An affinity for the little-known

I watched with keen interest art historian Dr. James Fox’s new four-hour BBC Four series “Age of the Image” in recent weeks, then immediately devoured his just as excellent “A History of Art in Three Colours”. A few more of his series await me thanks to MVGroup.

Fox has a way of holding the viewer’s attention and a love of highlighting smaller but key points often overlooked that remind me somewhat of John McPhee’s writing and of Professor Iain Stewart’s BBC documentaries “Journeys Into the Ring of Fire”, “Rise of the Continents”, and others.

I happen to be in the midst of rereading McPhee’s 1967 book Oranges at the moment, so I can share an example that’s fresh in my memory of what I’m talking about. The book was one of McPhee’s first – bibliography here – and is a horticultural, commercial, and social history of the orange. I believe I just heard one of your eyebrows arching up at the thought of an entire book about oranges and pomologists (fruit scientists), but see here: It’s entertaining, informative, funny, sometimes surprising, and thoroughly deserving of the occasional reread. Plus it’s fairly short.

Early on in Oranges, he explains the basics of growing citrus, which are odd enough to start. Once you’re armed with that knowledge, he then proceeds to blow your mind a little later.

    Most citrus trees consist of two parts. The upper framework, called the scion, is one kind of citrus, and the roots and trunk, called the rootstock, are another. The place where the two parts come together, a barely discernible horizontal line around the trunk of a mature tree, is called the bud union. Seedling trees take about fifteen years before they start bearing well, and they bristle with ferocious thorns. Budded trees come into bearing in five years and are virtually free of thorns. In Florida, most orange trees have lemon roots. In California, nearly all lemon trees are grown on orange roots. This sort of thing is not unique with citrus. With the stone fruits, there is a certain latitude. Plums can be grown on cherry trees and apricots on peach trees, but a one-to-one relationship like that is only the beginning with citrus. A single citrus tree can be turned into a carnival, with lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, kumquats, and oranges all ripening on its branches at the same time. Trees that are almost completely valueless for their fruit seem to make the most valuable rootstocks. Most of the trees on the Ridge are growing on Rough Lemon—a kind of lemon whose fruit is oversized, lumpy, ninety per cent rind, and all but inedible. As a rootstock, it forages with exceptional vigor and, in comparison with others, puts more fruit on the tree. Bitter Oranges, or Sour Oranges, the kind usually associated with Scottish marmalade and with Seville, make an outstanding stock in certain soils, notably on the banks of the Indian River.

    Citrus scientists have difficulty finding the property lines between varieties and species and between species and hybrids. One astonishing illustration of this came as the result of an attempt, at the United States Horticultural Station in Orlando, Florida, to grow a virus-free Persian Lime. This is the kind of lime, almost perfectly seedless, that goes into everybody’s gin and tonic. About fifteen years ago, many Persian Lime trees in Florida were affected by a virus that was drastically shortening their lives. The most common way to create a virus-free strain of a citrus fruit is to plant a seed, since a parent’s virus is not transmitted to its seedlings. Persian Limes contain so few seeds, however, that the researchers—Philip C. Reece and J. F. L. Childs—cut up eighteen hundred and eighty-five Persian Limes and found no seeds at all. So they went to a concentrate plant and filled two dump trucks with pulp from tens of thousands of Persian Limes which had just been turned into limeade. Picking through it all by hand, they found two hundred and fifty seeds, and planted them. Up from those lime seeds came sweet orange trees, bitter orange trees, grapefruit trees, lemon trees, tangerines, limequats, citrons—and two seedlings which proved to be Persian Limes. Ordinarily, a citrus seed will tend to sprout a high proportion of something called nucellar seedlings, which are asexually produced and always have the exact characteristics of the plant from which the seed came. The seeds of the Persian Limes, however, sent up a high proportion of zygotic seedlings, meaning seedlings which arise from a fertilized egg cell. If zygotic seedlings come from parents which are true species, the seedlings will always quite obviously resemble one or the other parent, or both. If zygotic seedlings come from parents which are hybrids, they can resemble almost any kind of citrus ever known. The Persian Lime itself is probably a natural hybrid. The trees that grew from Reece’s and Childs’ lime seeds are still young, and they copiously produce their oranges and lemons, grapefruit and tangerines every year. The lemons are a type that are not grown, except perhaps in a laboratory, within three thousand miles of Orlando. However, most pomologists who are familiar with this story think that it has only one truly remarkable aspect. They think it is fairly phenomenal that, out of two hundred and fifty seeds, Reece and Childs got two Persian Limes.

 
McPhee has taught his “Creative Nonfiction” course at Princeton every spring since 1975; last week, he and the students moved online.

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Comfort food all the way

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I wanted to have some biscuits on hand for breakfast and decided to try a different recipe this morning. They came out well – even the ones in the row on the left cut from the second gentle gathering and rolling of scraps. It’s not at all surprising because King Arthur Flour recipes have never disappointed me. I usually make Flying Biscuits from the cookbook by the café of the same name I often visited at Candler Park, long ago when they had just three restaurants around Atlanta. King Arthur Flour calls the ones I made today simply Baking Powder Biscuits. I followed their advice to use buttermilk instead of milk. Like most baked goods, biscuits freeze nicely and thaw quickly, so that’s where five of them are now.

Because you could probably call me an old geezer without me grimacing too much, and because I have a history of getting influenza and pneumonia at the same time – five days in hospital over Christmas 1997 and a much less severe episode stopped by speedy application of Tamiflu and antibiotics in 2016, when the vaccinations I had for both did not cover the strains I caught – I got permission to start working exclusively from home on 9 March and have self-isolated since then, encountering just eight people through yesterday, all at a distance. My company activated its remote work plan a week later on 16 March at noon.

Edited 23 March to add: The state of Massachusetts has followed suit a week later, shutting down non-essential businesses and issuing a “stay at home” advisory from 24 March through 7 April.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of monitoring the news minute-by-minute, so I’ve been trying to limit that to no more than thirty minutes once a day. I’ll admit I’m not successful every day, but I am certain that a normal work day followed by cooking, baking, reading, and watching shows and films from the many thousands of hours in my media collection are far healthier ways of spending my waking hours, and I remain pleased that I’ve never joined any antisocial media network. I wince at the endless hours of feverish scrolling a lot of people must be putting themselves through. During work, the twenty-one hours of live music from Transatlantic Sessions that I have makes for a mellow background. It occurs to me that this would be a fine time to bring out the data DVDs I have of the earliest series of The Great British Bake Off from a decade ago.

As far as cooking and baking go, in recent days I’ve made, along with a few other things, six quarts of my hybrid French onion pot roast beef stew, six quarts of split pea soup, corn bread, Nancy Silverton’s La Brea Bakery bran muffins, banana cream pie partially based on a recipe from McEwen’s Restaurant in Memphis, and these biscuits – see the title of this post for the rationale. Slow-cooked bacon and some freshly-baked bread are on the horizon. I may make the simple but quite excellent River Cottage basic white loaf recipe or, if I’m more ambitious, I’ll refresh my sourdough starter, which will take a few days, to make a boule. Some of those recipes are here on the site – search at the magnifying glass under Mark Twain there on the left or, if you’re on a phone, search is at top right.

Today’s breakfast was poached eggs and sawmill gravy on a split biscuit:

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Edited 23 March to add:

Sausage, egg, and blackberry jam biscuit beats sausage, egg, and cheese

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The loons are a few weeks late this year

Is there absolutely no public or media memory of previous ridiculous Amelia Earhart theories and corresponding failed searches tied to the flimsiest of evidence? I mean, most of it emanates from the same guy at the same organization seeking to perpetuate itself year-on-year. Last time it was the History Channel that got hoodwinked by some new guys, now the National Geographic Channel has laid down a wad of cash and gotten Titanic guy Robert Ballard involved, all on the “strength” of the picture below touted by the usual suspect. An Electra landing gear? Come now. This photograph has been hawked as showing a landing gear and proving Earhart crashed at this island for many years. I don’t care what “classified technology” has been used this time – it’s an 80-year-old old photo, fercripesake. Could’ve been a squashed bug on the original negative for all we know. Sorry, but I’m not buying it this time either.

You might think that the New York Times is only writing about this new search because of Ballard’s involvement, but they, like everyone else, most often file breathless copy every time some guy – usually the same guy – excitedly says stuff like, “This lip balm case cannot have come from anyone but Amelia Earhart. You see? Case almost closed!” And the Times foregone-conclusion headline this time – like every other time – is maddening: “Finding Amelia Earhart’s Plane Seemed Impossible. Then Came a Startling Clue.” It’s not startling at all. The photo’s been shopped around since at least 1992, maybe earlier, with a new analysis we’re assured is of the highest tech done on it every few years. (“Hey, let’s try Image → Adjustments → Shadows/Highlights!”)

So once again, the media reword the press release en masse and ad infinitum and we’re off on another news cycle of steaming horse potatoes. It’s like Mars One, except that one at least died the undignified death it deserved. People don’t seem to realize that this Amelia Earhart malarkey is on a perpetual repeat cycle, with several different decades-old theories presented in an annual rotation. Another old theory they hope everyone’s forgotten about will be trotted out next year when they need more contributions. (“Whattaya think, maybe do the kinda sorta matching rivet pattern thing again this year even though it doesn’t really match and it’s the wrong aluminum manufacturer?” “No! Too soon.”)

Click this image and tell me that’s definitely for sure no doubt an Electra 10-E landing gear sticking out of the water at the left – which, I should add, no one noticed or investigated the day the photo was taken. I triple dog dare you.

In case you’re interested, here’s an IRS Form 990 for the non-profit that promotes this hooey, generally most visible around July of each year. There are just two salaried employees (line 15), the founder and his wife, and they’re paid handsomely. This group was founded in 1985 and is ostensibly devoted to historic aircraft recovery. They’ve collected millions of dollars in contributions, paid themselves quite a large chunk of that money (“Thanks, me!”), and have yet to recover any aircraft. This strikes me as being almost indistinguishable from a comfortable retirement plan.

The founder: “Amelia’s fame is like a faucet I can turn on and off with a press release.” And yes, he knew he was saying that out loud and in public.

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The ringmaster

Bill Tindall, NASA photo S72-36978; click for a full-size version

In The thousand-ring circus article last month, I mentioned that it was difficult to find photos of NASA engineer Bill Tindall bigger than a postage stamp. Well, that long-time dearth of pictures ends today and here with ten large photos of him above and in the gallery at the end of this post, all thanks to the the friendly folks at the Johnson Space Center History Office. One of the photos I included in the first article, a screenshot from the “Navigation Computer” episode of the “Moon Machines” series, seemed like it might be an official photo, so I wrote to JSC historian Jennifer Ross-Nazzal with a link to the article and asked if that was indeed a NASA photo and if it might therefore exist in an online repository.

They couldn’t find it in any of their image repositories, and so went to the trouble of searching the JSC negative library. There they found several negatives, including the one I asked about (the uncropped original above), generously had all of them digitized, and sent them to me. My virtual hat is off to them for their help.

In the previous article, I theorized that the “H. Timdell” [sic] sign on the wall behind him was perhaps an egregious misspelling of his name from some conference he attended, but I think I was wrong. This uncropped original of that 1972 photo plus the next photo in the series (included in the gallery below) reveal that the tag is centered under a framed picture indicating his membership in the rather exclusive Interstellar Association of Turtles – Outer Shell Division – usually limited to astronauts. Details on the member challenge mentioned in the text at that link that could not be answered in polite company are on the back of that card (in the second image) and described in further detail here (it’s pretty tame).

The inscription at the lower right of the picture frame is a little out of focus, but I believe it reads as follows:

To Bill,  
whose bright-eyed, bushy-tailed,
fearless, and unafraid attitude
epitomizes all that is great and good.
                   Your Intrepid Followers

Now that might have been presented to him by lots of people – say, the entire astronaut corps – but that “Intrepid Followers” leads my mind immediately to the crew of Apollo 12, whose Lunar Module was called Intrepid. And Apollo 12 Commander Pete Conrad was an unrepentant wise-ass, so it would be very much like him to mangle the name on the package to firmly tweak Tindall’s penchant for accuracy. (Remember that Conrad is the guy who gave Jim Lovell the nickname “Shaky” – not the most respectful nickname for a test pilot – which I believe Lovell banned from being used in the script for “Apollo 13.”) I also just confirmed my recollection that Conrad once said of the night before they landed Intrepid on the Ocean of Storms, “You settle down for the night bright-eyed and bushy-tailed because you know, ‘Tomorrow, I’m going to land!'” Circumstantial? Sure, but that’s my new theory and I’m sticking to it. Unless corrected.

Conrad’s nickname? “Tweety”

In the third 1972 photo below, I’m pretty sure the even more out-of-focus sign above the bookshelf reads: “The more innocuous a design change appears, the further its influence will extend.” That’s one of the better of Murphy’s laws of general engineering.

So, here are the photos from NASA in chronological order, from his Gemini days in 1965 through 1979, the year he retired from NASA (the leading S number indicates the year). Click on any one to enter the gallery, and from the gallery any of the images can be saved by using the “View full size” link at the lower right, which you may have to scroll down a little to see.

Be aware that these are fairly large at about 3MB apiece – similar in size to modern digital camera images – so they make take a little while to show up in full size.

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“If we’re late in answering you, it’s because we’re munching sandwiches.”

That was Command Module Pilot Mike Collins about five hours into Apollo 11. CAPCOM Bruce McCandless answered, “Roger. I wish I could do the same here.” Collins: “No, don’t leave the console!”


If the Apollo 11 anniversary piqued your interest last month and you’d like to learn more, I have six book recommendations. There are, of course, dozens of fine books on the topic, but I think these are the crème de la crème – and three of them are free in PDF form.

  1. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin: Apollo from the perspective of the astronauts. In the years prior to the book’s release in 1994, he interviewed twenty-three of the twenty-four Apollo astronauts at length (one had died) – a feat thought by many to be a pipe dream, but astronaut word-of-mouth carried him through. They knew he was serious and good. There is a three-volume, profusely illustrated version as well, which you can find here – but you may find a set cheaper here on AbeBooks if any sellers have a copy (three very good condition copies as of this writing). For that set, Chaikin curated the photo selections from which the Time-Life editors chose.
  2. Apollo: The Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox (titled just Apollo in its most recent reprint): This is the definitive Apollo history from the point of view of the technical people on the ground. Updated 11 August to add: I just looked at the going price for used hardcovers and paperbacks and blanched when I saw that it’s hovering at about US$100 for both, even on AbeBooks (I paid $24.95 for the hardcover in the photo when it came out in 1989). However, the link here is to the Kindle edition for $8, and in case you weren’t aware, you don’t need a Kindle to read it: Amazon offers free Kindle reader programs for Android and Apple tablets and phones, Windows, and macOS. There’s also an unabridged Audible audiobook for $27. Updated 23 October to add: prices on AbeBooks have now dropped back down to more reasonable levels, including, as of this writing, a sub-$20 very good copy of the hardcover.
  3. Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins: I and many others think this is the best of the astronaut memoirs – smart, honest, and funny. Unlike most or maybe even all of the rest of the astronauts, he actually wrote it himself. Read the footnotes, too – some of them are a hoot.
  4. Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft by Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr.: How the Apollo Command-Service Module and Lunar Module spacecraft were designed, developed, and built. This one and the next two are nicely-scanned PDFs of the original NASA History Series books available for free on the NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS).
  5. Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations by Charles D. Benson and William Barnaby Faherty: How the Vehicle Assembly Building, the Crawler-Transporter, Mobile Launcher, and all of Launch Complex 39 came to be.
  6. Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo-Saturn Launch Vehicles by Roger E. Bilstein: How the Saturn rockets were developed and refined.

There are many more free Apollo-related books and technical reports in PDF form at NTRS, many of which are linked in an article I wrote two years ago: https://finleyquality.net/i-got-mine-at-the-gpo-bookstore/

Say, it’s Neil Armstrong’s birthday today. And mine!

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“Sakrafise!”

Huzzah! B.K. Taylor’s “Timberland Tales” and “The Appletons” strips from National Lampoon will be resurrected next spring – to wit: https://www.amazon.com/Think-Hes-Crazy-B-K-Taylor/dp/1683962877. Publication is set for March 2020, and the quality is bound to be excellent: Taylor told me in email a year ago that he was on a final quest for the original artwork for just a few remaining strips. I happened to think of that email this morning – strangely, it was one year ago Sunday – and just searched for “I Think He’s Crazy” in the last year…et voilà!

That years-ago post of mine in the first link here is consistently among the top ten visited pages on The Finley Quality Network (1,273 hits to date, with 277 so far this year), so I think sales ought to be pretty good.

I read a lot of books on Kindle, but this one’s too good for a puny screen – especially my monochrome e-ink one – so I’m going to buy the real 8½x11″ book. One assumes the “Lapoon” typo will be fixed by then (I pointed it out to him).

Edited 23 August 2019 to add: The corrected image is now on Amazon’s pre-order page for the book.

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“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 (edited to add: shown again in episode 6), 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, a photo of four of them below the screenshot, 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 the producers would 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. The heaters prevented fuel residue buildup of hydrazinium nitrate, which could eventually detonate and destroy the RCS engine.

*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

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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.

Click for a larger version

I first learned of Tindall in 1989 when I read Apollo: The Race to the Moon by Murray and Cox, which I think will ever remain the definitive Apollo history from the perspective of technical people on the ground, and have since gathered the information that’s included here from 1,700 pages of his memos that the Kennedy Space Center History Office sent to me in 1999, individual memos kindly provided by the University of Houston-Clear Lake from their Johnson Space Center History Collection, some JSC oral histories, and several other books and online resources.

After his earlier work on Mercury trajectories and Gemini rendezvous techniques, Bill 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 branches 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 [Apollo 11] 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/. How that restoration came about is discussed in detail by JSC Historic Preservation Officer Sandra Tetley and contractor lead Adam Graves in this hour-long episode of “Houston We Have a Podcast”: https://www.nasa.gov/johnson/HWHAP/restoring-the-apollo-mission-control-center

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 – and conducted is precisely the right word. 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. The increased peace of mind I’m sure he had as a result was no doubt shared by many because they all knew that there was a precise plan for just about any problem imaginable.

They were after what was right, and everybody was passionate about it. Everybody was young so they were kind of brash and there wasn’t a lot of patience anywhere. So some of those meetings were very, very colorful. Some of the characters were colorful. At the end of this, you were just inundated with all of this stuff you’ve heard. And now what?

And the next day you would get this two-, maybe three-page memorandum from Bill Tindall written in a folksy style, saying, ‘You know, we had this meeting yesterday. We were trying to ask this. If I heard you right, here’s what I think you said and here’s what I think we should do.’ And he could summarize these complex technical and human issues and put it down in a readable style that – I mean, people waited for the next Tindallgram. That was like waiting for the newspaper in the morning. They looked forward to it. I just remember that I’ve always talked to people about this amazing skill.

– Ken Mattingly, Command Module Pilot, Apollo 16

Just how complicated could Tindall’s mission techniques get? Consider that Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Mike Collins put this CMP Solo Book on a string around his neck a few hours before Armstrong and Aldrin departed for the lunar surface (onboard audio: “Neil, I hate to bother you; could you get my solo book out of R-1 there? Big frapping book, with a bunch of updates on the cover.”). 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.

Tindall also kept up with the latest scuttlebutt, which at times required that he step in to protect things that needed protecting. For example, when he heard that a NASA high mucky-muck said they should get rid of the Lunar Module’s rendezvous radar to save weight, and that people were beginning to take the idea seriously, Tindall took action to nip that in the bud immediately by writing this memo to George Low, the boss of all Apollo bosses. He didn’t name the official in the memo, but it was Associate Administrator for Manned Space George Mueller who made the flippant suggestion after a visit to Grumman on Long Island, where LM weight reduction was a constant focus for years. After Low read Tindall’s high-energy memo, some memos went between higher mucky-mucks and a few weeks later Mueller’s boss told him, in summary, “Yeah…no.

Sometimes fairly unlikely scenarios gnawed at him a bit – such as whether their re-entry targeting was so good that a Command Module might, by mistake and with a catastrophic result, hit the aircraft carrier that was waiting for its splashdown. His method of dealing with small worries was the same as the large ones: address all eventualities completely through thorough planning. In this case, his memo titled Let’s move the recovery forces a little. (“PAO requirements for good commercial TV” refers to the NASA Public Affairs Office.)

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 the Command Module code was about 30,000 bytes in excess of the 72,000 available in the AGC and the Lunar Module software was around 10,000 over its 72,000. 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.” Two weeks after Black Friday, he discussed his strategy in this memo, which began with the important point that “There are a number of us who feel that the computer programs for the Apollo spacecraft will soon become the most pacing item for the Apollo flights.” Despite the initial hard feelings at the Lab, they did what he asked, and over time came to realize just how beneficial his involvement was to their work – and best of all, that work was ready when it needed to be.

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/

In late 1965 just before his work on Apollo began, the New York Times profiled Tindall in a brief Gemini 6/7 sidebar titled “Rendezvous Planner Howard W. Tindall, Jr.” (reprinted in the January 1966 Brown Alumni Monthly here), but 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 US 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 (a screenshot 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 perhaps 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, maybe 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

We weren’t working overtime, we were playing!

– Bill Tindall

Edited 9 August 2019 to add: My theory above about that misspelling on his wall is now inoperative…defunct…shot down. The Johnson Space Center History Office has kindly found and sent me the original of that official photo along with nine others of Tindall from 1965-1979, which I’ve just posted here: https://finleyquality.net/The-ringmaster. Some deductive reasoning on the uncropped version of that one that they sent reveals the much more likely source of “H. Timdell” [sic].

Edited 21 August 2019 to add: I just happened upon this tidbit while reading Harrison Schmitt’s 1999 Johnson Space Center oral history interview. Twenty-seven years after his Apollo 17 mission, Schmitt emphasized how important Tindall’s memos were, not just at the time but for purposes of mission planning in the future (emphasis mine):

Well, Frank Borman approached me, asked me if I would do the lunar orbit flight planning for their effort. And that meant that I began to interact with [Howard W.] Tindall’s group, the Flight Operations Planning group that met weekly that really was the focus of all of the operational planning for a particular mission. They were looking at all the missions, but the one up was the one they were concentrating on. And that’s another tremendous resource.

And I’m not sure where there is a complete collection of what were called Tindallgrams. They were his summary of each of those meetings. I have a partial collection at the University of New Mexico in the files there. Whether there would be a complete collection or not, I don’t know. But somebody ought to make a very, very specific effort to get a complete collection of the FOP minutes, Tindallgrams, and to get those in some kind of form and bound. Because that is a resource that should not be lost. I can understand it’s hard to put together. I hope somebody has been able to do that.

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“We choose to go to the moon”

I was told when I was a kid that Senator John Kennedy once held me – an infant at the time – during his presidential campaign in 1960. I heard about it years later, when my mother wondered whether we should donate our Super 8 film of the event to the JFK Library that was finally being built in Boston. We sometimes vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard – just summer weekend trips, I think – taking the ferry from Hyannis, where the Kennedy compound was, so I imagine it probably happened there, perhaps on Saturday, 25 June 1960, the single public appearance in Hyannis that’s listed in his campaign schedule that summer. I would have been six weeks shy of my first birthday.

Seventeen years later, after the data processing head at my high school did some lobbying with John’s brother, Edward Kennedy, the Senator (well, people in his office) magnanimously offered me a grant of four years’ tuition, room, and board at the University of Massachusetts. That would have been swell, but U. Mass. didn’t have a computer science curriculum at the time, so I passed.

So I feel a small personal affinity for the Kennedys. Though these connections are distant and tangential, that affinity feels closer and more direct whenever I listen to John’s full “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice University in 1962. It remains stirring, and tingles the spine when you know the triumphs and tragedies that were to follow.

Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s “intellectual blood bank”, wrote the initial drafts of the speech and edits by both Sorensen and Kennedy followed. Kennedy also made some handwritten adjustments before delivering it, including a last-minute joke on the page below. The complete story of the speech is in this article at the JFK Library.

If you follow along with the copy of the speech Kennedy was reading from that day, which appears on pages 25-42 in this document archive from the JFK Library, you’ll see that in the last couple of minutes, he paused, abandoned the text, and spoke in a more conversational manner, commenting first on the sweltering heat and clapping his hands for effect at the end of this part:

I’m the one that’s doing all the work, so we just want you to stay cool for a minute. However, I think we’re going to do it, and I think we must pay what needs to be paid. I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job. And this will be done in the decade of the ’60s. It may be done while some of you are still here at school at this college and university. It will be done during the terms of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. But it will be done, and it will be done before the end of this decade.

The full text of the speech as actually delivered is available here.

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“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.

Click for a larger version

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

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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

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An Essex boy at heart

Essex, Massachusetts, that is.

My view of the salt marsh during tonight’s dinner at J.T. Farnham’s; click for a larger version

This year’s menu:

I got my usual clam plate with fries and onion rings, plus a quart each of clam chowder and haddock chowder to bring home. Market price on the clam plate was US$24, lower by a few dollars than last year.

I was more interested in eating than taking pictures, so here’s a plate they made earlier. They look this scrumpdillyicious every time. This is what I think of whenever I use or hear the phrase “golden brown and delicious”.

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Hogwash probably caused by cosmic rays

Once again, I’ve come away from listening to an episode of RadioLab convinced that they sometimes play dumb for effect. In this episode, “Bit Flip”, they went on for some minutes about how none of them had any idea what the significance of the number 4,096 might be, even as someone started going through the powers of two for them. The rest of the episode was devoted to detailing how not one of them had ever heard of the rare but real effect cosmic ray hits can sometimes have on electronic equipment – a good amount less rare at very high altitude and in space. They seem to have never heard of cloud chambers, either, and, after building one and seeing the effect for themselves, announced that yes, it seems those cosmic ray dealy-bobs really do exist. Pardon me?

I do like RadioLab, but my bullshit detector has clanged loudly more than once in the past as I listened, in maybe eight or ten episodes over the years. Their ubiquitous and multiple exclamations of “What?! I can’t believe it! But how?” have long fallen flat on my ears – not just because they always go over the top with their supposed disbelief/shock/surprise in this scripted show, but sometimes because I know the topic at hand actually came up at some length in mainstream science news stories years ago. When this happens, I say to myself, in Ray Goulding’s voice, “Wattaya, dumb? Don’t you know anything, you people?” (I’m quoting from the Bob & Ray sketch below – Ray’s on the left.)

But I don’t think that; I think they’re well aware and perhaps hope and trust that everyone has forgotten about them by now. Some of those news stories have occurred within the lifetime of RadioLab itself, but even for the older ones, Robert Krulwich especially, co-host of the show and also science correspondent for National Public Radio, is of an age that surely he remembers most of them. He’s the one I most suspect of putting on an act in such episodes. I can imagine him saying, “Yes, of course I heard of that back in the ’90s, but look, we gotta stick with the show’s M.O.: Salient facts are scripted as surprises known by none of us.”

Also galling about this episode is that they seemed to conclude that all the cases they talked about are highly likely to have been the result of cosmic ray hits, something which is certainly if minutely possible but, since there is no evidence after the fact, is certainly impossible to prove, or even say with any level of confidence unless you’re experimentally set up to detect the particles as they hit. Particularly egregious was their strong implication that an Australian Airbus in-flight upset was likely caused by a cosmic ray hit. (In effect, “See? Can’t even trust airplanes!”) Mushrooms would thrive in this steaming pile of horse potatoes. The Australian Transport Safety Board’s entirely opposite conclusion, after exhaustive study, was that Single Event Effects, the catchall name for such cosmic ray hits, were “very unlikely” to have been the cause of the malfunction. So RadioLab goes and finds some schmoe who says the equivalent of “So what they were really saying is that there’s still a pretty good chance, yeah?” and they nod enthusiastically – not because it makes any sense, but because it matches the narrative they chose to follow.

I often used to tell people in a nonchalant manner that due to a long-standing superstition among publishers, you can’t find the word “gullible” in any printed dictionary. The number whose immediate response was a wide-eyed “Really?” was not insignificant; they are perhaps the target audience for this episode.

“Yes, even I am dishonest. Not in many ways, but in some. Forty-one, I think it is.”
– Mark Twain in a letter to Joseph Twichell, 15 March 1905

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“13 Minutes to the Moon” podcast

After listening to the first episode, which was well done, I can recommend the new “13 Minutes to the Moon” BBC World Service podcast, promoted as “The full story of the people who made Apollo 11 happen and prevented it from going badly wrong.”

It will run for twelve episodes – if they’re all 45 minutes like the first one, that will be nine hours total.

Background on the series: Apollo Moon landing: The 13 minutes that defined a century

Programme site: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w13xttx2

Podcast page (RSS link at upper right): https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w13xttx2

 

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Carrying the Fire now weightless

16 July 1969: Collins suiting up in a frame from this year’s “Apollo 11” documentary film

Mike Collins, Command Module Pilot of Apollo 11, wrote what is considered one of if not the best of the astronaut memoirs, Carrying the Fire, originally published in 1974. It’s finally been released as an ebook, so I’m rereading it in its weightless form now. If you read it after watching his recent hour-plus Aero-Astro classes at MIT here, it’s quickly obvious that he had no ghostwriter for this book – a rarity in such memoirs. It’s fully and delightfully in his own voice.

Gemini and Apollo astronauts underwent both tropical and desert survival training in case they reentered – or aborted during launch phase – away from recovery forces and ended up in entirely the wrong place; cold weather training wasn’t needed because the orbital mechanics of Gemini and Apollo flights dictated paths near the equator. Wrapping up the narrative of his Air Force tropical survival school training in Panama, he has this to say in the book:

“Somewhere along the way I picked up a couple of hundred companions, chiggers, evenly distributed from the waist down. I cannot adequately explain to the unchiggered what they are missing. My dictionary says simply that chiggers are ‘the parasitic larva of certain mites.’ It doesn’t say they are also abominable little red creatures who burrow into your skin, where they ultimately die. Uneasy in their terminal tunnels, they either jump about or dig deeper, or secrete some irritant, or something; at any rate they itch like crazy. Friends are always pleased to offer remedies. ‘Rub them with Scotch and sand. They’ll get drunk and stone each other to death.’ They merely itch worse when they (or you) have a hangover. ‘Have you tried an ice pick?’ The most popular notion (false) is that they can be suffocated, and I have heard doctors recommend covering each spot with clear nail polish. Why clear rather than blush pink (my natural color) I cannot say, but I can say with authority that it doesn’t work either, nor does the iodine-like chigger medicine sold in pharmacies. The only thing to do is wait ten days for the truculent little bastards to die or depart, leaving behind a cratered field of battle not easily forgotten by the landowner.”

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