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    December 21, 2015
  • The December solstice signals the beginning of winter for the Northern Hemisphere. This image was taken near Stockholm, Sweden, by astrophotographer P-M Hedén of in December 2012.


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    March 09, 2016
  • Robert Lawrence Kuhn is the creator, writer and host of "Closer to Truth," a public television series and online resource that features the world's leading thinkers exploring humanity's deepest questions (Peter Getzels, producer/director). Kuhn contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

    Artificial intelligence (AI) pervades people's lives today, from smartphones and search engines to transportation systems and medical diagnoses. One of AI's legendary pioneers, Marvin Minsky, co-founder of what is now the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and considered to be the "father of AI," died on Jan. 24, 2016, at age 88. 

    Polymathic in capacity, protean in vision, Minksy spent his life figuring out how to make machines that are intelligent, "whatever that means," as he liked to say. He developed AI's two principle schools of thought: the "symbolic school" of abstract manipulations and the "connectionist school" of unstructured self-organization. He built the first learning machine based on neural networks, simulating how the brain works through practice and trial and error, a progenitor of today's "deep learning." 

    Smart people said Marvin was the "smartest person I ever met." Those closest to Marvin said he was "childlike." This, they meant as a supreme compliment, because he was ever eager to explore new ideas and never too proud to jump into the middle of things. Minsky won the A.M. Turing Award, the most prestigious award in computer science. Moreover, he mentored a generation of leaders in AI and related fields, including inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who called Minsky "my only mentor."

    Meeting Minsky

    Minsky was voluminous in his production of ideas, covering great swaths of intellectual terrain. Part of his charm was his iconoclastic stream of consciousness, generating a gusher of provocative and sometimes outrageous ideas that, agree with them or not, always made you think.

    I met Marvin in 1999 during the inaugural season of "Closer to Truth." He personified what we aspired to be on the show: inventive, insightful, irreverent, fearless, rigorous, tough-minded, iconoclastic, daring, whimsical. I wanted to do what Marvin did: challenge conventional belief, taking our topics seriously, but not ourselves.

    Timorously, I invited Marvin to participate in our first taping session at KOCE, a small PBS station in Orange County, California. In retrospect, I realize I was asking an international superstar, whom I had never met and who certainly did not know me, to fly across the country to appear with an unknown host on a not-yet-broadcast television show — and be a co-equal on an opaque panel with four others whose identities I couldn't even suggest, much less confirm. I prepared myself for rejection, more likely for no response at all.

    Marvin accepted immediately. Of course he'd do it — that was Martin — and do it he did. He provided incisive insights. Combative arguments. Effervescent style. No airs or pretensions. 

    I asked him about his book, "The Society of Mind" (Simon & Schuster, 1988), which combined ideas from artificial intelligence and developmental psychology to develop his thesis that human minds are composed of hundreds of mini-mind modules (Marvin estimated about 400 of them), each of which evolved to execute highly specific tasks. And when integrated together, they generate a constructed sense of conscious unity. (All Minsky quotes in this essay are from his multiple appearances on "Closer to Truth.") [Scientists Closing in on Theory of Consciousness]

    "It's trying to figure out how the mind works," Minsky told me, "without the commonsense belief that somewhere inside the mind there's a 'self' that's sort of in control and commanding everything. So the question is, how do you get mindlike behavior from a brain really made of roughly 400 different computers? They do different things. They don't agree on everything. How do you get reasonable, commonsense behavior out of such a system?" 

    Minsky's concept of a "society" is that all these separate "mind computers" are working together in the brain. But "it's not like human society," he clarifies, "where each person works pretty well independently."

    When producer/director Peter Getzels and I restructured "Closer to Truth," Minsky was again among our first, most-desired interviews — this time, one-on-one at MIT (2007). Marvin was penetrating and fiery; even on the edges of knowledge, he never hesitated, offering his scintillating, idiosyncratic and often radical takes on the nature of the cosmos, the inner workings of minds and consciousness, and how human beings might achieve immortality. It was a treat; we were swept up by his passion, engulfed by his intellect. 

    An AI pioneer explores consciousness

    In that interview, I focused on the mystery of consciousness, but to Marvin there was no mystery. "A whole society of scientists is trying to find the place in the brain where consciousness is," Minsky explained to me. "But if it's just a word for many different processes, they're wasting their time. … For everyday purposes, the idea of 'self' is important. But from a cognitive point of view, it's a very stupid idea and it's an obstacle to understanding how our minds work."



    The common belief in a nonphysical (perhaps immortal) soul was a related topic that I figured, a bit mischievously, could "stimulate" Marvin's way of thinking — and I braced for fireworks. I had no doubt that Marvin would reject the idea of a soul, of course, but I was curious to find out just how he would dismiss it.

    "The idea that there's a central 'I' who has the experience is taking a commonsense concept and not realizing that it has no good technical counterpart," Minsky said. "Rather, it [our 'I'] has 20 or 30 different meanings, and you keep switching from one to the other without knowing it. So it all seems like one thing [when it's not]. … I studied mathematics for many years and finally proved some theorems no one else had. It was wonderful, and it was hard work. Now, if somebody comes along and says some 'creator' gave you this ability [via a 'soul'], well, that's very demeaning. [History of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Infographic)]

    "I don't want to be dissed by saying my virtues come from a 'soul'. The idea of a soul seems to me very demeaning. It's saying nothing we do has any consequence. There's someone else just dropping these little gifts on us. A soul is a terrible idea. … The people who talk about a soul are just people who are too ignorant or unambitious or lazy — I don't know what insults to hurl at them."



    To Minsky, if you couldn't explain how something works, you haven't explained anything at all. Worse, to him, the assumption that some kind of ethereal soul explains the human mind undermines the hard work required to really explain it.

    I asked Marvin about the claim made by many philosophers that the mind cannot be "reduced" to the brain, meaning that it is impossible to account fully for mental function in terms of fundamental physics.

    "I don't think we need a separate mental world," Minsky countered, to no one's surprise. "Many philosophers say if some process takes more than three steps, it must be 'irreducible.' Nothing is irreducible. It's just that we're not [yet] smart enough [to know how] to reduce it. … Think of the hubris, the preposterousness of a person who says, 'I know this question can't be answered.' … To say no one can answer it is to say, 'I am so smart that I can predict that nobody else will ever develop a better theory.'"

    I'm not that smart, but still I don't agree. I myself am not a reductionist. I do not expect that, even in the fullness of time, mind can ever be reduced completely to brain. Yet I would rather listen to Marvin argue against my view than to almost anyone else arguing for my view. From Marvin, I learn more.



    Is feeling also thinking?

    In that same interview, I also asked Minsky to describe the relationship between thinking and feeling, the topic of his next book, "The Emotion Machine" (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

    "The ordinary words of popular psychology — like emotion and cognition, feeling and thinking, and so forth — are hundreds of years old," Minsky said, "and each of them is a clever way society has developed to not think about what's going on. … This distinction between thinking and emotion has wasted a century of psychologists' time, because they don't understand that each emotion is a particular way to think."

    I then transitioned our conversation from one megacategory to another, from brain/mind to physics/universe, by asking about quantum mechanics and its strangeness. Minsky's concise explanation was as discerning as it was counterintuitive.

    "Philosophers like to talk about the [Heisenberg] 'uncertainty principle' where quantum mechanics makes things unpredictable," he said. "It's exactly the opposite. … All these philosophers have missed the point that a deterministic universe is not good. It's chaotic. And the quantum universe is stable." 

    Here's the deep idea that Minsky so breezily explained. In classical physics, which is deterministic, the naive "solar system" model of negatively charged electrons flying around a positively charged nucleus cannot be stable — if elections "orbited" in that way, they would emit electromagnetic radiation, lose energy, and the negative-positive attraction would cause the election to crash into the nucleus, destroying the atom. In quantum mechanics, which is probabilistic, the electron has wavelike features, cannot have both a definite position and a definite velocity (momentum), and therefore cannot be confined in an arbitrarily small space (without adding increasingly huge amounts of energy). This means that the atom cannot collapse, and the quantum universe, as Minsky said simply, is stable. [Why Can't Quantum Mechanics Explain Gravity? (Op-Ed)]

    Delving into speculation, I asked whether this universe could be a fake. 

    "We might be a program running on a computer," he responded seriously. "What we know about computational processes is that it's easy to make a simple process that produces infinite complexity [ultimately] — it doesn't take a 'God,' because we can make a little computer program that can successively write all possible computer programs just by enumerating them and making small changes."

    Could human beings ever know whether this universe is really a simulation? 

    "It could be that in some simulated worlds there are enough defects or slight irregularities that you could figure out what computer is simulating you," Marvin mused. "Ultimately, you might find something for which the best explanation was that we're not real, we're just a program on an 'IBM 68 billion' or an [Intel] 86 billion or whatever." [Is Our Universe a Fake?]



    The trouble with religion

    I was now ready to explore a Minsky favorite foil: religion.

    "The trouble with religion is that it picks particular things, like 'why are we here?' or 'what created the world?' or 'what should we do in various conditions?'" he began. "But these can be studied and understood by thinking more. … If a lot of people believe something and it's complicated [like religion], then it's unlikely that they thought of it themselves. So it's probably an infectious mental disease, a little network of ideas like a virus that knows how to jump from brain to brain and spread."

    Far-reaching for some, but not for Marvin. As many of his admirers know, he had strong opinions.



    On a changing society

    Reflecting on news of his death brought me back to 1999. It was not long after we had come to realize that the "WorldWideWeb" (as it was called) would be changing humanity, but how, we weren't quite sure. 

    "We're under pressure to decide faster," he said in an episode entitled "How does Technology Transform Thinking?" He explained that because facts are more quickly at people's disposal, and everyone expects fast answers, people are forced to be less reflective. "One of the most dangerous things," he stressed, "is rapid communication in political affairs, where a TV network can ask, 'What does the public think?' and in minutes they say 70 percent of the people think this or that."

    Reflecting on the Internet as an "amplifier of evil," Minsky said, "There's a serious problem, because people don't understand the difference between popular democracy and representative democracy. The idea of taking a poll 5 minutes after something happens and publicizing it is very dangerous."

    How prescient! More than 15 years ago, while many pundits were predicting that the democratization of information would improve the quality of political discourse, Minsky foresaw the reverse. Instant, mass communication, he warned, could yield instant, mass manipulation.

    Marvin also worried about today's role models. "With the power of media, who are the mentors being built into the minds of our citizens," he asked me rhetorically? "It's 98 percent sports idiots, actresses, actors." 

    While many critics decry actors as role models, Minsky's insight focuses on the nature of the profession. 

    "Why are actors 'heroes'?" Minsky continued. "Because they're good liars. That's what it takes to be an actor, getting you to trust him when he's playing a role. We have this strange celebrity thing, and instead of children getting values from the right people, they get it from people who have the gift of pretending. Celebrities are celebrities because they somehow make people trust them."

    Instead, Marvin promoted critical thinking. "To understand things well," Marvin said, "is to think critically. Somebody tells you something, you say, 'What's the evidence for that?' In most religions, there are certain questions we can't decide that way, so it's important, [religions say], to have faith. And if you're very good at having faith, then it means you're not very good at critical thinking." 

    And, "To stress believing a set of rules that comes from an authority figure," Marvin said, can lead to "terrible dangers." 

    Minsky railed against overarching organizations, institutions and cultures that imposed their belief systems or parochial values without, in his opinion, evidence or logic. He encouraged individuals to take personal responsibility and stand their mental ground in resisting the imposition of absolute ideas.

    Marvin asserted that "faith and critical thinking" are mutually exclusive. But a co-panelist on an original "Closer to Truth" round table (in 1999) challenged him, asking, "Can critical thinking help you with death and bad things?" The questioner was implying that restricting "truths" to only those concepts that are accessible via critical thinking may limit access to deeper truths, such as those that may be provided by religion or morality. 

    "Well, I disagree," Marvin declared unapologetically. "Death has a rational explanation. If it weren't for 2,000 years of religion — when science [hadn't yet developed] — we might have already conquered death. Belief in the afterlife is why we don't live forever. The fundamental paradox is that we have been deprived of our immortality by religion."

    As the discussion shifted to personal responsibility, Minsky said, "We're going to need a new theory, because current theories are clearly unsound. We see people committing a crime and people argue, 'Is the cause social?' Or religious people say, 'The devil got into him.' But when we understand the brain, we'll have real decisions to make, like what level of violence do we want in our children?"

    Minsky, prescient again, was musing about how neuroscience alters the commonplace understanding of "free will" and the impact of that on moral responsibility, with huge implications for the judicial system and civil society. What happens, people now ask with concern, when advancing neuroscience, through genetic engineering and brain interventions, gains the capacity to change human behaviors? It is a real-world prospect, fraught with the tensions, risks and dangers of competing values.

    I pressed Minsky about if he was advocating "social engineering," manipulating citizens through science to create, and enforce, a majority-determined society.

    Society "already does it [manipulates people] by pumping beliefs into us," Minsky shot back at me. "We have to figure out some way to get enough variety so that even if there's a culture with a billion people who all think the same way, and if it turns out to be a bad way, there are other ways of thinking. We don't know how to solve this problem."

    Reminding himself of humanity's perilous position on this one fragile planet, Minsky advised that we should do whatever it takes "to get three or four colonies off the Earth, on asteroids, some other places — as life insurance."

    "I don't like cultures," was a Minsky theme, and I heard it several times. "Cultures are a waste of the human mind," he said. "A person becomes a kind of robot because he's this nationality or that race or he's a whatever-it-is. Everybody says we should respect these cultures, but why should we?" 

    Lamenting that most people find learning painful, Minsky posited that most cultures exist "because they've taught their people to reject new ideas. It's not 'human nature.' It's 'culture nature.' I regard cultures as huge parasites. I think each person has a lot of potential, and I find it painful when I'm introduced to people who didn't choose their belief system. Their culture chose it. And to me, that culture is an evil, mindless force that first teaches its values and then instills fear of other values. So, of course, it looks like human nature, but it's 'meme nature' — ideas that get into the brain, and the ones that stick best are the ones that kill other ideas best.

    "I have many cultures," Minsky continued. "Every week, I find a new culture. The other day, because a little girl asked me, I found on the Net a group of people who collect the whiskers of cats. They're all over the world — only about 50 people. And they spend a lot of time at it, sending little emails to each other about how they find the whiskers. So, on a long-haired cat, whiskers can float around … oh, well, forget it … the point is that I'm in many cultures."

    That's Marvin personified! Ever curious, unpretentious to his core, Marvin had a preternatural capacity for extracting insights from the most mundane situations.

    On the same "Closer to Truth" panel, political scientist Francis Fukuyama (then at George Mason University in Virginia, now at Stanford University in California) suggested that Marvin was "not really part of that [cat whisker] culture. You're just a visitor," he said. 

    "What do you mean, 'part,'" Minsky responded? "You mean it doesn't eat up my whole brain? Thank God, if you'll pardon the expression, no! I don't want 90 percent of my mind eaten up by a bunch of rules that were written thousands of years ago and don't reflect anything good."

    When we discussed "tolerance," Marvin became, well, militant. "What's so great about 'tolerance,' he asked? "Do you mean we should teach our kids that all ideas are equally good? I don't think that we should tolerate ideas in the sense that, 'It's OK to let that poor person have his brain eaten by that set of ideas.' It offends me. I'm not tolerant. … In a culture, people relate to each other to the extent that they think the same thoughts and don't think for themselves. I don't regard that as a virtue. Maybe lazy humans like it, but I would teach them not to be lazy."

    Asked about "enhancing happiness" in the future, Marvin was his acerbic, contrarian self. "I want people to be very unhappy that they don't understand things, like cosmic string theory. I hate happiness because that means that you're not interested in anything more."

    To Marvin, commonplace "happiness" was mindless contentment, and he eschewed it. He envisioned the ideal human experience as striving to understand and struggling to learn, a restless pursuit of knowledge in order to advance humanity's collective wisdom. Self-satisfaction, unambitious comfort, sluggish tranquility — these were the enemy.

    The Internet as divider?

    Marvin offered profound and predictive observations about the then freshly burgeoning Internet, including how circles of friends would be more likely to cluster and less likely to expand, and how rigidity could overpower tolerance because those of like minds would seek self-reinforcement.

    "Keeping contact with people on the Net is going to be a very strange thing," Minsky forecasted in 1999. "We have a mobile society, and we learn to make new friends. What will happen in the future? When you're 7 years old, you make a dozen friends, and they move away, but with the Net you still have them. We may get people who don't bother to form new friendships, because you can spend your whole life with people that you already know. That might change society.

    "I don't like civility," Marvin offered without apology. "The trouble with insulting somebody in their presence is that they'll hit you. And you can't express yourself very well. I have made many friends on Internet newsgroups whom I've never met, and in many cases I don't hope to meet. These 'flame wars' are wonderful: People tell you what they really think, or else they lie — it doesn't matter. But you learn more per hour this way, by getting right to the heart of the matter. The polite people are a waste of time. They write all these words, and I usually turn to another screen." 

    Minsky was no troll. Trolls go for the "lulz" (the "joy" or "achievement" of causing emotional distress); Minsky went for the truth.

    "Face-to-face contact is almost impossible to penetrate," Minsky said. "When you meet people, they have certain postures and you're dominated by stereotypes. When you talk to people on the Net, you're dominated by whatever ideas they have."

    I asked Minsky for his grand prediction of the future of the Internet. He said, 

    "One-hundred years from now, people will say, 'Well, the Internet was really important until the development of [true] artificial intelligence in 2073.' The second bump was the big one."

    - See more at:

    March 09, 2016
  • WASHINGTON — NOAA satellite operators unexpectedly lost the ability to command one of the Air Force's primary weather satellites on Feb. 11 and now officials from both organizations are racing to determine if the spacecraft can return to service, officials told SpaceNews.

    The satellite, known as the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 19, is used to help weather forecasters predict fog, thunderstorms and hurricanes that could impact military operations. Launched in April 2014, the spacecraft is the Air Force's newest weather satellite on orbit.

    Air Force officials do not yet know the cause of the problem, or if the satellite can be recovered, Andy Roake, a spokesman for Air Force Space Command, said in a March 2 email. [See launch photos for the DMSP-19 weather satellite]

    "Operators lost the ability to command and control Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 19 (DMSP F-19) Feb. 11, 2016 and subsequently are making attempts to regain connectivity," he said. "The satellite is in a stable configuration while operators continue to troubleshoot the anomaly.

    "At this time, it is not known what caused the anomaly or if the satellite will be recovered, and the anomaly is under investigation. There are no other known issues with the satellite."

    Air Force Space Command disclosed the problem with the satellite March 2 in response to questions from SpaceNews.

    The DMSP constellation requires at least two primary satellites and two backup satellites to gather cloud imagery. As a result of the problem, the Air Force has reassigned an older satellite, DMSP Flight 17, which launched in 2006 and had been serving as a backup, into a primary role, Roake said.

    "There is no impact to the strategic weather mission, and the DMSP constellation remains able to support warfighter requirements," Roake said. "The constellation continues to provide weather and atmospheric data to users as it has for the past five decades."

    DMSP operators in Suitland, Maryland, working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, first recognized trouble with the satellite when they could not "establish command access" with the satellite on Feb. 11, NOAA officials said in a Feb. 12 email obtained by SpaceNews.

    Workers initially attributed the problem to the ground system, but then discovered a problem with the "RF receive subsystem" when its temperature spiked 10 degrees. Without that subsystem "the ability to uplink real time commands and refresh operational and navigation loads is lost," the email said.

    About four hours later the Air Force declared a state of spacecraft emergency and on the next four contacts with the satellite, "all attempts to restore command access failed," the email said.

    Roake said March 2 that operators are working through a 30-day plan to recover the command and control capability and that it is "premature to consider end of life shutdown actions at this time."

    "The satellite is still sending signals; DMSP engineers continue to receive telemetry from F-19 and are able to verify the health and status of the vehicle," he said.

    But, he added, any data from the satellite is no longer being used for weather forecasting. In addition, Air Force officials expect a gradual decay in that data in the 60 days following a problem.

    The Air Force still has five DMSP satellites, Flights 14 – 18, operating in primary or backup roles. The oldest satellite, Flight 14, launched in 1997.

    Even the potential loss of DMSP Flight 19 is likely to renew questions about the health of the Air Force's weather satellite program.

    In February 2015, DMSP Flight 13, exploded on orbit fter a problem with its battery. In addition, after much debate, Congress opted last year not to launch the next satellite in the DMSP program Flight 20, and instead chose to terminate the DMSP program. That decision meant the Air Force is not expected to launch another weather satellite until 2017 at the earliest and that satellite, a technical demonstration from the Operationally Responsive Space Office, would not provide the same kinds of weather data as the DMSP satellites.

    Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is the prime contractor on the DMSP program. Matt Kramer, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, referred questions to the Air Force.

    - See more at:

    April 05, 2016
  • A brilliant column of fire, blasting out the back of a rocket ship, lit up the cool blue sky above the west Texas desert on Saturday (April 2), when the private spaceflight company Blue Origin successfully launched and landed its New Shepard vehicle for the third time.

    Blue Origin's photos and amazing video of the New Shepard launch show the rocket heading skyward, where it eventually separated from the crew capsule (although no one was inside). The crew capsule parachuted back to Earth, but the rocket booster used its thrusters to make a graceful vertical landing.

    This is the third time Blue Origin has flown this particular New Shepard vehicle, which makes the test flight somewhat historic. The company (which has been using the motto of "Launch. Land. Repeat." for the flights) is aiming to dramatically lower the cost of suborbital spaceflights by reusing its boosters, rather than discarding them, which is what engineers have had to do with nearly every other rocket in history. Check out more photos from New Shepard's third launch and landing here.


    March 10, 2016
  • You don't have to visit Indonesia to photograph the total eclipse of the sun today (March 8).

    Though the "path of totality" for today's solar eclipse is limited to islands in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean region, you can watch the celestial event online live via the Slooh Community Observatory beginning at 6 p.m. EST (2300 GMT), or here at, courtesy of Slooh. (It will be Wednesday, March 9 local time for eclipse viewers in Indonesia.)

    People can also capture and share eclipse images on their favorite social media sites using Slooh's recently launched StarShare Camera. [The Total Solar Eclipse of 2016 Explained]

    "This will be the first major show [in which the StarShare Camera] has been available to the public, and so we are excited to give the public the ability to take and share photos via social media, which will draw more people to the event," Slooh founder Mike Paolucci told via email.

    "It is our intention to drive as many people as possible worldwide to share this moment of wonder together, toward our mission of celebrating mankind's common cause under a shared sky," Paolucci added.

    Since its inception in 2002, Sloohhas offered people around the world the opportunity to see real-time, online views of celestial objects and events captured by professional-grade telescopes. Recently, Slooh unveiled its StarShare Camera, which allows viewers to snap and share photographs of such observations. The software interacts with various telescope feeds, converting the image types into Web footage that casual astronomers can enjoy.

    "The images that come out of StarShare will be superior as a result of the expertise of the people using the equipment, the high quality of the equipment being used at the best locations and the resolution of the imagery," Paolucci said.

    This NASA graphic shows how much of the sun will be covered by the moon for parts of southeast Asia on March 9, 2016 during a total solar eclipse. Shown here is a total solar eclipse for southern Borneo at 0030 GMT, while nearby regions see a partial eclipse.
    This NASA graphic shows how much of the sun will be covered by the moon for parts of southeast Asia on March 9, 2016 during a total solar eclipse. Shown here is a total solar eclipse for southern Borneo at 0030 GMT, while nearby regions see a partial eclipse.
    Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
    For today's eclipse, Slooh will waive the charge normally required to access the StarShare camera, allowing visitors to capture unlimited photos and time-lapse creations, he added.

    "All we ask is that they share the heck out of them!" Paolucci said.

    For today's event, Slooh will have feeds lined up from Hawaii to Indonesia. Some feeds will capture the total solar eclipse, while others will offer a view of a partial eclipse. The various angles provide redundancy in case weather blocks one or more sites and also allow viewers to grasp what is happening over the course of the event, Slooh representatives said.

    Although live observers of the solar eclipse should remember to don eye protection, Slooh's viewers will not need to take such precautions.

    You can find Slooh's StarShare Camera on Slooh's total solar eclipse webcast feed here:

    Editor's note: If you safely capture an amazing photo of the March 8 total solar eclipse and would like to share it with us and our news partners for a story or gallery, send images and comments to managing editor Tariq Malik at (This article was edited to clarify the correct local time of the eclipse.)

    Follow Nola Taylor Redd on Twitter @NolaTRedd or Google+. Follow us at @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on


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    March 10, 2016
  • The Apollo program, also known as Project Apollo, was the third United States human spaceflight program carried out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which accomplished landing the first humans on the Moon from 1969 to 1972. First conceived during Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration as a three-man spacecraft to follow the one-man Project Mercury which put the first Americans in space, Apollo was later dedicated to President John F. Kennedy's national goal of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" by the end of the 1960s, which he proposed in a May 25, 1961, address to Congress. Project Mercury was followed by the two-man Project Gemini (1962–66). The first manned flight of Apollo was in 1968.

    Kennedy's goal was accomplished on the Apollo 11 mission when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed their Lunar Module (LM) on July 20, 1969, and walked on the lunar surface, while Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit in the Command/Service Module (CSM), and all three landed safely on Earth on July 24. Five subsequent Apollo missions also landed astronauts on the Moon, the last in December 1972. In these six spaceflights, twelve men walked on the Moon.

    Apollo ran from 1961 to 1972, and was supported by the two-man Gemini program which ran concurrently with it from 1962 to 1966. Gemini missions developed some of the space travel techniques that were necessary for the success of the Apollo missions. Apollo used Saturn family rockets as launch vehicles. Apollo/Saturn vehicles were also used for an Apollo Applications Program, which consisted of Skylab, a space station that supported three manned missions in 1973–74, and the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, a joint Earth orbit mission with the Soviet Union in 1975.

    The Apollo program succeeded in achieving its goal of manned lunar landing, despite the major setback of a 1967 Apollo 1 cabin fire that killed the entire crew during a pre-launch test. After the first landing, sufficient flight hardware remained for nine follow-on landings with a plan for extended lunar geological and astrophysical exploration. Budget cuts forced the cancellation of three of these. Five of the remaining six missions achieved successful landings, but the Apollo 13 landing was prevented by an oxygen tank explosion in transit to the Moon, which disabled the command spacecraft's propulsion and life support. The crew returned to Earth safely by using the Lunar Module as a "lifeboat" for these functions.

    Apollo set several major human spaceflight milestones. It stands alone in sending manned missions beyond low Earth orbit. Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to orbit another celestial body, while the final Apollo 17 mission marked the sixth Moon landing and the ninth manned mission beyond low Earth orbit. The program returned 842 pounds (382 kg) of lunar rocks and soil to Earth, greatly contributing to the understanding of the Moon's composition and geological history. The program laid the foundation for NASA's current human spaceflight capability, and funded construction of its Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center. Apollo also spurred advances in many areas of technology incidental to rocketry and manned spaceflight, including avionics, telecommunications, and computers.

    March 29, 2016
  • Launches of liquid-fueled rockets may be relatively routine today, but 90 years ago, they were brand-new. In fact, the first liquid-fueled rocket launched on March 16, 1926, under the direction of rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard.

    A newly re-released animation (shown here) shows NASA employees celebrating the launch of Goddard's small rocket during a 1976 celebration (which was the 50th anniversary of the historic test flight).

    The looped animation shows employees gathered in front of a school bus at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, which was named in honor of Robert Goddard, watching the rocket replica take off. Liquid propellant is used for most major space launches today, from human flights to interplanetary missions.

    Goddard's first liquid-fueled rocket was small and did not fly all that high, but it marked a big change in how rocketry is done. Previously, all rocket launches had been done with solid materials. That work dated back to the 13th century, when Chinese engineers used gunpowder when repelling enemies.

    A recreation of Robert Goddard's first liquid-fueled rocket blasts off during a 1976 celebration marking the 50th anniversary of Goddard's initial launch on March 16, 1926.

    A recreation of Robert Goddard's first liquid-fueled rocket blasts off during a 1976 celebration marking the 50th anniversary of Goddard's initial launch on March 16, 1926.

    Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

    Goddard, however, believed that liquid would offer more advantages than solid materials. Liquid rockets provide more thrust per unit of fuel and allow engineers to specify how long the rocket will stay lit.

    It took 17 years of work for Goddard's first launch to fly.

    "It looked almost magical as it rose, without any appreciably greater noise or flame, as if it said, 'I've been here long enough; I think I'll be going somewhere else, if you don't mind,'" Goddard wrote in his journal the next day, according to a NASA statement.

    Goddard dreamed of seeing interplanetary travel made possible. It didn't happen while he was still alive — he died in 1945 — but liquid rocketry became very important in space history.

    The first satellite, Sputnik, was launched in 1957 using a rocket that in part used liquid fuel. Liquid fuel was also used for the massive Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. Liquid remains the fuel type of choice for human missions to this day; because the burn can be controlled, it is safer than solid rocket propellants.

    Other rockets with liquid fuels in one or more stages include the European Ariane 5 (which will launch NASA's James Webb Space Telescope), Russia's Soyuz boosters, United Launch Alliance's Atlas V and Delta booster family, and SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, among many others.

    In his lifetime and after his death, Goddard received more than 200 patents for his inventions. One of his major works included inventing multistage rockets, which are a foundation for just about every spaceflight today. They allow a rocket to have multiple fuel tanks and engines, which are discarded as the rocket gets higher in the atmosphere.

    "The U.S. failed to recognize the full potential of his [Goddard's] work until after his death — in fact, some of his ideas about reaching outer space were ridiculed during his lifetime," NASA wrote in the same statement. "But the first liquid-fueled rocket flight was as significant to space exploration as the Wright brothers' first flight was to air travel, and 90 years later, his patents are still integral to spaceflight technology.

    April 06, 2016
  • Microsoft's virtual reality headset, the HoloLens, isn't yet commercially available, but the amazing new tech is coming to the Kennedy Space Center this summer, and offering visitors  a "mixed-reality" tour of Mars. 

    NASA has announced that the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Visitor Complex in Florida will host a new exhibit called "Destination: Mars" that will let visitors walk around on the Martian surface without ever leaving Earth. For the "mixed-reality" experience, visitors will don the HoloLens headset that shows realistic, 3D views of the Red Planet's surface. To make the experience more realistic, visitors will wear the goggles while walking around in a physical space, to further create the illusion they are on Mars.

    The Red Planet tour is led by Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin — or at least, a hologram of Aldrin. Visitors will also be guided across the Martian surface by Erisa Hines (also in hologram form), who is a driver for the Mars Curiosity rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. [Amazing Views of Mars from NASA's Curiosity Rover]

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