Tag Archives: spaceflight

339. Teaching Space

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years. It was often fun, but not always. Helping the kids make projects to demonstrate simple machines was a blast, but chemistry was no fun at all. It was a challenge to make astronomy appeal to my kids, but I think I managed.

Teaching space had its ups and downs.

The space race had everything, exploration, political intrigue, danger – both in space and in the Cold War which was the real reason for going to space – technology and a chance to participate. When I taught Gemini IV, I would put two chairs on their backs on a table and have two students lie back in them to represent McDivitt and White. Then I would take “Ed White” for a  space walk.

I was big and they were small. I would pick “Ed” up by the waist and take him spinning and “floating” around the classroom before he returned to the capsule. Great fun for both of us. I always chose the smallest student to play Ed White and, of course, always a boy. Sorry feminists, but if you think about it for a moment, you’ll see why.

I could use the movies Apollo 13 and parts of The Right Stuff, and that was a big help. But the space race was teaching history. What was happening in the world outside the classroom during my teaching career was less fun.

The Space Shuttles were practical. Five craft made 135 trips into space, expanded our knowledge, launched the Hubble, and built the ISS. They called the shuttle NASA’s pick-up truck. It was a good analogy, but what twelve year old wants to go to space in a pick-up truck?

Nothing was really new, just more and better of the same old stuff. Nobody was going beyond low Earth orbit.

(“When are we going to the moon again, Teacher? When are we going to Mars?”
“Damned if I know kid. It’s beginning to look like never.)

There were promising new programs. I watched several of them as they were announced, begun, and then cancelled. I’ll recap them later.

I taught the space shuttle with more enthusiasm than I actually felt. We followed its progress, and there was a lot of it during my teaching career. There was also tragedy.

When the Challenger blew up, my class wasn’t watching. Our school got TV’s for the classrooms a couple of years later, so I didn’t know what had happened until recess when I went to the teacher’s lounge and saw faces suitable for a wake on my fellow teachers. It was a long afternoon, first explaining to the students what had occurred, and then going on with our work as if nothing had happened.

I didn’t face another day like that until 9/11.

I remember sitting with my friends in the teacher’s lounge after Challenger blew up, listening to the radio. When the announcer said that the mission commander had flown fighter jets during Viet Nam, I knew that he had found a more honorable death than that war could have given him.

When Columbia returned from orbit the last time, I was excited to see it. By that time I had moved to the foothills. Columbia’s flight path was to pass north of my new house, and I was up before daylight to watch its fire trail across the sky from my balcony. Instead, I only saw dense fog. I waited around until the projected time and at least heard it’s sonic boom. Five minutes later and a thousand miles to the east, it broke up and fell to earth.

It was Saturday morning. I had two days before it would be time to talk to my students about what had happened.

324. Scientific Entrepreneurs

ksc-20160408-ph_kls0001_0005_25704320894In Heinlein’s original stories, a visionary entrepreneur named D. D. Harriman put the first man on the moon. In our world, NASA did it.

Recently, NASA has been in one of its periodic slow periods and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have been taking center stage. Just this week (I’m writing this on March second) both groups were in the news. Musk announced that two unnamed underwriters had put down sizable deposits for a trip around the moon in the near future, riding in a Dragon spacecraft on top of one of his Falcon rockets. And NASA has announced that the first launch of its Space Launch System booster might carry astronauts around the moon again, for the first time since 1972.

Both are big news, if they happen. Of course, if you follow the space program, you know that there are always more big stories of upcoming events than there are actual events. We’ll have to wait and see.

There are many space enthusiasts who feel that private enterprise should lead in the exploration of space. “Boy genius builds rocket in basement and travels to Alpha Centauri” has a long history in science fiction. I don’t see it.

American industry built all the components of the Apollo missions, and the government paid the bill. Elon Musk has built the Falcon rocket (see photo) on his own, but a NASA contract to supply the ISS pays at least part of the bill. Different, yes, but how different? Privately owned trucks carry goods to your town every day, but on government built roads. Private enterprise is always entangled with government support.

Perhaps it all comes down to a case of, “Who do you trust?” Do you trust private enterprise? Or do you trust the government? Personally, I don’t trust either one of them, so I don’t care who carries the torch for space exploration, as long as it happens.

All this brings us to the anniversary of the day.

Since innumerable interesting things have happened throughout history, and there are only 365 days in a year, you can find something worth celebrating almost any day.

On March 26 (yesterday) or March 25 — depending on which side of the international date line you’re sitting on as you read this — in 2012, James Cameron made a solo descent to the deepest point in the ocean.

The Challenger Deep, in the Marianas Trench, had not been visited by humans since 1960. That expedition was sponsored by the government, specifically the U. S. Navy. Cameron’s visit was self-financed.

Rich men spending their money on their passions, without regard for profit, is not just a twenty-first century phenomenon. Rockefeller made his money in oil, then set up the Rockefeller Foundation. Alfred Nobel made his fortune in armaments, then set up a Peace Prize. Andrew Carnegie made his money in railroads, then set up a chain of libraries across America, including one which illuminated my youth.

Cameron became rich through such films as Titanic and Avatar. His passion for undersea exploration is of long standing. Like Musk with manned space flight, Cameron is continuing an exploration that the government began, then partially abandoned.

Tomorrow we will look at earlier explorers of Challenger Deep.

313. Weightless Ecology

ecoopwegt-lessI’ve been putting off this post since I started the blog. It’s embarrassing. I’m proud of what I did, but telling it makes me feel a little like one of those old guys who never stops talking about the night his forward pass won the big game.

Still, if I hadn’t done what I’m going to tell you about today, I would never have done what I did the summer after (tomorrow’s post), and if not for that, I would still be driving a tractor in Oklahoma. So here goes.

1964-5 was my junior year in high school. That was the year I took both junior and senior English because I was running out of classes to take, and that was the year I discovered science fairs. We didn’t have one in our tiny school, but their was a regional competition one county over. I had recently discovered Shirley Moore’s Science Projects Handbook, which was the bible for the science nuts (nerd wasn’t a word yet) of my generation.

America was in space; the Mercury project was completed and Gemini was waiting in the wings. I was enthralled with space, but also with ecology. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was about to make ecology a household word, but no one in my world had heard of it yet. I decided to put the two together and build an “Ecosystem Operable in Weightlessness”.

Lets get real. Boy scientist builds spaceship and flies to Arcturus only happens in the very old pulp stories. I wasn’t going to build something that would actually fly in space. It was an exercise in design, with as much building as I could pull off with limited resources.

The idea was that at that time NASA needed to keep to keep some creature in weightlessness long enough to see what it would do to its body. Laika the Russian space dog hadn’t lasted long, and the longest Mercury flight had been 34 hours. I proposed a design that would put two mice in a closed ecosystem with algae. It was set up so that the algae tank would spin to provide just enough gravity to keep the water separate from the air, but the mice would be weightless in a separate chamber.

The fun was in the details. The mice would be housed in a two part plexiglas bubble, with a wire mesh floor at its equator. Waste would pass through he mesh, carried by the airstream and drop down into the algae tank.

That part actually got built. I made the algae tank of plexiglas, heated and formed around two round pieces of wood. I blew two half domes with a plywood form, an air compressor dragged up from shop class, and an oven borrowed from the home-ec teacher.

As I’ve said before, most of my education came outside of the classroom, thanks to indulgent teachers. They did the right thing, but it would get them fired if they did it today.

I bolted the half domes together through flanges formed during the blowing process. With two mice, Hing and Ho (named after the meerkats in Andre Norton’s Beast Master) in the upper chamber of the dome and a mass of Ankistrodesmus from a local stream in the algae chamber, connected by an aquarium pump, the ecosystem was as far finished as I could manage by the time of the science fair.

The physical result was limited by my resources, but the design went much further. To transfer the food to the mice, I had designed a pump, patterned after a Wankel engine (all the rage in Popular Mechanics that year). It was to send algae laden water up through a tube where it would be flushed over a fine mesh screen. The water would return to the tank on the airstream, leaving the algae for the mice to eat.

I did actually experiment with feeding them Ankistrodesmus. I strained it out of the water, dried it over a light bulb and passed the algae wafer into the mice’s cage. They went wild. You would have thought it was ice cream.

The design called for a small tube to carry a continuous airstream from above the algae water to strike the inside center of the upper dome, bringing the mice fresh air and carrying away waste as it returned. There a larger tube would carry the waste to the bottom of the algae tank.

To get water to the mice under weightlessness, the design called for the airstream from the algae tank to first pass through a Hilsch vortex tube, which split the airstream into hot and cold halves. The cold half was to pass between two thin metal plates. The warm (and moist) half of the air was to play onto the outside of these plates, leading to condensation and a continuous source of water for the mice to drink.

So why am I telling you this? Because this was the first step toward my future.

I didn’t know that at the time. I just did it because it was a challenge and more fun than I had ever had, but it led to a Fleming Fellowship, and that changed my life. more tomorrow.

299. I Survived Skylab

skylabAt the top of this post is a drawing, done with deliberate crudeness. I wish I could have used the original, but it existed before digital cameras and Pinterest. I have searched the internet without success for the image I remember. There are dozens of modern Skylab T-shirts. but none like what you see here.

In 1979, Skylab came crashing back to Earth. NASA knew it was going to happen, but could not prevent the event; it even predicted the date, July 11. The world partied in the face of danger – especially since the chances of being at ground zero were billions to one – and I Survived Skylab T-shirts were worn everywhere. The one I remember had a silly looking cartoon schmuck holding an umbrella over his head while Skylab was flashing down behind him.

If anyone still has a picture of one of those original T-shirts, post it on Pinterest and I’ll provide a link.

No one had intended Skylab to come to such an end. It was in reasonably high orbit, about 275 miles when he last crew came back to Earth. It still contained plenty of air and water, although the gyros were failing. It could have been remanned, and there were tentative plans to shift it to to a still higher orbit. No one took it too seriously, though; the vessel was old and battered, and NASA had turned its attention to the Space Shuttle.

In fact, most people at NASA thought the next Skylab crew would be ferried up by the Space Shuttle.

Nature had other plans.

By 1973, it was predicted that Skylab would deorbit years earlier than NASA was predicting, but NASA failed to listen. Increased solar activity had heated the atmosphere, causing it to expand. Low Earth orbits are still within the tenuous ranges of the outer atmosphere. Although the life of such orbits is measured in years, all things within a few hundred kilometers of Earth eventually come down. Now NASA was facing the fact that the Space Shuttle would not fly before Skylab’s orbit became critical. Not only could Skylab not be saved, it could no longer be equipped for a controlled deorbit.

A Russian Cosmos had crashed into northern Canada only a year before. The second stage of the Saturn which had launched Skylab had remained in orbit two years, then crashed into the North Atlantic in 1975. NASA was aware that the potential for disaster was great. It was predicted that up to 25 tons of debris might survive reentry, and there was no way to determine where it might land.

If Skylab had landed on Omaha – or Paris – we would be living in a very different world, with a very different attitude toward space exploration. In point of fact, Skylab struck the Earth in the desert of western Australia. No one was injured. Property damage was minimal.

The Shire of Esperance sent NASA a fine for littering.

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Everybody has to carve out his own niche. In my science fiction, I concentrate on the next couple of centuries. In these posts I concentrate on the early space program. I have not yet written about the space shuttle, which always seemed to be like Grandpa’s pickup truck that he bought after he was no longer young and had sold his hot rod. Sorry, my prejudice, which I am sure I will someday reverse without apology.

I am even less interested in the ISS. I remember too well that, during its planning – before the feds told them to shut-their-mouths and not bite the hand that was feeding them – the scientific community complained loudly about all the research that would go unfunded to feed the ISS.

The ISS, symbol of American-Russian friendship, boldly going where everyone has already gone before. Sorry, my prejudice again.

If you are interested in the ISS, there is a plethora of available writing. If you want to know more about early space stations, try to find Living in Space by Giovanni Capara in your local library. Published in 1998, it is a detailed study of all the space stations before ISS.

298. Skylab (2)

skylab_labeledTwo days after Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto the moon, NASA announced that it would launch an orbital laboratory with space telescope, using a Saturn V rocket. Because of its great power, the Saturn V could place a large payload in low earth orbit, using only its first and second stages. The entire third stage was converted into the orbiting laboratory, and launched intact and ready for occupation. This was Skylab.

The astronauts who would man Skylab would arrive later in CSMs – NASA speak for Command Module and Service Module, considered as a package deal – launched on smaller Saturn I-B rockets.

This cylindrical third stage was divided by a floor grating into an upper work area and lower living quarters,with eating, sleeping, and bathroom areas. It was, of course, a weightless environment. At the end of the vehicle, an airlock and docking adapter allowed egress for extravehicular activities and connected Skylab to the CSM which brought the astronauts up, and remained docked to return them to Earth. A solar panel array provided power. In pictures of Skylab, this array is what looks like helicopter blades above the vehicle. The telescope mount is in the center of the solar power array.

Skylab was launched on May 14, 1973, with disastrous results. The meteorite shield, which was supposed to stay snugly against the outside of Skylab during the flight up, and deploy once in space, deployed prematurely. Once in orbit, only part of the solar panel array deployed. The rest had been trapped by the damaged meteorite shield. The result was too much heat and not enough power. Skylab was uninhabitable.

The astronaut launch was temporarily cancelled and NASA went into salvage mode. Within eleven days they had proposed, built, and tested a set of repairs, and the crew of Conrad, Kerwin, and Weitz launched on May 25th. It proved to be no easy task.

The first day, working from the hatch of the CSM, Weitz tried using a forked stick to remove some of the debris remaining from the meteorite shield in order to deploy the solar array. No luck. Then the astronauts tried to dock, only to find that part of their capsule was non-functional. They had to externally repair their docking probe before connecting with Skylab and finally getting to sleep, no closer to repair. The next day, they attacked repairs from inside Skylab. Weitz wore a gas mask as he tested the air inside the structure. Scientists had feared that the high temperature environment would release poisonous gasses from the insulation. It had not, but the temperature inside was 130 degrees. The astronauts then set up a parasol they had brought, inside the second airlock near the telescope, and slowly extended it outside Skylab. It opened successfully, providing relief from the sun. The temperature dropped, although only to 95 degrees. The second night, the astronauts slept in the docking adapter area where the temperature was reasonable.

Several days later, Conrad and Kerwin performed another EVA, used large scissors to cut away part of the meteorites shield, and finally freed the remaining solar array.

The work of the first Skylab crew not only saved the station for the work it was designed to do, but also proved the necessity of manned missions to rescue projects in danger. Twenty years later, when the Hubble needed repair to perform its functions, the precedent had long since been established.

The first Skylab crew stayed aboard a month, conducting astronomy and medical research. The second crew, Bean, Lousma, and Garriott, remained aboard for two months, continuing repairs and research.. The third crew, Carr, Pogue, and Gibson, remained in space 84 days, observed and photographed comet Kohoutek and continued other experiments.

By the time the third crew returned to Earth, Skylab was nearing the end of its service life. Beyond the damage done on launch day, many other systems were failing. There were plans to use it further, but nature had plans of her own. conclusion tomorrow

297. Skylab (1)



The International Space Station has been continuously inhabited since November of 2000. if you are under twenty-five, you probably don’t remember a time when it didn’t exist. You also probably don’t know that scientists widely resisted it’s construction, feeling that far more could be learned by spending the equivalent amount in other ways. Whether or not they were right will probably never be known.

The space race that culminated in landing on the moon was fueled by the cold war. The construction of the International Space Station was fueled by the need to demonstrate that the cold war was over, and that Russia and America were now friends. How well that has turned out is also still in doubt.

There were space stations before the ISS, mostly Russian. Wikipedia has a nice list available. The US had an aborted space station project in the late sixties, the MOL (see 256. The Space Station That Never Was) and an actual one in the mid to late seventies. It came on the heels of the Apollo program and it was called Skylab.

Most Americans have forgotten it ever existed but for a few brief weeks in 1979, everyone in the world was looking at the sky and thinking about Skylab.

Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were the last men on the moon in 1972 (see 293. Last Man on the Moon) because of funding cuts. Twenty Apollo missions had originally been envisioned. Apollo 20 was the first to be cancelled in January of 1970 to allow its booster to be used for Skylab. Later that year, Apollo 18 and 19 were cancelled.

If you think back only a few years, the last Space Shuttle flight brought rounds of congratulations for years of success, but at the same time the Cape, northeastern Florida, and NASA in general saw economic turmoil as thousands lost their jobs.

A similar thing happened at the height of the Apollo program. All the Saturn V boosters that were going to be built were in the pipeline, and the organization that produced them was in danger of disappearing. One of the schemes to keep the resource from disappearing was Skylab.

Space stations had always been envisioned. Early plans for reaching the moon called for building space station, then assembling the moon rockets there. It made good sense. Spacecraft have different design requirements from vehicles designed to cope with traveling through the atmosphere. Just look at the difference between the Lunar Lander and the Apollo Command Module. Now visualize a craft built in space for lunar or interplanetary travel; your vision will probably look a lot like the ISS looks today.

That plan to build a space station, then a moon rocket, made perfect sense, but it wasn’t going to happen fast enough to win a space race with the Russians. Hence the Apollo style moon missions, leading to victory in the space race, leading to an America that felt like a winner, but had no place to go next.

Enter, Skylab. more tomorrow

296. Space Walks (2)

gemini_spacecraftWe left Gene Cernan hanging onto to the side of Gemini 9, part way thorough a disastrous space walk. I’ve provided a drawing of the Gemini to orient you to what comes next.

Cernan left the hatch and began to move back to the base of the Gemini, utilizing undersized hand holds. He was weightless, which makes this sound easy, but remember that bending your arm is like “bending and inflated life raft”. As he worked his way back, he had to thread his umbilical through undersized stand-offs to keep it from tangling. When he reached the base of the Gemini, he found it surrounded by a ring of torn metal, like razor wire, that was the result of separation from the Titan rocket that had put him into orbit. Just the thing a space suit does not need to make contact with.

Once Cernan made it past the turn to the very base of the Gemini, he faced new problems. He was exhausted and overheated; the inside of his visor was so fogged that he was nearly blind. Making visibility even worse, the light NASA had provided over the MMU was a dim bulb, completely inadequate to his needs. He began to attempt to fire up the MMU, a procedure that required about thirty switches to be thrown in sequence, but he could hardly see the switches, and every time he tried to turn a dial, his untethered body spun the opposite way.

Once the MMU powered up, he had to release and position the arms and get it strapped on. By now he was far overbudget for time, and out of contact with Stafford in the Gemini. His heart was beating at three times its normal speed, he couldn’t see for sweat and fog, and the Gemini was twenty minutes away from orbital night when the impossible becomes the unthinkable. Stafford terminated the mission. The MMU was abandoned, untested. Cernan made his painful way forward and returned, not without a final struggle, to the safety of the Gemini.

Let’s let Cernan speak for himself.

Why is floating in space and turning a few dials so difficult? Let me give you a couple of tests. Connect two garden hoses and turn on the water. Now, using only one hand, try to unscrew them. Or, hold a bottle of soda or beer at arm’s length, and using a single hand, remove the twist off top. For extra reality, run a mile before you start so you’re nice and tired, do it while wearing two pairs of extra-thick gloves and close your eyes to simulate being unable to see. Stand on your head while doing some of these things to resemble tumbling in space. You get the idea. 

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There is one kind of space walk that always works, called a stand-up EVA. If an astronaut simply stands up on his seat, with the hatch open, he has none of the problems Cernan had.

Gemini 10 began with a stand-up EVA. Later Michael Collins performed an umbilical EVA, successfully although not easily, using a hand held maneuvering unit similar to the one used by Ed White.

In Gemini 11, Richard Gordon performed an umbilical EVA to attach a tether to an Agena target vehicle. Like Cernan, he overheated, lost vision to a fogged visor, and had his EVA cut short.

In Gemini 12, Buzz Aldrin performed two stand-up EVAs, sandwiched around an umbilical EVA. For the first time, everything went right. Aldrin had use of larger hand and foot holds, a reduced workload, and tools designed to overcome the problems of weightlessness. The lesson learned by White, Cernan, Collins, and Gordon had finally made spacewalks practical.