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.

IMG 2528

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.


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.

IMG 2535

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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April 25, 2016

New Electromagnetic Space Drive?

Filed under: Space,Technology — jasony @ 7:57 am

An interesting article about a potential space drive breakthrough that nobody can explain. This story is cropping up in the more respectable tech press and has been around a while so I’m intrigued. It looks like there might actually be something to it.

The Curious Link Between the Fly-By Anomaly and the “Impossible” EmDrive Thruster

June 14, 2015

It’s Me! Philae!

Filed under: Space — jasony @ 5:45 pm

Philae comet lander wakes up after 7-month hibernation:

“Scientists had lost contact with the solar-powered probe after it was dropped on the icy comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by its mothership Rosetta on Nov. 15. Philae’s battery ran out at about 60 hours after it landed next to a cliff that largely blocked sunlight from reaching the lander’s solar panels.

Scientists had hoped the probe would wake up again as the comet approached the sun, enabling Philae’s solar panels to soak up enough light to charge the craft’s main battery. But there were fears its mission would be cut short.

Any such fears ended late Saturday, when the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, received signals from the lander.

‘I’m not really surprised it happened, but if you wait for several months and then suddenly in the middle of the night you get a call saying, ‘We have a signal from Philae,’ it’s exciting,’ said Stephan Ulamec, project manager at the German Aerospace Center, or DLR. ‘We’re very happy.'”

That’s great news.

April 30, 2015

Blue Origin

Filed under: Space — jasony @ 8:27 am

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin tests sub-orbital spacecraft – CBS News: “Blue Origin, a rocket engine and spacecraft development company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, carried out an unmanned maiden test flight of its New Shepard sub-orbital launch vehicle Wednesday, the company revealed early Thursday.

A dramatic video posted on Blue Origin’s website showed the squat vertical-takeoff-and-landing New Shepard rocket being erected on a launch platform at the company’s west Texas development facility followed by a brief countdown — with Bezos looking on — then a smooth liftoff and a vertical climb to an altitude of 58 miles.”

December 4, 2014


Filed under: Audio,Space,Technology — jasony @ 10:57 am

Hi Def, lights off, sound up. The last shot nails it for me.

October 7, 2014

To Infinity… someday

Filed under: Space,Technology — jasony @ 1:18 pm

It’s Been 10 Years Since the X Prize—So Where Is My Space Taxi?:

“When SpaceShipOne rocketed out of the atmosphere over Mojave, California, on October 4, 2004, it reached suborbital space for the second time in less than a week and the third time that year, capturing the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

To those of us on the ground that morning, it seemed that the competition had done what X Prize founder Peter Diamandis had hoped, opening the door to commercial space travel. Not long after, Richard Branson bolstered our hopes by signing SpaceShipOne builder Scaled Composites to build a bigger craft, SpaceShipTwo, for his Virgin Galactic outfit. Branson promised that VG would soon fly paying passengers on suborbital flights, offering the chance to see the curvature of the earth and experience a few minutes of microgravity.

And here we are 10 years later, still stuck on the ground. SpaceShipOne hangs on display in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington, and no other craft has duplicated its achievement. In the decade since the X Prize, Scaled has completed SpaceShipTwo and its White Knight 2 mothership. And this past January, the craft completed its third rocket-powered flight. But the spaceship still hasn’t reached the 62-mile Kármán line that marks the internationally accepted boundary of space.

As for Branson, his Virgin Galactic operation has been subject to repeated delays. He said last month that he now expects to inaugurate commercial service to space in February or March of 2015.”

September 19, 2014

Haters Beware

Filed under: Computing,Science,Space,Technology — jasony @ 9:17 am

NVIDIA’s new GPU proves moon landing truthers wrong:

“‘It turns out there is a lot of information about the astronomical bodies floating out there in space,’ he explains. ‘Starting with the sun. The sun itself is 128,500 lux — that’s lumens per square meter – but it turns out the moon is a crappy reflector of light.’ Daly discovered that the moon is only 12-percent reflective, and absorbs most of the sunlight hitting it. On the other hand, 12-percent of 128,500 lux is quite a lot. ‘It’s the equivalent to ten 100-watt lightbulbs per square meter of light bouncing off the moon.’ More than enough make Aldrin visible under the lander’s shadow.

While this exercise showed that the moon was reflective enough to highlight Aldrin, something was still wrong. Daly noticed that the astronaut’s side wasn’t lit the same in NVIDIA’s simulation as it was in NASA’s photograph, but he wasn’t sure why. ‘A couple of people really into the moon landing told me, ‘by the way, you should take into account Neil Armstrong and the light coming off of him.’ At first I was like, yeah, whatever — the sun is doing all the work — something the size of a guy in a space suit isn’t going to contribute much light.’ He quickly learned his assumption was wrong: the material on the outside of the astronaut’s suits is 85-percent reflective. ‘Sure enough, we put him in there, adjusted the reflectivity of his suit, put him in the position where the camera would be… and it contributed another 10% or so of light to the side of Buzz Aldrin.'”

Pretty neat pics at the link

July 20, 2014

We Choose

Filed under: Space,Technology — jasony @ 9:57 pm

Not one of his political ones, but one of his best ones. We choose to do the hard things. Or at least we did. We can again.

May 31, 2014

Up, Up, and Away

Filed under: Space — jasony @ 10:34 pm

Virgin Galactic Is Getting Cleared For Takeoff From Spaceport America – Forbes:

“This week, Virgin Galactic announced that it has signed an agreement with the FAA that begins the process of getting its commercial space flights cleared for takeoff.

Specifically, the deal will lay out how the FAA will coordinate with Spaceport America, the commercial spaceport in New Mexico where Virgin will launch its suborbital flights. The spaceport will work in conjunction with the FAA’s Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center to ensure clear airspace for the flights.

‘Our team is working hard to begin routine and affordable space launches from Spaceport America and this agreement brings us another step closer to that goal,’ Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a statement. ‘We are grateful to the FAA and New Mexico for their partnership to achieve this milestone.’

The company hopes to launch its first flight by the end of 2014, and the company’s founder Richard Branson plans to be on that flight. But there are still quite a few steps it needs to take to get there. For one, the company still needs to obtain a license from the FAA to operate commercial flights.”

May 27, 2014

There Safe and Then There’s Straightjacket-Safe

Filed under: Space — jasony @ 2:21 pm

Safety First? It’s Time for a Fresh Look at the Risks of Spaceflight – NBC

“‘The exploration and development of space is a national priority. Therefore, NASA’s first priority must be mission success in the critical steps toward reaching this goal. Consistent with this priority NASA shall strive at all times to achieve a level of safety comparable to that enjoyed by other critical national programs in extreme environments, such as deep-ocean and polar activities.'”

April 24, 2014

We Live in the Future

Filed under: Current Reading,Space,Technology — jasony @ 1:00 pm

SpaceX Achieves First Booster Flyback During Space Station Mission | MIT Technology Review: “Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, took a step toward making spaceflight less expensive by reusing its rocket boosters during a mission on Friday to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 rocket used for the mission, dubbed Commercial Resupply-3, or CRS-3, was the first to fly with landing legs, and was the first to successfully perform a controlled ocean splashdown.”

I confess that I don’t understand how this is possible from a fuel/weight standpoint. I’d always thought that you would run the tanks on the boosters nearly dry in order to maximize the amount of payload to orbit. Keeping enough fuel in the booster to get enough delta-v to make a slow touchdown seems like a big hit to payload capacity. Maybe the air friction slows the falling booster down enough to make the amount of fuel not as necessary? Still, the booster would have to drain off probably 6000mph from stage separation to atmo reentry.

Guess they have it figured out, though. And salvaging/reusing a 200 million dollar booster would probably make it worth it. Build it a little bigger and cap the payload capacity so that you could have the excess fuel needed?

Anyway, really cool tech here. I just finished the book Pillar to the Sky about how we are 90% of the way technologically to making a space elevator/beanstalk work. The author worked out the economics of it and determined that a 200 billion dollar investment would not only net a price-to-orbit of around $10/kg (as opposed to the $100,00 of today), but would also give us access to way more energy than we currently need (in the form of constantly-exposed solar panels in geosync and a convenient way to get them down). Good book.

March 16, 2014

What If?

Filed under: Humor and Fun,Space — jasony @ 10:21 am

Far-Traveling Objects: “In terms of human-made objects, has Voyager 1 travelled the farthest distance? It’s certainly the farthest from Earth we know about. But what about the edge of ultracentrifuges, or generator turbines that have been running for years, for example?

(Via .)

February 8, 2014

Little Green Blobs from Earth

Filed under: Space — jasony @ 10:22 am

Let’s Stop Wasting Money Sterilizing Our Spacecraft:

“The idea that any sample returned from Mars would first have to be sterilized, Zubrin says, is like ‘finding a viable dinosaur egg and then sterilizing it. This hysteria is an insult to the science.'”

February 4, 2014

Tiny Universe

Filed under: Space — jasony @ 11:00 am

Space miniaturized with Tilt-Shift – Imgur: “”

January 15, 2014

To The Moon, Richard.

Filed under: Space,Technology — jasony @ 8:06 pm

Branson’s space plane hits new heights | euronews, space: “Virgin Galactic’s re-usable spacecraft SpaceShipTwo has broken its own personal record for altitude in a third supersonic test flight over the Mojave Desert in the western USA. The craft was released from its carrier and soared up to an altitude of 21,641 metres and a speed of Mach 1.4, or 1224 km/h.”

Video at the link.

December 1, 2013

The Stars, My Destination

Filed under: Space — jasony @ 1:46 pm

Plotting the Destinations of 4 Interstellar Probes: “”

September 13, 2013

Far Out

Filed under: Space — jasony @ 4:03 pm

Scientists confirm Voyager 1 probe is in interstellar space – Yahoo News:

“After 2020, scientists expect they will have to start turning off instruments, until around 2025 when the probes will be completely out of power and fall silent.

Voyager 2, which is heading out of the solar system in another direction, has five to seven more years before it reaches interstellar space, said Donald Gurnett, a longtime Voyager scientist at the University of Iowa.

‘We’re in a truly alien environment,’ Zank said. ‘What Voyager is going to discover truly beggars the imagination.’

The two Voyager probes, which were both launched in 1977 to study the outer planets of the solar system, contain gold phonographic records etched with music, greetings, sounds and images from Earth”

September 6, 2013

The Future of Design

Filed under: Space,Technology — jasony @ 10:29 am

Wow, very, very cool. h/t Josh:

September 5, 2013

Space Shuttle Discovery

Filed under: Science,Space — jasony @ 8:49 am

Cockpit decommissioning 3dVR photo

August 27, 2013

Verb is the Word

Filed under: Space,Technology — jasony @ 8:31 pm

▶ Computer for Apollo

Amazing that they could figure this out with such basic technology.

Just finished watching the whole 30 minute program and I’m stunned at the complexity and audacity of this thing. Hand wrapped memory cores? That’s insane.

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