Author Archive

A monkey pulling levers at random in zero-g could do better

10 February 2011

As a spaceflight historian, I know more than the average person about the details of the Space Race. Just as a baseball geek can cite the rosters of their favourite team for every season all the way back to a time when socks were called “stockings,” I can name all the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo crews—as well as their spacecraft names, backup crews, launch dates, landing dates, etc. Many of the Shuttle missions too. Trivial bits of data fascinate and stick in my mind, so that when I hear a narrator say the Apollo SPS (Service Propulsion System) engine used “a 50/50 mix of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and hydrazine” as fuel, I’m the one that blurts out, “also known as Aerozine-50.”

Even though I’m a stickler for accuracy, I try to give a little slack when I see errors in television and film. That the model builders for Apollo 13 painted the Saturn V rocket with the black-and-white pattern from the non-flight-worthy 500F “Facilities Integration Vehicle” is a sloppy mistake, but not one that detracts from the excellent and ingenious special effects of the launch sequence. I can live with episode 5 of From the Earth to the Moon, “Spider,” using a piece of stock footage of a Saturn V on the launch pad that clearly shows the “S-IC-6” label of the Apollo 11 vehicle, rather than Apollo 9; and the actor portraying Rusty Schweickart using the event timer reset/count switch to power down the Lunar Module.

What galls me however, what I find utterly unacceptable, is the horribly error-prone use of stock footage by innumerable television documentaries. The U.S. space program is so incredibly well-recorded—NASA filmed everything, down to the most basic tests—that any event one might want to depict will have high-quality footage available. There’s simply no reason—or excuse—to fake it.

So why is it that we’re forced to watch, say, an Atlas rocket while the narrator describes Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight aboard a Redstone? Or a close-up of Space Shuttle Main Engines firing up, during a sequence about Apollo?

We wouldn’t accept a picture of a World War I fighter plane, used to illustrate the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. Nor a horse-drawn carriage substituted for a Model T. And it’s not at all difficult to distinguish between the handful of vehicles and spacecraft that have been used for manned spaceflight. So what is it that makes this so pervasive—and, apparently, acceptable—in spaceflight documentaries?

As an aside, I’ll say that not all documentaries are culpable; the British production The Space Age: NASA’s Story which aired recently on PBS is a fine example of “the right stuff.” The four-part series was not only highly accurate in its use of archival footage, it also selected many examples of less-often seen film that avoided the clichéd shots we’ve all seen so many times that they’ve lost their impact. I definitely recommend this documentary for its clear, well-written and interesting overview of NASA history.

What really set me off on this rant is this: A History of the Space Shuttle, a five-disc box set of stock (i.e. government-produced and hence in the public domain and royalty-free) footage, distributed by Madacy Entertainment. Their stuff is usually pretty decent, albeit dry in the narration. But for this one, I had to hit the eject button within the first half-hour or so in order to resist the urge to put my foot through the television screen. A lengthy—yet incomplete—listing of the mistakes the producers had the audacity to foist upon us while pretending to know the “history”:

  • At the 4:15 mark; narrator: “Once the rocket ran out of fuel, the X-1 [rocket plane] would glide to the ground.” Image: a Bell X-2 gliding to the ground. The X-2 flew almost ten years after the X-1, at more than twice the speed. Oh, and it was painted white, not orange.
  • 10:25; “When Scott Crossfield flew the first X-15 flight…” Image: smiling pilot, in flight suit, walking toward the X-15. The pilot is Joe Walker.
  • 18:45; “On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union changed history with its successful launch of Sputnik.” Image: animation of a generic rocket-looking thing, nothing at all like a Soviet R-7.
  • 19:30; “…the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2” (also aboard an R-7). Image: liftoff of an American Atlas A ICBM.
  • 21:35; “Jupiter AM-13 mission…” Image: Explorer 1. The large “UE” letters painted on the side of the booster are a dead giveaway.
  • 22:00; “Two monkeys named Able and Baker…” Image: two chimpanzees, not rhesus monkeys. But what the heck, all primates look alike.
  • 22:15; “[Ham the Astrochimp] launched into suborbital flight…”  Image: a Mercury–Atlas launch. Ham rode a Redstone. (The gaffes are coming fast now—nearly every clip is misused.)
  • 27:00; In the midst of a montage about Mercury development testing that never shows an actual test, a misplaced clip of a Gemini–Titan launch. (The Mercury test footage shows up later—during the chapter on Apollo.)
  • 29:20; “…America had finally put a man [Alan Shepard] into space.” After two correct shots of a Mercury–Redstone launch, presumably Shepard’s, they just had to insert one of a Mercury–Atlas.
  • 32:00; Not an error per se, but it’s peculiar how the section on John Glenn’s orbital flight skips from pre-launch preparations to his post-flight ticker tape parade, without any footage of the flight itself; they must have already used up all their Mercury–Atlas film.
  • 33:00; “Gordon Cooper became the first man to spend a full day in outer space,” aboard Mercury–Atlas 9.” Image: yet another Mercury–Redstone.
  • 33:55; As the chapter on the Gemini project commences, two shots of the Agena target vehicle—one as the narrator says Gemini was “named for its twin-seat capsule.” In fact, nowhere within the entire Gemini chapter is a clear view of said capsule ever shown; nor footage of any of the ten manned Gemini launches.
  • 35:10; “Between August 11 and August 12 of 1962, two Russian capsules [Vostok 3 and 4] lifted off…” Image: another American Atlas ICBM.
  • 35:20; Continuing discussion of the Soviet Vostok 3/4 rendezvous. Image: a piece of tumbling hardware in orbit, unidentified but clearly not a Vostok spacecraft.
  • 37:35; “…Astronauts Grissom and Young piloted [Gemini 3],” which (like all Gemini missions) flew aboard a Titan II rocket. Image: Saturn IB launch, followed by S-IVB staging.

By that point, I came to the conclusion that whoever assembled the footage either was utterly disconnected from the narration production, or they had absolutely no idea what the hell they were looking at. Anger and frustration at repeatedly hearing one thing and seeing another forced me to shut the damn thing off, and left no doubt in my mind that the litany of mistakes goes on and on throughout the 90-minute program. I was going to say that the narration itself is fairly accurate and not entirely uninformative—until I heard him say that after Apollo 11, “the Apollo program launched three more manned missions to the Moon.” Okay, seriously—WTF? (There were six, five of which landed.)

This box set is such a steaming pile of crap, I have to call out the people responsible for it by name. Executive Producer: Edward Feuerherd; Producers: Mike Fitzer & K.C. Hight; Scripting: Edward Feuerherd & Mike Fitzer; Research: Lisa Neil & K.C. Hight; Creation Films, 2007.

I said above that Madacy products are “usually pretty decent,” but on second thought I retract that statement. Madacy Entertainment distributes poorly produced documentaries, assembled by hacks from public-domain archives, packaged in high-quality box sets that utterly belie the recycled garbage within.

I just want historical documentaries to get their basic facts straight. Is that so wrong?

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

7 February 2011
Categories: From the armchair

Howard Zinn, Professor of history and political science, passed away a year ago at the age of 87. At the time, I’d never heard of Zinn or this, his perhaps most famous and popular work. But a mention of his passing by an artist I respect led me into reading it.

It took me a while to read this entire book, partly because I found it becoming repetitive and redundant. About midway through it reaches the point where the same things keep happening over and over again. And perhaps that is part of Zinn’s point: the history of the United States is one of ignoring the past, for American history continually repeats itself.

A People’s History of the United States could be summed up in two statements:

  1. Revolutions are appeased, co-opted, and absorbed by those in power, so that despite any surface appearances to the contrary, the power structure remains with the status quo.
  2. Wars are not fought for freedom or ideology. Wars are fought only for resources.

Zinn is awfully heavy-handed and single-minded in his thesis, but he provides convincing support for this shocking assertion: the United States of America, the land of freedom, has never fought a war for freedom. Never. Take some examples.

  • The American Revolution. The general public, the working classes, the poor, wanted revolution to throw off the chains of their oppressors, the wealthy landowners. Those same landowners co-opted that revolutionary spirit, promising freedom by equating it with kicking the British out of the colonies. (See point #1 above.) At the end of the war, the landowners kept their land—and no longer needed to pay taxes to the King—while the poor remained poor, lacking property and voting rights, and indentured to the same powers as before. Meanwhile, the wealthiest landowner in the States was elected our first President.
  • World War II. It’s easy to argue that this was really a war for freedom, a war against Nazism, Fascism and oppression; certainly that was a necessary and positive result. But if that were really the primary reason for U.S. involvement after years of isolationism, we would have entered the war upon Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, or its invasion of France et al in 1940, or its ruthless bombing of our closest ally, Great Britain, that same year. No, instead the U.S. entered the war when Japan attacked an important link in the American Pacific empire—the last straw in Japan’s ongoing threats to U.S. market potential in China; access to the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia; and the long-standing American occupation of the Philippines.
  • Vietnam. Promulgated as a fight to keep the people of Vietnam free from the “threat” of Communism, this war was really about access to Southeast Asian resources once again: tin, rubber, oil, and even rice.
  • Today’s wars. Gulf Wars I and II have been about oil, no more, no less; and Afghanistan is not about fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda ideologues—it’s about petroleum, natural gas, and at least $1 trillion in untapped mineral resources, including the potential to make Afghanistan “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

The list goes on; it’s all-inclusive of every war ever fought by the United States. We’re not unique—the “resources, not ideology” principle could more than likely be applied to every war throughout the history of the world.

Taking Zinn’s pacifist and populist stance with a grain of salt, this book is a surprising pin-prick to the pompous balloon of the standard, ultra-patriotic line of American history taught in schools. It should be a must-read for American college students.

“We may not be good, but we can sure claim to be colorful.”

17 January 2011
Categories: Space exploration

This is pretty cool:, a site that cleans up NASA mission transcripts and puts them in a tidy, readable, searchable, navigable, tweet-like format.

So far, Apollo 13 and John Glenn’s Friendship 7 Mercury flight are available, and the historically imperative (but textbook-dry) Apollo 11 transcript was posted just yesterday. Apollo 8 and Gemini 7 are in work. That’s a good start, I suppose. I’m hopeful that the site gets more traction with regard to its crowdsourcing, because there are plenty of other missions to cover. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

There are some cool bits to the interface. Little photo avatars alongside each entry make it much easier to note who’s speaking at any moment, unlike the non-intuitive CDR – CMP – LMP – CC (etc.) notations in the original transcripts. To my mind, the best addition to the original data is the red vertical bar that sometimes appears down the right-hand side for “Key Moments.” For those not familiar with NASA technojargon and the normal order of events in an Apollo mission, this is a great way to highlight the important points.

In my opinion, the site ought to take that notation one step further, by having the main index page for each mission include a list that links to each of the key moments. Because after all, what we really want in the Apollo 13 transcript is to jump to that moment on April 13, 1970 when CAPCOM Jack Lousma asks the crew to give the cryo tanks a stir.

Let’s be honest, though: the thing about the Apollo 13 transcript is that it’s basically that one famous line—the one that’s now so ubiquitous that it’s the go-to cliché for any moment of crisis, no matter how mundane—followed by page after page of dense technojargon as the crew read off all the things going wrong aboard the spacecraft while CAPCOM sends up various attempts at making it right. Yes, it’s a life-threatening situation, but it’s a cold read. You’re much better off watching the Ron Howard movie, which gets most of the facts correct while bringing the drama of the moment to life with tense immediacy.

You know what’s a much more fun read? The Apollo 12 transcript.

First off, you have an amazing crew. Not just a crew, a team: CDR Pete Conrad and CMP Dick Gordon flew together on Gemini 11—which still holds the manned spaceflight record for Earth-orbit apogee—and were as inseparable as best friends or bosom buddies. They brought LMP Alan Bean under their combined wing and the trio worked together with genuine mutual respect and an air of warm bonhomie. (They were such amigos that they bought matching gold Corvettes, for chrissakes.) They often called each other by their full names, which has a certain cheery goofiness to it since aboard a three-man spacecraft there’s not going to be any doubt about which Pete, Dick, or Al is meant:

Conrad: Al Bean?
Bean: Yes?
Conrad: Go help Dick Gordon; I don’t know where the Sun’s going to be or what’s going to happen, but…
Bean: That’s a smart idea, Pete Conrad.

Then there’s the launch. As it ascended atop its mighty Saturn V rocket, Apollo 12 was struck twice by lightning within the first minute of flight. This caused a momentary electrical overload and set off a cascade of system warnings that brought the mission closer to an in-flight launch abort than any up to that point in the American space program, and perhaps since.

So what you have is a Page 1 that begins with “Ignition – 3 – 2 – 1 – 0 – Liftoff”—and ends with Dick Gordon saying, “What the hell was that?”

The next several pages are amazing to read. The crew holds it together, communicating problems with never a hint of panic; CAPCOM sends up the rabbit-out-of-a-hat call of “SCE to AUX” that saves their bacon; and everyone’s levelheaded enough not to perform any system resets in the midst of the controlled train wreck of staging. Pete Conrad is the first to suggest what later was determined to be the case: “I’m not sure we didn’t get hit by lightning.”

And then—at just over three minutes into the flight, with the S-II second stage roaring at full throttle beneath them and with mission success still a distant uncertainty—the laughter and joking begins. Conrad starts it off with “I suggest we do a little more all-weather testing,” and soon they’re all cracking up about how every warning light on the panel had seemed to turn on at once:

Conrad: Wasn’t that a sim[ulation] they ever gave us?
Gordon: Jesus!
Conrad: [Laughter]
Gordon: That was something else. I never saw so many —
Conrad: [Laughter]
Gordon: There were so many lights up there, I couldn’t even read them all.
Conrad: [Laughter]
Gordon: There was no sense reading them because there was—I was—I was looking at this; Al was looking over there —
Conrad: Everything looked great [laughter] except we had all the lights on!

Episode seven of the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon captured much of this pretty well. In fact, some of its very best lines are taken verbatim from reality:

Conrad: Al Bean, you’re on your way to the Moon.
Bean: Yes, you all can come along if you like.

What comes across most in the transcript—and much more so than any other Apollo mission—is that these guys are having the time of their lives. Pete Conrad sums up that attitude as he leaps from the bottom rung of the Lunar Module’s ladder: “Whoopie!”

It’s a lot of fun to read in its entirety—or at least as entire as the NASA transcripts get, because they’re rife with the maddening notation “TIME SKIP” which is shorthand for “too bad if you wanted to follow the remainder of this discussion, because several minutes or hours have been omitted without explanation.” It’s also strictly PG-13 for language, if you’re the type that’s offended by adult humans using adult words in stressful, adult situations.

Here’s hoping that the Apollo 12 transcript comes up soon in the agenda. Until then, Johnson Space Center has transcripts in the old, inaccurately OCR’ed, slightly illegible, transferred from photocopies, portable document format.

Title quotation from Alan Bean, 03:19:11:13 MET. It is of course a self-deprecating joke: they were colorful all right, but they were also very, very good.

CTA does something right. Very, very right.

12 January 2011
Categories: Chicago, Transportation

I have complained a lot about the Chicago Transit Authority in the past. Mainly my complaints have not been with CTA service itself—because the service, while less than exemplary, has been consistently mediocre, and therefore predictable and usable. My complaints have been about CTA’s public image: in particular, its continual threats about service cuts and how they create a self-fulfilling death spiral. These actions only serve to feed the frustration and anger of Chicago riders, and cannot possibly do the agency any good.

CTA Train Tracker mobile beta. Image ©2011 Chicago Transit Authority.But now CTA has come out with what might prove to be its greatest public-image boon in decades: Train Tracker, a website that tells riders exactly how long they’ll need to wait until their next train arrives. It’s still in beta, meaning that bugs are still lurking and a full feature set is yet to be deployed. But even in my first few uses of the site, it’s clear they have a winner here.

A lot of thought went into the site. The interface is pure and simple: pick a train line, then pick a stop on that line. The estimator then displays all the trains arriving at that stop, in all directions, within the next 15 minutes or so. The list auto-updates once a minute. Only a tiny selection of display options are available—sorting by route, time to arrival, or platform side; and number of results to show—but the CTA has pledged more features to come out as the beta testing progresses.

However, it’s the layout of the site that really gets me going. It all feels so immediately familiar, because it closely adheres to CTA’s current graphic design standards for the system as a whole. Station names are displayed in white Helvetica on a dark grey background. All the colors of the train lines are spot-on likenesses of their printed versions, not just web-standard blue, green, orange, etc. The O’Hare and Midway terminus names include the little airport graphic. I especially like the little detail of how the “Back” and “Next” buttons include an arrow-in-circle image that matches the directional signs in the stations.

CTA Train Tracker mobile betaThe mobile version of the site is a clean, stripped-down version of the same, and fits nicely onto a first-generation iPhone screen. It’s so neatly arranged, in fact, that I doubt an actual iPhone app could improve on its appearance. It’s quick to load, and doesn’t bother with any fancy interface tweaks that would complicate the layout.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the data as yet, not having tested it thoroughly. I will, of course. But I think it suffices that the site tells me that my train is coming soon even though I can’t see it yet, and if it arrives in, say, 6 minutes instead of the estimated 4, that’s still close enough for my needs—and far better than knowing nothing. Plus, the tracker enables me to see if the train has a follower which, as I’ve said before, is the train I almost always prefer to take instead.

Of course, now that they’ve ironed out most of the kinks in the estimator system, CTA needs to start displaying these same data on the LED signboards they mounted in many stations years ago and which have shown little more than warnings to “watch out for unattended packages” ever since. All riders, not just those with web-enabled cell phones, deserve to have this information. But for those of us living in the 21st Century, this will do just fine.

Kudos to the CTA developers who put together this excellent site. CTA riders have been waiting a long time for this, and I have been among those to complain about its seemingly never-ending development. Train Tracker is, I am pleasantly chagrined to say, well worth the wait.

Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith

20 December 2010

Apollo 11 happened in my lifetime, but I’m much too young to remember it.

Andrew Smith remembers it: he was a lad of eight, and begins his brilliant book Moondust with his recollection of a warm summer day, riding his bike with a friend through their Northern California subdivision, arriving home in time to hear the last minutes of the descent, and sitting in his living room a few hours later to hear Neil Armstrong utter those famous words.

I was not quite six months old when the Eagle landed, so I remember nothing of it. My family was on a camping trip, and during the Moonwalk, the One Small Step, I was fast asleep in a big canvas tent. My parents, only vaguely aware that the world’s attentions were so acutely focused on this event, stood half-interested along with a handful of other people around a small, black-and-white portable television owned by the folks in the next campsite over. The reception was awful—and of course the images from the Moon were grey and ghostly at best—so I think their experience of the event was rather underwhelming.

One of my earliest memories of any kind is of Apollo, although in researching its specifics now I find that my recollection may be entirely flawed. In my mind, as a not-yet-four-year-old I was awakened in what seemed like the middle of the night by my grandfather and hauled blearily down to the basement to watch as Cernan and Schmitt climbed aboard the Apollo 17 Lunar Module Challenger and the last men launched from the Moon. The tricolor debris of liftoff—the red-green-blue scans of the lunar rover camera being sequential rather than simultaneous—still sticks in my mind as one of the archetypal images of the entire program.

Except that in the time zone where I was, the lunar liftoff took place around dinnertime. Perhaps the late-night rousting I recall was of the mission-commencing Saturn V launch from Florida instead, which took place well after my bedtime. If that’s the case, I have to admit to remembering it not at all.

At any rate I was young enough not to notice the hiatus, the huge gear-grinding downshift, when Apollo ended and the only things happening in American manned spaceflight for more than eight years were a trio of long(ish)-duration Earth-orbital missions aboard a converted Saturn V third stage, and the brief effort in détente known as Apollo–Soyuz. My media input was mainly from books, and in those books—among them NASA’s Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, Ruth Sonneborn’s Question and Answer Book of Space, and of course Carl Sagan’s masterpiece Cosmos—human spaceflight continued its merry ascent toward the stars, unfettered by political machinations and budget considerations.

Since then, along with biographies on Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Gene Cernan, Gene Kranz, Deke Slayton and others, I have read dozens of books on the Space Race, Apollo, the Moon landings. Some are sublime, like Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon; some are fairly routine, cut-and-dried, and uninspired; some, like Tom Kelly’s Moon Lander and Roger Bilstein’s Stages to Saturn, are rife with technical detail. Some are just going through the motions, praying to get all their facts correct (and, often as not, failing).

But few, if any, pose a question both simple to ask and complicated to ponder: What did Apollo mean? And for that matter, what does it mean today, decades later?

Andrew Smith chooses to ask those questions. By chance he found himself in proximity to Charlie Duke and his wife as they learned of the death of Duke’s fellow Moonwalker, Pete Conrad. Duke’s shattered comment to Smith: “Now there’s only nine of us.”

This sets Smith on a journey to meet all the surviving Moonwalkers and get their impressions of their time on that celestial body. But not to answer the prosaic and frequently asked “What was it like to walk on the Moon?” He delves more into the question of “What was it like to return to Earth after having walked on the Moon?” He focuses on the aftermath of each mission, the paths (some clear-cut and successful, some desultory and haphazard) each astronaut took upon splashdown.

Smith’s story of the Space Race and its aftermath is delightfully candid and uniquely personal, and is not only a fun read but also an important contribution to the history. I would even go so far as to say that, if after reading the best book on the Space Race bar none—Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon—readers find themselves wanting more, they could do far worse than to turn to this book for further perspective.

Andrew Smith comes to some interesting conclusions about what it all “meant,” but it does him no justice to attempt to condense them down to a few paragraphs. Suffice it to say that Moondust takes us on a personal voyage of discovery, clears away the veils of mythology surrounding Apollo, and brings the Moon home to all of us on Earth.

That said, one glaring point Smith makes in conclusion hit home to me.

He discusses the real reason that Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, an outsider (if not radical) idea, was chosen over the Earth Orbit Rendezvous favoured by NASA’s top engineers: time. LOR stood a better chance of getting the job done before Kennedy’s arbitrary deadline.  But EOR’s incremental approach was the better way:

Earth Orbit Rendezvous would have taken longer, but would have bequeathed a waypoint in space, prepaid for and pointed out toward the stars. It could have been scaled up or down and adapted to a range of purposes with relatively little bother. It would have involved developing technologies and skills that would endure, so that when the political imperatives that drove Kennedy had gone and the lunar landings ceased, an orbital base camp would have been left behind. The Sixties-end deadline had necessitated a built-in obsolescence that was the quintessence of its time.

For all the Space Race history I’ve read, I cannot recall having seen this idea expressed so flatly, so concisely, if at all:

Jack’s Apollo program killed “manned” Deep-Space exploration, stone dead, for at least the next four decades and probably many more.

It’s not a popular notion, that the man we think of as having sent us to the Moon ruined spaceflight for us. Unfortunately, it’s true. For the past thirty years we’ve been launching the Shuttle back and forth to low Earth orbit—and as Smith suggests, the difference between that and a voyage to Deep Space is akin to the difference between climbing a hill and actually flying. The International Space Station, for all its size and arguable science potential, goes nowhere. While the Russians are still flying a 1960s spacecraft aboard a 1950s rocket (both substantially upgraded and modernized, of course), not one bit of our moonshot hardware carried over into the Shuttle era. Apollo really was disposable.

Most people don’t realize the cold hard fact that today, in 2010, the human race lacks the technology to return to the moon. What we did forty years ago, we can no longer do. When I tell people that, they’re almost always shocked. We’ve lived so long with that old saw—“We can put a man on the moon, so why can’t we do x?”—that it doesn’t occur to us that its premise is false. We can’t put a man on the moon.

Why? Because JFK wanted to beat the Russians at something, and somebody said we could beat them to the Moon, and so we did. But we did so at the expense of a sustainable space program.

In 2010, the year A. C. Clarke used for our second manned voyage to Jupiter, forty years after Alan Shepard played golf on the Moon, how sad it is to be twiddling our thumbs in low Earth orbit and heading into yet another gap in U.S. manned spaceflight capability. Thanks for nothing, Jack.