December 23, 2012
The Apollo 8 flight of December 1968, the first voyage to lunar orbit, was a close second to the Apollo 11 moon landing in terms of its societal impact — one of those rare moments in history where humanity looked outward together and seemed united.
One of my favorite Apollo 8 stories is this anecdote from the novelist William Styron, writing in the foreword to the 1988 book The View From Space:
It was an icy Connecticut evening in a house filled with noisy festivity. My host — a teacher of renown whom I greatly esteem — has a mind of generous curiosity and of eclectic concern, but is a man with a blind spot, at least at that time; he had found the space program a technocratic scam, overblown, financially extravagant, and basically a bore. As close as we always had been we rarely spoke of the astronauts and their flights. I had trouble that evening making him interrupt the party so that we could turn on the television set and follow the progress of the Apollo module as it began its circuit around the moon. Suddenly, there before us was that stark sphere, the craters, the jagged shadows that one knew to be chaotic mounds of rubble, the glistening white landscape projected against a backdrop of unfathomable darkness. The murmur and laughter of the party diminished and died, and we watched in silence while William Anders spoke the words from Genesis:
In the beginning God created
the Heaven and the Earth,
And the Earth was without
form, and void…
Ceremonial words tend to sound hollow and inappropriate, generally because they are predictable, touched by the stale hand of prearrangement. But these words, spoken at one of history’s truly heroic ceremonials, seemed entirely appropriate, and I remember that a chill coursed down my back and an odd sigh went through the gathering like a tremor or a wind. Then how was it possible to be more deeply affected, to discover a pitch of eloquence more grand than those incantatory lines? Simple. Listen to Frank Borman, whose cheery valedictory brought home the reality, nearly lost in the sheer awesomeness of the occasion, that we were witnessing the exploits not of some crew of demigods or archangels, but of mortally fleshed men like those of us gathered around a winter’s fire: “Goodbye, good night. Merry Christmas. God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth.”
I glanced at my host, the mistrusting and scornful teacher, and saw on his face an emotion that was depthless and inexpressible.
Last week I heard another Apollo 8 story, just as powerful. It was told by Betty Sue Flowers, an emeritus professor at the University of Texas and former director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, during a National Research Council panel discussion on the future of human spaceflight (more about that meeting in a future post). Flowers, whose academic specialty is the study of mythology, has told the story before (here at an Apollo 8 reunion in 2009). She also included it in an essay in the 2012 book The Transforming Leader, in which she describes her favorite object in the LBJ library.
I am haunted by a little piece of paper in the library archives — a note from Ho Chi Minh, leader of North Vietnam, with whom we were at war. It had been sent indirectly, through France. The note simply thanked President Johnson for a picture of the earth rising over the moon — Earthrise, it was called. The picture had been taken in December 1968 by the Apollo 8 astronauts, the first humans to escape earth’s gravitational field, the the first to see the dark side of the moon. As one of his last acts as president, Johnson had sent Earthrise to all the world’s leaders — even to those, such as Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, with whom we had no diplomatic relations. From the transformational perspective of the earth as seen from space, all of us, even our enemies, travel together.
May 3, 2012
Have a spare $4,000 and can’t figure out what to spend it on? How about a plastic Snoopy astronaut doll, signed by Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford? If that wasn’t exactly what you were looking for, there were hundreds of other items to be had at Bonhams’ fourth annual space history auction, held April 26: A painting by astronaut Alan Bean of Apollo 16 astronaut John Young leaping into history ($68,500); a rare Soviet space suit used during the 1969 docking of Soyuz 4 and 5 ($46,250); early Russian space posters (To Space—the Soviet way!—$1,500); a copy of Octave Chanute’s 1899 book Progress in Flying Machines, signed by the author himself ($1,187). See a few highlights from the auction, below.
This well-known image of Buzz Aldrin, taken on July 20, 1969 by Neil Armstrong, went for $5,250. The 16 x 20 inch photograph was signed and dated by Aldrin, the Apollo 11 lunar module pilot and second human to set foot on the moon.
When Charles Lindbergh landed his Spirit of St. Louis at Le Bourget, completing the world’s first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, the aircraft’s fuselage fabric was badly torn by souvenir-hunters. “I could feel the Spirit of St. Louis tremble with the pressure of the crowd,” Lindbergh would later write. “I heard the crack of wood behind me when someone leaned too heavily against a fairing strip. Then a second strip snapped, and a third, and there was the sound of tearing fabric…. It was essential to get a guard stationed around my plane before more damage was done.” This 4 x 5 inch piece of fabric, below—which went for $2,000—is believed to be from that historic day.
This 1964, 250-page Project Gemini manual—signed by Buzz Aldrin, Gordon Cooper, Gene Cernan, Richard Gordon, Wally Schirra, Dave Scott, and Tom Stafford—was issued to both astronauts and support personnel. The manual, which includes fold-out schematics and diagrams, went for $9,375.
Looking for something a little larger? How about a nearly 8-foot-tall prototype lunar flagpole? Bonhams’ catalog notes, “About 3 months before Apollo 11, [director] Robert Giruth asked [the Manned Spacecraft Center's] Technical Services Division to design a flagpole that could support the U.S. flag in an environment with no atmosphere. It had to be lightweight, compact, and easily assembled by astronauts wearing pressurized space suits.
The team came up with a flagpole very similar to the present example. The Apollo 11 flagpole was attached to the left-hand side of [the lunar module] Eagle’s ladder, and was protected from the heat of Eagle’s descent engines by a special heatproof shield. [Buzz] Aldrin has commented [in Apollo Expeditions to the Moon], ‘It took both of us to set it up and it was nearly a disaster…. As hard as we tried, the telescope wouldn’t fully extend. Thus the flag which should have been flat, had its own unique permanent wave. Then to our dismay the staff of the pole wouldn’t go far enough into the lunar surface to support itself in an upright position. After much struggling we finally coaxed it to remain upright, but in a most precarious position. I dreaded the possibility of the American flag collapsing into the lunar dust in front of the television camera.’”
In 1966, the Soviets achieved the first soft landing on the Moon with their unmanned spacecraft Luna 9, which was also the first spacecraft to transmit images from the lunar surface. After the spacecraft landed, four petals that covered the top half of the vessel opened outward, helping to stabilize the craft on the Moon’s surface. One surplus petal, identical to the four on Luna 9, sold at auction for $4,000.
One of the most beautiful items at the auction was this lunar planning chart, signed by a member of each Apollo lunar landing crew. The chart, which indicates every Apollo lunar landing site, also includes written notes by the astronauts about their various flights. “A dream of mankind becomes true!” writes Buzz Aldrin. The 45 x 42 inch chart sold at auction for $62,500.
November 22, 2011
Where were you on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon? What were you doing on October 4, 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik? Do you remember April 12, 1981, when the space shuttle Columbia made its first flight?
In 2008, the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival included the program “NASA: Fifty Years and Beyond,” and as part of that program, visitors were encouraged to document (written on note cards and recorded on tape) their memories of America’s space program. A few of the festival-goer’s memories appear below.
As the 50th anniversary year of human spaceflight draws to a close, we ask you to remember your own space milestones. After you read the remembrances here, leave a comment to tell us where you were, what you saw, and how you felt.
I had just learned to drive my husband’s stick shift car. He worked in the simulation lab with astronauts. I was stopped in front of their building to pick up my husband. As he got into the car, he said, “There’s Neil.” I said, “Neil who?” He said, “Armstrong! Who else?” At that point I went limp, the clutch jumped, the car lurched forward, and Neil just missed being hit.
I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. I remember Werner von Braun was our most famous citizen. Huntsville was very sleepy until Sputnik was launched. All of a sudden, Huntsville became a hotbed of activity, all centered on the space program. Within three years, the U.S. had an active space program. Many of the engines for spacecraft were built in Huntsville. Huntsville calls itself “The Space Capital of the Universe” now. In 1950, it was known as “the Watercress Capital of the U.S.” Things change!
In 1957 Sputnik went up and the talk was that U.S. students had to catch up academically. I was 10 years old—the next day was the first time we ever had homework in school.
I was in second grade when the entire student body of Norfeld Elementary reported to the auditorium to watch a not-very-big portable black-and-white TV for a Mercury capsule splashdown in the Atlantic. We were all worried that it could miss and veer back into space forever. (It went OK.)
When I was in elementary school, a man came to the school and sang songs about Black Holes. Needless to say, I was terrified.
I’ve been fascinated by space exploration for my entire life. My family tells me that my first word was “moon.” Now I work as a NASA contractor, on a mission to the Moon (LRO). I’m grateful to be standing on the shoulders of giants, the men and women before and beside me that helped NASA and all space agencies achieve what they have. And we’re only at the beginning of the adventure.
September 19, 2011
Moon hoax believers contend that NASA’s Apollo lunar landings were elaborately orchestrated lies, and that men never walked on the moon. Apollo 18, a film that opened this month, proposes the opposite: that NASA launched a manned lunar mission the public has no knowledge of—until now.
The Apollo program was canceled in 1970, and the last mission of the series, Apollo 17, launched on December 7, 1972. Apollo 18 sells itself as a documentary drawn from real footage shot during a secret—and final—manned moon mission. But the illusion is ruined by the credits that roll at the end of the film, as well as a statement that all characters are fictional.
Taken as a work of pseudo-history, Apollo 18 gets many things right. Good special effects simulate the grainy black-and-white footage from real Apollo missions. And the film is nicely cast, with Lloyd Owen as mission commander Nate Walker and Warren Christie as lunar module pilot Ben Anderson. Both men capture the swagger and unflappability of military aviators turned astronauts (their characters are U.S. Navy pilots).
The weakness of Apollo 18 is its lack of originality. The moon’s real secret, as it turns out, (plot spoiler ahead) is that the rocks themselves are extraterrestrial life forms, who like to invade human hosts. Unfortunately, we’ve seen scarier parasitic aliens before, most notably in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien.
Before Apollo 11 (the first manned moon landing) in July 1969, there were a lot of Earthly concerns about the planet being contaminated by a lunar pathogen picked up by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. In a book just published by NASA, When Biospheres Collide: A History of NASA’s Planetary Protection Programs, author Michael Meltzer devotes a chapter to examining the years of committee meetings and painstaking plans on how to prevent “back contamination.” Items that had come into contact with the Apollo 11 crew—clothing, film canisters, even the command module—had to be sanitized. Lunar samples were quarantined until it was determined they did not pose any risk of contamination. The astronauts themselves had to chill for a few weeks in the Mobile Quarantine Facility, a customized trailer now on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia.
In a scene that seems almost comical today, Meltzer details the care taken to protect Richard M. Nixon when he visited the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, where the Apollo 11 crew was taken after their command module landed in the Pacific: “Only after the astronauts were safely sealed in the airtight Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) and the Hornet’s deck disinfected did NASA allow President Richard Nixon…to approach the large window at the rear of the MQF to give his congratulations. During the transfer of astronauts, President Nixon had been kept far away, a helicopter waiting to fly [him] off the ship should any leaks be detected in the MQF.”
Scientists now know that the surface of the moon is too sterile to support life, but NASA had to play it safe. After Apollo 14, however, the sanitizing and quarantining protocols were suspended.
At the end of Apollo 18, the filmmakers note that more than 840 pounds of lunar samples were returned to Earth, some of which were given to foreign dignitaries as gifts and were stolen and now unaccounted for. Implying what, exactly? That there’s still a threat of moon rocks going alien on us? Don’t tell that to the hundreds of people who daily touch a moon rock on display at the National Air and Space Museum.
August 17, 2011
Three legendary astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Gene Cernan—were in Kabul, Afghanistan, yesterday, meeting with American service men and women as well as young Afghan Air Force trainees.
From the NATO press release:
“This is the best day of my life!” said Lt. Fatama Abteen, one of a small handful of female Afghan Air Force trainees. “I’m overwhelmed and extremely excited. It’s hard to communicate how much this means to me.”
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