Tag Archives: NASA

Astronauts Without Borders

Once upon a time not so long ago, the United States and Russia had a high-profile meeting that was a top news story. Unlike today though, this was not a shady circumstance that cast doubt on the inner dealings of each respective government, but rather helped to improve the relationship between two nations that had been engaged in a constant and bitter show of one-upmanship with nuclear proliferation. I’m talking about the Cold War. Nevertheless, 42 years ago on this date, July 17, 1975, the United States and Russia, then called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, set aside their differences, at least as far as the scientific community was concerned. As the preeminent superpowers of the world and the leaders in space exploration, the US and USSR arranged for an historic high five within the vacuum of space.

Contrary to what silly stories of moon crab monsters would tell you, there actually was an Apollo 18 mission. NASA had launched seven manned lunar landing missions with its Apollo program, successfully landing six of them (Apollo 13 had a bit of a snafu).  However, the final moon mission, Apollo 17, was not the last time a Saturn V rocket shot an Apollo craft into orbit. Apollo 18 was launched in conjunction with the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 19.

After there establishment in orbit, the two craft were lined up and then linked up, marking the first time that two craft from different countries and space agencies docked. The mission was orchestrated to serve as practice for potential rescues in the future.

The ABC coverage is pretty good at explaining the mission, but here’s the link if you want to watch the docking without the newscaster speaking.

Leave it to the men and women who work in science and especially the students of space to show us how meaningless political squabbles can be. We are all one species on the same Earth, and it is missions like this one that help us to realize that no matter whether we are on opposite sides of the world, or floating above it, we are at our best when we work together to advance our mutual pursuit of greater understanding of our place in space.

Thanks for reading and watching. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, launch them into my inbox at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Be sure to orbit back here next week for more out of this world fun.

I’m sure I’ve written that before and I don’t care,


Space Butt Joke

Happy Holi everyone! Also happy early Pi Day and the one with all the green stuff! Have an enjoyable and safe celebration of all you care to. I am kicking things off today, but not for the aforementioned Hindu spring festival of love (go ask Google). I am instead hoisting a cold one for the 236th anniversary of the discovery of Uranus!

The seventh planet in our solar system is the third largest behind Jupiter and Saturn respectively, although not the third heaviest. That weighty honor belongs to its slightly heavier and farther-from-the-sun neighbor Neptune (slightly is a relative term). Uranus was official discovered on March 13, 1781 by British astronomer William Herschel. This dude was an astronomy all-star (pun very much intended). Herschel is most well known for his determination that Uranus was a planet, but he also discovered some moons of Uranus and Saturn, did some studies on Mars’ seasonal shifts and rotation, was the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society, and, oh yeah, fucking found out that infrared radiation was a thing! William Herschel discovered a planet and a form of electromagnetic radiation on the light spectrum! I found $20 in a parking lot once, but something tells me his stuff will probably be longer remembered.

While Herschel was the first to conclude that Uranus was definitely a planet, he was not the first to spot it in the sky. Uranus can actually be seen with the naked eye and it is the farthest planet that can be seen without help from a optical device. It was the first planet official discovered with a telescope, and was the first planet to be discovered in modern history (as in this side of the Renaissance), however, it was noted by other previous astronomers on their surveys of the night sky, perhaps even possibly cataloged as far back as before the common era. Why then do we give credit to Herschel? Well, mainly because everyone who took a look at Uranus (shut up!) before him thought it was one of the many stars in the cosmos. Herschel, with the aid of his telescope was able to figure out the true identity of the shining celestial body, although, even he first assumed it was a comet, and not a planet. Hey, we all goof sometimes; at least he figured it out eventually.

As was the case with Uranus, modern technology (again, modern in the sense of being refined post-Renaissance) helped to uncover the existence of Neptune, Uranus’ next door neighbor. As a matter of fact, Neptune was not seen, but was first discovered because it was tugging on Uranus’ orbit (stop that childish laughter!) and the pull was correctly determined to be from another planet. We have since gotten a good look at both worlds with the aid of even more modern technology, specifically the NASA probe Voyager 2, which is the only spacecraft to have whizzed by either of the ice giants. That’s what Uranus and Neptune are considered, by the way. As both planets are massive and gaseous (all right, c’mon!) they are classified as giant planets, or jovian planets – Jove is another name for the Roman god Jupiter, which you’ll recall is the namesake of our solar system’s largest planet. Nevertheless, not all giant planets are gas giants. Gas giants, like Jupiter and Saturn, are composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, the lightest elements. Ice giants are mostly heavier elements like oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, none of which are astoundingly heavy, but are heavier than hydrogen and helium.

Uranus is comprised predominantly of water, methane, and ammonia, but don’t hold out hope for the presence of water being potential source of life as the temperature is too low. But hey! It’s axis of rotation is retrograde – as is Venus’ – which means that it’s north and south poles are along the Uranus equivalent of Earth’s equator meaning Uranus spins horizontally! That’s why its rings are shown to be perpendicular to traditional rotation planets with rings like Saturn. One of Uranus’ rotations (a Uranian day) is only 17 hours, but its orbit around the sun (a Uranian year) is roughly 84 Earth years.

Thanks for reading! If you want to learn more about Uranus (keep your composure for one more paragraph!) then check out the NASA site where I got much of my information. Send any questions, comments, or suggestions to monotrememadness@gmail.com, and orbit back here next week for more out of this world fun! That is not a promise of another space post… at least not immediately.



It’s a TRAPPIST-1!

It has been a week of star-studded news. Yes, there was that insane debacle at last night’s Academy Awards that saw the wildest finish to any Oscars presentation when the wrong movie was announced as the Best Picture. Actually, the wrong movie has been announced as Best Picture lots of times, as I discussed a few years ago, but in this case the movie that official won the award was only announced after the award had already been presented to the producers of another movie who were halfway through their acceptance speeches! For a fun and thorough wrap-up of all the action, check out the annual Screen Junkies Grouchies award show.

As bonkers as that was, and as interesting as I am in the goings-on of the film world, I am much more intrigued by what’s happening with another world. Seven, in fact. Moonlight is the least of my concerns when starlight and planetary transits creating shadows that our space telescopes can see are occurring.

For decades, numerous astronomers have been tirelessly searching for other worlds like ours throughout the universe. These exoplanets as they are called when they are outside of our solar system, are the key to further observing what the most common planets are like and how ours stacks up in the grand cosmic scene. Additionally, the search for Earth-like worlds give us a greater look at areas that may have the right pieces to harbor life. This can mean that we may discover the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on one of these worlds, and/or find another world suitable for future human habitation.

Last week, NASA revealed that such a solar system had been found with not one, but seven – yes, seven! – Earth-like planets orbiting around a small star. Three of the seven exoplanets are within the habitable zone for humans, also known as the Goldilocks Zone because its conditions are not too hot or cold, but just right for humans to live within. Most exciting of all though, this star system is but 12 parsecs, or about 39 lightyears away! Now while this is about 250 trillion with a “T” miles away from us, in relation to the massive scope of the universe as we know it, this is extremely close. A lightyear is as its name implies, the unit of distance that it takes light to travel in the span of one year. Light is the fastest moving thing we know in the observable universe, clocking in at around 299,792,458 meters per second, or 671 million with an “M” miles per hour. That’s pretty darn quick, and we couldn’t hope to match it with our current technology, and probably never will manufacture a real-life Millennium Falcon to exceed it, but it is very much within the realm of possibility for a spacecraft that can manage one-fifth (1/5) the speed of light to be made. In fact, such technology is currently being worked on.

Is this the dawning of the Age of Aquarius? Make no mistake, it will take some time for us to reach the recently discovered star, called TRAPPIST-1 after the terrestrial telescope in Chile that first found it in the constellation Aquarius. However, the great potential that this system and the exoplanets within it hold for the future of our species is tremendously exciting. I won’t get to go there in my lifetime, but maybe the great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren I’m not planning on having will start to see humans making their way toward landing on the TRAPPIST exoplanets, perhaps with the chance to colonize them. Much sooner within my lifetime, as in the next few years, we will probably know what the composition of the exoplanets’ atmospheres are made of and whether or not they contain oxygen, a biological marker that heralds the presence of living organisms. It at least seems likely that the exoplanets, which we know are rocky like our world and not gaseous like Jupiter, contain water, the liquid form of which is the necessary component to life, as you may have heard before. Who knows? Perhaps we may even have definitive proof of life outside of Earth unearthed within our remaining spins around the star we know and love best. Hopefully it’s less hostile than what Private Hudson experienced on LV-426. Game over, man! Rest in peace, Bill.

Thanks for reading! If you want to learn much more about the TRAPPIST-1 system than I can tell you then check out the ever reliable NASA webpage for continuing updates, as well as the beautiful and information-filled TRAPPIST-1 site found here. There is a great set of pages that detail everything from what we know of each exoplanet so far, and the timeline of the discovery. Be sure to check out the cute and colorful comic on the “Stories” page that features an astronomer rabbit explaining the find to her panda pal in terms that make it accessible (and fun) for us all. Send any questions or comments my way to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Make your way back here in a little less than one TRAPPIST-1f year (nine days!) for more fun and informative stuff.

To TRAPPIST-1 and Beyond!


Love and Science: A Match Made in the Creative Cosmos

Every once in a while I am reminded that love is the strongest emotional force in the universe (or multiverse; can’t discount that possibility especially with today’s focus), and one way that this is frequently presented is in film. Okay, it is so frequently presented in film that it essentially bashes us over the head with this message to the point that we almost ignore it. We hear so often that love is grand that we take it for granted. Love = Awesome is not a meaningful conclusion when diluted by the constant exclamation of this by every waking soul.

And yet… still I am reminded of what an unbelievably brilliant thing/feeling/power/whatever love is. Most recently I was reminded after a weekend with friends where I started off seeing the joy in my companions’ eyes as the night began. I truly realized what it all meant though as their pain, strain, anger, frustration, and fatigue started to emerge. Long story short, I returned to my area’s annual German-American Festival with the same and additional company as I went to it with last year when I had too much liquid fun and spent an unplanned night at a friend’s house. This year the plan was for me and others to stay at that friend’s house so that we could more completely and responsible enjoy the drunken debauchery, but I strayed from this plan. Fear not, I did not foolishly and irresponsibly drive home under the influence, but I did drive home. At the festival, we met some other friends and associates and as the group I came with made for the exit, I remained with another group I did not care as much about pretending to be far more intoxicated than I was in the hopes of unearthing an earthshaking revelation because a man deserves to know when the woman next to him is in the second trimester of her pregnancy with his child and still hasn’t shared this information with him. My brevity is hardly that, but by this point you are probably more intrigued by the ballad of my weekend.

I never fished out a confession (though the seed is planted and a question will be asked soon), although I did manage to piss off all of my friends I talked to that night, except the gay guys who did wonders for my self-esteem – thank you, Jeremy, I realize now that I am super cute! Everyone else left with some justified sourness towards me though:

  • My friends whose place I parked at were angry I was not going to stay with them and concerned I would get drunk and drive my car.
  • My friend who is still recovering from her decade-long only relationship ending a few months ago was sad that I shirked off her drunken advances and ignored our other friends’ pleas to stay at their house.
  • My friend who could not come until much later that I assumed would not come actually did by which point my phone had died leading to a number of confused, unanswered, and ultimately angry texts wondering where I was and why I wasn’t responding.
  • My coworker was certainly less than amused that I poured her boyfriend a continuous flow of Dunkel and questions as to why she was only drinking water and Gatorade.

In the end, I left alone and got physically lost in addition to the emotional and familial disconnect I was feeling. I did not have the use of the technological device that allows me to more easily navigate the map of my social life, as well as the physical path back to my car. I actually walked up and down the same street multiple times and passed by the one I needed to take a couple times before I got my bearings and got to my car. I left an empty pitcher and a written thank you at my friends’ door, but I should have left an apology for my separation and deception.

You’re probably feeling deceived by me now considering the title doesn’t point to an outpouring of emotion from my weekend excursion; that I’m just as bad as those fuckers who title Cracked videos. The point of this all, besides being healthy expression for me, is that I was again reminded of the power of love. Not by a fun, positive encounter, not by a movie, and not by Huey Lewis and the News, but by an occasion that saw me disappoint people who love me. The responses were all different, yet similar, and painful to endure. I coped, not by seeking these people out to mend our newly arisen issues, but by looking back to that screen that has shown me time and time again that love is the bestest. Solace was specifically brought to me from a friend I’ve never met, but I think you should check out his stuff because I really like what he does. His name is Mikey, and he likes movies.

Wonderfully critical in all the right and entertaining ways, Mikey nails the underlying themes that we miss in both blockbuster and obscure movies. Okay, yeah, he calls Donald (John Lithgow’s character) Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) father when he is in fact his father-in-law, but that’s as cosmically small a gripe as my annoyance with my friends who said they’d join the fray Saturday and stayed home. My admiration for Christopher Nolan’s brilliant space-based exploration of the end of humanity and one of the most beautiful father-daughter relationships ever put into story has been made clear in the past, but I’ve never discussed the critical point that is the role of love in this film. And I won’t because, again, Mikey nailed it. Suffice it to say, love is necessary in our every action, and science – something else I have not hidden my admiration for – is no exception. While we must remain objective when conducting study, we cannot become completely closed off as to why we are doing it. Love, passion, regard for one aspect of the pursuit of knowledge or another; we must  keep these in mind as well, careful never to be swayed too strongly by any, but always aware of the role they play. Gravity may be one of the most powerful physical force, but love is, as I said, the most powerful emotional force in the cosmos. Sure, they are places where gravity is not as strong, and love is not as present, but those are examples of areas where there is a lack of the respective force compared to others.

Mikey’s latest looks at cinema is the Interstellar video I included, but he has many others, including the first episode of his show I ever watched, which featured my favorite movie of last year:

Thanks for reading. Be sure to check out Movies with Mikey on his channel Chainsawsuit Original, and be sure to come back here next Monday for more fun of all sorts. I can be reached at monotrememadness@gmail.com in the meantime. Stay scientific, and may there always be love in your heart.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light,


Science for Your Senator

Hello! With the upcoming American election that is so much more than just a presidency (although it is immensely important for being one of those), I felt that it might be helpful to offer a template that others can use to send to their respective legislative representative(s) that warns of the dangers of what should be the most important and pressing bipartisan issue: global climate change.

Back during my junior year of undergraduate studies I took a class called Global Climate Change that focused on just that. We spent most of our time studying the science of the past and present to gauge the frightening future, but that is not all we did. Our professor, and essentially the rest of our Biology department instructors of all specialties, showed us some of the reasons why people ignore the science, and how it gets lost in the political shuffle of Washington D.C. or pushed to the back at best. One of our assignments was to compose a letter to our senator or congressman that contained a plea for supporting this scientific research and listening to it by making changes to curb our greenhouse gas emissions ASAP and facilitate generally greener lifestyles in America. The following is an updated version of the letter I wrote that I encourage you to use as either a template to base your own personal letter to your political representatives off of, or as a carbon copy (teehee, science joke) that you can fill in your appropriate information to.

Firstname Lastname

5555 Somewhere Street

City, OH 55555

Aug 22, 2016


Senator Sherrod Brown

1301 East Ninth St., Suite 1710

Cleveland, OH 44114


Dear Senator Brown,


My name is Firstname Lastname. I am a ?? year old from City, OH and a student in my current year at Local State University studying Biology / an employee at [Local Non-profit Org.]; [the law firm of Local and Legal]; [etc.]. Currently, I am taking a Global Climate Change class / independently researching global climate change and I have been learning about the effects of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on the global environment. I have learned a lot from the class / my research, however, most of what I have learned is extremely disconcerting. Based upon current projections put forth by scientists in peer-reviewed journals it will be a much warmer and far different world for my grandchildren. This is because GHGs raise the global temperature by thickening the atmosphere. And at the rate we are releasing GHGs, the temperature by the end of the century could increase to over 3°C higher than it is now, at the very least.

The most well known greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2). Since 1896, humans have been aware that CO2 affects the climate by raising the global temperature. The current level of CO2 is over 400 parts per million (ppm) the highest it has ever been since humans have lived on the Earth, and it is getting higher each day. Therefore, we have to do all that we can to reduce our CO2 emissions and the emissions of other GHGs. Easier said than done, I know, but it is more feasible than most in your position seem to assume. I feel that tax incentives and rewards to companies that do their part to reduce GHGs, as well as increased taxes on those that produce too much without making any effort to reduce, are necessary to ensure that companies conduct themselves in the most fuel efficient manner. The average American should also be encouraged to live a greener lifestyle, as well. Providing nationwide carpool lanes and switching the lights in government run buildings to florescent light bulbs offer the everyday citizen greener alternatives and show that their government can practice what it preaches. Nonetheless, none of it will matter if the government allows companies (especially oil and coal companies) to freely fill the atmosphere with GHGs. If things stay as they are now, then the temperature will continue to rise, and American apathy regarding global climate change will rise with it.

15 of the hottest years on record (on a global scale) have occurred in the last 16 years, and as a result the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets have lost more ice than ever; 30,000 people died from extreme heat in Europe in the summer of 2003; and, most painfully in our memory, Hurricane Katrina and other massive tropical storms battered the United States. As ocean temperatures rise, these storms will become more intense and the polar ice caps will continue to melt at increased rates. And as the ice caps shrink, the ocean level rises, putting people who live beside coastlines and large river deltas at great risk for flooding. The oceans are rising now and will continue to rise unless we greatly reduce our GHG emissions very soon. The best estimate we have now is for a 1-1.5 meter rise by 2100 from melting ice in just Antarctica. However a 2 meter (>6 feet) global rise is possible by the same date, depending on how quickly and effectively we cut our GHG emissions. This should not be taken lightly in a country that stretches from sea to shining sea. And we have already seen the water-related damage that can be done to the Mississippi River delta because of hurricanes like Katrina and Rita. Even disregarding the fiercer storms, the sea level rise that will come as a result of the melting ice caps will flood low-lying cities and towns all over the world unless something is done to protect them. Coastal cities like New York and Miami will need a sea-lock system like those in the Netherlands and on the River Thames in England. And even though they have come a long way from the devastation of 2005’s storms, New Orleans is even less protected from flooding and severe weather now than they were before Katrina struck. It amazes me that a progressive country like America would just clean up the mess in one of its most important cities rather than take the necessary steps to protect it so that nothing like the Katrina/Rita disaster could ever happen again.

Being a senator / congressman / congresswoman / etc., I am sure you are aware of various climate change legislation currently being put forth, as well as other legislation pertaining to topics such as energy, environment, and funding for organizations that study American and global interest in these.. While we may not be able to solve all of the problems associated with global climate change with one such law, we can certainly help to bring about greater activity towards reducing American GHG emissions. America is certainly not the only country producing GHGs, but we are easily one of the largest contributors in the world. Furthermore, America has always been a worldwide leader who sets the global example, so if we can reduce our GHG output significantly then the rest of the world can follow suit. This being said, I feel that it is important that you stand up with your fellow senators to bring about pertinent legislation in the hope that it brings about an end to putting the problem of climate change off. It is not a question of science, but a question of ethics. The scientific data we have regarding Global Climate Change has been obtained and presented in fair accordance with the Scientific Method. Now it is up to politicians like you to urge on climate change legislation to bring about a reduction in GHGs. While we can never completely know what the future holds for our world, we can be sure from the evidence we have now from scientific data of the past and present that the consequences of continuing to ignore global climate change or to do little to counteract it will be extremely severe and far too harsh on the lives of our children and generations to come, for if we do not face this problem now, our children will have to face a bigger one.




Firstname Lastname


Firstname Lastname

Here are some easy-to-read sources of the information presented in this letter:

Earth’s CO2 Home Page

NASA, NOAA Yearly Temperature Analyses

Washington Post Articles in Response to New Data published in Nature earlier this year:

“Scientists nearly double sea level rise projections for 2100, because of Antarctica”

“The alarming science driving much higher sea level projections for this century”

You’ll notice that there are options in the letter for whether you are a student or professional, as well as options for whomever you are sending this letter to. Feel free to add your own bits and pieces in, as long as they are accurate in accordance with current research, and I would encourage offering your sources.

Despite the fact that it would save trees to email, sending a traditional letter often conveys a more personal and important message, sentiment that is helpful when urging action on such an imperative issue.

Even if you do not live in the United States, I would still encourage you to send something along the lines of this to your respective legislative representative(s), especially considering this is a global issue.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for passing on your concerns to your local politician! While this was originally intended to be presented to someone at a more local level, you can certainly also send a letter to higher government officials as well, and not simply in regards to this (although I stand by my statement that global climate change is the most important global issue), but for any issue you feel strongly about. Your legislative representatives exist to represent your legislative interests, so what you want addressed is what they should address, and the best way to let them know what you want addressed is to tell them! So let your voice be heard, and in the meantime make sure to stop back here next week for more science and an occasional attempt at humor.

Melt hearts, not ice,


Houston, We’ve Had a Successful Failure

Ahhh, it feels good to hear those Imperial alarms again. As you have probably seen, considerably fewer times than I, the trailer for Rogue One, the first stand-alone “Star Wars Story” dropped last Thursday. As usual for a Star Wars anything, it is now being over-scrutinized and debated with wild predictions and opinions abounding and flooding around one another until the almost two minutes of primary source material they stem from is drowned out by the impassioned chattering. Speculation aside, what we do know about the upcoming film is that it centers on the theft of the first Death Star plans by a group of rebels led by Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, who appears to have become a scrappy badass following her divorce from Stephen Hawking. It will be interesting, and I believe fun too, to see what glimpse we get of the Star Wars universe from the perspective of people who are (to the best of our knowledge thus far) not Force-sensitive. Although, there is endless imagining about how this film and its characters will relate back to the trilogies, especially the one that just started up a few months ago. My favorite fan idea yet from an entertainment standpoint is that Jyn is potentially Rey’s mother, and plenty of fans have done the simple math to determine that this is possible, as is the chance that Jyn and Luke could have crossed paths and maybe done a little more sometime after that second Death Star was taken care of. I guess J + L = R, huh? The truth is that we don’t have enough to even determine who anyone outside of Jyn and the familiar face of Mon Mothma are inside the film, save for the recently announced return of the Sith lord who is the most recognizable character in a Star Wars movie, or perhaps any other movie.

I pray that Rogue One will not be a disaster in space, but even if it is, it will not be as bad as any of the real-life space-based disasters that have occurred. Back in January, I wrote about the worst week in American space history and touched on some other outer space incidents that had casualties. Today marks the 46th anniversary of the launch of the most well known space mission besides Apollo 11, and the only planned lunar mission that failed to reach the moon: Apollo 13.

As the Mythbusters and many before them have routinely stated about the endeavors of science, failure is always an option. However, while the failure to complete a mission is acceptable under the right circumstances, there is a level of failure that NASA has never tolerated: the loss of human life without doing their absolute damnedest to prevent it. NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz’s words following the death of the Apollo I crew made this crystal clear.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and CompetentTough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities… Competent means we will never take anything for granted… Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write Tough and Competent on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.

Mission Control, with Kranz as their Lead on spaceflights, never let up in their goal of bringing everybody back safely, but then they didn’t have all that much trouble in six of the seven missions that had a crew that was moon bound. However, that one exception, Apollo 13, was more than enough unforeseen difficult for the entirety of the Apollo program all wrapped up into one nightmarish mission.

If you have read the book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 co-written by Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell and journalist Jeffery Kluger, or seen the Ron Howard movie Apollo 13 that is based off of Lovell’s book, then you already are aware that America’s love for space flight, while not as dramatically dwindled as they make it seem in the movie, is not as strong as it was when we were racing the Russians at every turn (and frequently losing). Ironically, the suspenseful circumstances of the outer space calamity the craft ended up suffering reinvigorating public interest. The Apollo program did not slow up in the wake of Apollo 13’s near disaster; in fact it improved the crafts and procedures for future mission. Yet it could have come to a much sooner and more tragic close had Mission Control and the astronauts not worked out how to get the damaged craft back home. The popular movie does a good job of telling the story behind the spaceflight, but in case you’re not familiar with the details, it goes like this:

What did NASA Change After the Apollo 13 Disaster?

So faulty wiring in a fan meant to stir oxygen inside a pressurized tank caused the O2 to ignite and blew up most of the crew’s oxygen supply, thereby crippling the Command Service Module (CSM) and forcing the three astronauts to utilize the Lunar Module (LM) – the craft that was meant to pop on down to the moon – as a sort of lifeboat, something that NASA did make preparations for when they first developed the Apollo program. The extra space allotted for such a contingency only helped the astronauts to a point, though. They had a few major concerns to address before they could return home. First, they had to conserve power and fuel by shutting most everything down. Then, the crew had to utilize the moon’s gravity to slingshot back around toward Earth to avoid having to fire up their probably combustible engines.

This chart (from the “Apollo 13” Wikipedia page) shows the circumlunar trajectory taken by Apollo 13 over the course of its spaceflight.

The tricky part was that they would not survive in the time needed to make it back unless they managed to bring down the CO2 levels in the cabin. That is where Mission Control made good on Kranz’s vow.

How Mission Control Saved the Apollo 13 Crew

The personnel in Houston worked a necessary miracle by jury-rigging a CO2 filter out of materials available to the astronauts. The beginning of this process is one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

Obviously Mission Control pulled through and the three astronauts, Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise, all survived their trying journey that taught many lessons for future missions. Ironically, the only other astronaut to ever go into space again from the Apollo 13 crew was Ken Mattingly who was on the original crew, but replaced by Swigert after it was suspected Mattingly had contracted measles. Tom Hanks, who played Lovell in the film adaptation, voices Lovell’s thoughts and the fate of some of the major players on the Apollo 13 mission at the end of the movie. He also salutes and shakes hands with the real-life man he plays at about the 1:20 mark of that clip.

Thanks for reading! If you want to learn more about the Apollo program and this mission in particular there is no shortage of books, like Lovell’s Lost Moon, and documentaries, as well as the film I referenced. I encourage you to also look into the other missions that do not get nearly enough attention compared to the first moon landing and this near catastrophe, although it is understandable how the event that is oft regarded to be the greatest achievement in human history and the tricky operation a year later that most at NASA consider to be their “finest hour” garner more notice. If you have any questions, comments, or topic suggestions, feel free to leave them below or submit them to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Until next week, keep reaching for the stars.

Ex Luna, Scientia,


Ad astra per aspera

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and CompetentTough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities… Competent means we will never take anything for granted… Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write Tough and Competent on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.

-Gene Kranz, former NASA Flight Director, after the Apollo I tragedy

So begins the saddest week in American space history.

Since the formation of a space committee and later program in the late 1950s, American forays into the unknowns of outer space have only resulted in three major fatal accidents where the entire crew has perished in the mission spacecraft, however, they all eerily occurred during the same calendar week.

Space travel has always been a tricky business. It takes a lot, and I mean a lot, of energy to exit the confines of this planet and enter into the realm of outer space, internationally defined by the Karman line (100km/62 miles above sea level). Not to mention it’s expensive. However, some have paid the highest price in training, and at the start and end of missions. Altogether, 32 men and women have lost their lives in space-based missions.

The three most well known of these were missions for NASA that occurred in different eras of space operation. The first happened on January 27, 1967, when a fire burned in the cabin of Apollo I during a rehearsal for the launch that was slated almost a month later. 19 years and one day later on January 28, 1986, the Challenger shuttle exploded shortly after its launch. 17 years and four days after this tragedy on February 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia broke apart upon reentry. There have been other accidents for NASA and other agencies throughout their time, but these were the largest and led to the deaths of the entire crews.

Apollo I was the first manned lunar mission. Its intent was to take the new Apollo Command/Service Module (CSM) up into low Earth orbit. Gus Grissom, the second American in space, was the command pilot. Along with Edward H White II and Roger B. Chaffee, Grissom was slated to make even more contributions to history. Many assumed he was the prime candidate to be the first man on the moon when the Apollo program was ready to make a manned landing. Obviously, he never got the chance. While performing a rehearsal trial at Cape Canaveral, Florida, a fire started as a result of an electrical issue. The cabin was filled with pure oxygen, which is highly flammable, and almost instantly after the fire ignited it consumed the entire capsule. The pressure from the fire forced the already problematic hatch door closed and trapped the astronauts inside, literally sealing their doom. Hatch doors were not kind to Grissom; he nearly drowned following his historic sub-orbital flight aboard Liberty Bell 7 when the hatch malfunctioned and blew open causing water to flood the spacecraft, eventually sinking it. The aftermath forced NASA to slow their pace in their lunar program in order to ensure their astronauts’ safety. The next five Apollo missions were unmanned, until Apollo VII completed the mission originally intended for Apollo I, 20 months later in October of 1968.

The Challenger space shuttle was first flown in April of 1983. The second of the orbiter fleet of shuttles (meaning it was actually sent into orbit unlike the first shuttle, Enterprise), Challenger successfully completed nine flight missions before its demise in 1986. Its final flight was not heavily publicized, but did receive a fair amount of interest thanks the inclusion of a civilian, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, as a member of the seven person crew. Her involvement in the mission prompted many schools across America to tune in to the live broadcast to show to children during class.

The cause of the craft’s explosion was an O-ring on the right solid rocket booster (SRB) that became unsealed during liftoff and allowed flammable gas to escape. Later that day, President Ronald Reagan gave a memorable and touching speech to explain the state of mourning, as well as the continued resolve to not pull back but keep pushing on with space exploration. I particularly like his address to the children who saw the disaster unfold in their schools. It does well to present a sad, yet strong reflection of how sometimes we fail and sometimes those failures result in deaths. He presents it in a manner that is not condescending and reminds me of how Mister Rogers would speak to children about concepts and events that even adult minds have trouble grasping the reasons for.

The first shuttle flown into space, Columbia was the vehicle which marked the beginning of a new era of space travel and study. This era was put on hold briefly in the wake of the aforementioned tragedy surrounding the second of Columbia‘s fleet, but Columbia was integral in literally getting the shuttle program back off the ground and into the cosmos. For 22 years, it was an invaluable asset for NASA and carried crews to and from Earth on 27 missions. During takeoff of its 28th, Columbia lost a piece of foam from its external tank (ET) that damaged its left wing. The damage dealt was not visible enough to be detected, but proved to be significant enough to destroy the ship during reentry as hot gases from the atmosphere disintegrated the left wing and eventually the entire ship as it made its landing approach.

Apollo I lost all three of its crew, and Challenger and Columbia lost all seven of their respective crews also, but these were not the only instances of astronauts dying on a mission. The first fatality was Valentin Bondarenko, a cosmonaut in the Soviet Union who was burned in a training altitude chamber and later succumbed to his severe wounds back in March 1961. Since we have been venturing into space and training to do so, there have been casualties of this pioneering science. Most occurred during training flights, including the death of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who along with flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin crashed in a MiG-15 while attempting to avoid a weather balloon. The most recent space mission gone wrong was on Halloween, October 31, 2014. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed when VSS Enterprise, one of Virgin Galactic’s experimental spaceplane, crashed into the Mojave Desert in California. Fortunately, pilot Peter Siebold, who was badly hurt, survived and recovered.

On November 15, 1967, test pilot Michael J. Adams was killed when the X-15 he was flying lost control and spun out before falling in an inverted dive and snapping apart around 20km above the ground. Those who read my post about the SR-71 Blackbird may recall I identified that plane as “the fastest flyer in the sky that stays in this confines of this world” and that it reached speeds of Mach 3.3. The X-15 was a hypersonic rocket propelled aircraft that skirted over the edge of space (at least as defined by the United States mark of 80.5km/50 miles above the ground) and clocked speeds over 7200km/h (about 4500mph) or Mach 6.72. Adams’ X-15 spun at Mach 5 and fell at Mach 4.7. Even though he did not cross the Karman line, as Adams had passed beyond the U.S. recognized line of space he was, as were other X-15 pilots who achieved the same feat, awarded astronaut wings. Sadly, his were presented posthumously.

Most spacefarers have come from the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, yet others have hailed from nations around the world. Still, the only one not from either of these countries to die in the line of duty was Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon who was onboard the Columbia.

This is the complete list of all astronauts and cosmonauts who died in service to their countries and the endeavor to learn more of the universe:

Valentin Bondarenko

Theodore Freeman

Elliot See

Charles Bassett

Virgil “Gus” Grissom

Edward H. White II

Roger Chaffee

Vladimir Komarov

Clifton C. Williams

Michael J. Adams

Robert Lawrence

Yuri Gagarin

Vladimir Seryogin

Georgi Dobrovolski

Viktor Patsayev

Vladislav Volkov

Gregory Jarvis

Christa McAuliffe

Ronald McNair

Ellison Onizuka

Judith Resnik

Michael J. Smith

Dick Scobee

Sergei Vozovikov

Rick D. Husband

William McCool

Michael P. Anderson

David M. Brown

Kalpana Chawla

Laurel B. Clark

Ilan Ramon

Michael Alsbury

Despite these tragedies, space research is always moving forward. Learning from the mistakes of the past, NASA and other space agencies have improved their technology in the wake of their courageous crew members’ ultimate sacrifice. Given the incredible progress in craft development and space exploration made in such a short span of time, not to mention the inherent risks of the missions, it is amazing that there have been so few accidents resulting in human harm. Nevertheless, we must always remember those unfortunate few who gave all to further the pursuit of knowledge and progress. Everything we have now, in the field of space research, as well as in all other ventures, we owe a credit to others before us. Just as our astronauts stand on the shoulders (or perhaps fly on the wings) of those pilots who preceded them, we have much to be thankful for to all involved in increasing our scientific know-how, from the computer I’m writing this on, to the device your reading it on, to everything involved in the making of the coffee at your side. Space experiments and exploration do more than put people in zero-g, they make our world a better place to live, and hopefully in the future will allow us to do the same with other worlds.

Thanks for reading. If you are interested about more information regarding NASA and space research then check out their underfunded, yet excellent website. Be sure to return here next week for the sixth State of the Season quarterly recap. Please send any comments or questions to monotrememadness@gmail.com.

For the Benefit of All,