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.