Even More Things That Saved Apollo 13: The Nail-biting Re-entry Sequence

50 years ago today, on April 17, 1970, the crew of Apollo 13 came home. Safely. Successfully.

The world breathed a collective sigh of relief as they watched NASA turn a disaster into one of the most dramatic happy-endings ever.

The flight of Apollo 13 was unlike any other Apollo mission, and the final hours of the flight – preparing for and implementing the reentry to Earth – was unlike any other, as well.

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Even More Things That Saved Apollo 13: Charging the Batteries

Following the explosion of an oxygen tank in Apollo 13’s Service Module on April 13, 1970, approximately 56 hours into the mission, the situation was bleak. With the Command Module (CM) without any power, the Lunar Module (LM) was activated as a life boat to sustain the crew. The task ahead – to save the spacecraft and the crew, and get them home again — would require an incredible amount of innovation by both the Apollo 13 astronauts and the engineers back on Earth.

The explosion caused the loss of the main source for oxygen, water, and most importantly, electrical power for the CM. With only 15 minutes of power left in the CM, astronaut Jack Swigert powered down the CM while Jim Lovell and Fred Haise got the LM up and running.

For engineers on the ground, one of the biggest concerns was maintaining enough electrical power in the LM and then creating enough power in the CM to power it back up again for reentry to Earth.

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The Apollo 1 Fire: Excerpt from “Eight Years to the Moon”

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.

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Here’s a Deepfake of Nixon Giving a Eulogy for the Apollo 11 Astronauts if Their Mission Failed

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.

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Apollo 12 Launched 50 Years Ago Today

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. 

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The Story of the Apollo Guidance Computer, Part 3

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.

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Gene Cernan, Last Man on the Moon, Honored at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Remembrance Ceremony honoring the life of astronaut Eugene Cernan, last Man to walk on the Moon during NASA’s Apollo 17 moon landing mission in Dec. 1972, was held at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, on Jan. 18, 2017. Cernan passed away on Jan. 16, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

Robert Cabana, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and space shuttle astronaut Jon McBride, following remarks at the Jan 18, 2017 Remembrance Ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, honoring the life of astronaut Eugene Cernan. Credit: Julian Leek

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.

Portrait of NASA astronaut Gene Cernan and floral wreath displayed during the Jan. 18, 2017 Remembrance Ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, honoring his life as the last Man to walk on the Moon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

Launch of Apollo 17 – NASA’s last lunar landing mission – on 7 December 1972 from Launch Complex-39A on the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

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.

The prime crew for the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission are: Commander, Eugene A. Cernan (seated), Command Module pilot Ronald E. Evans (standing on right), and Lunar Module pilot, Harrison H. Schmitt (left). They are photographed with a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) trainer. Cernan and Schmitt used an LRV during their exploration of the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The Apollo 17 Saturn V Moon rocket is in the background. This picture was taken during October 1972 at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

“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.”

Actual Gemini 9 capsule piloted by Gene Cernan with Commander Thomas P. Stafford on a three-day flight in June 1966 on permanent display in the Heroes and Legends exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida. Cernan logged more than two hours outside the orbiting capsule, as depicted in description. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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.

Ken Kremer

Grand opening ceremony for the ‘Heroes and Legends’ attraction on Nov. 11, 2016 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida and attended by more than 25 veteran and current NASA astronauts. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Last Man on the Moon, Gene Cernan, Has Died

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.

During his two hour, eight minute spacewalk on June 5, 1966, Gemini IXA pilot Eugene Cernan is seen outside the spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Tom Stafford.

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!”

Apollo 17 Mission Commander Eugene A. Cernan during the second spacewalk on December 12, 1972, standing near the lunar rover. Credit: NASA.

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.

A portion of a poem by space poet Stuart Atkinson is a wonderful remembrance:

Another One Falls

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 –

And another one has gone.

(Read the full poem here.)

Apollo 17 mission commander Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, looks skyward during a memorial service celebrating the life of Neil Armstrong in 2012. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The Moon Is Getting Slammed Way More Than We Thought

Animation of a temporal pair of the new 39-foot (12-meter) impact crater on the moon photographed by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
Animation of a temporal pair of the new 39-foot (12-meter) impact crater on the moon photographed by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

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.

After taking the first boot print photo, Aldrin moved closer to the little rock and took this second shot. The dusty, sandy pebbly soil is also known as the lunar ‘regolith’. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA
One of a series of photos Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin Aldrin made of his bootprint in the dusty, sandy lunar soil, called regolith. Based on a newy study, the impression may disappear in a few tens of thousands of years instead a few million. Credit: NASA

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.

Distribution of new impact craters (yellow dots) discovered by analyzing 14,000 NAC temporal pairs. The two red dots mark the location of the 17 March 2013 and the 11 September 2013 impacts that were recorded by Earth-based video monitoring [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University]
This map shows the distribution of new impact craters (yellow dots) discovered by analyzing 14,000 narrow-angle camera (NAC) temporal pairs. The two red dots mark the location of the March 17, 2013 and September 11, 2013 impacts that were recorded by Earth-based video monitoring. LRO’s mission was recently extended an addition two years through September 2018. Credit: NASA/GSFC/ASU
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.

their brightest recorded flash occurred on 17 March 2013 with coordinates 20.7135°N, 335.6698°E. Since then LRO passed over the flash site and the NAC imaged the surrounding area; a new 18 meter (59 feet) diameter crater was found by comparing images taken before and after the March date.
LRO before and after images of an impact event on March 17, 2013. The newly formed crater is 59 feet (18 meters) in diameter. Subsurface regolith not exposed to sunlight forms a bright halo around the new crater. There also appears to be a larger nimbus of darker reflectance material visible much further beyond but centered on the impact. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

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.

An artist's illustration of a meteoroid impact on the Moon. (Credit: NASA).
An artist’s illustration of a meteoroid impact on the Moon. Impacts dig up fresh material from below as well as send waves of hot rock vapor and molten rock across the lunar landscape, causing a much faster turnover of the moon soil than previously thought. Credit: NASA

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.

Example of a low reflectance (top) and high reflectance (bottom) splotch created either by a small impactor or more likely from secondary ejecta. In either case, the top few centimeters of the regolith (soil) was churned [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Here are two examples of a low reflectance (top) and high reflectance (bottom) splotch created either by a small impactor or more likely from secondary ejecta. In either case, the top few inches of the regolith (soil) was churned Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
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!