Tag Archives: Apollo

Ineffable Images of the Space Age

by Shane L. Larson

The arrival of each new year always engenders a brief moment of reflection on how we all would like to improve and change our lives, and very often with a recounting of how transitory life actually is.  I was reminded of this yesterday when I was reflecting on the sad fact that on December 21, astronaut Bruce McCandless II passed away at the age of 80. He was a Naval Academy graduate who joined NASA in April 1966 as part of Astronaut Group 5.

McCandless joined NASA during the Apollo era, but never flew until the Space Shuttle era, logging 312 hours on two flights: STS-41-B aboard Challenger in 1984, and STS-31 aboard Discovery in 1990. It was on his first flight that he gained notoriety: he made the first untethered spacewalk in history, flying the MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit) some 300 feet away from the Challenger. The image of McCandless, flying free over the Earth, has become one of the most iconic images of the Space Age.

Bruce McCandless, flying the MMU about 300 feet from the space shuttle Challenger during STS-41B in 1984. It was the first untethered spacewalk in history. [Image: NASA]

There is something timeless and awe-inspiring about this image. What is it? Is it the ever-blue curve of the Earth behind him? Is the loneliness of a single human, flying in the void far from any others? Is it the thrill of the the adventure or a surge of voyeuristic fear, the “fun thrill” letting your mind roll around how you would feel in that same situation? I think it is a little bit of all of those. Just show the image to some friends at your next dinner party and ask, “Would you do that?” or “Can you imagine?” and listen to the direction of the conversation!

When McCandless made his historic untethered spacewalk, I was in high school and dreamed of being an astronaut. I didn’t become an astronaut, and likely will never travel to space, but the dream lingers in my mind and surges forward every time I see images like this one.  This isn’t the only image from the Space Age that has such an effect on me. Some photographs, some moments suspended in time on celluloid or pixels, somehow capture ephemeral emotions that are indescribable by any other means.

Many such photographs come from the astronauts themselves. Astronauts have had a singular, unique experience that is transformative to their consciousness. Nothing molds a person’s worldview more dramatically than first hand experiences, there are no first hand experiences quite like those of the astronauts. They have seen the Cosmos, seen the world, from a perspective that the rest of us can only catch elusive glances of in stunning photographs delivered from the shoals of space.

Take a look at this photo. Almost exactly 49 years before Bruce McCandless passed away, the crew of Apollo 8 made the first voyage from the Earth to the Moon. They completed ten orbits around the Moon, and on their fourth orbit were the first humans ever to see the Earth emerging from behind the Moon — the first Earthrise ever witnessed by the human species.

“Earthrise” shot by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on 24 December 1968. A recreation of the moment, with mission audio has been created by Goddard Spaceflight Center [Image: NASA]

The world first saw the image in the 10 January 1969 issue of Time Magazine, burning it indelibly into our collective consciousness.

Like so many moments captured on film and revisited with reverence and awe, the Earthrise photo was taken by chance; Apollo 8 just happened to be rolling at the moment, and the image just happened to be visible through the tiny windows on the front of the capsule. In retrospect, the moment could have been predicted, but every story told of that moment when Apollo 8 rounded the limb of the Moon describes the first sight of the Earth as an unexpected and ineffable moment — the first time in human history that we had ever seen our world in Cosmic context, behaving in relation to the rest of the Universe in ways that our minds had only previously considered for other worlds.

One of the most famous pictures returned from the Apollo missions was of Buzz Aldrin’s bootprint in the lunar soil, made and imaged by Aldrin to record the properties of the lunar soil. [Image: NASA]

Just seven months later, Apollo 11 made the first crewed landing on the surface of the Moon, leaving humanity’s first footsteps on another world. Buzz Aldrin famously took a photograph of his bootprint on the Moon to illustrate the behaviour of the lunar surface soil; it is an image that is universally recognized as being from our first journey to another world. Most of us have made footprints, in snow or mud or soft dirt. Often alongside many other footprints, a cacophony of shapes and patterns, each one a remnant of a journey from somewhere to elsewhere. The next time we cross that particular trail or particular riverbank, the prints have changed and tell new tales of new journeys. But the footprints on the Moon are different — so far, there are only 12 sets of prints, laid down five decades ago by the few humans who crossed the gulf. And they will persist for millions of years, untold aeons beyond my life and your life and the times in which we live. If some future traveller should happen upon them, perhaps laying down their own prints alongside, what will they know of the journey that first left the prints there? Will they know of Aldrin’s famous footprint, and cast about debating which one was The Print? Or will they have utterly forgotten us and these days, the remains of Apollo on the Moon just curious forgotten relics of a civilization wiped away by time? What will they remember and know of us?

After 21 hours and 36 minutes on the surface of the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin lifted off to rejoin Michael Collins, who had remained in lunar orbit. On their approach to dock with Collins, he snapped this picture of the lunar module over the surface of the Moon, with the Earth in the background sky. Collins famously remarked that this photograph was a picture of every person in the human race, except him. What a stunning observation, a perspective that reflects how small and alone we all can be in the face of the immensity of the Cosmos.

Apollo 11 image of the Earth and Moon behind Lunar Module Eagle, carrying Armstrong and Aldrin back from the lunar surface to command module Columbia. Michael Collins, aboard Columbia, noted that this was a picture of every human being except him. [Image: NASA]

Such images are not confined to cameras held by humans. Over the past six decades, we have hurled many robots into space, mechanical emissaries designed to carry our senses to places we cannot easily visit ourselves. Among that mechanical flotilla are eight explorers sent into the outer reaches of the solar system, to visit the giant, gaseous planets and even tiny Pluto. Among them is an 800 kilogram spider of wires, foil, antennae and cameras called Voyager 1. Today it is still faithfully travelling outward, gently probing the space around it to map out the invisible bubble that defines here, the neighborhood of the Sun, from there, the wildlands of interstellar space.  On 14 February 1990, a little more than nine years after its encounter with the planet Saturn, Voyager 1 was commanded to make one last photographic survey of the neighborhood it came from — a Family Portrait of all the worlds of the Sun.  Turning inward one last time, it snapped off sixty frames. Laid side by side, one over the next, the last pictures from Voyager built a unique and humbling portrait of our homeworlds.

Voyager 1’s family portrait of all the planets of the solar system. [Image: NASA]

Buried on one of these frames is a pale point of light, small and blue, easy to miss in the flared light of the Sun bursting though Voyager’s lens. That’s the Earth, our home in the vastness of the void. That small meager point of light inspired Carl Sagan to write one of the most poignant and eloquent  assessments of human nature ever penned. The “Pale Blue Dot” soliloquy can be found in the book of the same name, but in one of the great magics of the modern age, a recording of Sagan reading it has been found and preserved; it is as moving to listen to as it is to stare at the delicate fleck of light captured by a simple robot from 6 billion kilometers away.

The Pale Blue Dot; an image of Earth from Voyager 1’s “Family Portrait” sequence, and arguably one of the most famous pictures ever taken of Earth, noted for showing the smallness of the Earth in the immensity of the Cosmos. [Image: NASA]

When leafing through stacks of images from the Space Age, I’m struck by one very clear fact: there are no boundaries to the grandeur and ineffable wonder that can be captured on film. Each frame, each snapshot, each pixel, is a gift to future generations, a record of what we attempted, a record of what we aspired to, a record of what we risked during this time in history. On most days achievements like this stand in stark contrast with the lows our civilization has sunk to, and it is difficult to understand how both can be the legacy of the same species.

Some people look at images like these, and are nonplused. For them I weep. I hope they find wonder and awe in some other visions of the world, because the emotions and exhultations that these images evoke hearken to something deep in the soul, something I think we have lost in the modern morass of social media, reality TV, consumerism, and soundbites that claim to capture the quintessence of life. There is something deep and abidingly important in being able to see and experience amazing things and tremendous accomplishments, even in the face of serious and possibly overwhelming challenges to our way of life and our future on this planet. It provides a focal point for our aspirations to be better. It provides a poignant bludgeon of hope for the better selves that we aspire to be.

Other people look at these images, and all they see are dollars spent on endeavours they regard as frivolous. I can’t help but feel agony at such narrow visions of the world. In no small way, today’s world was made by these images. Not the images themselves, of course, but the thousands and thousands and thousands of hours of problem solving, prototyping, invention, innovation, creativity, and imagination required to make every one of these possible. We didn’t strap a gazillion dollars onto the side of Voyager and catapult it into space. We paid an army of engineers and as a result fed their families and sent their kids to school. We created entire new technologies, birthed companies that today make the backbone of the trillion dollar aerospace industry. We inspired a generation of children who wanted to be astronauts, but became enamoured with science and went on to become computer scientists, cancer specialists and brain surgeons, molecular biologists, ecological physicists, and aerospace engineers. I bet if you talk to many of today’s technical professionals, there is a time in their past where they swooned over pictures of the Moon.

The point is pictures are just one small return on each of the investments that were made to send people to the Moon, or to send a robot into the depthless void of space. Maybe you don’t think they’re interesting or the cost was worth it, but consider this: these are pictures we unfailingly recognize and know of — that simple recognizability is an indicator of the intrinsic and often unspoken value we as a society put on these ephemeral moments, captured forever as a frozen memento of places we once visited and knew and experienced.

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An Evanescent Memory of Exploration

by Shane L. Larson

On February 27, 2011, Frank Woodruff Buckles passed away at the age of 110.  Frank was the last surviving American veteran of World War I. The United States was in the war for 19 months.  In that time 116,000 Americans were killed, and more than 204,000 wounded.  In totality, more than 16.5 million people were killed during the four years of the war.  At the time, it was called “The Great War” because until World War II, no one could imagine a more terrible conflict or a more terrible cost in human lives.  With Frank’s passing, the United States’ involvement in the devastating conflict passes from direct experience into memory.  No longer will the Great War be relayed through the eyes of one who saw it; instead, it will be relegated to the history books, and spoken of from the dry voice of history like the War of 1812 and the Spanish American War.

In 1901, the year of Frank’s birth, a young 19 year old named Robert Goddard had started indulging his passion for aerodynamics, a passion that would ultimately lead him into the field of rocketry.  In 1914, the first year of The Great War, Goddard was awarded two of the first patents in rocketry, cementing ideas that would lead to the space age and the human exploration of space.  As a young man, Goddard had been enchanted with the idea that humans might make a journey to space and visit other worlds using rockets. Goddard passed away in 1945 (3 weeks before the end of World War II), before the first rockets ever plied the vacuum of space. But ultimately his dream was realized, and between December of 1968 and December of 1972, nine voyages were made from the Earth to the Moon.  In all, 24 American astronauts made the journey across the gulf of space, and 12 walked on the surface of the Moon as part of Project Apollo.

Today, Project Apollo is 40 years gone, and of those 24 astronauts, 6 have died.  Of all the rest, none is younger than 74.  The only humans ever to leave the Earth and walk the shores of another world are slowly passing away, and soon, the memory of of the voyage to the Moon will also pass into history.  Project Apollo was arguably the greatest technological achievement in human history, an exploratory endeavour to carry humans beyond the confines of Earth that was many decades ahead of its time.  But here we stand today, 40 years hence, with no permanent human presence beyond our small blue marble, and no ambitions to go.  In June of this year, the space shuttle Atlantis will make her final flight, and America’s manned spaceflight technology program will come to an end.

As a society, we have let the wonder of those few evanescent moments of exploration slip away from us.  We have forgotten the grandeur of the Moon’s desolation, and let go of the memory that the exploration of beautiful places is good for the spirit.  Instead, we worry about the costs of projects like Apollo, and have whittled away our investment in exploration into almost nothing.  This deinvestment in exploration has been done with much political posturing and grandiose swaggering in the name of fiscal responsibility, but with a complete and callous disregard for what these programs cost and return to our country.

Project Apollo is often historically depicted as a political action, a demonstration of technological supremacy driven by the Cold War with the Soviet Union that had risen out of the ashes of World War II.  All told, the program employed 400,000 people and the United States invested $25.4 billion in the endeavour, approximately $65 for every man, woman and child currently living in the United States today.  For each of us, the cost of Project Apollo was only 16 cups of Starbuck’s coffee, less than a third the cost of an iPod, less than a monthly satellite TV bill, and only about 1/10th the average yearly cell phone bill of a typical US citizen.  These are easy cost comparisons to make, and probably a bit misleading because let’s face it: most three year olds don’t have cell phone plans, though quite a few watch quite a bit of satellite TV.  The truly misleading part of these cost comparisons is that they only represent the money saved out of pocket, and do not consider the economic returns of the program — when the fiscal axe is dropped on programs like Apollo, the economic returns are usually totally ignored.

Consider the Apollo Lunar Module.  Before Apollo, nothing as complicated as the Lunar Module had ever been constructed, nor had any machine ever been built with such stringent design requirements.  NASA and their industry partners spawned a new technology known as CNC (“computer numerical control”) machining to make the parts for the moonships.  Today, CNC machines are standard pieces in every precision machine shop in America.  Conservative estimates suggest that there are about 75,000 machining firms in the United States, employing more than 200,000 machinists and generating gross revenues in excess of $37 billion per year.  In less than one year, the American economy uses Apollo derived technology to generate enough money to pay for the entire decade long investment in Apollo.

In order to keep the spacecraft warm on the voyage from the Earth to the Moon, NASA had to develop a metal-bonded polyurethane foam insulation.  After the end of Apollo, this same foam was used to insulate the Alaskan Pipeline, keeping the oil temperature high enough that it remains fluid on the long journey from Prudhoe to Valdez.  This has allowed the production and delivery of 16 billion barrels of oil since 1977, with a gross revenue of $710 billion.  In the almost forty years since the end of Apollo, this single piece of technology has returned to the US economy more than 25 times the entire decade long cost of the Apollo program.

These are only two examples out of many technologies that have quietly infiltrated everyday life since the last walkers left the Moon.  The technology derivatives from the space shuttle program are just as numerous and have borne just as much economic benefit.  The ultimate return from America’s space program is probably incalculable, both in terms of dollars and in terms of the less tangible threads of common memory.  It has yet to be understood what the absence of an American manned spaceflight program will do to our future.  Forty thousand generations of our ancestors have led us to this place in history.  We have demonstrated the ability to transcend the limitations of the tools Nature gave us to climb trees and walk the savannah and instead journey beyond the confines of Earth using the foresight and computational power of our brains.  But that same mental tool is squandering all of our long and proud heritage, forgoing the memory of all that could be attained in favor of short term political gains without regard to the wider consequences of those actions.

On the voyage home from the Moon in April of 1972, mission commander John Young remarked, “We have seen more in 10 days that most people would see in 10 lifetimes.”  In the past 10 days, how much of your life has flashed before your eyes?  How deeply has your memory of what you did yesterday changed the world?  As the Apollo astronauts slowly succumb to time’s inevitable march, what becomes of those memories of walking on the Moon?  When the last Apollo astronaut dies, no longer will the voyage from the Earth to the Moon be relayed through the eyes of those who saw it.  Instead, we leave to our children images of the fantastic voyage from the pages of a history book, hoping fervently that their imaginations and creativity will be inspired by the memory of 12 pairs of boots that once walked the surface of another world.