The Big Think

August 3, 2016

Life Savers on the Moon

Filed under: Space — jasony @ 5:42 pm

Some of the most incredible experiences come completely out of the blue. Today was such a day.

I’m a space nerd. I love space: NASA, the space program, space history, flying things, science, Mars, you name the space tech and I’m probably in love with it. So when we discovered a space museum in Colorado Springs, I knew we’d have to make a visit.

The Space Foundation Discovery Center is located on the western side of Colorado Springs in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. It features artifacts and displays covering the history and technology of space flight. A lot of it was already familiar to me, but some of it was new and unique. The museum is geared more toward kids (as most of these places are), so for the first hour or so the adults were outnumbered by the children by 10:1, with elementary age students sprinting around the place and now, shall we say, getting the full educational opportunities out of it. But once the school busses departed, Erin and I were left more or less on our own with maybe 20 people in the whole place. We went into the incredible “Science Sphere” room where four synchronized projectors throw a near-3D image of the Earth onto a 6′ diameter white opaque sphere. The illusion it creates is that of a perfect globe floating in the middle of the room with moving video representing weather patterns, airplane flights, tectonic plates, ocean currents, or anything else that the clever software can display. There’s a similar (albeit smaller) one at the Denver Children’s Museum. It’s stunning. I want one. This giant ball-of-Earth dominating the darkened room is overwhelming.

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So Erin and I sat down and listened to the presenter, a 70ish year old man named Lou. Lou did a great job of sharing his love for space, showing off the incredible Earth projection (and Mars/Venus/Sun/Etc) and, since there were only five people in the room at the time, he let us get him talking about his background and experience.

Jackpot.

Because, you see, Lou no only loves space, he’s lived it, spending over fifty years working at NASA on various projects. When he casually mentioned being involved in the Apollo program, I knew I had to corner him for an impromptu interview. I think he saw how eager I was to hear his stories. At this point I usually ask my victim if I can buy them lunch and just ask them questions. People are always very open to sharing their stories, and I love hearing them, but unfortunately another tour group was coming in so even though I got to ask him a couple of questions I figured I’d never get the full interview I really wanted.

So you can imagine my joy when, a little while later and in another part of the museum, I felt a presence at my elbow and turned to find Lou standing there with big smile. He’d sought us out! He asked if we had a few minutes. What followed was nearly 90 minutes of absolutely incredible stories from the golden age of space exploration, from a man who, quite literally, was right there at the very edge of the envelope.

Lou worked on the Apollo program. Not just that, he worked on the LEM lunar landers. And as if that wasn’t enough to punch your Cool Card forever, Lou was responsible for everything that went in the Apollo LEM landers before flight. For every mission. He worked directly with the astronauts to make sure they had the gear they needed, stowed in the place they needed, and that each piece of gear met the payload and safety requirements of each mission. Need a shovel? Talk to Lou. Don’t know where Day 3’s dinner is stowed? Lou does. Can’t figure out where to stash the backup roll of toilet paper? That’s Lou’s job. So when a couple of astronauts bemoaned the fact that they didn’t have any Life Savers candy, Lou was on it. But it turns out that, even post Apollo 1, the Command Module and Lunar Module were both still flying with 100% oxygen. This is so the partial atmospheric pressure could be kept down to a modest 4.7psi instead of the sea level 14psi. Walls could be thinner (not as much pressure to hold in) and materials lighter, using less fuel on takeoff and allowing more payload. But, as Apollo 1 tragically showed us, sending a spacecraft to the moon on 100% oxygen ran the risk of fire or explosion, so any source of ignition had to be very carefully eliminated.

Have you ever gone into a darkened room and chewed on a Life Saver? When you bite down on a Life Saver it is just possible to cause a tiny little spark (for a magnified version of this, go look into a mirror in a dark room and chomp on a wint-o-green life saver. Sparks!). In your bathroom at home, this is entertaining. In the 100% oxygen atmosphere of a spacecraft on the surface of the moon, a single spark could result in a very bad day. On the moon, even these innocuous little rings of sugar can kill you. The engineers were so afraid of blowing up the LEM that they had the nutrition people absolutely forbid lifesavers to the astronauts.

Lou to the rescue.

Because, see, Lou wasn’t just supplying some anonymous mission with some sugary goodness. No, the guys who wanted a little candy break and who came to Lou to see if they could get one, were none other than Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. And when the First Men on the Moon ask you for life savers, well, you tend to ignore what the room full of egghead engineers and nutritionists say.

So Lou went and bought a pack of Life Savers, snuck into the LEM after the astronauts’ personal gear had been stowed (but before the LEM was loaded onto the Saturn V), cut into the plastic storage bags, and stashed a roll of life savers where they wouldn’t be found until the LEM was on the surface. Thanks to Lou, Neil and Buzz were able to have a little snack when they were, you know,… on the moon.

The only thing Lou asked in return? He made Neil and Buzz make the most solemn promise that, whatever happened, whatever distraction or emergency or moon maiden they might come across when they were on their history making mission, would they please promise Lou that they wouldn’t chew the darn things? He just couldn’t stand the idea that he might be responsible for blowing them up while they were out there.

Neil and Buzz said yes, the flight launched, and since Apollo 11 returned to Earth safely eight days later (minus one roll of Life Savers), we can know for a fact that they kept their word.

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Lou and me standing in front of a model of the LEM, which he helped design. If you’ve ever seen “From the Earth to the Moon’s” episode called “Spider”, Lou was one of those guys who worked on the LEM. Today I talked to a hero I never knew I had.

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