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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."

11-13 Aug 2006: "Meeting Space Pioneers!"

It was a tremendous challenge finding words to properly summarize these three days. I'll remember the weekend of 11-13 August 2006 as one of the top 10 events in my life thus far. At an incredible event where celebrities from the aerospace and entertainment business gathered, my wife and I met space heroes I never imaged I'd see, let alone talk with! Sims and Hankow Enterprises, co-sponsored by Autograph Collector Magazine and collectSPACE, produced the 2006 Space Pioneers Autograph Show, and I had the privilege of attending. I've blogged the whole remarkable experience here: UACC 2006

12 Aug 2006 "Al Worden: Laughs from Lunar Orbit"

Meeting your astronaut heroes is always a remarkable experience, but it becomes even more so when they are witty, funny, and insightful - on top of just being famous space voyagers. Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden, (Col, USAF, Ret.) offered a really enjoyable Friday afternoon address to a crowd of space enthusiasts, and really stole the show. He gave a very personal, first hand account of flying to the Moon - giving us those feelings and insights that everyone always really wants to know. Perhaps the most common question these guys hear is: what was it like? Well, go out of your way if you get a chance to hear Al! He was quite animated, his comic timing was right on target, and he did what famous orator Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemmons always said to do: talk about what you know about! He started off discussing the Apollo 15 mission patch, which many find one of the most beautiful of the Apollo program. The most promising proposal came from noted Italian designer Emilio Pucci, who was also an aeronuatical engineer and pilot, and quite an artist. Al said the earlier efforts were great except for the crazy color scheme, adding that a simple change to US national colors did the trick.

Al spent most of his time sharing the impressions and sensations, describing how sleeping was easier than he expected, once he created a substitute for pillow pressure. And of course eating and "eliminating" are always among the top astronaut questions. He joked that saving bowel movemt samples for the doctors to examine was something the crew could do without - so during his deep space walk to retrieve film from the SIM bay, he tossed out the whole lot - creating the cislunar feature called "The Fecal Belt!" This bit got the biggest laugh, of course. While keeping an eye on impressions and feelings, he clever slipped in a few technical details, such as explaining why his crewmates' model A7L pressure suits had two sets of oxygen & power connectors on the front: they had to be hooked up to both the LM and PLSS backpack support at the same time while they suited up for moonwalks. Yet another of his funnier bits was describing how they employed the Command Module's airflow at mealtime. The circular fan-driven path allowed them to float a just-prepared meal component in the cabin, and by the time it made it back around the aerial circle, it was properly re-hyrdated and ready to eat - a sort of microgravity "lazy susan." It made a great image, three men munching and grabbing floating vittles. Al also accused his crewmates of raiding his personal coffee stash from the pantry, and joked that he was glad when they left for the lunar surface so he could have a little quiet and get some real work done! And no one can forget the story of a lunar wake-up call, in which he noted how big and close the lunar mountains seemed compared to when the crew went to sleep. Al knew something was wrong, based on an unexpected change in altitude! Houston casually mentioned the spacecraft had been affected by a unexpected lunar mass concentration, whose gravity tugged a little harder than forecast! Oh yeah, you need to up the orbit a tad!

Somehow everyone expects a Command Module Pilot to experience something profound or significant while alone in lunar orbit. True they become isolated from all of Humanity by the width of the Moon, for part of each orbit. But since Al ran the first complex Scientific Instrument Module sensor suite, and had to take many precise photographs, his flight plan was overflowing with work, keeping him fully engaged. Truly, it was a great privilege to hear all about flying to the Moon by someone who did just that. And he made the first ever deep space walk in the cislunar realm between the Earth and Moon, though he joked how he only had the one decent EVA picture of "my south end going north."

Colonel Worden's talk was a highlight of the convention, and a wonderful time with one of America's great space ambassadors.

-- JW

1 Jul 2006 "Other July Space Anniversaries"

It's hard not to get excited about space exploration in July, no matter the year. As I write this, I'm watching the STS-121 crew boarding their vehicle for the second Shuttle Return to Flight mission. I sure hope they launch today, as safely as possible of course. So many historic and amazing missions took place in this month over the decades. Many remember one particular July anniversary very well: us Apollo-era kids especially. But who recalls the day we really kicked off the modern Mars era? It was the same day 7 years after the first manned lunar landing the first truly successful robot made a soft landing on Mars. This is a quick recollection of that remarkable time.

While an active duty Air Force officer stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Hampton, Virginia, I had a really nice opportunity to attend the 2001 Viking 25th anniversary symposium, just "next door" at NASA Langley Research Center. It featured a standing room only house, and lots of nice photo large format imagery, plus a couple of Viking Mars lander artifacts (scoop claws). It was also my first time to actually be on NASA TV, in case anyone vaguely recalls an excessive number of us nerdy balding guys standing in the back.

The panel included the Viking project management, and the colorful and energetic mission science honcho (and current author/producer), Gentry Lee - easily the best speaker of the bunch. He spoke of the glory of the first successful touchdown, on that day when the press room crowd gave the mission team a standing ovation (that never happens today, eh?). He suggested the gaping hole in Mars activity from 1980-1996 was due to the time needed to process the sheer mass of data derived from the four Vikings (2 orbiters, 2 landers). For years prior to the amazing July 1997 Pathfinder/Sojourner missions, Viking images, data, and maps were the definitive picture of the Red Planet.

Of course the NASA Public Affairs Office made fine mileage of how efforts of a quarter century ago made the newest series of upcoming Mars missions possible, carefully emphasizing the global imager and mobile lander projects through around 2007. And what an amazing time we've had in the 21st Century - our Mars Exploration Rover missions are arguable the most successful ever launched, having outlived their "warranties" by a huge margin. Yep, July is a great month for space geeks.

Oh, yeah, and back in 2001, we got a nice tacky refrigerator magnet souvenir!

-- JW

28 Mar 2006 "The Science Fair"

I received one of the ineviatble mass emails at work, only to find it was something worthwhile. The schools were looking for volunteers to serve as judges for the regional science fair, sponsored by Exxon-Mobil. Every time I worry about the state of public education in the U.S., some brilliant young people show up with cool projects and renews a bit of faith - at least that's what I experienced. Judges came from all over Texas, representing academia, industry, and anyone with a decent grasp of applied and research science. I found myself in the company of many tens of folks, including a few from the military (especially the medical corps) who also found a Friday spent with bright young students more fun than going to work. These student competitors had already reached the state semi-finals, so we were seeing the top 10 percent of projects, in both junior (middle school) and senior (high school) divisions. Even as a reasonably versed space geek, I really didn't know what to expect at either level. Fortunately, the range of ideas, applications, the kid's explanations, and even the depth of background knowledge was notably high. I'll grant these are exceptionally talented winners, but if we've got these youngsters who wouldn't look out of place in a Master's Degree program, then the some of the regular kids may be doing alright too.

Here's the bottom line: the girls ruled! Observing and evaluating about 25 examples in both divisions, the young women had the best projects. Judging on mertits such as use of the scientific method, thoroughness, conclusions, and quaility of presentation, the top three I scored were all girls. I couldn't believe that a kid 16 years old was growing lima beans in a Martian environment chamber, or modeling radiation belts at the electron level, or even more amazingly a 13 year old generated Jupiter's atmosphere in a jar! Further, they were well-spoken, really seeming almost too well-poised for teenagers! And it wasn't just me, that was comparing notes among my fellow judges in the space sciences division. Am I surprised? No, I'm not. I grew up in an era where women researchers, engineers, avaitors, and astronauts were rarities. If someone had broken into these fields in the the 60s and 70s, they were likely overcoming much larger obstacles than in this century. I know I'm looking at a few data points, in a group of a few hundred kids, in one half of Texas. That stated, I'm very encouraged by what that represents: a future of space researchers and explorers - problem solvers that NASA and others can put to work on the current vision and future (hopefully) results. Like a young redhaired girl I wrote about a couple years back, I really hope to see these names again on NASA payroll, or even better working aboard a lunar colony.

-- JW

28 Feb 2006 "Movie Review: Magificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D"

I'm a middle-aged guy who just felt like a kid again. I sat in front of the big IMAX screen, with a small Tuesday night crowd, and was swept into a dreamlike time machine. Hell, I've been waiting for this film most of my life. Magnificent indeed, Mr Hanks. Wow. I just ate this up - it inspired me, put me in that trancelike moment when something just fills you with happiness and awe. I could perform a proper critical analysis of this film, but my appreciation just blows away any minor technical element or story sideline. Placing my eyes inside a Lunar Module on final approach to the surface, or inside Buzz Aldrin's helmet as he leaves the hatch... and stepping into the lunar Appenine Valley and soaring above Hadley Rille... Holy Crap that was wonderful. The marvels of modern digital creation can sure do a number on historic images I've seens tens of times. I recognized each Moonwalk clip, and marveled at how the filmmakers wove the pieces together - not seamlessly, because 1972 video can't make such a leap - but thematically. Putting the eye where it never could have been - in the LM cockpit, under the Rover's tires, soaring over the astronaut's heads - is the reward of digital creativity. Hanks uses this in each of his Apollo-related projects, and I'm buying it bigtime. Sure I'm only using two senses - I don't feel the discomfort or smell the odors - but I'm close enough to feel what we used to call thrills and chills.

The 3D technique is clever, but will always be plagued by the need for the filmaker to show off a bit of kinetic silliness. I have to throw moon gravel in your lap or you won't notice this is in 3D! But the undulating lunar surface, the astronauts actions, the great 3D still images use this otherwise gimmicky technique very well. The rapid, kid-friendly pace will capture more than a fair share of young astronauts. As a wrap-up, the film optimistically, and somewhat sappily, postulates a 7 year old schoolgirl as a future Lunar South Pole base commander. I'm all for it. I hope she makes it.

Run, don't walk to see this movie. I unabashedly loved this experience. In my opinion, it really delivers - I felt like I was there.


6 Feb 2006 "Miles & Miles +35"

On 6th Febuary 1971, golf became an interplanetary sport. That day then Navy Captain Alan B. Shepard, Jr., 5th Man on the Moon and Commander of Apollo 14, was the only man in history - thus far - to play golf on the Moon. Lunar golf was the foundation of this Web site. Really. Setting out in 1998 as a space geek and hypertext/html student, I figured I had better find a niche. Apollo fans are all over the Net, and by the late 1990s many had already developed superb sites, full of great graphics and stories about growing up watching men walk on the Moon. So, I reckoned I'd better try for something a little different. Playing golf on the Moon was one of the most unique, seemingly spontaneous, and genuinely funny things I could recall from all of Apollo. So, I dug up what NASA imagery I could, and starting writing up a few comments. And here we are, looking back at a singular event that both delighted and perturbed an international audience. Some used the phrase: "Why are we spending millions sending a man to the Moon to play golf?!" Others said "Hurry up and get me a Moonbase, because I'd like a tee time." I was in the latter category of course. And there's one last reason that year was notable: we all lost our this First American in Space, and only one of the Mercury Seven to walk on the Moon, to cancer at age 74.

Thirty-five years have passed since humankind took regular strolls on another planet, then paused at the end of a successful two day mission to take a few swings at a small white pellet with a makeshift club. I remember watching this event live, my father smiling and shaking his head at an astronaut trying what Dad also attempted regularly: to launch a small spherical projectile which simply sat there daring you to do so. Even then the moment struck me as funny, even though I didn't understand the golfer's lingo until years later.

Of course, his exclamation that his most successful shot travelled "miles & mile & miles" was mostly lunar golfer's bragging rights. And now one score and 15 years later, I hope Al is still enjoying the game, wherever his spirit may be.

-- JW

16 Jan 2006 Book Review "Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut" by Mike Mullane, Scribner Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7432-7682-5

What we have here is sort of like the a Shuttle era  "Carrying the Fire" augmented with a lot of politically incorrect honesty and cussing. Or, the Right Stuff with even more poop humor.  I enjoyed the heck of this book, because Mullane is just sitting down like he's telling stories over a beer.  He says all those things many of us thought about, laying it on the line about how he was dead sick of his NASA hierarchy, how tough it was at first to work with Judy Resnick because she was such a "hottie."  And how the Air Force didn't really look after its astronauts all that well, cmpared to their Navt counterparts.  Mullane was one of the very first non-pilot military astronauts to fly (he was a F-4 back-seater Weapons Systems Officer), and so has a somewhat different slant on things than his pilot and Phd classmates in the Thirty-Five New Guys (TFNG) Class of 1978.

I'm mostly an Apollo fan, but despite the Shuttle's problems, it is all the crewed spaceflight we have a for a while still. So, if a Shuttle era book is pretty good, I'll let you know. And, if some straight talk and scatological humor don't bother you, you'll probably like this one.

-- JW

14 Jan 2006 Book Review: "Apollo Moon Missions: The Unsung Heroes" by Billy Watkins, Praeger Publishing, ISBN 0-275-98702-7"

The title really says it all. I'm about 1/3 through this book, and find it to be pretty doggone superb. Mr Watkins truly has done what few if any journalists have ever done before, and given us all, especially we Apollo enthusiasts, a great new twist on the era. For example, he sits down and talks with some of the players you know had to be there in the huge 400,000 person team, but really didn't expect to hear from again. Here are a few of those people:

What's the story on the Navy frogman who decontaminated the Apollo 11 crew in the recovery rafts, and then was in turn swabbed down by Armstrong? (Clancy Hatleburg an active duty officer who was recently back from Vietnam.)

What about the journalist got "drafted" by James Webb, and later demanded NASA have a TV camera on the first landing? (Julian Scheer was one of the few journalists who really covered the space program before it was popular.)

What exactly got Steve Bales in that critical Mission Control chair on A-11? (He was young, hardworking, and fortunate.)

Who stayed up all night trying to write something for the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast, only to be bailed-out by his wife? (Joseph Laitin was a press secretary and White House staffer for more than one U.S. President.)

How about the guy who had to figure out how to get a nearly meter-long telephoto lens in place inside the CM, so Swigert could photograph the crippled Service Module on A-13? (Richard Underwood was a former reconaissance aircrewman who knew a lot about cameras.)

Mr. Watkins has a couple minor errors, such as calling one whole booster stack a Saturn-IVB, but it certainly doesn't detract from a great read, with a few truly unsung aspects of Project Apollo.

I recommend you run, don't walk to your bookseller or Amazon.com

-- JW

1 Jan 2006 "Retrofire on 2005"

A significant space year rolls past. My friends and colleagues in the San Antonio Astronomical Association (SAAA) have been discussing the great space and astronomical events of 2005, and we all seem pleased with the way things are currently going. As is typical for me, I couldn't pick a single most important event, but chose to catagorize several things I found noteworthy.

Group: As a collective local event, nothing compared to our Deep Impact Comet Party on 4 July. About 30 dedicated amatuer skywatchers huddled around a black and white monitor hooked via video camera to a sizable 14 inch telescope. We watched live TV from a park in rural Texas as a 400kg copper slug smashed a moving comet head on, leaving the tiny brightening as our reward. A cosmic rarity shared with friends: pretty sweet.

Personal: For me, sitting up nights staring at a marvelous red world was a definite superlative time. The 2005 Mars Apparition was not the incredible closest ever approach of two years ago, but in my eyes, I could tell no real difference. Better trained, more experienced, and using a larger telescope, I found it as enjoyable as any planet watching I've done. Just being able to see the ground on another world seems pretty doggone miraculous at times. Here are dark lava fields, big orange dust clouds, and tiny blue-white cloud tops revolving before my eyepiece. I'll be the first to admit I like Jupiter the best - but I never tire of the rarer treat of seeing mystical Mars.

National: The Space Shuttle Return to Flight was significant if only for the huge challenge and hard work it represented. Big portions of the NASA team really pushed to make mission safe and successful. The flight plan itself was full of new and time-critical items, and the flying itself offered mission commander Eileen Collins a few career highlights. And there is always a big caveat... it sure wasn't enough. We're trying to bandage a system which is complex and past its prime, while finishing one job (the International Space Station), starting another (Return to the Moon), and not getting any more money for either. I'm plain disappointed in having a single U.S.-launched manned space mission this year, but I'll give NASA a C+ for effort.

Unfortunate: Dropping my SAC-7 astro-imaging camera on the driveway was my worst personal astronomy moment. The damned thing isn't meant to take my kind of new imager abuse. I almost grabbed the wires, but Newton's Laws determined where it was headed. I think I can repair it - our upgrade <grin>.

Silly: I had to throw this in for no real reason other than lame humor. This is the first year since I was in college I've been observing the heavens while wearing a beard. After 20 years in the military, with its mandatory shaving policies, I decided to let my follicles have some freedom. The extra fuzz is starting to fill in pretty well, and my wife seems to like it. And it makes me feel like an old school scholar/professor - so what the heck.

Not much of a list, but these things stuck in my head most of the year. Never forget just how much a little optimism might go, now that we're into another year.

-- JW

"The Lighter Side of Going to the Moon"