Tuesday, 3 January 2017

In Quest of New Views of Spaceflight History



This week, a new film about the U.S. space program, "Hidden Figures," is opening in theatres around North America. The film tells the story of the female "human computers" who did the number crunching necessary to keep the first U.S. astronauts on their correct courses since even the most powerful computing machines at that time were not up to the demands of space travel.

"Hidden Figures" focuses on the story of three African American women who made major contributions to the success of America’s first astronaut flights. Like most Hollywood films, "Hidden Figures" often departs from the truth for dramatic effect, but the basic facts behind the film are correct. In at least one scene, "Hidden Figures" invites comparison between these poorly paid and anonymous African American women and the famous white male astronauts who were immortalized in the 1983 film, "The Right Stuff."

People like Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” have taken us beyond the experiences of the high-profile astronauts and flight controllers to tell the stories of lower profile and more marginalized people who made previously unsung contributions to humanity’s move into space. 

"Hidden Figures," like the book that inspired it, shows that we now look at the history of space exploration differently from the way we did back in 1983 or in the 1960s. 

The emergence of stories like this is only one change to the history of space exploration in recent years. Even before the Cold War ended 25 years ago, the previously inaccessible archives of the Soviet government and space program opened up and changed our understanding of what the Soviets did in the space race of the 1950s and 1960s. That and other changes have caused us to reconsider many ideas about the development of the U.S. space program, something I have been working on in my time as an historian of technology.

The early histories of space exploration were written by promoters of spaceflight, and they concentrated on particular artifacts such as rockets or spacecraft. Today new perspectives - including highly critical views of spaceflight - are being reflected in recent histories, and the social forces that affect technologies and many other things are considered in these histories.

The death of John Glenn last month completed the passing of the first group of U.S. astronauts. This year will mark 60 years since the launch of Sputnik opened up the move into space. The events of those early days are moving beyond living memory at the same time as a new generation with its own perspectives starts to put its own slant on space history.

In 2016 I added to my own historical work when I took on a new job as editor of Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly. Quest was started 25 years ago, and is the only peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the history of space exploration. I have subscribed to Quest since the beginning, and I have contributed several historical articles and book reviews over the past 20 years.

As editor of Quest, I am searching for historical articles about space exploration, and I hope to encourage new people who want to work in this field just as the three previous Quest editors helped me find my way as an historian.

I also hope that Quest will continue to grow with provocative and ground-breaking articles and reviews that help explain the whys and hows of humanity’s first tentative steps beyond our home planet. The most recent issue of Quest, for example, contains two articles by newcomers to the field of spaceflight history, one from a professor of journalism and another from a student of visual design.

I’m proud to facilitate the dissemination new perspectives on history, and I look forward to what is coming up in future issues. I don’t know if any work in Quest will lead to a movie, but I’m sure it will be interesting just the same. 

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Dr. David Strangway's Work in Lunar Exploration

Dr. David Strangway in 2011 (CTBTO - Flickr)
Dr. David Strangway, who is well known as a leader in Canada’s advanced education system, died this week at age 82. Dr. Strangway first gained notoriety for his scientific work on lunar samples from the Apollo expeditions to the Moon.  

 I interviewed Dr. Strangway in February 1996 and wrote about him in my first book, Arrows to the Moon. The following is based on that interview:

Although several Canadian scientists worked on lunar samples, most of them with the Geological Survey of Canada, the best-known of their number was David Strangway, a native of Simcoe, Ontario. Aged 35 when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in 1969, Strangway was a professor of physics at his alma mater, the University of Toronto, after work at the University of Colorado in Boulder and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As an expert on the magnetic properties of lunar samples, Strangway became well known to Canadians watching and reading media coverage of the first lunar landings. In 1970 he moved to NASA and became chief of the geophysics branch at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, where he was involved in selecting experiments and landing sites, handling lunar samples and training astronauts for upcoming Apollo missions.

During lunar landing missions, Strangway worked in the scientific backroom next to the mission control center, and he was principal investigator on an electromagnetic sounding experiment flown aboard the Apollo 17 service module. After Apollo ended, he returned to the U of T in 1973, and he eventually became acting university president. From 1985 to 1997, he was president of the University of British Columbia, and he later served as president of the Canada Foundation for Innovation and founded Quest University in Squamish, B.C.

“My particular interest in the lunar samples had to do with two major areas,” Strangway told me in an interview in 1996. “One of them was the magnetic properties of the lunar materials, and the other had to do with the measurement of the electrical properties of the lunar materials. You can use magnetism to determine the composition of the metallic materials that are in the samples, such as iron. The other thing you can do is reconstruct ancient magnetic fields. So we were very interested in reconstructing the magnetic field at the time those lunar samples were formed.”

The pure metallic iron found in lunar samples differs from iron found naturally on Earth, which is usually compounded with oxygen, as in rust. “The second thing we found in terms of the magnetic fields and the preservation of them, was that there were very clear indications that they were very weak. There were indeed significant magnetic fields present in the lunar materials. The Moon was formed about 4.5 or 4.6 billion years ago. What we found where we had samples of 3.3 billion or 4 billion years of age, they still had a significant memory of some magnetic field that we believe must have existed at that time. So that tells us that unlike today, when there is no magnetic field on the Moon of any significance, that during that period of the Moon’s evolution, there was a magnetic field or possibly there was even a small core causing a small magnetic field.”

The lighter areas of the Moon, known as the highlands, were formed about 4 billion years ago, and most of the rocks there are breccias, created from the impacts that left the Moon covered by craters, Strangway said. The darker parts of the Moon, known as seas, appeared between 3 and 4 billion years ago and are made up of volcanic basalts.

At NASA, Strangway was involved in organizing many geological field trips for Apollo crews to various parts of the U.S. and some foreign sites. “We asked [the astronauts], ‘What would you sample, what would you pick up, what photographs would you take, what choices would you make to describe the nature of the [formation]?’ There were other trips that we went on, craters in Nevada and other places, trying to understand the dynamics of what happened in the cratering process. What kinds of samples should be taken, what features should be looked for, observations that should be made so that people could understand the nature of that crater.”

The last three expeditions to the Moon, Apollos 15, 16 and 17, were aimed at obtaining as much scientific information as possible, and the astronauts were equipped with Lunar Roving Vehicles for their exploration work. Strangway recalled simulations involving astronauts driving an Earthbound version of the lunar rover across a simulated Moonscape, while scientists watched by television from their backroom in Houston.

“They would be down there running a mockup of the lunar rover around, and the medical guys said we have 10 more minutes of science. What do you want to do in that time? So there were all kinds of simulations of that kind, which were very interesting exercises and actually forced you to look at your priorities and to think of what you wanted to do in that mission, so that you could get the maximum return after whatever crisis came up. What it did was force us to deal with the competing interests, the physicists, the chemists, the geologists, the astronomers, all of these people who wanted the maximum information return. What it really did was force us to exercise our minds as to what was really important. I think it had a real impact on the actual design and the actual layout of what happened in the missions.”

The results from Apollo’s research into lunar history have taught scientists a great deal about the early history of the Earth as well as that of the Moon, according to Strangway. Before Apollo, the Earth’s early history was obscured because of the Earth’s atmosphere and the forces that continue to change the Earth’s surface, he said. “The lunar samples that are 3 or 4 billion years old look as fresh as lavas that came out last week on the Earth. They are absolutely unaltered from the point of view of their chemical composition.

“What became very clear is that the rate of impacts taking place in the solar system was very non-uniform. It was very high up until 4 billion years ago, then slowed down immensely between 4 and 3.3 billion years ago. What this suggests is if you look at the period between the formation of the solar system, 4.6 billion years ago, and then the end of this most intense period of bombardment, 4 billion years ago, the solar system itself probably underwent an intense set of bombardment activity. And therefore, there was a whole piece of the Earth’s history that was probably the same as the early history of the Moon, but there’s no surface left of that age anymore, so we didn’t even know about that. We learned a lot about the Earth’s early history in a way that we hadn’t been able to record.”

Apollo 16 astronaut John Young doing geological fieldwork on the Moon, April 1972 (NASA)



Monday, 12 December 2016

My Long History With the Hubble Space Telescope

Interviewing Ron Sheffield, who helped train the astronauts to service the Hubble Space Telescope, Salinas CA, September 2016. John Ruley Photo.

Forty years ago this month, I was winding up my science elective course, Geophysics 310, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver as part of my studies for an undergraduate history degree.

I handed in an essay on the U.S. space shuttle, which then was still more than four years away from its first flight, and the essay included these lines:


Most of these statements proved to be wrong, even as I wrote them in the fall of 1976. The year before, the Large Space Telescope had been renamed the Space Telescope, and it would be renamed again in 1983 as the Hubble Space Telescope or HST. It wouldn’t be launched until 1990. It wouldn’t use a television system but a digital system based on charge coupled devices, a concept I knew nothing about back then. The telescope's aperture had already been reduced to 2.4 metres, but at least my number for its resolution has proven to be close to reality. And then there’s that spelling error.

Little did I know that four decades later, I would be writing a book about HST for NASA. Back then the Internet was still in the future, and like most everyone at the time, I used a typewriter to write that essay because only a few hobbyists had their own computers. 

I trust that thanks to fact checking by reviewers, if not enhancements to my knowledge, my upcoming book will be more accurate than the first thing I wrote about HST.

For the past two years, I have been working hard on the yet untitled history of the Hubble Space Telescope since its launch in 1990. I have another year to go on my contract , and there’s a lot of work to do. That’s why entries to this blog have become very scarce and will continue to be infrequent for the next few months.

I wrote about my early work on the HST Operations History Project in this space in December 2014, January 2015, and most recently in May 2015, shortly after my first research trip to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Hubble is controlled at Goddard, and STScI is the scientific operating centre for HST and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is awaiting launch in 2018.

Since then, I have returned to Baltimore and Greenbelt three times, and I have also travelled to Colorado, California and Florida in search of information about HST. I have been searching for documents about the history of Hubble, and interviewed many of the people who are responsible for its success. When I am not writing or travelling, I am reading up about the history of HST and the history of astronomy in the time of Hubble.

I have learned many things while working on this book, but perhaps most importantly, I now know that the story of HST is inextricably linked to progress in the field of astronomy as a whole. Images and data sets are now commonly created using data from HST in combination with other space-based observatories such as the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, and Earth-based telescopes. Many of Hubble’s most famous discoveries in fact involve large teams of astronomers using several instruments.

Now nearing the end of its twenty-sixth year on orbit, Hubble is still operating well with instruments updated as recently as 2009. Scientists are looking forward to using it in tandem with the Webb Telescope, which will operate in the infrared part of the spectrum, once it is launched.

Just a few weeks ago, I spoke to John Grunsfeld, who as an astronaut flew to Hubble three times to repair and update its instruments, and as an astronomer has used HST and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory to learn about gamma ray bursts. 

"I consistently say that the biggest discovery Hubble has made will be the next one,” Grunsfeld told me before turning to HST’s recent discovery of plumes of water on  Europa, a finding that suggests that the Jovian moon might harbour life. 

Unspoken was the fact that the discoveries will continue after Hubble stops operating because all of the data gathered by HST are available to anyone on its archive. Already more academic papers are coming out of the Hubble archive than from original observations, and the archive will continue to function as a virtual observatory.

Regardless of the fate of the telescope, Hubble’s work will go on well into the future. I won’t likely be around 40 years after my Hubble book comes out, but like my original words on the space telescope in 1976, what I say in the book will need a lot of updating. That's why the documents and interviews from my research will also be archived.

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

James Webb arrives in his official Checker Marathon at the White House, January 17, 1963. Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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.