“I got the Earth coming up…it’s fantastic!”

From the Apollo Flight Journal and the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, this is the best annotated Apollo 11 descent footage I’ve seen yet. The 16mm/6fps film, shot from the top of Buzz Aldrin’s Lunar Module window 50 years ago later today at about 4pm Eastern, starts after a 3-minute explanatory intro. You’ll want to watch this full-screen.

That descent is the subject of the 12-part “13 Minutes to the Moon” podcast*, which you can find here. What they did to prevent those 1200-series program alarms on future missions is discussed in the comments on the Tindallgrams post.

Twenty-five hours later on 21 July:

Bigger and bigger the LM gets in my window, until finally it nearly fills it completely. I haven’t touched the controls. Neil is flying in formation with me, and doing it beautifully, with no relative motion between us. I guess he is about fifty feet away, which means the rendezvous is over. “I got the earth coming up…it’s fantastic!” I shout at Neil and Buzz, and grab for my camera, to get all three actors (earth, moon, and Eagle) in the same picture. Too bad Columbia will show up only as a window frame, if at all.
– Mike Collins in Carrying the Fire

And it sure is fantastic. A large version of this one is in my upstairs hallway.

The best of the 23-photo sequence taken by Mike Collins during approach and stationkeeping; click for a 4163×4125 version

Collins, one the most personable of the Apollo astronauts, narrated this week’s Google Doodle, where the animation was nicely done – and, I’ll add, more accurate than the animations in some recently-produced documentaries.

When I saw the animation below in the 3rd episode of Smithsonian Channel’s new “Apollo’s Moon Shot” series, I made a rather unpleasant just-ate-a-lemon face and said “Ack!” to no one in particular. The series is otherwise very good, with Andrew Chaikin, author of the iconic A Man on the Moon, one of the talking heads, and National Air & Space Museum curators showing historic objects, but see here: During Transposition and Docking, Collins used the sixteen tiny Reaction Control System thrusters on the sides of the Service Module – each producing just 50 pounds of thrust – to move gingerly with short puffs. Using the Service Propulsion System engine’s 20,000 pounds of non-throttleable thrust as their animation showed would have been overkill in quite a literal sense, with the result two destroyed spacecraft, three dead crew, and probably one dead Project Apollo. This is just the sort of nit I’m not hesitant to pick.

I’m certain Chaikin will have had his head in his hands when he saw this in the completed episode. Gee, you’d think they’d run stuff like this past someone with even passing knowledge of Apollo before sending it out into the world, wouldn’t you? I dunno…maybe someone who was already under contract to the production…say, how about Chaikin? How embarrassing for them.

One of the four Service Module Reaction Control System quads. The assembly, whose housing includes heaters, is about 33″/83.8cm x 25″/73.7cm and the engine nozzles have a 5 and 5/8″/14.3cm diameter.

*Over the nine hours of “13 Minutes to the Moon,” I noted only one minor error – in episode 10, when presenter Kevin Fong says CAPCOM Charlie Duke instructs the crew to “rotate Eagle and redirect their antenna.” Duke was actually giving them the pitch and yaw values (-9, +18) for the steerable S-band antenna, which Aldrin entered on the guidance computer using Noun 51 – Desired S-Band Pitch, Yaw Angles. Rotating the entire LM for better radio reception during descent would have been kind of a big deal, and inadvisable, which is exactly why that antenna was steerable. In any case, I’d say a single small mistake in nine hours is not a bad error rate.

The round black antenna pointed at Earth is the steerable S-band

The thousand-ring circus

On the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, I thought readers might get a kick out of seeing this funny 1968 memo regarding a problem that needed to be fixed in the Lunar Module (it was), and learning about its extraordinary author, NASA engineer Howard W. “Bill” Tindall, Jr. I wrote about this memo five years ago with just a little information on Tindall, but I wanted to expand on that a fair amount this week because without his efforts, I’m pretty certain we would not have reached the moon before that decade was out.

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Tindall’s parchment-dry title was “Chief, Apollo Data Priority Coordination,” a position created by Apollo Program chief George Low that quite unusually cut across several divisions of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Tindall worked with design engineers, contractors, mathematicians, programmers, mission controllers, and astronauts – everyone, really – to develop and hone the dozens of mission techniques that were used in each one of the twelve distinct phases of lunar missions. Guidance flight controller Steve Bales said of Tindall, “He had a thousand-ring circus going all the time.”

Flight Director Gene Kranz: “Tindall was pretty much the architect for all of the techniques that we used to go down to the surface of the moon. Tindall was the guy who put all the pieces together, and all we did is execute them. If there should have been a plaque left on the moon for somebody in Mission Control or Flight Control, it should have been for Bill Tindall. I respected Bill so much that when the time came for the lunar landing, the day of the lunar landing, I saw him up in the viewing room, and I told him to come on down and sit in the console with me for the landing. He didn’t want to come down, but I cleared everybody away and we had Bill Tindall there for landing, and I think that was probably the happiest day of his life. A spectacular guy.”

Late last month, the Johnson Space Center re-opened the painstakingly and beautifully restored Apollo-era Mission Operations Control Room, MOCR 2: https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/06/behind-the-scenes-at-nasas-newly-restored-historic-apollo-mission-control/

Tindall’s frequent memos – usually two to four a week – were all dictated because Patsy Saur, his secretary, said he’d better learn how because she was not going to lose her shorthand proficiency. They were called Tindallgrams by those who eagerly awaited their common sense, humor, and perfect condensations of discussions and decisions made during the meetings he conducted. Some of those meetings went on for two or three twelve-hour days, with anywhere from half a dozen to a hundred people in the conference room discussing – or, sometimes, shouting and arguing vehemently – and coming to a consensus on every item on the agenda – or, sometimes, accepting Tindall’s final decisions via Tindallgram. Tindall, Buzz Aldrin’s equal in orbital mechanics (Aldrin’s MIT doctoral thesis was “Line-of-Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous”), once estimated that he spent just 10 to 20% of his time on standard mission techniques and the rest developing finely-detailed “what if” contingency plans, many of which were never needed but some of which came in very handy indeed.

Just how complicated could Tindall’s mission techniques get? Consider that Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Mike Collins kept this CMP Solo Book chained around his neck from the moment Armstrong and Aldrin departed for the lunar surface; starting on page 60 are summarized procedures – cheat sheets, if you will – for eighteen different Lunar Module rescue scenarios that Collins might have to execute if his crewmates “never made it to the lunar surface, or if they got there early or late, or departed crooked or straight” (Collins in Carrying the Fire). Some involved Collins diving the 32-ton Command-Service Module from its 60-nautical-mile lunar orbit to as low as they dared – possibly down to 35,000 feet, but I think they would have been a tad more conservative – in order to catch up to the LM if its orbit was higher and slower than the CSM’s – an example of how counter-intuitive orbital mechanics can be.

Here’s a YouTube link to an MIT “Engineering Apollo” class with the sharp and funny Collins in 2015. The interviewer/presenter is Professor David Mindell, the author of Digital Apollo.

Another of the 1,000+ Apollo memos Tindall wrote from 1966 to 1970 was on the topic of why Apollo 11’s Eagle overshot its intended landing site by four miles. It described how incomplete venting (that is, depressurization) of the docking tunnel prior to undocking caused the Lunar Module to pop like a cork off the Command Module with just a little extra velocity, which in turn caused significant changes in its descent profile. A new rule for subsequent missions required that Mission Control confirm complete depressurization of the tunnel. A related Tindallgram on other venting sources adversely affecting the descent trajectory was titled Vent bent descent, lament!, and he wasn’t shy about making his strong feelings on those vexing vents known to all the top brass at NASA, including chief spacecraft designer – also a culprit – Max Faget, in an unusually all-caps-titled VENTS (“This will either amuse you, waste your time, or just possibly accomplish something great.”)

After a three-day-long “Mission Techniques free-for-all” not even two weeks after Apollo 11, he wrote How to land next to a Surveyor – a short novel for do-it-yourselfers. That and a follow-up memo, in which he revised his previously pessimistic targeting prognosis, detailed new mission techniques that were key to Apollo 12 Commander Pete Conrad being able to set Intrepid down just 535 feet from the Surveyor 3 spacecraft that had, two-and-a-half years earlier, soft-landed on the Ocean of Storms after bouncing twice due to a slightly-too-early engine shutdown.

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Such pinpoint accuracy was life-critical for later landings, in particular Apollo 17, which landed in the Taurus-Littrow Valley, a box canyon surrounded by mountains on three sides.

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Here’s an excellent 2015 Apollo 17 documentary in two parts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIGbOoZzlYI https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQOEC9gHpmA

Oh, yeah…for a period of about a year in 1966-67, Tindall, who grew up in Scituate, Massachusetts, flew up to Cambridge from Houston for two or three days every week to help organize, focus, and speed up – effectively manage, sometimes in a blunt manner – the MIT Instrumentation Lab’s previously somewhat free-form development of the COLOSSUS and LUMINARY software for the Apollo Guidance Computers (AGC) in the Command and Lunar Modules, respectively. (He visited often enough that he sent out a TripAdvisor style memo every now and then.)

Early on, Lab engineers reported, to Tindall’s great alarm, that their code was about 30,000 bytes in excess of the 72,000 available in the AGC. 13 October 1966, the day Tindall directed them, in person, to eliminate much duplicated code that he had found, and to cut several elegant but non-essential and hence memory-wasting routines, became known to those in the Instrumentation Lab as “Black Friday.” But they did what he asked, and over time came to realize just how beneficial his involvement was to their work.

Here’s a profile of Margaret Hamilton, who, two years after the Lab’s early difficulties, became leader of the Apollo spacecraft software development effort: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/margaret-hamilton-led-nasa-software-team-landed-astronauts-moon-180971575/

Charles Fishman, who contacted me while researching his new book, One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon, says that when Tindall died in 1995, not one newspaper in the country ran an obituary. It’s even difficult to find any photographs of him bigger than a postage stamp, but here are a couple: below, one in his office (from episode 3 of the also excellent “Moon Machines” series, playlist here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLTu8nanTJo7GvulBxz9JT9JcXeXimM1Vr) and he’s in the center of this photo taken during Apollo 13, chin in hand, looking at papers – some probably written by him.

I’ve always thought that more people ought to know about this remarkable man. To paraphrase him, if you are still with me, hardy reader, now you do.

Bill Tindall; click for a larger version

I think it’s safe to say he thoroughly disliked inaccuracy and inexactitude, which may be reflected in the “H. Timdell” [sic] name I noticed taped to the wall behind him in that photo, the misspelling likely from some conference he attended. I’ve no evidence for it, but I like to think he kept it up there to point out to visitors at appropriate moments, perhaps with a raised eyebrow and a little flourish of sarcasm.

We’d all get in there and defend our [computer] requirements, and then Tindall would cut them. And then we’d cuss him. And Tindall would grin, and cuss back, and laugh his loud, infectious laugh, and keep right on going.

– Apollo flight director Cliff Charlesworth

“Whatcha got in the bag, Mike?”

From Carrying the Fire by Mike Collins:

The security people have roped off a walkway for us, and we give jerky little waves to the photographers as we walk stiff-legged toward the van. Charlie Buckley, the head security man at the Cape, is there to greet us—another little pre-flight ritual. There are certain amenities to be observed, such as presenting Guenter Wendt, the czar of the launch pad, with a going-away present. Guenter has spent the past couple of weeks telling me what a great fisherman he is, and how he regularly plucks giant trout from the ocean. In return, I have located the smallest trout to be found in these parts, a minnow really, and have had it, uncured, nailed to a plaque and inscribed GUENTER’S TROPHY TROUT. I carry it now inside a brown paper shopping bag, which Charlie Buckley eyes suspiciously. I am a bit nervous about it myself. What if my awkward gloved hands drop it and the trout tumbles out in front of all those photographers? They are here to see us leave the earth, with dignity and perhaps a little pomp, but what if their cameras instead record an ungainly scramble after a tiny dead fish? What would Walter Cronkite say?

I knew about the trout, but after reading of it again the other day and then watching the new Apollo 11 film Blu-ray, my eyebrows shot up when I saw he had good reason to be nervous: The bag was safely upright as they left the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building, but when Collins turned left to follow Armstrong into the Astrovan (a converted Clark Cortez Motorhome), it caught on his Portable Oxygen Ventilator and tilted dangerously downward; another five or ten degrees and he would have let the trout out of the bag.

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In the White Room, Guenter’s estimate of his fishing prowess:

Mike’s counter-estimate:

Wendt, who died in 2010, still had the trout when he was interviewed in 1992 below – after having it gutted and properly mounted, of course. The video is cued up to the trout bit.

Armstrong gave Wendt a voucher for a free ride in a space taxi and Aldrin presented a booklet called “Good News for Modern Man”, a condensed modern version of the New Testament. In 2015, the trout plaque, taxi voucher, and booklet sold at auction for US$10,625, $8,125, and $5,000, respectively.

“No ‘General’, just Mike. Old Mike if you want to be formal. And if you really want to get into it, Lucky Old Mike.”
– Collins during this interview at the National Press Club, April 2019

Io Saturnalia!

The new left-hand view from my couch as of yesterday

Note: You can click any of the pictures in this article to see a 1920×1080 version.

(“Io Saturnalia!”- the “io” pronounced “yo” – was the traditional greeting during Saturnalia, the late December Roman festival that Mary Beard discusses here.)

I’ve been waiting for more than a year to see if Bandai in Japan might re-issue their gorgeous 1:144 Saturn V model, which is almost three feet long, in time for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, but now that we’re just a few weeks away, it doesn’t appear they’re going to. Prices for the limited quantities of used models and really limited remaining quantities of new ones are not that far apart, and I’m thinking they may rise sharply as 20 July looms, so I got a new one from Japan a few weeks ago – cost approximately a bundle. I haven’t had a Saturn V model since the age of nine, when I built Revell’s kit as the Apollo missions progressed before me. This one, with die-cast metal engines and so precisely and carefully crafted and painted, is considerably nicer.

Following my love of things of high quality, I started thinking about the best way to display the model. First, I found a set of remote control mini LED spotlights in the cool white spectrum to approximate the xenon arc searchlights used at Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39. The remote allows brightness control in 10% increments, and it’s now programmed onto my Logitech Harmony One, so I still have just one remote for everything.

Once I had the model in hand, I decided on dimensions for its case, and commissioned Specialty Plastics in Ohio to build a quite splendid mirror-backed acrylic display case, 36″ wide x 14″ deep x 10″ high.

Then I started looking around for an appropriate table to put the case on. As I browsed, I halfheartedly saved three or four okay-but-not-great designs, but was then delighted to find this low-slung coffee table with a strong 1950s/1960s vibe whose design fits nicely with the model and its case. The name of the design wasn’t specified on Amazon, but the box it came in said it’s called Manhattan Age. Perfect.

The coffee table arrived last week, so I had that assembled and waiting. When FedEx arrived with the display case yesterday, I was rather busy making Parker House rolls, a double recipe of Comfort Diner meatloaf, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, butter-braised carrots, and crème brûlée for dinner guests coming over last night, but I forgot about all that stuff for an hour or so and set everything up.

The final and quite satisfying result is pictured here.

S-IVB third stage, Spacecraft Lunar Module Adapter, Command and Service Module, and launch escape tower, with recovery helicopter in foreground

S-II second stage

S-IC first stage with CSM and Lunar Module in foreground


The business end

From above the case

Apollo 11 documentary update

The trailer for “Apollo 11” is out, and the reviews for its premiere last week at Sundance are quite enthusiastic, so there’s a chance of it having more than the very limited theatrical release Sundance-selected documentaries usually get. Here’s hoping.

“It’s one thing to boast about the specs of these images, and quite another to see the spruced up footage for yourself. It’s rare that picture quality can inspire a physical reaction, but the opening moments of ‘Apollo 11,’ in which a NASA camera crew roams around the base of the rocket and spies on some of the people who’ve come to gawk at it from a beach across the water, are vivid enough to melt away the screen that stands between them. The clarity takes your breath away, and it does so in the blink of an eye; your body will react to it before your brain has time to process why, after a lifetime of casual interest, you’re suddenly overcome by the sheer enormity of what it meant to leave the Earth and land somewhere else.”
– David Ehrlich, Indiewire

I was glad to see that, at least in the trailer, they used none of the footage previously seen in the 1972 “Moonwalk One” documentary.

“There was one guy, his name was Urs Furrer, and he was a well-known cameraman. He was a big guy – his name means ‘bear’ and he was big like a bear. I’d look for him because I knew that he could put this camera on his shoulder. I don’t know how much it weighed with a thousand feet of film on it; it was a ton. But he could use it like a handheld camera.”
– Theo Kamecke, director of “Moonwalk One”

“I take back any bad things I ever said about MIT — which I never have.”

The quotation is from Mike Collins, Command Module Pilot of Apollo 11, as their spacecraft entered lunar orbit. He was commenting on how well the computer had controlled their Lunar Orbit Insertion burn, adjusting their course to velocities accurate within a tenth of a foot per second in all three axes – essentially perfect. In full, from the onboard audio recording:

Minus 1, minus 1, plus 1. Jesus! I take back any bad things I ever said about MIT – which I never have.

Collins wrote the best of the astronaut biographies, Carrying the Fire, and he turned 88 today. He’s behind the moon in this crew photo, when all three of them, born in 1930, were 39:

MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics curriculum includes a graduate semester devoted to “Engineering Apollo” – where twenty-six class sessions barely scratch the surface, according to the professor in the first video below – itself one of those twenty-six classes. Collins was a guest there in 2015 and last year.

Posters and framing on the cheap

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Last weekend, I refreshed the pictures in my upstairs hallway, the new ones shown above. As a frame of reference, the photo shows an area of about 7×3 feet. For about a hundred dollars total, I was able to get three 16×20″ prints and one 12×36″ panorama of high-resolution Apollo-era photographs from Shutterfly and mount them in the best borderless clip frames available.

There was a time when I did my own picture mounting on foam board and framing using mail-order Nielsen #11 frame pieces and locally-sourced, custom-cut sheet glass (I never attempted matting), but these days I most often use clip frames – good ones, that is – because they’re easier, they look clean and classy, and they’re a lot cheaper than professional framing or even DIY Nielsens. The last picture I had mounted, double-matted, and framed, the “Clipper at the Gate” shown below, cost me well north of US$200 – and that didn’t include the signed print, which I had purchased several years previously. Don’t get me wrong – the framing and matting is well-done and quite attractive, but I have a lot of drawings, paintings, and photos on my walls and I am well south of a millionaire.

I was able to get those four hallway prints done both well and on the cheap thanks to four things:

  • In recent years, the negatives from the Apollo programme have been scanned with better equipment and at much higher resolution, which allows for nice-looking enlargements – not the case with the low-res images previously available. In the case of the three-foot-wide print, someone stitched together a 10,000-pixel-wide image from a panorama photo series Charlie Duke took during Apollo 16.
  • The recently completed Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project used current technology to produce, from the data on hundreds of carefully preserved original 1960s magtapes, awe-inspiring photos far beyond the resolution and quality NASA could produce fifty years ago. The top middle picture in the hallway is an oblique photo of Copernicus from 150 miles south of the crater that was taken by chance during a “let’s move the film forward a bit” housekeeping task on Lunar Orbiter 2.
  • A plethora of discounts, including 40% or 50% off sales that Shutterfly runs every week or two, periodic Visa Checkout deals (US$25 off the next order), and even $25 Shutterfly credits that Best Buy includes with many hard drive purchases means you can easily get prints in these bigger sizes for $12-$16 each. That’s cheap for high quality large prints.
  • Massachusetts-based Quadro Frames, which I’ve used for many years, produces the highest quality borderless clip frames I’ve seen; other, more widely-available types are mostly flimsy and ill-fitting. 16×20″ frames from Quadro are US$12.50 and it’s $20 for 12×36″. Each frame is precisely fashioned and includes a sturdy, non-bending backing board with perfectly cut, strong clip channels on the back, pristine and perfectly clear PET plastic glazing panels with peel-off protective sheets on both sides (or glass panels for just $3 more), and more than enough clips that slip into the back channel with a satisfying firm snap. Even their care in shipping to guarantee safe arrival is the best possible: I always think, “Wow, just look at that” when I open boxes from them. For some of my orders, I’ll wager it’s taken them half an hour or more to pack the materials so fastidiously. It’s a good example of corporate responsibility and pride in doing things right.

Here are the source photographs I uploaded to Shutterfly for the hallway prints. You can pause the slideshow and right-click to view and/or save any image at its full size.

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I also got these three enlarged to 16×20″ and they’re up elsewhere in the house:

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