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.
December 7, 2012
Twenty-five years ago, writer Frank White came up with a name for the profound aesthetic — almost religious — feeling that many astronauts report after seeing the Earth from space. He called it The Overview Effect, and wrote a book and founded an institute of the same name to explore the phenomenon further. Now, to mark the 40th anniversary of the famous Apollo 17 “Blue Marble” photo, there’s a documentary film.
The folks at the Overview Institute are aware that this is all a little too touchy-feely for some people. As they say on their website, “The Overview Effect, while intuitively valid to many, is often marginalized as a philosophical, metaphysical or aesthetic epiphany, not the fundamental perspective-altering experience that both astronauts and scientists suggest that it is.”
I used to be skeptical myself. I figured the view of Earth from space would be breath-taking, sure, but just an extension of other awe-inspiring natural sights. But after hearing many astronauts — who tend to be practical, no-nonsense people – talk about the experience, I’m prepared to accept that there’s something qualitatively different about seeing the planet from space.
I often recall this observation by Millie Hughes-Fulford, a scientist who flew on the shuttle in 1991, and who contributed to our 2002 oral history Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years:
When you look down on the planet and realize how small it is, it’s really very interesting—you have emotions you didn’t think you were going to have. My name is not “Moonbeam,” but when you look at the planet and realize it’s the only place you can see that has life on it, you start feeling very protective toward it. It’s like a delicate crystal ball, and it looks alive. The first time I looked at it, I thought it was alive. When I’m looking at living cells in a microscope, they have a glow to them that dead cells don’t. And the whole planet had that iridescence of life about it. It moved me.
Harvard is sponsoring a live-streamed forum on the Overview Effect this evening, and you can see the film on Vimeo (click their logo on the screen to watch it at higher resolution):
December 3, 2012
The first humans that head out to Mars might never set foot on the planet. Instead, they could orbit on a Martian space station, where the astronauts remotely command robots working on the planet’s harsh surface. Operating from an orbiting platform — one that’s already set up to support humans, because they flew to Mars inside it — would give the astronauts a wide field of view; they could send robots almost anywhere on the planet and change course as needed, without having to find the kind of safe route that people would require. Indeed, these robots would find it for us.
Astronauts are starting to test these techniques now, except instead of operating robots from low-Mars orbit, they’re driving Lego rovers in Germany from the International Space Station. In late October, then-station commander Sunita Williams opened a laptop and sent the terrestrial toy through a short obstacle course. The tricky part is not the remote operation itself, though it requires some training (no doubt the Mars Curiosity drivers could offer some tips), it’s the infrastructure needed to transmit the signal: the interplanetary Internet.
“The history of space communications is largely what we call point-to-point — we point a big antenna on Earth up at a spacecraft, squirt commands up to it, and we get telemetry back,” explains Adrian Hooke, NASA’s project manager for Space DTN (Disruption Tolerant Networking). He adds that the Mars Curiosity rover is a step ahead of this, using two Mars orbiters as communication relays. “But what we want is a more Internet-like system… of pretty ubiquitous communications, anywhere you want to go.”
You’re reading this blog post thanks to a nearly 40-year-old technology called Internet Protocol (IP). Information travels in packets, hopping from router to router, but if a router has nowhere to send the data because the next router is down, it simply discards those packets.
DTN, however, aims to be a more careful, and thus more reliable system. When mission control on Earth is waiting for a commander’s update from Mars, or when astronauts are carefully constructing our first Martian base from 200 miles up, they don’t want to risk losing any of that data forever if a router burps. So DTN uses Bundle Protocol (BP) — the IP of the interplanetary Internet. Here, when a router receives data packets, it stores them until the next hop becomes available. If the delays are large — due to the vast distances between planets, or because a Mars orbiter is on the far side of the planet — DTN can use a secondary system, called Licklider Transmission Protocol (LTP), which will store the data even if the sender has to go offline before the transmission is complete.
When Williams instructed the Lego rover in Germany to move, the command went from her laptop to the space station’s communications terminal, where a DTN access point began, operated by the University of Colorado. Then it went to NASA’s fleet of tracking and relay satellites, which transmitted the data packets to ground stations in White Sands, New Mexico, then to NASA’s operations center in Huntsville, Alabama, and on to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where they hopped the pond to the European Space Agency’s user support center in Belgium, and finally to ESA’s operations center in Darmstadt, Germany. Then the Lego rover moved. Measurements confirming the movement then traveled the reverse route back to Williams.
“Each one of those was a DTN ‘hop,’” Hooke says. “Sunita steered the robot around some obstacles, and got some very basic data back from the rover…given all those hops, it probably took a couple seconds round trip. She probably saw the response three seconds after she sent the commands.”
For this test, NASA’s DTN team worked with ESA’s METERON project, Multi-purpose End-To-End Robotic Operations Network, which is focused on developing astronaut “telepresence” — operating robots remotely. The ESA hopes that in the coming year or so, astronauts will be tele-operating “Justin,” an android, from the space station.
Eventually, the DTN developed for space could be used by regular folks here on Earth in times of emergency, when communication links are disrupted or jammed, such as during a hurricane or terrorist attack. But NASA’s sights are set far from home. Hooke says interplanetary probes like the Saturn-orbiting Cassini and the upcoming Juno mission to Jupiter, could be repurposed by uploading them with DTN software after their science missions are done. That way, they can serve as Internet nodes throughout the solar system.
“There is nothing inherent in the network that can constrain how far out you can go. It’s more [constrained by] the patience of human beings to wait for a response,” he says.
If you grew up near Bethpage, New York in the early 1960s, you probably were obsessed with the Apollo Lunar Module built by the Long Island-based Grumman Corporation. And if you were an extremely prescient teenager, you might have started amassing your own world-class collection of space-related items, including photographs, manuscripts, and prints.
This Wednesday, Bonhams is auctioning off one such private collection. In a video on Bonhams’ Website, the collector (who wishes to remain anonymous) explains that he grew up “during the height of the windup to the Apollo era,” just a few miles from Grumman, and many of the fathers in his neighborhood worked on the Lunar Module. “I was working towards a goal fairly early on,” he recalls in the video. “In my early- to mid-teens, what I wanted to do was to have an exhibition focusing on unmanned space travel.”
Many of the items are one-of-a kind. The lunar photomosaic above (see the full image here), was made as a five-foot-wide presentation piece in 1966, and was painstakingly assembled by Kay Larson of the U.S. Geological Survey using images captured by Surveyor 1. “I’m lucky to have found this—it would have been thrown in the trash, eventually,” the collector notes.
There are objects relating to Mars, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter, but Earth’s moon is the centerpiece of this show. Some of the items predate the space age. One particularly lovely object is a photograph made up of four large-format quadrants of the moon, taken in 1899, and probably created for the 1900 Paris Exposition. The photogravures, by Pierre Henri Puiseux and Maurice Loewy, were taken at the Paris Observatory. “It was only with NASA’s Lunar Orbiters in the 1960s,” reads the collection note, “that images substantially better than those of Loewy and Puiseux were obtained.” The plates are from Puiseux and Loewy’s Atlas photographique de la lune. The two men were able to photograph the moon only during perfect weather, the catalog notes, which meant just 50 or 60 nights each year—explaining why the Atlas took 14 years to complete. These may be the first oversize plates from the Atlas to come up for auction, and are expected to bring $12,000 to $18,000.
British pastel portraitist John Russell (the appointed painter to the King and the Prince of Wales) was so fascinated with the moon that he created a lunar globe in 1797, which he called a Selenographia. Russell spent many years drawing and observing the moon; his globe even accounts for lunar motion, or libration. No more than 11 Selenographias are believed to exist; six are in public collections. This example, lot number 23, is expected to fetch between $200,000 to $300,000.
November 28, 2012
NASA has published another one of their cool, interactive roadmaps, like the one from last February that we enjoyed. Be sure to click through to the interactive full-size version to learn where NASA is headed in technology fields ranging from space power to nanotechnology and, of course, new launch systems.
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