In The Shadow Of The Rockets

18 February 2009

Last weekend Mike and I paid a visit to the United State Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. We stayed at the Huntsville Marriott and had a spectacular view of the rockets at the Space and Rocket Center from our balcony. Our hotel room was so close that we were literally in the shadow of the rockets. While I have visited the center many times before, I have never been inside the new Davidson Center for Space Exploration. The 68,200-square-foot Davidson Center houses the visitor ticketing area, a 350-seat auditorium, rocket engines, a mock-up of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, the Mobile Quarantine Facility, the massive Saturn V rocket, artwork, and numerous other spaceflight exhibits.

For those who have never visited the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, it is well worth the time and effort to visit it. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center does an excellent job of showcasing America’s space and rocket heritage. The center’s Rocket Park features legendary rockets like the Atlas, Hercules, Juno II, Jupiter C, and Saturn I. In addition, the park also houses a prototype of the General Motors-built Lunar Mission Development Vehicle, a Skylab Training mock-up, and a full-size vertical replica of a Saturn V rocket. Inside, the museum is chockfull of artifacts and exhibits including Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsule trainers, a Russian Mir Space Station mock-up, rocket engines, and the Apollo 16 command module Casper.

Saturn V rocket at the Davidson Center for Space Exploration

Saturn V rocket at the Davidson Center for Space Exploration.

The highlight of our visit was the Davidson Center for Space Exploration. The center did a remarkable job of restoring both the Mobile Quarantine Facility and the Saturn V rocket. Entering the center and gazing up at the Saturn V’s mighty F-1 engines was breathtaking to say the least. The size of the Saturn V never ceases to amaze me. It is easy to see why historians often regard the Saturn V as America’s greatest peacetime engineering achievement. When we were not enjoying the sight of the Saturn V rocket, we enjoyed the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) mock-up. The MQF was discovered in the woods of western Alabama in 2007 and brought to the center for restoration. This particular MQF was used by the Apollo 12 astronauts in 1969 after they returned from the Moon. The Orion CEV mock-up was a complete surprise. Before visiting the Davidson Center I had never seen an Orion CEV (mock-up or otherwise) in person. A side panel of the mock-up had been removed so visitors could look inside the prototype. I felt like a kid in a candy store window as I gawked at the interior of the Orion CEV mock-up. Seeing the Orion CEV made me want to be an astronaut more than ever.

Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle mock-up

Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle mock-up.

I have visited the U.S. Space and Rocket Center many times but I must admit this visit was by far the best. The newly refurbished Saturn V was truly a sight to behold. The men and women who devoted their time and resources to restoring the mighty  rocket are to be commended for their work. All of the exhibits, both new and old were a joy to experience. I cannot wait to visit again soon.

Moon Machines

14 January 2009

In the summer of 2008, I had the pleasure of watching a documentary on the Science Channel entitled “Moon Machines“. The program focused on the various elements used to take humans to the Moon between 1968 and 1972 during Project Apollo. Divided into multiple episodes, the documentary examined the Saturn V rocket, the Apollo Guidance Computer, the Apollo Command Module, the Lunar Module, the Lunar Rover, and the astronauts’ Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) suits. Using archival footage and interviews with the men and women who worked on Project Apollo, each episode was chockfull of details and information.

My favorite episode of “Moon Machines” dealt with the Apollo Guidance Computer. At the outset of Project Apollo, computers were still in their infancy. Entrusting computers with the lives of three humans thousands of miles from Earth was a big leap of faith in the early 1960s. Based in part on research conducted by MIT professor David Mindell, the episode examines how a select group of scientists and engineers created a sophisticated and reliable guidance and navigation system along with a computer with newly written programs. With computer software not yet invented and computer memory minuscule compared to today’s technology, the challenge of navigating a 500,000 mile round trip from the Earth to the Moon was intimidating to say the least.

The episode focusing on the Saturn V rocket is an incredibly engrossing one. The massive Moon rocket was developed by two very different yet very enthusiastic groups who shared an intense desire to explore space: World War II German rocket scientists and a new generation of young engineers from across the United States. In the 1960s, with the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union more intense than ever, engineers and scientists developed an unprecedented 363-foot-tall rocket with more than one million working parts that produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust. The Saturn V rocket was an achievement of engineering genius.

The Saturn V rocket propelled the Apollo Command Module into space. The Apollo Command Module was unlike any vehicle ever designed. The module had to serve as a fully pressurized vessel giving its three human occupants communication devices, food, navigation equipment, oxygen, power, protection from the vacuum of space, and water for a two-week round trip to the Moon. Construction of the module required immense resourcefulness and tenacity and typifies the indefatigable commitment of all who worked on Project Apollo.

Apollo 16 Command Module. U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Huntsville, Alabama.

Apollo 16 Command Module. U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Huntsville, Alabama.

Once the astronauts were propelled into lunar orbit, they used the Lunar Module to descend to the Moon’s surface. The Lunar Module had nearly impossible demands placed upon it. The module had to be extremely light and also extremely durable, two requirements that were almost unattainable. This episode of Moon Machines showcases the perseverance of the project’s scientists and engineers who built the ungainly machine that took humans to the Moon.

After landing on the Moon, the astronauts then had to egress the Lunar Module. In order to leave the relative safety of the Lunar Module and walk on the Moon, the astronauts had to wear a specially designed  EVA suit. However, designing a suit that was flexible enough to pick up a penny yet durable enough to protect the astronaut from the harsh environment on the lunar surface was no easy task. While on the Moon, the astronaut had to be able to conduct experiments and collect lunar samples while encapsulated in what was essentially a small, personal spacecraft. This episode of Moon Machines documents the arduous task of designing and constructing the Apollo EVA suit, one of the most expensive and most resilient articles of clothing ever made.

While astronauts on Apollo 11, Apollo 12, and Apollo 14 had to traverse the lunar surface on foot, the astronauts of Apollo 15, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 utilized an all-wheel drive Lunar Rover. The story of the Lunar Rover is a fascinating one. Due to budget restrictions, early concepts for lunar roving vehicles and habitation units were scrapped. However, this episode of “Moon Machines” details how a small group of engineers convinced NASA to build the small, yet functional Lunar Rover. The story of the Lunar Rover, like many aspects of Project Apollo, is one of determination in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles.

“Moon Machines” is an exceptional documentary and should be required viewing for anyone interested in human spaceflight. The aspect of the series I find most impressive is its focus on the women and men who designed and built the machines that took humans to the Moon. Most spaceflight documentaries focus almost solely on the astronauts. “Moon Machines” is the first documentary of its kind. Never before have I seen a documentary which gives long overdue recognition to the designers and builders in America’s space program. While the documentary covers a wide-range of topics, it never loses its focus on the men, women, and machines of Project Apollo.

NASA’s “new” rocket

6 January 2009

Last week Demian McLean, a journalist with, wrote an article detailing preliminary discussions between NASA and the Obama transition team to use existing rockets to launch Americans into space after the Space Shuttle is retired. In order to avoid the expensive and time consuming recertification program recommended by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003, NASA’s remaining fleet of Space Shuttles, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour, are scheduled to be retired in May 2010. The Space Shuttle’s successor, Project Constellation, will not be ready to launch humans into space until 2015 at the earliest. This leaves the United States with, at least, a five year gap between the final Space Shuttle flight and the first crewed flight of Project Constellation. For some, including this author, that is an untenable proposition.

As currently planned, Project Constellation will utilize a newly developed rocket, known as Ares I, to launch a newly designed Crew Exploration Vehicle, known as Orion. The Ares I rocket will use Space Shuttle-derived hardware, namely a five-segment solid rocket booster which will serve as the rocket’s first stage. Like all new systems, especially those designed to fly in space, the Ares rocket has presented challenges to its designers and builders. However, development of the Ares rocket has proceeded at a steady pace.

Unfortunately the progress made by NASA and its contractors has not kept pace with changing international dynamics. With an increasingly unpredictable Russia and a rapidly advancing Chinese space program, the United States may be left without a way to send humans into space at a time when it can least afford it. Thus the idea of using existing rockets has been raised. The two rockets most frequently mentioned are Boeing’s Delta IV and Lockheed-Martin’s Atlas V. Both rockets are currently used to launch commercial, military, and scientific payloads into space. The use of existing rockets to launch humans into space is not a new concept. Between 1961 and 1966, American Astronauts were launched into space atop military rockets never designed to carry human payloads.

An Atlas rocket launches Gordon Cooper into space, 15 May 1963.
An Atlas rocket launches Gordon Cooper into space, 15 May 1963.
An Atlas V rocket launches an unmanned spacecraft to Pluto, 19 January 2006.
An Atlas V rocket launches an unmanned spacecraft to Pluto, 19 January 2006.

While the use of existing rockets originally designed to carry, among other things, DISH Network satellites into space  may seem like a desperate act, it could be necessary. A five year gap in human spaceflight by the United States is not acceptable and should be an embarrassment to all Americans. The United States has a proud history of human exploration in space. Surrendering, for at least five years, the exploration of space to Russia or China is a repugnant thought. Therefore, the incoming Obama administration should consider any and all options for continuing America’s human presence in space. If that means retrofitting existing rockets for human use, so be it. For those, including me, who are not thrilled with the idea of completly scrapping the Ares booster and throwing away the millions of dollars spent to design and build it, the use of existing rockets need not be the death knell for the Ares rocket. Using rockets such as the Atlas V or Delta IV could be a stop-gap measure employed while the Ares rocket is under development. Whatever the Obama administration decides to do, it must done quickly. While automobiles and clothing may be manufactured overseas, the human exploration of space is one venture that cannot be outsourced to the cheapest producer.

Apollo 8

21 December 2008

This week marks the fortieth anniversary of the spaceflight of Apollo 8. Launched from pad 39A at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the morning of 21 December 1968, Apollo 8 was a mission of historic firsts. The crew members of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, William Anders, and James Lovell, Jr., became the first humans to ride aboard the mighty Saturn V rocket. Of even more significance was the historic journey these men embarked upon. Borman, Anders, and Lovell became the first humans to leave the relative safety and security of Planet Earth and voyage to another celestial body thousands of miles away. Never before had human beings traveled so far from home. However, the crew of Apollo 8 had little time to marvel at their historic undertaking; the mission was chock full of objectives. If human beings were ever going to land on the Moon before the end of 1969, the crew had to demonstrate that the Saturn V and the Apollo Command/Service Module could function properly, successfully execute trans-lunar and trans-earth injections, and demonstrate that the spacecraft could navigate using celestial landmarks and Earth-based instructions. In addition, the crew had to take high-resolution photographs of proposed Apollo lunar landing sites and locations of scientific interest as well as demonstrate the reliably of long-range tracking and data relay equipment. Because of the hard work and determination of the Astronauts and the thousands of Earth-based support personnel, all mission objectives were achieved. After orbiting the Moon ten times over twenty hours, the crew fired the Service Propulsion System engine attached to the Service Module and began their journey back to Earth. After traveling nearly 240,000 miles from Planet Earth, Apollo 8 landed safely in the Pacific Ocean on the morning of 27 December 1968. Shortly thereafter the crew and their spacecraft were picked up by the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown.


Forty years after the crew of Apollo 8 returned from the Moon, their mission is regarded by many as the epitome of human space exploration. Embarking on an untried mission of exploration far from home is part of humankind’s need to investigate and discover. While unmanned spacecraft made similar treks from the Earth to the Moon before Borman, Anders, and Lovell, the crew of Apollo 8 brought a human perspective to the mission that could never be obtained with unmanned vehicles. Take, for example, the Earthrise photograph (see above). Widely attributed to Astronaut William Anders, the photograph was taken while Apollo 8 was in orbit around the Moon. The photograph features the Moon in the foreground with the Earth far away in the distance surrounded by the black void of space. From the viewer’s perspective, the Earth appears to rise from the lunar horizon much like the Sun here on Earth in the morning. The photograph is one of the most recognizable symbols of space exploration ever taken and has graced the covers of magazines, books, and even a commemorative U.S. postage stamp. Aside from the breathtaking scene captured in the photograph, its significance is compounded by the fact that it was taken by a human. An unmanned spacecraft could have taken the picture; however, it would not have attained the status of Apollo 8’s Earthrise picture because a human being was there to observe it, to understand its significance, and to document it. The voyage of Apollo 8 is as significant today as it was forty years ago. The manned lunar landings of the 1960s and 1970s and the deep space missions to other planets in the Solar System were made possible because of Apollo 8. The crew of Apollo 8, along with thousands of men and women on Earth who participated in their mission, opened a new chapter in space exploration.

November Sky

24 November 2008

Last Thursday, Mike and I saw the International Space Station/ Space Shuttle complex pass overhead. Earlier that day I checked NASA’s Human Spaceflight Realtime Data website to find out the next International Space Station sighting opportunity. As luck would have it the International Space Station and Space Shuttle were to pass directly overhead that evening. The crew of STS- 126 lauched a few days before aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The crew of Endeavour joined the Expedition 18 crew aboard the International Space Station. The crews of Endeavour and the International Space Station plan to carry out important repair work and prepare the station to house six crew members for long-duration missions in Earth orbit.

ISS, 16 November 2008

After confirming that the complex would indeed pass overhead on NASA TV and the Realtime Data website, Mike and I ventured outside and found a location with good visibility. We used a compass to determine the path the complex would take as it flew overhead. Fortunately it was a crisp, cool autumn evening so the sky was crystal clear. At 6:13pm, right on cue, the complex appeared in the sky. As the complex approached from the southwest, there was no question what it was. Reaching a maximum elevation of 88 degrees, the Station/ Shuttle complex was the brightest and fastest moving object in the sky. We were able to track the complex for about four minutes before it disappeared below the northeastern horizon.

Watching the Station/ Shuttle complex pass overhead at 17,500 miles per hour was a fascinating sight and one which I will not soon forget. As I peered through my binoculars at that bright light in the sky, I felt like a kid in a candy store window. I could not take my eyes off it as it flew overhead. I hope more people will take advantage of the opportunity to see the International Space Station fly overhead, attend a Space Shuttle launch, watch a lunar eclipse or take part in any of the numerous technological and scientific wonders that occur around us all the time.

Digital Apollo

3 November 2008

Last summer I received a book for my birthday entitled, Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight by Dr. David A. Mindell. As an engineer and historian, Dr. Mindell superbly articulates the human-machine relationship in spaceflight. Beginning with the first human forays off the ground in primitive flying contraptions and culminating in one of humankind’s greatest achievements, the Apollo expeditions to the Moon, Dr. Mindell details the complex relationship humans have with machinery. The book primarily focuses on the machine which human’s relied upon in order to journey to and from the Moon: the Apollo Guidance Computer.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Digital Apollo. It was a book I honestly had trouble putting down. Because it was published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and written by an MIT professor, I was concerned the book would be overly technical and read like a dry college textbook. I could not have been more wrong. Dr. Mindell’s book gives the reader an excellent balance of technical information and anecdotal stories that make the book both informative and entertaining. I also found the book to be a refreshing change from the standard high-flying, dare-devil Astronaut story we have become accustomed to. Dr. Mindell strips away the glory tales and the exaggerated yarns often dispensed by Astronauts (and pilots in general) and presents the reader with a true, unbiased story of human and machine in spaceflight.

Aside from the text of the book, I found the Bibliography and Notes section to be quite useful. These two sections provide a veritable treasure-trove of information. I have discovered literally a dozen books and articles that I want to read; material I may never have known about where it not listed in the Bibliography and Notes section. For example, Milton Thompson’s book At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Program and Thomas Kelly’s Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module are two books I had never heard of before finding them in the bibliography of Digital Apollo. Dr. Mindell also provides a glossary of terms which is quite useful.

In addition to writing an excellent book, the author also has a website which has additional information. The website contains a wealth of information about the author and the courses he teaches, reviews and comments about the book, and a voluminous amount of primary and secondary source material. I found the supplemental material compiled by the author (the bibliography, the website, et cetera) to be almost as engaging as the book itself.