WhizzospaceBlog - 2004

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"At times reaching for the stars means you need the will of a nation, at times you need a large rocket, and sometimes you just need open eyes."


31 Dec 2004 "The Cosmic Year"

Appears to me I'm leaving this calendar year with a bit of extra optimism on board. We rolled into '04 with a sort-of-expected political jolt for NASA, and a promise for the U.S. to reach back to the Moon and on to Mars. As the months went along, it was clear a whole lot more money and support had to appear out of the U.S. Congress. As a card-carrying space enthusiast, I'm obliged to see this as a slow start, rather than a failed attempt. As a middle-aged average guy taxpayer, I've got to put the grown-up filter over the rose-colored shades, and figure we might not get there on the current 20 year timeline. Yet, significantly, we witnessed the Commercial Space Age begin this past summer. A wealthy British businessman put up the money for a no-kidding passenger spaceliner to fly a few years from now. A sub-orbital lob is of course somewhat insignificant compared to a trip to the Moon, but a achieving the dream of any kind of spaceflight is enough to put the wonders of the heavens back into my cynical brain.

Even as the echo of Apollo 8's Christmas message leaves my head, the remembrances of this country's space disasters are sitting a few calendar blocks away. Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia all rank as the grimmest times I can recall in their respective decades. Despite 20 years in an aerospace service where I've seen folks not make it home from a mission, and to know rocket travel adds an even rougher dimension to flying, I can't help but feel miserable over how many lives were affected, and those families, engineers, and leaders who still carry the burden and the grief.

But, tonight is about fanning that little crackle of hope, of thinking about another trip around our Sun, and for welcoming what is new and potentially better than before. Yeah, I'm a stinkin' optimist - I hope you can be one too - at least for one night?

-- JW


24 Dec 2004 "My Cosmic Awakening - Recalling the First Lunar Christmas"

As much of the world celebrates spiritual and cultural custom, and we're receiving very rare snowflakes here in south Texas, I'm remembering when I first awoke to the grandness of the Cosmos. Christmas of 1968 is a rich, lasting, and probably touching memory for much of humanity that had a radio or television. The first people ever to leave to Earth for another world were sharing their observations of an alien planet, and most significantly were sharing it on a global scale. As a six year old child, playing with my favorite toy (Major Matt Mason - Mattel's Man in Space) around the family Christmas tree, I knew astronauts were fun, and had a lot of cool toys. But my parents were focused on the TV news, and we kept seeing a bunch of flickering black and white images on a 1950s vintage General Electric screen. I suppose I was full of the babble and noisemaking that any Christmas-enthused kid makes, but I seem to recall my father asking me to be quiet and listen to the astronauts on TV, because they we about to speak from the Moon! I don't recall hearing the Apollo 8 crew reading from the Book of Genesis - a portion of holy writing common to Christians, Jews, and Muslims - but I remember feeling funny, as if something significant was taking place. Something on TV was captivating everyone in our modest middle class living room. It was the living history of the first time men left the cradle; it was the United States about to the win in the Moon Race, and it was a moment that briefly brought together a troubled country, and perhaps a troubled world. Some feeling, some trickle of brightness, came into my head on December 24th, 1968. I understood that men had flown to the Moon. I knew I couldn't look up and see them, but I knew somehow they made the journey, and that my family could see them on TV. And I now knew that there was a way off the Earth.

When I watch the video of this remarkable flight, or see it dramatized in "From the Earth to the Moon," I know the memories I carry aren't literal ones. I don't have the actual emotional recall from 36 years ago. I now feel awe, pride, wonder, envy when witnessing this mission - but these are the mature feelings of a grown space nut, and not a child who witnessed the history firsthand. Despite this, I'm not upset, wishing I'd been 10 years older and really able to appreciate it real time. Well, not often anyway.

It is a child's naive view that hopes a stirring word from the cosmos can somehow help a troubled Earth. This crazy hope is something I reckon I will always carry, and perhaps help spark in others. I don't really remember all the thoughts and feelings that my six year old self felt when watching Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders fly around the Moon on Christmas. However, I look forward to popping in a video disk, and finding a few more of them tonight.

Merry Christmas from Whizzospace.

-- JW


15 Dec 2004 "Book Review"

Two Sides of the Moon, by David Scott and Alexei Leonov, ISBN 0-312-30865-5

When was the last time you read one of the great stories of modern exploration? Heard lately about those lesser known mishaps and near-misses in the Cold War Moon Race? And how often have you sat down and had a good intimate chat with a moonwalker, and Russia's almost moonwalker? Here are some insights from both sides of the greatest last century endeavor, by two of the more experienced participants. Ghost writer Christine Toomey captures a chatty first person perspective, despite having half the book come partly through Russian translators. It's tough to accept that many Apollo generation astronauts took 30 years to write their stories. We have incredible online NASA archives, mission debriefs, and other fact-based stories, but only in the early part of this century are the Moon Men telling the "touchie-feelie" side of their experiences. I don't mean that flippantly, but some spacemen really have a knack for putting plain ol' non-test pilot humanity in their stories, and I feel like we had to wait too long for books like this. Bottom Line Up Front: I enjoyed this book immensely, and rank it as my Best Space Read for 2004.

Biographers always have it tough as they attempt to illuminate a notable person without embellishing or losing too many historical facts in the process. Seems the best way to upset a space history enthusiast, and ruin his/her reading experience, is to miss a single technical aspect of spaceflight. Not only is a space history audience among the most knowledgeable of fans, they often provide background material to authors and biographers. The book weaves the stories of Alexei and Dave together with a simple parallel timeline, moving from year-to-year between each man's careers. It offers insight into the Moon Race from participants who really had little current knowledge about what their counterparts were planning. We share his grief in holding what is left of Yuri Gagarin in a bowl. Also, we hear some pointed jabs at the then Soviet bureaucracy, which Leonov blames for his having missed being the first cosmonaut to the Moon. Notably, we learn about all the times astronauts and cosmonauts met over a vodka or a beer, long before they lived together in Star City, Russia. Leonov especially seems like the favorite uncle who you can't wait to visit again: his humorous, folksy style comes through regardless of any subtleties in the language translation, or number of vodka shots.

The juicy bits in this book are many: first person accounts of being in the right seat of Gemini 8, in the middle of the hair-raising in-flight mission abort; the "Siberian campout" which followed the overshoot return of Voshkod 2 from the historic first spacewalk; and getting to know legendary Chief Designer Sergei Korolev through the eyes of one of his favorite cosmonauts - and the sobering details of his unexpected death. Scott mentions repeatedly how he didn't bring the metaphorical artist tools with him during his flights, while Leonov always brought his sketch pad and crayons! Plus, for many readers, not widely-shared stories of the first joint Apollo-Soyuz mission, and what happened after these over-achieving men left their respective space programs, are even more insightful. It's still hard for me to imagine Alexei as a banker, and not a chief cosmonaut. And Dave Scott gives us his side of the Apollo 15 "Scandal," in which NASA made a bit too big a deal over some flown first day covers. He even talks about temporary Hollywood Royalty status while working on Tom Hanks' HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" in the late 1990s.

I've always admired both these men. The popular portrayal of Scott as a modern adventurer, who lead the first long range lunar expedition, is well known from the HBO series. Leonov became a brief star in the U.S. in the mid-1970s during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, but was always a celebrity in his native Russia. I'm very glad these modern heroes coo borated on this project, because it puts their stars back on the map in a very enjoyable book.

 --JW


4 Oct 2004 "A Great Space History Day"

Almost unbelieveably, we lived a great day in space history today. In the bold blue sky over the U.S. southwestern desert, a private citizen astronaut and his innovative designers, engineers and finaciers won the X-Prize for pioneering civilian spaceflight. Less than a half century ago on this same day, a small rocket carrying the first artifical Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, left the steppes of then Soviet Asia for orbit. And very sadly, one of the most colorful pioneering members of the U.S. space program, Mercury & Gemini astronaut L. Gordon "Gordo" Cooper died in California at the age of 77. The poetic cliche' of one era ending as another began was hanging out there in the hot, dry air over Mojave Spaceport. I felt like I was going to bust a gut from all the supercharged emotion of seeing a manned rocket take a single man into space, only then to hear the man who flew the longest U.S. flight in a one man spaceship was now gone. it was almost too much to fit into a single 24 hours.

Of course, it was no coincidence the Burt Rutan Scaled Composites team , under the Paul Allen-financed SpaceShipOne program, chose this day to begin the new age of commercial spaceflight. What better way than to celebrate the dawn of the space age than with this tradition-shattering flight? As a child of the mid-20th century, raised during the excitement of the Space Race era, I expected to be vactioning on the Moon by 2004! Instead, folks are yawning over a small space station, and a difficult NASA return-to-flight effort. The three decades we've been watching robots have all the fun in the solar system have been great ones, sure. But here's a breakthrough: we're finally going to see the day when more than just an ultra-wealthy ticketed passenger will see the world from space. Yeah, I've probably missed my shot at vacations on the Moon - too far in the future - but just maybe riding a rocket away from this world isn't completely out of reach. This is the pioneering effort of a few smart visionaries, some well-financed business people, and some serious dreamers. This time it didn't take a huge government organization and the will of a nation to leave Earth. This is truly the stuff of dreams; but it is a flying, reusuable reality. Here is a white rocket burning laughing gas oxidizer out a big ol' tailpipe, dropping from the sky like a shuttlecock, and landing at a little airport. And maybe you and I may get to strap in the stretched version of this machine and find out just what it feels like.

Gordo: we'll miss you. You were a skilled pilot, a brilliant engineer, a man who told his story many times to millions of folks in books, films, and public speeches. This kid from Oklahoma took some natural smarts, military training in the Marine Corps, Army and Air Force, and a good dose of machismo - and twice commanded missions into space -- back when it was really tough to do! His was the longest Mercury flight: a day-and-a-half in the tiny can; and he led the first U.S. long duration mission: the "Eight Days or Bust" Gemini V flight, along with his pilot Charles "Pete" Conrad. He was central figure in Tom Wolfe's classic "The Right Stuff," portrayed with proper "Hot Dog" gusto by actor Dennis Quaid. He raced cars, sailed, dived, and often did a really low altitude buzz over the airfileld in his jet. He almost had a shot at flying to the Moon, but NASA historians say it just wasn't in the cards. The original Mercury Seven are now only three. Whether you believe in a life after this one or not, join me in wishing Gordo fair winds in the world beyond.


8 Aug 2004 "Tales from the Museum: The First Woman on Mars"

I think I met someone who will be the first woman on Mars. I'm pretty sure it was her. Right now she's about 8 years old, has red hair and freckles, and is being home-schooled in Virginia. But in 25 years, she could be crewing one of NASA's pleasant surprise missions across interplanetary space. At least I sure hope so.

Her name was Grace - her mother called her "Gracie" - and she was one of the brightest, most inspired students who I had the priviledge to guide through the Virginia Air and Space Center. She knew about the moon missions, she was even excited by the robot probes, and she was ecstatic when I helped boost her up to the the video cam which projects one's face into a spacesuit visor. She saw herself there: in orbit, in freefall, guiding a spaceship across the long stretches of the solar system. She understood that her excellent grades in math and science were the key to her continued success - and she knew a good university was in her future. Here was a child who was already charting a course, along with a very supportive parent of course, that would allow her to fullfill her dream. And who can escape the delightful but trivial signficance of a redhead being the first on the Red Planet? Alternately, perhaps I'm merely a selfish space geek who sees what I want to see - a kid who's ready to take on the universe, just like I was 35 years ago. I only got as far as serving in an aerospace organization, rather than crewing a vehicle out of orbit, so maybe I just want someone to carry the banner farther. Or, perhaps the mysteries of the cosmos really are putting sparkles into the young eyes of a little girl from southern Virginia?

In the U.S., many of us recognize how fortunate we are - we are a generally well-off culture, and we have much to be thankful for when it comes to opportunity. But it takes that extra push, that bit of inner spark, to grab those chances. I've been astounded while giving talks in both public and private schools - when children display a surprisng level of scientific sophistication and cosmic understanding that don't necessarily match their age or grade. For all the difficulties faced by an education system and a community of educators who simply don't get the money they need, there are still some pockets of excellence. I really hope that Gracie will show up in the new astronaut candidate class of 2017.

-- JW


24 July 2004 "Waiting for Mars"

This week NASA's requested budget increase didn't happen. The U.S. Congress has to pay for a whole country, and they just couldn't see spending more on space with so many other pressing national and international needs out there. The January 2004 "Return-to-the-Moon and On-to-Mars" initiative looks a bit farther away. As a taxpayer and a person with a little business experience, I understand fiscal realities. As a space geek, I am angry at the short-sighted and constantly infighting political morass that makes up the legislature. I expect many of them are thinking the Mars Rovers are doing great, so why do we need expensive and hard to handle astronauts? We can look at tons of digital imagery, sniff around with amazingly sophisticated sensors, and not risk anything but getting a few million dollars stuck in the sand. But suppose I still want to put human eyes on the planet?

So what am I going to do about it? Well, actually I'm just waiting to explore Mars early in 2005. The popularity of the Red Planet went off the charts in summer 2003, as the headlines announced the closest approach to Earth in human history. People lined up at star parties, observatories, and public outreach sessions for a peek at our brilliant and mysterious planetary neighbor. Now of course, the Rover's popularity is waning a bit, and we'll settle into a Mars slumber until NASA gets something else launched and successfully landed. Or not. How does a personal tour of Mars sound? We're in luck because thanks to it's two-Earth-Year-long orbit, Mars is back in primetime for astronomers in the summer and fall months next year. By Halloween, Mars will be nearly as large in Earth-based telescopes as it was in summer 2003. Digitial and film imagers will be back out in the thousands capturing the changing appearance of the surface of another planet. Sure, the hubub of the superlative apparition won't be there, but the bright pumpkin-colored dot will be shining much higher in the northern hemisphere skies than in 2003. He'll be some 30 degrees higher for many locations, thus better placed for clearer views - which will help compensate for the slightly smaller apparent size. Check out the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO) write-up on this great upcoming opportunity. http://www.lpl.arizona.edu/~rhill/alpo/marstuff/Mars_2005-6.htm

-- JW


21 June 2004 "Private Citizen Astronaut: The Door is Open"

Can you believe your eyes? Did it really happen? Yes, today we witnessed space history on a scale not seen in 40 years. Hoorah for the Scaled Composites Team on their successful spaceflight with Space Ship One! For the first time, a privately funded (non-government sponsored) rocket plane has crossed into space, making Michael Melvill the first private citizen pilot astronaut! The daring Burt Rutan design, carried aloft by the White Knight mothership, came back to Earth on the same runway it had left only an hour and a half or so earlier. This brief trip into space harkens back to the first days of manned spaceflight, when a quick trip - on a path shaped like a ballistic arc - was a sensation. Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom made somewhat similar Mercury suborbital lfights in 1961, and during the mid-1960s the NASA X-15 rocket plane was also making trips to the edge of space. But all of these efforts required the huge shoulders of NASA and deep pockets of the U.S. taxpayer to make them fly. While the Scaled Composites team had the deep pockets of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, compared to NASA's spending, the U.S. $20 million budget seems a pretty good bargain. Now the team will shoot for the Ansari X-Prize, a $10 million "reward" for the first private spacecraft which can take 3 people above 100km altitude twice in a two week period. While this historic flight is just a small step - it means the door is open. A group of innovators has shown that private enterprise can do something which always seemed impossibly complex and out of reach. Perhaps the days when average space geeks can buy a ticket out of the atmosphere are not too far away. The dreams just nudged a bit closer to reality. --JW


12-18 June 2004 "We Didn't Go to the Moon? Really?"

According to a poll taken by Fox Television, a notable percentage of Americans reportedly think the Apollo moon landings were a giant hoax - a huge ruse played on millions more than 30 years ago. Some Web sites claim to provide serious evidence that the all manned trips to the Moon were staged by NASA with the help of Hollywood filmmakers. These hoax defenders spend a great deal of time pointing out aberrations of lighting and shadows, and how radiation would have killed anyone flying in cislunar space. But, they overlook some pretty obvious big picture concepts, which make misunderstood light propagation on an airless Moon seem downright minor in comparison. Here are my thoughts on why the hoaxer's claims are particularly weak:

1. Why we did it: The Apollo trips to the Moon were about politics, not exploration. The United States was in a direct competition, popularly called "The Moon Race," with the former Soviet Union (USSR). Both nation-states were trying to successfully place human beings on another world. In the Cold War era, Russia was an adversary who wanted to win this race, or at least wanted the U.S. to lose. After the Iron Curtain fell, Soviet records showed the Moon Race did really exist. If the U.S. had to fool anyone, it was this other country, which also had a major manned space program, and the technologies which supported such a huge effort. Think of the intelligence apparatus and other "spying" capabilities: Russia had signal intercept antennas and large radars which could detect objects in Earth and lunar orbit. If no American spaceships were actually in space, Russia would have let the rest of the world know. Imagine the huge political and propaganda success. A hoaxer might counter Russia was "in" on the hoax! Why? Our governments were basically sworn enemies, who would have loved to make one other look bad in front of the world. That the Russians didn't "catch" the U.S. in this supposed ruse is reason enough to dismiss most of the hoax nonsense.

2. Why keep going? There were nine manned Apollo missions (8, 10, 11-17 inclusive) which flew to the Moon. Three of these, 8, 10, and 13, didn't land - and 13 was a near disaster. If you are really trying to fool the world on this massive a scale, why risk exposing yourself so many times? Why not just stop at one landing, claim victory, and call it quits before you get caught? Why run a scam for 10 years, if just a couple years would have done the job?

3. Can you keep a secret? Some conspirists claim NASA swore everyone in the space program to secrecy. Or perhaps "The government" just coerced those at higher executive levels. Really? Could anyone be powerful enough or threatening enough to swear several hundred people to secrecy? Can any rational person believe that nearly half a million people who worked on the Moon program in some capacity would all keep quiet about a giant cover-up? Or, for those few space program members who claim to have come forward to expose this hoax, where are the hundreds or thousands who might corroborate their claims? Any popular psychologist will tell you this many people cannot keep quiet, if such a major hoax took place.

4. The videos and pictures: Hoaxer's books and Web pages claim to show a bunch of inconsistencies in photos brought back from the Moon. The lighting, shadows, sun angles are supposedly wrong, or they find unintended markings that indicate manufactured moonscapes. Further, hoaxers suggest visible relics that may actually be detected on the surface were sent by unmanned robotic spacecraft. Do you believe these self-professed photo analysts are familiar with the light scattering properties of jagged, unweathered rocks and dust in an airless environment? Are these experts well versed in shooting in a vacuum, with only unfiltered bright sun in the sky, using 40 year old cameras and film emulsions? Is it possible these supposed abberations are simple properties of photography on another planet, whose physical environment differs substantially from ours? Further, have you ever seen faked moonwalking in the movies? Do you spot it as fake? Did Hollywood of 1969-1972 have the digital tricks to pull this off? They can't do it convincingly in 2004.

5. Where did the rocks come from? There are over 800 pounds of rock and soil the astronauts brought back from another planet. The U.S. even gave some to other countries, including Russia, for their scientists to study. Why wouldn't geologists all over the world, including those not always friendly to the U.S., just blow the whistle on fake moon rocks? Why share any of the fake Moon material if you think the world's geologists would call the bluff?

These a just a few of the things I talk about when people ask me about the so-called Moon Hoax. I find the whole thing rather humorous, though perhaps a little bit dangerous. Many notable people who call education the key to enlightenment also value the joys of entertainment. We can be factual and open-minded, and still have some fun. But it's important to tell the whole story. Not everyone involved with the Moon program is still alive, or still has a great memory. Many no longer even talk about their contributions. Some contributors will tell you they dedicated themselves to a highly political national effort, with a huge cost in time, lives and dollars. In my mind it seems far too cynical that thousands of people would be so proud of a huge lie, when successfully meeting a long dreamed-of goal is so much more satisfying.

-- JW


Thursday, 29 April 2004 "Book Review"

Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard--America's First Spaceman, By Neal Thompson, ISBN: 0609610015

The author is going for something different here. This is not the completely accurate history of spaceflight's heroic era - rather it is a portrait of an exceptional man.

Being first is a classic American superlative. Our culture often expects the sort of intense human drive which places success ahead of every other motivation. After getting only the "superman" version of Shepard's story - such as provided by the original Life Magazine story - we finally hear the subtle inner voice of a young kid. This is mashed with sometimes profane, gritty details that took a wiry little guy from New Hampshire to the top of a Redstone and beyond. Alan Shepard had to play the extreme super-ego, machismo-reeking, zipper-suited sun god aviator--it's what test pilot astronauts were. Authors like Tom Wolfe already discussed the two faces called "Smilin' Al" and "Icy Commander," noting his quick shift from partiy hound to dead serious competitor. Thompson spends a bit more time on Shepard's tough upbringing, from his sometime iffy childhood health, to a reserve officer father who insisted his son address him as "Colonel." The author also spends a good deal of time on Shepard's formative years at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, as a lower classman trying to keep up with the bigger athletes, but also noting the exaggerated libido and "lady-killer" reputation started quite early.

In later life, Shepard faces the somewhat more normalized life of a successful businessman, though never escaping the celebrity of being the first U.S. astronaut to fly. Perhaps the greatest insight comes from his life-ending final health battle. How does anyone deal with his own mortality? Here is a warrior aviator who never fired a shot in battle, walked on another world, and probably figured himself nearly bulletproof - plus the sort of immortality only possible from being first.

What Thompson does is just what you'd hope, and brings in the small insights that help explain an otherwise over-the-top character. With any successful biography you can claim to have defined the subject as a person. I think Thompson does this very well, and that his book is well worth adding to your space reading list. The few technical or historic errors do not detract from a good read. -- JW


Monday, 29 March 2004 "Mysterious Telescope Guts"

In my astronomy section I talk about the Meade LX-90, which is a very nice piece of gear, and my favorite telescope. It is one of the often applauded yet also scorned "go-to" computerized telescopes. Many traditional visual observers feel a computer-guided scope is a cop-out; meaning you don't want to learn the sky, and navigate by manually moving from object to object or "star-hopping." Alternatively, Using the computer allows an observer to spend little time searching, and much more time actually looking at deep sky wonders.

With its complicated multiple lens and mirror optical system, and a small computer feeding it star coordinates, you might think the LX-90 is a complicated beast. Must have all sorts of gadgets and black boxes and strange cables leading into the bowels of the fork mount? When mine started having alignment troubles--it was unable to correctly find deep sky objects--I looked at every possible software-related solution first. I tried all the tricks posted by LX-90 users all over the Net. Turns out, it had a plain old jiggle in its right arm - causing "slop" in the declination (up-down) axis. With the help of several of the Net's top Meade telescope gurus, I got out my allen wrenches and grabbed the scope by the right fork arm. Seven screws later, the plastic slid away... and the dark mysteries inside the techo-scope came into view on my workbench. Suddenly I'm boggling at what looks like a big old round metal toothed gear! And another shiny metal threaded worm sitting right below it in a small metal trough. What? In the 21st century we have technologically sophisticated deep sky watching apparatus filled with Spacely's Space Sprockets and Coswell's Cosmic Cogs?! Yes, though the scope knows its position by digital encoders watching the gear teeth, its mechanical movements show the old-fashioned way generally gets your optics where they need to be.

As I carefully pried the cog from the bonds of its heavily lubed metal clutches, I was struck by how well made it appears - nice and smooth and even. A little degreasing, and it shined like precious metal. It fit precisely into the worm roller grooves, snuggly held by a simple threaded knob. The clutches hold together on two simple metal pins, and the whole thing wouldn't have been out of place in your friendly corner garage. The worm gear block seems big and chunky, the sort of American iron not uncommon in a stock car race. I go after the various adjustments with screwdrivers and wrenches, watching the drive mechanism click, and making sure the torque is just right. I'm no Tim the Toolman Taylor, but I did manage to put the darned thing back together with no major grinding, venting, gnashing, or loss of blood.

Reassembled, back out on the driveway and pointed toward the universe, those basic gears whirled the big optical tube across the sky. Give Meade a hand here - they have found out how to make a hi-tech scope affordable to many folks. Just keep it simple! -- JW


Wednesday, 24 March 2004 "Mars Needs Drivers"

Like most space geeks, I've been following the current missions of two marvelous robots: Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) "Spirit" and "Opportunity." But after two months of remarkable science, impressive images of rock layers, distant hills, "blueberry" hematite nodules, and even a partial solar eclispe by a Martian moon, I'm left thinking... WHO CARES?! I know, this is blantant mutiny from a space enthusiast. These doggone robots took weeks to stand up, shake their legs, stretch their solar wings, and then stood for a long look around, for another week! I know very well why we should take great care in exploring any new and unique place, particularly with a rare successfully-landed probe. Yes, and the almost certain mission success in determining water once flowed on the surface of another world in our solar system - it's great science! But, "ho-hum" has been my reaction for a couple of reasons.

A few weeks after the Mars Rover landings I watched NASA Administrator Dr. Shawn O'Keefe testify to a U.S. Congressional committee about how his agency would carry out the January 2004 Presidential Space Initiative. He went into detail about building the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) -- an new crewed spacecraft to take human beings back to the Moon, and on the Mars. And while our American government money-watchers congratulated him on NASA's Mars Rover successes, he stopped me cold when he said: "One human geologist could do in one day, what these rovers will do in their entire 90 day missions!" Yes, exactly. Our machines are technically brilliant, and still "dumb-as-a-box-of-red -Martian-rocks!" A single astronaut would have cracked the rocks, put his or her nose up against the visor, taken some close-up photos, bagged the sample, and reported initial findings to Earth in great detail--all before the rover got one steering knuckle unkinked.

The problem with these rovers is the driver is too far away from the vehicle. There is no astronaut with a joystick in his or her right hand, yanking and banking around craters and boulders, and leaving a rooster tail of red dust in his wake. There are no humorous remarks about driving style from a fellow Marswalker, or observations of the hurtling small moons overhead. We hear no verbal barrage of archane rock talk lingo from someone who waited a lifetime to practice this trade on a new world. No one there now on the red plains of Mars can pull off a fender fix using plastic maps and tape. (OK, I know the Mars Rovers have no fenders.)

The U.S. leadership has made the first move: they've outlined a plan, and asked the government for more money. Yes, a crew needs so much more than a robot--like food, air, water, and cosmic protection--and it costs way, way more. Brilliant robotic programs have been NASA's mainstay, and their most far-reaching successes for 30 years. However, if you'd like me to pay more attention to any Mars Rovers, just put an astronaut in the driver's seat. -- JW


Friday, 19 March 2004 "I First Saw a Moonwalker"

When you grow up with astronauts as heroes, you figure you might meet one someday, in some far reaching possible future... but when, and under what circumstances? Based on this Web site, you likely assume I've been a full-bore-hard-core space nut my whole life. But, there was a period of quite a few years where the needs of earning a living and exploring the Earthly realm were of greater importance than space geekery. Oddly, it was during this time when I was philosophically farthest from the Moon, that I first saw one of the nine living men who have walked on another world.

The experience took place at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where most United States Air Force personnel go through basic military training. I was a brand new officer trainee, sitting in a huge but run-down auditorium during a typical southern summer in 1985. The vast time gulf between the final Apollo flight in 1975, and the first Space Shuttle flight in 1981, left a large gap in my space appreciation. I hadn't been thinking of exploring the universe, as college, partying, women, and other "normal" interests trumped space travel. During the hot Texas August afternoon, my class and I were sitting in a hastily scheduled assembly, called because the officer training wing had a special guest speaker. When the buzz about our visitor reached me, the word was that some Brigadier General astronaut was going to address the crowd. Wow, a one star general - this was big visitor, surely- but who is this guy?

General Duke? An astronaut named General Duke? Hmmm. Well, he would have been lower ranking then, certainly. Hang on then... oh yes, Charlie Duke, eh? My rusty mental database started running an old list of astronauts, and a glimmer of recognition dawned... this guys was one of the earlier astronauts, and not a Space Shuttle era pilot. And then the adjutant shouted loudly, announcing the arrival of the distinguished visitors: "Ladies and Gentleman, the wing commander and General Duke!"

Then, the proverbial light came on: our class of some 300 wannabe aerospace leaders was about to be visited by a man who WALKED ON THE MOON! I whispered to my colleagues that this guy was on the next-to-the-last Moon landing (Apollo 16). Wow. Whispers ran around the auditorium, and there he was, striding into the room in his crisp blue uniform. As trainees, we viewed a senior officer was one of God's minions, but hey, this was also South Carolina's favorite son who's been on another planet. His manner was warm, informal, in the slow rolling, quiet manner of the U.S. southern gentleman. He started to talk about a career spent as CAPCOM during the hair-raising first lunar landing of Apollo 11, of chasing his Apollo 16 crewmate T.K. Mattingly's lost wedding ring out the hatch during the translunar spacewalk, and of course the recruitment pitch for staying in uniform. General Duke spent a delightful 30 minutes telling future Air Force officers just how far a young blue-suiter could go - all the way to another planet as it were! As it turns out, he was a relative of one of my classmates, and had come specificially to commission his cousin into the USAF officer corps. Pretty sweet to get one's insignia pinned-on by a Moonwalker.

General Duke retired from the Air Force in 1986, not long after this encounter. He went on to concentrate on his spiritual life, and published his autobiography in 1990. -- JW


Saturday, 13 March 2004 "Telescope Talk: Orion's Eyes"

I'm not a telescope salesman: I'm just a guy who likes looking at the great stuff out there in the heavens. But, here's what I can tell you about a really nice little instrument: the Orion ED 80 refractor.

Background: ED stands for "Extra-low Dispersion," meaning a special type of glass which focuses light better than the plain soda glass used in most small telescope lenses. The problem faced by everyone from famous first telescopic astronomer Galileo, to Joe Average in this century, is that colors focus at slightly different places when coming through a lens system. This means that violet, red, and green light hit the lens at slightly different places, making chromatic aberration or "false color" a problem in refractor (lens only, no mirrors) telescopes. This typically means you'll see a fuzzy violet-colored ring around really bright celestial objects like the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and brightest stars, like Sirius. Opticians and engineers have tried many different glass lens combinations to help get rid of false color, usually using two or three main lenses up front to refocus the different colors, and diminish the effect. This produced the achromat, meaning "almost no false color." ED glass is one of the most common modern solutions to the color problem, but more expensive than plainer optical glass, so a telescope using it costs quite a bit more money. Telescopes using ED or expensive glass like fluorite are called apochromats, meaning: "Now we're serious, this really has no false color." Honestly, false color doesn't bother everyone. I spent three years observing with an inexpensive 102mm Meade achromat, and my views of the Moon and planets were good quality and very enjoyable, despite the fuzzy purple halo. However, being a bit of a technophile, I always like to try new equipment, and I didn't mind the idea of an improved small telescope. But, when you had US $500 to spend on a telescope, and not US $1500, an ED model just wasn't much of an option, until recently.

The Synta Company of China introduced the ED 80 (80 mm or 3.1 inch diameter objective lens) refractor in 2003, and Orion Telescopes and Binoculars Company, California, U.S.A, is the major North American distributor of this model. In late 2003, Orion originally priced the telescope at US $429! This price was for the telescope tube itself, and not the fully equipped set-up with mount, tripod, finder scope, and star diagonal shown (photo, left). The idea was a true bargain apochromat (hereafter "apo"), that more amateur astronomers could afford. You could buy the higher quality optical tube, and use your existing mount and accessories. Well, this product caused a huge buzz in astronomy circles, and Orion and their dealers sold out in a hurry. The ED 80 was such a hit, the company had it on backorder for anywhere from a few weeks to two months. Plus, by January 2004, Orion raised the price to US $499 - based the old supply and demand from basic economic theory. But, even at that price, this is a really super deal! I received the scope from Orion in January 2004. It is mounted on a Meade LXD-500 German Equatorial Mount (GEM), and has been retrofitted with sturdy set of Al's Oak Legs.

I've had this scope for two months as of this writing, and have been out for six extended viewing sessions, so I have a pretty good basis for saying "This f/7.5 600mm focal length wonder lives up to its name!" Not a trace of false color on Jupiter, Saturn, or bright stars! Images are crisp, have excellent contrast, and focus to a fine sharpness in good seeing (a calm atmosphere without wiggling air, which makes for blurry images). I mainly use the scope at magnifications ranging from 48x to 125x, though it can take up to 150x without any noticeable image degradation. As for the views, they are incredibly bright and detailed -- Aimed at the Moon, this scope shows splendid craterlet detail on major crater floors, and very dark shadows crossing bright white mountain peaks. The King of Planets, Jupiter looks tack sharp, with the two prominent cloud belts visible, and some bubbly detail in the polar cap. I can easily observe the Great Red Spot, and its surrounding atmospheric hollow, and I can also see details such as large dark areas called barges, in the main cloud belts. Turning to the other great gas giant planet: Saturn is beautiful, with fine color distinction, and razor-edged transitions from the glorious rings to the planet. I can easily make out the dark groove of the Cassini Division in the ring plane, and at least one major copper-colored belt on the planet's disk. Heading outward to deeper space, the Great Orion Nebula is a treat, and the multiple star system at its heart, the Trapezium, is as neat and tight and angular as I can recall in a refractor! Nothing but splendid things to see in this scope. If it has a fault, it's merely the small objective size - which every amateur astronomer will tell you is the main tradeoff of a high quality refractor, you just don't get the light grasp of a bigger lens or mirror. As for portability, this scope is pretty light, at about 5.5 lbs/or 2 kg. I can pick up the whole setup and be observing in just a few minutes. I haven't yet attached my digital camera, but I'm certain the scope will produce beautiful prime-focus images.

This instrument is truth in advertising. The Orion ED 80 is a superb quality, well-built small scope, and is perfect for solar-system explorers who want a value-priced apo. You'll be pleased at what you see. -- JW


Wednesday, 10 March 2004 "Reflections on the Last Moon Mission"

I came to the realization on the 30th launch anniversary in December 2002, that Apollo 17 was the first mission which truly reached me. I was almost 11 years old, and recognition of the sheer immensity of a two-week lunar expedition was dawning. I remember the previous missions, but in small, ghostly snippets of mental images. No, 17 was the magic one: it had the bittersweet tail-end hype from the TV networks, the antics of two entertaining explorers, and I was finally old enough to appreciate much of it. A friend at school tipped me about the NASA pub "On the Moon With Apollo 17," an exhaustive mission guidebook, and we would spend hours quizzing one another on acronyms like "LEAM" (Lunar Ejecta and Meteorites Experiment), and trying to figure out how to cross our eyes to make the early generation stereo images look 3-D.

I had the Marx toys Johnny Apollo action figure (purchased at Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, giftshop in 1971), who despite his name, was kitted-out with Gemini gear. Some cardboard and foil engineering made him vaguely AL7B moonsuit-like, complete with pencil graphite moondust on his knees. Johnny Apollo roamed the living room carpet in an erector set-built Rover, shadowing Cernan and Schmitt at each sampling station the TV coverage would allow. I vividly recall Jack Scmitt yelling "HEY, there is ORANGE SOIL here!" The scientist in each of us must have felt that tremor. I even recall feeling a chill when we saw the red flag on the antenna of Lunar Seismic Profiling Experiment antenna just peering from over a rock via the LRV camera, and wondered if someone besides Gene and Jack had left a relic on the Moon!

Elsewhere, in the neighbors yard, our saved console TV carton provided a cardboard LM, complete with tin can & foil ALSEP packages. I even recall doing a CMP translunar EVA in the local swimming lake, crawling along the buoyed safety line in search of imaginary film canisters. As a child of the Apollo Age, it still seems unbelievable to me that since that 1972 voyage, I've spoken with Gene Cernan, and have a tiny relic from his spacecraft in my den. At the time, my schoolmates considered me quite "ate up" with this stuff. Disparaging remarks fell on my ears often.

And now, I have the privilege to share these recollections with those who have some of the same appreciation, sense of awe and wonder, and recollection of what a fine job a nation can do in sending men to another world. -- JW


Sunday, 7 March 2004 "Book Review"

Apollo: The Lost and Forgotten Missions, by David J. Shayler, ISBN 1-85233-575-0

As part of the already impressive Springer-Praxis Space Series, Shayler's work is right up there on the Apollo must have list. Here is the factual basis of the often-discussed possibilities of Apollo reaching true maturity. As in, after the last three "J" long range missions, why couldn't we have some "K" series flights? The bulk of the book addresses Extended Apollo and Apollo Applications Programs, with heavy emphasis on various CSM & LM laboratory mods. If there were a one-off configuration or wild Grumman idea that Mr. Shayler missed, I'd be very surprised. If anything, he offers an overly rich serving of orbital platforms and mission options, and a somewhat thinner extended lunar surface section.

Program objectives, mission timelines, and crew selections are detailed, with plenty of insight on how the changes and variations occurred. He offers some great notions about two-week and then month long lunar stays, where the LM crew lives in relative luxury, while the CSM Pilot deals with potential cabin fever. The MObile LAB, LM taxi/shelter variants, and wacky little pogo-stick lunar flying vehicles get honorable mention. I really can't shake the somewhat wacked image of the MO-LM - an ascent stage rolling on farm tractor wheels. My one little bit of disappointment is with the alternate EVAs for 18-20: there just ain't enough! Shayler is quick to point out planning for 20 had barely begun when the mission was canxed, so we have little basis for speculation. But the idea of strolling Tycho in search of additional Surveyor pieces made my brain imagery rapidly overrun Shayler's one page treatment! Speculative crew selections for the cancelled missions very closely parallels the discussions in the sci.space.history USENET newsgroups.

I reckon if you read the whole of Mark Wade's exemplary Apollo section in Encyclopedia Astronautica, and pulled up every Apollo speculative post from sci.space.history, you'd have a notable portion of David Shayler's work. What you wouldn't have is the enjoyable style, creative yet factually-tempered alternate history, and sincere desire for this unrealized lunar vision to have really happened, despite the political inopportunties that prevented it. A technical yet entertaining read, that left me wanting more. -- JW


Tuesday, 2 March 2004 "Tales from the Museum: Antenna Flakes & Scrapes"

The great thing about being a docent - a volunteer teaching guide - is getting to meet living history. While helping out at the Virginia Air and Space Center one afternoon, I chatted with a fellow who designed the antenna assembly on the Portable Life Support System (PLSS) or moonsuit backpack. He worked for Motorola, the subcontractor for the built-in radios the astronauts used to converse with Houston. The aging engineer described the antenna assembly as no more sophisticated than a metal ruler, but went on to talk in detail about the metallurgical headaches caused by non-contamination requirements. Apparently NASA needed a heck of a chemical background report - a "molecular footprint" - to make sure folks back on Earth could track the origins of anything which might show up in a rock box. I have this strange image of a small huddle of engineers worrying about "antenna flakes" falling into the Lunar Sample Return Containers?! Yeah, I know that's not the point, but we really had no idea what was on the Moon until we got there, and I suppose non-contamination is at least good manners.

The engineer's other radio antenna story was a complaint about at least three Apollo crewmembers on at least two landings (not recalled or identified) who unsnapped the PLSS antenna restraint while still in the LM, apparently scraping the cabin roof with the deployed aerial, and partially grounding out the signal. He claims his Motorola colleagues were having heart attacks worrying about a potential transmitter problem until they figured that out.

To quote sci.space.history's notable member John Beaderstadt: in his Beady's Corollary to Occam's Razor he observes "The likeliest explanation of any phenomenon is almost always the most boring one imaginable." -- JW


Sunday, 29 February 2004 "A Civil Servant was the First Man on the Moon"

Sometimes this makes a great trivia question. I wonder how many average folks recall this little factoid?

When it came to actually choosing who got to fly on Apollo, some folks suggest NASA and Department of Defense (who owns the military services) must have had some serious discussions, or even knock-down drag-out fights! Significantly, a U.S. government civilian commanded the Apollo 11 crew.  This NASA research pilot named Neil A. Armstrong, who had earned aviator wings as an active duty Navy officer, flew the first successful lunar landing, and of course gained unprecedented historic fame as the first man to walk on the Moon.  A less obvious footnote to history is that a NASA employee in the executive paygrade of General Schedule (GS) 16, Step 7, was the first man to step on another world.  For protocol purposes, a GS-16 actually ranked the same as a one star military officer (brigadier general or rear admiral-lower half).

Many editorialists and pundits at the time wondered if NASA deliberately avoided having an active duty military officer make the first steps on the Moon.  The first man to have that honor came mere minutes after Armstrong, as USAF Colonel Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin joined his commander on the lunar surface.  Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton, who recommended flight crew assignments to NASA management, firmly stated a host of factors determined his choices.  Piloting skills, crew compatibility, unexpected astronaut deaths in training, and "the luck of the draw" all played a factor in who would be on the first landing crew.  Slayton kept at least three equally capable crews available, and explained either Air Force Colonels Virgil "Gus" Grissom (had he not perished in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire) or Thomas Stafford, or Navy Captain Charles Conrad, could have easily been the first man on the Moon.  It is most likely these astronaut choices, a highly visible action back then, had no real political overtones despite considerable discussion on the street. --JW


Friday, 27 February 2004 "Tell Me a Telescope Story"

I didn’t know there was even a term for what happened on a warm Florida evening. But, it's called "Sidewalk Astronomy."

I didn't have a yard or garden when I lived in Florida, so I trotted my new four-inch refractor telescope out onto the front step. The slight breeze off the ship channel barely touched the stored warmth rising off the sidewalk. Tampa’s downtown skyline was a luminous column that swallowed Polaris (the North Star) in a coffee-colored murk. I swung the white tube toward the inviting celestial groupings rising in December’s eastern sky, and could just hear the strains of the Latino patio bands warming up their amps in the nearby restaurant district.

Over the buzz I heard the squeaky wobbling of rubber wheels, and a barely 20-something young man pushing a stroller rounded the corner. He looked at the scope, and he looked at me. I smiled. He was holding his infant daughter in his arms, while the stroller seat contained a twelve pack of Budweiser from the nearby Seven Eleven. His first line was the usual: "Whadya lookin at?" "Come and see" was my usual reply. He joined me on the concrete step just off the sidewalk, keeping the baby carefully secure in his arms. Of course, I went for the strong lead-off as he squinted down into the eyepiece. "Holy s***" was his first remark as the ringed gas giant came into focus. He continued in a rush of questions about the configuration, the composition, and the distance involved in this spectacle. I pointed out this planet’s bigger, brighter neighbor, and he settled for a moment on the "striped bass" of Jupiter with two of its big moons. "Can I look at the Little Dipper there?" he said as he pointed toward the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters Cluster). I mentioned the common resemblance to that other asterism, and showed him the tiny jeweled cluster. He was gushing at this point, though his baby daughter was about to fall asleep. With thanks, he wheeled on down the walk to enjoy a Saturday night beer.

As I headed for Orion, the rich scent of warm roast pork and yellow rice carried over the breeze, and I overheard someone mention having seen Andromeda while out in Arizona. Looks like a serendipity moment. Four 30-something women came up from the local Cuban café, and caught sight of the scope. "Wow, speaking of that…" said the group leader. I smiled offering that I had no galaxies tonight – just planets. Still, she dragged her posse over for a look. "Oh cool, you can see the rings and everything" noted her colleagues. One shorter blonde just wasn’t so sure about all this, deeming it too geeky for her hip urban image. Her friends convinced her to look. "I wish I had a chance to do this more often" pondered the leader. "Well," I replied, "you need to date more nerds." "I am a nerd" she said with a warm smile. The ladies walked toward the condo cluster to the north, with a promise to return someday. -- JW


Thursday, 26 February 2004 "What's with the whole Space Thing, anyway?"

I like to think of myself as a pretty sensible person, but I've always enjoyed a good tale or two. When astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in Februrary 1962, I was just a few weeks from birth. My parents were preparing to move into their first home, and my mother was sitting in a motel room in front of an old black and white television screen. CBS newsman Walter Cronkite was describing something none of our countrymen had ever done before, and apparently I was really restless inside the womb. My mother smilingly claims I could feel the excitement of a man sitting atop a rocket even before I entered this world. Possible? Perhaps. Researchers say a child in the womb can hear and sense. If nothing else, it was pretty funny when John Glenn returned to orbit a second time in 1998, and I called mom to ask if she remembered what we were doing last time he flew in space.  

But, is being a space geek something you're really born with? Does one come equipped with a desire to look at bugs and rocks, wonder if the stars really are distant suns, and choose heroes who never shot a three-pointer in the last 2 seconds of the game? My heroes didn't... they flew spaceships to the Moon. I was astounded when, while playing with a toy astronaut called Major Matt Mason (Mattel's Man in Space), my father remarked that three men were flying around the Moon that same Christmas Eve of 1968. It wasn't just powerful machines and distant destinations; it wasn't just the enthusiasm of the first generation raised entirely on television; it was people taking staggering risks to witness something no other members of our species had seen before. Even now when I hear a recording of those first messages from the Moon, it still fills me with awe, reverence, adventure, and desire.   My gut says it is something you're born with, and that it is somewhat rare... I mean, if there are around 5 billion people concerned with the goings-on here -- I'd reckon only a few hundred thousand are looking the other direction.   -- JW


"The Lighter Side of Going to the Moon"