Tag Archives: nasa

“Carrying the Fire” by Michael Collins


Michael Collins, most famous as the third man in the Apollo 11 crew along with Armstrong and Aldrin, is a very gifted writer.  This account of his time as an astronaut – six years and two space flights, Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 – was a joy to read.  Collins seems very down-to-earth and doesn’t take himself too seriously.  Lots of good humor and great storytelling here, along with some very candid impressions and recollections of his fellow astronauts, the training process, and the events of his two space missions.

As I am realizing happens with most men who achieve “greatness,” Collins didn’t set out to particularly do any “great” thing, much less go to the moon.  Rather, he was an intelligent, capable individual who took opportunities as they came.  Collins went first to West Point, then into the Air Force as a pilot, then an experimental test pilot, and finally to the astronaut corps.  Even his assignment to Apollo 11 was somewhat of a fluke; he was originally slated to fly Apollo 8 (which admittedly would have also been a pretty big deal) but had to have neck surgery and was bumped to 11.

There are some funny stories about the astronaut jungle and desert survival training, ostensibly required in case of a landing in some remote area.  Most of the astronauts laughed off this chance; however contingency planning was a hallmark of NASA in these early days.  Much of it was never needed, but Collins agrees it was time and money well spent.  For example, the consideration of using the LM as survival craft was already well documented prior to Apollo 13.

Surprisingly for a pressure suit expert, and as a Gemini EVA veteran, Collins admits to some claustrophobia during certain suit tests, but of course never reported it for fear of being grounded.  Everything ended up just fine during his EVA, but it made me wonder … what other dangerous conditions did other astronauts conceal for fear of losing their chance at glory?  (This is one of those process-breaking things that occur when humans get involved … we are not always dispassionate creatures of logic.)

During a down moment as CAPCOM for Apollo 8, Collins relayed a question from his son to the crew enroute to the moon: “Who’s driving, is it Mr. Borman?” Answer: “Nope, Isaac Newton is driving now.”  It really is incredible how Apollo was shot to the moon – 250,000 miles and three days out, towards a spot ~40 deg away from the moon’s position at launch – and then hitting within 60 miles or so.

As also reported in “First Man”, the Apollo 11 crew didn’t seem to be very close or communicate much beyond the technical.  Collins also reports the same “distance” with John Young during Gemini 10.  Maybe there was just so much going on that there was little time or brainspace to spare for non-technical matters?

The crew knew that Apollo 11 was going to be a big deal and expected a certain amount of fanfare upon their return, but none of them could have predicted what the never-ending fame (including being asked “What was it really like up there?” approximately one million times) would actually be like.  For three introverted engineers, dealing with fame was not always enjoyable.  Furthermore, nothing in life ever really seemed to come close to the challenge or fulfillment that came from making the moon shot.  I guess that nothing on earth can really compare once you’ve already done the impossible.  But I suppose that, among all hardships, this is not the most terrible one to experience.  Also, it really put some problems in perspective – hard to be terribly concerned with issues where lives are not on the line, and also some of planet Earth’s squabbles and feuds seem so small when you can view the whole Earth as a tiny ball outside a single viewport of your spacecraft.  On the other hand, even the great honors of the Earth that were bestowed on the crew don’t seem like much — “through it all, the earth continues to turn on its axis …. I am less impressed by my own disturbance to that serene motion, or by that of my fellow man.”

The crew also returned to a pivotal moment in the future of manned space flight, as the voices in opposition to the vast sums being spent on such endeavors where becoming loud indeed.  Collins’ book was published in 1974 and it is clear he and NASA were at least by then very much on the defensive.  I think he and many in Apollo would be surprised that we still as of 2017 haven’t sent a man to Mars yet — it seemed like the next logical step.

Nearly fifty years too late, but let me say, “Great job, Mike!”  And also to the other astronauts and literally thousands of others who made it all happen.  Apollo is a story which will inspire humanity through the ages.

“First Man” by James R. Hansen


Listened to the audio book.  My impression of Neil is that he was a fine engineer – slightly socially distant and awkward as all good engineers are – and a hard worker intent on completing the job at hand, but very uncomfortable with his unasked-for celebrity status after being the first man to walk on the moon.

In his pre-astronaut days, Neil took pilot lessons of his own initiative at a very early age.  He became one of the youngest fighter pilots in Korea.  Then he took a job with NASA testing the X-15 at Edwards AFB.  When he applied to be in the second group of astronauts, it was almost like the eligibility requirements had been written just for him.  Tragically, just before applying to be an astronaut his 2-year old daughter Karen died.

His first space mission, Gemini 8, was more important than typically remembered, overshadowed as it was by later Apollo 11.  Gemini 8 was the first time two spacecraft docked in orbit.

As for Apollo 11, the lunar landing itself was the real pinnacle of achievement for Neil, not stepping foot on the moon.  The more I learn about Apollo, the more in awe I am at this great engineering achievement.  I wish there was something comparable going on today.

I never knew that Buzz took no pictures of Neil on moon’s surface.  Apparently he just didn’t think about it at the time.  Neil took plenty of Buzz when he was behind the camera.  There’s some who think there might have been some lingering jealously on Buzz’s part, since early on it was thought he might be the first man, but despite (or maybe because of?) some lobbying on his part, the honor was given to mission commander Armstrong (who never sought it).

After the mission, life was never quite the same.  Armstrong easily could have given in to being a “professional celebrity” full-time (and he did do many things to help worthy causes with his notoriety) but he just wanted to keep on being an engineer.  That never really was possible; the myth and legend surrounding him was just too great.  He never sought the limelight and was uncomfortable with constant attention.  Ironically, this relutance may have driven up his public fame “scarcity” and thus drove even more extreme behavior from fans.

Many people tried to “cash in” on even loose associations with Armstrong.  Lots of people from his hometown told blatantly false stories – one in particular stuck in my mind: a local amateur astronomer told the media about how Neil came on a Scouting activity to look through his telescopes and then frequently came to observe the moon and wonder if man would ever go there.  Sounds great, but … not true.

I didn’t know that Neil’s wife Janet left him in the 1990’s.  Apparently, she thought life would calm down after their children grew up and left home, but Neil just kept on going with his many corporate board activities, leaving little time for her.  Also living on a working farm probably didn’t help matters.  Why in the world did they move to a working farm?  That seemed a bit much for him being gone all the time, thus leaving a lot of work on Janet’s plate.  …. doing a little psychoanalyzing here: maybe he was thinking he could get away from the publicity and all by “retiring” to a more pastoral way of life.

“Apollo: The Race to the Moon” by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox


Great book that focuses primarily on the engineering problems and people of the Apollo program.  Not so much on the actual missions or astronauts, except when something went wrong and the guys on the ground had to figure it out.  As everyone knows, during every mission there was a roomful of engineers and flight controllers (the MOCR, “Mission Control”) who knew the systems like the back of their hand, continuously scanning their screens full of numbers for any inkling of a problem.  What I didn’t know, is that every operator in the room was connected to their own “back room” full of other engineers looking at the same info and available for consultation at anytime via the “loops.”  Furthermore, for really bad problems (like Apollo 13), they were able to reach out to even more people and sites, such as the contractors, basically in real time.  During the 13 crisis, probably over a thousand engineers around the country went to work in the middle of the night to support.

There was some intense flight ops sim training.  Only 10-20% of the procedures and software dealt with the nominal case.  Lots of things that could go wrong.  Some said that the real missions were piece of cake compared to the sims.  The flight controllers were there in the MOCR, but they were hooked up to a nearly equal number of sim operators controlling the flight and injected any problems they could think of.

As far as planning for going to the moon, engineering-wise it was a decent next step after Mercury, which got us into orbit.  Politics really pushed it forward by a decade or so, however.  Really seemed to be kind of a publicity stunt: the Russians had beat us to space with Sputnik and likely were going to beat us to having a man in space (they did).  So we had to pick a far enough out event that we had a chance on: the moon landing.  It was acknowledged that it was not really for science from the get-go.  All the science that Apollo produced could have done much more cheaply and safely without men in the loop.

Deciding on L.O.R (Lunar Orbit Rendezvous) was not easy.  For a while, it was either a choice between Direct Ascent (one big rocket to take off from Earth, land backwards on Moon, then takeoff back for home) or E.O.R (Earth Orbit Rendezvous – launch pieces separately into Earth orbit, final assembly there, then proceed as with Direct Ascent).  Joe Shea was one of the early managers who applied the principles of systems engineering, matured in the recent ICBM programs, to the problem and got everyone to agree to LOR.

“Only three things matter – man, moon, decade.”  These were the high-level requirements which drove everything else.  George Mueller decided to go with all-up testing because there was no time to incrementally test stages.  Seems very risky, and it was!  Some other systems engineering successes:

  • Discarded plans for a complex nuclear gas gauge in favor of secondary backup fuel tank with enough to get back to earth from moon.
  • Heat shield was predicted to degrade after 13 hours of interstellar cold (when facing away from sun)– engineers wanted to develop a brand new material for heat shield; but Shea’s solution was to apply a slow spin to the CSM so that it would be warmed by the sun.

The Apollo 1 fire happened during mock launch test event.  The combination of pure oxygen in capsule, plus faulty wiring yielded the fire; a complicated series of hatches that effectively locked the astronauts in made the accident fatal.  It seemed like the program was going too fast and putting safety in the background.  Although, the problem DID manifest itself during a ground test, as it should have.  The real failure was in the hatch – it was too complicated to open in time.  It was lucky that they didn’t encounter the same problem in space, which may have shut down program likely.  (Although it was a risky business no matter what; all engineering can do is reduce the probability of failure.  Even if something is 99% ok and you are unlucky enough to draw the 1% failure, you are still the goat … there is no way with something like Apollo, with such a limited number of trials, to operationally prove a 99% success rate.)  Grueling disassembly of the ruined CSM followed the fire.  Procedures were written for the removal of each and every part (down to the screws) and NASA and North American reps witnessed removal of each.

The overwhelming success of 501 (aka Apollo 4), the first all-up test of Saturn V, only 1.5 years after fire, was likely achieved only due to the renewed sense of urgency and attention to detail that came out of the fire.

Finally, while Apollo 11 gets all the glory, to the engineers the actual most significant mission was Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon.  It was only the second manned Apollo mission, period.  But it showed that the era of spaceflight beyond the Earth had begun.

“The Martian” by Andy Weir


This is an engineering fairy tale, and it was pretty awesome.  In the not too distant future, astronaut Mark Watney is part of the third(?) manned Mars landing.  Fairly early into their mission, a severe dust storm forces the crew to leave the planet early via their prepped MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle?) and then dock with the mothership Hermes for the long journey back home.  Tragically, Watney is injured in the chaotic evacuation, presumed dead by the crew, and abandoned as the others barely escape on the MAV with their own lives.

However, Watney isn’t really dead… Now he has to find a way to survive until he can be rescued.  Oh, and the same storm took out his communications equipment, so he cannot talk to Earth.  Luckily he’s got the Hab for living in and several month’s worth of food.  And a couple of rovers.  The next Mars mission is scheduled to land about 3000 km way in about four years, but other than that there is little to hope for.

Watney performs numerous engineering heroics to overcome these and other disasters which crop up.  It’s an exciting story, and just about nails an appropriate level of detail on the science bits.  Nothing Watney does is magical or unexplained; it’s all based on scientific fact and more or less current NASA engineering practices.  But the book stays exciting and doesn’t get too dry and boring, even while going over the details.  There are actually quite a lot of funny bits, too.

I wish I was half the engineer that Watney was … he had the knowledge and was able to apply it when it counted during a crisis.  That’s the key – knowing stuff when it really counts.

The Martian is available from Amazon.