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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."

20 Jul 2009

The Moon Headlines to Come

I went to bed a few minutes after midnight, so technically I welcomed the first moments of this day with a yawn and an immediate cessation of thought. In a way I was too wrapped in all the jumbled thoughts about the great moments that have so filled the days leading up to the 20th.  I have read so many thoughts and recollections on the Web, from friends, enthusiasts, and folks unknown.  They've said uplifting things, bizarre things, and made some really profound observations about one of the most notable events ever witnessed. How many ways can you say "wow?"  Wow, it's been too long since it happened; wow that it took such a herculean effort by nearly half a million people directly involved, plus a huge amount of public support? Wow, that the men most directly involved are still inspiring new generations of potential space explorers, as witnessed by their words last night at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. 

And despite the dramatic, even spiritual singular impact of Apollo 11 - the best is yet to come.  Yes, that's my absurd optimist side talking, but not in the way you might think. For me, Apollo 11 as it happened was not profound, because I was simply too young to understand the significance.  The first few landings were a personal awakening of something I found interesting and fun, complete with associated space toys. Yes I was glued to the TV during the coverage of every landing mission, I had my Saturn and Lunar Module models and my Rover made of erector set parts. But that's just what my generation did - we were always glued to the tube.  As a young kid, the lights didn't quite come on until Apollo was on the way out. Appreciation of the technical feats and complexity of the undertaking didn't ignite in my head until the very last landing mission.  I was an example of how the Man on the Moon spirit captured 1960s youth, I simply didn't know why until I was a teenager, and we were solidly into the long drought before the Shuttle flew. 

So when I say the best is yet to come, I mean Apollo becoming a mature, slightly adventurous program, AFTER Apollo 11 made history.  The really good stuff doesn't hit until 1971, when cars and golf clubs arrived on the lunar surface. Now we had long trips, over days not hours. There were long talks laced with NASA-ese, about basalts and LEAMs and RTGs, and exclamations of amazing finds by trained eyes in an alien terrain.  I don't have a conscious recollection of Neil's first steps, but I sure remember Jack Schmitt saying "Hey, there is orange soil here!"  Yes, it's merely a function of my age at the time, but it's also an acknowledgement that Apollo do all the really cool living-on-the-Moon stuff well after the stated national goal was long over. Sure that reflects the loss of national interest, and makes us in the US and elsewhere feel all the more foolish for our "stunt" approach of a quick solution - with no long range use of solid, impressive space hardware. I was reading books written about the time of the great Apollo cancellations of 1970 (when we lost 3 landing missions), thus they indicated LM shelters and LM taxis and LM trucks would be establishing lunar bases in the mid-1970s.  I didn't realize until the media starting calling Apollo 17 "The End of the Beginning," that something was amiss in the long range plans.  Yet none of this diminishes the amazing lunar events that came just months after the superlative first example. Heck, the first car on the Moon was something anyone could identify with, and perhaps even more people would have found fun, had the public mood been slightly more elevated that it was.

I'm so very glad that this anniversary has so much apparent interest, short-lived though it may be. I spent the 30th celebration in the presence of many of the men who made Apollo happen, and will always be grateful for that.  I had no idea I'd be so far away from most celebrations when the 40th came, but I'm still very happy to smile as we post and recollect over the Internet. Yes, this day is wonderful for all it means in the history of humankind, there are five more 40th's to celebrate. I sure look forward to those…

-- JW

17 Jul 2009

Lookathat LM!

Wonderful days for we space geeks, indeed. I'm listening to Mike Collins, Command Module Pilot (CMP), describe the Earth's weather in the window, as part of the wonderful Apollo 11 "live" streaming audiocast from NASA, recreating that currently 'famous again' mission from moment-to-moment. Today's excitement: the modern equivalent to the Apollo-era robot Moon scout Lunar Orbiter, Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter (LRO), has brought us some well-timed images. For the first time since the Apollo Command Module Pilots tried to image their colleagues on the lunar surface from 1969-1972, we have pictures of man's marks on the Moon! The long shadows of the Lunar Module desent stages are quite prominent in the current shots of the 11, 14, 15, 16, and 17 sites. The best image thus far (left) shows the traverse paths, made up of astronaut footprints and tire tracks from Apollo 14's little wheeled tool cart, the Modularized Equipment Transport (MET) (image: right), leading up to the edge of Cone Crater.

The thrill of being an "orbital voyeur" seems to be in vogue right now, as amateur imagery interpreters attempt to squeeze out details in these initial images. Later, lower orbit, higher-resolution shots should offer even greater fidelity. But for the week ahead, enthusiasts are soaking in every detail, for hopes of just one more pixelated relic in the churned-up regolith. The broad array of boxes and cables making up the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Packages (ALSEP) are obvious next targets, as are the next largest bits of equipment after the landing stages - the Lunar Roving Vehicles (LRV). These present larger, more obvious targets for spotters. Of course, the churned-up dirt made by the astronaut's boots and tires also offer a good degree of contrast in the grey lunar environment. Yes, everyone is milking the Apollo 11 anniversary for all it's worth, and I don't blame NASA one bit. It's a great time to inspire new space enthusiasts, even if the skeptics, hoaxers, and generally disinterested feel otherwise.

One of the better comparison choices is Apollo 15, with LM Falcon shown in the best annotated image of 1971 (near right), and the most recent from 2009 (far right).

-- JW

16 Jul 2009

Can it Truly Be That Long Ago?

Most of my lifetime... The span between this date in history and practically all of my days are roughly the same. Four whole decades have rolled past since the goal-achieving, practically miraculous flight of Apollo 11 began. From a first person view, that's staggering. Most everything important and vital to my existance, and more deeply, my understanding of the universe, has happened since then. Yet the most significant space event in history unfolded in front of seven year old eyes! I don't have real memories apart from contrasty pictures, and a brief recollection of my father telling me to stay quiet for a few moments. The Saturn V was always reassurungly spindly and white, just like a missile should look, and it climbed slowly as Jack King's booming voice called out distance and altitude. Yes, I saw it live on our first new television, a 25 inch Zenith. The thing is, any recall in my brainspace is augmented by years of watching increasingly better collections of restored archival film, so I just can't truthfully call the start of one of humankind's best efforts "something I remember." Further, the bombardment of history begins in full this week - in every form of old and new media. Proper scholars and journalists, aided by amateurs and enthusiasts - many of whom arrived on Earth decades after the events - are ressurrecting the events of 1969. Digital artists have made old media into beautiful new pictures, and even the gritty semi-transparent grey TV images will get modern enhancement. We're seeing the wonders of the first 'full up' voyage to another world through the patina of 40 years, yet utterly refreshed through an amazing range of interpretation. It's a no-kidding renaissance for space enthusiasts as the books, videos, interactive Web pages, and musings of we geeks fill our shelves and heads. Honestly, despite spending too many of my dollars on such works, it's a complete delight to see the genuine outpouring of appreciation (and I can always pass by the "sloppy make-a-quick buck" retrospective efforts.

So there they went, three men, armored by the best technology ever manufactured. And they went in style: the Saturn always built up slowly and immensely, rathering than "bookin' off the pad" as does the Shuttle. Grace and majesty springing from overbuilt advanced engineering - now that's inspiring. The huge plume, cutting across the sky, the cameras gimbaling jerkily to follow, as the zoom lenses racked and slipped to follow the action. And while it's so much more vivid now on digital records, so easy to relish a thrill that millions saw for real across Florida and surrounding states, it would have been incredibly glorious to watch a real Moonrocket. Such a thing was dreamlike to my second grade eyes. Yet on a muggy July day in Missouri, with the familiar countdown clock flipping along the bottom of a curved glass window, I know it was there in front of my eyes.

-- JW

"The Lighter Side of Going to the Moon"