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I knew the second launch of a Falcon Heavy rocket was coming up, following the news well enough to be aware it had been pushed back a few days. As the scheduled launch time today approached, though, I was a little surprised to see a report the Israeli moon-landing probe that had reached lunar orbit a little while ago had crashed trying to touch down, and I suppose I have to admit to a thought or two of “superstitious resonances.”

When I turned into the live stream of the rocket launch, though (with the usual enthusiastic crowd somewhere in the background), everything did work, including the central booster managing to land on the barge out in the Atlantic after the side boosters had made their loops back to Florida (still a little hard for me to believe after it having happened before). Putting a communications satellite in orbit is less showy and more familiar than firing a sports car into a solar orbit reaching up to the asteroid belt, but more practical as well.
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As intimidating as the approach of another big anniversary of the Apollo moon landings might feel from some uncontrolled perspectives, it does mean documentaries are showing up. Over the Christmas holidays, I watched one about Apollo 8 on PBS, and then I happened to hear about a feature-length documentary about Apollo 11. It wasn’t long after that, though, that I heard that production would be shown in theatres, and I suppose I did reflect a bit on the journey I made over ten years ago to see In the Shadow of the Moon on a movie screen (before buying the DVD). On hearing the new documentary was showing up for its first screenings (only around the anniversary of Apollo 9, although by July things may be busier at the movies) I did decide to wait a week and see if, as the newspaper had it, it would get any closer to me, and that did happen. On the weekend, I set off to a fairly close multiplex.

The documentary did make some interesting choices, even if I kept acknowledging I’ve read enough about space exploration to always be able to back up with my own knowledge what I was seeing on the screen. (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins got very brief biography sequences, including glimpses from their Gemini space flights.) It used period footage (in good shape, but not always “in Technicolor,” whatever that may mean) and period voices, avoiding any modern explanations beyond some very simple animations to set up the out-the-window shots, and using still photos taken on the moon when it had to. While it did use what I understand to be staging footage from a Saturn IB launch to represent third stage ignition, Apollo 11’s own “blastoff from the moon” footage, which started too late to show what Buzz Aldrin reported as the flag falling over, was shown. I can certainly say there were a few things shown that didn’t feel instantly familiar to me, on Earth and even in space.

Beyond In the Shadow of the Moon and the earlier documentary For All Mankind (which I first saw clips of at the Ontario Science Centre, then asked for on VHS), I suppose I could think a bit of the feature film First Man, which I went to see late last year and did wonder about a few of the representations in, at least as compared to the older TV miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon.” Neil Armstrong having held the camera for most of the moonwalk means there aren’t any especially good photos of him on the moon (although he does show up in the film footage taken out the lunar module window), which I suppose makes a fictional representation of him a bit more memorable. Even so, I can imagine getting this documentary on home video before the feature, although some of the explanatory text on the movie screen was small enough I wonder what it’ll look like even on Blu-Ray.
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“Commercially developed capsules will carry astronauts into space launching from the United States” have been talked up for what seems a good while now. The wait for talk to turn into accomplishment seemed to start ending with the first unmanned test launch of a SpaceX “Crew Dragon,” a development of the cargo-carrying capsules that have been docking with the space station and carrying some things back to Earth for a while now. The launch happened in the middle of the night such that I only saw it had been a success afterwards, and then I decided to wait for news the capsule with its dummy astronaut had docked to the space station. From here, I suppose I’m waiting to see the capsule makes it back to Earth and for a test of the escape rockets while a sacrificial booster is launching (which should be a previously used Falcon 9 instead of the “Little Joe” rockets used to qualify the Mercury and Apollo escape towers) before anyone gets inside.

Just before the test launch, I also happened to see Virgin Galactic’s passenger-carrying rocket plane had carried more than one person very high. Depending on how you look at it the wait for that might have seemed very long; the craft is a development of “SpaceShip One,” which flew very high in rapid succession to great congratulations about it having been done with government agencies having been cast out of the process, but which never carried more than one person and was sent to the Smithsonian quite soon after winning its prize. “No matter how hard you think this is, it’s harder” could be a heavy lesson, but when we do seem to get to accomplishment time can seem to start flowing a bit faster.
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While I keep thinking I could put a bit more effort into following “space announcements,” I do have the habit of looking at the Astronomy Picture of the Day early on every day. A few days ago, it offered an update about Ultima Thule after New Horizon’s flyby, suggesting the two “circular lobes” of the Kuiper Belt object were a lot flatter than had been surmised and the approach had been from a somewhat lucky direction. I did get to thinking about previous suppositions the lobes had formed as rough spheres even if they hadn’t bothered to collapse into a bigger sphere under their low mutual gravity, and if those small potential spheres might have been used to insist “even pleasing roundness isn’t as significant as planetary scientists like Alan Stern insist; you’ve just got to bite the bullet and dismiss these small bodies as insignificant flecks in a larger system.” Again, I’m at least tempted to say “going out there and looking is more interesting than dealing with numbers.”
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Not that long after the first halfway detailed image of Ultima Thule was radioed back to Earth from New Horizons, I went looking at the “raw images” available on the mission’s main site to notice some of them looked blank. Remembering comments seen that it isn’t easy to look in precisely the right direction close up to catch an object in a camera when very little of its orbit has been observed, I could keep wondering if the picture we had would be the best we’d get.

Several days ago, though, a better picture did arrive in the low-powered downlink, and when it was colourised as an Astronomy Picture of the Day I got to thinking. The conjoined blobs that had looked “dented” before were now showing some small craters, and after wondering (aware a layman’s speculation on scientific topics might be a bit off) if relative velocities are low that far from the sun and the less cratered plains on Pluto “might not mean as much as you thought they did” compared to the lunar highlands, Callisto, and the midsized moons of Saturn I did think of closeups of rocky rather than icy asteroids and the way the moon smooths out close up, gardened by really small impacts. The featured photograph all these thoughts came from was taken “seven minutes before closest approach,” but using the less telescopic camera on New Horizons, so I can at least wonder if there might be a better picture yet.
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The first day of the new year had New Horizons scheduled to fly past the “Kuiper Belt Object” nicknamed Ultima Thule, and aware the space probe’s mission was carrying on past Pluto I was interested in further possible revelations on the solar system’s icy fringes. Where the slow emergence of detail in the approach images from the final weeks and then days before Pluto and had sort of pointed out how small it is compared to Jupiter and Saturn, however, the final preliminary images of Ultima Thule staying just a few pixels had seemed to push things down to a smaller scale again. A comment or two that it would be tricky to get the cameras pointing in the precise correct direction had me wondering how things would turn out too.

It didn’t take too long to hear the probe was sending back recorded data after closest encounter, but for better pictures to come back took a while longer. Even the best image at the end of this week, showing two roundish lumps stuck together without collapsing into something bigger, still isn’t that clear. However, I did manage to find a comparison of Ultima Thule with Charon (which itself doesn’t seem quite as “pleasingly round” as Pluto to me) that really drives the difference in scale home for me, and might even be invoked to suggest “Pluto didn’t just happen to be noticed and hard-sold before all the other riff-raff out there.” Anyway, the end of this week is also turning up pictures from the surface of the other side of the moon, which on that scale might not look that different from the only side we knew about until sixty years ago.
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“For the first time in all of time men have seen the earth: seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depths of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful as even Dante—that ‘first imagination of Christendom’—had never dreamed of seeing it; as the twentieth century philosophers of absurdity and despair were incapable of guessing that it might be seen. And seeing it so, one question came to the mind of those who looked at it. ‘Is it inhabited?’ they said to each other and laughed—and then they did not laugh. What came to their minds a hundred thousand miles and more into space—‘half way to the moon’ they put it—what came to their minds was the life on that little, lonely, floating planet: that tiny raft in the enormous, empty night. ‘Is it inhabited?’”

Archibald MacLeish, 1968
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When the InSight probe landed on Mars, I said I ought to try and keep better track of what's happening with it than I've seemed to do for previous missions, and I have been looking at the official NASA site every so often. The news the probe's seismometer, still sitting on its upper deck before a robot arm lowers it to the Martian surface, had recorded vibrations converted into "the sound of the Martian wind" did spread beyond there, and it got me thinking back to impressions I'd seen a book by Arthur C. Clarke from the 1960s proposing a first Mars lander might not be able to send pictures back from the surface, but could well have a microphone attached. I picked my copy of his The Promise of Space off my bookshelf, but couldn't find that there. After a moment's wondering just where those impressions had come from then, I thought of something else all of a sudden and hurried downstairs to find a copy of Man and Space from the Life Science Library, which Clarke had written the text sections for just before starting to work with Stanley Kubrick on "the proverbial 'really good' science fiction movie." There, I found the description of the first microphone on Mars, all the way up to the possibility of it capturing "a sound that grows louder and louder, closer and closer," building to "clangings and bumpings and rattlings, all ending suddenly in a grinding crunch and the abrupt cessation of the radio signal." Certainly, I'm not expecting that in a further update from InSight, but Clarke could have been forgiven his optimism for having written that before Mariner 4 reached Mars.
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Launches of Canadian astronauts into space remain rare enough that they keep being headline news in this country. I was aware David Saint-Jacques was scheduled to travel up to the space station, but this being the first launch of a Soyuz spacecraft since the last crew to try that had to escape after an improper booster separation did add an extra bit of tension.

The previous news had first come to my attention driving to work, but the news this launch seemed to have succeeded also reached me at the same time. Then, as I was driving back from work, I heard the spacecraft had docked to the space station, which I have to admit I compared to my own more or less regular work day. Since last week I've at least been trying a bit to keep up with updates about the InSight lander on Mars; perhaps I'll be able to follow reports of this latest Canadian astronaut as well.
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In deciding to take Mondays off for the last two months of the year to use up some of my vacation time, I happened to open up the chance to watch live streaming coverage of the InSight probe landing on Mars. I hadn't really realised this until the last few days or so before that landing, probably not keeping up with space news as well as I could. Still, in the afternoon I hurried around through the rain to complete some errands and then returned to tune into the NASA video. The pre-landing discussions were wrapping up, and coverage was shifting to the ranks of mission controllers, all wearing identical shirts.

From the coverage I'd learned two "cubesats" had been launched with the probe to serve as communications links, and they kept working, passing along reports of the crucial atmospheric entry, high-speed parachute deployment, and radar-controlled rocket braking, with the occasional applause in mission control fading away in the last crucial moments. With all the comments about how difficult it is to land on Mars, or even to get near it at times, I was feeling the tension myself. Celebrations broke out at last, though, and a first photo from the not very rock-strewn surface (through a spattered dust cover) was radioed back in short order. It was only after the landing, though, that I realised the cubesats would just keep flying away from Mars, passing their communications duties along to the probes already orbiting. I will have to try and keep up with the news; I remember taking note of previous probe landings and then letting the actual reports from the surface fade into the background.
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As it had one morning last week, the radio news I listen to on the way to work led off with a science-related piece. A Soyuz capsule not getting into orbit, though, is a different sort of story than a Canadian scientist sharing a Nobel Prize. By the time the piece was over, though, I'd heard the cosmonaut and astronaut in the capsule had made it through a high-deceleration ballistic descent, so all of a sudden I wasn't troubled the way I had been on hearing about a Falcon 9 rocket exploding even with nobody on top of it then. There was sort of the feeling "of course they have escape rockets; things would have been much riskier in a space shuttle." Later in the day, though, I did happen to see a report the rocket problem had happened right after the escape rocket had jettisoned (along with the booster rockets, which I'd always associated with "one less danger to deal with"), and the escape had been handled with ordinary thrusters. I do understand, of course, that there's no other spacecraft ready and able to get people to the space station until this problem has been investigated, but for today that doesn't feel like a crisis yet.
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When Scientific American ran an article on New Horizons's voyage to Pluto written by Alan Stern, principal investigator of the project, I read it with interest. At the end of the article, there was a little notice a book on the same subject by him and another author would soon be published, and that got my attention too. The way things worked out, I was able to get a copy of Chasing New Horizons for my birthday. Sorting out as I started reading that the coauthor David Grinspoon included "astrobiologist" and "at the launch" among his qualifications even if he could seem to have much less of a presence in the narrative, I headed through an attention-grabbing prologue about the loss of contact with the probe days before the long-awaited encounter with Pluto and got back to Alan Stern's space-age youth. There, a 1970 article in National Geographic about what we did know then about the planets from the photographs blurred by long exposures through the atmosphere, and the preparations to do a lot more than fly a few probes past Venus and Mars, was described as formative for a lot of planetary scientists his age. (I recognised the article from having found that magazine in my grandmother's National Geographics, if over a decade later when it was interesting as a piece of history.) The article had mentioned plans for the "Grand Tour," gilt-edged probes intended from launch to last all the way down separate courses to Neptune and Pluto that had unfortunately made assumptions about just how much money would continue to be made available for NASA. (The book cast another light on those assumptions with the casual mention there had been plans for four Grand Tour probes, one pair per trajectory; after noticing what seemed a proofreading error or two later in the book I did some quick searching and did turn up a NASA document mentioning four probes.) The more budget-minded "Mariner Jupiter Saturn" program that turned into Voyagers 1 and 2 had been faced with "Titan; Uranus and Neptune; Pluto--pick two of three" and had gone for the quicker, surer things, but as Stern had started his scientific career, invigorated rather than dismissive at new observations of Pluto from Earth, he'd contemplated "finishing the job."
The long trip )
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On a short vacation at the end of last month, amidst visits to museums and general sightseeing I dropped in to an ordinary if large library and headed for its space travel section. There, I saw a book I remembered having heard of before about the first space shuttle mission. Flipping quickly through Rowland White's Into the Black before closing time left me thinking I'd like to have more time to read it. Before finishing my vacation I'd already looked up that it had an e-book edition, aware of the way books pile up around my place. Before committing to that purchase, though, I checked my area bookstore just on the offhand chance to see a paperback copy of Into the Black on the shelf, and I went ahead and bought it, thus adding to the piles.
The past and the secrets )
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As I said just weeks ago, Falcon 9 first stages rocketing not just up towards space but back down to land intact happens often enough now it doesn't strain my expectations any more. Where it had taken launching three of them at once to grab my attention again then, though, now just seeing news a new boat with another jokey name and a big net strung up on it was intended to catch the nose cone fairings that fall away above the atmosphere did catch my eye. At first thought, it didn't seem as much of a difference to the bottom line as retrieving nine rocket engines with all the tankage, plumbing, and other metalwork connected to them. Then, however, I remembered that when it comes to getting into space tolerances are tight and money has to be put into engineering. I once found some issues of Scientific American from the mid-1960s, with a three-part series on the mission of Mariner 4. One of the articles explained the probe was the first to return photos of Mars in part because the Mariner launched just before it had the nose cone covering it collapse during launch, and before ground control could manage to shake the pieces off and open up the solar panels the probe's batteries had gone dead; some hasty redesign work had to be done for Mariner 4. I have toyed with "counterfactuals" wondering if Mariner 3's handful of potential pictures could somehow have managed to capture a dry runoff valley on Mars instead of just the craters that had made the red planet look less interesting than it is right when the money might have been at hand to send people there in the twentieth century. On the other hand, the lone pair of Mariner probes that did manage to reach their destination together (given Voyager 1 and 2 were renamed from "Mariner Jupiter Saturn"), Mariners 6 and 7, still only managed to take pictures of cratered wastes in 1969 itself.

So far as here and now rather than an overmythologised past goes anyway, I did see a follow-up that the fairings had fallen into the ocean rather than the net. At first, I'd supposed they were much less able to target one point than a rocket stage; since then, though, I did hear they at least had parachutes attached, and more work might do something.
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Launches of the Falcon 9 rocket seem to happen often enough now that I've got out of the habit of marking them here. There was, however, another evolutionary step approaching. The Falcon Heavy, three Falcon 9 first stages side-by-side just to start with, promised more mass put into orbit than any rocket launching nowadays. The thought of twenty-seven engines burning all at once, though, did remind me of the Soviet N1 meant to race the Americans to the Moon, even if its assorted test flight disasters seemed to have hinged in part on the system that was supposed to balance out one of its thirty first-stage engines shutting down tending to cut out all the engines at once. An official comment that the first test flight would be considered a success if it didn't destroy the historic launch pad wasn't quite inspiring.

As the test flight approached last afternoon, I did wonder about the news channel the TVs in the elevator lobbies at work are tuned to showing it. However, I was sent into the field to do some work there, and supposed whatever happened would happen while I couldn't see it. On my way out from work, though, I happened to walk by a TV to see the rocket just clearing the launch pad, and realised it was a live feed. I managed to stay and watch until the side boosters separated; after that, it felt familiar enough to get moving myself.

Since then, I've heard those side boosters managed to turn around and land on the shore, although the central stage crashed in the ocean just short of SpaceX's giant barge. The red electric car on top of the last stage also got boosted into a solar orbit, past the declared target of Mars's orbit and into the asteroid belt, where I suppose its paint may get scratched up faster than I'd imagined. The attention-grabbing oddity aside, the Falcon Heavy does seem a lot closer to reality now, but I am conscious it's one thing to have a heavy-lift rocket and another thing to build payloads massive enough to need it. It will have to launch twice more before it's beat the record of the Soviet Energia from the late 1980s, a rocket I have happened to have seen some old "this changes everything" declarations about.
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The news of it having been forty years since the Voyager missions launched might have helped remind me there wasn't much time left until the Cassini space probe, which has spent over a decade among the moons of Saturn the Voyagers flew through in a matter of days, burned up in Saturn's atmosphere (along with the shielded plutonium some people raised a great fuss about before launch a month short of twenty years ago) to make sure no possible microbes from Earth would make an accidental landing on moons now thought to have some chance to support life of their own. As I took in the features leading up to the final dive, I did get a bit conscious that while the probe has sent back plenty of photos over the length of its mission (making multiple gravity assists through the solar system to end up in a slow approach to Saturn suitable for braking into orbit), after a while I wasn't making the effort to keep up with the mission's official sites. Just this morning, though, with a scant few hours left before loss of contact, I did see an official e-book with plenty of good pictures in it and a few discoveries I hadn't quite picked up on before (such as the "propellors," big chunks in Saturn's rings visibly affecting the particles around them). This wealth of images does have me thinking of the previous gas giant orbiter Galileo, whose main antenna never opened properly (and there I'm conscious of swift and sour reminders this probably had something to do with the probe having been meant to be carried into Earth orbit by the space shuttle and the delays resulting from this) and which therefore couldn't send back many pictures. Cassini, in any case, was a regular presence and will hopefully leave lasting impressions.
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I knew a total solar eclipse was scheduled to cross the United States before I decided to use just about all of my vacation for this year on a cruise around northern Europe. The thought has come to me this is sliding back from the determination I'd managed to find to head to Florida and try to see one of the last space shuttle launches. However, I have managed to also think that in Florida I did see the Kennedy Space Center visitor centre before the contingency time I was able to visit Disney World with; travelling to even the most historically cloudless area for a few minutes of totality wasn't quite as appealing, somehow. I did, anyway, happen to hear in the final leadup to the eclipse another total eclipse will track across part of my home province in 2024: we just have to make it that far, of course.

While contemplating pinhole projectors and the card-shielded binoculars I'd rigged up for the transits of Venus, in visiting Best Buy to buy some external hard drives I happened to see boxes of eclipse glasses at the cash registers. I bought one of them, and spent a good bit of time afterwards wondering if I could really, really trust them to be legitimate and just would indicate the scratches that would require having to discard them. I did make another simple pinhole projector yesterday, just in case.

With the twenty-four news station always kept on at work showing the NASA feed reach totality over Oregon just as the first chip was taken out of the sun over here, I did take whatever risk the glasses meant, if through one open eye. Beyond the bite in the sun, I really did get a sense of the light dimming outside. While I'm still able to see through both eyes this evening, though, I'm trying to remember having seen instructions to build a simple viewer from dollar-store reading glasses.
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Along with the countdown to the solar eclipse, I've managed to pick up on another occurrence in space by hearing we've reached the fortieth anniversary of the launch of the Voyager probes. This was further distinguished by the probe launched Voyager 2 having been launched on August 20, 1977, only to be passed on the way to Jupiter by Voyager 1, which didn't leave Earth until September.

The Voyagers were "the more detailed follow-up" at Jupiter with Pioneer 10 and 11 having made it past that gas giant's dangerous radiation belts years before the launch we're now marking, and Pioneer 11 took a slow route to Saturn to take a few not especially compelling pictures still in advance of its successors. However, the Voyagers had their own important and impressive part in turning "dots in the sky" into a succession of worlds. I suppose I did experience "these first and once-ever revelations" at Jupiter and Saturn after the fact through National Geographic cover stories (although Voyager 1 had opened up enough of a lead to Saturn the second article only included its pictures, leaving the drama of Voyager 2's camera-aiming gear jamming to books I managed to find later). It wasn't until Voyager 2 got to Uranus (even that had seemed a carefully underplayed "maybe it'll last that long" possibility in the early coverage I've seen) that I was following along in the newspaper. That encounter was unfortunately followed by the fatal last launch of space shuttle Challenger, although getting to Neptune three years later made for a better ending. I have heard Voyager 1 could have been sent to Pluto had it not been sent close by Titan (an important enough target Voyager 2 could have traded Uranus and Neptune for it); in one of the books I've found, though, some program scientists were asked if they "regretted" having taken close-up pictures of a satellite shrouded in peach-coloured clouds only to explain there was more to detect close up than just surface pictures. Whether some pictures of Pluto would have made it harder to dismiss in the next decade as "not big enough to really count, and obviously not interesting," I don't know, but I suppose they wouldn't have been as good as the pictures from the brief encounter of New Horizons.

Beyond that actual ending, of course, the Voyagers have kept sending back information, enduring not just years but decades after their first estimates of longevity to reach uncertain stellar terrain. Beyond that, there's contemplation of the time capsule records attached to them, although I can also consider that in a mere four decades they've gone from "a durable record not quite like one you'd play at home" to "at least they'd long outlast a CD, and they might be easier for even extraterrestrials of unknown mentality to decipher" to "and now vinyl's not just a statement, but an accessible one again."
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I managed to notice that not only was SpaceX about to launch another satellite, but that launch would use one of the first stages they've begun collecting by managing soft landings on floating barges with in-jokey names or even heading all the way back to where they've started. The launch was scheduled for when I'd have a chance to watch it via streaming video, but I suppose I was conscious of the chance of something going wrong. That thought only got stronger as I saw the Falcon 9 rocket standing on the launch pad repurposed from Apollo's Saturns to the space shuttles and now to another generation of rockets, aware all the same SpaceX had moved in after blowing up a rocket at the launch pad they had used to use.

The rocket lifted off into a clear evening sky, though, and the second stage separated. The first stage was left to descend towards its barge, and I did notice its pop-out stabilizing grids starting to glow from re-entry before the video cut out. To the accompaniment of a very enthusiastic crowd at the SpaceX headquarters, though, the picture returned to show the first stage once more standing in one piece on the barge. Knowing the space shuttles wound up needing a lot more refurbishing in between flights than they were supposed to require, I am still wondering what it'll take in the end to turn the first stage around again, but it is something that it managed to land a second time.
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I had taken note of the news that SpaceX said it had worked out just why one of its Falcon 9 rockets had exploded on the launch pad (well short of actually trying to launch, not the moment you'd most anticipate unexpected shocks) and was preparing to launch another rocket. Not having worked out the exact moment it would happen, though, I was surprised to see the effort had succeeded through a comment on the day's Peanuts comic strip. Beyond the extra bit of news that another first stage had landed on a seagoing barge, I found an odd sense of heartening interest in knowing the rocket had launched a whole cluster of replacement satellite phone satellites. The "Iridium" network might have found success only after the company that had gone to considerable expense to launch the first satellites had gone out of business, but it's something to know "cell towers spaced across the civilized world" haven't made one use for space altogether obsolete after all.

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