Science Saturday: Final Shuttle Launch + James Webb Telescope In Danger + New Holodeck Tech + Air Power + More

Say au revoir to the space shuttle program as Atlantis is the last ever shuttle to launch into space. The James Webb Space Telescope is in danger of being cut; What do we stand to loose? Plus, holodeck technology is in the making, and how to harness power from thin air. All this and more, plus our gadget of the week: Terrafugia flying car gets street legal!


NASA’s final shuttle mission blasts off
The 135th and final space shuttle mission blasted off yesterday from Kennedy Space Center, sending space shuttle Atlantis and her STS-135 crew into Earth orbit for the last time. This is a bittersweet moment for most, as it marks the transition into a new phase for NASA but also the end of an era. It’s estimated that nearly 1 million people came out to Kennedy to watch the launch. The rather mundane mission sent only four crew members into space, primarily to resupply the ISS. The only vehicle for sending Americans into space is now the Russian Soyuz capsule. Soon, it will be up to the commercial sector to send men into low Earth orbit, theoretically freeing up NASA to boldly go deeper into our solar system and really push the boundaries of the exploration of space.

More space shuttle fun: Check out this interactive Space Shuttle tribute by the guys at Vizme.

James Webb Telescope, Hubble’s successor, may get axed
Thanks to budget cut threats looming from congress, NASA may have to abandon the already in progress James Webb Telescope, set to launch in 2018 as the successor to the beloved Hubble Space Telescope. Congress has proposed a $1.6 billion cut to NASA’s budget, a whopping 9% of NASA’s overall budget. Such a huge cut will certainly bring about the end of the James Webb. The Webb was expected to make incredible new discoveries, as it is fundamentally different from the Hubble in that it will primarily scan the skies in infrared light (rather than visible) allowing it to see things we’ve never been able to image before.

I encourage you to read more about Webb’s mission in this article by PCMag’s Peter Pachal, where he outlines what we’ll loose if James Webb is never to be.

Once it’s in place, though, the Webb is quite literally expected to unlock a universe of discoveries. Positioned so far from the Earth and shielded from outside infrared interference, the telescope will be able to see things the Hubble never could. Chief among them: seeing back in time. Since light only travels so fast, the further you look out, the further you look back. The Webb is expected to be able to peer into some of the universe’s earliest moments, before even stars existed. This could give insight into how the cosmos came into being.

James Webb Space Telescope may never be completed

Holodeck technology in the making
IARPA, the advanced intelligence research program, has announced a new campaign to develop holodeck-like technology called the Synthetic Holographic Observation (SHO) Program. Specifically, it aims to develop a system allowing multiple collaborators to exist in and interact with a 3D environment in real time. In particular, this tech could be used with LiDAR data, which is used to create 3D images and maps of real world places and things. The real-life look and feel of the Enterprise’s holodeck is still a long ways away, but IARPA is taking a critical first step toward developing such a thing.

Holodecks: how long until we see the real deal?

Power from thin air: harnessing ambient electromagnetic energy to power small devices
Harmless, ambient electromagnetic energy is floating all around us. Energy waves are sent into the air by radio and television transmitters, cell phone networks, satellite communications systems, and more. Now, researchers have discovered a way to tap into this airborne energy source and have used it to power small electronic devices. The researchers have already successfully operated a temperature sensor using electromagnetic energy captured from a television station half a kilometer away. They are preparing another demonstration in which a microprocessor-based microcontroller would be activated simply by holding it in the air.

Power from thin air, just like magic!

Pic of the Week: Space Shuttle Atlantis on the launch pad

Today’s pic of the week comes once again from Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD). This is a gorgeous photograph of Space Shuttle Atlantis before it left Earth’s surface yesterday for it’s 33rd and final time.

Click for the glorious full-res version

Video of the Week: Diving in a volcanic ash-filled lake

Lake Nahuel Huapi in Argentina was filled with volcanic ash from the Puyehue volcano currently erupting in neighboring Chile. Some SCUBA divers go for a dip!

Gadget of the Week: Terrafugia Flying car gets green light from Feds
The Terrafugia flying car has finally been given the go ahead from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In March, 2009 we reported the Terrafugia’s first successful test flight followed by its FAA approval over a year later. Now, it’s air AND street legal. The revolutionary vehicle still has several safety and testing hurdles to overcome, so don’t expect to see them buzzing around anytime soon.

Terrafugia now tested, flight ready, and street legal

Science Bytes
Not enough science for you? Here’s a warp-speed look at some more science tid-bits that are worth a peek.

A little perspective of NASA’s budget, courtesy of Neil deGrasse Tyson


Sort by:   newest | oldest
Sebastian S.
July 9, 2011 6:42 am

It’d be a damn shame if we lose the Webb telescope, as all of the wonderful space science momentum we gained with Hubble over the last two decades will come to a screeching halt. This was a great opportunity to go to the next phase.

Hubble revolutionized astronomy; but now, thanks to the shortsightedness of Congress, the revolution is over…

Pensive's Wetness
July 9, 2011 7:09 am

does this mean, the idiotic disease that covers most of Florida will finally infect the former NASA folks now? oh wait, its has already… :/

July 9, 2011 7:16 am

The lifetime pricetag for the Shuttle was $168 billion.

Medicare spent the same amount in five *months* last year.

If we going to gore an ox, let’s be sure we gore all of them.

I hate to lose (not “loose”) a vehicle like the Webb, but if it means we can save $1.6 billion in a time where our fiscal “chickens” are coming home to roost, I must reluctantly agree with the cut. National defense is a constitutional directive, space telescopes are not.

July 9, 2011 7:17 am

James Webb is a program totally our of control, and the poster child of disastrous mismanagement. Sad to say, but it needs to be killed, and now. The House is killing it because it needs another billion or two dollars, which NASA won’t have without killing off lots of worthy smaller programs, and Webb’s notorious budget overruns have already earned it the nickname, ‘the beast that ate the space science budget’. Stop rewarding terrible performance, or that will simply tell future missions they can lie, underestimate and bust budgets and schedules all they want, we’ll just bail them out. And all those other projects, who accurately estimated time and costs of thei missionbut weren’t selected (or worse, canceled to pay for JWST’s overruns) will learn the lesson to not be honest in the future. Kill JWST. Now.

July 9, 2011 7:34 am

I believe NASA should rethink their strategy. Now being the space agency of America. It would be far better to make NASA an alliance of all the space agencies in the world. That way more investments will come from all over the globe to achieve a common goal, space exploration for all mankind.

July 9, 2011 7:55 am

The space shuttle is dead, but I am sure they will continue with Muslim outreach. Guess we saw how that went for Kirk in the 23rd Century. ;)

July 9, 2011 10:33 am

And with that, the space age is over and without a clear future. The US went from number one to practically nothing overnight.

July 9, 2011 10:42 am

Blame the Republicans for the death of the James Webb. They control the House, and the Appropriations committee there, which voted to kill it. People need to wake up and realize the Republicans are destroying everything that made America great.

Red Dead Ryan
July 9, 2011 11:04 am

I just watched the video of the guy diving in the ash lake. The lake looked like wet cement and the guy seemed to be dumb for risking his life in it. The water looks pretty heavy with all of the ash and it clearly took a lot of effort just to wade into it. I hope he managed to get out.

July 9, 2011 11:48 am

8. JWST was originally planned to cost $1.5 billion and launch in 2011. Today, costs are around $6 billion with more needed and it won’t launch until 2018 at the earliest, with worst-case being 2022.

The Republicans are right about this. Kill the damned thing.

July 9, 2011 12:07 pm

The projected cost of this probe ($8.5 billion) is roughly equivalent to one Gerald Ford class aircraft carrier ($9 billion). No space probe should cost as much as an aircraft carrier, and I am in full support of terminating the program.

July 9, 2011 12:17 pm

@ 3. SoonerDave

“National defense is a constitutional directive”
Don’t you mean Empire building?

“space telescopes are not.”
Yeah Carl Sagan was just talking about exactly that sort of fuzzy logic.
I suggest that you watch the video.

July 9, 2011 12:30 pm

A summary of some of the previous posts
aircraft carriers …yes, science no
defense… yes, space no
medicare …no
Muslim outreach centers…. wtf?

Is this the FOX NEWS forums ?

July 9, 2011 12:46 pm

It’s too much money, I agree. I hope no one starts posting how much money we give to other countries and spend on the wars of the last decade either.

Commercializin space tech. will be better in the long run. With more ideas and innovations floating around, someone’s bound to nail a new means of propulsion that’s cheaper, faster and more efficient than current rocket tech. But give it five years and we’ll be back on top. Sometimes you have to take a step back to move forward.

July 9, 2011 1:06 pm

13… You realize that we could have launched five or six clones of Hubble or about a dozen rovers like Spirit and Opportunity to Mars for the cost of this one telescope, right? I’m all for science spending, but lets use common sense about it. James Webb Space Telescope is a disaster, time to stop throwing good money after bad.

July 9, 2011 1:23 pm

@ 15. Thorny
and are you aware that President Obama continued the Bush tax cuts for the rich, who don’t need the money anyway?
and here’s why
The republicans would not allow the Zadroga bill to be passed UNTIL they bullied Obama into letting the rich get richer.

9/11 heroes 0

Stop the $billions going to the fat cats and get it back to NASA [with more accountability]

July 9, 2011 1:44 pm

I don’t get it how the Webb telescope is such a disaster … I was hoping a lot from the project but the statistics speak against it as I understand … How can a project eat so much founds?

Commodore Shaggy
July 9, 2011 2:03 pm

Well when we’re not $14 Trillion in debt (more with unfunded entitlements, somewhere close to $55 Trillion) then I think we can focus on space. I mean I want to see advancements in space as much as the next guy but the money situation is pretty bad. We have spent so much money that its a problem that needs to be looked at in every area – cutting spending in defense, space, entitlements, pork, etc. Do we want to become Greece or Spain? We’re teetering dangerously close to that. We collapse and then what money are we going to be able to spend on space? Absolutely nothing. And you can tax every penny from every single corporation and every citizen and we still wouldn’t have enough to cover these debts.

I fail to see how increasing debt is going to magically solve this problem.

July 9, 2011 2:15 pm

The money used for the Webb should’ve been used to design and build a next generation shuttle to replace the current ones. Now the Russian’s will have full control over our access to the ISS.

July 9, 2011 2:46 pm

People, people, please! The cost of the James Webb telescope is perfectly understandable. It takes a lot of time and engineering know-how to… attach a,,, satellite dish to an ironing board.

I hope it gets HBO.


July 9, 2011 3:01 pm

Wow cosmology is important, I would like to see NASA spend more of its budget on telescopes that can find earth-like planets, and on new much higher tech spacecraft that can take men to Mars and beyond must faster than conventional rockets. I don’t think we really need to Webb telescope right now — understanding more about the Big Bang can wait for the next generation of telescopes. The priorities, within a limited budget, should be on advanced manned systems and in discovering earth-like planets around nearby stars.

July 9, 2011 3:24 pm

@ 21. MJ

erm, Webb is the next generation of telescope.

Sebastian S.
July 9, 2011 3:25 pm

If we weren’t engaged in long-running wars with little or nothing to show for it except a price tag in the trillions, we could’ve afforded the web easily.

NASA’s entire budget cost each taxpayer one half of one penny. We could’ve afforded it; but a shortsighted congress saw fit to slash ANYTHING of potential educational/scientific or humanitarian value (all the while giving tax cuts to rich fat cats who’ll invest the extra savings by outsourcing more US jobs). I see the dreams (and more jobs for scientists and engineers) going to hell. More brain drain ahead. Just so we can have one more aircraft carrier, or people making $250K or more can have extended tax cuts….

And no, we don’t need manned ferry capsules to the station to come out of NASA’s budget; the private sector already has no less than SIX companies in line that will each soon have capsules ready for manned service. Article link below:

NASA should reprioritize it goals to being the leader in unmanned exploration of the solar system. THAT’S where all the really exciting science is taking place. We have probes on Mars (including a new science lab rover launching soon), Saturn, Mercury, another on it’s way to Pluto. In terms of unmanned exploration and real scientific bang for our buck? This is how the final frontier will be being won!

July 9, 2011 3:28 pm

The future, according to the Economist, is of humans planting satellites in low Earth orbit, and sending probes to explore our system with diminishing returns. According to the author, the probability of sending humans to Moon or Mars is becoming more and more less likely. This is because of the cost and the challenges posed by a long flight, If there is a competition, it will be an arms race wherein each nation will see who can build the better satellite defense.

Considering that our world may be facing a perfect storm of economic and environmental collapses in the next few decades, I am thinking that governments will be diverting their money and resources to protecting and expanding their interests. I can see nations building better satellite defenses, but I don’t see these nations putting much effort into manned programs.

Commodore Lurker
July 9, 2011 4:22 pm

Speaking of Lava Lakes . . .

Hey! Whatever happened to our Kayla Bikini shots from Antartica???

I think it’s a mistake to be completely without manned spaceflight capability until next system is ready to launch.


Captain America
July 9, 2011 4:44 pm

# 8 Don’t forget Obama KILLED the Constellation project…. no more Orion, no more Alltair Lunar Lander, No more Ares V Rocket…….

In the words of Dr. McCoy

“The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe. We’ll get a freighter.”

Captain America
July 9, 2011 4:49 pm

PS and at the rate things are going with the future of American Space Exploration, we’ll be lucky to have even a freighter….

July 9, 2011 4:59 pm

26. Captain America
“The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe. We’ll get a freighter.”
I laughed at that line when i was 15, but it is so true.

Nick Cook
July 9, 2011 5:01 pm

Farewell Space Shuttle, we’ll miss you.

Sebastian S.
July 9, 2011 5:18 pm

Yes, Obama killed Orion; but the program was never properly funded from the beginning. It was given a tenth of a percent of what was needed to seriously get humans back to the moon.

It was all a PR stunt by the previous administration to appear ‘forward-thinking’ when in actuality it was all smoke and mirrors. I had a relative who worked on Constellation and he predicted it’s demise years before it happened. I once attended a seminar with the late astronaut Wally Schirra back in early 2007 (about a year before he died) and even he derisively called Project Constellation “Apollo on food stamps.”

It was never taken seriously by any administration; past or present. It’s demise was not a loss either way, as it was never really going to happen one way or another. It was little more than a PR stunt to show off shuttle-derived booster technology for heavy-lifting rockets, that’s all.

July 9, 2011 6:08 pm

I bet if there were giant robots buried on the moon we could come up with the money.

July 9, 2011 6:28 pm

NASA ain’t what she used to be.

Sure, it started out as a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants group of fighter jocks and whiz-kids with the stated goal of beating the commies to the Moon, but then after Apollo quickly turned into another bloated government program with a lack in focus and the undisclosed goal of spending as much tax-payer money on pie-in-the-sky boondoggles to keep the “Space Coast,” its employees, its voters, and most importantly its representatives in Congress happy.

If you guys want to “boldly go” somewhere, don’t look to NASA. Not anymore. Oh, there WERE plenty of bucks at one time, but Buck Rogers got fed up and left the coast somewhere along the way, grew a pair of mutton chops, moved to the desert, and now calls himself “Burt.”

July 9, 2011 6:36 pm

The air force has a space plane. Space travel will continue…..although half the time we won’t know anything about it.

July 9, 2011 6:50 pm

27… Bush is only partly to blame. NASA picked an architecture for Constellation that was far beyond any reasonably expected budget, even in good economic times. They wanted two new rockets, for example (Ares I and Ares V) when they could barely afford one. And then it picked a gigantic, outrageously expensive design for Ares V. They picked a capsule design too heavy to be launched by either of our existing rockets (Atlas 5 and Delta IV), meaning the U.S. had no way to get crews to the Space Station (that is 75% its own) until the aforementioned expensive rockets are built. That capsule ended up too heavy even for the Ares I, and had to sacrifice ground recovery, reusability, and go from six to four crew just to make it into orbit. The huge costs of the Ares rockets and Orion capsules forced NASA to cancel the Altair lander in 2009, meaning this architecture had nowhere to go once it was built.

Sorry, but the mess we’re in is at least as much NASA’s fault as the politicians.

July 9, 2011 7:31 pm


How bout that holodeck concept?

July 9, 2011 8:58 pm

@22 “erm, Webb is the next generation of telescope.”

The Webb is an infrared telescope that is designed to look at galaxy formation, and cosmology science. I’d rather spend this kind of major money on the types of optical telescopes that could find earth-like planets.

July 9, 2011 11:10 pm

re: “The James Webb Space Telescope is in danger of being cut; What do we stand to loose?”

Loose? Was it ever tight?

Harry Ballz
July 9, 2011 11:44 pm


Too loose to Trek?

What an artist!

July 10, 2011 2:48 am

Harnessing ambient electromagnetic energy sounds hopeful. Perhaps it will be a way to reduce our need for fossil fuels.

July 10, 2011 3:33 am

The Space Shuttle looks cool, yes. But let’s face it: The Shuttle program was a big failure. Two crews lost with their vessels. A cost explosion for one of the most complex machines ever built instead of a cheap and reliable space transporation system. And it’s hard to see why the successes the Shuttle has undoubtedly had couldn’t have been achieved and achieved earlier with Apollo/SkyLab technology. (Of course, that’s all said in hindsight.)
Still, I’m somewhat sad because the Shuttle program is the NASA manned space program that was there for as long as I can remember (I was born in ’73).

July 10, 2011 3:51 am

Re: #6

“The space shuttle is dead, but I am sure they will continue with Muslim outreach. Guess we saw how that went for Kirk in the 23rd Century. ;)”

Anthony Pascale,

Comment #6 (quoted above) is outright racist trolling and has absolutely no place on this thread, let alone this website.

July 10, 2011 3:54 am

The latest edition of the New Scientist has an excellent article about the implications of the space shuttle’s retirement. It takes a more optimistic view, and discusses how this basically opens the market for private companies to take over some aspects of space-based exploration and R&D, which could actually accelerate the process while freeing up NASA to focus on other things. Also, NASA administrator Charles Boden is quoted as saying “We are not ending human space flight. We are recommitting ourselves to it.”

The article has some very interesting details about the potential for private companies too.


July 10, 2011 6:52 am

Why aren’t this blog’s moderators deleting comment #6, considering that it’s openly racist trolling ?

July 10, 2011 6:55 am

^^ Apologies, my comment #41 had temporarily disappeared from the thread while I was writing #43. Moderators, feel free to delete #43 (although my question still stands).

July 10, 2011 7:17 am

The picture of Voyager’s holodeck is a good example of Star Trek’s design going the wrong way. TNG was a lot more realistic and prescient in making future technology look simpler and more concealed. The simple black and yellow grid of the Enterprise-D holodeck hides the technology, while on Voyager they fell into thinking that seeing more stuff makes it look more high tech. The same comparison can be made of the bridge sets of the two shows. TNG’s design was not the obvious thing to do for a TV show but it was accurate futurism and probably more inspiring to kids who would grow up to work on real advances like the iPhone (which, by the way, is flying on STS-135).

July 10, 2011 7:24 am
The PCMAG article makes the issue pretty clear. The potential benefits to humanity of the Webb Telescope are great, but here’s the financial issue that was most likely the deal-breaker for the Gov’s due-diligence-doers with instructions to cut as much from the national budget as possible: “In fact, the Webb will ultimately be four times further from the earth than the moon. At such a long distance, servicing the telescope will be impossible, says NASA, so it cannot afford any screw-ups or design flaws. As such, testing the Webb’s components is extremely detailed.” Uhh…remember what happened when the Hubble Telescope first went up? Yeah, it had a design flaw and needed to be serviced before it could be of any real use. And now that the Space Shuttle isn’t around to do that kind of servicing, and with the proposed Webb being too far from Earth to be serviced anyway, budget-trimmers are hard-pressed to overlook a program that could easily be a waste of $7 billion. If there’s one thing that we should have learned by now from NASA’s history is that Murphy’s Law is most certainly in effect and should be budgeted into all programs. And a $7 billion telescope that counts on zero errors when the history of NASA, especially that of the last space telescope, has no shortage of errors, just ain’t likely to pass muster these days. If these were the more affluent days of the 50s and early 60s with the USSR lurking ominously over… Read more »
July 10, 2011 7:33 am

That said, I completely agree with Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

But NASA has to give the Gov more security for any investment these days than an assumption of perfect performance and zero errors. And so should the Defense Dept for non-essential spending. And that there is plenty else wrong with the current budgetary priorities is beyond refutation.

July 10, 2011 9:44 am

42. Question 6 is a legitimate gripe. When the NASA admistrator says his primary focus is Muslim outreach so they can feel better about themselves is ridiculous. They don’t even have any spaceflight capability.

Red Dead Ryan
July 10, 2011 9:47 am


I saw nothing racist about that post. Don’t jump to conclusions!

July 10, 2011 9:47 am

42 and it is not racist talking about muslim outreach, since the most populous mulsim nation is Indonesia, which is not arab or persian or african.