Tag Archives: NASA

Next Stop: Space!

We’re still roughly a month away from Mach 1 Day, the celebration of Chuck Yeager’s historic first supersonic flight on October 14, 1947, but this is too important of a date in the annals of aviation to pass up on until then. September 17th is also a major day for introducing not one, but two of the most important aircraft ever flown, and yes, they both broke the sound barrier. In fact, to put it lightly, they each fucking shattered it!

In the mid-1950s, the United States was cruising through the air with numerous supersonic planes and had already surpassed Mach 1, Mach 2, and Mach 3. Of course, when it comes to the field of aviation, there’s truly nowhere to go but up, and you always can go up farther. The US wanted to hit hypersonic speeds, otherwise known as speeds of Mach 5-7, and they wanted to do it for one big reason, the biggest of all in fact: space.

In 1954, the US military sought to commission a hypersonic aircraft that could land on its own. After a four company competition which included Bell Aviation, the creator of the Bell X-1 that Yeager flew in 1947, the winner was announced. No design (and price) blew away the Air Force and NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics that would in October 1958 be transferred into the new government agency known as NASA), but they were most favorable toward North American Aviation’s mock-up and ordered three to be built. Another company, Reaction Motors, was tasked to construct the rocket-powered engines for the aircraft.

The North American X-15 was tested out a bit after its construction, and it was formally unveiled on September 17, 1959, ushering in an exciting era of extreme aerial speed. All black with a unique design (see above) to help manage the craft’s aerodynamics at hypersonic speeds, the X-15, like other rocketplanes, was flown up attached to the undercarriage of a larger mothership – in this case a B-52 Stratofortress – then dropped to open up its rocket thrust.

The X-15 had twelve total pilots, including Neil Armstrong, future first man on the Moon, and Scott Crossfield who was the first man to fly beyond Mach 2. But for as impressive as Crossfield’s Mach achievement was, it was nothing compared to those of Major Robert White. White was a test pilot in the United States Air Force who made the first flights beyond Mach 4 and Mach 5, but he was not even close to calling it there. On November 9, 1961, Major Robert White became the first person to push past Mach 6. Yeah, Mach 6! He flew the X-15 to 4093 miles per hour (6590 km/hr)!

But wait, there’s more! Two years later, in both July and August of 1963, Joseph A. Walker topped the X-15’s altitude mark by flying it beyond 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level. This mark is referred to as the Karman Line, and it marks the boundary of Earth and Space. That’s right, Walker flew a plane into Outer Space. He holds the distinction of being the the seven American to travel to Space and was granted the title of astronaut for having left the confines of Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately, as was the case with too many test pilots, Walker died three years later in a midair collision during another test flight.

The X-15 was a remarkable plane that was the world’s first spaceplane, and still holds the record for altitude achieved by a plane, as well as speed, which it officially maxed out with William Knight’s 1967 flight that reached Mach 6.72, or 4520 mph (7274 km/h)! We’ll focus on Knight’s tenure as a pilot here, and not drift into his later years as politician in California who wrote the infamous Proposition 22 that banned gay marriage in the state and was openly defied by Knight’s own son David who married his partner in San Francisco in 2004.

The amazing X-15 was slated to be the first step in hypersonic space flight with a winged plane. Projects like Dyna-Soar were to carry on it’s legacy and take it to even higher heights. However, NASA and the USAF would shift their focus to rockets like the Mercury Redstone to reach the realm of Outer Space. They would come back to a winged vehicle that could operate in Space and land itself though. More familiar than the X-15 was the spacecraft that probably what most people think of when they hear the word “spaceplane”.

Once again, on September 17th, this time in 1976, another winged wonder was rolled out. With the primary goal of operating in Space and returning on its own power to Earth, the space shuttle made its debut with prototypical craft Enterprise. Originally supposed to bear the name Constitution, the power of fandom intervened, and then-President Gerald Ford was inundated with letters from Trekkies requesting the name be changed to Enterprise. Ford liked the name, and he requested NASA change it. Thus the Star Trek fans were appeased, and more importantly, the world’s first space shuttle was displayed. Though Enterprise never went into orbit, its following fellow craft did from 1981-2011, rocketing along a road that was first paved by the likes of fast craft like the X-15.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to learn more about the X-15, then check out this piece from HistoryNet. I found it quite interesting and educational. If you express any interest in my writings, then please send me your feedback, or suggestions for the future at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Be sure to zip back here next week for more high-flying fun!

I’m a Rocketman! ROCKETMAN!

Alex

P.S. Congrats to Holly Ridings, the new chief flight director at NASA who is the first female to hold the position!

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The Greatest Speech Never Given

Last week, I wrote about the anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, the world’s first manned lunar landing mission that saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon. The mission was the successful exclamation point that seemed to permanently declare the United States as the winners of the Space Race, and it went surprisingly smoothly for such a novel scientific venture. Everyone at NASA clearly did their research, and the expedition to collect lunar rocks, film and photograph the lunar landscape, and of course visit the Moon in person for the first time in history.

But what if things didn’t work out that way?

This was the scenario posed to William Safire by some of President Richard Nixon’s aides. Thus he drew up a plan for how to have the president handle the unfortunate circumstance where the men on the Moon mission never make it back. Safire was a speechwriter for Nixon on both of his presidential campaigns, and later wrote for The New York Times as a political columnist. In his memo, In Event of Moon Disaster he advised that Nixon address a potential major mission failure  by first contacting the astronaut’s wives with his sympathies, then by giving his brief, but powerful tribute speech, and finally by having a clergyman official commend the men’s souls in the same practice as a burial at sea.

It may seem grim in hindsight, but the reality is that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were explorers venturing bravely into uncharted territory in a vehicle that had never been taken on such a flight before. Even with their experience and the previous missions that tested the capabilities of the equipment and NASA to safely deliver men to the Moon and return them to Earth, it was far from a given. The most problematic part of the mission was in Collins’ picking Armstrong and Aldrin back up. If anything prevented the Command Module Collins was piloting from securing the Lunar Module that the others were in, then they were doomed to remain on the surface of the Moon.

So not only did Safire have to craft a speech that expressed a nation’s sadness in losing two of its best scientific explorers, he had to account for the fact that in all reality of  a failure, they would have to be left behind to die from starvation or suicide on the lunar plains. That is not an enviable death, and writing a statement to describe it in a way that present sympathy and resolve to keep exploring in spite of such a heavy loss is not an enviable task. Nevertheless, Safire did it, and he did it well. The remarks wisely follow the idea of not overdoing it and keep the piece short, yet this does not take away the somber sentiment within it. In fact, it’s terseness allows its listeners to focus on Armstrong and Aldrin, their sacrifice, and the future with some hope. In a manner reminiscent of the remarks of the man who defeated Nixon in the 1960 Presidential Race and opened his presidency with a challenge to explore space, Safire taps into the same vein that John F. Kennedy did. He closes the speech by saying, “Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied.” Akin to Kennedy declaring that we will work toward a Moon mission and explore the cosmos and make other similar ventures “not because they are easy but because they are hard”, Safire offers the same push toward progress in space exploration that NASA has always worked for and assures us that nothing will stop this pursuit.

Here is the speech that William Safire wrote.

Here is a video of Benedict Cumberhot reading the speech in his Doctor Strange voice:

Fortunately, this speech was never needed, and Nixon visited the astronauts as they were in their post-lunar quarantine – a process we now know to be superfluous. Nixon went on to host a dinner in their honor and awarded them all the Presidential Medal of Freedom. They lived on to continue their careers and their lives, and they live on forever in the annals of history.

We can now appreciate Safire’s speech as a great speech that fortunately never was given.

Thanks for reading! Be sure to return here next week for the quarterly recap State of the Season.

I love you to the Moon and back,

Alex

The Eagle Has Launched

Today marks the anniversary of the launch of the world’s first lunar mission that put men on the Moon. Apollo 11 took off on July 16, 1969, en route to making history for the likes of Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins. They actually landed on the big, reflectively bright ball in the sky four days later on the 20th, and completed their return back to the Earth another four days later on the 24th when they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and was picked up by the USS Hornet.

The flight of Apollo 11 was without a doubt incredible. The historic importance was obvious to all involved, and in spite of the immense pressure on everyone in NASA, the entire mission was almost perfectly planned and executed. The bigger headline will always justifiably be that man walked on the Moon, but it is worth noting just how smoothly this whole shindig ran – or rather flew and gravitated – along. According to NASA’s website synopsis of the lunar mission, “on July 17, a three-second burn of the SPS [Service Propulsion System – the main engine of the Command Module] was made to perform the second of four scheduled midcourse corrections programmed for the flight. The launch had been so successful that the other three were not needed.” See what I mean? Smooth sailing to the Sea of Tranquility.

Beyond the easy ride the astronauts had on their way to the Moon there was one adjustment made well before the launch. The original primary crew lineup that was announced for Apollo 11 featured Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as Commander and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) respectively – roles that both of them filled on the actual mission. However, the role of Command Module Pilot (CMP), or the guy who stays behind to pilot the craft that picks up the pair on the lunar surface once they complete their mission, was not originally Michael Collins. Well, it was in a previous mission that was planned to feature him as the CMP, but then Collins had to have surgery , so another astronaut, who was serving as Collins’ backup, was promoted to the main man in the main Module, for that earlier mission, Apollo 8. That CMP who flew on Apollo 8, was Jim Lovell, the man who later would be the Commander of the star-crossed Apollo 13. Lovell was continuing his role of understudy turned star for the Apollo 11 mission when the crew list was first put out on November 20, 1967. Nevertheless, 20 months later it was a recovered Collins who was flying the Command Module to pick up Armstrong and Aldrin from the Moon. As is fairly common for NASA missions, there was plenty of flipping around on the crews before they every even entered orbit.

As you enjoy this Friday July 20th, look up at the night sky and reflect upon the amazing achievement that so many helped our species earn. Give your shout out to the still up-and-at-’em Buzz Aldrin, and your respects to his mission commander and first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong. Yet don’t forget the other guys (and gals! You go real-life Hidden Figures ladies and your fellow females!), especially the also-still-cruising Michael Collins, the CMP who made sure that the entire crew made it back to Earth together; and Jim Lovell, who despite being on two Apollo flights into lunar orbit (Apollo 8 and 13) never landed on the Moon. Nonetheless, Lovell, like so many of the  less-recognized members of that era’s NASA team, was an invaluable contributor to the cause of space exploration.

But hey, it’s not all that bad! At least Lovell got to be portrayed by Tom Hanks!

Thanks for reading! If you ever have any questions or suggestion for me, then please pass them along to me at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Be sure to get a gravity assist to swing you back here next week for some more information on the Apollo 11 mission.

 

There’s a Car, Man, Waiting in the Sky

The White Stripes sang the line, “Maybe Tesla does the Astro” on their first album in one of their most fun songs. Who knew they were prophetic? Jack White may be a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to rock and roll, but even he in all his musical mastery probably never envisioned someone launching a goddamned car into the cosmos. The one rock musician that I could see conceiving such a fantastically ridiculous premise is the immortal David Bowie, whose music was appropriately played for six hours as Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster rocketed out off the Earth’s atmosphere with the also Ziggy Stardust-inspired Starman at the helm.

In case you mis- who am I kidding? Everyone has heard of the Falcon Heavy launch from last week by now. You’ve probably even seen the launch already. And why not? It was amazing! To recap quickly anyway, last Tuesday, February 6, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., more commonly called SpaceX, launched the most powerful and one of the largest rockets ever built: the Falcon Heavy. This model of rocket was built to venture to Mars and beyond and promises to be the precursor to manned missions to the Red Planet and deep space. While NASA will stick with the Orion spacecraft for the first manned missions to Mars, the success of last week’s Falcon Heavy launch is huge for a few big reasons.

First, Falcon Heavy rockets proved that they can propel large payloads into orbit, which will be a helpful application for deep space probes and for future colonies on Mars. Second, the boosters are built to be reusable and return to Earth – as they did in spectacular synchronized fashion (the center booster’s reentry descent rockets did not all ignite and it crashed into the nearby ocean).

Finally, this was all done by a private company. If more bajillionaires like Musk seek to contribute to the field of space exploration and aid government organizations like NASA, imagine what strides in science can be made!

If you have not already, watch the amazing launch on SpaceX’s YouTube channel here. And don’t miss the live cam of  Starman and Musk’s personal car, the literal dummy payload of the Falcon Heavy test. We can feel the collective excitement inherent in all observers of a massively powerful rocket taking off. Seeing these enormous objects of engineering genius ignite and rise is incredibly inspiring for working toward space exploration. I want us to go bravely forth into the unknown and learn what mysteries await us, but first I’m going to run around in circles in my yard for a little bit because I’m so wound up watching those boosters land in perfect synchronization!

Unquestionably, the man of the moment and beyond is Musk. Whatever spotlight was pointed at South Korea for winter sports festivities has been shifted to the stars. People of all ages are taking notice of the excitement caused by this rocket launch, like this preschool class who made a model of the solar system.

If there was any question before, there is none now: Elon Musk is the epitome of eccentric. Garnering comparisons to the likes of Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, and Willy Wonka, Elon Musk seems to be an crazy character pulled from fiction. Eat your heart out, Mark Cuban. You have a TV show and a basketball team? Musk just shot a car into space!

Even his company’s name is a mondegreen innuendo. Not sure what I’m talking about? Say SpaceX out loud. Yeah. He did that on purpose. We should not be surprised though, as he’s done it before. Look no further than the one-character names of Tesla’s first three car models: S, 3, X. Flip that 3 around and you’ve got yourself an “E” and another immature, tongue-in-cheek global company name. But who cares?! He’s eccentric! as Dennis Hopper’s Howard Payne said in Speed after stealing miliions of dollars, “Poor people are crazy; I’m eccentric.” Musk, a self-made rich person thanks to his self-taught and formal education in computer programming and engineering, certainly fulfills the role of kooky with a scientifically-centered altruistic intent. His main mission is to help lay down a foundation for humanity to continue to survive off of far into the future, with the great goals of mitigating climate change and establishing settlements on Mars. Needless to say, I like this guy.  Mr. Musk, I’m onboard with your goals, and I immensely appreciate that you are seeking to make this world better while preparing for life on the next one all the while making sex jokes in your companies and products.

Thanks for reading and watching! If you want to send me any questions, comments, or suggestions, then pass them along to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Keep looking to the stars and pursuing your dreams, no matter how absurd they may seem because right now there is a sportscar hurtling toward the asteroid belt!

Happy (Same Day/Same Year) Birthday Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin!

Alex

Wonderful Whitson

Happy Labor Day everyone! Today in the USA we honor American workers with a day off for (most) everyone. On this 2017 edition of the day, I would like to pay special props to an American whose work is literally out of this world.

Peggy Whitson has been logging some major merits in her career as an astronaut for NASA. She recently returned to Earth via Soyuz capsule to Kazakhstan after working the past 288 days aboard the International Space Station. After her most recent stint in space, Peggy owns records for being the first two-time female commander of ISS, the oldest woman in space (57), the most practiced woman to take a stroll in space with 10 space walks, oh, and now she has spent more time in space than any other American. In total over three missions onboard ISS, Whitson has accrued 665 days in orbit, longer than any woman in history. There are a few Russian cosmonauts who have stayed in space longer, including Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin who returned with her.

Whitson is a biochemist who started with NASA in 1989. She has been conducting research on a number of things, perhaps most notably on antibodies in zero-G. She has been awarded numerous medals from NASA, including their Outstanding Leadership Medal in 2006, and even served as Chief Astronaut for a time. Originally hailing from Iowa, she now lives in Houston, Texas where NASA is headquartered. She said that any trouble she may have adjusting back to life with greater gravity is nothing compared to the hardships of those affected by Hurricane Harvey, which includes some of her fellows at Mission Control.

Whitson may no longer venture into the cosmos, but she is still planning on working at NASA on the ground for spaceflight missions, as well as some other projects in the future that may involve a certain red planet.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, then send them my way at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Float on back here next week for more fun.

Shine on you American Space Ninja,

Alex

Totality Awesome

Even though I was not within the range of full totality for the total solar eclipse that worked its way over North America last Monday, I still was treated to quite a show as the moon moved almost entirely in the path of the sun to create the unique view of a cookie with a bite taken out of it that I enjoyed staring at through my eclipse glasses for about an hour as the moon progressed across the sunshine. I made the most of my watching experience by posting up in my front yard dressed in a Star Wars shirt that reads “Join the Dark Side” with a dark beer (porters are made for winter to be sure, but Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald is quality all year) all the while listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I think I witnessed the closest moment to totality during “Time”.

For anyone else who was not able to see totality in person due to being out of the path or having overcast skies within it, check out this video that does a great job of explaining the dynamics of total solar eclipses:

I’m excited because the next such eclipse to grace North America will pass directly over Ohio in April of 2024, which means I’m bound to be able to infringe on someone’s hospitality to see it if even I move away somewhere else between now and then. That eclipse will also pass over parts of Mexico and Canada, as well as Texas, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, New York, and Maine, and slivers of Oklahoma, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Vermont within the United States. Learn more about it on NASA’s site here. It may be seven years away, but it will be here before you know it!

In regards to this most recent eclipse, Google and Cal-Berkeley worked together on a project to compile pictures taken by people within the totality path to make a short video of the view of totality from the US locations that got to see the brilliant glow of the sun’s corona light up the darkening sky. You can watch that video on Eclipse Megamovie here. As it has no sound, I recommend syncing it up with an appropriate song that fits the time pretty nicely:

Thanks for reading and watching! Feel free to send any questions, comments, or suggestions to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Orbit back here next week for more fun where everything under the sun is in tune…

But the sun is eclipsed by the moon,

Alex

 

Total Eclipse of the Part… of the World I Live In

What are you doing? Don’t look at me; look at the sun! It’s not often that I can say that in earnest sincerity, but in case you’ve been hiding away or stranded in the wilderness with no network connectivity (it would be more embarrassing if you were stranded with it), then allow me to tell you that there is a total solar eclipse – where the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun – making its way across North America on this hopefully clear skied August 21, 2017. So grab your properly produced eclipse viewing glasses and step outside to gaze upward when the moon makes its lineup with the big, burning, bright ball in the sky in your area. For more information on that and more regarding this awesome astronomical event, check out NASA’s website here. The next time such a sight will occur again for this section of the Earth will be in 2024, so make sure to make the most of it now because who wants to have to wait for seven more years?

Plan your lunch break accordingly,

Alex