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. 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.

Click for a larger version

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.

Click for a larger version

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.

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

The Surveyor landers would be jealous

Here’s some beautiful descent footage from the Chang’e-4 spacecraft that made the first ever soft landing on the far side of the moon last week. When it rotated quickly toward the surface at 1:01, I found myself instinctively saying with a grin, “Pitchover!” I’d suggest viewing this full-screen.

Here’s the descent profile you’re seeing in that video:

Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Centre

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team have determined where Chang’e-4 touched down, its approximate position in the Von Kármán crater shown in the older LRO imagery of the area below. LRO will next pass over the Chang’e-4 site toward the end of this month, when they ought to be able to snap a picture of the lander on the surface. Depending on LRO’s altitude at the time, it will show up as anything from a few bright pixels – remember that it’s just the far side and not a dark side – to something showing a bit more detail of the lander, the rover, and perhaps its tracks.

NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

First full panorama released of the landing site, produced from 80 images:

“Yeah, sure, high-def landing video, but does it bounce? I thought not.” – Surveyor 3

Okay, so the descent engine didn’t cut off at the right altitude, but that new one still can’t bounce.

Progress launch from ISS

Low earth orbit is not the most exciting place to be in space, but I’ll admit it is extraordinary at times. This is the launch of a Progress cargo ship taken from the ISS eight days ago, captured in a fashion Stanley Kubrick would have appreciated. Best viewed full-screen and in the dark. The Soyuz launch vehicle first appears about 6 seconds in.

Downloadable in MP4 form here. The “Source” link there is full HD.

  • Title Progress launch timelapse seen from space
  • Released: 22/11/2018
  • Length 00:01:10
  • Language English
  • Footage Type Music Clip
  • Copyright ESA/NASA
  • DescriptionTimelapse of the Russian Progress MS-10 cargo spacecraft launched on 16 November 2018 at 18:14 GMT from Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, taken by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst from the International Space Station.The spacecraft was launched atop a Soyuz rocket with 2564 kg of cargo and supplies. Flying at 28 800 km/h, 400 km high, the International Space Station requires regular supplies from Earth such as this Progress launch. Spacecraft are launched after the Space Station flies overhead so they catch up with the orbital outpost to dock, in this case two days later on 18 November 2018.The images were taken from the European-built Cupola module with a camera set to take pictures at regular intervals. The pictures are then played quickly after each other at 8 to 16 times normal speed. The video shows around 15 minutes of the launch at normal speed.The Progress spacecraft delivered food, fuel and supplies, including about 750 kg of propellant, 75 kg of oxygen and air and 440 l of water.Some notable moments in this video are:

    00:07 Soyuz-FG rocket booster separation.

    00:19 Core stage separation.

    00:34:05 Core stage starts burning in the atmosphere as it returns to Earth after having spent all its fuel.

    00:34:19 Progress spacecraft separates from rocket and enters orbit to catch up with the International Space Station.

    Credits: ESA/NASA

Posters and framing on the cheap

Click for a larger version

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Musk decides not to murder tourists

Surprise, surprise, there will be no slaughtering of tourists around the moon in Q4 2018 as originally stated early last year. That’s a sensible thing. Besides, nobody but the worst of humanity would want to see the millions of laugh-cry emojis that would inevitably be pasted willy-nilly by the worst of humanity.

“If I’ve told you media people once, I’ve told you a hundred million times that I never engage in hyperbole! Ever, do you hear me? Now get out or I call in the bulldozers!”

See also: NASA decides not to murder astronauts

Fireball!

After writing of my fireball meteor experience as a kid below, I did a little digging and found out I was wrong about two things: First, I was actually a few months shy of my seventh birthday when it happened, which, thanks to the fairly amazing web, I discovered was 7:14pm Eastern Time on Sunday, 25 April 1966. Second, the fireball lasted almost 30 seconds, not 8. I knew it was visible for a long time, and my friend and I saw it from the start, but I was being conservative with my recall. Because I remember us shouting – likely pretty tame stuff like “Holy crap!” – and, I think, leaping up and down for quite a while, my recollection was 20 seconds or more, but I doubted that as I wrote the post because even 10 seconds is a long time for any meteor to be visible. I shall trust my memory more in future.

It was called the “Great Fireball of 1966” and was widely seen on the East Coast of the US and in Canada. It was a bolide – meaning it broke up as it sped in – estimated to be 5-10 feet across, and since it wasn’t part of any expected meteor shower, it might have been a small asteroid. It was written up in Life magazine and Sky & Telescope at the time – pictures from those issues below.

When we saw it, it seemed to be only several miles above us, maybe forty or fifty thousand feet, but the show actually began near the Kármán line, commonly accepted as the point space begins, 62 miles/100 km up. Its initial altitude of 327,000 feet explains why it seemed to move fairly slowly.

A research paper dissecting the meteor was published in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and is available here.

I said in yesterday’s post that I could show where we were and the path of the meteor, and so I can with Google Street View. My house was just to the left of frame here, and we were next door, sitting on the steps at street level at the green X. I’ve darkened the sky in this image to approximate the light at the time, and the color of the line in the sky is just about the color of the meteor we saw, except it was matchhead-bright, of course. I can’t recall precisely if it went below the horizon, but I believe we did see it breaking up toward the end.

You can click either of these two images for a larger version:

Our view was most like the two photos taken from Springfield, Massachusetts

This was a heady time for me. I was already heavily into the space programme, with Gemini in full swing and Apollo about to start. The next milestone for me was this oblique view of the Copernicus crater on the Ocean of Storms, sent back by Lunar Orbiter 2 seven months later, in November 1966:

This photograph, iconic at the time, came to be known as “the picture of the century” and it’s hard for me to disagree. It was taken from an altitude of 27 miles/45 km and 200 km/125 miles away from the centre of the crater. No one had seen such a spectacular view of the moon before. The funny thing is, the photo was entirely unintentional. They simply needed to advance the film in the onboard camera, so they fired a couple of “housekeeping” exposures – random ones as far as they were concerned, but just look at what they got.

Lunar Orbiter

That photo was mind-bending for me and made more concrete the prospect of people being there, which would happen in just a couple more years. Before that happened, 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in April 1968 and I saw it at its Boston premiere on a huge, curved Cinerama screen perhaps seventy feet wide. Eight months after that, Apollo 8 carried the first men to leave the Earth and orbit the moon. And then it just got better and better from there. It was one helluva time to be alive.

Marquee of the RKO Boston Theatre, April 1968

Fire power

Click any image for a larger version

From Sacramento FD, 15 December 2017: Sacramento Engine 316 as part of California OES Strike Team 4805c, preparing to depart Ventura Base Camp for a day on the fire line. The Thomas Fire is now 252,500 acres, with 35% containment and 8,369 personnel assigned.

Hundreds of units are visible in their photo from the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Other totals as of 15 December: 1,012 fire engines, 62 water tenders, 32 helicopters, 158 handcrews, 78 bulldozers, plus other firefighting aircraft.

In the MODIS natural colour image below, smoke from California wildfires stretches north past the Oregon border. The southern half of Vancouver Island is visible at the top and the lower edge of this image is about 175 miles south of the Baja California border. Acquired by NASA’s Aqua satellite on 11 December 2017.

Aqua’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) shows CO concentration on 11 December 2017. “Column” refers to the 5km-high column of air that’s measured and 1018 is one quintillion.

Further details on these Aqua images here.

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

NASA decides not to murder astronauts

I missed this good news a couple weeks ago: After three months of study, NASA has rejected the utterly idiotic idea of attempting to put astronauts around the moon on the very first test flight of the Space Launch System. The New York Times story on their decision is here.

Now who’s going to put their foot down and say “No” to Mr. Musk’s plan to off a couple of billionaire tourists?

When I was eight, I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey during its Boston premiere on a huge, bowed Cinerama screen. It was April 1968, eight months before Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders flew Apollo 8 around the moon at Christmas and fourteen months before we landed. What dreams I had! I took this photo just now of the 2001 insert style poster – the paintings by Robert McCall – that’s on the wall just behind me. Sometimes I look at it and sigh a little.

GOES-16 Geostationary Lightning Mapper

Thirty-six hours of lightning in the severe storms over the Eastern US a week ago, captured by the new GOES-16 NOAA satellite, which launched last November. It was known as GOES-R before launch.

Summarizing the satellite’s capabilities:

GOES-R will scan the skies five times faster than today’s GOES spacecraft, with four times greater image resolution and three times the spectral channels. It will provide high-resolution, rapid-refresh satellite imagery as often as every 30 seconds, allowing for a more detailed look at a storm to determine whether it is growing or decaying.

This image demonstrates the vast increase in resolution from GOES-13 (r) to GOES-16 (l). It’s 4572 x 2252 and 7.3MB:

Click for a much larger version

Hey, I can nearly see my house from here in this medium resolution image of the Northeast US taken in January:

Click for a larger version

Sounds like premeditated murder to me

Elon Musk, not exactly a stranger to launch failures, is planning to fly a couple of billionaire tourists around the moon in Q4 2018, just 19-22 months from now.

NASA is being pressured into – and is apparently considering – turning the first all-up SLS test flight, unmanned in current plans, into not just a manned mission but one around the moon.

What could possibly go wrong?

The Apollo programme put men on board only after six comprehensive test flights, four with Saturn IBs and two all-up Saturn V stacks, and ten component test flights before that using Saturn I. Wernher von Braun didn’t even want to do the first all-up test of a Saturn V stack when they did, preferring to proceed even more methodically and carefully. There were many problems and many fixes after each of those flights, some of which were detailed in the excellent six-part “Moon Machines” series, the Saturn episode of which is below.

I often complain that we haven’t done anything of real substance in manned space travel since Apollo 17 returned in December 1972, not once leaving low Earth orbit in forty-five years, but this two-pronged plan to knowingly, purposefully, needlessly put lives at extreme risk is not what I want to see. If carried through, neither of these is likely to end well. I won’t say I told you so; I will mourn.

It may be oversimplifying and slightly facetious to say this, but there is no one left at NASA who remembers how to get to the moon.

All six episodes of “Moon Machines” are in this playlist.

Details, details

The first Mars flight could take place in 2022, according to SpaceX’s timeline for Mars colonisation.”

So Musk is going to solve those pesky radiation, bone density loss, and optic nerve problems, amongst several others, in just 72 months, eh? Impressive if true.*

Buy why is there no mention of these forthcoming almost miraculous developments in that BBC article? Perhaps it’s simply a rewrite of a press release that didn’t mention them due to their peskiness.

marvin

“Yes, I have a follow-up question, please: Huh?”

 

*Headline used in some Civil War era newspapers, often above bogus stories: “Important If True”