Archive for August, 2012


Was Neil Armstrong the wrong choice?

August 29, 2012

I was inspired myself as a young person (I entered high school the fall after the first moon landing) not just by all the astronauts, but by two in particular. The first was John Glenn. I watched the launch of his orbital flight on a little black and white TV in our classroom. I must have been in second grade. Back then we did that, especially Glenn’s flight. It wasn’t just a technical achievement, but a “keep up with the Russians” flight. I was a small-town kid from Ohio and back then I had dreams of being one of those folks who first landed on Mars.

Watch the film “The Right Stuff.” We really did see Glenn like that – the decorated fighter pilot, the upstanding Marine, the hero. And a guy who would not embarrass himself, the program, or the country.

Ultimately, Glenn became a liberal Democrat and I was very disappointed in him. He wasn’t a huge promoter of the program after that until he had the chance to ride the Shuttle.

I’m not saying anything bad about Neil Armstrong here – he was a brilliant man, a hardworking man, a man with great courage and dedication. As we look back on the Apollo program, it amazes me what was done with the technology of the time. The courage of the Apollo astronauts knew no bounds. But…

I sometimes think that NASA chose Armstrong to head that mission was not just because he was a civilian (Buzz was a military man, and thus denied the honor, and he’s been chafing about it ever since) but because he was so darned humble. He was the astronaut least likely to capitalize on his hero status. That helped the NASA flacks feel he wouldn’t get out of control.

John Glenn got too big for them. They had learned their lesson in 1962. They wouldn’t fly him again because he had become a “National Treasure.”  But Buzz – Buzz could have said anything after Apollo 11 – and he did. I think it worked against us in the long run.

If Buzz or someone else who enjoyed the limelight more would have had the label “The First Moonwalker,” he could have exploited that during the 1970s when public support of space exploration evaporated. Instead, Armstrong was silent. Buzz fought the good fight, but he was always “the second guy.” That’s why he finally had to go to the point of noting that the first words spoken when the LM was on the Moon were not “Tranquility Base…” by Armstrong, but “Contact light,” said by Buzz as the first probe from the footpad made contact with the lunar surface. I guess then they were technically on the moon.

But somebody who actually legally changed his name to “Buzz” (from “Edwin”) would have been the Right Stuff personified. He’s been very visible, still traveling around the world and speaking. He even did “Dancing with the Stars” for cryin’ out loud. He just looks right – Neil looked like the guy who ran the hardware store, who lived down the street. Buzz looked like, well…Buzz.

The guy who was supposed to be the hands-down favorite for the first man on the Moon was Iven Kincheloe. Purdue grad from 1949 – the same school Armstrong attended – decorated fighter pilot, test pilot and the guy who had more “Right Stuff” than anyone. I’m not sure NASA would have been too happy with the First Moonwalker being named Iven, but he looked like he stepped right out of a movie:

Kinch never even got into the astronaut selection process. He was killed in a test flight crash at Edwards in 1958. Before that time, if you would have asked any of the test pilots, he would have been the guy. Everybody else was second choice. Chuck Yeager, the original Right Stuff guy, was definitely NOT a poster child for NASA. He was kind of a rebel. He was the guy all the other pilots looked up to and wanted to be like. He would have looked awesome:

Read his autobiography…he wasn’t a college man, he was self-educated to a great degree. He had that West Virginia drawl, that the media even then would have probably found funny…but all the other test pilots tried to sound like him. (He and Oklahoma native Jack Ridley, another one we lost too soon.)

But he had guts. He could improvise. He also had no interest in the Mercury missions because the astronauts didn’t fly the capsule. It was a “capsule,” not a space ship. The Mercury Seven rebelled about the “spam in a can” philosophy of the German scientists running the Mercury program. They were a lot happier launching monkeys, to be honest. The astronauts were to have no control over the ship at all… and then, after the Seven insisted, it turned out it was necessary. Gordo Cooper, in the last Mercury flight, Faith 7, had to execute the entire landing sequence manually (with information from John Glenn on the ground) after the automatic system failed. He made the most accurate landing of the program – only four miles from the aircraft carrier!

I mean no respect to Neil Armstrong at all. He was a true American hero, and demonstrated that quite strength and competence that we should all aspire to. But as a promoter of the program…the first I remember hearing him speak out was after Obama started cutting the Orion program, decades later.




The Apollo 11 lunar landing, in real time

August 27, 2012

Buzz Aldrin on the ladder

Paolo Attivissimo and a team of volunteers have taken the imagery from the 16mm film camera attached at the window of the lunar module Eagle, merged it with CGI of the LM’s orientation and intercuts of the Mission Control team, and synchronized the whole works so to show the last 16 minutes of Eagle’s descent, with all the radio exchanges by the crew and mission control, occurring in real time. They also subtitled it because some of the transmissions were not very clear.

Then went on to do the same with all the work on the surface, digitally restoring the camera work. The whole documentary may be found at and is broken into parts that are streamable through vimeo in 720p. It is stunning work.

The landing, which is all I have had a chance to watch all the way through, is a nail-biter even though you know they land successfully. From exchanges with Mission Control and Mike Collins in orbit about antenna problems to inquiries about warning lights, there is a drama here I never expected. Through it all Armstrong and Aldrin are amazing, as are the Mission Control folks. Steely-eyed missile men, indeed!

Through the window camera you can plainly see the craters Armstrong had to avoid in the last seconds before landing. It is pretty well-known that he landed almost bingo fuel, but he calmly maneuvered the LM around obstacles and put it down gently among the craters. Since all we had at the time was a very limited amount of data from the Surveyor unmanned probes, we didn’t even know if the surface would hold the Eagle. They could have landed in several feet of lunar dust…there were so many unknowns!

Whenever we go back to the Moon, we will of course have far more advanced communications links and automated landing systems. No one need ever land on the Moon manually again…but Neil Armstrong did it, with Buzz Aldrin handling most of the communications chores as well as a host of other things necessary by the state of the art of the time. Truly a triumph not just of American techology, but of Americans.

It has taken Mr. Attivissimo, an Italian, to remind us of this. Thank you sir, and thank you to all who assisted you!

This is the perfect time to watch this. And please, donate if you can.


Godspeed, Neil Armstrong…

August 25, 2012


The continuing adventures of the Princess Cecile…

August 23, 2012

Off and on. Fits ‘n starts. An hour here, an hour there. I got a couple of ideas that sort of took me in another direction. (To catch up, just use the search function over on the right using the keywords Princess Cecile.)

I originally thought of the Sissy as a simple with rounded ends…sort of like a modern submarine. But a sub uses that shape to equally distribute water pressure, and while the Princess Cecile has to withstand a vacuum, it probably encounters more stress from manuevers during battle than from any other source. (Drake notes that the ship rarely accelerates at more than 2 g’s.) Then I saw a set of 3D graphic images from someone on Flickr named xriz00 who did some beautiful renderings of the ship. (‘ve emailed him about posting one of his images here – no answer yet. Go onto Flickr and search for Princess Cecile and you will find his images as well as those from a gentleman named Marcelo Glenadel. His are more “realistic” renderings, if that’s the word…not as futuristic-looking, but more like I envision the ship should look.

Mine won’t look so slick, I’m afraid, but it’s beginning to take shape. Here’s the  taped-up mockup so far:


The other outrigger isn’t placed – I just put that one there to get a feel for it. The knobby thing in front is the prototype High Drive motor – behind it is the Mark I prototype HD motor that I ultimately rejected. The barbell-shaped thing behind it is not attached to the outrigger – it’s just there to get a sense of proportion. It’s a prototype oleo strut for the outrigger. The big knobby end would be embedded in the main hull, and the small one in the outrigger. I don’t think it’s too long…maybe. . I want to try casting it in resin to see how it looks. Patterns made of a bunch of dissimilar materials always look a little weird to me.

The clear plastic half-tube taped to the hull is the new addition. I decided the straight cylinder looked too plain, and i still can’t see how you can stuff the drive systems, environmental, stores, missiles and living space for over a hundred people in that small a ship. So I added a bit of living room. Inspired a bit by the images I spoke of above, I decided the missile tubes should run the long way in the ship. I don’t recall Drake mentioning their orientation. The hole in the top of the hull was originally going to be a missile tube, paired with another that launched down. It will be some kind of access port now, I guess.

The turrets for the plasma cannons got a little dressing up with some plastic tube and some milliput. I’m sort of making them look more like tank turrets, I hope.

I like the idea of using spheres as a primary shape a lot…it’s a shape not often used today on science fiction spacecraft, many of which are made to look really sleek and aerodynamic  even if they are not atmosphere-capable. (That was the cool thing about the original series Enterprise – it sort of look airworthy, but you could tell it was really only designed to fly in space. Then they supposedly brought it into the lower atmosphere in the episode where they went back to the 1960s. Subsequent versions of the Big E got sleeker and sleeker, but I would hate to try to bring the Enterprise-D into an atmosphere. Oh, wait…they did, and crashed it. I forgot!) Of course, the ships designed by Fred Ordway and Harry Lange for 2001 had spheres, but they were based on real science and utility as much as possible…not art. Sort of like a VW Bug vs. a 1959 Chevy Impala.

Cool lookin’ car, but really, did all the streamlining make any difference? (My dad had a brown one. Even in brown, it was cool.)

So anyway, I cut a 2 inch diameter acrylic tube in half and I will attach half to each side of the hull. Not sure how the ends will look. Maybe scalloped, maybe quarter spheres…I’ll have to see.

Of course, now I have to cut another door for the main hatch. The styrene tube of the hull cut a lot nicer than the acrylic, which tends to melt on the Dremel.

Go check out Flickr. These guys did some truly beautiful work! More later, when I get the sides attached and get some resin outrigger struts and HD motors made. Oh, and I have to redesign the plasma thrusters…and figure out the sail rigging…


Happy India Independence Day!

August 15, 2012

Kite flying on India Independence Day!

I looked at my stats for this blog from yesterday and saw that suddenly I had about 4 times the usual number of hits! I thought, “What the heck did I write that attracted so many people?”

Further investigation showed that most of the hits were on a post titled “It’s Independence Day, dammit!

I wrote it in July of 2011 about how we in the USA tend to refer to our Independence Day as “the Fourth of July.” Except for Cinco de Mayo, I don’t know of a country that just uses the date for a national holiday.

Essentially, my point was that we tend to forget the reason for the day and turn it into a recreational day with cookouts and fireworks. Neither are a bad thing, but we don’t stop to reflect on how important the Declaration of Independence was – not just to Americans, but to freedom-loving people all around the world.

But that wasn’t why that piece was suddenly so popular. For those of you not in the know, today (August 15) is India Independence Day. Apparently the search bots didn’t know about other countries.

So, people of India, sorry my piece wasn’t about that. However, I have placed links on this piece and the image above is of a favorite way of celebrating Independence Day there – flying kites!

So, to my friends in India, Happy Independence Day! I hope you have a great day and that the weather is good for flying kites! And if you want to shoot off some fireworks, well…you go – after all, India and the USA both gained their independence from Great Britain!


An earth-shattering kaboom!

August 9, 2012

This is NASA’s Morpheus testbed, designed at Johnson Space Center to test a number of technologies that are intended to be used in moon landings of unmanned cargo craft. When it had been tested in the past it was always tethered. This was the first untethered test.

There are fairly spectacular explosions at 1:56 and 6:21. The vehicle used LOX and liquid methane, which are considered less toxic than other storable propellants that could be used in moon missions.

It looked like the stability system failed almost immediately. It will be interesting to hear what NASA finds out in the investigation.

While this is a setback – I’ve not heard that there is a backup vehicle – this is often how we learn things in developing the technology of space travel. Things don’t always work perfectly the first time. 

That’s why I was relieved, but not necessarily happy, when the SpaceX Dragon mission worked out so well. There was tremendous pressure from the press, most of whom didn’t take any more science courses than absolutely necessary, that the flight had to go perfectly or SpaceX was doomed. Some went as far as to say that if it failed, commercial space flight would be considered a failure.

If you’re reading this, you probably pretty much automatically understand why that’s so much BS. The trouble is, a lot of people – maybe most people – don’t know that. They don’t know about the years of testing and failures involved in developing reliable complex remotely controlled systems.

In many ways we’ve been too good at the spaceflight thing. We have had failures that cost lives, but we haven’t flown nearly the number of flights we should have to validate spacecraft and launch vehicles. The Saturn V was so big, so complex, and so expensive that we couldn’t afford to blow a couple of them up, like the Soviets did with the N-1. (The final N-1 failed launch destroyed most of the pad as well as the vehicle, and they abandoned it – and going to the moon – altogether.) So we tested pieces and validated the hell out of systems and parts. Every single one of those low-bidder-manufactured million parts that went into an Apollo/Saturn V was had a paper trail pretty much back to the ore the metal it was made of came from. The Shuttle had to be man-rated from the very first flight.

So let’s blow up a few of these things if necessary, to learn what we need to know. Then let’s go out there!


Your argument is invalid!

August 8, 2012

I think it should be “Edinburgh” Castle, but you get it…



“Curiosity” on Mars!

August 6, 2012

The Mars rover Curiosity dropped onto the Martian surface just after 1:30 AM EDT today. It is the biggest rover yet to successfully land on Mars, at about 2000 pounds, about the same weight as a small car, according to NASA. (A Mini Cooper weighs just a bout 2500 pounds.) It weighs over four times that of the Opportunity and Spirit rovers that landed on Mars in 2004. Opportunity is still running around Mars, far beyond its design life, having traveled over 20 kilometers – and was designed to travel 600 meters!

Unlike the previous rovers, Curiosity has a small nuclear power plant. The others were limited by the amount of power that could be created by their solar panels. The extreme low temperatures of the Martian winter and the lack of sunlight caused those rovers to be movable only a few months of the year. The Curiosity’s power plant should provide about four times the power and has a design life of 14 years. One of the planned tasks is to drive over to the mountain in the crater where the rover landed, and climb it!

The most amazing thing about the landing is that the JPL folks developed a unique way to softly land the rover on the surface. A rocket powered frame was released a few kilometers off the surface, and the rover was lowered on cables while the frame hovered. And this was all done with no assistance from Earth!

I’m looking forward to the discoveries this rover will bring. It’s an astounding piece of technology!



More Princess Cecile work

August 5, 2012

I’ve cast and assembled a whole bunch of thruster quads for the Princess Cecile build:

I really only need six, tops, but I don’t know which ones will look best painted. Since they were resin cast by me, they are “somewhat inconsistent.” Here’s a closeup of a couple of them – they are about 3/4″ across:

And here’s the next idea for the High Drive motor:

It’s a little over an inch long. I need a bunch of them, also. About half the resin I mix is wasted because I’ve been casting such small parts and I need to mix at least a half-ounce so I can get the amounts equal using my little plastic mixing cups. I figure once it’s ready, I’ll make one mold, then cast one, then make another mold. At least that way I can get two out of one pour. I don’t know what else I will need multiple copies of. It would make more sense to make more stuff at once, but I also hate to burn too much rubber making more molds. I have to think about that a bit.

I’ve been too busy to do much on the build. I have to tackle the masts next. I can’t figure out something that looks cool for the struts for the outriggers yet. Hmm.



NASA doles out the dough…

August 3, 2012

NASA announced today the amounts handed out to commercial space contractors through the CCiCap program (Commercial Cerw Integrated Capability):

Sierra Nevada, $ 212.5 million

SpaceX, $ 440 million

Boeing, $ 460 million

That’s pretty much what I guessed, back in June. Those are the most serious contenders. It means that Blue Origin is left out, and the ATK/Astrium/Lockheed Liberty isn’t mentioned anywhere. Except for renting out some space to them, NASA has pretty much ignored Liberty.

Blue Origin is a weird duck. It’s been very secretive, and apparently working the suborbital market more than the orbital commercial one. They are even building two different vehicles. Maybe they are ok with the funding from Jeff Bezos.

I wouldn’t put ATK and their European partners out of the space business yet. While ATK will maybe get to build the strapon boosters for the SLS heavy lifter – assuming it ever makes it off the drawing board – NASA has left the possibility of using liquid-fueled strapons open.

It helps SpaceX, of course. Even with a current backlog of Falcon 9 launchers building up, having almost a half-billion dollars from NASA almost makes up for the interference that will certainly come from government bureaucrats.

If there is anything more to be gained from this announcement, it’s that SpaceX gets almost as much as Boeing. Considering Boeing’s track record with NASA in particular and the government in general, I think that speaks well for SpaceX.