Orbital Roundup

So, how's it going up there in orbit then?

Well, you could say it's going good... a few minor issues like exploding grease guns, a bad urine processor and a tool bag that has now joined the ranks of orbital debris... but other than that it is actually going good!

On the first spacewalk, during which the astronauts were charged with cleaning debris and greasing up one of the SARJ joints which has been inoperative since last year, one of the grease guns exploded inside a toolbag. Astronaut Heidemarie Stehanyshyn Piper then had to clean up the mess, including the grease on her gloves, with some of the grease wipes intended for cleaning the SARJ. As she was distracted by the cleanup, an internal compartment of the toolbag slipped out and floated off into space. Heidi decided against retrieving the bag, as it would have made her into orbital debris too.

Meanwhile, inside the ISS, a brand spanking new water processing system was installed that will provide the fresh drinking water for the 6 person permanent crew that will mark the expansion of operations at the orbiting science station next year. Designed on teh ground, the zero-g environment provided a little too much freedom for the urine centrifuge, which began shutting down due to excessive vibration. A little on-orbit maintenance/redesign was required, and after adding dampers and tightening restraints, the ISS is now no longer able to reboost into a higher orbit using urine, as it is all needed for drinking water! Eeeuuuwww!!

So, they seriously have to drink old urine then?

Yes! Actually though, the process is so efficient that the water comes out cleaner and purer than the majority of drinking water we consume here on Earth.

Until next time, Happy Spacing Spacers!
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Countdown Begins!

The countdown has begun for Space Shuttle Endeavour's STS-126 mission to the International Space Station. Everything looks good and there are currently no issues being worked for launch.

Endeavour waits patiently on the launch pad.

Keep watching, Spacers!
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Watch In High Quality

A quick update... there is a link to the right that takes you directly to a 300k NASA TV feed, which is great for watching the entire STS-126 mission online from launch to landing.

You can click it, or as a very special treat, click the high quality link below that I stumbled upon quite by accident. It's a 1200k feed and is just as good as a regular TV feed. You'll need a good fast connection though. Enjoy!


Happy Spacing, Spacers!
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STS-126 Ready For Home Improvement

Space Shuttle Endeavour is ready to chase down the ISS for a spot of home improvement on Friday. STS-126 marks the first return to spaceflight for the Itialian built Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) since the resumption of construction at the orbital complex.

STS-126 crew poses with Endeavour.

So, what are they adding this time?
Unlike regular assembly missions, STS-126 isn't actually adding anything to the outside of the station. The Leonardo MPLM is packed with all the goodies needed to turn what is now a three bedroom, one bathroom home for three into a five bedroom, two bathroom residence for six.

The heavy construction and outfitting work over the last couple of years has readied the station to fulfil its primary purpose - as a live-in science laboratory. Starting next year, a six-person crew will permanently occupy the orbital outpost allowing the international partners to begin utilising the laboratories that were recently added - the European Columbus, and Japanese Kibo modules - alongside the fully operational US Destiny laboratory that has seen the expansion of the station since its installation in February 2001.

Leonardo in the Shuttle

Leonardo is a reusable module that is launched in the cargo bay of the Shuttle and strapped to the station for the duration of the mission. Each MPLM can carry up to 10 tons of cargo packed into 16 standard Space Station equipment racks. Of the 16 racks, five can be furnished with power, data and fluid to support a refrigerator freezer.

The inside of Leonardo

So, where are the bedrooms and toilet?
Actually, the bedrooms take the form of one of the standard racks! Large enough to comfortably accommodate a human, two rack-sized sleep stations will be transferred from Leonardo to the recently added Harmony module, as well as a Waste and Hygiene Compartment - a new toilet, and a galley that will be located in the Destiny module -which could be called a new gourmet kitchen.

So, isn't there something broken outside that they need to fix?
Yes, the infamous SARJ - the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint - on the starboard side has been inoperative since the discovery of metallic debris in the rotating joint after vibrations were felt during its operation. The joint allows the massive solar arrays to track the Sun and provide full power during the daylight portion of an orbit, and there are several spacewalks planned during the mission to replace failed parts and hopefully get the joint working again.

So, is there anyone we know going up?
Two of the crew flew together on STS-115 in 2007, The Commander, Chris Ferguson, and Mission Specialist Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper. They are joined by former ISS Expedition 6 crewmember Donald Pettit, and rookies Eric Boe, Steve Bowen, and Shane Kimbrough. Joining the mission on the way up is Sandy Magnus, who flew in 2002 and will stay on the station for six months as part of the Expedition 18 crew, spending 6 months at the station. Magnus replaces Greg Chamitoff, who takes the final seat for the landing of STS-126.

That should be enough to get you Spacers all spaced up for the weekend. At the moment there is a 60 percent chance of favourable weather for the launch at 7:55 pm EST, so it's looking good for a spacey weekend.

Happy Spacing Spacers!
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Endeavour Breaks The Fast

Hello Spacers!

Well, it has been a long fast from the food of shuttle launches, but on November 14th Space Shuttle Endeavour is set to break that fast and launch once again to the International Space Station (ISS). Woohoo!!!

There has been some human spaceflight activity since the last launch way back on May 31st, when Discovery actually damaged the launch pad. The repairs are all complete now, and thanks to the Russian space program it was not an entirely launch free summer. For the ISS we had a Progress launch which delivered fresh cargo and supplies on September 10th, Expedition 18 launched on October 12th with Commander Edward Michael "Mike" Fincke and Flight Engineer Yury Valentinovich Lonchakov on board for a six month stay.

Also of note, China launched their first spacewalking mission on September 25th, and congratulations to that nation as they join the ranks of those brave enough to step off the doorstep of planet Earth. India, although not a manned flight, launched its Chandrayaan 1 moon mission on October 22nd joining the worldwide drive to gather information on the Moon as we get closer to returning to our iconic natural satellite.

Just a quick note from me on all this activity. I grow increasingly proud of the nations of this world as they break the ties of our planet and move outward into the cosmos. There is so much holding us back that we need to put as many fingers into the space pie as we can to fight the forces that would seek to have us return to the stone age. I especially applaud those who enter into the spirit of spaceflight with comfort alongside religions and religious beliefs, for inside many creeds and faiths there are many powerful and misguided souls who seek to denegrate all things science. Even in the USA, the undisputed and long time leader in space science, those lost souls seek to steer mankind away from a future where Mother Earth is not the only egg in the basket of humanity.

Look out for Spacers to pick up the pace once again as we approach launch day.

Until then, happy spacing, Spacers!
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Discovery Damages Pad!

Okay, so I've been away from the keyboard for a while... but space boldly goes on regardless!

Last Saturday (May 31st) Space Shuttle Discovery launched on the second of three missions to add the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station, and in the process managed to actually damage the launch pad! Launches are known to be extremely violent events, so much so that absolutely NO personnel are permitted within a few miles of the pad. Space Shuttles are heavy beasties on their own, but for this mission, Discovery carried in her belly the largest piece of hardware ever to be launched using the reusable vehicle - the main Kibo laboratory. Every pound of weight on the launch pad required roughly ten pounds of extra fuel to launch, which isn't too difficult to imagine since fuel itself has weight. This particular launch unleashed the biggest surge of energy since the Apollo program, and parts the ageing pad crumbled under the strain.

In the image above, large chunks of concrete can be seen splashing into the water after being hurled into the air by the force of the launch.

And the damage can clearly be seen after the smoke and dust clears. The so called "flame trench" has to withstand not only incredible heat, but also tremendous pressure from the solid rocket boosters and Space Shuttle main engines.

Debris litters the roads surrounding the pad after the launch.

Watch this space for details of the mission.

Happy Spacing Spacers!

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At Whitson's End

Peggy Whitson, commander of Expedition 16 on the International Space Station, and holder of the record for longest cumulative time in space for an American, ended her tenure with a landing in Kazakhstan with her crewmate Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, and South Korea's first astronaut, 29-year-old bioengineer Yi So-yeon.

Yi described their descent through reentry as "Really scary" as a glitch in the descent profile caused their Soyuz capsule to go through a "ballistic reentry", whereby a much steeper drop through the atmosphere inflicts much higher G loads on the occupants.

Whitson's Soyuz capsule undocks from the ISS

Expedition 17 is settling in to their new home and is awaiting the arrival of the STS-124 Space Shuttle mission due to launch on May 31st. Keep an eye on Spacers for coverage of the mission!

Happy Spacing, Spacers!

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Jules Verne practices approaching

The European Jules Verne spacecraft practiced approaching the ISS on Monday, coming within 36 feet of the orbiting complex. In a series of maneuvres on "Demo Day 2", European ground controllers coordinated with NASA controllers and the crew aboard ISS which proved the automated capability of the craft.

Jules Verne Approaching ISS

So, what's so special about all this then?

Well, we've all seen the science fiction stuff where automatic spacecraft do crazy stuff without even a hint of people intervention. But, when it comes down to it we here in the real world have very little practical and technical experience of such automation. This is why the space community is very excited about the weeks of tests that Jules Verne is going through, basically it is putting into practice what we have been capable of in theory for years.

So, why don't the just dock the darned thing then?

It's true that one of the purposes of JV is to resupply the ISS, and it certainly contains a bagful of goodies for the crew. But the primary purpose for this first ATV mission is to prove several really cool new technologies. For instance - Command based flight. This is where a computer that is well versed and intelligent in space travel, is flown simply by giving it a command. Think about it, to fly something in space, there are a lot of variables you need to know. Jules Verne has the know how to do this, and also a wealth of sensory information such as distance and GPS. A language of commands is defined, then a controller simply asks JV to, for example, back off... and it does so, fully aware of its surroundings and capable of altering the way in which it backs off should the unforseen happen.

The practical aspects of this are invaluable for applications where communication times are not instantaneous - like the 20 minute delay to Mars. As a result of this, remote craft can now operate autonomously and make informed decisions about how to carry out a command.

Keep watching NASA TV this week and look out for Jules Verne docking on Thursday.

Keep the Space, Spacers!

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The Longest Mission Ends

STS-123, the longest ISS assembly mission has come to an end with a night landing of Endeavour at Kennedy Space Center.

Thanks to all the Spacers who watched as mankind continued the most difficult project in the entire known history of the human species.

Keep watching this space for news on Jules Verne and the next Shuttle mission in May.

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It's Alive!

Dextre is alive!

He is a 12 foot high robot with 11 foot arms weighing in at 3,440 lbs, and his name is Dextre! Spacewalking astronauts Rick Linnehan and Robert Behnken worked like modern day Frankensteins to attach two huge arms to the robot as he sat up for the first time on his orbiting operating table.

The arms were tightly packed on the sides of Dextre's assembly pallete and secured from the vibrations of launch by a series of dampers and pins. The astronauts had to put some real elbow grease into removing the pins, which had tightened after Endeavour rocketed into the night sky a few days back.

Once Dextre was assembled, astronauts on board the station put Dextre through some preliminary moves, primarily testing brakes on the many joints on his arms. The first thing they want to be sure of is that when they move his arms, they can stop them!

Keep watching as they continue to check out Dextre during thethree remaining spacewalks of the mission.

Happy Spacing, Spacers!

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Endeavour docks, Dextre powerless.

Endeavour docked to the ISS Wednesday night right in the middle of that stripper guy getting the boot from American Idol, so perhaps it may not have been a world shatteringly important event!

Endeavour closes in for a docking at the ISS

No sooner had the hatches opened and the crews greeted each other, than the work began in earnest. The ISS robotic arm Canadarm 2 grabbed the palete containing Dextre from the Shuttle's payload bay and plugged him in to a temporary grapple point on the mobile plaform, where he would await assmbly by spacewalking astronauts. Ground controllers immediately tried to power him up, but to no avail. Dextre remained powerless.

Rick Linnehan performs surgery on Dextre

The next day, spacewalking astronauts Rick Linnehan and Garrett Reisman set to work building Dextre as the power problem was worked on the ground. In a busy day of activities, the first section of the Japanese Kibo was removed from Endeavour's payload bay by the Shuttle's robot arm and installed on the top of the Harmony node.

Kibo's first segment is positioned for installation on the ISS Harmony node

Today the crews will ingress Kibo and begin activation and outfitting of the Japanese module.

Don't forget you can keep up with the progress of the mission on NASA TV. I've created a handy link in the Cool Space pane at the right of this blog.

Happy Spacing Spacers!

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Glitches ahoy!

So, what do you do when your car starts acting up? Yes, you take it in to the shop for repairs!

Now, what do you do when your spacecraft starts acting up? Hmmm... we've been in space for over 50 years, but we don't have an orbiting repair shop just yet!

The European Jules Verne spacecraft is currently going through system checkouts as it holds station behind the ISS, waiting for the Space Shuttle Endeavour to complete its mission. Shortly after launch it developed a glitch in its primary fuel system prompting mission managers to switch to a backup.

So, how did they fix it then?

Well, one thing that we have learned in our 50 years in space is that everything sent up there must have as much diagnostics as can feasibly fit in to it. Systems fail in space all the time. The Voyager spacecraft launched in the 70's have now left the solar system, and in the harsh space environment have suffered many failures. Commands sent from Earth have been able to diagnose problems and apply software patches to keep the spacecraft alive.

Diagnostics are a lot more efficient today. By determining that that the glitch was caused by excessive vibrations during launch, the fuel glitch on Jules Verne was diagnosed and completely fixed! Europe now has a 100% healthy spacecraft.

Space Shuttles, although manned, have essentially the same problems. Some systems can be accessed on-board, but the majority are not easily accessible since an astronaut would have to spacewalk to get to them. Shortly after lift-off Space Shuttle Endeavour suffered a glitch in one of its maneauvering thruster pods. This caused a minor issue when separating from the external fuel tank, as extra thrusters had to fire to compensate for the malfunction. The issue wasn't that the thrusters couldn't fire, but that the diagnostic system was unable to report leakage from the fuel system should it have occured. The computer controlling the thrusters removed the pod from the list of available thrusters for safety reasons.

So, how did they fix that one then?

NASA ground controllers sent up a patch that effectively reset the controlling hardware, which resolved the issue completely. Another glitch in a heat dissipation system is of no impact to the mission, and Endeavour is a 100% healthy spacecraft.

Mission managers are still studying a strange debris object that appeared to strike the orbiters nose 10 seconds into the launch. Imagery is inconclusive, but due to the low speed the level of concern is very low. My guess is a birdstrike, but we'll just have to wait and see!

Until next time, happy spacing, Spacers!

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Anyone for Orbit?

Endeavour started her first full day in orbit with an inspection by the crew of the heat shield and wings using the Orbiter Boom Sensor System (OBSS). This device is a 50ft extension boom for the robot arm loaded with sensing equipment and cameras that was added to the shuttle fleet after the Columbia tragedy. The crew inspects critical areas for damage using 3D imagery, and downlinks it to Mission Control for analysis. They don't want to take any chances!

The critical phase of launch is during the first three minutes, where the atmosphere is thick enough to accelerate any falling debris very quickly to dangerous impact speeds. Even the smallest chunk of foam can penetrate the orbiter's heat resistant tiles and cause fatal damage, simply due to the sheer speed the Shuttle is travelling. With a final destination orbital speed of 17,500mph (yes, 17 thousand five hundred) the orbiter needs a flawless shield to prevent superheated plasma from entering the vessel and literally melting its innards.

Yesterday's night launch provided a perfect opportunity to see the orbiter surrounded by glowing plasma as it reached orbit. The sight is similar to an aurora, with flashing colours and green curtains of light dancing around the Shuttle. At its initial orbit insertion, the Shuttle is still inside the atmosphere, but it is literally trace molecules. Even up there there is turbulence, and each time the orbiter passes through a wisp of thin air, its sheer speed ignites the molecules into glowing plasma.

I have often been asked why re-entry is so dangerous. Well, think about it... it took all that fuel and energy to get the Shuttle up into orbit, and now it has to slow down from, yes, 17,500 mph, using only drag from the atmosphere! The Shuttle has a propulsion system that fires to slow it down enough to drop into the thicker air, but that's all. If you have ever put your hand outside the window of a car travelling at 70mph you'll know how much energy there is in fast flowing air. Puting your hand out into the window at slow speeds isn't dangerous, but putting it out 17,500 mph most definately is!

Well, that's it for now... Happy Spacing, Spacers!

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Endeavour Launches!!!

Lighting up the night sky like a second sunrise, Endeavour created a beautiful launch portrait as she soared through the low Florida clouds. Heading to orbit exactly on time, the area around the launch complex was flooded in daylight whilst the orbiter gracefully soared into the heavens.

Space shuttle Endeavour lifts off its launch pad to start the STS-123 mission.

I had the privilege of witnessing a night launch in person back in, oh 1992 I think it was, and I can truly say that it is an amazing sight. I stood on Cocoa Beach with my friend Gary at 4am, in pitch dark, families and kids playing in sand they could barely see, until the sky truly lit up as bright as day! Such memories are priceless, and with the retirement of the Shuttle fleet due in 2010, I recommend you add a launch viewing to your bucket list.

Look out for more Spacers blogs as the STS-123 mission progresses.

Good luck Endeavour... Happy Spacing, Spacers!

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Smooth Countdown for Endeavour

The countdown for Endeavour's launch has been flawless so far. All systems are go for an on-time launch at 06:28 GMT.

space shuttle Endeavour's engines

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Go for Launch!

The Rotating Service Structure (RSS), the protective scaffolding that surrounds the Shuttle on the pad, was retracted this morning to reveal Space Shuttle Endeavour, poised and ready to launch to the ISS!

Space shuttle Endeavour stands poised for launch.

Scheduled for lift-off at 06:28 GMT, the current forecast points to a 10% chance of weather delaying the launch. The primary concern is a low cloud ceiling around the Kennedy launch complex.

The crew consists of Commander Dominic Gorie, Pilot Gregory H. Johnson, Mission Specialists Rick Linnehan, Robert L. Behnken, Mike Foreman, Garrett Reisman and Japanese astronaut Takao Doi. The crew arrived to a rain soaked Florida early Saturday morning, but Commander Gorie shrugged off the wet welcome. "Thank you all for welcoming us here in this wonderful weather we've got. I think when we get the weather done with here today, we're going to have a nice shot at launching."

STS-123 carries part of the Japanese Kibo module, and the Canadian Dextrous Manipulator, known as Dextre.

More updates soon!

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Jules Verne launches, has fuel glitch.

The European Space Agency (ESA) successfully launced its Jules Verne spacecraft from the Ariane Launch Complex in French Guiana, at 05:03 CET. On board is Jules Verne ATV, ESA's first Automated Transfer Vehicle.

After successfully achieving orbit, however, an on-board computer detected a problem with the mix of propellant in the spacecraft. ESA has suspended all burning of propellant until the issue can be fully investigated.

I'll update on this breaking news shortly.

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Shuttle Launch on Tuesday!

Okay Spacers, here we go... it's time for a Shuttle launch!

So, what's happening then?
On Tuesday March 11th at 06:28 GMT, Space Shuttle Endeavour launches to the International Space Station.

So, what are they doing this time?
Endeavour on the launch padSpace Shuttle mission STS-123 will deliver a habitable module and a robotic hand to the orbital outpost. Following hot on the heels of STS-122 in February, which delivered the European "Columbus" laboratory, the ISS is set to go from International to Global as Japan joins the fold with the first of three components. Canada continues to add its robotic expertise with a dextrous extension to the station's primary robot arm. The mission will close out with continued repair work on a failed joint that rotates the massive solar arrays to track the sun. The SARJ (Solar Array Rotary Joint) on the port side of the station has been only partially functional since NASA detected unusual vibrations and shut it down last year.

Kibo's little brotherThe Japanese laboratory, named Kibo (Hope), consists of three parts. Two pressurised, or habitable modules, and one external facility. This mission delivers the smaller of two pressurized modules of Kibo, which will be attached temporarily to a docking port on the space-facing side of the station's Harmony node. It will remain there until May, when the next Shuttle mission, STS-124, delivers the second module. The final component, an external facility for performing experiments exposed to space, will be delivered next year.

The current ISS configurationThe Canadian robotic arm extension, known as Dextre, is effectively a robot "hand" that can manipulate objects with the same dexterity as a spacewalking astronaut. Dextre is an incredible feat of engineering which will allow astronauts inside the station to "plug in" to it through a virtual reality interface. They can use its cameras to see in 3D, and feedback from tactile fingers allow them to "grab" objects with finger sensitive touch. As much as the astronauts love to spacewalk, it is a time consuming and potentially dangerous undertaking. Dextre will perform many of the same tasks, ironically without the need to expose an astronaut to incredible views of his home planet!

Here's a cool animation showing Dextre in action.

STS-123 will be the longest mission to the ISS, with 13 full days docked to the station.

So, where can I watch all the fun?
The best online feed for NASA TV is at Yahoo. Click the Watch NASA TV link on this page.

So, TV is great and all, but can I see them in the sky?
Of course you can! Heavens-Above is a great resource for viewing. I have created a Spacers logon with several locations of known Spacers ready to go. Click the link, Login with the username: Spacers and password: spacehead and in the Configuration section click Switch Observing sites. If your location isn't there, please add it from the database. Then you can click the ISS link to see viewing opportunities at your location.

Look out also for the European Jules Verne spacecraft that is being launched on Saturday at 10:03 CT. It is the test flight of the European cargo delivery system that will resupply the ISS twice a year. The cool thing is that JulesV will wait in a parking orbit behind the ISS for a while so they can check it out, then after the Shuttle undocks it will move in for close maneuvers and docking. During this time the ISS, Shuttle, and Jules Verne will all be visible together in the sky. Look out for viewing opportunities on Heavens-Above.

I'll update the blog as the mission progresses, so happy spacing, spacers!

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Spacers Is Alive!

Welcome Spacers, finally it has a home in the great wide Blogisphere!

I'm just getting started on Blogger.com, so there might be some dust while I move stuff in. I'll kick things off in style... check out this cool picture of an actual avalanche on Mars, courtesy of HiRISE.

Some poor Martian gets too close to the edge!

This is one of those images that even non-spacers can go ooooh at, because unlike boring pictures of dunes and craters this is an actual movey thing on another planet!

Go ahead and click it to view the entire JPL image, it's incredible. There are several avalanches in the same frame. We're looking down from orbit about 318km above an area very close to the martian North pole. The boffins are just starting to paw over the data but expect some more interesting stuff on this in the near future. I predict it won't be long before we get a stereo image and a before and after.

Stay spaced to this tune...

I'll be making an announcement soon, so for now, keep the space!

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About Spacers

Welcome to Spacers!

So, what is Spacers, then?
Spacers is... well, it's a blog about space! It began life as an email list of friends and family who were always pestering me to give them my own unique view on recent space events. As as bonefide space geek I keep up with everything to an obsessive level, and as regular folks with an interest in space but no idea where to look or what to look for, I was able to pull together a regular every day look at space events using language they could relate to. Interest was high around the time of a Space Shuttle launch, and people would always ask similar questions like - so, what are they doing this time?

Spacers became a blog early in 2008, which gave me an opportunity to write regularly on the subject I love It wasn't until the fall of 2009 that I was able to really blog on a regular basis, and now with an ever growing readership Spacers has a lofty future ahead.

Please enjoy reading Spacers and feel free to leave comments if you like what you read.

Thank you.