It was an unlikely case, having an Apollo command ship disabled thousands of miles from Earth. But during the Apollo 9 mission, the crew had actually conducted a test of firing the Lunar Module’s engines while it was docked to the Command Module. It turned out to be fortuitous to have considered such a situation, but Apollo 9 didn’t have to perform the type of maneuvering under the myriad of conditions Apollo 13 faced.
Steering was among the crucial threats for Jim Lovell and his crew. Without the command ship’s thrusters to steer, only the lander’s were available, and flying the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft stack and keeping it on the right trajectory was a huge challenge.
During a normal mission, the ship’s computers allowed for much of the navigation, but the Apollo 13 crew had to fly “by hand.” The Command Module was shut down, and the LM’s limited battery power required the shutting down most of its systems, so even backup propulsion and navigation functions were unavailable. Lovell had to struggle to bring the unwieldy two-vehicle craft under control.
The lander’s steering was fashioned to handle only its mass and center of mass location. Now it had to steer the entire assemblage, which included the dead mass of the Command and Service Module as well as the lander. Then there was oxygen venting from the damaged tanks in the SM. This all contributed to putting the stack through contortions of pitch, roll, and yaw.
Even now, oxygen spewed from Odyssey’s side like blood from a harpooned whale. The escaping gas acted like a small rocket, fighting Lovell’s efforts to stabilize the joined craft – which the astronauts called “the stack” – with Aquarius’s thrusters. Lovell soon found that trying to control the stack from the lander was strange and awkward, like steering a loaded wheelbarrow down the street with a long broom handle. When he nudged the hand controller the joined craft wobbled unpredictably. It was, Lovell would say later, like learning to fly all over again. And he had to learn fast, because if he let the spacecraft drift uncontrolled, there was a danger that one of Aquarius’s gyros would be immobilized – a condition called gimbal lock that would ruin the alignment of the navigation platform. With no way of sighting in the stars, there would be no hope of realigning it….
“I can’t take that doggone roll out, “Lovell said. Throughout the next 2 hours Lovell wrestled with his unwieldy craft, as the time for the free-return maneuver approached. He wondered if Aquarius would be able to point them toward home, and whether it would last long enough to get them there. Lovell and his crew had become the first astronauts to face the very real possibility of dying in space.
From “A Man on the Moon,” chapter 7, “The Crown of an Astronaut’s Career”
by Andrew Chaikin
Used by permission.
One of the items discussed in the original “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13” was how well suited rookie Apollo crewman Jack Swigert was to the Apollo 13 mission, as he was said to have basically ‘wrote the book’ on Command Module malfunctions. Likewise, says NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill, was Commander Jim Lovell’s ability as Apollo 13’s helmsman.
“Tales are often shared about Lovell’s skills as a naval aviator,” said Woodfill, “making aircraft carrier deck landings in the dark with a malfunctioning display, or in storm-tossed seas.”
Being able to judge aircraft descent rates and attitude with respect to a wave-tossed carrier deck was a challenge. Woodfill said this ideally trained Lovell for avoiding gimbal-lock on Apollo 13.
“Gimbal-lock meant the guidance system could no longer trust its computer,” explained Woodfill. “The guidance system’s orthogonal gyroscopes (gyros) judged the degree of pitch, roll, and yaw. Gimbal-lock exceeded the system’s ability to gauge position. Such an instance could be compared to an automobile’s tires slipping on an icy road. Steering becomes almost useless in such an event.”
Historian and journalist Amy Shira Teitel recently posted this video in regards to gimbal lock and Apollo 13:
Then, later came a second dire “steering” challenge to Lovell and his crew. Apollo ships required a rotating maneuver about their longest axis known as Passive Thermal Control (PTC), nicknamed the rotisserie, to protect one part of the spacecraft from continually being baked by the Sun. Normally, this was done by the CM’s computer, and the LM’s computer didn’t have the software to perform this operation. Lovell had to maneuver the unwieldy ship by hand nearly every hour to perform the “slow motion barbeque spin” as Chaikin called it. Without the CM’s orientation control thrusters and having the center of gravity extremely off-center with respect to the lander’s control system, it made the situation problematical.
“Lovell seemed to have the ability to quickly adapt to difficult situations,” said Woodfill, “and the knack of quickly coming up with solutions to problems.”
But that’s part of the makeup of being a test pilot and what distinguished the men who were chosen to be astronauts in the Apollo program.
“As great a pilot as Jim Lovell was, I think any of the Apollo commanders could have handled that situation from a piloting point of view,” Chaikin told Universe Today via phone. “One benefit that Lovell brought to the situation was his calm, composed personality—a real asset during that entire ordeal.”
As Chaikin quoted original Apollo 13 crew member Ken Mattingly in “A Man on the Moon,” if Apollo 13 had to happen to any spacecraft commander, there wasn’t anyone who could have handled it better than Jim Lovell.
Here’s an additional, more technical description of gimbal lock:
On March 18, 1965 Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov made the first spacewalk in history, floating outside his Voskhod 2 capsule. Leonov made the walk when he was just 30 years old, and later wrote that he felt “like a seagull with its wings outstretched, soaring high above the Earth.” His spacewalk lasted just 12 minutes but that was long enough to prove that humans in space could work outside a spacecraft.
Author and space historian Andrew Chaikin created some unique 3-D views of Leonov’s spacewalk, made from individual frames from the movie of the walk. Above is a red-cyan anaglyph, but if you don’t have your 3-D glasses available, don’t worry: Chaikin has also created stereo pair 3-D images, which you can view by crossing your eyes (explanation below, if you need a little help).
Oxford University provides this explanation of how to cross your eyes to view a stereo pair as a 3-D image:
Hold a finger a short distance in front of your eyes and stare at it. In the background you should see two copies of the stereo pair, giving four views altogether. Move your finger away from you until you see the middle two of the four images come together. You should now see just three images in the background. Try to direct your attention slowly toward the middle image without moving your eyes, and it should gradually come into focus.
While the spacewalk was exhilarating, getting back into the spacecraft became dicey. Leonov’s spacesuit expanded so much in the vacuum of space that he had a hard time squeezing back into the spacecraft. He took a risk and opened a valve on the suit to let enough air escape, which allowed him to enter the airlock.
Leonov’s walk took place almost 3 months before American astronaut Ed White took his spacewalk on Gemini 4. The first European to do a spacewalk was the French spationaute Jean-Loup Chrétien, who flew to the Russian Mir space station in 1988.
Thanks to Andrew Chaikin for sharing these images with Universe Today.
Editor’s note: On August 27, 2003 Mars was closer to Earth than at any time in human history. Author Andrew Chaikin asked Universe Today to tell the story of how he was fortunate enough to enjoy the event with Don Parker, a “superb planetary photographer and wonderful guy,” Chaikin wrote. “I first met Don, a retired anesthesiologist from Coral Gables, Florida, several weeks earlier when I journeyed with my telescope to Florida to photograph the Moon passing in front of Mars, an event called an occultation. I’d seen Don’s work for decades in Sky & Telescope magazine, but until the occultation we’d never met. I certainly had never imagined that he would turn out to be as much fun as he was, with a warped, wickedly bawdy sense of humor. Standing under the moon and Mars we bonded, and soon we were making plans for me to come down to his place for the closest approach.”
Don passed away on February 22, 2015. In his memory here’s an excerpt from Chaikin’s book, A Passion for Mars.
Godspeed, Don. See you on Mars.
ON PAPER, Don Parker’s life story is pretty ordinary: Born in 1939, he grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Chicago. He spent a few years in the navy, went to medical school, and ended up living in Florida with his wife, Maureen, and their children, working as an anesthesiologist in a Miami hospital. Looking at his résumé you’d never know about his other life, the one dominated by a lifelong obsession with Mars. By the time he went to see Invaders from Mars and War of the Worlds as a teenager in 1953, he was building his first telescope, a three-inch refractor with lenses from Edmund Scientific and a body made from a stovepipe his dad got for him.
He was subscribing to Sky & Telescope magazine and following the continuing debate over whether the canals on Mars really existed. That was a question that only a handful of professional astronomers cared about, but amateur observers, like the ones whose drawings were printed in the magazine, seemed to be on the case. Parker got serious about observing Mars himself around 1954, when he tried to create a homemade reflector, but failed when he had trouble with the mirror. His aunt Hattie came to the rescue that Christmas by giving him a hundred dollar bill — quite a bit of money in those days — which he used to buy a professionally made eight-inch mirror. With help from his dad, he assembled the new telescope, using pipe fittings for the mounting.
In the summer of 1956, when Mars made its famously close appearance, he was at the eyepiece making drawings of his own, until a dust storm engulfed much of the planet that September, just as Mars came closest to Earth. “Mars looked like a cue ball,” Parker remembers. “There was nothing on it. It was very disappointing for me.” At the time, he thought the problem was with his instrument. “I even took the mirror out of the telescope,” he recalls. “You know,‘What the hell is going on here?’” Only much later, when information on Martian dust storms began to show up in the amateur astronomy literature, did he realize his view had been spoiled by an event happening on Mars.
By that time Parker was in high school, and soon Martian canals became much less important than more earthly matters. “Football and blondes were my major,” he quips. Then it was off to college, and his telescope sat unused in its wooden shelter in the backyard. When it came time for his internship he convinced his wife, Maureen, that they should move to Florida so he could pursue his interest in scuba diving.
Needless to say he had no time for astronomy then, or during his residency. Then came a stint in the navy, and by the early 1970s he was back in Florida, beginning his career as an anesthesiologist and raising a family. By the time Mars made another close approach in 1973 Parker had brought his telescope down from Chicago; his parents had asked him to take it out of the backyard so they could put in a birdbath, and a few months after that, he remembers, “Maureen said, ‘Can you get that thing out of the garage?’”
He didn’t expect it to do him much good outside, however. The conventional wisdom was that south Florida, with its clouds and frequent storms, was a terrible place to do astronomy. But he found out differently that summer, when he trained his telescope on Mars. “I went, ‘Holy shit.’ It was just absolutely steady. I couldn’t believe it.”
Parker returned to his old practice of making drawings at the eyepiece to record as much detail as possible. He sent some of his work to Charles “Chick” Capen, an astronomer at Arizona’s Lowell Observatory and coordinator of Mars observations for the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. Soon he and Capen were in frequent contact, and from him Parker learned about the latest techniques for planetary photography.
In the 1970s that was a time-consuming process; he used professional-grade film ordered directly from Kodak and developed it with special, highly toxic chemicals that had to be laboriously prepared for each session. But that became a part of his life’s routine: off to the hospital in the morning, sailing with Maureen in the afternoon, nights at the telescope, and the rest of the time developing and printing his pictures. Returning to work after a beautiful Florida weekend, he says, “Everybody would come in with a nice tan; I’d come in looking like a bed sheet. Forty-eight hours in the darkroom! People would say, ‘Are you ill?’”
All that effort paid off. Parker’s planetary photos were now appearing frequently in Sky & Telescope. But they still couldn’t record the kind of details a good observer could see at the eyepiece. Soon Chick Capen was steering him, gently, toward more ambitious Martian observing projects—especially the exacting task of monitoring the planet’s north polar ice cap. Using a measuring device called a filar micrometer attached to their telescopes, Parker and fellow amateur Jeff Beish studied the cap as it shrank during the Martian spring and summer. Observations going back to the early years of the twentieth century showed that the north polar cap always shrank at the same predictable rate, but in the 1980s Parker and Beish found a surprise: The cap shrank more quickly, and to a smaller size, than ever before. Years before most people had even heard the term “global warming” (and more than a decade before evidence from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor mission) Parker and Beish had found evidence that it was taking place on Mars.
Soon their observations were being reinforced by several kinds of data from other astronomers, a convergence that Parker remembers as tremendously thrilling. “All this stuff began to come together,” Parker says. “The dust storm frequencies, the cloud study frequencies, the polar cap shit. And it’s almost better than sex. And it came in from a lot of different observers, different times. It’s really kind of cool—when you’re in a science and something all of a sudden falls into place that you don’t expect. It’s really neat. Nothing’s better than sex, but it’s close.” His work with Beish and other observers was later published, to Parker’s great satisfaction, in the professional planetary science journal Icarus. For Parker it epitomizes the rewards of all those hours at the eyepiece. “It’s the thrill of the hunt,” he says. “That’s really the only thing that’s kept me going. Taking pretty pictures is fine and fun, but doing that for thirty years, it wears after a while. You’ve taken one pretty picture, you’ve taken them all.”
In the 1990s, though, the pictures started to get really pretty. For the first time, amateurs had access to electronic cameras using charged-coupled devices (CCDs), like the ones in NASA spacecraft and professional observatories. Around 1990 fellow amateur astronomer Richard Berry convinced Parker to invest in one of these new cameras, but he had a tough time getting used to it. “I hooked it up,” he remembers. “I didn’t know what to do with it. I was afraid of it. So I went back to film.”
Some months later Berry came for a visit and showed Parker what he’d been missing. They pointed Parker’s sixteen-inch telescope at Jupiter, and when the first image came up on his computer screen, “It was ten times better than anything I’d ever gotten with film. The detail was amazing. It was really exciting.”
Before long Parker had completely switched over to using his electronic imager, and he never looked back. Unlike film, it offered instant gratification; no longer did he have to spend hours in the darkroom before he could see results. Even more important, the extraordinary sensitivity of CCDs allowed much shorter exposure times than film, making it possible to record a planet during those brief moments of good seeing. He could even create remarkably detailed color images by taking separate exposures through red, green, and blue filters, then combining the results in newly developed programs like Adobe Photoshop.
And to Parker’s great relief, electronic images proved as good as visual observations for monitoring Martian features like clouds, dust storms, and— thankfully—the changing polar ice caps. At last, he could put aside the filar micrometer and the tedious hours that went along with it. But there was no way around the fact that the whole experience of planetary observing had changed for serious amateurs like Parker, just as it had for professionals. He realized this during Richard Berry’s visit, as they filled his computer’s hard drive with electronic portraits of Jupiter. “I said to Richard, ‘We’ve been here for six hours and haven’t even looked through the telescope.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, now you’re a real astronomer!’”
August 26, 2003,
Coral Gables, Florida
With no time for a road trip, I’ve packed my webcam and flown to Miami. I arrive at Don Parker’s waterfront home shortly after he has awakened from yet another all-nighter at the telescope. Don is tall, pot bellied, and nearly bald, with a kind of leering, lopsided grin that spreads mischievously across his face. In his old hospital scrubs he reminds me of Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein. Don wouldn’t mind hearing me say that; he often refers to himself as Mongo, after the character in another Mel Brooks film, Blazing Saddles. (For example: “Mongo got good pictures. Mongo happy.”)
When he was a practicing anesthesiologist he had a penchant for playing crude practical jokes in the O.R. to startle the nurses (the fart machine was a favorite). “It was like MASH,” he says. Now that he is retired there is nothing to stop him from spending every clear night at the telescope—and that is what he does, whenever Mars shines overhead. Back in 1984, when the seeing was even better than it is now, he and Jeff Beish logged 285 nights of making drawings, photos, and micrometer measurements. Parker says, “We were praying for rain. Going to the Seminole reservation to pay the guys to do a rain dance.” Two decades later, his “other life” has become his life. For months now, as Mars has grown from an orange speck in the predawn sky to its current brilliance, high overhead at midnight, Don has faithfully recorded its changing aspect, the shrinking polar cap, the comings and goings of blue hazes and yellow dust clouds, the parade of deserts and dark markings. Maureen is now a full-fledged Mars widow. Don calls it “The Curse of the Red Planet.”
For me this is the big night, and I am full of anticipation. About twelve hours from now, at 5:51am Eastern Daylight Time on August 27, Mars will be 34,646,418 million miles away from Coral Gables. An astronomer at JPL has figured out that this is closer than at any time since the year 57617 B.C., and closer than Mars will be again until the year 2287. For Don, though, this is just one more night in an unbroken string of nights that began last April and will continue into next spring. Don, of course, is far from the only one so afflicted. At any given moment this summer someone around the world is observing Mars, including a couple of twenty-something wizards in Hong
Kong and Singapore who are getting spectacular results with telescopes placed on their high-rise apartment balconies (when I mention them Don curses ruefully, then laughs).
Sitting in Don’s kitchen, we discuss the weather for the coming night— the continuing hurricane season has made things a bit iffy—as he mixes his standard brew of freeze-dried coffee, sugar, and nondairy creamer, a concoction that seems less like a beverage than a research project in polymer chemistry. Arthritis and weakening of the bones in his legs have left him with a limp so painful that he must use a cane, and as he leads me to his upstairs office he utters a string of profanities.
Seated at the computer he unveils his most recent images and I am astonished by their clarity. Even back in April, when Mars was a fraction of its current apparent size, Don was getting a remarkable amount of detail. Now his pictures are so good that they hold up in side-by-side comparisons with Mars images from the Hubble Space Telescope. If you know where to look, you can even spot the giant volcano, Olympus Mons.
When I was growing up, even the two-hundred-inch giant at Palomar couldn’t come close to the details Don has recorded with a telescope just sixteen inches in diameter.
By nightfall the sky is mercifully clear, and Don sets up a ten-inch scope for me to use. The view is amazing: The planet’s disc is shaded with subtle, dusky patterns, far more detailed than any previous view of Mars I’ve ever seen. But when I attach the webcam and fire up the laptop, the live video that appears before me is almost too good to be true. Mars is so big, so clear, that I can even see individual dark spots that must be huge, windblown craters, trailing streaks of dark sand across the pink deserts. At the south pole, the retreating ice cap gleams brilliantly, with an outlier of frosted ground distinctly visible adjacent to the larger white mass.
Long into the night, and again the next, Don and I gather our photographic records of this unprecedented encounter, he at one telescope, I at the other. I feel lucky to be alive at this moment, suspended between the time of the Neanderthals and the twenty-third century, when some of our descendants will be on Mars, looking back at Earth. Right now I am face-to-face with Mars in a way I have never been, and never will be again. It is not the Mars of my childhood picture books, or the one revealed by an armada of space probes, or the trackless world where men and women will someday leave footprints. At this moment, I am exploring Mars, and 35 million miles doesn’t seem like much, not much at all.
Find out more about Chaikin’s books “A Passion for for Mars,” “A Man on the Moon” and more at Chaikin’s website.
Space historian Andrew Chaikin sat down with planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, and she discusses how her career has ended up focusing on the Saturn system. I love how Porco relates how even she has been “blown away” by some of the imagery sent back by the missions — just like the rest of us! — saying she’s had to call members of her team several times to verify she wasn’t looking at computer simulations vs. real images.
Enjoy this candid interview of one of the leading planetary scientists of our day.
One of the most famous images from the history of spaceflight is the picture taken by the crew of Apollo 8 of the “Earthrise” — the first color picture of taken of Earth as it became visible as the spacecraft came from behind the farside of the Moon. The photo was taken 45 years ago on December 24, 1968. It’s been called one of the most influential environmental photographs ever taken, and is one of the most-published pictures ever. As the photographer of this photo, astronaut Bill Anders has said, “We came all this way to discover the Moon. And what we really did discover is Earth.”
The NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio has now released a new video that is a re-creation of that first Earthrise. The video is based on detailed analysis of Apollo 8 photography, including vertical stereo photos that were being taken at the same time as the Earthrise photos, combined with recent topographic models from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
“In the video,” space historian Andrew Chaikin — who narrates the new video — told Universe Today, “we see the Moon’s surface, generated from LRO data, exactly as it appeared to the astronauts through the different windows of the spacecraft. We also hear the astronauts’ voices as captured by the spacecraft’s onboard voice recorder, synchronized with the visual. The video reveals new details about this historic event and the resulting color photograph, which became an icon of the 20th century.”
Enjoy this wonderful new video, which explains how this historic image was taken. The visualization shows how Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman and crew members Anders and James Lovell worked together to photograph the stunning scene as their spacecraft orbited the Moon in 1968. The video allows anyone to virtually ride with the astronauts and experience the awe they felt at the vista in front of them.
The “Earthrise” photo is the cover photo of TIME’s Great Images of the 20th Century, and is the central photo on the cover of LIFE’s 100 Photographs That Changed the World.
“Earthrise had a profound impact on our attitudes toward our home planet, quickly becoming an icon of the environmental movement,” said Ernie Wright, who lead the video project with the SVS.
A small controversy has erupted over Neil Armstrong’s first words as he stepped on the Moon’s surface and how he came to say them.
Armstrong had always admitted that while he had been thinking about what to say during his first steps for quite some time before the Apollo 11 mission, he didn’t actually decide on his words until just after landing on the Moon, while waiting to exit the lunar module. In a new BBC documentary, the astronaut’s brother Dean Armstrong says the two discussed the statement months earlier, and that Neil gave Dean a handwritten note showing him the famous quote, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But apparently some people (and writers) have gotten a bit confused, thinking that Armstrong said he thought up the words on the spot, and recent headlines have screamed that “Armstrong Lied” about the quote.
Not so, says says space historian and author Andrew Chaikin, who wrote the book, “A Man on the Moon,” and interviewed Armstrong several times.
“I was distressed to see recent news stories claiming that Neil Armstrong lied to the world about when he made up his famous quote,” Chaikin said via email, and asked Universe Today to share the op-ed he wrote for Space.com.
In the op-ed piece, Chaikin cut to the chase, saying, “Let’s get one thing straight right now: Neil Armstrong was not a liar.” … “The problem, in some people’s minds, is that this seems to conflict with Neil’s own statements over the last 40 years about when and where he composed what became an immortal sentence when he took his first step onto the Moon,”
But it does not contradict history at all.
Chaikin notes that in Neil Armstrong’s first public statement about the famous quote at a post-flight press conference on Aug. 12, 1969, he said, “I did think about it. It was not extemporaneous, neither was it planned. It evolved during the conduct of the flight and I decided what the words would be while we were on the lunar surface just prior to leaving the LM.”
And when Chaikin interviewed Armstrong in 1988 for the book “A Man on the Moon,” Armstrong said the same thing, and he also told that to his biographer James Hansen in 2003.
“It is simply not true, as several recent news articles have claimed, that Armstrong always said he composed the quote ‘spontaneously,’” Chaikin wrote in the op-ed. “It would have been completely out of character for Armstrong, who was thoughtful about nearly everything he said and did, to have offered such an important quote without thinking it through beforehand.”
Chaikin says that Dean Armstrong’s story just adds a little ambiguity. “Maybe Neil had more than one quote in mind at that point, and only shared one of them with his brother. Or maybe the quote he showed his brother was an early draft, but after all these years, Dean remembers seeing the final version. We’ll probably never know the answer.”
But in no way does it mean that Armstrong “fibbed” or “lied” to the public for 40 years.
This isn’t the first time the famous first words have been a bit controversial. While the “a” in “one small step for a man” wasn’t audible in the broadcast to the world, Armstrong always said he did speak that word. A 2006 audio analysis of the broadcast supported Armstrong.
Will there come a time when we on Earth can look up at the Moon and know that people are living there permanently?
40 years ago today, humans left the Moon for the last time during our visits during the Apollo program. Author Andrew Chaikin has been creating a series of videos on why space exploration is important, and to mark the 40th anniversary of the last human footsteps on the moon, he looks back at Apollo 17’s explorations and explains why he believes the Moon is the solar system’s “jewel in the crown,” beckoning us to return.
“The Moon is an ideal place for future astronauts to tackle the enormous challenges of living on other worlds,” Chaikin says, “a kind of outward-bound school for learning to live off-planet that is just three days away from home.”
40 years ago this week, the final Apollo mission, Apollo 17, launched to the Moon. In this new video produced by author Andrew Chaikin, geologist Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute explains why the Moon still beckons, “not just to visit, not just put a footprint there, but to go and understand it, to collect its rock and understand its history, to recover a lost chapter of a previous existence.” Right now, we understand just a small part of the history of our Solar System, and the Moon holds that history in its rocks. Additionally, newly found water on the Moon — estimates say about 600 million metric tons could be at the lunar poles — could allow us to “live off the land” in space.
A lunar mining facility harvests oxygen from the resource-rich volcanic soil of the eastern Mare Serenitatis. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings.
Our friend Andrew Chaikin is passionate about space exploration and like many, is concerned about the budget cuts that threaten to starve NASA’s planetary science program. He has created this new video as a call to action for those of us in the US to contact our representatives, and anyone around the world to make a statement of how important exploration is to humanity. “I’m fighting back with passion,” Andy says, “Passion for the incredible adventure that began half a century ago and has given us countless wonders and amazing discoveries…Please share it with your friends and family. And tell Washington, ‘We Must Explore!'”
How often have you heard (or thought) the sentiment that all NASA really needs is a President who will issue a bold challenge for the space agency, like Kennedy did in 1961, initiating the Apollo program to the Moon? Can we ever expect to witness such a call to action again?
“It is very unlikely,” said space historian and author Andrew Chaikin, who believes Apollo was an historical anomaly. “I think for many decades people saw Apollo as a model for how to do a space program; that you get a President to get up and make a challenge and the country follows along and does great things. But that was only true that one time in the context of the Cold War.”
We went to the Moon when we did not because we were a nation devoted to exploration, Chaikin believes, but because it seemed a politically important course of action in the context of our Cold War with the Soviet Union. “Once that was accomplished, then that political imperative evaporated,” he said.
Likely, we won’t hear any bold space-related challenge in tonight’s State of the Union Address by President Obama. Given the state of the economy, NASA might be facing a cut or freeze on their budget, a fact which might emphasize how unique an event the Apollo program ended up to be.
“What is required now is the development of technologies that will allow us to explore space in a sustainable way,” said Chaikin, author of “A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts,” who I interviewed for the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast, “a way that won’t break the bank and will allow us to do more and more with reliable transportation systems that get us up into low Earth orbit. Then perhaps we can build the machines that can actually be stored in space to allow us to venture beyond low Earth orbit to the Moon and even further, to Mars and other destinations in the solar system.”
Chaikin said he’s actually very excited about the work being done in the private sector, such as by SpaceX, one of several commercial space companies trying to develop new transportation systems to provide sustainable hardware and sustainable architecture. “That can allow us to really get back in the game of exploring, not only with robots as we have been doing all along, but with humans again,” Chaikin said.
But Apollo’s uniqueness doesn’t mean it wasn’t important, or hasn’t left a lasting legacy for human spaceflight, and the human race in general.
“Simply put Apollo was the opening act in a story that has no end,” Chaikin said. “It’s a story of human beings leaving their home planet and venturing out into the universe, and as far as we go into space in some distant epoch, when we are living in other star systems and venturing throughout the galaxy, Apollo will have been the first step, so it is absolutely monumental when you look at it in that scale. I think Apollo is a lasting inspiration about what humans can accomplish when they work together.”
Apollo also showed people that anything was possible. “There was a phrase that went into our language after Apollo, and that was ‘If we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we…’ fill in the blank,” said Chaikin. “The spirit that humans can overcome monumental challenges by working together, I think, is a valid legacy of Apollo culturally.”
Chaikin said Apollo was also important because of the technology development it spurred.
“A lot of the challenges that Apollo presented forced the industries to accelerate their development,” he said, “particularly in microelectronics. It is not that NASA invented all of the microelectronics that we use today but rather that the requirements of building a moon-ship and cramming it with all of the electronics that it needed to do its job required the electronics industry to miniaturize at a faster pace, it required the development of computers that could fit on a spacecraft, it required all kinds of analytical techniques and real-time tracking of the spacecraft as it went to and from the Moon. The legacy today is all the communications technologies and information processing technology that we are surrounded by. That really got an amazing jump start as part of the Apollo program.”
And Apollo also affected our culture, in unique ways we observe even today. How often have you seen the “Earthrise” image taken by Apollo 8 or the picture of Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon or other Apollo-related imagery in non-space-related venues?
“We got to a place where humans had never been before,” Chaikin said, “and the other lasting legacy is the view that we got from that ‘mountaintop,’ of our Earth as a very precious oasis of life in space, and a world that really is to be cherished and protected.”
We knew even as it was happening, Chaikin said, that seeing our world floating alone in space was perhaps the most profound impact of the voyage.
“In fact, if you look at the front page of the New York Times the very day after Frank Borman and his crew became the first humans to orbit the Moon,” Chaikin said, “you will see an essay by a poet named Archibald MacLeish talking about the impact of that view and the perspective of us as ‘brothers in the eternal cold riding on spaceship Earth.’ So this is one of the things sets Apollo apart from other earlier explorations is that we were experiencing it as it happened through live television and we were actually absorbing and processing the impact in real time.”
But then, humans being as attention-challenged as we are, it didn’t take very long for all of it to become old hat and to kind of recede into history. “And that is where we are today,” Chaikin said.
That being said, Chaikin does not see the Moon as a “been there, done that” world.
“As you know, we’ve been finding frozen water at the poles of the Moon and this is a completely different view of the Moon than we had 40 years ago,” Chaikin said. “And there are more and more intricacies that we are finding all the time. The Moon itself is a Rosetta Stone for deciphering the history of the solar system, and is profoundly valuable world for us on so many levels. And it is a spectacular place. The Apollo astronauts – I’ve spent hours talking to all of them about the Moon, about the experience of being on the Moon and they just say it is a spectacular place.”
“It is too bad that the political impetus for going to the Moon was so short-lived because it was part of the Cold war,” Chaikin continued, “and looking back we can see why that was the case. It is too bad we lost interest in the Moon and it has taken us so long to turn our attention back to the Moon and all it has to offer.”