Beyond and below the blue horizon

NASA's 'Project Constellation' and NOAA's 'Ocean Explorer' offer richly visual looks at both the new spacecraft program and undersea wonders.

While Space is the final frontier, the oceans are the last great unexplored region of our planet. This week's Web destinations set their sights above and below the horizontal plane (along with a bit of a side trip into the future,) as science continues to stretch into those territories where what we don't know far outstrips what we do know. And while the actual exploration is best left to those with the proper qualifications, both sites also make a point of taking us along for the – virtual – ride.

Looking up, we have NASA's Project Constellation - the something old/something new spacecraft being designed to "return humans to the moon and blaze a trail to Mars and beyond." Clicking on the splash page's first link takes visitors to the agency's Space Exploration subsite, and a look at engineering concept drawings of the two launch vehicles that will be employed in this second lunar undertaking - one to carry the astronauts, and one to carry the lunar module and other cargo. (While the new 'command module' looks much like the Apollo version, the booster that it sits on appears decidedly different - and more than a bit top-heavy.)

To the left of the page is an Index offering features related to exploring the Moon, Mars and Beyond, general Exploration items (including the search for water on the moon, and a video of a meteoroid impact that occurred in May), and attempts to answer the question that is as old as the space program itself - Why We Explore. Additionally, as can be expected at any NASA website, there's a rich collection of Multimedia.

The first feature in the multimedia collection is a Flash-based introduction to the new spacecraft. Largely a repackaging of information available elsewhere on the site, the Flash interactive is nevertheless a visual treat - with a click-through intro to the mission, a trio of 3D QuickTime models, and a slideshow of artists' impressions of various stages of the mission. But the highlight of the collection (available through the Flash interactive and elsewhere on the site) is a 5-minute video detailing a lunar manned mission from twin launches to dry-land recovery.

Back at the Space Exploration homepage, Related Links offer a list of FAQs and high-resolution images, including a 'photograph' of the Crew Vehicle and Lander in lunar orbit.

It's worth keeping in mind while touring the site that the 'new vision' is still in its infancy, and the information and imagery posted here might turn out to be largely inaccurate by the time of that first launch. (One aspect of the original plan has already been altered.) But tracking the evolution of a spacecraft, not to mention perusing the alternatives, can be at least as interesting as viewing the finished product – so any revisions that crop up in the next few years can almost be considered 'bonus' materials.

While NASA's proposed lunar missions are strictly in the mind and on the drawing board, expeditions beneath the world's oceans are very much in the here and now, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Ocean Explorer website is dedicated to sharing information about the agency's ongoing scientific and educational activities. Online since 2001, Ocean Explorer also makes abundant use of multimedia as it introduces visitors to the roughly 5% of the world's oceans that have actually been investigated to date. While there is a great deal of content here, from educational resources to information about the NOAA's history and the technology used in current expeditions, the site's main attractions are its Gallery and Explorations sections.

Containing both still and video files, the Gallery offers everything from computer-generated maps of the ocean floor and hundreds of portraits of its inhabitants (not always flattering), to photos from such shipwrecks as the RMS Titanic and USS Monitor, and a collection of historical images (boasting a unique, 18th century interpretation of deep sea dredging). Video files and animations are generally available in both QuickTime and Windows Media formats as well as multiple screen sizes to accommodate various modem speeds, and most stills and clips include links to related information elsewhere onsite. In addition to the fairly straightforward listing of entries in the Gallery section, Ocean Explorer's home page also features some handpicked highlights, including video of a particularly active underwater volcano and a slideshow of a dive under the Arctic icepack.

Explorations features more complete surveys of entire expeditions, such as a Spring '06 visit to the "Submarine Ring of Fire" (you wouldn't think a crab could walk across a pool of molten sulfur), and a deep sea survey that discovered a fluorescent shark at a depth of 1800 feet. Explorations exhibits are complete lessons in and of themselves – in addition to the truly impressive quantity of visual delights, there are also Mission Plans and Summaries, regular Log entries submitted by expedition members, and pages dedicated to such specific subjects as the biology and chemistry around underwater volcanic vents. Archived Explorations go back to the site's origins in 2001, beginning with that year's efforts to recover artifacts from the USS Monitor – and while the older features aren't as media-rich as more recent examples, the presentation layout is the same, and even that first mission offers plenty to hold a reader's attention.

We spend so much time with our minds focused strictly on the surface of the planet, it can be useful – if not downright therapeutic – to occasionally contemplate the spaces above and below us. If you feel like slipping out of the horizontal for a while, these sites will take you where you need to go.

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