Friday, 24 April 2020

Happy 30th Birthday, Hubble Space Telescope!

When the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit on April 24, 1990, NASA anticipated that it would last for 15 years. This week’s 30th anniversary of that launch means that HST has now supplied astronomers amazing data about our universe for a period twice that long. And while Hubble is showing signs of aging, it likely has years of work ahead of it.

The main reason this huge spacecraft is still working is the five shuttle missions that updated, refurbished and repaired it over the years. But the last time astronauts worked on Hubble was almost 11 years ago, so its longevity is becoming more and more reliant on the quality of its parts and systems.

The next big milestone for HST is hoped to be the launch of its successor space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope. JWST’s launch has been postponed many times, and its most recent projected launch date of spring 2021 may be in jeopardy because of the coronavirus pandemic. JWST is designed to image in infrared wavelengths different from the ultraviolet, visible and near infrared wavelengths available to HST, so scientists hope that both space telescopes will have at least two years of joint operation to provide a wider range of data on JWST’s early targets.

But for the moment, it’s time to look back on Hubble’s three decades of work as the world's premier space telescope. After being launched with a defective main mirror, NASA and its contractors were able to create a fix that turned HST from a symbol of failure to one of America’s technological prowess. Soon Hubble was producing astonishing views of the stars, galaxies, nebulae and planets, along with data that overturned many assumptions about the universe we live in. 

Using Hubble and other telescopes in space and on Earth, astronomers have answered many old questions about our universe and are now stumped by even more difficult questions about what we call dark matter and dark energy. We now know that the universe is a bigger, stranger and more colourful place than we thought it was 30 years ago.

It’s been my great privilege to have spent most of my time over the past five years writing about the history of the Hubble Space Telescope. I am now working with editors and designers on the production of my book about HST, Not Yet Imagined: A Study of Hubble Space Telescope Operations, which will be published later this year by the NASA History Division.

When I was beginning my work five years ago, I was able to take part in the celebrations on Earth marking HST’s first 25 years in space. Most of the celebrations for the 30th anniversary have been cancelled or postponed by the pandemic, but we will still have new images and data from around the universe to enjoy. And some celebrations have been moved online.

For this anniversary I am happy to reveal the cover for my upcoming book. 

As I have noted, Hubble has contributed to many astonishing discoveries since 1990. While researching this book, I have found that the story of HST is almost as fascinating and surprising as its scientific bounty. The task of dealing with HST’s defective main mirror tested the ingenuity and capability of NASA and the astronomical community. Once that was done, new and better instruments that could further extend Hubble’s capabilities were developed and installed on board the orbiting telescope by shuttle astronauts. 

While Hubble has thrilled scientists with its discoveries, it has also been popular with the general public. HST's arrival coincided with the early days of personal computers connected to the internet, and Hubble images were among the first disseminated widely through the internet. 

Every history book is a journey for its authors. Along the trails I followed in researching and writing this book, I have benefitted from meeting and working with many dedicated, talented and brilliant people who work with the Hubble Space Telescope. I am looking forward soon to the release of my book and sharing it with these people and other readers around the world.


Monday, 13 April 2020

The Coronavirus and Apollo 13

Apollo 13 astronauts Fred Haise, Jim Lovell & Jack Swigert shortly after the end of their flight. (NASA)
This week marks 50 years since the flight of Apollo 13, the mission whose crew of three astronauts was nearly lost while heading to the Moon. As is well known thanks to the 1995 feature film Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks, the bravery of the astronauts and the ingenuity of controllers back on Earth saved the crew during the nearly four difficult days that the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft took to get back to Earth.

Many celebrations were scheduled for this month, and most of them have been cancelled or postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. "My compatriot Jim Lovell says, the curse of Apollo 13 continues,” Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise told the collectSPACE website following the event cancellations. 

In reflecting on this anniversary of Apollo 13, I have found the confluence of events to be strangely appropriate. There are many similarities to the situation Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert faced during their harrowing journey in space, and the difficulties much of the population of Earth are dealing with today while we isolate ourselves to fight the spread of COVID-19. There is even a viral angle to Apollo 13 - an astronaut on the prime crew for the flight was replaced the day before launch when it was found that he was in danger of coming down with the measles.

On the evening of April 13, 1970, an oxygen tank explosion forced the three Apollo 13 astronauts from their mother ship into the Lunar Module, which was pressed into service as a lifeboat despite not being designed to support three astronauts for the time it would take to get back home. At the time, Apollo 13 was three days into its mission and was much closer to the Moon than the Earth. The astronauts had to quickly absorb the disappointment of having their lunar landing cancelled so they could turn to the difficult job of working with flight controllers in Houston to save themselves.

The Apollo 13 Service Module quickly lost power, and batteries on board the Command Module Odyssey began to drain. Once on board the Lunar Module Aquarius, the crew had to turn off their Command Module, something that had never been done, and run the Lunar Module on extremely limited power. Water was also at a premium, and an ingenious solution had to be found to make sure that the air in their spacecraft was cleaned of the carbon dioxide the three astronauts exhaled. 

At the time of the explosion and for much of the flight, Earth was so far away from Apollo 13 that its astronauts could look out the window into the black void of space and hide their home planet behind a thumb. When Apollo 13 passed around the Moon the next day, the three astronauts set a new record for the greatest distance humans have ever been from Earth, a record that still stands today.

For four nights and three days, the astronauts shivered in a damp, unheated spacecraft as it looped around the Moon and brought them home. They had little sleep. The crew had to fire their engines to stay on the narrow path home with untried procedures. As the spacecraft neared the Earth, they had to go through a complicated checklist to restart their Command Module, which was the only way they had to get through the re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Controllers back on Earth had to make tough decisions on the path home, and for reasons of safety, they did not select the shortest route back to Earth. Instead, they had to figure out how to husband air, water and power during the way around the Moon and back home.

Most of us on Earth are spending our period of social isolation today in the friendly confines of home, which are confines just the same where unknown dangers of viral disease lurk just outside. Many of us are suddenly faced with having to manage resources that are unexpectedly short because of a loss of employment or business. Some of us are alone and most of us have lost direct access to family, other loved ones, and friends. 

Public health authorities and governments now face difficult decisions about how long the extraordinary measures they have ordered will need to stay in place. At the time of writing, the disease has not reached its peak in North America and we have many weeks of social distancing measures ahead of us. 

Saving Apollo 13 was a complicated and difficult challenge, but today’s danger involves managing millions of people while the invisible and still poorly understood coronavirus circulates. Turning the economy off for several weeks and then restarting it will present us all with many challenges, just like turning a spacecraft off in space and then back on did in 1970. Scores of thousands of people have already died in today's pandemic, and many more will die, although public health measures give promise of saving many more lives. There is a good chance that further rounds of public health measures lie ahead later in the year and next year due to the danger of new waves of this contagion.

The scales of the challenges of Apollo 13 and of COVID-19 are quite different, but we can learn something for our challenge of today from the success of 50 years ago.

"The lesson of Apollo 13 is what we had to do to survive,” Fred Haise observed. "We had to be willing to be able to change the norm, if you will, because we had to deal with a lot of new things and new procedures to work around and get through it all, and that's exactly what the world and people are having to deal with today.”

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Recollections of Apollo 13 on its 50th Anniversary

Comet Bennett C/1969 Y1 (Pinterest)

The second Monday of April in 1970 was like many days during that time of my life - a day of classes in my junior high school in Edmonton, Alberta, followed by a monthly evening meeting of the Edmonton Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada at the University of Alberta. The topic that evening was Galaxies and Cosmology.

My thoughts that day likely involved looking forward to the third Apollo landing on the Moon, which was supposed to take place two days later on Wednesday evening, followed by two Moon walks the next day. Apollo 13 and its crew had launched from the Kennedy Space Center the previous Saturday. Because two Apollo crews had already visited the lunar surface, public interest in this flight had fallen off, but I looked forward to the landing just the same.

When I got home from the RASC meeting, my parents greeted me with surprising news: Apollo 13 was in trouble and wouldn’t make it to the Moon. There were only three television channels in Edmonton at the time, but the CBC had pre-empted its programming to follow the saga of Apollo 13 following an explosion of an oxygen tank in its Service Module. The coverage continued into the early hours of Tuesday through the first major engine firing that got the crippled spacecraft on its way home to Earth.

I wasn’t often up at such a late hour, and I took advantage of the time to go outside and enjoy the clear skies that night that had darkened after moonset. A special treat awaited me: high in the sky was Comet Bennett, which could be found at that time of night with the naked eye. It was my first comet. It turns out the Apollo 13 astronauts were due to observe the comet during their flight, but that plan was abandoned due to the life-and-death struggle the astronauts faced. 

That same night near Osoyoos, B.C., two employees of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory were testing the quality of observations available at a site atop Mount Kobau, which had been under consideration for a major new telescope. Frank Younger and Ernie Pfannenschmidt took a number of photos along the path of Apollo 13 as announced by NASA. One of their photos showed a fuzzy object resembling a globular cluster that was actually the cloud of oxygen that resulted from the explosion on Apollo 13. Other observers had caught the cloud, but none of their images matched quality of the photo taken by Younger and Pfannenschmidt, who I got to know years later in Victoria.

Image of Apollo 13 cloud from Mount Kobau. 

The next day Apollo 13 swung around the Moon, and television networks provided wall-to-wall coverage of Apollo 13’s return to Earth through the week. On Friday, April 17, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert made it back to Earth in their spacecraft while a gigantic audience watched on TV, including much of my school.

The story of Apollo 13 was nearly forgotten after some time, but 25 years later the feature film Apollo 13 directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks hit the theatres.  It told the story of how controllers in Houston figured out how to keep the astronauts alive in their Lunar Module lifeboat far beyond design specifications during the long days between the explosion and the splashdown.

Now another 25 years have gone by and the film version of Apollo 13 still endures as arguably the best feature film made about space exploration. And today there are two more ways to appreciate the first crisis in deep space involving astronauts. 

Both follow productions created for last year’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The BBC World Service produced a series of podcasts called 13 minutes to the Moon outlining that mission, and now it is releasing a new series under that name telling the story of Apollo 13 in riveting detail. See

In 2015, NASA software engineer Ben Feist created an amazing website called Apollo 17 in Real Time, which followed every moment from liftoff to splashdown of the final expedition to the Moon in amazing detail using every photograph, film and video of the mission, complemented with tapes obtained from the Mission Operations Control Room in Houston. Last year Feist repeated the feat for Apollo 11, and now Apollo 13 in Real Time is live on the web. See 

The story of Apollo 13 is a powerful reminder of the dangers astronauts faced when they flew to the Moon, and of the ingenuity exhibited by the young engineers who supported that flight in Mission Control in Houston when faced with a highly unexpected and dangerous situation.

With Jim and Marilyn Lovell, 2016.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

A Global Event: the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020

This updated version of the iconic "Pale Blue Dot" image taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft uses modern image-processing software and techniques to revisit the well-known Voyager view while attempting to respect the original data and intent of those who planned the images. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Just as COVID-19 was beginning its worldwide tour in February, NASA released a remastered version of the 'Pale Blue Dot' image of the Earth taken 30 years ago from the outer reaches of the solar system by Voyager 1. That image shows how small the Earth really is, and now the coronavirus is delivering that same message in a more visceral fashion.

As a pandemic that is affecting people in every part of our planet, COVID-19 is but the latest global phenomenon that is shaping and changing life all over the Earth. 

We are familiar with the economic changes that we know as globalization. Historians argue that the internationalization of business we see today goes back to the world-girdling empires of the 19th century, often business driven, that relied on advances in transportation such as steamships, railroads, and more recently automotive vehicles and aircraft. One hundred years ago, the large movements of people related to World War I facilitated the great influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1920. 

Since that time, we have seen revolutionary changes in communications such as radio, television, the internet and social media that have tied our world closer together, not always with happy results. 

Fifty years ago this spring, the first Earth Day took place at a time when transnational environmental organizations were first being created and when astronauts came home from the Moon with iconic photos of the whole Earth in the darkness of space. 

The declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic on March 11 and the big changes that are now affecting billions of people constitute a major historical event that will ensure that 2020 is long remembered. Even under the best case scenarios, the world and the lives of most everyone in it will be changed. It remains to be seen what changes will endure.

Beyond the casualties of disease and economic dislocation caused by COVID-19, I am wondering what lessons will be drawn from this universally shared experience. To start off, there are encouraging signs that many people are realizing the value of public health. The majority of people who haven’t understood that our public health departments have saved many more lives than the much more expensive and higher profile acute care system are receiving a powerful lesson from the coronavirus. 

In a time that will never be remembered for the quality of leadership from our political classes or economic elites, public health professionals, many of them women, are stepping in to fill the void. We are learning about the importance of even the lowliest health care workers, the cleaners and janitors, who fight germs despite decades of unfriendly attention from budget cutters and efficiency experts.

Like other plagues and pandemics before it, the coronavirus is exploiting weaknesses in our economic and social structures. It will be interesting to see what lessons are learned in societies that have come to tolerate inequality, poverty, and a lack of social solidarity. To fight COVID-19, we face the paradoxical requests to show social solidarity by social distancing, and to slow the virus by closing borders and doors when COVID-19 has already overcome the walls and the nationalist and populist politics that were supposed to protect many countries from problems originating in other parts of the world.

When the pandemic comes to an end, the population of Earth will have to return to facing the challenges of an even bigger threat to our shared future, climate change. With luck the lessons humanity learns fighting a virus will make a proper impression on those people who have up to now chosen to deny or deprecate the scientific evidence of climate change.

On that pale blue dot where we all live, we will have to learn to think in planetary terms in more than matters of economic gain if humanity hopes to endure. 

Friday, 17 January 2020

John S. MacDonald, Entrepreneur, 1936-2019

John S. MacDonald. University of Northern BC photo
By Chris Gainor
Special to the Globe and Mail
January 17, 2020

Engineer and entrepreneur John S. MacDonald stamped his name on the Canadian space business by building a technology, space and information services company literally from the ground up. 
MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. or MDA, which Mr. MacDonald founded in 1969 in the basement of his Vancouver home with fellow engineer Werner (Vern) Dettwiler, began producing computer systems, but turned to space when an opportunity arose to build a ground Station in Canada for the Landsat-1 remote sensing satellite following its launch in 1972. 
By 1998, when Mr. MacDonald retired as chair of MDA, the company had overtaken Spar Aerospace as Canada’s largest space contractor and acquired Spar’s space business, including the work of building the Canadarm for the U.S. space shuttle and the International Space Station. 
Just four days after Mr. MacDonald died in Vancouver on December 26 due to cerebral amyloid angiopathy, MDA was back in the news with the announcement that it will return to Canadian ownership in 2020 after two years under the wing of Maxar Technologies Inc.
John Spencer MacDonald was born in Prince Rupert, B.C. on August 13, 1936. He demonstrated his interest in electronics early when he repaired radios in fish boats there while in high school. Mr. MacDonald renewed his links with the area later in life when he served as Chancellor of the University of Northern B.C. from 2010 to 2016.  
After earning an undergraduate degree in applied science at the University of B.C. in 1959, Mr. MacDonald earned a master’s degree in 1961 and a Ph.D. in 1964, both from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After teaching at MIT, he returned to Vancouver where be began teaching electrical engineering at UBC.
Mr. MacDonald married his wife Alfredette in 1959 after having met her while on a summer job with Atomic Energy of Canada in Chalk River, Ont. They soon had two sons, Neil and Jay.
Although Mr. MacDonald enjoyed teaching, he noticed that many of the young engineers he was training at UBC were leaving the province to find work, and as he explained to science writer Barry Shanko in an interview, “I wanted to do something meaningful in an engineering sense.”
The result was that he and Mr. Dettwiler founded MDA, which started by building monitoring and control systems for microwave networks and pipelines. Mr. MacDonald was president of the firm until 1982.
MDA principal scientist David Sloan alerted Mr. MacDonald to the fact that the Canadian government wanted to build a ground station to receive images and other data from Landsat. As a result, MDA built a major part of the Canadian ground station, and armed with new designs for portable digital ground stations, MDA went on to capture a major part of the world market for portable civilian ground stations for remote sensing satellites.
Working with the Canadian Centre for Remote Sensing and its director general, Lawrence W. (Larry) Morley, Mr. MacDonald and MDA turned to remote sensing using synthetic aperture radar, where radar signals are used to create high definition images. Satellites and aircraft using this type of radar can obtain images at any time of day or night, and are not impeded by cloudy weather. The images are useful for mapping, environmental monitoring, and following masses of ice. 
MDA developed a digital processor for synthetic aperture radar that flew on Seasat, an American ocean research satellite that was launched in 1978. When the Canadian government launched Radarsat-1 in 1995, Spar Aerospace was the main contractor. MDA was a major subcontractor on Radarsat-1, and it created and sold a whole variety of data products from the satellite for many different users.
Around that time, MDA drew up a concept for Radarsat-2 which had much greater capabilities than the first Radarsat. Spar Aerospace resisted Mr. MacDonald’s pleas to incorporate MDA’s ideas into its Radarsat-2 proposal because it considered them too risky. So MDA bid on the job with its own concepts and in 1998 won the competition to build Radarsat-2. Spar soon left the space business and sold its space divisions to MDA.
“My basic thesis was that if we’re going to compete in the first half of the 21stcentury, we have to have a much more information-rich spacecraft than Radarsat-1,” Mr. MacDonald recalled.
The second Radarsat was so powerful that the U.S. government declined to launch it as it had done for previous Canadian satellites because of security concerns, and so Radarsat-2 was launched by a Russian rocket in 2007 and became another success.
MDA has since built the twin-satellite Radarsat Constellation Mission, which was launched last June atop a Falcon rocket, and has continued work on the Canadarm robot arm on the U.S. space shuttle, Canadarm-2 on the International Space Station, and a new Canadarm planned for the U.S. Lunar Gateway space station. MDA also became known for the information products it has developed from remote sensing data, including images and maps  tracing the movement of ground surfaces and sea surfaces, and images of icebergs, oil spills, and areas affected by natural disasters.
When asked about his major legacy, Mr. MacDonald said: “It’s the people that rank with the best of the world in advanced technology in B.C. and Canada.”
While he tried to hire the best people for his technical teams, Mr. MacDonald did not rely on credentials. He once took on an engineer who expressed surprise at his hiring because he hadn’t yet completed his degree but saw numerous employee diplomas decorating the office wall. “We don’t need any more wallpaper here,” Mr. MacDonald replied.
After 1998, Mr. MacDonald served as chair and CEO of solar energy company Day4 Energy Inc. from 2001 to 2014. 
Mr. MacDonald was an avid amateur astronomer and enjoyed sailing the B.C. coast. He and his wife enjoyed travelling to every part of the world. 
Mr. MacDonald has earned many honours and awards, including the Order of Canada in 1988. He is survived by his wife, two sons, and three grandchildren.