Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Countdown Is On For The Great American Eclipse

My photo of the total solar eclipse of February 26, 1979. Chris Gainor photo
A year from now the United States will be enjoying a magnificent astronomical event - a total solar eclipse. 

While these types of eclipses generally occur about every 18 months, they only take place over a narrow band of territory a little more than 100 km wide. And in recent years, total solar eclipses - where the Moon passes directly in front of the Sun and covers all of it - have only occurred in distant parts of the world.

On August 21, 2017, the band of the total eclipse will cross the United States starting on the Oregon Coast and then moving east - through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina. It will be visible from Casper, Wyoming; Kansas City, Kansas; St. Louis, Missouri; and Nashville, Tennessee, amongst other cities.

The period of totality will last up to two minutes 42 seconds, depending on where the observer is. While the usual precautions are needed while watching the partial phases of the eclipse, the sky goes dark and viewers can look directly at the fully eclipsed sun during that all-too-brief period of totality.

Partial solar eclipses can often be seen because they are visible over much of the Earth when they take place. On the day of this total eclipse in the U.S., viewers all over Canada will be able to watch the Moon cover much but not all of the Sun, and proper shielding will be needed.

But total solar eclipses are so rare and so dramatic that many astronomers travel thousands of miles to view them.  

I have only seen one - the last one in North America, which took place on February 26, 1979. It passed over Oregon and then up into Manitoba, including Winnipeg. I and a few friends were waiting to see it in Oak Point, Manitoba, on the centre line of the eclipse, where totality was longest. 

For the short period of totality, the sky went dark and where the Sun had been, one saw the strange and eerie sight of the Moon’s black disc covering the Sun, surrounded by the streamers of the Sun’s corona. Many photos have been taken of total eclipses, but there is no substitute for seeing one in person. A friend of mine who was not interested in astronomy but came along anyway was shaking at the end of it.

Many astronomers had travelled to Manitoba to see the eclipse, and the night before, the Elks Club in Lundar, Manitoba, threw a memorable town celebration for the visitors, including a great roast beef dinner, skits and even some NASA films - and the films were a draw because this was before video recorders were widely available.

So when what is already being called the Great American Eclipse takes place next year, I plan to be in the path of totality. Watch this space a year from now for my report. 

And for those who miss that eclipse, another total solar eclipse will take place in North America on April 8, 2024. This time, the path of totality goes through Mexico and then Texas, heading northeast to Ohio and other northern states. It will be visible in parts of southern Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. I hope to see that one, too!

If you are interested in seeing next year’s total solar eclipse, there is a great deal of information already available online.

Monday, 8 August 2016

How a Checker Cab Helped Get Apollo to the Moon

Source: Checker World Facebook page from John Michael Wilkinson

Adapted from an article I wrote for the Winter 2015 issue of The Checkerboard News, publication of the Checker Car Club of America, Inc.

For many years, I have been a proud owner and driver of a 1981 Checker Marathon. Checkers were made until 1982 by the Checker Motor Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan, mainly for use as taxi cabs. Among the car's other claims to fame, Robert De Niro drove a Checker in Taxi Driver, the 1976 Martin Scorsese film, and the car was one of the stars of Taxi, the television series that aired from 1978 to 1983.

From time to time, I wondered if Checker cars played a role in America's space program. About 20 years ago, I found out that at least one Checker that can legitimately be said to have helped the Apollo astronauts get to the Moon.

The story concerns James E. Webb, the Administrator of NASA who served under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and who is given much of the credit for Apollo’s success. During the time he ran NASA from 1961 to 1968, Webb had to manage the agency and the massive nationwide effort behind Apollo. He also had to make sure that the U.S. Congress supplied the funds for the expensive effort to get to the Moon.

In his 1995 book, Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA, historian Henry Lambright told how Webb worked with Congress. In asking for the massive sums needed for Apollo, Webb knew that he “could help make his case that every penny was needed if he did not appear to be living luxuriously as administrator.”

Although Webb was entitled to a government limousine, the canny native of North Carolina instead used a black Checker, Lambright explained. “It’s the little things that can get you into trouble in Washington,” said Webb, who had previously served as President Harry S. Truman’s budget director.

Lambright explained that the Checker helped Webb appear “the frugal country boy” when seeking funds from Congress.

Webb received many honors during his life for his work at NASA, and the agency named its next major space telescope after him. The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is due for launch in 2018.

While I have been unable to find a photograph of Webb with his Checker, I am happy to recommend Lambright’s book, which was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

NASA Administrator James E. Webb in 1966. NASA photo via Wikipedia.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Morris Jenkins Helped Guide Astronauts to the Moon and Back

Photo: Morris Jenkins (right) receives NASA Superior Achievement Award in 1969. NASA Photo

When NASA chose to send its Apollo astronauts to the moon using the method known as Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, it avoided the challenge of building a monster rocket far bigger than the Saturn V that would have been necessary for a direct flight to the moon and back. But it complicated the route each flight would have to take. Among other things, the astronauts would have to rendezvous and dock two spacecraft in lunar orbit to get home.

To make Apollo a success, NASA called on engineers and scientists to plot the complicated trajectories astronauts would need to follow for their lunar flights. One of those experts was a modest British engineer who was a member of the group of 32 British and Canadian engineers who got work at NASA after the Canadian government cancelled the CF-105 Avro Arrow supersonic interceptor in 1959.

That engineer, Morris Jenkins, has died at age 92.

The highlight of Jenkins’ 25 years at NASA was leading a group in the Mission Analysis and Planning Group (MPAD) at the Manned Spacecraft Center (since 1973, the Johnson Space Center) at Houston, Texas, that developed lunar trajectories for Apollo spacecraft.

In describing the trajectories in a talk at the Apollo Lunar Landing Mission Symposium in Houston in June 1966, Jenkins spoke of the complexities of Apollo’s flights, which started off with putting a spacecraft into an orbit around the Earth that was tilted in relation to both the Earth’s equator and the Moon’s orbit. 

At the right moment, the spacecraft had to be injected into a path that just missed, by slightly more than 100 km, where the Moon would be when the spacecraft arrived in three days time. The spacecraft’s return path to Earth had to place it into a very narrow corridor that ensured that the spacecraft hit the Earth’s atmosphere at the right place and at the right angle. A tiny error meant that the crew would be lost. Crews that landed on the Moon faced additional complexities. And it also had to be taken into account that the Earth and Moon orbit the Sun, are not perfect spheres and wobble slightly in their orbits.

Starting not long after President John F. Kennedy and Congress charged NASA with flying astronauts to the moon, Jenkins and his group at MPAD used a complicated mathematical estimation method, some outside help, and brute computing power to prepare trajectories for lunar missions and give the people planning Apollo confidence that Apollo could be safely guided to their targets and back home. Based on this work, another group drew up the detailed trajectory calculations for each mission.

Morris Vivian Jenkins was born in Southampton, England, on May 3, 1923, and served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War as a navigator. While in the RAF, he came to Rivers, Manitoba, for training under the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. 

After the war, he worked at the Supermarine technical office of Vickers Armstrong for nine years, during which he learned stress, aerodynamics, and stability and control. Jenkins earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1951. He moved to Canada and joined Avro Canada at its plant at Malton, Ontario, in 1956. There he worked on stability and control aspects of the Avro Arrow until its cancellation. Once he was hired by NASA in 1959, Jenkins worked on control systems in Mercury before moving into his work on lunar trajectories for Apollo in 1961.

Jenkins was always modest about his work, and required a great deal of persuasion before agreeing to talk to me when I came to interview him for the book I wrote on the Avro-NASA engineers. “It wasn’t easy to get this trajectory scheme going. The group that I led did it. It wasn’t I who did it,” he explained.

By the time of Apollo 11, Jenkins was working for fellow former Avro Canada engineers John Hodge and Dennis Fielder on future programs, when Manned Spacecraft Center director Bob Gilruth asked Jenkins to draw a up a plan for a trip to Mars. Jenkins was able to call on help from many of his colleagues from NASA and from the aerospace contractor TRW. “Even with a realistic perspective on the whole thing, we put out an energetic effort on it. It was a good first draft and sent to headquarters,” he said.

The Jenkins report, as it was known, was completed in February 1971 and called for an “austere” low-budget program sending an initial expedition of 570 days to Mars in 1987 and 1988. Jenkins’ plan assumed that NASA had already developed a shuttle and that components of the solar-powered Mars vehicle would be assembled in Earth orbit following seven launches using shuttle booster vehicles.

After 15 days in orbit around Mars, three of the five astronauts on the trip would descend to the surface in a Mars exploration module for 45 days of exploration. On its way back to Earth, the spacecraft would swing by Venus and enter Earth orbit for a pickup by shuttle at the end of its trip. Unfortunately, NASA was not able to act on Jenkins’ proposals.

Jenkins worked briefly on Skylab and then in the Space Shuttle program as Chief of the Powered Flight Analysis Branch, which prepared launch trajectories, until he retired from NASA in 1984.

After a long retirement with his wife Joan, who had also worked in the space program, Jenkins passed away in Dallas on March 15, 2016.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Crisis Ensures NRC's 100th Birthday Will Be Memorable

The entrance to the historic Plaskett Telescope at the NRC's Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. Chris Gainor photo.

The National Research Council of Canada will turn 100 on June 6.

Established during World War I, the NRC started off enlisting Canada's researchers in the war effort, but soon the emphasis changed to a mixture of pure scientific research and dealing with various social and economic challenges faced by Canadians.

Over the years, NRC researchers have made important contributions to a whole variety of scientific pursuits, including medicine, nuclear physics, astronomy, aviation, agriculture and engineering, to name just a few. NRC scientists have made important scientific discoveries, and created a number of devices and processes that make our lives better and our economy stronger.

The NRC was the home of much of Canada's space program until the Canadian Space Agency commenced operations in 1989.

Today the NRC has more than 4,000 employees in 50 research facilities in every part of Canada. Of special interest to me are NRC's astronomical facilities, which are grouped in Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics. These facilities include the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (DAO), just down the road from my home in Victoria, B.C.

It is well known that the past decade under Stephen Harper's Conservatives was not a good one for science in Canada. All scientists in federal employ were muzzled. At NRC, tight money was the order of the day, along with an emphasis on directing research to immediate, short term gains for Canadian business.

In 2010, the Harper government appointed John McDougall as president of NRC. McDougall had previously headed the Alberta Research Council, where he had implemented a similar emphasis on applied research.

Morale fell at NRC during the Harper years. But most of the problems at NRC did not get public attention. One exception was the NRC's decision in 2013 to close down the Centre of the Universe public outreach centre at the DAO, which I have written about in some detail in this blog.

Since the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau took office last fall after winning the October federal election, many initiatives of the Harper government have been overturned, one of the first being the gag order affecting federal scientists. But what about the NRC?

As reported this week by Tom Spears of the Ottawa Citizen, McDougall went on a personal leave in March for an indefinite period of time.

Last week, the new acting president of NRC, Maria Aubrey, announced that a major reorganization of NRC that was slated to take effect April 1 has been postponed indefinitely. Aubrey's announcement made it clear that the postponement is necessary to bring NRC into line with the new government's priorities.

Beyond these two short announcements, the government's plans for NRC are shrouded in secrecy. The two cabinet members responsible for NRC, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, aren't answering reporters' questions.

We can hope that the shape of the Trudeau government's plans for the NRC will emerge soon, and that those plans will restore the strengths of the NRC.

Canada has benefitted greatly from NRC's applied research work. But this important work must also be balanced with basic research that answers fundamental questions of science and leads us to those coveted advances in applied science. It's time to restore balance - and financial support - to NRC. If that happens, NRC can move forward into a second century that builds on the achievements of its first century.

Monday, 21 March 2016

The Summer Victoria Had a Launch Pad

The Ocean Odyssey at the Esquimalt Graving Dock, June 2007. Ken Walker photo via Wikimedia.

One of the notable characteristics of Canada’s space program is that it doesn’t have launch capability. Canada has developed the Black Brant sounding rocket, but Canada has no rocket capable of putting anything into orbit, nor has any satellite ever been orbited from Canadian soil.

Despite periodic calls from people inside Canada’s space industry for a Canadian orbital launch capability, including a proposal I wrote about in April 2014 in this space, it remains a distant prospect. 

But I was recently reminded of a time when a launch pad was temporarily located just a few kilometres from my home in Victoria BC on Vancouver Island. This was one of the more unusual chapters in Victoria’s marine and space history.

The story begins in 1995 when a consortium of companies from four countries - Russia, Ukraine, Norway and the United States - created Sea Launch, a partnership with the goal of launching Ukrainian-Russian Zenit rockets from a converted oil platform located on the Equator in the Pacific Ocean. The rockets were designed to launch communications satellites into geostationary orbits, and an equatorial location is the most efficient place to launch these satellites. 

Sea Launch used a specially-built ship, the Sea Launch Commander, based in Long Beach, California, where each rocket was assembled and mated with its payload. Then the rocket was transferred to the self-propelled platform Ocean Odyssey, from which it was launched. Starting in 1999, Sea Launch launched 29 rockets this way, with 26 successes, two failures, and one partial success. 

A major failure took place on January 30, 2007, when the Zenit rocket exploded on the pad just after ignition. Repairs were needed to the launch platform, and so the Ocean Odyssey was brought to the Esquimalt Graving Dock at Victoria Shipyards in June and July 2007 for this work. The repair job, which according to a Victoria Times Colonist article involved fixing hangar doors on the platform and many of the wires and light fixtures that were damaged in the explosion. About 30 tonnes of paint would be used, and the cost of the job was estimated at about $30 million.

After the Ocean Odyssey was repaired, it departed the Victoria area without any fanfare and then returned to service with the launch of a satellite in January 2008. Sea Launch continued to launch rockets and satellites until 2014, when the political problems resulting from the Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory that year caused Sea Launch to halt operations.

The graving dock is located at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, the home of the Pacific Fleet of the Royal Canadian Navy. The history of the base goes back to 1848, when ships from the Royal Navy first came to Esquimalt, which is a suburb of Victoria. The first graving dock was built on the base in 1887, and moved to Canadian control in 1905. Another  larger graving dock was built  nearby in the 1920s and is now used by Victoria Shipyards under an arrangement with Public Works and Government Services Canada. 

The Esquimalt Graving Dock has been used by Victoria Shipyards to build and repair many navy ships, ferries, ocean liners and other craft, but only once has it been used to repair a launching pad.

Thanks to archivist Sherri Robinson of the Township of Esquimalt for her help with this article.

Ocean Odyssey on station with a Zenit Rocket. Sea Launch image

Monday, 11 January 2016

Trudeau Government Fails First Big Space Test

For the two final months of 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government was able to bask in the glow most Canadians felt from removing the government of Stephen Harper and from necessary but easy actions such as unmuzzling government scientists and re-instituting the long form census. 

Now 2016 is here, and along with it comes more difficult decisions. The first full week of the new year saw the Trudeau government permit a $15 billion deal to sell armoured troop carriers to the government of Saudi Arabia despite ample evidence of that government’s brutality. 

Last week, the Trudeau government also declined to review the $455 million sale of Cambridge Ontario, satellite equipment maker Com Dev International to the American firm Honeywell International Inc. Com Dev structured the deal to stay under the $600 million threshold for automatic review of the deal under the Investment Canada Act, and the 45-day period in which the government could choose to review the Com Dev deal expired a week ago.

Com Dev is one of the great economic success stories of Canada’s space program, making specialized equipment that operates in nearly a thousand different satellites and space probes from various countries. Canadian taxpayers have invested large amounts of money in Com Dev and other firms to create high tech, export-oriented jobs. 

The deal must be approved by Com Dev stockholders in a vote on January 21. Com Dev investors stand to benefit from this deal, but but what about the investments made by Canadian taxpayers in Com Dev? The ultimate cost of this deal to Canada may well be in the Canadian jobs created under the Com Dev banner. Ironically, job creation is the big reason given for going ahead with the Saudi arms deal.

This decision contrasts with a different decision made by the Harper government in 2008 when MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. wanted to sell its space division to an American firm for $1.3 billion. In that case, the Harper government made the difficult but correct decision to block the sale. 

That decision turned out be be not only right for Canada but right for MDA. The company had decided to get out of the space business and stake its future on a property registry system that just a few months later began to suffer greatly when U.S. housing took a nosedive at the start of the great recession.

Unfortunately, the space side of MDA's business has not grown as much as it might because the Harper government has been cutting Canada's space spending, which hits the order books of MDA and other firms such as Com Dev.

The Trudeau government’s decision to allow the Com Dev sale is consistent with the federal Liberal tradition of being friendly to the wishes of business, particularly foreign business. 

The loss of Com Dev could herald the decline of Canada’s space sector. The new government's decision to permit the Com Dev sale may stem from a reluctance to restore the cuts the Harper government made to space spending.
In the federal election campaign, Justin Trudeau and his Liberals promised “real change.” In the field of space, that change has been a negative one so far. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

New Government, New Ministers, New Prominence, But The Return of Old Problems

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen at climate change event, November 23, 2015. CSA photo.
A few weeks have now passed since the 2015 federal election, and the new Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is taking form with a new cabinet and actions to bring its electoral promises to fruition.

Almost every day the new government does something that sets it apart from the ousted Conservative government of Stephen Harper. As I was writing this post, Trudeau met with the provincial premiers, something Harper had refused to do for nearly seven years, and more remarkably, the topic was climate change.

As part of the meeting, the first ministers heard from scientists about climate change, and that part of the meeting was moderated by Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen. The event marked the unmuzzling of scientists working on climate change after the Harper years, and new prominence for our astronauts, for Harper was not known to mix with astronauts except when necessary.

When the new government took office on November 4, the old Industry Ministry was replaced with a Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, with Mississauga-Malton MP Navdeep Singh Bains as minister. In addition, Trudeau named Etobicoke North MP Kirsty Duncan as Minister of Science, and assigned her to work as part of a team led by Bains.

And Marc Garneau, Canada’s first astronaut and a former president of the Canadian Space Agency, also sits at the Trudeau cabinet table as Minister of Transportation.

Since the Liberals refrained from making specific promises relating to Canada’s space program and space industry, space was not a part of the mandate letters given to Ministers Bains and Duncan, and so it remains to be seen what the new government will do about space.

Astronaut Jeremy Hansen with Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan. CSA photo.

Some clues to future directions did emerge last week in the form of speeches by Minister Bains and Sylvain Laporte, the President of the Canadian Space Agency.

Bains, whose riding includes Pearson International Airport and the many aviation contractors that surround it, told the 2015 Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa on November 18 that he has spoken with David Emerson, the former Liberal and Conservative minister who authored the 2012 review of Canada’s aerospace and space policies. This suggests that the Emerson report will inform the new government's future actions.

The next day, CSA President Laporte appeared at the 2015 Canadian Space Summit in Vancouver and gave his first address to a Canadian audience since his appointment in March by the Harper government. Laporte had just met ministers Bains and Duncan for the first time a few days earlier, and so there was little he had to announce. 

Many in the audience at the space summit, which was organized by the Canadian Space Society, hope the Liberals will reverse the tight-money policies of the Harper government that have caused distress to Canada’s space contractors, and a lack of opportunity at home for qualified engineers and scientists, especially those just graduated. So when Laporte was asked about the possibility of new money for the CSA, he replied that he has no news on that front but said he hopes for “constructive discussions” with the new ministers.

Laporte, who has worked within the Canadian government through his career, admitted that he does not have a background in space but aimed to demonstrate in his talk that he is working hard to catch up. He added that he is determined to fulfill his five-year mandate at the CSA.

Given that Innovation is a word that now appears in the name of the ministry that includes the CSA and was also used a great deal in Ottawa under the previous government, Laporte’s speech was also peppered with the word. 

That innovation agenda now faces a challenge. Canada’s second largest space contractor and one whose innovations have found their way into most spacecraft flying today, Com Dev International of Cambridge, Ontario, announced the day  after the Trudeau government took office that it is being sold to the American contractor, Honeywell International Inc.

Although the deal is structured to avoid a review by the federal government, such a review should be considered because of the important role Com Dev plays in Canada’s space industry.

The Com Dev deal recalls the attempted sale of Canada’s largest space contractor, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., to an American contractor in 2008. Faced with concerns about the security implications of the sale, the Harper government wisely blocked the transaction. 

The new Trudeau government will have to consider the fate of both Com Dev and MDA, and soon, given that federal budget cuts to the CSA have adversely affected the two firms and other Canadian space contractors.

Positive feelings envelop the new government today, but the clock is already running on difficult decisions that must be made on the future of Canada’s space industry. 

CSA President Sylvain Laporte addresses the 2015 Canadian Space Summit. Alma Iridia Barranco image via Twitter.