Editor’s note: Today marks the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts during a routine test on the launchpad. The test was a dress rehearsal for the Apollo 1 crew — Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The goal was to check out the command module, NASA’s first spacecraft that would take astronauts to the Moon.
Following is an excerpt about the fire from the book “Eight Years to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Missions” by Nancy Atkinson. The book tells the unique personal stories of over 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make the Apollo program possible, and is filled with stories of the dedication and perseverance it took to overcome the challenges, hurdles and conflicts of doing things that had never been done before. It provides a glimpse into the lives of some of the hundreds of thousands of people who made it possible to land humans on the Moon. While many of the stories in the book are fun and heart-warming, this excerpt shares the incredibly heart-breaking event that shocked the country and halted the Apollo program as NASA scrambled to figure out what went wrong.
It’s July 16th, 1969. The Apollo 11 crew have completed their training, and they’re in the Columbia Command Module atop a Saturn V rocket, to this day the most powerful rocket ever built. At 9:32 EDT the rocket lifts off, delivering the crew into Earth orbit 12 minutes after launch.
The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 was a huge celebration, and Apollo 13 may be an equally big commotion. Apollo 12 is tough sell in the middle. Even the Virginia Air & Space Center, which houses the Apollo 12 capsule, uses photographs of Apollo 11 to advertise. Ouch.
This unique mission and its important contribution to science was no less an accomplishment than its famous predecessor or tragic follower, and it pains many to see them become the “lost” journey between two better-known missions, with no movie to dramatize the details of their voyage.
During the development of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) by the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory (see Part 1 and Part 2 for the complete backstory), an inauspicious event occurred sometime during 1965-1966, while the Gemini missions were going on.
The Gemini program helped NASA get ready for the Apollo Moon landings missions by testing out rendezvous and other critical techniques and technologies. Ten crews flew missions in Earth orbit on the two-person Gemini spacecraft.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL – Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, and one of America’s most famous and renowned astronauts, was honored in a ceremony held at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, on Jan. 18. [Story/photos expanded]
Cernan passed away earlier this week on Monday, January 16, 2017 at age 82, after a long illness, surrounded by his family.
Cernan, a naval aviator, flew on three groundbreaking missions for NASA during the Gemini and Apollo programs that paved the way for America’s and humanity’s first moon landing missions.
His trio of historic space flights ultimately culminated with Cernan stepping foot on the moon in Dec. 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission- NASA final moon landing of the Apollo era.
No human has set foot on the Moon since Apollo 17 – an enduring disappointment to Cernan and all space fans worldwide.
Cernan also flew on the Gemini 9 and Apollo 10 missions, prior to Apollo 17.
The Gemini 9 capsule is on display at the KSC Visitor Complex. Cernan was the second NASA astronaut to perform an EVA – during Gemini 9.
The Cernan remembrance ceremony was held at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame inside the newly opened ‘Heroes & Legends’ exhibit at the KSC Visitor Complex – two days after Cernan died. It included remarks from two of his fellow NASA astronauts from the Space Shuttle era, Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana, and space shuttle astronaut Jon McBride, as well as Therrin Protze, chief operating officer, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
A NASA portrait and floral wreath were on display for visitors during the ceremony inside and outside of the ‘Heroes and Legends’ exhibit.
“He was an advocate for the space program and hero that will be greatly missed,” said Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana during the ceremony inside.
“I don’t believe that Gene is going to be the last man on the moon. And one of the things that he was extremely passionate about was our exploring beyond our own planet, and developing that capability that would allow us to go back to the moon and go beyond.
“I feel badly that he wasn’t able to stay alive long enough to actually see this come to fruition,” Cabana said.
NASA is now developing the SLS heavy lift rocket and Orion deep space capsule to send our astronauts to the Moon, Mars and Beyond. The maiden launch of SLS-1 on the uncrewed EM-1 mission to the Moon is slated for Fall 2018.
“We are saddened of the loss of our American hero, Astronaut Gene Cernan. As the last man to place footsteps on the surface of the moon, he was a truly inspiring icon who challenged the impossible,” said Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
“People throughout generations have been and will forever be inspired by his actions, and the underlying message that what we can achieve is limited only by our imaginations. He will forever be known as ‘The Last Man on the Moon,” and for the extraordinary impact he had on our country and the world.”
Cernan was one of only 12 astronauts to walk on the moon. Neil Armstong and Buzz Aldrin were the first during the Apollo 11 moon landing mission in 1969 that fulfilled President Kohn F. Kennedy’s promise to land on the Moon during the 1960’s.
Cernan retired from NASA and the U.S. Navy in 1976. He continued to advise NASA as a consultant and appeared frequently on TV news programs during NASA’s manned space missions as an popular guest explaining the details of space exploration and why we should explore.
He advocated for NASA, space exploration and science his entire adult life.
“As an astronaut, Cernan left an indelible impression on the moon when he scratched his daughter’s initials in the lunar surface alongside the footprints he left as the last human to walk on the moon. Guests of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex can learn more about Cernan’s legacy at the new Heroes & Legends exhibit, where his spacewalk outside the actual Gemini IX space capsule is brought to life through holographic imagery.”
From NASA’s profile page:
“Cernan was born in Chicago on March 14, 1934. He graduated from Proviso Township High School in Maywood, Ill., and received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University in 1956. He earned a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
Cernan is survived by his wife, Jan Nanna Cernan, his daughter and son-in-law, Tracy Cernan Woolie and Marion Woolie, step-daughters Kelly Nanna Taff and husband, Michael, and Danielle Nanna Ellis and nine grandchildren.”
The following is a statement released by NASA on the behalf of Gene Cernan’s family:
A funeral service for Capt. Eugene A. Cernan, who passed away Monday at the age of 82, will be conducted at 2:30 p.m. CST on Tuesday, Jan. 24, at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, 717 Sage Road in Houston.
NASA Television will provide pool video coverage of the service.
The family will gather for a private interment at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin at a later date, where full military honors will be rendered.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
One of Apollo’s finest, astronaut Gene Cernan, has left Earth for the last time. Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, died Monday, January 16, 2017.
“Gene Cernan, Apollo astronaut and the last man to walk on the moon, has passed from our sphere, and we mourn his loss,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden in statement. “Leaving the moon in 1972, Cernan said, ‘As I take these last steps from the surface for some time into the future to come, I’d just like to record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.’ Truly, America has lost a patriot and pioneer who helped shape our country’s bold ambitions to do things that humankind had never before achieved.”
In a statement, Cernan’s family said he was humbled by his life experiences, and he recently commented, “I was just a young kid in America growing up with a dream. Today what’s most important to me is my desire to inspire the passion in the hearts and minds of future generations of young men and women to see their own impossible dreams become a reality.”
“Even at the age of 82, Gene was passionate about sharing his desire to see the continued human exploration of space and encouraged our nation’s leaders and young people to not let him remain the last man to walk on the Moon,” the family continued.
A trailer for the film “The Last Man on the Moon:”
Cernan was a Captain in the U.S. Navy but he is remembered most for his historic travels off Earth. He flew in space three times, twice to the Moon.
He was one of 14 astronauts selected by NASA in October 1963. He piloted the Gemini 9 mission with Commander Thomas Stafford on a three-day flight in June 1966. Cernan was the second American to conduct a spacewalk, and he logged more than two hours outside the Earth-orbiting Gemini capsule.
In May 1969, he was the lunar module pilot of Apollo 10, and dramatically descended to within 5 km (50,000 ft) of the Moon’s surface to test out the lunar lander’s capabilities, paving the way for Apollo 11’s first lunar landing two months later.
As Cernan flew the lunar module close to the surface, he radioed back to Earth, “I’m telling you, we are low. We’re close baby! … We is down among ‘em!”
But his ultimate mission was landing on the Moon and walking across its surface during the Apollo 17 mission, the sixth and final mission to land on the Moon. During three EVAs to conduct surface operations within the Taurus-Littrow landing site, Cernan and his crewmate Harrison “Jack” Schmitt collected samples of the lunar surface and deployed scientific instruments.
On December 14, 1972, Cernan returned to the lunar module Challenger after the end of the third moonwalk, officially becoming the last human to set foot upon Moon.
Nobody can take those footsteps I made on the surface of the moon away from me.” – Eugene Cernan
Bolden said that in his last conversation with Cernan, “he spoke of his lingering desire to inspire the youth of our nation to undertake the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies, and to dare to dream and explore. He was one of a kind and all of us in the NASA Family will miss him greatly.”
The words of Cernan as he left the Moon’s surface bring us hope, for one day embarking on human missions of exploration of space once more.
“We shall return, in peace and hope, for all mankind.” – Gene Cernan.
No mournful blare of trumpets but a forlorn Tweet announced
Another one had gone;
Another of the tallest redwoods in the forest of history
Had fallen, leaving a poorer world behind.
One by one they pass – the giants who dared to step
Off Terra, fly through a quarter million miles of deadly night
And stride across the Moon. On huge TVs in living rooms and schools
We watched them bounce across its ancient plains,
Snowmen stained by dust as cold and grey
As crematorium ash, mischievous boys with smiles flashing
Behind visors of burnished gold as they lolloped along,
Hopping like drunk kangaroos between boulders
Big as cars, so, so far away from Earth that their words
Came from the past –
We often hear how the Moon’s appearance hasn’t changed in millions or even billions of years. While micrometeorites, cosmic rays and the solar wind slowly grind down lunar rocks, the Moon lacks erosional processes such as water, wind and lurching tectonic plates that can get the job done in a hurry.
Remember Buzz Aldrin’s photo of his boot print in the lunar regolith? It was thought the impression would last up to 2 million years. Now it seems that estimate may have to be revised based on photos taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) that reveal that impacts are transforming the surface much faster than previously thought.
The LRO’s high resolution camera, which can resolve features down to about 3 feet (1-meter) across, has been peering down at the Moon from orbit since 2009. Taking before and after images, called temporal pairs, scientists have identified 222 impact craters that formed over the past 7 years. The new craters range from 10 feet up to 141 feet (3-43 meters) in diameter.
By analyzing the number of new craters and their size, and the time between each temporal pair, a team of scientists from Arizona State University and Cornell estimated the current cratering rate on the Moon. The result, published in Nature this week, was unexpected: 33% more new craters with diameters of at least 30 feet (10 meters) were found than anticipated by previous cratering models.
Similar to the crater that appeared on March 17, 2013 (above), the team also found that new impacts are surrounded by light and dark reflectance patterns related to material ejected during crater formation. Many of the larger impact craters show up to four distinct bright or dark reflectance zones. Nearest to the impact site, there are usually zone of both high and low reflectance. These two zones likely formed as a layer of material that was ejected from the crater during the impact shot outward to about 2½ crater diameters from the rim.
From analyzing multiple impact sites, far flung ejecta patterns wrap around small obstacles like hills and crater rims, indicating the material was traveling nearly parallel to the ground. This kind of path is only possible if the material was ejected at very high speed around 10 miles per second or 36,000 miles per hour! The jet contains vaporized and molten rock that disturb the upper layer of lunar regolith, modifying its reflectance properties.
How LRO creates temporal pairs and scientists use them to discover changes on the moon’s surface.
In addition to discovering impact craters and their fascinating ejecta patterns, the scientists also observed a large number of small surface changes they call ‘splotches’ most likely caused by small, secondary impacts. Dense clusters of these splotches are found around new impact sites suggesting they may be secondary surface changes caused by material thrown out from a nearby primary impact. From 14,000 temporal pairs, the group identified over 47,000 splotches so far.
Based on estimates of size, depth and frequency of formation, the group estimated that the relentless churning caused by meteoroid impacts will turn over 99% of the lunar surface after about 81,000 years. Keep in mind, we’re talking about the upper regolith, not whole craters and mountain ranges. That’s more than 100 times faster than previous models that only took micrometeorites into account. Instead of millions of years for those astronaut boot prints and rover tracks to disappear, it now appears that they’ll be wiped clean in just tens of thousands!
Looking for a way to commemorate the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission landing on the Moon? Here are a few different ways look back on this historic event and take advantage of advances in technology or new data.
Below is a video that uses data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and its amazing suite of cameras, offering a side-by-side view of Apollo 11’s descent, comparing footage originally shot from the Eagle lunar module’s window with views created from reconstructed LRO imagery. This is a fun way to re-live the landing — 1202 alarms and all — while seeing high definition views of the lunar surface.
The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC has a special way to mark the Apollo 11 anniversary. They have posted online high-resolution 3-D scans of the command moduleColumbia, the spacecraft that carried astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon. This very detailed model allows you to explore the entire spacecraft’s interior, which, if you’ve ever visited the Air & Space museum and seen Columbia in person, you probably know is a tremendous ‘upgrade,’ since you can only see a portion of the interior through couple of small hatches and windows. The Smithsonian is also making the data files of the model available for download so it can be 3-D printed or viewed with virtual-reality goggles. Find all the details here.
Here’s a remastered version of the original mission video as aired in July 1969 depicting the Apollo 11 astronauts conducting several tasks during the moonwalk (EVA) operations on the surface of the moon, which lasted approximately 2.5 hours.
If you’re pressed for time, here’s a quick look at the entire Apollo 11 mission, all in just 100 seconds from Spacecraft Films:
Here’s a very cool detailed look at the Apollo 11 launch in ultra-slow motion, with narration:
Calling it music is a stretch, but that’s exactly how the Apollo 10 astronauts described the creepy sounds they heard while swinging around the farside of the moon in May 1969. During the hour they spent alone cut off from communications with Earth, all three commented about a persistent “whistling” sound that lunar module pilot (LMP) likened to “outer-space-type-music”. Once the craft returned to the nearside, the mysterious sounds disappeared.
Apollo 10 Farside-of-the-Moon Music.
Hands down it was aliens! I wish. Several online stories fan the coals of innuendo and mystery with talk of hidden files and NASA cover-ups narrated to disturbing music. NASA agrees that the files were listed as ‘confidential’ in 1969 at the height of the Space Race, but the Apollo 10 mission transcripts and audio have been publicly available at the National Archives since 1973. Remember, there was no Internet back then. The audio files were only digitized and uploaded for easy access in 2012. Outside of the secretive ’60s, the files have been around a long time.
The story originally broke Sunday night in a show on the cable channel Discovery as part of the “NASA’s Unexplained Files” series; you’ll find their youtube video below. As I listen to the sound file, I hear two different tones. One is a loud, low buzz, the other a whooshing sound. My first thought was interference of some sort for the buzzing sound, but the whoosh reminded me of a whistler, a low frequency radio wave generated by lightning produced when energy from lightning travels out into Earth’s magnetic field from one hemisphere to another. Using an appropriate receiver, we can hear whistlers as descending, whistle-like tones lasting up to several seconds.
Lightning’s hardly likely on the Moon, and whistlers require a magnetic field, which the Moon also lacks. The cause turns out to be, well, man-made. Cernan’s take was that two separate VHF radios, one in the lunar module and the other in command module, were interfering with one another to produce the noise. This was later confirmed by Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins who flew around the lunar farside alone when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon’s surface.
In his book Carrying the Fire, Collins writes: “There is a strange noise in my headset now, an eerie woo-woo sound.” He said it might have scared him had NASA’s radio technicians not forewarned him. The “music” played when the two craft were near one another with their radios turned on. Unlike Apollo 10, which never descended to the Moon’s surface but remained near the command module, the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Once it did, Collins writes that the ‘woo-woo’ music stopped.
The astronauts never talked publicly or even with the agency about hearing weird sounds in space for good reason. Higher-ups at NASA might think them unfit for future missions for entertaining weird ideas, so they kept their thoughts private. This was the era of the “right stuff” and no astronaut wanted to jeopardize a chance to fly to the Moon let alone their career.
Outer Space Music Part 1 of NASA’s Unexplained Files — to be taken with a boulder of salt
In the end, this “music of the the spheres” makes for a fascinating tidbit of outer space history. There’s no question the astronauts were spooked, especially considering how eerie it must have felt to be out of touch with Earth on the far side of the Moon. But once the sounds stopped, they soldiered on — part of the grand human effort to touch another world.
“I don’t remember that incident exciting me enough to take it seriously,” Gene Cernan told NASA on Monday. “It was probably just radio interference. Had we thought it was something other than that we would have briefed everyone after the flight. We never gave it another thought.”
Messages from the Ringed Planet
Want to hear some real outer space music? Click the Saturn video and listen to the eerie sound of electrons streaming along Saturn’s magnetic field to create the aurora.
What does it take to have the “Right Stuff” to become an Astronaut?
Are you an overachiever? Are you working on multiple PhDs in obscure and difficult topics? Can you speak multiple languages, including alienese? Do you suspect, if handed the controls, you could complete the Kessel Run in fewer parsecs than Han Solo?
If you said yes to any of these questions you might want to consider becoming an astronaut. In fact, if you’re an American citizen, there’s never been a better time to see if you’ve got the right stuff. NASA has opened up their astronaut corps to the few, the proud, the willing to get motion sickness in zero gravity. To boldly vomit where few have vomited before.
In the olden days, you either had to be a chimpanzee or an Air Force test pilot to be allowed to take the controls of a genuine NASA rocket and break free from the surly chains of gravity. When NASA finally upgraded its astronaut corps from chimps to humans in the 1950s to begin the Mercury program, they decided they’d only allow test pilots to apply for the first missions.
To fit in the cramped cabin, you had to physically be no taller than 180 cm (5’ 11”), and weigh no more than 82 kg (180 pounds). You needed to have book smarts, too. Astronaut candidates needed at least a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent, but still be under 40 years old. But most importantly, you had to be a test pilot with at least 1,500 hours of flying time and the ability to fly jets.
If you didn’t have hours behind the stick, piloting the most insane flying machines dreamt up by those nutty scientists, well then you didn’t have the right stuff.
Those qualifications continued through the Gemini and Apollo program, although, they relaxed them somewhat, allowing younger astronauts, and those with less flight time. In the recruitment of astronauts in 1965, they allowed a new class of scientist-astronauts; folks with science degrees and no flight time. The most famous of these was Jack Schmitt, a geologist who walked on the Moon with Apollo 17.
NASA now understands that they need astronauts with a wide range of space-based skills, and not just a bunch of test pilots. There are two kinds of people who get to go to space: pilots and mission specialists.
The first category are the commanders and pilot astronauts – the folks who actually fly the spacecraft. They’re the ones with thousands of hours behind the stick of a modern jet, the more cockamamie the better.
To be qualified as a pilot astronaut, you need to have at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft. You need to be healthy, with normal blood pressure, good vision and a height between 158 – 191 cm (62 and 75 inches). There are no longer any age restrictions, so astronauts have been selected between 26 and 46 years old.
You need a degree in some kind of space-related science, like engineering, mathematics, biological science and physical science. But that’s a minimum. You really want to have an advanced degree, or even multiple degrees. So, if you’re a healthy, eagle-eyed test pilot with a few advanced degrees, you should apply.
The other category is the mission specialists. These are the astronauts with specialties that will come into play on a space mission. For example: doctors, engineers, particle physicists, xenobiologists, alien translators, droid mechanics, etc. Since you won’t be required to fly the spacecraft, test pilot experience isn’t necessary, but you’ll need to have the same physical health as the pilot astronaut.
The main difference is that you’ll need to have one or multiple advanced degrees in engineering, science or math. The more degrees, and the more advanced they are, the better. Gotta collect them all.
I mentioned two kinds of astronauts, but there’s actually a third – the payload specialist. These were the astronauts who went to space during the shuttle era to support a specific mission. Priority was given to qualified NASA astronauts, but this was also how foreign astronauts like Canada’s Marc Garneau got a chance to fly in space.
Are you intrigued and thinking you might want to throw your name in the helmet? Want to know what being an astronaut pays? A starting astronaut can make $66,000 per year, while a senior one can earn $145,000 per year. Not bad at all, and the view from your office is spectacular.
So, if you’re a US citizen, you meet the qualifications, and you’d like to fly to space, you should apply during this latest call for candidates. And if you don’t think you make the cut, go ahead and wrap up those PhDs, as there’ll be another astronaut selection in a few years.
And if you do apply and don’t make the cut this time around, don’t despair. From the astronauts I’ve talked to, sometimes it takes a few applications before you get accepted. Persistence pays off.
Well, are you going to sign up and become an astronaut? Where do you think your mission will go? Tell us in the comments below.