Astronomy Cast Ep. 478: Apollo 8 with Paul Hildebrandt

On Christmas Day, 1968 Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders became the first human being to see the far side of the Moon. Their mission, of course, was Apollo 8, the first time human beings had ever left Earth orbit and seen the far side of the Moon. Today we talk all about Apollo 8, with special guest Paul Hildebrandt, director of a new documentary about the mission.

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What Does NASA Stand For?

Chances are that if you have lived on this planet for the past half-century, you’ve heard of NASA. As the agency that is in charge of America’s space program, they put a man on the Moon, launched the Hubble Telescope, helped establish the International Space Station, and sent dozens of probes and shuttles into space.

But do you know what the acronym NASA actually stands for? Well, NASA stands for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. As such, it oversees America’s spaceflight capabilities and conducts valuable research in space. However, NASA also has various programs on Earth dedicated to flight, hence why the term “Aeronautics” appears in the agency’s name.

Formation:
The process of forming NASA began in the early 1950’s with the development of rocket planes – like the Bell X-1 – and the desire to launch physical satellites. However, it was not until the launch of Sputnik 1 – the first artificial satellite into space that was deployed by the Soviets on October 4th, 1957 – that efforts to develop an American space program truly began.

Fearing that Sputnik represented a threat to national security and America’s technological leadership, Congress urged then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower to take immediate action. This result in an agreement whereby a federal organization similar to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – which was established in 1915 to oversee aeronautical research – would be created.

Sputnik 1
Photograph of a Russian technician putting the finishing touches on Sputnik 1, humanity’s first artificial satellite. Credit: NASA/Asif A. Siddiqi

On July 29th, 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which officially established NASA. When it began operations on October 1st, 1958, NASA absorbed NACA and its 8,000 employees. It was also given an annual budget of US $100 million, three major research laboratories (Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory) and two small test facilities.

Elements of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the United States Naval Research Laboratory were also incorporated into NASA. A significant contribution came from the work of the Army Ballistic Missie Agency (ABMA), which had been working closely with Wernher von Braun – the leader of Germany’s rocket program during WWII – at the time.

In December 1958, NASA also gained control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a contractor facility operated by the California Institute of Technology. By 1959, President Eisenhower officially approved of A NASA seal, which is affectionately referred to as the “meatball” logo because of the orbs included in the design.

First designed in 1959, this NASA seal has commonly been known as the "meatball" logo. Credit: NASA
First designed in 1959, this NASA seal has commonly been known as the “meatball” logo. Credit: NASA

Early Projects:
NASA has since been responsible for the majority of the manned and unmanned American missions that have been sent into space. Their efforts began with the development of the X-15, a hypersonic jet plane that NASA had taken over from the NACA. As part of the program, twelve pilots were selected to fly the X-15, and achieve new records for both speed and maximum altitude reached.

A total of 199 flights were made between 1959 and 1968, resulting in two official world records being made. The first was for the highest speed ever reached by a manned craft – Mach 6.72 or 7,273 km/h (4,519 mph) – while the second was for the highest altitude ever achieved, at 107.96 km (354,200 feet).

The X-15 program also employed mechanical techniques used in the later manned spaceflight programs, including reaction control system jets, space suits, horizon definition for navigation, and crucial reentry and landing data. However, by the early 60’s, NASA’s primary concern was winning the newly-declared “Space Race” with the Soviets by putting a man into orbit.

Project Mercury:
This began with the Project Mercury, a program that was taken over from the US Air Force and which ran from 1959 until 1963. Designed to send a man into space using existing rockets, the program quickly adopted the concept launching a ballistic capsules into orbit. The first seven astronauts, nicknamed the “Mercury Seven“, were selected from from the Navy, Air Force and Marine test pilot programs.

John Glenn crouches near Shepard's capsule, Freedom 7, along with technicians prior to launch. Credit: Ralph Morse/TIME & LIFE Pictures. Used by permission.
John Glenn crouches near Shepard’s capsule, Freedom 7, along with technicians prior to launch. Credit: Ralph Morse/TIME & LIFE Pictures

On May 5th, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space aboard the Freedom 7 mission. John Glenn became the first American to be launched into orbit by an Atlas launch vehicle on February 20th, 1962, as part of Friendship 7. Glenn completed three orbits, and three more orbital flights were made, culminating in L. Gordon Cooper’s 22-orbit flight aboard Faith 7, which flew on May 15th and 16th, 1963.

Project Gemini:
Project Gemini, which began in 1961 and ran until 1966, aimed at developing support for Project Apollo (which also began in 1961). This involved the development of long-duration space missions, extravehicular activity (EVA), rendezvous and docking procedures, and precision Earth landing. By 1962, the program got moving with the development of a series of two-man spacecraft.

The first flight, Gemini 3, went up on March 23rd, 1965 and was flown by Gus Grissom and John Young. Nine missions followed in 1965 and 1966, with spaceflights lasting for nearly fourteen days while crews conducting docking and rendezvous operations, EVAs, and gathered medical data on the effects of weightlessness on humans.

Project Apollo:
And then there was the Project Apollo, which began in 1961 and ran until 1972.  Due to the Soviets maintaining a lead in the space race up until this point, President John F. Kennedy asked Congress on May 25th, 1961 to commit the federal government to a program to land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. With a price tag of $20 billion (or an estimated $205 billion in present-day US dollars), it was the most expensive space program in history.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the Lunar Surface during 1st human moonwalk in history 45 years ago on July 20, 1969 during Apollo 1l mission. Credit: NASA
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the Lunar Surface during the first human moonwalk in history, on July 20, 1969. Credit: NASA

The program relied on the use of Saturn rockets as launch vehicles, and spacecraft that were larger than either the Mercury or Gemini capsules – consisting of a command and service module (CSM) and a lunar landing module (LM). The program got off to a rocky start when, on January 27th, 1967, the Apollo 1 craft experienced an electrical fire during a test run. The fire destroyed the capsule and killed the crew of three, consisting of Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, Roger B. Chaffee.

The second manned mission, Apollo 8, brought astronauts for the first time in a flight around the Moon in December of 1968. On the next two missions, docking maneuvers that were needed for the Moon landing were practiced. And finally, the long-awaited Moon landing was made with the Apollo 11 mission on July 20th, 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon while pilot Michael Collins observed.

Five subsequent Apollo missions also landed astronauts on the Moon, the last in December 1972. Throughout these six Apollo spaceflights, a total of twelve men walked on the Moon. These missions also returned a wealth of scientific data, not to mention 381.7 kilograms (842 lb) of lunar samples to Earth. The Moon landing marked the end of the space race, but Armstrong declared it a victory for “mankind” rather than just the US.

Skylab and the Space Shuttle Program:
After Project Apollo, NASA’s efforts turned towards the creation of an orbiting space station and the creation of reusable spacecraft. In the case of the former, this took the form of Skylab, America’s first and only independently-built space station. Conceived of in 1965, the station was constructed on Earth and launched on May 14th, 1973 atop the first two stages of a Saturn V rocket.

Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station. Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA
Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station. Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA

Skylab was damaged during its launch, losing its thermal protection and one electricity-generating solar panels. This necessitated the first crew to rendezvous with the station to conduct repairs. Two more crews followed, and the station was occupied for a total of 171 days during its history of service. This ended in 1979 with the downing of the station over the Indian Ocean and parts of southern Australia.

By the early 70s, a changing budget environment forced NASA to begin researching reusable spacecraft, which resulted in the Space Shuttle Program. Unlike previous programs, which involved small space capsules being launched on top of multistage rockets, this program centered on the use of vehicles that were launchable and (mostly) reusable.

Its major components were a spaceplane orbiter with an external fuel tank and two solid-fuel launch rockets at its side. The external tank, which was bigger than the spacecraft itself, was the only major component that was not reused. Six orbiters were constructed in total, named Space Shuttle Atlantis, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and Enterprise.

Over the course of 135 missions, which ran from 1983 to 1998, the Space Shuttles performed many important tasks. These included carrying the Spacelab into orbit – a joint effort with the European Space Agency (ESA) – running supplies to Mir and the ISS (see below), and the launch and successful repair of the Hubble Space Telescope (which took place in 1990 and 1993, respectively).

Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA

The Shuttle program suffered two disasters during the course of its 15 years of service. The first was the Challenger disaster in 1986, while the second – the Columbia disaster – took place in 2003. Fourteen astronauts were lost, as well as the two shuttles. By 2011, the program was discontinued, the last mission ending on July 21st, 2011 with the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center.

By 1993, NASA began collaborating with the Russians, the ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to create the International Space Station (ISS). Combining NASA’s Space Station Freedom project with the Soviet/Russian Mir-2 station, the European Columbus station, and the Japanese Kibo laboratory module, the project also built on the Russian-American Shuttle-Mir missions (1995-1998).

The ISS and Recent Projects:
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, crew members were delivered exclusively by Soyuz spacecraft. The Soyuz remains docked with the station while crews perform their six-month long missions, and then returns them to Earth. Until another US manned spacecraft is ready – which is NASA is busy developing – crew members will travel to and from the ISS exclusively aboard the Soyuz.

The International Space Station, photographed by the crew of STS-132 as they disembarked. Credit: NASA
The International Space Station, photographed by the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-132). Credit: NASA

Uncrewed cargo missions arrive regularly with the station, usually in the form of the Russian Progress spacecraft, but also from the ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) since 2008, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) since 2009, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft since 2012, and the American Cygnus spacecraft since 2013.

The ISS has been continuously occupied for the past 15 years, having exceeded the previous record held by Mir; and has been visited by astronauts and cosmonauts from 15 different nations. The ISS program is expected to continue until at least 2020, but may be extended until 2028 or possibly longer, depending on the budget environment.

Future of NASA:
A few years ago, NASA celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Originally designed to ensure American supremacy in space, it has since adapted to changing conditions and political climates. It’s accomplishments have also been extensive, ranging from launching the first American artificial satellites into space for scientific and communications purposes, to sending probes to explore the planets of the Solar System.

But above all else, NASA’s greatest accomplishments have been in sending human beings into space, and being the agency that conducted the first manned missions to the Moon. In the coming years, NASA hopes to build on that reputation, bringing an asteroid closer to Earth so we can study it more closely, and sending manned missions to Mars.

Universe Today has many articles on NASA, including articles on its current administrators and the agency’s celebrating 50 years of spaceflight.

For more information, check out history of NASA and the history of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Astronomy Cast has an episode on NASA’s mission to Mars.

Source: NASA

Crazy Space Christmases: Moon Readings, Food Cans And Emergency Repairs

If you think the upside-down Christmas tree above is bizarre — that’s one of the latest activities of Expedition 42 astronauts in space right now — think back to the history of other holidays in orbit.

We’ve seen a vital telescope undergo repairs, an emergency replacement of part of a space station’s cooling system, and even a tree made of food cans. Learn more about these fun holiday times below.

Reading from above the moon (Apollo 8, 1969)

In this famous reading from the Bible, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders shared their experience looking at the Moon on Dec. 24, 1968. The Apollo 8 crew was the first to venture to lunar orbit, just seven months before the Apollo 11 crew made it all the way to the surface.

Food can “Christmas tree” (Skylab 4, 1973)

A "Christmas tree" created out of food cans by the Skylab 4 crew in 1973. Credit: NASA
A “Christmas tree” created out of food cans by the Skylab 4 crew in 1973. Credit: NASA

Living on the Skylab station taught astronauts the value of improvisation, such as when the first crew (under NASA’s instructions) repaired a sunshield to stop electronics and people from roasting inside. Skylab 4 took the creativity to Christmas when they created a tree out of food cans.

Hubble Space Telescope repair (STS-103, 1999)

The Hubble Space Telescope during a 1999 repair mission with STS-103 crew members Mike Foale (left, for NASA) and Claude Nicollier (European Space Agency). Credit: NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope during a 1999 repair mission with STS-103 crew members Mike Foale (left, for NASA) and Claude Nicollier (European Space Agency). Credit: NASA

When the Hubble Space Telescope was in hibernation due to a failed gyroscope, the STS-103 crew made repairs in December 1999 that culminated with the final spacewalk on Christmas Day. The telescope remains in great shape to this day, following another repair mission in 2009.

First Christmas on the International Space Station (Expedition 1, 2000)

The Expedition 1 crew with fresh oranges on the International Space Station in December 2000. From left, Yuri Gidzenko (Roscosmos), Bill Shepherd (NASA) and Sergei Krikalev (Roscosmos). Credit: NASA
The Expedition 1 crew with fresh oranges on the International Space Station in December 2000. From left, Yuri Gidzenko (Roscosmos), Bill Shepherd (NASA) and Sergei Krikalev (Roscosmos). Credit: NASA

The Expedition 1 crew was the first on the International Space Station to spend Christmas in orbit. “On this night, we would like to share with all-our good fortune on this space adventure; our wonder and excitement as we gaze on the Earth’s splendor; and our strong sense — that the human spirit to do, to explore, to discover — has no limit,” the crew said in a statement on Christmas Eve, in part.

Ammonia tank replacement (Expedition 38, 2013)

Just last year, an ammonia tank failure crippled a bunch of systems on the International Space Station and forced spacewalkers outside to fix the problem, in the middle of a leaky suit investigation. The astronauts made the final repairs ahead of schedule, on Christmas Eve.

Watch All The Apollo Saturn V Rockets Blast Off At The Same Time

Editor’s note: We posted this yesterday only to find that the original video we used had been pulled. Now, we’ve reposted the article with a new and improved version of the video, thanks to Spacecraft Films.

To the moon! The goal people most remember from the Apollo program was setting foot on the surface of our closest neighbor. To get there required a heck of a lot of firepower, bundled in the Saturn V rocket. The video above gives you the unique treat of watching each rocket launch at the same time.

Some notes on the rockets you see:

  • Apollos 4 and 6 were uncrewed test flights.
  • Apollo 9 was an Earth-orbit flight to (principally) test the lunar module.
  • Apollo 8 and 10 were both flights around the moon (with no lunar landing).
  • Apollo 13 was originally scheduled to land on the moon but famously experienced a dangerous explosion that forced the astronauts to come back to Earth early — but safely.
  • Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 safely made it to the moon’s surface and back.
  • Skylab’s launch was also uncrewed; the Saturn V was used in this case to send a space station into Earth’s orbit that was used by three crews in the 1970s.
  • You don’t see Apollo 7 pictured here because it did not use the Saturn V rocket; it instead used the Saturn IB. It was an Earth-orbiting flight and the first successful manned one of the Apollo program. (Apollo 1 was the first scheduled crew, but the three men died in a launch pad fire.)

And if this isn’t enough firepower for you, how about all 135 space shuttle launches at the same time?

Read more about the Saturn V at NASA and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

(h/t Sploid)

All Saturn V Launches At Once from Spacecraft Films on Vimeo.

What’s On The Far Side Of The Moon?

You probably know we only see one side of the Moon from the Earth. But for the majority of human history, we had no idea what the far side looked like.

Billions of years ago, our Moon was formed when a Mars-sized object smashed into the Earth, spinning out a ring of debris. This debris collected into the Moon we know today. It started out rotating from our perspective, but the Earth’s gravity slowed it down until its rotation became locked with the Earth’s, keeping one half forever hidden from our view.

It wasn’t until the space age that humans finally got a chance to see what’s on the other side. The first spacecraft to image the far side of the Moon was the Soviet Luna 3 probe in 1959, which returned 18 usable images to scientists. And then in 1965, the Soviet Zond 3 transmitted another 25 pictures of higher quality that gave much more detail of the surface. The first humans to actually see the far side with their own eyes, were the crew of Apollo 8, who did a flyover in 1968.

We now have high resolution cameras imaging every square meter, even the far side. And here’s the amazing surprise….

You would think that the far side of the Moon would look like the near side, but check out the two hemispheres…They’re totally different.

The near side of the has huge regions of ancient lava flows, called maria. While the far side is almost entirely covered in crater impacts. Planetary geologists aren’t sure, but it’s possible that the Earth used to have two Moons.

Billions of years ago, the second, smaller moon crashed into the far side of the Moon, covering up the darker maria regions.

And just to clarify things with Pink Floyd’s reference to the “Dark Side of the Moon”… Except for the occasional lunar eclipse, half of the Moon is always in darkness and half is always illuminated. But that illuminated half changes as the Moon orbits around us.

High resolution photo map of the moon's far side imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Mare Moscoviense lies at upper left and Tsiolkovsky at lower left. Click for a hi res image. Credit: NASA
High resolution photo map of the moon’s far side imaged by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA

Just like half of the Earth is always in darkness, and half of every other large object in the Solar System. There’s no permanent “dark side” of the Moon. The side facing towards the Sun is lit up, and the side facing away is in shadows.

There are, however, some spots on the Moon which are in eternal darkness. There are craters at the north and south poles deep enough that the light from the Sun never illuminates their floors. In these places, It’s possible that there are reserves of ice that future space colonies could use for their supplies of water, air, and even rocket fuel.

Pink Floyd was right if you’re talking radio waves instead of visible light. The far side of the Moon is naturally shielded from the Earth’s radio transmissions, so it makes an ideal spot to locate a sensitive radio observatory.

I’ll see you in the permanently shadowed craters of the Moon.

See the Apollo 8 “Earthrise” in a Whole New Way

Earthrise - Apollo 8

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.

You can read more details of how the video was put together in this NASA press release.

A computer-generated visualization of the Apollo 8 spacecraft in orbit around the moon, with Earth rising over the horizon. Image Credit:  Ernie Wright/NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio
A computer-generated visualization of the Apollo 8 spacecraft in orbit around the moon, with Earth rising over the horizon.
Image Credit:
Ernie Wright/NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio

Earthrise, Revisited


On December 24, 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, William Anders and Jim Lovell were the first humans to witness an Earthrise as our home planet came up over the lunar horizon. The photos they captured were the first of their kind, instantly inspiring the imaginations of millions and highlighting the beauty and fragility of our world.

Now, NASA has used modern satellite data to recreate the scenes that the Apollo 8 astronauts saw 44 years ago and combined them with their historic photographs to present a new “Earthrise”… version 2.0.

Created in recognition of Earth Day 2012, the Earthrise animation was made from data acquired by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s laser altimeter, as well as the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra Earth-observing satellite.

“This visualization recreates for everyone the wondrous experience of seeing Earth from that privileged viewpoint,” says LRO Project Scientist Rich Vondrak of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Animator Ernie Wright recreated the scene using Apollo mission reports and photos taken by the crew. The audio is a recording of original communication from the astronauts.

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“I think the one overwhelming emotion that we had was when we saw the earth rising in the distance over the lunar landscape… it makes us realize that we all do exist on one small globe. For from 230,000 miles away it really is a small planet.”

— Frank Borman, Apollo 8 Commander

Read the release on the NASA LRO site here.

Video: NASA/GSFC

A Conversation with Jim Lovell, part 2: Looking Back

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Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell was awarded the Lincoln Leadership Prize by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum foundation last week, and while humbled to receive the award, Lovell said he really is just an ordinary person. “I was just at the right place at the right time with the right credentials; there was nothing so extra special about me that got me where I am.”

But those in attendance at a reception to unveil a portrait of Lovell which will hang at the presidential library in Springfield, Illinois said Lovell embodies the intersection of heroism and legacy.


Lovell speaking at a reception in his honor at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Image: Nancy Atkinson

“NASA had a leader at the exact moment they needed it,” said Richard K. Davis, Chair, President and CEO of US Bancorp, who introduced the former Apollo astronaut at the reception. “With the help of many, Lovell and his crew created the outrageous but amazing solution to plot Apollo 13 back home. NASA found they had a cool, calm, competent leader, a hero who took this crew and a nation from ‘Houston we have a problem’ to America, we have a miracle.

Davis said one of his all-time favorite quotes comes from Lovell: “There are people who make things happen, there are people who watch things happen, and there are people who wonder what happened. To be successful you need to be a person who makes things happen.”

Earlier in the week, Lovell talked with members of the media about his life and his thoughts on NASA’s current budget situation. You can read part one of the interview here, and following is the continuation of the conversation with Jim Lovell, where he talks about some of his memories of his flights to space, and what it took for him to realize that Apollo 13 was more than just a failure:

We’re coming up to almost the 40th anniversary of the last person who landed on the Moon—what are your thoughts about that?

Lovell: It is a rather sad remembrance. I think it is an end of an era. I think the anniversaries will end—we probably won’t get together much anymore. We should look ahead to have a space program that everyone can be proud of, regardless of what it ends up to be. Sometimes we live too much in the past. But the future is here.

Why did you decide to become an astronaut?

Lovell: When I was in high school I was interested in both astronomy and rockets. There was a fellow I admired, the father of modern rocketry named Robert Goddard. I really wanted to be a rocket engineer. So I wrote to the secretary of the American Rocket Society, and asked how I could become one. He told me there was no school at that time that offered that type of study specifically, but I should take mechanics and mathematics, thermodynamics and either go to MIT or CalTech.

But my father had died earlier that year and I didn’t have the money to go to either of those places, so I gave that up. But I did apply to get an ROTC scholarship and was accepted. I went to the University of Wisconsin for two years and won an appointment to the Naval Academy. I went there for four years and got into the Navy and became a naval aviator – which was a second goal for me, as my uncle had been a naval aviator and had regaled me with all his stories. Then I went to test pilot school for the Navy. And when NASA was asking for astronauts, it seemed to me to be the perfect opportunity: here was a marrying of flight and rockets all coming together for me as if I had planned it all this time.

You couldn’t have seen a more disappointed person when I wasn’t selected for the first original seven astronauts. I made it to the final 32 candidates. But then, for round two, I was selected.

Universe Today: What are your favorite memories from your four flights to space?

Lovell: Apollo 8 was the most inspirational flight to me, and I hope it brought a message back to the Earth of what we have.

The most impressive sight I saw was not the moon, not the far side that we never see, or the craters. It was Earth. The Earth was the most impressive sight. As we came around the far side of the Moon and saw the Earth come up above the horizon, we could see the only color in our part of the Universe. The blues of the oceans, the white clouds, the tans, the pinks. I could put my thumb up and hide the Earth completely. Then it dawned on me how completely insignificant we are. Everything I had ever known – my family, my country, my world – was behind my thumb.

So there in the distance was this small body orbiting a rather normal sun, — nothing so particular about it — tucked away on the outer edge of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.

I thought how fortunate we are to live on this small body, with everyone – all those ‘astronauts’ — living together like on a starship, with limited resources. So, in a way that was just like Apollo 13, and we have to learn to live and work together. And I hope we could bring that message back to the people of Earth.

But I also have to say one of my other favorite memories was from Apollo 13: the splashdown! Seeing the parachutes, feeling the capsule swaying in the ocean, and having one of the divers come to knock on the window was a great feeling. It was pretty impressive, too.

Jim Lovell speaking at the museum, in front of a replica of the White House. Image: Nancy Atkinson

What was scarier, the explosion of Apollo 13 or seeing the service module after it was jettisoned and wondering if the heat shield was still intact?

Lovell: The low point was the explosion – which we didn’t realize was an explosion until I saw the oxygen leaking outside the spacecraft, and saw from our instruments that we would be completely out of oxygen. This also meant we would be out of electrical power, and because we used the electrical power to control the rocket engine, we also lost the propulsion system. We knew we were losing the command module, but that was the only thing that had the heat shield to get us back to Earth.

As we were going through and solving all the problems one by one, when we came back towards Earth and jettisoned the Service Module and saw the explosion had blown out the entire side panel, we wondered about that heat shield which was right behind us, if the explosion had cracked it. But there was nothing we could do at that point. There was no solution. You just crossed your fingers. Once we entered the atmosphere we just had to hope the heat shield was intact. And it was.

Lovell and museum officials at the unveiling of a portrait of Lovell that will hang in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Image: Nancy Atkinson


You went from the space program to the tugboat business. What was that like?

After I retired from NASA and the Navy, and I was looking for something to do. I went to the advanced management program at Harvard and learned enough about business to be dangerous. Some friends of ours had a tugboat company and he offered me a job leading the company. Since I was a Navy officer — which has something to do with ships and water – I thought I could handle that. I was in that about five years. Then I got into the telecommunications business, which was fortunate timing because the deregulation of AT&T was just around the corner. We sold digital systems, where AT&T had analog systems, and we could sell the systems instead of how it was done the past where customers leased equipment from the phone company.

As you sit in this museum and library, what are your thoughts about studying the past?

This library and museum is not just something to look back on the era of Lincoln, it is an education for all ages coming through here of how we can keep the country together in the future. At the various museums around the country, like at the Air and Space museum, we show what people have done in the past in spaceflight. Here, and there, we show how people are committed to do things. Lincoln was committed to preserve the country. This type of an institution gives young people the chance to learn about those who were committed to make our country strong, and it should give everyone hope about our future.

You didn’t write the book “Lost Moon” for over 20 years after the Apollo 13 mission. What took so long?

Lovell: When we first got back from Apollo 13, the three of us astronauts said, this was a pretty unusual flight, so we should write a book about this. So, we said, we’re going to get together and write something. Well, as it often happens, as time went on, we all had jobs to do and life got busy for all of us. Jack Swigert went into politics in Colorado, and then, of course, he passed away. Fred Haise went into the aerospace business with Grumman, and I went into the telephone business. But just after I retired I got a call from a young man (Jeffrey Kluger) who said he had never written a book before, but he was a science writer for the Discover Magazine.

To make a long story short, I liked the way he wrote and we got together and wrote the book about 22 years after Apollo 13. But you have to remember that Apollo 13 was a failure. I mean, the only experiment that was completed was really done by the mission control team when they maneuvered the third stage of our booster to hit the Moon so that the Apollo 12 seismometers could pick up the results of the hit to learn something about the lunar surface. So there were no other successful experiments. The only thing we were doing was trying to figure out how to get home.

So, for years after we got back, I was frustrated. I wanted to land on the Moon like the other crews had, but I didn’t. But as we started to write the book, I realized that in its initial mission, yes, the flight was a failure. But as we wrote and I found out more about how hard the mission control team worked to get us back, I realized it really was a triumph in the way people handled a crisis: good leadership at all levels at NASA, teamwork that was generated because of that leadership, the use of imagination and initiative to figure out how to get us home by using just what we had on board, the perseverance of people who kept on going when it looked like initially that we didn’t have a chance. Jules Bergman (ABC science reporter) only gave us a 10 per cent chance, and my wife never forgave him for that!

But this is why Apollo 13 went from being a failure to a triumph.

The movie is very accurate, by the way. Ron Howard followed the real story very well. All the incidents were true except for the argument between Haise and Swigert, but Ron Howard had to figure out a way to portray the tension we all felt, and decided to do it in that way.

Previous winners of the Lincoln Leadership Prize are archbishop Desmond Tutu and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. For more information about the Lincoln Prize and the Presidential Museum and Library, see the ALPLM website.

A Conversation with Apollo’s Jim Lovell, part 1: NASA’s Future

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Springfield, Illinois is a quiet, historic town that clings fervently to its association with Abraham Lincoln. If you want Civil War era history and desire to know anything about Lincoln, you can find it in Springfield, especially at the outstanding new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Musuem.

So, it’s not often that an astronaut shows up, especially a former astronaut with his own unique kind of history such as Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell. But Lovell is in town this week, as he was awarded the Lincoln Leadership Prize, an honor given by the museum’s foundation to “exceptional men and women for a lifetime of service in the Lincoln tradition.” Still a commanding figure at age 82, Lovell chatted eloquently and easily with members of the press yesterday, and since I live in Springfield and am a member of the press, you can bet I was there. It was an honor to be able to talk with him.

Lovell toured the museum earlier in the day, and said, “It is a magnificent museum and library dedicated to one of our greatest presidents, and every American should have the chance to come here in order to get a good idea of what our country stands for and what the people in the past, like Abraham Lincoln, have done to make it a great country.”

Lovell said he was very honored and humbled to be the recipient of the Lincoln Prize and said what he has learned from Lincoln over the years is commitment. “Commitment is necessary if you are going to do anything great, like Lincoln, who committed himself to stand fast,” he said. “I enjoy the aspects of what the Lincoln Prize recognizes, and to be a recipient, well, it has a very special place in my heart.”

Of course, readers of Universe Today are familiar with Lovell’s history: a test pilot in the Navy who applied to become one of the original seven Mercury astronauts (“back when boosters were blowing up every other day at Cape Canaveral,” Lovell said). He didn’t make initial selection, but two years later when NASA needed more astronauts, Lovell was chosen. He flew two missions for Gemini, then Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.

Lovell called Apollo 8 the pinnacle of his career. “I am really proud to be one of three people that flew and circled the Moon on Christmas Eve in 1968,” he said, “and we were able to relay back — not to just the people of the United States, but the whole world — something positive after a rather dismal year.”

At the museum Lovell found out that the person who portrayed him in the movie “Apollo 13” – Tom Hanks – is a distance relative of Abraham Lincoln, “so I guess he had a bit of Lincoln in him too, and he was a great character to work with.”

Nancy Atkinson with Jim Lovell.

Following is part of the conversation with Lovell:

On the topic of commitment, do you think the United States is committed to human spaceflight?

Lovell: My personal opinion is that I believe the US has a very strong committment to continue our space exploration. Unfortunately, our present administration doesn’t believe that. The proposed NASA budget for 2011 eliminates the forward efforts of manned spaceflight. It goes for general research and other things. I don’t think they actually remember that NASA was formed to explore space. Consequently there is a possibility that we might be number three or four in space exploration in the future. As you know there about 2 or 3 shuttle flights left. After that the US has no access to the International Space Station, which all our taxpayers have put a lot of money into. If this plan goes forward, the only access in the future will be the Russians and they have indicated that the cost per astronaut per flight is about 60 million dollars, which is a pretty high ticket price to get there.

I think Congress sees the danger of the present proposal of NASA’s 2011 budget and based on that they are now in session both in the House and Senate to try and modify the President’s proposal to continue in some aspect manned space efforts to design vehicles to get up to the International Space Station, sometime in the near future. Hopefully Congress will get together and come up with a compromise. I personally feel the President has so many things weighing on his mind right now that he will go along with Congress’ proposal and it will be better than the initial budget that he proposed to the American people some months ago.

Universe Today: Do you have confidence in the commercial space companies that could bring people to space?

That’s a good question, because part of the new proposal is putting efforts and money into developing commercial spaceflight. Now, you have to look at what the definition of commercial is. In my mind, commercial is when an entrepreneur sees an enterprise to develop a launch system and spacecraft to get into space. He gets his own resources, does the development to build and test his system, makes it man- rated and then proposes his vehicle and system to NASA, or to the FAA if he wants to use it for tourism to space. This is what I consider commercial.

Now, a government program is where the government puts all the money into it and develops and builds it. Within the government, we have the free enterprise system, the private sector where we have contractors to do that. Boeing, Lockheed, General Dyamics, and so on. These people have 40 or 50 years in the development of space artifacts, launch systems, spacecraft. To put government money into a new system for unproven vehicles is today, a waste of money.

Jim Lovell. Credit: Nancy Atkinson

Boeing is now thinking of going into commercial work. They have the expertise to do that. But not some of the newer people like SpaceX, although they did build a nice booster that made one flight. But if they could build it on their own and make it man-rated and have a suitable launch to system to go the ISS, more power to them. I’m sure NASA would contract with them. But we have limited amount of money to spend for space activities, and it seems to me the best place to put it would be with the people who have the knowledge and expertise and the history of what it takes to build a launch system.

There are a few companies that are looking at suborbital flights, such as Richard Branson’s company (Virgin Galactic) who wants to expand what Burt Rutan has done to give people 5 or 6 minutes of weightlessness. Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com is another (Blue Origin). They are really entrepreneurs. If they can build their vehicles and systems and they think there is a market for tourism, then that is the way to go.

I’m all for commercialization. A lot of times people compare this to the work that the NACA did to help the airline industry – to develop wing designs and things like that—but the aviation industry in the early days saw a good market, because they knew either commercial flights or military vehicles would provide a market, so there was an opening there.

If you look at commercial space companies, as far as orbital, you have to ask what can people do there? There’s only one place to go in orbit, that’s the ISS. The Russians are already there. The Chinese are talking about building a space station, but there is no other manned market for commercial orbital spaceflight. Now there are a lot of unmanned commercial operations: satellites for the military, GPS, communications, weather – there’s a lot that can happen there and can happen in the future. I think the Boeing vehicles have made over 80 commercial flights putting satellites in orbit.

But low Earth orbit for people – where do you want to go? Unless you have tourists that want to go around the Earth or go to the ISS, there really is not a market, except for the market of the government to put astronauts up in the ISS.

What is the benefit to be gained from manned spaceflight that would outweigh the costs in these tough economic times?

Lovell: That answer is the same as it was back in the days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
One, is the technologies developed. It used to be the only way there was technology development was if there was a war. When NASA came along the technology it developed spilled over in the public sector and you can see what has happened today, especially in the information industry.

The second thing you have to remember is that there was a spur of education. When Russia put up Sputnik, everyone asked how they did it and why we didn’t. And this spilled over into education. I can’t tell you how many people who have told me that when they were young they followed the space program and that affected their choice to go into engineering or science.

Then, there is idea of what we can do as the human race. The world is getting smaller. We can’t do things in space much on our own anymore, and so we have to work together. We now have an International Space Station, 16 countries working together in a program that is not controversial at all. It works. We’re getting to know other countries. We have a common bond.

As of now China is working on their own, but if they accomplish what they want to do, they might join the consortium of the other countries working together.

Now, the idea of manned spaceflight, even though if you pin me to wall, and ask, “OK, we want to go to Mars—why? What will we do there?” Honestly, I can’t tell you. I don’t know.

But I have to tell you one thing. Somebody is going to go to Mars. The technology is here. It is just the time effort and money to make that a possibilty. The original Constellation program that we had carefully devised and developed over years to build a vehicle to get us up to the space station because the shuttle would be retired, and then build the Ares boosters to work our way eventually get us back to the Moon, using that infrastructure to fully explore it – we’ve only touched a small part of the Moon so far – and then after years of developing that to eventually get the architecture and infrastructure. That was the whole plan. It wasn’t a plan to get to Mars in 10 years or 15 years, it was plan to get to one spot, and work your way to the next spot. And there would probably be a consortium of countries working with us. And that was the whole plan that the President shot down. He mentioned something about someday we’d get a big booster. When? You have to have a program to develop the technology. He wants to develop technology and then figure out what kind of program to have. That’s the wrong approach. That’s putting the cart before the horse.

If money was no object and the President said we could go either to the Moon or Mars, what would you recommend?

Lovell: I would tell him to go back to the program we had developed for Constellation. Now, there has been some controversy, even among my own compatriots. Some say we’ve been to the Moon- we’ve done that, so let’s go on to Mars, or let’s go on to an asteroid. That’s all well said and done.

We were extremely fortunate in the 1960’s to develop Apollo and to have the accomplishments we did. I was amazed when I heard President Kennedy announce in 1961 that we were going to go to the Moon by the end of the decade. I said, that’s impossible. So if I say that I don’t know what we’d do if we go to Mars, I might be sadly mistaken and someone might get there before we ever thought it was possible.
But I think you have to do it step by step, to develop it and then go.

Part 2: More with Lovell about Apollo 8 and 13, what it took for Lovell to realize that Apollo 13 wasn’t a complete failure.