Sunday, January 8th, 2023

Adam Savage has been posting videos of his visits to the Smithsonian where he meets with conservator Lisa Young, who specializes in preserving historic objects connected to the U.S. space program. In this video she’s telling Adam how teams of women spent weeks and weeks building up the heat shield on the Apollo crew capsule by hand, squeezing an insulating paste into 370,000 individual honeycomb cells that made up the protective covering. Judging from the shocked expression on Adam’s face, this is the first time he’s heard this story, which wouldn’t be unusual. Photos and films of the space program have for years exclusively shown white-shirted men looking very important as they design and build space ships and launch facilities apparently without any help at all from women, when in fact thousands and thousands of women labored terrifically to send (exclusively) men to the moon. It’s only recently that stories of the space program have highlighted how women sewed the space suits, women strung the miles of copper wire that made the flight computers, women wrote the millions of lines of computer code that enabled Armstrong and Aldrin and all the rest to land on the moon. It’s virtually a rite of passage for space nerds to learn this now. Brava to Lisa Young for bringing this to Adam’s attention.

rite of passage | 10:54 am CST
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This is a terrific video, not because Adam Savage nerds out over the Mercury capsule behind him but because astronaut Cady Coleman talks about how it felt to go to space in a very small space ship and what it meant to her. She’s really great at communicating that feeling.

spaced | 9:09 am CST
Category: space geekery, this modern world
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Wednesday, February 13th, 2019

Fare thee well, Opportunity, and we thank you.

#thanksoppy | 6:12 am CST
Category: current events, space geekery
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Saturday, May 26th, 2018

Fare thee well, Alan Bean, and thank you. 

It has been, and continues to be, a heartbreak to lose people who have dared to do great things.

With Alan Bean’s passing, there are just four living people who have walked on the moon:

Dave Scott & Jim Irwin, Apollo 15: July 30 to August 2, 1971

Charlie Duke, Apollo 16: April 21-24, 1972

Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, Apollo 17: December 11-14, 1972

Alan Bean | 5:03 pm CST
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Saturday, January 6th, 2018

Fare thee well, John Young, and we thank you.

John Young

John Young | 11:43 am CST
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Monday, January 16th, 2017

Fair winds and following seas, Eugene Cernan.

Gene Cernan | 6:16 pm CST
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Monday, November 2nd, 2015

New favorite moonshot find on the internet: recordings of the intercom chatter between flight director Gene Kranz and the members of the “White Team” that were on duty when an oxygen tank blew up on Apollo 13.

The cool of these guys is jaw-dropping, especially Sy Liebergot, the guy who eventually noodled out what had gone wrong. The pressure on him to come up with an answer for Kranz must have been colossal, doubly so when it turned out to be the answer nobody wanted to hear. “I’ve got a feeling we’ve lost two fuel cells,” he tells Kranz about twenty-six minutes after the accident. Up to that point, they had been working as if they might be able to fix the problem, even though Kranz already suggested they could use the lander to get home if they needed to.

This is a recording of the closed loop the flight director (Kranz) used to talk with the rest of the team, so the only time you can hear the astronauts is when the team members are not talking, and then only distantly, because they’re on another loop. But you can hear Lovell report about fourteen minutes after the accident that they’re venting something into space. I guarantee that chills will run down your spine.

chills | 8:00 am CST
Category: space geekery
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Sunday, August 16th, 2015

I’ve passed some time these last two weeks reading the Apollo Flight Journal, an annotated transcript of the transmissions from the astronauts who went to the moon. This is some pretty geeky stuff. The transmissions themselves would be nerdtastic all by themselves, but the annotations are so packed full of detailed moon-shot minutia that I may never stop getting my geek on.

But even if you’re not a space nerd, I thought you might enjoy this line of traffic from an astronaut to mission control about three hours into the flight:

002:56:10 Unidentified Speaker (onboard): [Garble] SECO [garble] gimbal [garble].

Speaking as someone who’s had to transcribe recorded conversations, I can empathize with a desire to get it all down in words, even when it gets crossed up with a frustration at not being able to make out all the actual, you know, words.

garble | 5:18 pm CST
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Sunday, June 14th, 2015

After our weekly visit to the farmer’s market on Madison’s west side, My Darling B and I crossed the street to the Hilldale Mall where B had to shop for a dress to wear to a wedding. B hates shopping with the blazing white intensity of a thousand exploding suns, but the wedding is just two weeks away, so, even though there was still some time left to procrastinate, she decided it was time to get it over with. As luck would have it, she fell in love with the very first dress she found, but it’s fire-engine red and apparently there’s some rule about wearing a dress to a wedding that would upstage the bride. She put it on hold and kept shopping, eventually ending up with what she called “the granny dress,” a cream-colored, knee-length dress with lots of sparklies. B loves sparklies.

While she was trying on dresses, I wandered down the street a few blocks to a garage sale on Midvale Avenue that I spotted as we drove past. There wasn’t much that interested me, and the only thing I eventually bought was a book published by the Associated Press to commemorate the 1969 moon landing. Titled “Footprints On The Moon,” it was a coffee table book chock full of familiar photographs of the space race, starting as usual with Sputnik and ending with lots of lofty prose about how Neil & Buzz walking on the moon had ushered the world into a new era, yada yada yada.

When I picked up the book I had no intention of putting it down again. I’ll buy almost any book or commemorative nick-knack that came out of the space race. I’d never seen this book before and as I opened the cover I thought, Oh nice, something new for my collection, but I didn’t think it was anything extraordinary at first. Then the book fell open to the middle where the folded newspaper pages were tucked away. My heart sped up. It was the first four pages torn out of the Wisconsin State Journal dated July 21, 1969. “ON THE MOON!” the headline on the front page blared in block capital letters over a full-color photo of Armstrong and Aldrin in a training scenario, using tongs to pick up rocks in their space suits. An inside page ran a snapshot of the video feed from the moon, unfocused and about as black-and-white as any photograph could be. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you might not realize what was going on.

I tucked the pages back in the book and carried it reverently to the front of the garage where a quartet of old friends were bantering with some customers about one of the items for sale. When one of them turned to me and offered to help, I handed over the book, which he opened to the inside cover to read the price: two dollars. “Footprints on the moon,” he said conversationally, flipping through the first couple pages before it fell open to the middle where he found the newspaper pages. I was sure when he saw those that he would either take them out because they weren’t part of the book, or at least charge me for them separately. He barely looked at them before he snapped the book closed. I held my breath. “Two dollars, please,” he said. I dug two singles from my wallet and handed them over; he thanked me, and I walked away with a tiny piece of history.

Shopping for dresses took a lot out of B, so we headed straight home where she planned to spend time in her garden to decompress. It had been raining for the past two days so the ground was probably too wet for her to plant anything. Even so, she figured she could at least pull weeds, but when we got home she wasn’t up for that any more. “A new bar opened in town with fifty-zillion taps,” she informed me, and she wanted to go there to see what that was about.

The bar was Mr. Brews Taphouse, a Wisconsin chain of bars that specializes in craft beers and features loads of local brews as well as national craft beers. I don’t know how many taps there were; it was too way many for me to bother counting them. We settled in at a hightop table next to the beer menu chalked on the wall, where I studied the options long and hard. I spotted a specialty brew called Sixty-One from Dogfish Head that a friend had raved about; I wish I could say it was as good as the hype, but I couldn’t be bothered to finish it. B ordered a delicious barrel-aged porter called Barrel Aged Brrrbon with Vanilla from Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland OR. She let me taste it, then she let me taste it again, and then I tasted it some more. Eventually she just said to hell with tasting and we called it sharing.

After the first draughts were out of the way, we ordered a flight of four beers: Dynamo Copper Lager from Metropolitan Brewing in Chicago; Bean Me Up Scotchy from St. Francis Brewing in St. Francis WI; Shake Chocolate Porter from Boulder Beer Company in Boulder CO; and Quinannan Falls Lager from Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo MI.

We’ve been to Chicago on our own, but we have to go back soon on a proper beer tour because there’s some really good brews coming out of there. If Dynamo’s any indication, I could probably spend all day in the taproom of Metropolitan Brewing, sampling their beers.

St. Francis is just north of Milwaukee and we’ve enjoyed their beer before. Bean Me Up Scotchy is a barrel-aged version of their scotch ale, known as Pride, and I would guess they’ve added vanilla beans to the recipe to boot. Very smooth, and yummy enough to make me want more.

I don’t remember drinking any brews from Boulder Beer before, so that’s something I’m working on correcting, starting with this excellent porter.

Bell’s has been one of my favorite breweries ever since I tried Two-Hearted Ale, a very hoppy beer. I’m not so much into hoppy beers any more, but fortunately Bell’s has produced plenty of other styles that are ever so tasty, and this lager, I’m happy to report, is no exception. Plus, it comes from Kalamazoo, which gives me an opportunity to say Kalamazoo. I love to say Kalamazoo. Who doesn’t love saying Kalamazoo? Boring people, that’s who.

I can’t remember whether or not we visited Widmer Brothers when we were in Portland. Looking photos of the place and where it is on the map, I’m pretty sure we didn’t. If we didn’t, we were stupid. It looks like a pretty great place to visit. Plus, the vanilla porter we sampled was scrumptuous. Getting some right from the source would’ve been a treat.

Our sufficiencies well and truly serensified, we retired back to Our Little Red House to pass the rest of a quiet afternoon reading and napping until supper time. And that is a satisfying way to pass a Saturday afternoon.

walking on the moon | 9:04 am CST
Category: beer, books, entertainment, food & drink, hobby, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, space geekery
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Sunday, December 7th, 2014

I wasn’t sure why at first, but this photo of Christmas stockings hanging over a doorway (next to an upside-down Christmas tree) on the International Space Station warmed my heart:

Christmas stockings on the ISS

The photo was posted by Samantha Christoferetti in the on-line journal she’s been keeping while serving on Expedition 42 to the ISS. One of the comments left by a visitor to her journal noted that it was little things like this that made the difference between surviving in space and living in it. There it is; there’s the heartwarming connection.

stockings | 9:52 am CST
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Friday, February 15th, 2013

Meteors: Nature’s way of asking, “How’s that space program coming along?”

Bam! | 5:49 am CST
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Monday, February 4th, 2013

Aw, hell yes!

Aw Hell Yes!

hell yes | 6:09 pm CST
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Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

We had to shovel the driveway. I’m pooped. Here’s an awesome video. G’night.


pooped | 8:59 pm CST
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Friday, January 18th, 2013

Well, this is refreshing: “I don’t know whether or not they landed on the moon, but I know they couldn’t have faked it.”

moon hoax not | 6:39 am CST
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Thursday, September 27th, 2012

image of Saturn

“…the Cassini spacecraft pulled into orbit around Saturn. There was nothing scientific about it, just pulling into orbit. Yet the Today Show figured that was news enough to put the story in their first hour – not in the second hour, along with the recipes, but in the first twenty minutes. So they called me in. When I get there, everybody says, ‘Congratulations! What does this mean?’ I tell them it’s great, that we’re going to study Saturn and its moons. Matt Lauer wants to be hard-hitting, though, so he says, ‘But Dr. Tyson, this is a $3.3 billion mission. Given all the problems we have in the world today, how can you justify that expenditure?’ So I say, ‘First of all, it’s $3.3 billion divided by twelve. It’s a twelve-year mission. Now we have the real number: less than $300 million per year. Hmmm. $300 million. Americans spend more than that per year on lip balm.’

“At that moment, the camera shook. You could hear the stage and lighting people giggle. Matt had no rebuttal; he just stuttered and said, ‘Over to you, Katie.’ When I exited the building, up came a round of applause from a group of bystanders who’d been watching the show. And they all held up their ChapSticks, saying, ‘We want to go to Saturn!'”


space chronicles | 8:30 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, current events, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Friday, September 21st, 2012

image of the Milky Way in the night sky“Unlike other animals, humans are quite comfortable sleeping on our backs. This simple fact affords us a view of the boundless night sky as we fall asleep, allowing us to dream about our place in the cosmos and to wonder what lies undiscovered in the worlds beyond.

The effect is to leave us restless for want of a plan to discover. We know in our minds, but especially in our hearts, the value to our culture of new voyages and the new vistas they provide. Because without them, our culture stalls and our species withers. And we might as well go to sleep facing down.”


face up | 5:34 am CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Sunday, August 26th, 2012

image of the moonI have a strange confession for a space geek to make: I have only the sketchiest idea where I was, and no memory of what I was doing, when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon.

I’m pretty sure I was in Marquette, Michigan when it happened, but I have no memory of watching the landing, none at all. I can only assume that I did. I was a huge science geek when I was a boy, especially about moon rockets. I have a very vivid memory of just about wetting myself when I unwrapped the giant-sized model moon rocket that my parents gave me for Christmas, and I still remember wearing an old blue sweater with the Apollo 11 crew patch printed across the front.

But, unlike most people, I can’t tell you where I was and what I was doing when the moon landing took place. I will probably be able to tell you, many, many moons from now, where I was and what I was doing when I learned that Neil Armstrong had died, however.

I had just gotten up from a refreshing nap after bicycling into town and back to visit the Orton Park festival with My Darling B on our wedding anniversary. I poured myself a beer and saddled up in front of my computer monitor to check out the Twitter feed and maybe watch videos of some adorable kittens playing with string or something equally wasteful. The tweets memorializing Neil Armstrong had already begun to hit the feed and I thought, “What the hell is this? Neil Armstrong can’t die yet.”

But when I skipped from one news site to another I found that, yes, in fact, he could do that, and he did. And after the idea had sunk in and hit me way harder than I ever thought it would, I went upstairs and out the back door into the yard to search the skies for any sign of the moon. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw it during the day, so I wasn’t even sure it was visible at that hour, but I desperately needed to see it just then.

“What are you looking for?” My Darling B called to me from the kitchen window. “Is it a bird? Is it a plane?” When she stepped out the back door to join me, I told her I was looking for the moon. “Why? Isn’t it there any more?”

“I sure hope so,” I said, then told her, with an unexpected catch in my throat, that Neil Armstrong had died. She’s not the space geek that I am, far from it. Her eyes usually glass over whenever I start talking about space geekery, but she understood immediately that I had lost a hero, so she gave me a big, warm hug and told me everything would be all right.

And it was, even though I couldn’t find the moon in the sky that afternoon, or later that evening. Clouds slowly filled the skies until rain began to fall late in the night and all through the morning today. I’ll have to wait until a clear night to wink at the moon.

wink at the moon | 10:58 am CST
Category: daily drivel, hobby, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, space geekery | Tags:
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Saturday, August 25th, 2012

I’m not one to worship heroes, and I have my doubts that Neil Armstrong was ever one to consider himself a hero, but dammit, he was. He really was.

So long, Neil, and thanks for daring to do great things.

image of Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong 1930-2012 | 4:22 pm CST
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Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Mars looks a lot like the Mojave Desert. That’ll thrill the hoaxers.

image of Mars

mojave? | 9:20 pm CST
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Monday, August 6th, 2012

image of celebration following successful landing of Curiosity rover on MarsI crawled into bed at about one-thirty this morning after staying up half the night to watch NASA land a robot on Mars.

“Did your thing happen?” My Darling B asked dreamily, as I settled into a comfortable spot.

“Yes, my thing happened,” I told her. Space geekery is “my thing.”

Then tried to fall asleep. Mostly, though, I failed because WE JUST LANDED A GODDAMN ROBOT THE SIZE OF A FORD EXPLORER ON MARS! And when I say “we,” I mean “that bunch of very smart people of which I am not one at the Jet Propulsion lab,” the same way Green Bay Packers fans say “We won!” when what they mean is “a bunch of professional athletes we hired, and through which we participate vicariously in football, won!” They’re some articulate fuckers, those Packers fans.

I used to get up, or stay awake until odd hours to watch other rocket launches when I was younger, and my youthful exuberance kept me plenty jazzed to get me through those episodes, but I may be getting a little too old for this stuff now. My eyes were very heavy-lidded and stinging as I tried to keep them open way past my bed time.

Once we got to within an hour of landing, though, it was a little easier to stay awake. The enthusiasm of the flight team came across on the video feed and I was bouncing up and down with them when the rover finally sent back the thumbs-up that it was safely on the surface. And when it sent back a photo of its own wheel just minutes after landing, even a really tiny photo, well, that was just pandemonium.

They had to get back to work, though, because they had this robot on Mars to look after, and I had to get to bed because I had this job to go do at the office in the morning.

I did not dream of robots, naked or otherwise, thank goodness.

up and at em | 6:23 am CST
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Sunday, July 8th, 2012

Virtual view of the panoramic view of Mars shot from the Opportunity rover:

image of MARS!

mars | 9:16 pm CST
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Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Coming soon to your solar system: 7 Minutes Of Terror!

Invaders from another planet, that’s us!

seven | 4:37 pm CST
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Friday, June 8th, 2012

We have been given eyes to see what the light-year worlds cannot see of themselves, Bradbury wrote. We have been given hands to touch the miraculous. We’ve been given hearts to know the incredible. Can we shrink back to bed in our funeral clothes?

Andy Chaikin, who has made a life out of writing about space explorers, remembers Ray Bradbury

requiem | 5:50 am CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, current events, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

image of my Twitter feed

I follow Emily Lakdawala’s Twitter feed because she’s a science writer for The Planetary Society and her tweets are a pretty good tipoff for breaking news in the world of outer-space geekery. While catching up on my Twitter feed this morning, I read that she attended a conference in Tuscon called Spacefest and found herself on a flight that included a couple of familiar faces, if you’re a space geek: Gene Cernan was the commander of the last moon landing. Dave Scott was the commander of Apollo 15 and the first person to drive a car on the moon. And can I assume you know who Buzz Aldrin is?

Wow. Just wow. I wouldn’t know whether to shit or go blind. No more than another ordinary day for her, though, I guess.

ordinary | 12:04 pm CST
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Thursday, May 17th, 2012

image of Apollo 8 CSMThis, my friend, is a space ship. You may have seen space ships on television and at the movies flashing through the skies, piloted by steely-eyed men who flew by the seats of their pants. It makes for pretty good drama. The difference between those space ships and the one in this photo, though, and the difference is somewhat significant, is that this one is real.

In fact, I’ve seen it, or at least the pointy part of it, where the people sat. It’s an exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry, just a few hours’ drive from where I’m sitting on my skinny butt typing these words. Think of that. There’s a space ship on display in a museum. An artifact of history, sitting where I could walk up to it and press my nose against the window to get a good look inside. Makes me just about wet myself to recall the memory.

Even weirder, it’s an old space ship. They built this jalopy about forty-five years ago. You don’t see too many cars on the road any more that are as old as forty-five. I was barely tall enough to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl when three guys flew this thing around the moon over the Christmas holiday in 1968. They flew a couple laps around it, taking pictures and putting on a little television show that I must have watched, because astronauts were my thing back then. I wish I could remember it, but the brain cells that were entrusted with that memory must have withered away many moons ago. Hah. Moons. I didn’t even mean to do that.

There isn’t a space ship in the world now that can do what this old can did back then. Bummer.

nameless | 8:37 pm CST
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Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Steve Curwood’s show, Living On Earth, explaining why sending people into space is a good thing:

CURWOOD: So, tell me, why should we explore space, with people?

TYSON: I’ve got my own reasons for exploring space, that I don’t presume others should have these reasons. I think we should explore space because it’s cool to do and that you discover interesting things tomorrow that you didn’t know today, and that’s enlightening. That’s why I like to explore.

But I’m not going to require others to want to write the checks for those reasons. We should do it because our economy is tanking right now and people need to recognize the role and value of innovation as a cultural directive on the health of an economy. And by innovation, I mean the capacity to dream about a tomorrow that doesn’t exist today, the capacity to want to accomplish something tomorrow. In space it would require some kind of application of science, engineering, and technology to do something tomorrow that you didn’t know how to do today and when you innovate on that scale, you invent the economies of tomorrow.

And when you do that, the kids want to become scientists because they can see what role, it’s writ large in the daily headlines, they see what role science and engineering fluency plays in the trajectory of your society. And then the entire country becomes a participant on that frontier rather than sitting on our hands watching the rest of the world do exactly what we used to dream about doing for ourselves.

Listen to the whole show, see nifty pictures and read a transcript.

cool | 9:50 am CST
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Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Gets funnier every time I watch it:

Favorite line: “Fake the footage of the fake moon landing on the moon? What if people found out?”

scam | 6:54 pm CST
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Monday, January 2nd, 2012

There are five books in a teetering tower on top of my bedside book case. I think of these as the books I’m currently reading, even though I’m only really reading one of them right now: Empire of the Summer Moon. Before my birthday came along I was reading a dozen or so pages each night before bed from just one book, and was feeling mighty smug about having whittled it down to that, but then my mother sent me a book in the mail and it was so good I began to alternate between that and the previous book, any why not? I can juggle two books as well as anybody else. And then My Darling B gave me a lighthearted and not very long book for my birthday and I started to read that, and then my oldest son gave me a book about trains for Christmas … and now the pile by my bed is as big as it ever was.

Sean brought a copy of Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, by S.C. Gwynne, with him when he came to visit, and I started to leaf through it when he left it on the coffee table one day. Leafing through it turned into reading it and, in just a couple of days, I had finished several chapters, so Sean let me hang on to it so I could finish and return it to him later. I know woefully little about the Indian wars, and S.C. Gwynne, as it turns out, not only seems to know virtually everything about it, he can write about it in a style that is compellingly readable. This is his first book on the subject, unfortunately, so I will be waiting impatiently to see if he writes another that I can wolf down in a week and a half.

Before I started reading Empire of the Summer Moon, I was about halfway through Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, which My Darling B gave to me for my birthday. She knows about my weird fascination with typography and allows me to indulge it by stockpiling derelict typewriters. She spotted this book on a recent visit to The Tattered Cover, our favorite book store in Denver, Colorado, and snapped it up. Organized into easy-to-read chapters, each one of them a self-enclosed story, you could enjoy this book a as a casual read without having to be a font nerd. I was reading a chapter each night before bed until Sean left his book out to distract me.

Rival Rails: The Race to Build America’s Greatest Transcontinental Railroad is very much a book for train nerds, among which I happily count myself. Sean got me this one for Christmas. It’s unusual among the books he’s bought me in that he didn’t read it himself before he presented it to me, but then he’s not, sadly, the train nerd that I am. I read the opening chapter on Christmas morning but haven’t gotten back to it since and don’t know when I’ll be able to. Even so, it’s still on my bedside book shelf waiting for me to pick it up again.

Before all these other books came to my attention, I was reading the book my Mom got me for my birthday, Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-42, by Ian W. Toll, who wrote Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, which I found with the new releases in the library some years back and put it on my TBR list, which never seems to get any shorter. Pacific Crucible instantly grabbed my attention and I was alternating between it and the last book in my bedside pile before all those other books came along. I hope to get back to it soon, but who knows.

Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight was the lone book by my bed for several weeks. Very geeky, it’s the story of the transformation of flight from the time when pilots controlled aircraft with a stick and pedals connected to the airplane by cables to the time when pilots were confronted with fly-by-wire systems and had to learn to deal with flight computers that took over a huge share of their jobs, a transition that arose from the manned space program. I was halfway through this book when Mom’s book came in the mail and distracted me.

towering | 7:04 pm CST
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Friday, December 30th, 2011

Oh I have just passed a most happy hour watching Brian Cox explain how atoms work. No, really. You may think you don’t have an hour to watch a video about a subject that you think you’ve never been interested in about knowledge you think you’ll never use, but just give him at least ten minutes of your time and see if you’re not infected by his enthusiasm.

I think my favorite moment is when he gets Jonathan Ross to help him calculate the probability that all the atoms in a diamond will leap five centimeters to the left. I’m sure a guy like Cox does this kind of math dozens of times a day, but I’m equally sure Ross doesn’t. Remember how to reckon numerators and denominators? No, neither do I.

Professor Brian Cox: A Night With the Stars

If I tell you one of the stars is Simon Pegg, would that make you want to watch it?

The best theory we have to describe matter is quantum theory.

Now, I understand why quantum theory can seem a bit odd. It makes odd statements. It says, for example, that things can be in many places at once. In fact, technically, it says that things can be in an infinite number of places at once. It says that the subatomic building blocks of our bodies are constantly shifting in response to events that happened at the edge of the known universe, a billion light years somewhere over there. This is all true, but that isn’t a license to talk utter drivel.

Quantum theory might seem weird or mysterious, but it describes the world with higher precision than the laws of physics laid down by Newton, and it’s one of the foundations of our understanding of nature. It doesn’t, therefore, allow mystical healing or ESP or any other manifestation of new-age woo-woo into the pantheon of the possible. Always remember that quantum theory is physics, and physics is usually done by people without star signs tattooed on their bottoms.

stars | 10:11 am CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, current events, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery, television
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Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

I’m a huge geek for space flight. I’m not sure why it’s called “manned” when there are women doing it now, and I’m as puzzled about calling it “flight” when it can and often is done without wings, but even so, I geek out in a major way whenever I run across a book or photo or web site that has anything to do with manned space flight. Geeking out isn’t about trying to make sense of it. It’s a Pavlovian response. Or is it? Maybe it’s not conditioned; maybe I was wired that way at birth.

Whatever. If I’d had the brains to do it, I would’ve gotten a couple PhD’s just for the privilege of working for a manned space flight program no matter how frivolous or questionable the motives for pursuing it are. I know the whole point of landing a man on the moon was to win a political argument. So what? It was still pretty cool. And our nation devotes a lot of time, energy and money to other political arguments – immigration, war, those kinds of things – that aren’t nearly as awesome as flying in space, supposedly because they’re important and space flight is pointless. “What are you going to do in space?” goes the argument. Well, you could live there. Takes a while and a lot of hard work to figure out how, but it could be done.

And if the argument against manned space flight is even more basic, if all that the argument against it boils down to is, “Why?” I’d answer, Because somebody is going to do it. In the whole of history, we’ve climbed into ships and gone as far as we could, and now that we’ve figured out that we can go to space, the move to working and then living in space is inevitable. It has to happen, because that’s what we do.

Actually, it’s happening. Right now. There are people living on a space station in orbit above us. They’ve been living in it for years, and will go on living in it for years, and they’re doing it mostly to figure out how to go on living in space for generations to come. If you think that’s not freaking awesome, then what is?

I got all wound up about this after astronomer Pamela Gay, appearing on a panel at the annual TAM science meeting, got shut down by astrophysicist Neal de Grasse Tyson after she made the comment that manned space flight was “kind of awesome … but there isn’t the budget in the world right now to do it right.” You cannot say that kind of thing around Neal (he lets me call him Neal) without expecting a broadside in return:

I’ve got to rebut that: To say there’s no budget in the world – the federal budget is three point something trillion dollars … It’s not that we can’t afford it, it’s that we have chosen to not afford it. … The U.S. bailout of the banks exceeded the 50-year budget of Nasa. If you want to do something with three and a half trillion dollars, you can do whatever you want, whatever you judge to be important to the profile of the nation. The Nasa budget is four-tenths of one percent of a tax dollar. If I cut into a tax dollar four-tenths of one percent, it doesn’t even get into the ink! So I will not accept the statement that we cannot afford it.

Yeah. What he said.

ink | 11:04 am CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, current events, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery | Tags:
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Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

I was crouching on the very edge of a raw metal deck plate with my arms straight out on either side of me, reaching just far enough to hold on to the struts that were the only things connecting the deck plates to the ship. With the main engines running at full throttle my feet felt as thought they were not truly in contact with the deck. They felt, actually, as though they were repelled by the vibration of it. I had to ride it with my knees bent, skating back and forth with my feet to keep them under me. I clutched at the struts so tightly that my fingers hurt, really hurt, but I didn’t dare let go.

Sealed up tight inside the hull the darkness was total, not that it mattered. I kept my eyes clenched shut, as if that would somehow shut out the deafening noise of the engines. Silly, I know. Nothing could have blocked that sound. I could have filled my ears with cement, and the roar would still have come smashing through.

The darkness was suddenly shattered by a shower of sparks from left and right, front and back, and the space between the bulkheads was filled with exploding gas, and the hull split open, and the stern of the ship fell away. The explosion that blasted across my face was paradoxically cold, and when I opened my eyes I realized they would stay open forever, glazed by frozen tears, lids glued back, eyelashes stitched across the underside of my brow.

Blinding sunlight fell across the yellow bulkhead of the aft fuel tank as it parted from the ship. Stack gas billowed in its wake. The engines alongside me shuddered and shook, and in the propulsive blast of their efforts the stern section began to tumble end over end as it lost speed and fell.

Far below, the arc of the Earth shone like the blue and white curve of a neon sign behind a window trimmed with frost. And I thought, Wow. I may be frozen in place like a gargoyle right now, but nobody will ever see what I’ve seen today.

And the last thing I saw was a glitter of light as a sixteen millimeter camera was ejected from the hull of the ship to fall back to earth and be caught by a waiting airplane far below, its film eventually developed and analyzed and eventually posted on YouTube. Dammit.

nerd dream | 10:15 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, dreams, hobby, play, space geekery
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Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

And now it’s time for another installment of: Ask A Stupid Question!

Long-time readers of this blog – and they are legion, I assure you – know I have a great big thang for steam locomotives. The way I gush over them makes people feel as though they shouldn’t be watching, really. I’ve learned over the years not to be quite so sharing when it comes to my feelings about choo-choos, as well as moon rockets. BECAUSE HOOGAH HOOGAH I SURE DO LOVES ME SOME MOON ROCKETS! HOMINAHOMINAHOMINA.

Sorry. I’ve got myself under control now, promise.

Well, today I happened to glance up into the sky as I was taking a walk around the park on my lunch hour, happened to catch sight of the moon and wondered: Would you be able to operate a steam locomotive on the moon? Hmmmm.

Short answer: No. A steam locomotive is as low-tech as machinery gets. First of all, they’re made of tons and tons of solid steel, filled with tons of coal and even more tons of water. A road-ready steam locomotive weighs more than God, so you wouldn’t be able to even get one to the moon. There isn’t a rocket big enough to lift one an inch off the ground, much less all the way to lunar orbit, and if there was you wouldn’t be able to land one on the moon without smashing it to pieces.

But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you could get one to the moon, and it was somehow full of water and the tender was loaded with coal – how would you light a fire in the firebox? Because that’s how you get one going down here on Mother Earth. You build up a little pile of tinder, just like when you’re at camp, throw a match on it, build it up with some heavier wood, pile up some coal around it, and keep on doing that for, oh, about twenty-four hours until you’ve got a fire roaring hot enough to bring the thousand bozillion gallons of water in the boiler to a roiling head. Couldn’t on the moon, though, unless you rigged it up with its own oxygen bottles, but that’s not how a steam loco works, and my stupid question was about a steam locomotive. You could probably make one work if you substituted an atomic reactor for the fire but then it wouldn’t be the same thing, would it? No. No, it wouldn’t.

Now that I think about it (still in the context of a stupid question), the temperature on the surface of the moon during the day is something like two-hundred fifty degrees, so maybe you wouldn’t have any trouble boiling the water, even without a fire. Just set it out in the sunlight and stand back. I’ll bet you the complete lack of atmospheric pressure would make the water want to boil even while it was still pretty cold. After the sun went down you’d be in a world of hurt, though. The temperature on the moon drops to around a hundred fifty degrees below zero, so all the water in the boiler would solidify and stay that way for fourteen days. For two weeks, a rockin’ and rollin’ locomotive, and then for two weeks a pretty huge door stop.

Or can it rock and roll? I honestly don’t know. If it can make steam, I’d think maybe it would go. Probably not far. The water would likely all boil off in a big hurry and there’s really no way to fill it up again, not the way it’s supposed to get done. But I think it could work. It. Could. Work.

Celestial Steam Locomotive | 7:02 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, hobby, play, space geekery, story time
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Friday, February 25th, 2011

The announcement that there’d soon be a movie released about Apollo 18 caught my eye because it had the word “Apollo” in it and because there was no 18th mission to the moon. This monster movie is supposed to explain why that is, which got me all jazzed up because, you know, rockets and astronauts on the moon!

Apparently, it’s about the “secret” last mission to the moon, and – I’m going to go into curmudgeon mode on you here – I guess I have to ask: How exactly do you secretly launch a three hundred sixty-foot tall rocket into space? It takes weeks to assemble one, in a building that’s almost five hundred feet tall, and takes days to move one out to the launch pad. When they fire up the engines on one of these things, it make a noise like an exploding atomic bomb. People for miles around can see the three hundred-foot-long flame trailing from it as it climbs into the sky. And the only facility on earth built to launch this gargantuan firecracker is about thirty miles from Orlando. So, yeah, the “secret” part of the premise kind of strains my credulity, but maybe that’s just me.

Apollo 18 | 6:14 pm CST
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Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Recently finished books:

Millenium, by John Varley – based on the short story Air Raid, and I’m not sure I can say making it into a book improved it. The short story wowed me so much that it resurfaced in my memory just last week and and sent me searching the internet for it. When I found that Varley had expanded it into a novel I went to the nearest used-book store and bought a copy.

The germ of the story is this: Time travelers from the future are kidnapping people who disappeared without a trace fro the past. In the book, Varley spends a lot of time on how and why, but not enough on the main characters, and the ending is not satisfying at all. My Darling B read it, too. She liked the story quite a lot but was also disappointed by the ending.

I still want to find the short story and read it again. Any short story that sticks with you for thirty years must still pack some punch.

America’s Women, by Gail Collins – I love finding Gail Collins’ columns in The New York Times and I loved finding out that she wrote a book even more. Her columns are as witty as they are fun to read, and so was this book, a history women’s place in the culture of America from the sixteenth century on.

First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, by James R. Hansen – truthfully, I haven’t finished this yet, but I’m getting very close. I bought it new about a year and a half ago, flipped ahead to the part where Armstrong joins the Apollo program and read all the way through the middle of the book until the astronauts started their round-the-world goodwill tour. Then, last week, I picked it up again and started reading from the beginning and managed to plow about a hundred pages into it, to the point where Armstrong becomes an experimental test pilot working on the X-15.

And then I stopped, for two reasons: My Darling B gave me a copy of Edmund Morris’s biography of Teddy Roosevelt for my birthday. I’ve been waiting years for Morris to publish this last volume of his three-volume Roosevelt biography, and when I heard on the radio it was finally out I stopped by the library to put a hold on a copy for myself, because I’m too cheap to shell out thirty-five bucks to get a first-run hardcover copy for myself. But, as it turns out, My Darling B wasn’t that cheap. She’d been looking for birthday gift ideas and must have heard me mention this to Tim, who’s almost as big a fan of TR as I am. So when I got it, I had to stop reading everything else and start wolfing down this five hundred-page biography. I might finish by Christmas.

I stopped reading First Man for another reason: It’s dense. Truly, this is the most complete biography I have ever read. James R. Hansen is a master at stuffing as many facts into a sentence as any author I have ever read. If he can’t work a fact in without disrupting the flow of a sentence, he’ll cram it in parenthetically, and damn the flow. My brain is bulging with new muscle tissue from wrestling with each and every passage of this book, and I’ve got hundreds of pages left to go!

But damn, this is a fantastic book for completists, and if you’re a total nerd for the moon landing, descriptions of the first landing don’t get any more detailed than the one in this book. I plan to read straight through it again, knowing that I’ll get another nerdgasm from it even though it’ll take me another six months to get there.

The End | 6:26 am CST
Category: books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Robert Goddard was the father of American rocketry, or maybe something more like the crazy uncle. Like Tsiolkovsky in Russia and von Braun in Germany, he not only cobbled together working rockets, he was inspired by a compelling inspiration to fly to other planets, which was crazy talk in his day, and I mean people called Goddard crazy, but not at all in a joking way. Even though he could build flying rockets, most people thought of them as toys and Goddard as a raving nutjob, totally whacko, out of his freaking gourd to think he could ever fly to the moon on one.

He didn’t take it too well. To avoid any further harsh criticism, he packed up his rockets and moved from the east coast to the desert of New Mexico, and didn’t share the results of his experiments with anybody else. Fine, then, I’ll just take my rockets and go!

Goddard might have been a trifle insecure about his calling, but he was a romantic right down to his bones. Here’s a story I’d never heard about him before I read it in First Man, the biography of Neil Armstrong:

At age seventeen, Goddard climbed to the top of his backyard cherry tree. “It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England,” recalled Goddard in notes for his autobiography, “and as I looked toward the fields to the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet … I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive.”

For the rest of his life, Goddard celebrated October 19 as his “Anniversary Day.” After his marriage in 1924, he lived with his wife in a house near where the cherry tree stood. When he subsequently moved his rocket-testing experiments from Massachusetts to New Mexico, he visited the tree whenever he could.

Oct 19, 1927: “Got rocket weighed and ready, in afternoon. Stopped at cherry tree at 6 p.m.”

Oct 19, 1928: “Took out trailer to farm, with Sachs. Went out to cherry tree.”

Oct 19, 1932: “Worked on flow patterns in afternoon. Went to cherry tree — Anniversary Day.”

In the fall of 1938, Goddard received a letter from a Massachusetts friend informing him that his cherry tree had been uprooted in a nor’easter. In his journal that night, the father of American rocketry wrote, “Cherry tree down — have to carry on alone.”

A Different Boy | 9:00 pm CST
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

I have no idea where I was or what I was doing the night I heard John Lennon died. I remember seeing plenty of television news stories with video of people weeping and lighting candles, but when I try to recall the first time I heard about it, I just can’t. It simply didn’t make as big an impression on me as it did on other people.

Actually, I don’t have a lot of associations like that. My memory seems to be association-free. I don’t remember where I was when I heard Reagan was shot, or Ford was shot at. I only remember where I was when I heard about the 9/11 attack because I was in an airplane over Alaska where we were grounded for four days, and I remember that I was at a tech school in Munich when I heard the Challenger blew up because the class wiseass greeted me on the street with, “Hi, Dave! The space shuttle just blew up!”

“Yeah, right,” I said in reply. When I got back to my room the only thing on television, of course, was that video of the explosion, replayed over and over again.

I’m pretty sure I must’ve been in Eau Claire, where I was going to school, when I heard about Lennon, but even with that hint I can’t put myself in place or time. Most of the 80s are a blur to me, anyway. It’s a completely lost memory, as so many are.

Memory-free | 5:59 pm CST
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Friday, October 15th, 2010

image of the moon

I just finished reading Dark Side of the Moon, a book about Nasa’s lunar landing project. I feel it is safe to say that author Gerard DeGroot, a science writer from Scotland, is no friend of America’s manned space program, or any other country’s.

Time out: What, by the way, is a shorthand way to say “a project to send people into space” that doesn’t sound girl-hating and old fashioned? Because “crewed space program” sounds just like “crude space program,” so that’s out, and “peopled space program” sounds as clunky as “a project to send people into space,” so there’s no way I’m using that, either. I need something here. Help me out.

Space, DeGroot feels, is better explored by robots, and any journey made to the moon, other planets, or the stars is just a stunt, devoid of any greater meaning at all. I’m not going to claim he’s wrong about the robots. I think it’s way cool to send robots into space because, you know, robots! But he’s a tad bit depressing when it comes to expressing his thoughts on personal space exploration (okay, that sounds stupid, too; I’m not using that either), which he does incessantly, the message being that it’s pointless, worthless, and not a little egotistic.

I’m on his side when he argues it costs way too much, but I’m pretty sure it’ll always cost way too much. I don’t see a way of cutting back unless and until people start building space ships in space so they can cut back on the commute up out of Earth’s gravity well, a part that adds quite a lot of expense. But they’ll always have to go back to get food, water and air, so it’s a modest savings.

But I’m not entirely with him when he says it’s pointless, far too dangerous and, when it comes down to it, little more than a stunt performed only to make people look good. All of that describes parachuting off the edge of a cliff, and yet people seem to be doing more of that, not less. It’s not that I think Nasa ought to fire up the rockets and start shooting guys off to the moon again, but people are going to go into space. There are a bunch of them in orbit right now, and they’ll keep going, so obviously it’s worth something to somebody. It’s worth something to me; I’d go in a second if I had twenty million dollars in spare change.

Still and all, Dark Side of the Moon was a great read, even if only to have read a book that wasn’t all gung-ho or gaga about rockets. But it was also worth it to read quite a few moonshot stories I hadn’t read before. Recommended.

Dark Side of the Moon | 10:30 pm CST
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Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

I finished off the last of the books I’ve been reading this month:

Of A Fire On The Moon

I’ve never read anything by Norman Mailer before. This is one hell of a way to start.

I’ve picked up Of A Fire On The Moon at least twice, once when I was in high school and again when I was in college, but I wasn’t ready for Norman Mailer then; I’m not sure I was ready this time, but his novelization of the Apollo 11 moon landing has become part of the canon of moon landing lore, so it became a part of my permanent collection. When I got to feeling as though I needed another infusion of moon lore, I cast my eye on my books to be read, thinking, I need something that puts a different slant on the story this time, and man, I got it.

Mailer inserted himself into the story, called himself Aquarius, and tried to write about it as if he could somehow render it more dramatic than it already was. The astronauts and the technicians at Nasa bugged the hell out of him with their teamwork mentality and their inability to speak in anything but dry, clipped technospeak, but they were engineers, all of them, and so focused on their goal that most of them slept, when they slept at all, on cots in their offices and breakfasted on coffee and cigarettes. Of course their words were dry and clipped.

Mailer wanted them to be poets or, at least, a bit more lyrical. More like him, I would guess. If men were going to all the trouble to walk on the moon, he wanted them to be able to bring that experience back to the people they kept insisting they were doing it all for, the People of Earth, not at all an unreasonable request, but not possible in that day and age when they had to cobble together a lander that was so technologically complicated it had to be flown by not one, but two total engineering geeks. Poetry was not their strong suit.

I didn’t care much to read the details of Mailer’s life, inserted into the frame of the story, and the age of Aquarius stuff didn’t do much for me in setting the tumultuous stage the rest of the nation was playing on. It was distracting and seemed dated: When he’s not describing the moon landing, Mailer’s descriptions of his mayoral race or his partying seems to drag on like the babble of a self-absorbed beatnik, banging on bongo drums in a run-down coffee house.

Still and all, it was indeed a fresh perspective on one of the grandest stories of our country.

Pattern Recognition

I’ve been reading the stories of William Gibson ever since I read, then re-read, then re-re-read Johnny Mnemonic in the pages of Omni Magazine back in 1981 (I still have the issue, deeply buried somewhere in the archives here at Drivel HQ). His style reminded me of Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a tattered copy of which I kept in a jacket pocket and read snatches from as compulsively as you’d pick at a scab, (I meant that to be a compliment. I hope he’d take it that way) and did the same with Gibson, too, after I discovered him.

Gibson’s prose combines stream of thought with a relentless hyperawareness of his surroundings, but with an artist’s control so that his observations don’t come tumbling out like the cataracts of a class five whitewater river. The result is a body of work that describes the world around his characters with the same attention he gives to their thoughts, motives and appearance. Everything in Gibson’s stories comes alive.

The Greatest Show On Earth

Richard Dawkins has a way of explaining things that seems to piss a lot of people off. Although I’m not in that camp of people, I can see why. He writes out most thoughts with such finality that they sound almost as if he’s issuing decrees from on high. That may be his purpose, now that I think of it, to put him in the same league with the anti-evolutionists he argues against.

For quite a while I avoided books like this, thinking, What’s the point? It doesn’t change the mind of anyone who doesn’t believe in evolution. But that doesn’t appear to be the point of this book. It’s more to the point of filling in the gaps in my own knowledge of evolution, and strengthening knowledge is never a bad thing, whether you’re for or against a topic as contentious as this one.

Books! | 10:12 am CST
Category: books, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Thursday, September 9th, 2010

image of lunar lander cockpit

I can no longer fight my space-geek urges. I have to show you this amazing model of the Apollo lunar lander, assembled by Vincent Meens, a guy with way too much free time on his hands. That model is one-hundred percent scratch built! That means he didn’t assemble parts from a kit. It began life as a drawing, flat sheets of plastic and various tubes and wires. He cut the plastic up according to his own drawings, glued the pieces together, sanded and painted them, and shazam! Shapeless plastic was transformed into a scale model. I drool with geek pleasure at the sight of such an example of ingenuity, patience and skill.

You can find more photos and a painstakingly detailed description of how he did it on a series of web pages devoted to his multi-year project to reproduce a model of the LM-5, the Apollo lander that Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969. Holy crap, was it really that long ago?

On a related note, my brother Pete tipped me off to a series of videos from Discovery channel chronicling the development of the manned space program. I know that’s a sexist way to say it, but it’s what they called it back in the day and it’s technically accurate, dammit. The series, When We Left Earth, starts with the gathering of the first seven astronauts and in eight episodes moves all the way up through the shuttle program.

Although it’s a great program, my biggest complaint is that it doesn’t have enough time to tell the story. Every episode feels like it’s on fast-forward. I kept wanting to shout “Slow the hell down!” at the narrator, Gary Sinese. Still, a bang-up program nonetheless.

The best part of watching any video from the Discovery Channel is still, and always will be, singing along to “I Love The Whole World.”

A lunar-licious treat for space geeks! | 11:20 am CST
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Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Buzz Aldrin, who hoofed his way along the surface of the moon forty years ago, is trying out his moves on Dancing With The Stars.

I thought I might have heard about this the other day on the radio but figured it was just my tin ear picking up a name that sounded like “Buzz Aldrin,” because don’t they all, and then the space geek lobe of my brain tricking me into hearing what I wanted to hear, so I didn’t give it any more thought.

Then, this morning as I was checking out the funny pages over coffee, I noticed that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was running photos of the latest round of Dancing With The Stars and my geek lobe kicked in again, so I clicked on the link and what do you know? There’s the rocket man himself. Can’t tell what kind of performance he turned in, but it looks like he’s having one hell of a good time.

Over at NPR’s pop culture blog Monkey See, blogger Linda Holmes says Aldrin danced like an old man (might be because he’s eighty years old) but I couldn’t judge for myself because I can’t use the flash player on their site (curse you, Flash Player!) so I found this really crappy video on YouTube — why does anybody even bother posting video this bad? I can’t tell if he’s doing a really good cha-cha or a really bad one. Still looks like he’s having a great time, though.

moon man | 6:29 am CST
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Saturday, March 13th, 2010

Michael Collins, Apollo 11

Michael Collins is the astronaut who drove the bullet-shaped command and service module in circles around the moon while Aldrin and Armstrong took the lander down. The photo above is from the 2008 documentary In The Shadow Of The Moon. I couldn’t resist using it here, instead of the usual Nasa portrait because, to my lights, it’s a much better photo than almost any other I’ve seen of Collins. He’s got a great smile, which goes well with the very frank, plain-spoken way he has of of telling stories. I just love it that he’s a grandpa with stories to tell about flying in space.

One of my favorites: During the Gemini program, Collins was tapped to sit on a board that would review the applications of the newest recruits to the astronaut program. He was surprised there were no African-American applicants, but relieved there were no women applying for the job. I gritted my teeth and read on, expecting the usual garbage about how the job was too dangerous, or that women weren’t qualified, but it turns out that Michael Collins didn’t want to fly in space with women because he wouldn’t feel comfortable taking a dump:

I think our selection board breathed a sigh of relief that there were no women, because women made problems, no doubt about it. It was bad enough to have to unzip your pressure suit, stick a plastic bag on your bottom, and defecate — with ugly old John Young sitting six inches away. How about if it was a woman? No, it was better to stick with men.

Although Collins was deeply involved in the Gemini program with space suit development, and was selected for the Apollo program early on, he made just two flights into space, first on Gemini 10, then called it quits after Apollo 11. “I just didn’t feel I could go back to the bottom of [the] ladder and work my way up again,” he explained.

I was simply not willing to spend [three years] in simulators and nights in motel rooms instead of with my family. If I were leaving Deke [Slayton, head of the manned moon program] shorthanded, or if he could have promised to get me airborne in six months (which, of course, he could not and would not), it might have been a different story. As it was, Deke had enough astronauts to fly thirty missions to the moon.

His frankness sometimes comes off as irritation, or maybe ordinary grumpiness would be a better way to describe his attitude toward the endless hours of meetings, report-writing and training to fly a mission. And he is equally frank about describing the pressure he, Armstrong and Aldrin felt when it came to carrying off their mission without a hitch.

I don’t know why, but I’m always surprised by memoirs of people involved with the Apollo program. The PR machine built these people up to be gung-ho warriors filled with can-do spirit, yet when I read their stories they’re very ordinary, self-effacing and fragile, filled with optimism but pragmatism right up to the point where it almost begins to sound like self-doubt. Their memoirs reveal people who had grave doubts that it would ever come off, in spite of all their hard work. I was delighted with this book, though, from which Collins’s voice spoke loudly and clearly, and held plenty of interesting details about the space program I hadn’t read before.

Michael Collins | 3:17 pm CST
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Thursday, March 11th, 2010

“Got time for a question that doesn’t have anything to do with anything?” Tim asked me the other day.

I just love questions that don’t have anything to do with anything, so I said, “Shoot!”

“If you want to increase the amount of heat in a circuit, do you increase the voltage or the current.”

Well, damn. I used to know that kind of thing, but I don’t tinker so much with trying to make electrical circuits hotter so I don’t go doing things like increasing the voltage or the current.

“I’m not sure,” I told him. “It’s just a guess, but I think you have to increase the amperage.” I liked that answer because “increase the amperage” made me sound as if I knew what I was talking about.

He seemed satisfied with that, and I figured he would probably go look it up himself later anyway, so I let it go.

Then, about a half-hour later while I was thinking about other things that didn’t have anything to do with anything, a light bulb lit over my head. As soon as I could, I got to a phone and dialed Tim’s number.

“It’s volts,” I said.

“Really? Volts? How’d you remember that?”

“Apollo 13 blew up because the space ship was designed as a twenty-four volt system, but was upgraded to a 36-volt system. The heater in the oxygen tank was built for the old system and got too hot during a test run.”

“It’s cool that you remember that,” he said, and he really meant it. “I guess knowing all that space geek stuff might actually be good for something, eh?”

geekiness pays off | 3:27 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, hobby, O'Folks, play, space geekery, T-Dawg
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