAT stands for the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster. Longmier and a team at the University of Michigan’s Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory are developing a thruster that converts water into a plasma propellant, which will help CubeSats break free from Earth's orbit and head out to parts unknown. Solar panels provide CAT with a constant renewable energy source.

    Image credit: University of Michigan

    It all sounds great, but CAT isn't a reality yet. The project has some private funding, but a crowdfunding drive in July failed to bring in the $200,000 Longmier. Now the team has relaunched its Kickstarter with a more conservative $50,000 goal. That $50,000 will supposedly be enough to get the project started, using the traditional propellant of xenon gas in place of water for early engine testing. If CAT hits its stretch goals, or brings in more money, the team hopes to bring it to NASA's Technology Readiness Level 8, making it worthy for a jaunt out into the solar system.

    The Kickstarter page claims CAT could propel an 11 pound CubeSat the 80,000,000 miles to Mars using 5.5 pounds of fuel. It explains the technology, stating "Just like a normal rocket that produces thrust from the burning and expansion of hot gases, CAT produces thrust from the expansion of a super-heated 350,000 °C plasma stream. Plasma is an ionized gas that can be accelerated to produce thrust (F=ma). The force generated by this thruster will be very low (micro-newtons) but very efficient. The engine will be turned on for long durations, accelerating the spacecraft to much higher velocities than a typical chemical rocket."

    The project page also lists out some of the many possible uses for mobile, exploratory CubeSats. They could easily move around the Earth, providing Internet coverage or gathering weather information. They could give us the same kind of weather readings in orbit around other planets. Given how much we've learned from each individual probe sent to Mars, imagine how much more we could learn from a fleet of CubeSats orbiting the planet. $50,000 is just a small step in that direction--the stretch goals estimate needing $1,750,000 to get a CubeSat on its way to Mars--but that's still remarkably cheap compared to just about everything else in the field of space exploration.

    Why Sound in Space Battles Could Make Sense

    Take away Darth Vader and Yoda, lightsabers and R2-D2, and the most famous thing about Star Wars may be its sound. Some people prefer to call Star Wars fantasy or space opera rather than science fiction, and sound is an effective tool in that argument. Star Wars definitely isn't hard sci-fi thanks to the blasts of turbolasers, exploding ships and roaring engines in the vacuum of space. There's no sound in space!

    The explanation for that sound is simple, of course: Lucas knew those sounds would make the movie more exciting, more imaginative, more fun. Fighters would move like World War II fighter planes, and larger ships would engage in combat much like World War II era ships in naval battles. Today, Star Wars' sound effects are iconic. They make the movies better, even if they're not realistic. But the authors of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons From Science Fiction have come up with a fascinating alternate way to interpret Star Wars' sound effects. What if the sounds in Star Wars were a type of user interface?

    Image credit: 20th Century Fox

    When we think of user interfaces, we usually think of surfaces we touch. More recently, we've thought more and more about gestures in front of cameras or other motion sensing devices. But sound can be an interface element, too. 99% Invisible talked to the authors of Make It So and offered an explanation focused on the shootout in Star Wars, when the Millenium Falcon escapes from the Death Star.

    "Is there an explanation that can warrant hearing ships exploding in space?" asks 99% Invisible. "Well, what if the sound is the interface? Audio is a much more efficient gauge of surroundings, since it spans 360 degrees, whereas vision only covers 120 degrees. It might be that there are sensors on the outside of the Millennium Falcon that provide 3D sound inside the gunner seat. So when we hear ships blow up, we’re actually hearing an augmented reality interface that Luke and Han hear. Maybe?"

    Suddenly, sound isn't a tool for the audience that makes the movie more fun and easier to understand. It's a tool for the characters that makes space easier to understand. Sensors outside the ship track the positioning and trajectory of the TIE fighters and convert that information into sound that Han and Luke can understand as useful sensory data. Fantasy becomes science, if you read the scene that way.

    Of course, the theory falls apart outside the context of the gun battle. There's little justification for the sound created by Star Destroyers and other ships, which are often shown making sound in external space shots--with no internal POV to explain that sound. Ships make sound in Star Wars because that makes for a better movie. But it's still cool to think of sound as an element of interface design instead of the usual glowing buttons and touchscreens.

    Astronaut Chris Hadfield on Why We Need a Space Program

    After the audience Q&A, Adam finished his conversation with retired-astronaut Chris Hadfield by asking an important question: "Why do we need a space program?" This is the reasoning Colonel Hadfield gave, an explanation we should also remember and a message we are all deputized to spread:

    "If anybody asks, or if you're just thinking about it in your own mind. It's a question you ought to ask all the time. 'Why do we spend money on space exploration.' It's a valid question. You ought to ask it. We're not spending our own money, we're spending the money of the whole country. We're spending someone else's money. So why is it worthwhile? I've asked myself that right from the beginning. I don't want to waste other people's money just so I can go for a ride. As much fun as it is, that's not the point.

    So, number one. The direct benefit. What did we learn from doing it? There's understanding the Earth itself. All the ways we observe our planet, though the observatories that we've built, through the long-term looking of the changes of the atmosphere--the changes in the surface, measuring the temperature. All of the satellites that we've launched, whether unmanned, launched from the Shuttle, or things that are on the outside of space station. We have 200 experiments running inside--that teach us about things like fundamental fluid physics and how flame propagates.

    We invented a box about this big that is a flow cytometer that you can do blood analysis in a machine in ten minutes. It's called Microflow. We recognize the need on the space station for it, and brought the right people together to build it. Because when you have the common enemy of complexity and cost, you bring together people who would never talk to each other otherwise. So that box is being tested in Canada, with experiments being done in Ghana right now. There's a whole suite of direct applications that come back. That's one.

    Two, is that it's absolutely fundamental to our nature. Right from the earliest of history. The only reason that there are people in North America is that each successive generation has taken the best of their technology and carried it as far as they could go. And 30,000 years ago, people starting coming to this continent, and pushing us [forward]. Every dissatisfied teenager is an emissary for taking the best of technology and seeing what's over the next hill. And as we invented the next level--canoes, sailboats, and watches so we could figure out longitude. As we invented steamboats and locomotives and airplanes and spaceships, we have always taken the very best of our technology to take us as far as we could go, so that we could better understand the universe around us.