Jul 19, 2009

40 years ago? Get out, that would make me old!

No self-professed space nut like myself would let the 40th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 go without mentioning something about it. I just finished watching a Fox news special that I recorded that had interviews with several of the Apollo astronauts in it. It was OK, but nothing that had not been stated before. The thing that was eerie about it was the fact that as the special played, Fox ran a crawler across the bottom about the death of Walter Cronkite. There was no bigger fan of the space program than he was, and it was one of the few moments in his life that rendered him speechless. Remember him simply taking off his glasses and saying "Wow!" when the Eagle landed? A classic moment.

I was twelve then, and like every other kid in America, got to stay up late to watch the coverage. I was glued to the TV, and having followed the program through Mercury, Gemini, then Apollo, I really couldn't believe it was happening. I wanted to be an astronaut then, like a lot of young boys, and would soon learn that it required things like math, good eyes, and other abilities that were not in the cards for this kid.

Later in life as I made more of an effort to dig deeper into what really happened in those days, I would learn exactly what made these men special. Not only the astronauts, but the ground personnel, the specialists in mission control, everyone involved. These were amazing times, with amazing people doing things that nobody had ever attempted. They had to invent new technologies, come up with new procedures, and sometimes even just guess at what the outcome would be.

You will all read a lot and hear a lot about Apollo 11 in the next couple of days, so I won't try and give you any new information that you don't already know. And I am sure that everyone has seen or read about the space programs finest hour, bringing the three men aboard Apollo 13 back home after that near disaster. What I do want to tell you about is my favorite mission, Apollo 8. This was the first time man left Earth orbit and went to the moon. This was the mission that happened not because of all the perfect planning that went into each mission, but because of the attitude of the men who flew these missions.

Apollo 8 was supposed to be a mission to go up with the lander (LEM) and work with it in space. But they were having a lot of problems with the LEM, it was always too heavy, or something was broken, or any one of a million details had yet to be worked out. The first trip around the moon was supposed to come later, and as such, some of the technology just wasn't ready yet.

But NASA approached the Apollo 8 crew, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders with the idea of moving their mission way up in the time-line. As was the mindset of those days, nobody said no to anything, so the crew said sure. I read later that they all looked at each other later and said this is crazy. You might recognize Lovells name as he was the mission commander on Apollo13. What is not commonly known is that he was an amateur astronomy buff, navigator, and knew how to use a sextant. This is one of the keys to the mission success as the navigation computer was not functioning correctly. Computer is really not quite the term to use as a child's toy today has much more computing power than what was available in those days.

So Apollo 8 was mounted with a sextant in the side of the capsule, and as these 3 men made their trek from Earth to the moon, they would plug in the calculations on the nav computer, then take a sextant sighting. The nav computer would spit out crap half the time, and Borman and Anders would look at Lovell and say "What do you think Jim?" So between Lovell, the ground team keeping tabs on their track, and good old fashioned navigation, they entered the moon orbit.

This was particularly tricky. You come into orbit too low, and the light gravitation pulls the ship into the ground. You come into orbit too high, and you don't get the necessary slingshot effect to achieve orbit and go hurtling out someplace into space. Of the two errors, I would vote ground. I don't think I would like to be on a oneway trip to who knows where with no way home until the air ran out.

The details of this mission are played out pretty well in the great HBO series "From the Earth to the Moon". There is a scene that show mission control and the old footage of the actual mission. It look similar to the photo here:

What is not shown in this photo is the simple graphical representation of the mission, the figure 8 out from earth, around the moon and back to earth. At the top of the status board are to clocks, EOS (end of signal) and AOS (Aquasition of signal). This represented the time that Apollo 8 would be transition the back of the moon, and the first time we had ever been out of contact with a capsule. The EOS counter starts counting upward, and the AOS starts counting downward to their best guess as to when Apollo 8 reaches the clear side of the moon and regains communications. The time goes to zero on the AOS clock, and mission control starts trying to contact them. You hear over and over "Apollo 8 this is mission control, do you read over?" And you can see the body language in the room. Heads are dropping, people are looking at each other like whats going on, or shit something has happened. Then finally, Apollo 8 answers. They had entered the moon orbit on the far outside of the orbit path, so had taken longer than anybody though to make it around.

To me, this was an amazing feat, and one that required more than just a bit of courage. Guys with big brass ones flying off to another planet with toys to guide them there and back. Just incredible.

There are a couple of interviews with some of the Apollo astronauts around that you might catch this week, and almost to a man they think we should be aiming higher, trying to go farther. The romantic space junky in me would agree, but the practical side of me thinks that there are not enough people in the program now days that are like these guys. These people had an exceptional skill set, and came up through the ranks beating out others who had great skills also.

Then, these people became the ones in charge. Not a managerial specialist who only knows how to run a spreadsheet. And to me, that is the biggest reason that I think we will not only never make it to mars or further, but never even return to the moon.

So thanks you guys for making this young boy a dreamer, even if he did have big thick glasses, and never stood a chance at making it off this planet. But boy what I would give for a chance!


  1. I can still remember watching coverage of Apollo 11 in Minnesota when I was 5 years old. We were at my uncle's house and he, my brothers and dad were cheering.

  2. I loved the "From The Earth To The Moon" series and especially the Apollo 8 episode.

  3. Those guys in the space program where some seriously gutsy bad-asses. Still are.

  4. They did not have the technology at the time to survive traveling through the radiation belt that surrounds the earth, or to survive the drastic temperature changes from hot to cold on the moon. I'm sorry to be a bubble burster, but the whole thing was staged for political reasons. I'm not saying they never went up in space, but they didn't get very far. We never landed on the moon.

  5. JJ:I think there were more TVs tuned into that broadcast than at any other time.

    SG: It was fantastic, wasn't it?

    Jay: Yep, they are still gutsy.

    Diane: Sorry, I can't agree with you on this.

  6. DAMMIT. I missed it. I wasn't born in time.


  7. Anonymous4:02 PM

    Didn't know about that sextant. Amazing to think that the astronauts relied on the very thing that got de Gama, Columbus, and Magellan where they needed to go.

  8. I am STILL amazed that there are people going to and living in space.

    I will be so sad when the shuttle program ends. I love watching them go off. It never gets old! Unlike you ;P. Love ya mean it. ;)

  9. I was a news junkie as a little one (some things never change), so I was feeling the nostalgia over Uncle Walter this week. In a way it's kind of fitting that they would occur together.
    That part of us never gets old, SD!! That's what keeps us young. ;)

  10. Space geek, space geek! You should make up a space geek trivia challenge on FB.