Category Archives: space

Six things you may not know about NASA

NASA turned 60 on October 1, 2018 and last weekend the Museum of Flight hosted a talk by the agency’s chief historian, Bill Barry, as part of the anniversary celebration. Since we all know about the Moon landing, the space shuttle program, explorations of the planets, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, and various NASA research and discoveries, Barry focused his talk on six things you may not know about NASA.

#6: NASA science data saved us from disaster

In a day and age when there’s significant distrust of science, it’s interesting to note NASA’s role in solving a difficult environmental problem. Researchers as early as the late 1950s noticed that there was a depletion of ozone in the atmosphere above the South Pole, but it was difficult to document.

Bill Barry

NASA chief historian Bill Barry gave a talk at the Museum of Flight Oct. 6, 2018 celebrating the 60th anniversary of the creation of the agency. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Barry explained that NASA used the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) on the Nimbus 7 weather satellite to confirm and map the hole in the ozone.

“It was pretty clear that the ozone hole was big and getting bigger,” Barry said, and that got people’s attention. Scientists postulated that the ozone depletion was caused by chemical reactions with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) such as refrigerants and spray-can propellants, but again it was tough to prove. Observations made from NASA’s ER-2 aircraft and DC-8 Flying Laboratory eventually confirmed that the CFCs were the culprit.

This led to an amazing act of international cooperation on an environmental issue. In the Montreal Protocol in 1987 nations agreed to phase out CFCs and other ozone depleting substances. It’s working; Barry noted that the ozone is gradually recovering.

“Demographers suggest that this action saved us at least two million cases of skin cancer,” since then, he said.

#5: NASA almost didn’t happen

At the dawn of the space age, after Sputnik, the military became keenly interested in spy satellites and possible space weaponry. US Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with the aim of collaborating with academic, industry, and government partners on military programs involving space.

Dryden

Hugh Dryden was director of NACA from 1947 until NASA was formed in 1958. Photo: NASA

In the meantime over at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) director Hugh Latimer Dryden had pushed the committee’s research agenda toward high-speed flight and space research. In January 1958 he wrote a key report suggesting that space efforts be a collaboration between the DOD, NACA, National Academy of Science, research institutions, universities, and industry. That’s pretty close to the ARPA mission, with a civilian bent.

Barry said that within about a month of the issuance of Dryden’s report, President Dwight Eisenhower went along with it, and sent Congress proposed legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. Congress soon approved it.

In the early days of the collaboration there was still arm wrestling over control. A memo from Eisenhower directed that NASA would run all programs “except those peculiar to or primarily associated with military weapons systems or military operations.” The DOD took a broad definition of that—figuring putting people in space was military and so that was within their bailiwick. Eisenhower intervened to clarify that the legislation made NASA a largely civilian organization.

“This key decision on Eisenhower’s part was really important,” Barry said. “NASA in some ways has become the world’s space agency, one of the most positive aspects of US international relations,” and the civilian nature of the agency is vital to that.

#4: NASA is a serial creator of new industries

Barry pics

Barry said smartphone cameras with CMOS chips may be as good or better than DSLR cameras, so we put it to the test. Smartphone pic is on the left. Problems may be due to operator error! Photos: Greg Scheiderer

There’s a common belief that Tang, Teflon, and Velcro were creations of the space program. Barry said those aren’t correct, but a lot of other stuff has NASA origins. Excimer lasers developed for ozone detection proved useful for laser surgery, for example, and the complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chips in your smartphone camera were originally developed to build a better camera for space probes. Oddly, those never flew, but they’ve taken off here on Earth. NASA’s annual Spinoff magazine highlights stuff that originated in the space program.

Beyond those, NASA has spun off entire industries. Weather satellites and communication satellites (now a $2 billion/year industry) came from NASA. Under COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) companies such as SpaceX and Boeing are building crewed vehicles and plan to begin testing next year.

“We hope by the end of next year to be launching US astronauts from Florida again up to the International Space Station and paying American companies to do it for us,” Barry said.

#3: NASA revolutionized the understanding of the universe

One’s first response to that is, “Well, duh!” but Barry said it’s easy to take for granted what has happened over the last 60 years.

“We don’t often think about how much things have changed since 1958 when NASA was created,” he said. Sixty years ago otherwise sane people thought there may be civilizations and canals on Mars and dinosaurs on Venus. They figured the outer solar system was just boring ice. There were nine planets; we now know that virtually every star has at least one. We had no idea the Van Allen Belts existed. Now we have a photo of the cosmic microwave background.

#2: Why did we go to the Moon?

President John F. Kennedy wasn’t actually that big on space; in early speeches after he was sworn in he kept proposing that the US and Soviet Union team up on space projects.

The Soviet Union wasn’t too keen on that. They were using the success of their space program to proclaim the superiority of their system and to recruit allies in a world that had been “decolonized” after World War II. The Soviets were winning the propaganda war. JFK wanted a way to beat them without breaking the bank.

Trailing in the game, Kennedy moved the goalposts and declared the race to the Moon.

“The Soviet Union’s success in space was a major strategic strategic problem for the United States,” Barry explained, “so investing money in going to the Moon was a way to prove that the western, capitalist model of government was, in fact, at least as good as if not better than the Soviets.”

#1: The race to the Moon was closer than you think

JFKJFK made his speech to Congress about setting the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” in May of 1961, shortly after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. It wasn’t until years later, with President Lyndon Johnson pushing the goal as Kennedy’s legacy, that the Soviets took notice.

“It’s really obvious by the summer of 1964 that the US was serious about going to the Moon and had the political will and the money to make it happen,” Barry said.

The Soviet response was the Zond program. They wouldn’t orbit the Moon, but would instead fling their spacecraft around it and then return to Earth.

The Soviets made five Zond launches in 1968 had a few successes. Zond 5 in September took some tortoises and other life forms along and landed back on Earth, though in the Indian Ocean rather than on land as intended. Zond 6 made the trip and landed on target in Kazakstan, but its heat shield failed. Tests weren’t going well on the N-1 rocket, the Soviet counterpart to the Saturn V that would be their way of launching people to the Moon. In December 1968 Apollo 8 and three US astronauts orbited the Moon.

“It was pretty clear they weren’t going to get their guys on the surface of the Moon before we did,” Barry said. But the Soviets didn’t give up. They sent up a Hail Mary.

The Soviets had been launching Luna spacecraft since the late 1950s, and in the space of six months they cobbled together a robotic craft that would land on the Moon, collect a few rocks, and bring them to back Earth.

A first launch attempt failed, but Luna 15 blasted off three days before Apollo 11. The Eagle got to the Moon first. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did their Moon walk and were catching a few winks before launching to return to the command module Columbia.

“While they’re sleeping in the lunar module the Soviets fired the retro rockets on Luna 15 and landed on the surface of the Moon. It crashed,” Barry said. But he added that if it had landed successfully, the Soviets may well have been able to get their Moon sample back to Earth first.

“The race to the Moon ends July 20, 1969 after the first Moon walk actually happened,” he marveled. “It was that close.”

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Exploring the solar system with Emily Lakdawalla

Emily Lakdawalla gushes with enthusiasm about the cool things to see and learn in our solar system, and for her that would be reason enough to explore those places.

“I’m just curious,” she told the Rose City Astronomers at their most recent meeting in Portland. “I like to see the new places, I like to see the planets. I think it’s awfully fun, but that’s not a good reason to make somebody else pay for it.”

Lakdawalla

Emily Lakdawalla (Isabel Lawrence/Planetary Society)

Lakdawalla, senior editor and planetary evangelist for the Planetary Society, said the public policy reasons for exploration are to answer the questions of how we got here and whether we’re alone in the universe. We need to find those answers off-planet.

“Earth is a wonderful planet to live on!” she said. “It’s my favorite planet; it’s temperate, it’s a very comfortable place to live. It’s also a terrible place to try to answer these questions from a planetary science point of view.”

That, she says, is because Earth is dynamic. Forces like weather and volcanism and even life and evolution change things and mess up the ancient evidence about how things were before. We need to go to space to find territory in a more undisturbed state.

After the first wave of planetary exploration, with Viking, Mariner, and the like, enthusiasm and political will and funding for planetary exploration waned. Lakdawalla explained that the Planetary Society was founded in 1980 to be an advocate for finding the answers. We’re now enjoying a second wave of exploration.

“Since the end of the second millennium, we’ve had this amazing expansion of robotic space explorers all over the solar system,” Lakdawalla said. She talked about many of them, with a particular emphasis on Mars. This is squarely within her bailiwick, as she is the author of the book The Design and Engineering of Curiosity: How the Mars Rover Performs Its Job (Springer Praxis Books, 2018).

She explained how a series of Mars missions followed the water. Mars Global Surveyor made a map. Mars Odyssey detected evidence of hydrogen by analyzing neutron movement, and hydrogen could mean water. Phoenix went to look for water and found ice. Mars Express found places where there’s clay, evidence of water, in many places. Curiosity went to one of those places.

“Curiosity has found environments on Mars that are unequivocally habitable,” Lakdawalla said. “Curiosity is not capable of looking for fossil evidence of microbial life on Mars. It doesn’t have the instruments.”

While Curiosity continues its mission, Lakdawalla said we’ve pretty well exhausted this particular line of research.

“We have found that, yes, Mars could have originated life in the past, but we can’t tell you if there was life there or not,” she said. That question will be up to the next line of rovers, such as the ESA’s ExoMars and NASA’s Mars 2020.

Lakdawalla spent some time on the outer solar system, particularly the life possibilities on the jovian moons Ganymede and Europa and Saturnian moons Titan and Enceladus. She noted that on Titan the temperature is such that methane could exist on the surface in liquid, gas, or solid forms, much as water can exist on Earth. The Huygens probe found round rocks on Titan, a significant discovery for a geologist.

“We have a river, except it’s a bizarro river,” Lakdawalla said. “Those rocks are made of water ice, and the river they were tumbled in was a methane river. It’s so familiar and so completely bizarre.” She said it’s hard to say if life could exist in that strange environment. Another reason for further exploration!

Lakdawalla said she’d love to see a mission soon to either Uranus or Neptune.

“They don’t get enough respect,” she said. “I think they’re awesome worlds.” But remembering her statement that coolness alone isn’t enough of a reason for the trip, she noted that the ice worlds are at an intermediate size between the gas giants and the terrestrial planets.

“Most of the exoplanets that we have discovered in the last 30 years have been of this size,” Lakdawalla noted. “We’ve never studied up-close the ones in our own solar system except for one Voyager 2 fly-by. We don’t understand these worlds very well at all, so how are we going to understand the rest of the universe and all of these other planets orbiting all of these other stars?”

Lakdawalla concluded that it’s a great time to be in the planetary exploration business.

“We’re doing it for a reason; we’re trying to understand how we got here, whether we’re the only life in the solar system,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful field of study.”

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Apollo 11 command module amazes in St. Louis

We tend to remember where we were at the time of major historical events, like when we found out that Elvis was dead or when a gimpy Kirk Gibson hit that home run against Dennis Eckersley to win the first game of the 1988 World Series. For space geeks and for anyone over age 56 or so, the ultimate such shared experience has to be when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon. Estimates are that up to 600 million people worldwide and more than 130 million in the US alone watched the Moon landing on live television.

Apollo 11 Columbia command module

Your correspondent with the Apollo 11 command module Columbia last month at the St. Louis Science Center. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Thus, it was a thrill for me to recently stand about a foot away from an amazing piece of space exploration history, the Apollo 11 “Columbia” command module, at the St. Louis Science Center. Columbia hadn’t left the Smithsonian since doing a national tour in the early 1970s, but the historic space capsule is part of a touring exhibit called Destination Moon that will visit four cities before returning to the National Air and Space Museum as part of a new comprehensive Apollo exhibit. The tour started last year in Houston and the St. Louis stop wraps up Sept. 3, 2018. It will be on display in Pittsburgh starting later this month and then—get this!—its final stop on the tour will be the Museum of Flight in Seattle, where it will be on display beginning in March for a stay that will include the 50th anniversary date of the Moon landing. Huzzah!

The Destination Moon exhibit is great, with lots of information about how we got there, who the key players were, and why we did it. But the Columbia capsule was just completely mesmerizing, at least for me. I was a total space nut kid, kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings of stories about the space flights, and was glued to the TV for launches and landings. Standing next to Columbia took me back to my almost-12 self. I dare say I was giddy in its presence. I spent a couple of hours in the exhibit, mostly just looking at this fabulous artifact.

There were a couple of other cool items in the exhibit. Aldrin’s helmet and gloves used on the Moon were there, as was a sample collection case in which he and Armstrong stowed their Moon rocks. They also have one injector plate from an Apollo engine, of they type around which the Museum of Flight has built its popular Apollo exhibit. Columbia’s escape hatch is on display separately from the capsule. There a collection of gear such as first-aid items and a survival kit in case the capsule splashed down far away from its target upon return to Earth. And, oh yes, there’s a Moon rock, too. Interestingly enough, I saw Moon rocks at both the St. Louis Science Center and Adler Planetarium in Chicago during a recent trip to the Midwest, and visitors showed little interest in either. THAT’S A HUNK OF THE MOON FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! OK, rant over. Maybe that’s not a big thing in the age of virtual reality and interactive exhibits. Alas.

Elsewhere in the St. Louis Science Center they have Mercury and Gemini capsules, too, and another current exhibit is Mission: Mars that is a lot of fun. The center is also home to the James S. McDonnell Planetarium, built in 1963 and named for the co-founder of McDonnell-Douglas, who kicked in a good chunk of change for equipment for the facility.

Membership has its priveleges; I got $1 off admission to Destination Moon thanks to my membership in the Museum of Flight. Parking would have been free had I driven, but I took public transit to the center.

Destination Moon will be at the Museum of Flight from April 13–Sept. 2, 2019. Check below for a trailer video, and for more of our photos from the exhibit.

Destination Moon

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Our favorite books and author talks of 2017

We created Seattle Astronomy because, given our region’s seemingly perpetual cloud cover, there were more opportunities to write about astronomy than to actually observe the night skies. We also read the writing of others, go hear them talk about it, and report back to you! Here are our top five author and book stories of 2017.

1. Treknology

Ethan Siegel’s new book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyageur Press, 2017) is a must for any Star Trek fan. As the title suggests, Siegel takes a look at a host of technologies imagined by the various Trek TV series and movies and weighs in on which have already come true, which are on the horizon, and which would still require some discovery. Siegel is reluctant to say something will never happen. Instead, with challenging technologies such as warp drive, he looks at the physics of how it could work and the challenges for bringing that to reality. Siegel isn’t just making this stuff up; he’s a theoretical astrophysicist and writes the blog and produces the podcast Starts With a Bang. Siegel has appeared several times on our pages. Find our article and podcast about Treknology, and our articles about his talks on gravitational waves and the expanding universe given to Rose City Astronomers in Portland, and his talk about dark matter at Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

2. American Eclipse

Former NPR science editor David Baron got the idea to write a book about solar eclipses way back in 1998 when he witnessed his first total solar eclipse from the beach in Aruba. He figured 2017 would be a good year to publish, when interest in the great American eclipse was at its peak. American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (Liveright, 2017) is the story of the 1878 totality that crossed the American frontier from Montana down through Texas, and it chronicles the efforts of Thomas Edison, Maria Mitchell, and James Craig Watson to view the eclipse. Baron credits the event for sparking a scientific boom in the United States. We just finished the book during a recent train trip and found it to be a marvelous and informative read. Baron spoke at Pacific Science Center in July. Check out our review of his talk.

3. The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far

Lawrence Krauss is a renowned author and theoretical physicist and cosmologist who packed Town Hall Seattle back in April for a talk about his book The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far: Why Are We Here? (Atria Books, 2017). We love it when someone can tackle particle physics without causing headaches, and Krauss nailed it with both his talk and the book. Krauss tells not just about the advances in physics over the years, but gives interesting insights about the creative processes that led to the discoveries. As an example, there are at least two cases in which amazing discoveries came when the scientists were sleep deprived because of the recent birth of children! Here’s our review of Krauss’s talk in Seattle. There’s a weak connection between Krauss and Ethan Siegel; one of Krauss’s earlier books is The Physics of Star Trek (Basic Books, 2007).

4. Vacation Guide to the Solar System

Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich created the “Intergalactic Travel Bureau,” and their book Vacation Guide to the Solar System: Science for the Savvy Space Traveler! (Penguin Books, 2017) is a travel brochure. Packed with information about what to see from Mercury to Pluto, the guide tricks us into learning something in an entertaining and beautifully illustrated format. They spoke at Town Hall Seattle in June. Here our recap.

5. Earth in Human Hands

David Grinspoon himself wonders how an astrobiologist such as himself wound up writing a book about the human impact on Earth. He figures the more we know about how planets work, the better we can be at making changes to the climate that are for the better. In Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future (Grand Central Publishing, 2016) Grinspoon notes that we aren’t the first species to radically change the planet’s climate; the humble cyanobacteria killed off just about everything else on Earth once by adding oxygen to the atmosphere. Grinspoon spoke at the Pacific Science Center last January; here’s our recap of his talk.

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Gift ideas for the astronomically inclined

It’s that time of year again when we start getting questions about what sorts of gifts to give to astronomy buffs. Here are a few great ideas for you.

Year of the eclipse

Eclipse map 2024

Map courtesy Michael Zeiler, GreatAmericanEclipse.com

A solar eclipse was visible all over the country back in August, and the path of totality stretched from coast to coast in the United States. Eclipse mementos would make excellent gifts this year. A great source for them is GreatAmericanEclipse.com, which has a wide selection of eclipse maps, attire, and accessories, and is running discounts this month. Plus it’s never too early to start gearing up for 2024’s eclipse! We interviewed mapmaker Michael Zeiler late last year about his work; check out the article and podcast based on that interview. Zeiler’s maps are gorgeous and suitable for framing.

Sorin Space Art out of Denver offers some marvelous items, including prints of Sorin’s solar eclipse photography. He’s also made some hand-painted tree ornaments depicting the Moon, Sun, and planets, but as of this writing he was running a bit short of supply on those. Sorin also is the proprietor of Astro Box, a quarterly subscription service that delivers space art, writing, apparel, and more four times each year. It’s a cool gift that keeps on giving.

Two Chicks Conspiracy offers a line of artistic belts and accessories. Several of their belts have space-themed designs, and they created a special key fob in commemoration of the 2017 total solar eclipse.

Books

Tyler Nordgren’s book Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets (Basic Books, 2016) was on our year-end gift list last year and remains a good pick this time around. It’s a combination of eclipse mythology and history, travelogue, and eclipse science, and is a fine read. Check out our review of the book and our recap of Nordgren’s author talk about it.

Another good read for eclipse year is David Baron’s American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (Liveright, 2017). Baron’s book is a look back at the American total solar eclipse of 1878 and in particular how main characters Thomas Edison, Maria Mitchell, and James Craig Watson led high-profile eclipse-viewing expeditions to the wild west that helped spark a national interest in science. Baron gave a talk about the book earlier this year. Here’s our recap.

Ethan Siegel‘s book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyageur Press, 2017) will please anyone who has been a fan of any of the Star Trek television shows or movies. Check our article and podcast with Siegel about Treknology.

Telescopes

Recommending a gift telescope is tricky business. I’ve written a number of past articles on the topic, and the ideas there still hold true. If you don’t know what to get, a great reference is the Backyard Astronomer’s Guide (Firefly Books, 2008) by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. It’s a marvelous book for walking one through the ‘scope-choosing process, based on one’s astronomical interests. I used it when I first started out in stargazing, and it’s still a valued reference years later.

If you want to get a first-hand look at a variety of different telescopes, including solar scopes that are designed for observing the Sun, it would be worth a trip to Cloud Break Optics in Ballard. They have quite a selection of ‘scopes in their show room and a lot of experience in stargazing and astrophotography. They’re also running a holiday blowout sale on both new and used gear. Cloud Break Optics is a patron of Seattle Astronomy on Patreon.

That said, I will let you know that the Orion eight-inch Dobsonian telescope is my personal scope of choice. It’s easy to use—just take it out to the back yard, point at something, and take a look! With its simple design it also delivers the most visual bang for the telescope buck. This telescope is really not for photography, though I’ve used it to get smartphone pictures of the Moon and the Sun. Other objects like galaxies or nebulae require longer exposures and that means a ‘scope that can track objects to compensate for the Earth’s rotation. That starts to run into a little money.

Binoculars are also a good gift for someone just starting out in astronomy. Get some that are at least 10x power and 50mm in aperture. I have a 10×50 outfit from Orion, and one can see a lot of neat stuff with a good set of binoculars.

Experiences

If you’d rather give experiences than stuff, how about a membership to a local organization? The Pacific Science Center, the Museum of Flight, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry often have space- and astronomy-themed exhibits and presentations. Memberships are a good value that keep on giving all year long!

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APOD: more than just pretty pictures

The Astronomy Picture of the Day is more than just a pretty photo. In fact, each of the featured images may well have more than a thousand words packed into it. You just need to drill down deeper into the site.

John McLaren, a NASA Solar System Ambassador and treasurer of the Seattle Astronomical Society, gave a presentation about APOD at the society’s meeting last week. He said the key to finding a wealth of information about celestial objects is dragging your eyes away from the pretty pictures long enough to notice the explanation of the photo and, more importantly, the submenu below it. McLaren uses this information when preparing presentations about astronomy for various groups.

“You can build a more complete story,” he explained. “There are good links here for education, for outreach, and home-schooling groups.”

You’ve probably noticed that the explanations of the photos use plenty of links to further information. Below the explanation there’s typically a set of “more on” links about objects or content. The real prize, though is in the index, a fully searchable listing of what’s on the APOD site.

That’s a lot of stuff. McLaren noted that the site was started by Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell when both worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The first posts were in June of 1995, and there have been more than eight thousand of them since. McLaren pointed out that when you look at the site, it is very 1995. There’s no flash or fancy moving menus. It’s pretty straight HTML, and the authors figured that changing things would run the risk of breaking a zillion links to APOD information.

Earth from Apollo 17

The Earth from Apollo 17
Picture Credit: NASA, Apollo 17, NSSDC

They don’t update the photos published, either. Clicking on each photo gives you the best version of it that they have. The one at left, a photo of Earth taken from Apollo 17 in 1972, was posted in the first week of APOD’s operation. When McLaren showed this photo on the big screen during his presentation, there was some laughter about its low resolution. He reminded us that in 1995 we were probably dialing in to the Internet with a 2400 baud modem, and that wouldn’t deliver the high-res goods in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed in our broadband world.

Click the “archive” link on each page and you’ll find a long scroll, day by day, of every APOD ever. The “index” link takes you to a menu of stars, galaxies, and nebulae, solar system objects, space technology, people, and the sky. Clicking on these will give you a handful of “editors’ choice” photos they consider to be the most educational on the chosen subject.

McLaren found this photo, the APOD of October 20, 2002, of the space shuttle docked with the Russian Mir space station in 1995. It made him wonder who took it. Was it the first known selfie?

Shuttle and Mir

The Space Shuttle Docked with Mir. Credit: Nikolai Budarin, Russian Space Research Institute, NASA

“Since it was the first docking, they wanted to get good information about how the two spacecraft functioned together,” McLaren explained. “So one of the Soyuz crews on Mir actually undocked their Soyuz spacecraft, did a fly-around, and observed the combination.” All of that was found by following the links on the photo page.

Astrophotographers who aspire to be published on APOD may well wish to check out its index of Messier objects. McLaren points out that many of the objects in the index are represented by numbers, not pictures.

“They don’t have photos of all the Messier objects posted yet, so if you submit a good color picture of them you may get your photo as the astronomy photo of the day,” he noted, which could lead to fame and fortune or at least bragging rights.

The search engine for the index is useful. Type in “Saturn rings” and it will find 200 items.

“There’s a wealth of information in there if you’re looking for something,” McLaren said.

So the next time you’re checking out the Astronomy Picture of the Day, remember that there’s a whole lot of knowledge lurking beneath those gorgeous photos.

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Breaking barriers in the early ’60s space program

NASA played a key role in the integration of the workforce of the south during the early 1960s, and a recent book tells the tale of how that came about and of the African Americans who were key participants in that movement. We Could Not Fail: The First African-Americans in the Space Program (University of Texas Press, 2015) was written by Richard Paul and Steven Moss. Moss spoke about the story last week at the Museum of Flight.

It wasn’t altruism that drove NASA. After President John F. Kennedy made his man-to-the-Moon speech in May of 1962, the agency and its contractors suddenly needed about a quarter of a million engineers and rocket scientists to achieve that goal. They couldn’t afford to discriminate. In fact, Moss pointed out that Vice President Lyndon Johnson made a speech in Seattle in 1962 about NASA recruiting the best talent regardless of race. JFK knew getting the Civil Rights Act passed would not be a speedy process, but he made an executive order to address discrimination in federal employment. It was essentially the first mention of equal employment opportunity.

Policy doesn’t always make it to the streets immediately. Moss said that Houston Power and Light actually turned off the electricity to the Pelican Island Destroyer Base near Galveston, Texas because the utility didn’t approve of the nondiscrimination order. LBJ leaned on the local congressman, noting that if a naval base couldn’t be powered, Houston might not fare well in its efforts to land the Manned Spaceflight Center.

“The Navy got its power very quickly, and in September Houston got its space center,” Moss said.

NASA gets on board

Moss and Hawks

Author Steven Moss, left, and Harvey Hawks, a Museum of Flight docent, after Moss’s talk June 14 about the book We Could Not Fail. Hawks said during the Q&A period that, though he didn’t try to work for NASA, he faced similar challenges after graduating with an aeronautical engineering degree in 1963. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

At the start of this process in 1962 NASA was near the bottom of federal agencies in the hiring of African Americans. That began to change quickly, but again it took political pressure. In May of 1963 Attorney General Robert Kennedy discovered that, despite a large African American population in Birmingham, Alabama, only 15 African Americans held jobs with the federal government there. Kennedy leaned on Johnson, who leaned on NASA administrator James Webb, who leaned on Wernher von Braun, who was head of the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“Over the next six weeks NASA does more to engage in the hiring of African Americans than it has at any other time in its history,” Moss noted. In October of 1964—just before the presidential election—Webb threatened to move management personnel out of Huntsville over the Alabama’s discriminatory policies.

“Qualified people—blacks and whites—refused to work at Huntsville,” Moss said. “They refused to go to Alabama because of its laws, because of its violence—not just its reputation, but the very real violence against people.”

They also had trouble keeping people there.

“The turn-around at Marshall was pretty high compared to some other places, because people just did not want to be there once they saw it,” Moss said.

Von Braun became something of a “point man” on civil rights, according to Moss. He made a visit to Miles College, a historically black institution, in November of 1964 for the opening of a new science building.

“Von Braun goes there and it is a very bold statement,” Moss said, “that (NASA) is going to stand up for civil rights and for the African American community.”

The other great stand happened at Marshall. Governor George Wallace was gearing up for a presidential run, and organized a tour of the facility in Huntsville, bringing 200 Alabama state legislators with him. Von Braun made sure to be there to speak against Wallace’s segregationist policies.

“He tells them that Alabama’s hope for industrial growth is jeopardized by its racial policies,” Moss said, “and he tells them that attracting and keeping the best people would succeed if Alabama offers the same opportunities as other states.”

“The only federal official that could stand toe to toe with George Wallace was Wernher von Braun,” Moss said.

Moss noted that von Braun likely didn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart. Through co-author Paul’s conversations with Mike Neufeld, a historian at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and specialist on von Braun, and their own research, they concluded that von Braun was completely driven by launching rockets, and would do what it took to keep that going.

The pioneers

Officialdom was slow to conquer Jim Crow and the Klan, which were still strong forces in the south. Much of the book is devoted to profiles of some of the African American pioneers who helped make it happen despite the barriers. Moss highlighted several of them during his talk.

Montgomery

Julius Montgomery (Photo: FIT)

Julius Montgomery was the first African American hired as a professional at Cape Canaveral. He was the first African American to sign up for classes at the Florida Institute of Technology, which at the time was known as Brevard Engineering College. He played a key role in integrating the college. Today FIT offers the Julius Montgomery Pioneer Award to African American students who make outstanding contributions to the community.

Clyde Foster promoted compliance with equal employment opportunity at NASA. He helped Alabama A&M in Huntsville start a computer science program. A great many of the African Americans who worked at NASA began their careers at A&M. Foster also convinced NASA to do advanced training in management there—before this it was nearly impossible for African Americans to get such training and advance their careers, because the sessions were held at segregated institutions or hotels.

Crossley

Frank Crossley. (Photo: We Could Not Fail on Facebook)

Frank Crossley was one of the first black Navy officers, and was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering.

“Although he was never a NASA employee, the work he did with metals and with alloys is significant for NASA’s success,” Moss said.

Charlie Smoot was hired by NASA as a recruiter. As an African American he could visit colleges and bring real information to prospective students about what it was like to be black and work for NASA. He organized presidents of black colleges and universities to help build a pipeline of qualified students.

George Carruthers is an astronomer who built the first observatory ever deployed on another celestial body, a UV telescope used on the Moon during the Apollo 16 mission.

Morgan Watson was one of NASAs first black engineers. Moss played a sound clip of an interview in which Watson gave what turned out to be the title of the book.

“We felt that the image of black people was riding on us as professionals,” Watson said. “We could not fail; we had go forward and do our best.”

“The pressure to succeed and the fear of failing was understood,” Moss noted.

In another clip Watson said that the space program changed the south by integrating African Americans into the workplace.

“By showing that there were black professionals that could do that,” he said, “it helped to break the walls down; it helped change people’s perception of black people in the south.”

As with the recent book Hidden Figures, Moss noted that the stories of the people he and Paul profile are not well known. In fact, they ran across cases in which the people’s own children or grandchildren had no idea of their accomplishments. Moss also said that, sadly, many of the African American NASA employees of the era are aging and in poor health, and were unable to participate in interviews.

We Could Not Fail promises to be a good read for the space history, but even more so for the stories of the courageous people who made that history.


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