No such thing as a mistake

I’m losing a bit of faith in the QI podcast “No Such Thing as a Fish” lately. In nearly every episode in recent months, I’ve noted at least one mistake, sometimes as many as three when subjects on which I know a fair amount come up. They’re mostly small mistakes, but they’re bothersome since Quite Interesting is noted for its high accuracy, with only a handful of mistakes that I can recall in the fifteen years of the television series. I have much enthusiasm for high quality – see my site name – so I have a lot of respect for QI.

As an example, the most recent podcast claimed that the falcon feather/hammer Galileo demonstration Commander Dave Scott gave during Apollo 15 was done during Apollo 12. A small mistake, but that’s pretty sloppy by QI standards. Such mistakes make me wonder about the accuracy of the things they discuss that I’m not familiar with, and if the television show is also going to be somewhat untrustworthy next series since the podcast crew work there.

I think the problems may have started when the podcast co-presenters started going on tour, publishing books, &c a year or so ago. It’s likely they rely on each other to be careful with their research, but with their busy schedule, they’re slipping substantially and don’t yet know it. Some cross fact-checking would be prudent if they’re going to continue travelling a lot. Don’t make me come over there.

Now just four

Alan Bean, the Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 12 who actually got to fly the LM in lunar orbit thanks to his friend, Commander Pete Conrad, has died at 86. Just four moonwalkers are still with us now.

Here’s how they landed on the Ocean of Storms on 19 November 1969. 16mm film of the final approach from Bean’s LM window begins at 8:39, but the first part of the video does a nice job in explaining all the steps from Powered Descent Initiation through landing.

One of the many interesting things that happened during their flight is discussed in this somewhat not-safe-for-work clip from the DVD extras for the excellent documentary”In the Shadow of the Moon”:

I highly recommend the seventh episode of the excellent “From the Earth to the Moon” series. In that episode, Apollo 12, arguably the best Apollo mission in terms of fun, is presented in accurate detail from Al Bean’s perspective. You can view it or download it at archive.org here.

After he left NASA, Bean pursued painting as a new career, and well:

A few hours after I read the news, the wallpaper on my desktop – one of 3,700 rotated randomly – happened to change to this high-res photo of Bean taken by Conrad on the surface of the moon during one of the best days of both of their lives.

Click for 4095×4095

Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon, and Al Bean

This one’s getting a case

After watching eBay for a couple of years, I finally found a Buy It Now listing with a decent price for this long-discontinued Corgi Sikorsky Sea King model – specifically, the chopper from the USS Hornet that picked up the Apollo 11 crewmen, and those from Apollo 8, 10, 12, and 13 as well. I happened to be at my computer at o’dark thirty when the new listing notification email came in from eBay, so I snapped it up within a few minutes of the listing being posted, thus avoiding any bidding starting, which for this model often results in a price inflated by 75% over the maximum that I was willing to pay. The Buy It Now price in this case happened to be exactly my maximum.

The diecast metal Sea King is well done, and more impressive in person than in photos I’ve seen. The only detail I see missing is the two capsule silhouettes behind the knight shield at the nose that represent its previous recoveries of Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 (see the Apollo 12 photo below, where it has silhouettes representing 8, 10, and 11), so I may paint those myself. This will most likely go in my office, so I’ve ordered a 15x12x9″ acrylic case for it. I’ve read in multiple places that the base has a tendency to warp over time due to the weight of the helicopter, so on advice of the customer support folks at Hornby/Corgi, who had a chat in their office about that problem yesterday and sent me a few possible solutions, I’m going to superglue the entire base to the floor of the display case.

Apollo 12’s recovery was also by the USS Hornet and the same helicopter

Now there are five

John Young, the Commander of Apollo 16 pictured loading the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the FQN banner above, died on Friday. He also flew on Gemini 3, Gemini 10, Apollo 10, and was the Commander of STS-1, the first orbital Space Shuttle flight, as well as STS-9.

Just five humans remain who have walked on the surface of another planetary body: Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), Al Bean (12), Dave Scott (15), Jack Schmitt (17), and Charlie Duke, who also landed in Orion on Apollo 16 and spent twenty hours over three EVAs walking and driving around on the moon with Young – with a leap or two thrown in:

John Young on the Descartes Highlands, 21 April 1972; click for a larger version

“Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fueled system in the world, knowing they’re going to light the bottom, and doesn’t get a little worried…does not fully understand the situation.”

I got mine at the GPO Bookstore

When I was a kid and through my late teens, I regularly visited the Government Printing Office Bookstore in Boston. The Federal Building was just a short walk from North Station, so I’d take the train in – never once getting kidnapped or murdered that I recall. They had a whole corner devoted to NASA books, usually forty or fifty of the most recent volumes, so for me, it was like visiting the Kennedy Space Center in miniature. I didn’t have much money, but I’m pretty sure train fare for the twenty-five minute run into town was between US$2 and $3 each way, so ten bucks carefully saved up would cover the trip plus one or two books.

I got several of my NASA books right there, at their gloriously low original GPO prices. For example, the 681-page This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury was US$5.50. This collectSPACE article lists most of the better NASA history volumes that were at one time or another in the bookstore.

The P in GPO now stands for Publishing, not Printing, and the Boston GPO Bookstore closed in 2001, but I still have all the books I got there. Now the real reason for this article is not nostalgia or sidelong swipes at milk-carton-kid-based helicopter parenting, satisfying though those are, but this: I recently found something of a bonanza for people who are interested in these books in their original form but don’t want to spend US$50, $100, or more for them – or who, like me, own them but would love the convenience and frugality of free PDFs of the originals. The NASA Technical Reports Server has full page-by-page scans – and good quality scans, I’ll point out – of many of the original books, including:

There are other good volumes there as well, including Apollo Expeditions to the Moonmine was $2.25, but it’s now $40 or $50 for a good condition original – Where No Man Has Gone Before, and the like. The part 1-3 articles linked in the collectSPACE article above mention more of these – there’s also a final part 5 not linked there. The best way to search the NTRS site is with NASA SP-nnnn where nnnn is the publication number.

Click on any of these page scans from the PDFs for a larger version. They’re larger than these screenshots in the PDFs.

From Moonport

From Chariots for Apollo

From Stages to Saturn

From Apollo Expeditions to the Moon

My copy of that one

“The flight was extremely normal for 36 seconds…”

“…and after that it got very interesting.”

– Apollo 12 Commander Pete Conrad in the post-flight technical debriefing, referring to the first of two lightning strikes on the vehicle during launch.

I just found out I can upgrade my Galaxy S5 at no cost to an S8, so I ordered a new phone skin from Skinit that will ship tomorrow – as it serendipitously turns out, the 48th anniversary of the date the photo was taken.

This is Apollo 12, taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building as the stack began its 3½ mile journey to Launch Pad 39A on 8 September 1969. This assembly of Crawler-Transporter, Mobile Launcher (aka Launch Umbilical Tower), Saturn V, and Apollo weighed over 18 million pounds, the equivalent of twenty or so 747s, and moved at a stately 80 or so feet per minute.

From the remarkable 600-page Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations: “These novel mechanisms almost defy verbal description, and the reader should refer frequently to the illustrations in this chapter.”

August 2018 update: As noted in I got mine at the GPO bookstore, you can obtain a nicely scanned PDF copy of Moonport on the NASA Technical Resources Server here.

Here’s a higher-resolution copy of the source photo – click for a larger version and note the people in white hardhats at the edges of the platform:

NASA photo AP12-S69-51309

Apollo-era photo of the 526-foot-high Vehicle Assembly Building and crawlerway leading to Launch Complex 39 with Pads 39B (upper left, 4.2 miles from VAB) and 39A (upper right, 3.5 miles from VAB). Apollo 12 launched from Pad 39A.

NASA photo AS12-68-7134: Pete Conrad wiggling Surveyor 3 by its camera on 20 November 1969 (Okay, Houston. I’m jiggling it. The Surveyor is firmly planted here; that’s no problem.”)

Five-point landing

Here’s one of several good reasons why the Lunar Module had both a descent stage and an ascent stage: Apollo 15’s five-point landing, which dented the descent engine bell quite a lot. The other bits strewn about are not landing damage but simply the detritus from unpacking and setting up equipment. Tidiness was not a concern.

 

Why did this damage occur? The rear leg of the LM landed in a five-foot deep crater, resulting in a fairly steep landing angle of 11°. To wit:

New digs

We moved our offices into a new building a couple towns away this week, and I ended up with a substantially larger office – “All the more to decorate” thought I, rubbing my hands. A gallery of my new digs is below. I haven’t decided yet how to fill out one wall, but the other walls are pretty much as I want them. I still see trees and greenery out my window (two windows, actually), thank goodness, and there are wild turkeys at the new place, too.

In the process, I finally got around to having my William Phillips “Clipper at the Gate” limited print framed at this little shop, and it came out pretty spiffy, with the frame and matting matched to the bluish silver of the aircraft, the deep blue of the water, and the red of the Golden Gate Bridge (actually called International orange) and the wing stripes. The aircraft is the Boeing B-314 flying boat, in this case the Pan American Airways California Clipper, NC-18602, which made regular runs between San Francisco and Hawaii – a nineteen-hour leg – before continuing to farther destinations.

Only twelve B-314s were produced by Boeing, all for Pan Am, but it was – and still is – considered the acme of flying boat technology. The initial six had a range of 3,500 miles with fuel capacity of 4,200 gallons and the second group of six could travel 5,200 miles with 5,400 gallons, both variants far exceeding the range of other aircraft of the day. Travel on the clippers was strictly deluxe, with ticket prices comparable to Concorde’s and meals catered by top-notch hotels.

The B-314 model on my desk, in the same 1:200 scale as the B-17 and B-747, is also of NC-18602. The “Fly to South Sea Isles” poster is a high quality limited edition reproduction of a 1930s Pan Am poster that was made about twenty years ago [some weeks after writing this, I found my Hansa Editions print was actually produced thirty years ago]. An original copy of the 1938 George Lawler poster – not the original painting, just a poster – recently sold for US$20,000 at auction, where the listing read:

One of the most iconic and desirable of all the early Pan Am flying boat posters, this image of the Boeing 314 Flying Clipper landing in a tropical lagoon captured, and continues to capture, the imagination of travelers. The location shown on the poster is an imaginary composite of several renowned bays throughout the South Pacific. It has been speculated that the view is Tahiti, Pago Pago and/or Diamond Head, however, the physical characteristics depicted do not coincide with the actual geography of any of these islands. Lawler most likely worked from photographs to derive a fantasy collage of a location infused with realistic details from various islands. It is rare to find this poster with text. We have found only two other examples at auction.

The tail end of the gallery shows in detail some of the photos and items on display. I had 16×20 prints made of the three high resolution Apollo photographs – done beautifully by Shutterfly and Snapfish, I’ll add. Of the three drawings of mine on the wall, just one, the woman holding a newborn Bengal kitten, is my original pencil drawing – the other two are from high resolution scans I made before presenting the original drawings to their subjects.

Click on any image to enter the gallery, and from there you can view a 1920-wide version of any photo by clicking this at the lower right (you may need to scroll down to see it):

 

“If we can send a man to the Moon…”

The best history of Apollo from the perspective of the astronauts is Andrew Chaikin’s 1994 masterpiece, A Man on the Moon. The best one from the point of view of the people on the ground is Apollo: The Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox, which I’m rereading at the moment. On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the book’s 1989 release, Murray said this:

“One of the lessons that people tried to take away from the Apollo story was wrong – ‘If we can send a man to the Moon, we can end poverty.’ Or do whatever else is your favorite cause. Engineering challenges are different from social challenges, and a lot of money has been wasted on programs that were rationalized by the ‘If we can send a man to the Moon…’ analogy. Maybe that suggests the real lesson: Apollo, like the Manhattan Project, proved that humans are capable of extraordinary feats in unbelievably short periods of time, but only if five conditions are met: The people doing the work have to have a concrete goal. They must have a sense of urgency – because of a specific calendar deadline in the case of Apollo, or beating the Germans in the case of the Manhattan Project. The concrete goal has to be technological, not social; we just don’t know how to change human behavior on a large scale. The people paying for the work must be willing to spend lavishly. And, most importantly, the people paying for the work must get the hell out of the way of the people doing the work.”

I’ll take this opportunity to point out that for the duration of the Apollo programme, the amount of money American women spent on cosmetics each year easily exceeded NASA’s budget. As Einstein once said about something else, that’s relativity.

An hour-long interview with the authors in 1989 is on C-SPAN here.

An excerpt from Apollo: The Race to the Moon, whose most recent reprint is titled simply Apollo:

In 1946, the N.A.C.A. had sent a young Langley engineer named Walt Williams out to the Mojave Desert to open a facility for testing the X-1, the plane in which Chuck Yeager would break the sound barrier. It was called the High-Speed Flight Station, using the Air Force facilities that would later become known as Edwards Air Force Base. On July 30, 1959, Williams’s fortieth birthday, Abe Silverstein called Williams to Washington and persuaded him to return to Langley to work for the Space Task Group. On September 15, Williams reported to Langley as Gilruth’s associate director for Operations.

Williams was indeed the “very tough kind of guy” that the gentlemanly engineers of Langley needed to deal with the Air Force’s brand of bureaucratic infighting. By 1959, Williams was already known in the flight-test business as a man who could work, carouse, cuss, or fight as prodigiously as any test pilot at Edwards. He was also tough in the other ways that Operations needed. “He had the ability to walk up to the problem of putting a man on top of one of these Atlas vehicles, which are really just big metal balloons, and not be cowed by it,” said Lunney of Williams. (“Big metal balloons”: The walls of the Atlas were so thin that they would collapse unless the vehicle was pressurized.) “Williams just walked up and said ‘Goddammit this’ and ‘Goddammit that,’ and got everybody saluting and doing what they should do.” He was a genius of sorts, Lunney reflected, “though if you had to go up against him, he didn’t seem like a genius. He seemed like a bull.”

In those days, he even looked like a bull—over 200 pounds, a powerful man with a square head, dark, close-cropped hair, and heavy brows. Gene Kranz, who himself would scare a few people in his time, never forgot his first encounter with Williams. It happened in 1960, just a few weeks after Kranz had arrived at the Space Task Group. Kranz had been sent over to brief Williams on some work he’d been doing. Kranz, who knew Williams only by reputation, got there early and slipped into a seat in Williams’s office while another briefing concluded. Williams, who was slouched behind his desk chain-smoking Winstons, looked a little like Broderick Crawford in “Highway Patrol”—big, rumpled, and knowing.

The men briefing Williams were not having a good day. Williams sat behind his desk, scowling at the hapless briefers, and “whipsawed them,” Kranz remembered. “Just cut them up. Sliced them off at the ankles, mid-calf, knees, mid-thigh. They went down the tubes and the thing was over.” The objects of these attentions put away their papers and filed out of the office, leaving Kranz and Williams alone. Kranz began his report.

Walt Williams had a curious habit of appearing to fall asleep in the middle of meetings. Williams himself said that it was a device: “I listen to the guy’s voice,” he explained. “If the guy’s trying to bullshit you, or is uncertain, you can hear it in his voice. I don’t want to see his bright blue eyes or anything else.” Did he ever really fall asleep? There were, after all, reports of the occasional snore. Well, Williams said ambiguously, when people had given him a briefing paper in advance, he didn’t “bother even listening to the buildup,” but waited until the guy got to the good part.

Kranz knew nothing of this. After a few minutes, he was getting into his material when he realized that Williams was starting to nod off. His head was slumped on his chest, his eyes were closed. Unbelievable as it seemed, Kranz decided, Williams had gone to sleep.

“In a one-on-one session with a legend, who you have just seen completely assassinate somebody, what the hell do you do?” Kranz would ask later. He decided that the safest course was to pretend nothing had happened and keep on talking. So he did, feeling more confident now that it seemed no one was listening to him. In fact, he was feeling confident enough to sidestep a small issue that he wasn’t absolutely sure about. But what the hell, the man was asleep.

Williams always kept a roll of Necco mints nearby to soothe his smoker’s throat. As Kranz breezed on, Williams’s hand reached out, groping slowly for the roll of Neccos. Williams shook out two of them—eyes still closed—and chomped on them for a while. “And then he proceeded to ask exactly that question that I thought I had skated through very cleanly,” Kranz recalled. “It was just absolutely intimidating.”