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Happy Birthday Copernicus & Kerwin! And Belated to Galileo! February 19, 2014

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Copernicus (Getty)

Copernicus (Getty)

On this date in 1473, Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Poland. Just before his death more than seventy years later, his book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (also called On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies) changed the trajectory of science. Copernicus asserted that Earth is not the center of our Solar System and, instead, that the planets orbit around the relatively stationary Sun.

As he began to think about how the Solar System worked, Copernicus also translated Greek poems into Latin and worked for his uncle, which gave him opportunities for travel and interactions with a variety of people. His initial version of his revolutionary model was a bit sketchy in terms of the mathematics and geometry, but he stuck with it and eventually made dozens of astronomical observations that helped him refine and support his ideas. One of his important discoveries based on these observations was that Earth moved in an eccentric, or elliptical, orbit, rather than in a perfect circle with the Sun in the dead center.

Copernicus's Heliocentric Model

Copernicus’s Heliocentric Model

The heliocentric—helio means Sun—model was further delineated by Johannes Kepler, who established the laws of planetary motion based on elliptical orbits around the Sun, and by Galileo Galilei, who made confirming observations with his telescope. (This past Saturday marked Galileo’s 450th birthday!) Almost two-hundred years after Copernicus presented the theory we now take for granted, Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Catholic Church for his heretical and correct view of Earth and the Sun. In 1992, more than five-hundred years after Copernicus presented his heliocentric model, Pope John Paul II finally acknowledged Galileo’s accomplishments and the Church’s errors and also admitted that the planets circle a “stationary” Sun and, thereby, agreed with Copernicus. The official apology to Galileo came in 2000.

Sixty years before the pope forgave Galileo and affirmed Copernicus’s heliocentric model, Joseph P. Kerwin was born on February 19, 1932, in Oak Park, Illinois. Oak Park is one of the oldest suburbs of Chicago, a place where we lived for a few years and a place where Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright lived long before we were there.

Joseph Kerwin (NASA)

Joseph Kerwin (NASA)

Eventually, Kerwin earned his medical degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, another of Chicago’s oldest suburbs and where Anna was born. The summer befor Anna’s birth, in the midst of the Gemini space program and as Apollo was ramping up to put men on the Moon, Kerwin became an astronaut. In fact, he served as a CAPCOM—capsule communicator—during the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission in 1970 and, later, was part of the broadcasting team for the first launch of the space shuttle.

Kerwin flew to space himself in 1973 as the science pilot on the Skylab 2 crew, which also included Charles Conrad, Jr., and Paul J. Weitz. The first Skylab mission was unmanned, so Kerwin’s mission was the first manned trip to Skylab and established, at the time, the new duration record for human spaceflight: 28 days. Their mission was crucial to the survival of Skylab, which had been damaged during launch. The repairs included deploying a sort of umbrella to shade the spacecraft from the Sun so that it didn’t overheat. The spacewalks were grueling, and repairs were not always accomplished on the first attempt. Their work gave Skylab a good six-year run, until its orbit decayed and it blazed through Earth’s atmosphere in a spectacle that attracted worldwide attention.

Today’s two birthdays—those of Copernicus and Kerwin—give us more than ample reason to ponder how we see our place and trajectory in the universe. We leave you with some words from the preface of his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies:

For I am not so enamoured of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them. […T]he scorn which I had reason to fear on account of the novelty and unconventionality of my opinion almost induced me to abandon completely the work which I had undertaken. […] Astronomy is written for astronomers. To them my work too will seem, unless I am mistaken, to make some contribution.

NASA’s Toughest Week January 29, 2014

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Every year, NASA has a Day of Remembrance during this—its toughest—week.




On January 27, 1967, during a ground test of Apollo 1, a fire broke out. All three astronauts inside the spacecraft died.

On January 28, 1986, just 73 seconds into its 25th flight, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart and fell in pieces to the ocean below. All seven astronauts inside the crew compartment died.

On February 1, 2003, during re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere toward the end of its 10th mission, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart and fell in pieces over the southern United States. All seven astronauts perished.

We wrote about this week last year HERE and in 2011 HERE.

We say, in those posts, the most disheartening thing about these accidents is that they were waiting to happen, that, particularly in the cases of the shuttle accidents, specific concerns had been raised about the problems that ended up causing the accidents.

We say there that the most horrific information to emerge about these accidents is that the astronauts’ deaths were not instantaneous.

We also talk about some of the good projects that emerged in the wake of these events, that commemorate the dedication of these astronauts and their belief in science and space exploration as important in this world and beyond it.

In those posts, we posted photographs of the crews and video. And we hope readers will go back to look at those posts this week. Here, we’ll turn to some of the words of the astronauts themselves.

Only days before his death inside the Apollo 1 spacecraft, Gus Grissom finished drafting his book Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space. There, he wrote:

The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.

Christa McAuliffe, the teacher aboard Challenger that cold day at the beginning of 1986 said of herself:

This ordinary person is contributing to history.

Of students that she hoped to reach during the mission, she said in that same interview:

If they can make that connection [that ordinary people make history], then they’re going to get excited about history, they’re going to get excited about the future, they’re going to get excited about space.

Judy Resnick, who was also on the ill-fated Challenger flight, said the following:

I want to do everything there is to be done.

Thirty-seven pages of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon’s personal diary survived the fall to the ground when Columbia broke apart. On the sixth day of that mission, Ramon wrote:

I turned out to be a man who lives and works in space, just like in the movies.

Kalpana Chawla said in an interview before that doomed mission:

It’s easy for me to be motivated and inspired by seeing somebody who just goes all out to do something.

Last year, on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, President Obama said the following:

Each year, on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, we honor the crew of that Columbia flight, as well as those of Challenger and Apollo 1, and all the members of the NASA family who gave their lives in the pursuit of expanding our Nation’s horizons in space-a cause worthy of their sacrifice and one we must never forget.

And then he said that we’ll “eventually put Americans on Mars.”

Apollo 8: The 45th Anniversary December 25, 2013

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EarthriseForty-five years ago, a spacecraft with human beings in it was circling the Moon for the first time. In December 1968, for the first time, people on Earth saw a view their own planet in its entirety from space.

Forty-five years before that, sound barrier-breaking test pilot Chuck Yeager, Mercury-Gemini-Apollo astronaut Wally Schirra, and first American in space Alan Shepard were born. Just ten years before that–one hundred years ago–the United States had finished the first transcontinental roadway for automobiles that October, and Henry Ford was pioneering assembly-line production of cars. Stainless steel had been invented only that summer by Harry Brearly. That same year, Igor Sikorsky had built the first four-engine airplane, and Aldophe Pegoud had become the first person to bail out of an airplane safely. Powered, manned flight was still new but changing rapidly.

Apollo8PatchBy 1968, cross-country road trips were common, and the United States had plans to land men on the Moon before the end of the decade. 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered on April 2, and Planet of the Apes was released the next day. France hosted the Winter Olympics in February and exploded its first hydrogen bomb in August. The turbulent year was filled with news from Vietnam and protests on the homefront. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, and Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed in June. Apollo 8 became a crucial step in NASA’s plans for space exploration (and Cold War superiority) and the nation’s sense of hope.

Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968. Its crew included Frank Borman, the only astronaut who served on the accident investigation board after the Apollo 1 fire; Jim Lovell, who would go on to fly on the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission; and Bill Anders on his only spaceflight. They weren’t actually supposed to fly this mission until the lunar module was ready, and the lunar module wasn’t ready. But NASA boldly decided to test the flight without the lunar module aboard so as not to delay the whole Apollo program.

At first, Lovell had trouble sighting the stars for navigation. Borman had trouble sleeping, then became quite ill. The quick-thinking crew devised a round-about way to let Mission Control know about the astronaut’s intestinal distress. They used a back-channel—through a data storage system—instead of the usual communication channel, thereby avoiding letting the entire world in on the secret. In hindsight, it’s clear that Borman was probably suffering from space sickness, though at the time, it was thought to be the 24-hour flu and cleared up.

Apollo8CrewFifty-five hours into the mission, the crew broadcast images of Earth from space. Of those images, Anders remarked, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” Shortly after their broadcast, these three men became the first people to experience the gravitational pull of another celestial body, the Moon.

Lovell described the Moon in detail, noting that its surface looked “like plaster of Paris or sort of a grayish beach sand.” Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to circle around the Moon, and the crew, therefore, were the first people to see the backside, the unlit side, of the Moon. As the spacecraft orbited, Anders shot the amazing “Earthrise” photograph.

By the ninth orbit, it was Christmas Eve on Earth. After Borman described the Moon as “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing,” each of the three astronauts read an excerpt from Genesis in the Bible. Shortly after their moving broadcast and some unexpected manual alignment with the stars, they headed back toward their home planet.

Fellow astronaut Deke Slayton, who’d been grounded with a heart rhythm problem and who was in charge of astronaut selection, had left a solider-style turkey dinner in the food locker, which the crew ate happily. The brandy from Slayton supposedly remains unopened.

On December 27, the Apollo 8 mission ended. Re-entry and splashdown went smoothly, though Borman was again ill as the command module bobbed in the water. That module is now on display the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where we’ve seen it up close and where Apollo 8′s Jim Lovell reenacted his Christmas Eve reading from Genesis this Monday.

After returning to Earth, the Apollo 8 crew was lauded, with a Super Bowl appearance for the Pledge of Allegiance and a postage stamp featuring the Earthrise photograph. The crew’s television broadcasts garnered an Emmy Award. Perhaps no accolade sums up the mission’s success better, however, than one particular telegram to the crew: “Congratulations to the crew of Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”

Gus Grissom April 3, 2013

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Today marks the anniversary of Gus Grissom’s birth. Grissom, born Virgil but known as Gus, was a veteran of three spaceflight missions across three space programs. The shortest of the original seven astronauts would have been 87 years old today.

Gemini 3 Primary and Backup Crews (NASA)

He flew the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft on the Mercury-Redstone 4 mission on July 21, 1961. Grissom was aloft for less than sixteen minutes and never reached orbit. He was the second American in space, Alan Shepard having been the first a couple of months earlier. Upon his return, as Liberty Bell 7 sloshed in the waves and Grissom finished some flip-switching while the recovery helicopter made its final moves, emergency explosives blew the hatch. Grissom scrambled out and nearly drowned, tangled in external lines and waving to helicopters to drop him a lifeline. Filling with water and the resulting weight, Liberty Bell 7 sank, unable to be lifted by the recovery helicopter and recovered decades later in 1999.

Grissom Just Prior to Launch (NASA)

Grissom’s next big foray to space was on Gemini 3, the first manned flight of that space program. He had been Shepard’s backup, and Shepard was grounded with an inner ear disorder, so Grissom became the first person to fly to space twice.

In a nod to Grissom’s previous mission, he and fellow Gemini 3 astronaut John Young named their spacecraft Molly Brown, as in the unsinkable. When NASA disapproved of the name, the crew is said to have suggested Titanic as an alternative. While this story emanates a whiff of apocrypha, we have come to think of astronauts as a somewhat cheeky bunch and are willing to believe that Young and Grissom were of that ilk at the time. After that, NASA took a break from naming the capsules, until Apollo 9.

For its time, Gemini 3 was a lengthy mission, at more than four hours and three complete orbits. This flight also involved Young sneaking a corned beef sandwich on board and presenting it to a surprised and hungry Grissom. Fellow Gemini and Apollo astronaut Michael Collins, in his book Carrying the Fire, notes that, during the parachute deployment, which can wrench the spacecraft violently at the mission’s conclusion, Grissom “whack[ed] his head into the instrument panel, cracking his helmet visor.”

Gus Grissom (NASA)

Grissom, seemingly beset by odd mishaps, was assigned to the first planned Apollo mission, designated AS-204 based on a complicated naming system. Sadly, he and his crewmates, Roger Chaffee and Ed White died in that spacecraft during a ground test on January 27, 1967. A fire had started near Grissom’s seat and had flourished in the 100% oxygen at the ground pressure of 16 psi.

Of that fateful day, Collins writes of getting the initial news in Houston:

After what seemed like a long time, Don [Gregory] finally hung up and said very quietly, ‘Fire in the spacecraft.’ That’s all he had to say. There was no doubt about which spacecraft (102) or who was in it (Grissom-White-Chaffee) or where (Pad 34, Cape Kennedy) or why (a final systems test) or what (death, the quicker the better). All I could think of was, My God, such an obvious thing and yet we hadn’t considered it. We worried about engines that wouldn’t start or wouldn’t stop; we worried about leaks; we even worried about how a flame front might propagate in weightlessness and how cabin pressure might be reduced to stop a fire in space. But right here on the ground, when we should have been most alert, we put three guys inside an untried spacecraft, strapped them into couches, locked two cumbersome hatches behind them, and left them no way of escaping a fire.

Apollo Spacecraft 012 after fire (NASA)

One of the Apollo 1 crew reported the fire, then White said clearly, “Fire in the cockpit.” Communication continued for seventeen seconds. The crew struggled to escape. In ideal circumstances, escape took 90 seconds, but even in practice, the crew had never been able to egress that quickly. Someone uttered, “Get us out.” The fire burned so hot and the hatches were so complicated that it took the rescuers five minutes to reach the bodies of Grissom, Chaffee, and White. Though they suffered serious burns, which may have contributed to their deaths, their suits had been surprisingly effective protection against the flames. The three astronauts had died of asphyxiation.

Apollo 1 Crew (NASA)

Grissom and Chaffee are buried at Arlington Cemetery, while White rests at West Point. Gus Grissom finished drafting his book Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space only days before his death. There, he had written. “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”

A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain (Part 2) March 13, 2013

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Also see PART 1 of “A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain.”

AVRO Arrow (Creative Commons)

For the last 40 years, at least in the public’s eyes, Florida’s Space Coast and Houston have been the homes of American manned space flight. But in the earliest days of America’s space program, a select group of engineers calling themselves the Space Task Group (STG) made their home in rural Virginia at the Langley Research Center. Langley is NASA’s oldest research home, founded in 1917 by NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (just as you would think, NACA). The STG at Langley, inaugurated on November 5, 1958, came into existence little more than a month after NACA became NASA. These name changes and group birthings were all of a piece. Forty-five years ago, the nation was obsessed with space—and the nation remains intrigued.

In our February 20th post, we hinted that the February 20th, 1959, cancellation of AVRO’s CF-105 Arrow aircraft—less than six months after NASA was itself born—wound up being a boon for America’s fledgling space program. America’s first human spaceflight program, Project Mercury, was announced to the world six days after NASA was born, but that ambitious program was struggling to get its legs under it. The STG, with its single-minded view of putting an American in space, also had trouble finding its footing and was viewed with skepticism by the airplanes-only culture of Langley’s old guard.

Sputnik (NASA)

Aeronautics was becoming Aerospace, but not everyone was excited by the changes that this shift implied. In part, resistance was only logical. The American aviation industry had achieved remarkable successes since the end of World War II. The nascent American efforts in space didn’t have a record of success. Not only had the Russians beaten the Americans into space with Sputnik, but they had done it spectacularly. Sputnik had been followed less than a month later by Sputnik-2, and that second Sputnik had carried a living creature, a dog named Laika. America’s side of the space-race equation was also spectacular, but mostly spectacular failures. The nationally televised explosion of America’s first attempted satellite launch—the Vanguard mission on December 6, 1957—earned it the derisive nickname Kaputnik.

Into this environment came the opportunity for NASA’s STG to add significant engineering talent. Arguably, AVRO’s Arrow was the most advanced aircraft in active engineering and development at that time, and it was cancelled. The United States’ most advanced interceptor aircraft of that moment, the North American Aviation XF-108 Rapier—with delta wings and predicted Mach 3 performance, it was quite similar to the Arrow—was also cancelled in 1959. Both were victims of the coming age of ballistic missiles and pushbutton warfare. But whereas the American XF-108 project was limited to engineering drawings and a single wooden mock-up, the CF-105 Arrow knew the feel of air beneath its wings.

In all, AVRO designed, manufactured, and flight-tested six Arrow aircraft. This effort had given a talented young cadre of AVRO engineers experience at the leading edge of aeronautical engineering. The Arrow was the first aircraft designed to use a fly-by-wire system, a means of controlling the aircraft’s flight surfaces with electronic systems. The Arrow was designed in great part on computers. An IBM 704 mainframe computer at AVRO Canada’s headquarters in Malton, Ontario (near Toronto), was used not only for design purposes, but also for simulation and modeling. In fact, data collected during the Arrow flight test program was analyzed on the 704 and then fed back into the simulator. In sum, the young AVRO engineers had just the sort of experience that NASA’s STG needed for Project Mercury.


Ultimately, the AVRO engineers wound up in the STG because of the Arrow’s chief designer, Jim Chamberlin. Chamberlin was a known quantity to engineers at Langley from the collaborative work between AVRO and NACA on wind-tunnel testing for the Arrow and because of an earlier project, the AVRO VZ-9 Car (a saucer shaped jet).

As the layoffs took hold, Chamberlin and others jumped into action. Arrows to the Moon, a comprehensive look by author Chris Gainor of the contributions that AVRO engineers made to the American space program, indicates that the original idea was for a two-year exchange that would bring engineers from the cancelled Arrow project to the STG at Langley. NASA benefited by getting an immediate injection of talent for Project Mercury. AVRO hoped to get returns from sending its best-and-brightest off for two years for the equivalent of a graduate degree, a U.S.-funded, on-the-job school that was essentially the only program in space systems design and engineering in the free world.

When all was said and done, 32 AVRO engineers joined the STG. Another fantastic book that touches on this subject, Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox’s Apollo: The Race to the Moon, recounts a story in which Robert Gilruth, first head of the STG, told one of the AVRO engineers, Tec Roberts, “We thought about taking more of your crowd from AVRO…but we figured twenty-five percent aliens in the American space program was sufficient.”

Those aliens would make contributions to the American space program that are still being felt to this this day.

Lofty Ambitions at YouTube March 4, 2013

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We have a Lofty Ambitions YouTube channel where you can find an an array of videos we’ve posted over more than two years. Those videos include space shuttle launches and chats with astronauts. Here are five among our favorites:

The Last Launch of a Space Shuttle (July 2011)

Dee O’Hara: First Nurse to the Astronauts

Michael Barratt: STS-133 Astronaut & Physician Studying Radiation

Space Shuttle Endeavour’s Last Takeoff from Kennedy Space Center

Fireworks Over Space Shuttle Atlantis: The End of the Shuttle Program

A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain (Part 1) February 20, 2013

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YURI GAGARIN HEADLINEOne version of the history of manned space exploration goes something like this: in the darkest days of the Cold War, American and Russian engineers—armed with only their wits and slide rules—duked it out, mano a mano, in a contest for supremacy of the high frontier, outer space. The Russians struck first on every front: first unmanned satellite to orbit the earth—a beeping, silvery sphere called Sputnik; first mammal to orbit the earth—a dog named Laika; and most impressively, the first human being in space—Yuri Gagarin. We Americans quickly caught up with the Russians, repeated their first steps—though we favored simians in space over canines—and eventually surpassed Russian spaceborne achievements by landing human beings on the Moon.

Whether intentionally or by omission, that story fails to credit the significant contributions that other nations made to what, in a less politically contentious world, likely would have been seen as a set of achievements to be shared by all humanity. Neil Armstrong’s first words while standing on the Moon—That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind—can be seen as a attempt to share some credit with all human beings for the achievement, but many people don’t consider what other nations might have been doing while the Russians and Americans were racing to space.

Wernher von Braun (NASA)

German rocket scientists made significant contributions to the nascent American space program.  Indeed, space nerds likely know of the contributions of Dr. Kurt Debus. His name adorns Kennedy Space Center’s conference center, a place where we have met and interviewed astronauts on a couple of occasions. Anyone who has ever watched Apollo 13 has seen Tom Hanks, in the guise of Jim Lovell, adopt a phaux-teutonic accent and ham it up by saying, “I vonder vere Günter vent?” a pun on the name of famed Launch Pad Leader Günter Wendt. In reality—a concept always a distant second to story in Hollywood—astronaut Donn Eisele had uttered those words during Apollo 7. And of course, Wernher von Braun achieved enough stature and fame from his work on the Apollo program that he—a German who became a naturalized citizen of the United States—is often referred to as the father of the American space program.

A story that isn’t often told is of the contributions that America’s neighbors to the north made to NASA and the space program.

Fifty-four years ago today, on February 20, 1959, the Canadian arm of the British aircraft company A. V. Roe—more generally known as AVRO—killed its most ambitious project to date, the CF-105 Arrow. The death of the Arrow Program resulted in the southern migration of a number of Canadian—and Britons who’d already relocated once to Canada—scientists and engineers who would contribute mightily to the American space program.

Chuck Yeager (NASA)

The Arrow was a product of the revolutionary changes in aircraft design and manufacturing that took place in the 1950s. In the almost exactly ten years that passed from Chuck Yeager’s October 14, 1947, flight that broke through the sound barrier to the October 4, 1957, announcement by AVRO that it was going to build the Arrow, human ingenuity produced a dizzying variety of solutions to the problems of going faster, higher, and farther. Yeager’s mount in 1947, the Bell X-1—which he named Glamorous Glennis after his wife—was shaped like a rifle bullet with wings slapped on as an afterthought because, after all, it’s an airplane, it’s gotta have wings. Six years later, in 1953, Scott Crossfield flew at twice the speed of sound in the D-558-2 Skyrocket. The bodies—the fuselage—of the two aircraft had roughly the same bullet shape, but the Skyrocket sliced through the skies above Edwards Air Force Base on wings that swept backwards at 35 degrees.

The Arrow, which had its first flight in 1958, was intended to intercept Soviet bombers carrying atomic and thermonuclear weapons over the arctic and on into North America. To meet the requirements of this mission, it was posited that the Arrow would need to be able to fly at three times the speed of sound—Mach 3—or roughly 1980 miles per hour. That this was the Arrow’s performance target, when no piloted jet-propelled aircraft—research or otherwise—had yet attained that speed speaks to the engineering audaciousness of the era.

The date of AVRO’s announcement to build the Arrow—October 4, 1957—was the same day that Sputnik first circled the earth. The management of AVRO had the decided misfortune to announce their newest and most important aircraft on the same day that the Russians launched the first-ever manmade satellite. The party for bigwigs that evening, which included American aviation executives, officials, and military personnel (both NACA–the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s immediate predecessor–and the USAF had contributed to the Arrow’s design) ended in disbelief and with everyone talking about spacecraft instead of aircraft.

Timing, as they say, is everything, and the Arrow never could get its timing right. The new engines upon which it was depending in order to reach Mach 3 were forever behind schedule. Sputnik’s launch had refocused military conversations on the viability of manned aircraft in the coming era of ballistic missiles and push-button warfare. In the end, the Arrow became too expensive—approximately $400M a year for several years in a row, or as the adage attributed to, but not likely said by Illinois politician Everett Dirksen asserts, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money”—for the government of Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and fifty-four years ago the program was put to rest. The announcement effectively cashiered the 14,000 AVRO employees working on Arrow.

One of those employees was a young engineer named R. Bryan Erb. Erb was among the AVRO engineers who migrated to NASA, and years later he described the event as a lucky disaster for himself.  Considering the amount of raw engineering talent that would ultimately decamp AVRO and head for the warmer climes that NASA called home, NASA administrators could have described the Arrow cancellation the same way.

Check back at Lofty Ambitions to read more about how some of the people who made this journey from AVRO to NASA left a lasting impression on America’s space program.

The Eurythmics, Apollo, the International Space Station, and Landsat February 13, 2013

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Thirty years ago—on January 21, 1983—The Eurythmics released a single called “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These).” In that song’s video (see the end of this post), Annie Lennox stands at the end of a long conference table surrounded by empty chairs. On the table sits a globe. Behind her, a screen shows the Apollo 11 launch and then an image of the Earth from space. She looks directly at the camera—at us—while pointing behind her at that image, clouds swirling over land masses and ocean, and asserts, Sweet dreams are made of these. As she goes on—singing, Who am I to disagree?—we see astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in their white flight suits inside their capsule on the screen behind her.

Aldrin with flag (NASA)

These were the days in which MTV played a full schedule of videos and used, as their station identification image, an enhanced photograph of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, with an MTV flag planted on the lunar surface. MTV used Aldrin as the inspiration for the statuette of their Moonman award, sometimes referred to as the Buzzy, which honors the year’s best work in music videos. The first MTV awards were held in 1984, when The Cars won best video and a year during which the space shuttle flew five missions. The Hubble Telescope hadn’t yet been launched; that occurred in 1990, with repairs and upgrades beginning in 1993. The International Space Station (ISS) was still only a dream, with the first assembly mission in 1998.

Space exploration is indeed that out of which sweet dreams are made. Going to the Moon was the result of dreaming big as a nation, and the Moon landing is now a vivid memory in our collective dreams. A space station shared by nations had long been the stuff of science fiction, but that dream became a reality that has been continuously occupied for more than a dozen years now.

Roman Romanenko, Expedition 34, 28 January 2013 (NASA)

This past week, we saw the ISS fly over our heads twice. Though we’ve seen it before, probably first in April 2001 with its second long-duration crew, the sight amazes us every time. This past week’s passes were especially bright, brighter than the stars in the sky. If not for its speed across the night sky’s dark expanse, the ISS might be mistaken, at first, for an aircraft. But inside what looks tiny from our vantage are astronauts living life more than two hundred miles above the Earth, circling the globe once every ninety minutes. (Click HERE to find flybys for different U.S. locations.)

How is this not a dream, in the sense of having a vision or an aspiration? The etymology of the word dream is actually under contention, with some suggestions that it stems from a word meaning joy, merriment, noise, or, yes, music. Sweet dreams really are made of these.

Dream might stem from words related to deception, which leads us to consider that the ISS offers two very different perceptions, one of us looking up at the swift, bright dot in the sky and the other of the six crew—Chris Hadfield recently chatted with William Shatner and sang with Barenaked Ladies from the ISS (see the end of this post)—looking out at the Earth’s surface, clouds swirling over the California coast. Our vantage deceives us, in that we forget or cannot fully imagine other perspectives.

That other perspective—the one from Earth’s orbit—is important. On Monday, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, or Landsat 8, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base. NASA’s Landsat program began in 1972, with a satellite that circled the globe for almost six years. Landsat’s satellites continue to provide data about the Earth’s surface to scientists and many others. The information from Landsat helps aircraft avoid bird strikes and helps wine growers and farmers manage their crops for maximum yield and deliciousness.

Twin Cities, MN (NASA)

The images and data from Landsat are available to anyone who wants to use it. That’s right, we fund NASA collectively through the federal budget, so the information from these satellites belongs to all of us. As the website for Education and Public Outreach puts it, “Our goal is to enable you to access and use the entire Landsat Program’s data, imagery, and associated science content for your own purposes.”

One of the most recent discoveries by Landsat 7—a satellite launched in 1999, the immediate predecessor for the new Landsat 8 launched on Monday—is of Antarctic penguins. Sure, scientists knew there were penguins in the Antarctic. And no, Landsat 7 doesn’t have resolution good enough for scientists to see and count actual penguins on the Earth’s surface. But researchers at the British Antarctic Survey used Landsat images to measure the extent of penguin poop that stained ice brown when the creatures gathered during mating season. Decades-old research was finally updated in 2009, with researchers locating ten new colonies of emperor penguins and determining that six previously existing colonies had moved.

In other words, we have penguins running around right here on Earth, but we couldn’t really see them until we looked at them from space. As the song goes, Everybody’s looking for something. British researchers are looking for penguins, European Union leaders are looking for the wine-growing potential of each member nation, and leaders here in the western United States want to see where all our water is going. To see these things, we need the perspective that we can only get from stepping away and looking down from space.

Consider the images from the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968: the first time we really saw the whole Earth, and the Earthrise photograph in which our planet peeks above the lunar surface, instead of the other way around.

Perspective comes from the Latin: to clearly perceive, to look closely. Oddly, space exploration has taught us that, sometimes, we perceive most clearly and look most closely when we gain some distance.

NASA Day of Remembrance February 1, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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See our 2012 post for NASA’s Day of Remembrance (including links to related Lofty Ambitions posts) HERE and our 2011 post HERE.

STS-107 Crew

Today is the anniversary of the Columbia accident in which seven astronauts perished when the space shuttle ripped apart during reentry. The cause of the accident was a piece of foam insulation that had come loose from the external fuel tank as the shuttle accelerated during launch. That debris gouged a hole in the thermal tiles of the leading edge of a wing. NASA did not ask the Department of Defense for in-space images of the damage. Unprotected in one small spot, the shuttle’s skin was breached by extreme heat as it descended into the atmosphere on February 1, 2003. A prior flight in 1988 had involved similar damage, and its commander, Hoot Gibson, had expressed grave concerns about catastrophic failure during reentry.

STS-51L Crew

A few days ago, the nation commemorated the Challenger accident, which occurred on January 28, 1986. The crew of seven perished during launch, just seventy-three seconds into the flight. The cause of that accident was an O-ring failure in a joint of a solid rocket booster. The rubber ring failed to seal the joint during liftoff because the overnight ambient temperature had been too cold, below the manufacturer’s recommended minimum launch temperature. Engineers like Roger Boisjoly had expressed grave concerns in the day before launch.

Apollo 1 Crew

Less than twenty years before that, on January 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 died during a test on the ground. A fire broke out and swept swiftly—in less than twenty seconds—through the sealed, pure-oxygen-infused capsule. The capsule burst, and flames spread. It took several minutes to reach the three astronauts, far too late to save them. An exact cause was never determined, though the fire started with an electrical arc in the lower part of the capsule. A later investigation indicated that, in addition to possible sources in the capsule’s equipment, an electrical arc could have been created by friction when the astronauts adjusted their positions. Experiments also determined that the seemingly miraculous Velcro that the astronauts had used by the yard to affix items to the module walls burned like holiday wrapping paper, hot and fast in the oxygen. Earlier warnings about the dangers of using a pure-oxygen environment had gone unheeded.

What seems most disheartening to us about these three accidents is that specific concerns had been raised before each catastrophe. Hindsight may be 20/20, but foresight was in no way blind to the risks—to the specific risks that caused these fatal accidents in manned spaceflight.

What seems most horrific about these three accidents is that the astronauts died quickly but not instantly. Challenger pilot Michael Smith uttered, “Uh-oh.” A couple of minutes later, the crew cabin of Challenger plunged into the ocean intact, with three of the crew having activated their emergency air packs. Because cabin pressure was lost early in the break-up, none were likely to have been conscious when they hit the water. Likewise, the crew of Columbia likely lost consciousness quickly—“within seconds,” according to NASA’s report—when the orbiter broke apart. Lethal trauma occurred when the astronauts, their lower bodies strapped into their seats, were subjected to what NASA calls “cyclical rotation motion.” The crew of Apollo 1 reported the fire, and one astronaut tried to open the hatch. The final plea from the crew of Apollo 1: “Get us out!

Today at Lofty Ambitions, we honor the three lost crews of the U.S. manned space program.

APOLLO 1: Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee

CHALLENGER, STS-51L: Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnick, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, and teacher Christa McAuliffe

COLUMBIA, STS-107: Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Mike Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla, Dave Brown, Laurel Clark

In 2003, astronaut Rick Hauck pointed out that space exploration is dangerous; 18 of the 430 people who had gone to space by that time had died. The shuttle had had two fatal accidents, as had the Soyuz capsule. While some of these spacefarers flew multiple missions, more than four percent had died on the job. The risk of death for astronauts cannot be eliminated.

Out of each of these accidents, however, came changes to equipment, astronaut training, and NASA processes. Time was taken to understand the flaws in the system, whether they lay in an O-ring or the ways in which engineers’ concerns were overridden by managers. Sending human beings beyond Earth’s atmosphere is a fraught and mighty accomplishment. In Of a Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer—the 90th anniversary of his birth was yesterday—wrote, “[I]t was that he hardly knew whether the Space Program was the noblest expression of the Twentieth Century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity.”

As the British poet Robert Browning wrote in 1855, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?”


NASA Airborne Science Program: Flight Suit (Part 3 / #NASASocial) January 30, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
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Check out more on our experience with the NASA Airborne Science Program in Part 1 and in our PHOTOS post. And don’t miss our most recent post, part of The Next Big Thing blog hop that’s going around.

The ER-2, NASA's very high-flying version of the Air Force's U-2.

The ER-2, NASA’s very high-flying version of the Air Force’s U-2.

Today, we focus on the pilot flight suit worn by those who fly high-altitude aircraft like the venerable ER-2. The ER-2 is the civilian version of the military’s U-2 spy plane, a sixty-year-old aircraft design that has a reputation for being a handful to fly. NASA, of course, doesn’t spy. Instead, the ER-2 flies at the edge of space, roughly 70,000 feet above the Earth, to, according to NASA’s website, “scan shorelines, measure water levels, help fight forest fires, profile the atmosphere, assess flood damage, and sample the stratosphere.” But just because it’s being used for science doesn’t make the ER-2 any easier to fly. Last year while visiting Dryden, Doug heard test pilot Nils Larson say of the aircraft, “If you’re having a bad day and the U-2’s having a bad day, it can be a BAD DAY.”

ER-2 Cockpit

At that altitude and with a partially pressurized cockpit, the pilot needs to wear a suit that is, according to NASA’s Josh Graham, 80% the same as the orange launch-and-reentry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts. The differences between these flight suits and spacesuits lie mainly in the neck area and oxygen system. If the ER-2 pilot didn’t have such a suit, the lack of pressure at 65,000 feet would cause his blood to boil. Looking at the flight suit he brought for demonstration, Graham said, “This is somebody’s father. They need to come home.”

Each pilot is issued two of these suits, at a cost of $300,000 apiece, along with one helmet, which adds another $100,000 to the price of the outfit. The suit itself weighs thirty-five pounds and comes in thirteen standard sizes, though Graham pointed to a pilot standing behind us and said that he gets a special suit because he’s especially tall.

NASA's Josh Graham showed us the high-altitude flight suit that pilots wear, and we're planning a whole post about this topic.

NASA’s Josh Graham showed us the high-altitude flight suit that pilots wear, and we’re planning a whole post about this topic.

All the current suits—NASA’s flight suits and spacesuits—are handmade by the David Clark Company in Massachusetts. Each suit takes six to eight months to complete. The suit works in layers. The layer we see is yellow, but Graham unhitched the helmet and peeled back the outer layer so that we could view the layer of mesh, hand-woven hundred-pound fishing line. These outfits are designed to hold up with a tear as long as three inches or with a quarter-sized hole.

The David Clark Company also made the Gemini spacesuits, which were used for extravehicular activity in which, according to Michael Collins in Carrying the Fire, “oxygen came from the spacecraft via an umbilical, and then went through a chest pack.” Apollo spacesuits were made by the International Latex Corporation, or ILC, and had an “oxygen supply from a back pack.” Of ILC’s work, which applies to David Clark’s work as well, the book Spacesuit says the following: “similar to sewing a bra or girdle,” “unprecedented precision,” “highly regulated,” “elaborate process,” and “the delicate art of their collective synthesis.”

Michael Collins

Collins played a crucial role with the Apollo suits: “My job was to monitor the development of all this equipment, to make sure that it was coming along all right, that it was going to be safe and practical to use, and that it would please the other guys in the astronaut office.” Though NASA’s ER-2 flight suits are already well developed, Joshua Graham does this sort of overseeing for aircraft operations, making sure each suit is ready to go.

One of the facets of NASA’s social media program that we enjoy is the opportunity to rub shoulders with other aviation and space nerds. While visiting the Space Coast to participate in a Tweetup and watch the GRAIL twins launch in 2011, Doug met the granddaughter of a woman who had worked as part of the team that assembled the Apollo spacesuits.

Graham&SuitAs we were examining the flight suit up close last week, Graham pointed out the small whiffle ball attached to a tether on the front of the get-up. When the flight suit initially inflates, it poofs up. This raises the helmet so that the pilot can’t see. He feels around the front of his suit to find the plastic ball, which he pulls down. This simple action readjusts the neck of the suit and helmet, and he’s ready to zoom.

Some of the flights are long, and no one wants a hungry, woozy pilot. But the pilot can’t take off his helmet to grab a bite to eat. Instead, his helmet has a feeding hole, and food—the sample we saw was caffeinated chocolate pudding (which sounds very useful)—is packed in tubes with stiff straws attached. The pilot can jab the straw into the hole in his helmet and suck the snack down.

Other human needs are also likely to occur on long flights, so the suit is also designed with a device like a condom connected to a tube, which the pilot wears so that he can relieve himself at any time. Graham didn’t discuss what the women pilots do, and earlier in the day, a NASA representative indicated that NASA currently had no women test pilots. What we didn’t know was that pilots must carefully control what Graham referred to as “number two.” If a pilot feels the need to defecate during a mission, he must declare an inflight emergency and return home as fast as he safely can. NASA doesn’t want to encourage a poop that costs $300,000.

FlightSuitSpursToward the end of our time in this section of the tour of the hangar at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF, or day off), Doug asked Graham about the clunky spurs on the back of the suit’s boots. Graham responded that this aircraft is the only one that still uses hooks and cables in its ejection seat. The spurs hook to cables to pull his feet to the seat and keep his limbs from flailing during ejection. Then, at 14,000-16,000 feet, the pilot can cut the cable and parachute down safely.

The planes are cool. The ER-2 is fascinating because it flies incredibly high. The science is important. The ER-2 and its predecessor have been collecting data since the early 1970s, sampling the stratosphere and mapping large forest fires. Last week’s flight suit demonstration reminded us that the people are crucial to NASA’s Airborne Science Program.


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