Posts Tagged ‘Apollo’

The Moon as a symbol of hope

July 19, 2019

Eclipse July 2019

I sat out by the Diana Fountain in Bushy Park on Tuesday night and took a picture of the eclipsed Moon.

As I sat in the peaceful darkness, I thought about the fact that when I was nine-years old, human beings had sent a rocket ship to the moon, and men had walked about and collected some rocks.

As technology has advanced since the 1960s, the engineering in the Apollo program has not been eclipsed. Indeed, it seems ever more remarkable.

And amongst the moths and the bats, I reflected that “…if human beings can do that, then we can do anything that can be done…”. 

That qualification “…that can be done…” is there because although the aim of the Apollo programme was built on a whimsical folly, the engineers who made it happen could only use practical steps to make it real.

Some of the steps they took seem astonishing, but there was – obviously – nothing ‘impossible’. No steps relied on wishful thinking.

The excellent bookHow Apollo Flew to the Moon” , (my review is here) highlighted some of most astonishing facts:

  • The total mechanical output power of five first stage rockets was 60 GW. This is equivalent to peak electrical supply of the entire United Kingdom.
  • On its return from the moon, its speed just before entry into the Earth’s atmosphere was more than 11 kilometres per second.
  • Since Apollo 17 returned in 1972. no human being has been more than 700 kilometres from Earth’s surface.

And sitting in the dark I reflected that if we could achieve all these things then, surely we can – and eventually will – get our act together on Climate Change.

It may seem impossible now, but even the most politically deaf regimes will eventually dance to the theme of climate change – they have no choice.

And if the US were to devote to this problem even a small fraction of the energy and enterprise that it devoted to Apollo, they could yet inspire us all again, and leave a legacy to be proud of for all our children.

How Apollo Flew to the Moon

September 6, 2015
The Moon photographed above some beach grass in Northumberland

The Moon photographed above some beach grass in Northumberland

On my recent holiday in Northumberland, I both photographed the moon, and read about how almost 50 years ago, human beings landed on its surface.

This article is a review of the book I read: ‘How Apollo Flew to the Moon‘ by W. David Woods.

Staring at the moon and considering what we now know about its distance from Earth, its size, and its inhospitable surface, is an exercise in bridging emotional and intellectual understanding.

I have long-considered that the Apollo programme of manned spaceflights to the Moon to have been an exemplar of the power of human intellect, and overall one of humanity’s exceptional achievements.

The enormous cost of the programme (4% of the US Federal budget in 1967) was – in my opinion – well justified by the cultural shift it engendered.

We went to the Moon and discovered the Earth‘ is a truth expressed by many, including several of the early astronauts.

However this book is not about the cultural impact of the programme, but about how the journey was made. For anyone with a technical disposition the book will fascinate.

I took all 500 pages of the book on holiday with me and self-indulgently read it slowly from cover to cover: it was enormously enjoyable.

After an overview, the book follows the Apollo 11 mission through all its stages, sprinkling in astronaut comments and explaining the differences between earlier and later missions.

There are many fascinating details, but what came through to me above everything was NASA’s pervasive mindset of constantly, painstakingly, meticulously and expensively planning for failure.

The philosophy of not just being aware that an operation may fail, but making detailed plans for what you will do when it does is a lesson for anyone who wants a complex plan to succeed.

And not only were there back-up plans for failure, there were plans for failure of the back-up plans! Only at one or two key points in the entire mission were there operations which simply had to work.

So, for example, when their spacecraft fired a rocket engine to leave Earth’s orbit and head towards the Moon –  or rather where the Moon was going to be in three days time – the rocket burn placed them into a so-called ‘free-return trajectory‘.

Thus if something went wrong on the voyage, or the rocket engine failed to fire – the spacecraft would sail around the Moon and head straight back to Earth.

When launched towards the Moon, the Apollo spacecraft was placed in a “Circumlunar-free-return-trajectory” . This meant that unless they did something positive to enter the Moon’s orbit, they would return to the Earth. Picture by NickFr Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia

Overall, the book is a great read for the technically minded. And in addition to the narrative there are occasional superlatives – like ‘vista-points’ on a highway – where you can stop and simply wonder.

  • The total mechanical output power of five first stage rockets was 60 GW. This is equivalent to peak electrical supply of the entire United Kingdom.
  • On its return from the moon, its speed just before entry into the Earth’s atmosphere was more than 11 kilometres per second.
  • Since Apollo 17 returned in 1972. no human being has been more than 500 miles from Earth’s surface.

Is this a picture of Earth?

March 21, 2012
One of these images is a photograph of the Earth. The other isn't. So which is which? And what is the other one? (Images courtesy of NASA)

One of these images is a photograph of the Earth. The other isn't. So which is which? And what is the other one? (Images courtesy of NASA)

Friends. Fellow humans. We live on an amazing planet. And I feel priveliged to belong to the first generation in all of Earth’s history who have seen our planet as viewed from space. As we beat ourselves up for our collective failure to safeguard our planet, I feel it is worthwhile to pause and realise just how recently we acquired a truly global perspective.

The image on the left is a photograph of the Earth taken on a Hasslebad camera by an astronaut on Apollo 17 who, 28,000 miles out from Earth, looked out the window and happened to find the Earth illuminated fully. Since you can see Antarctica in daylight you can tell this must be in the southern hemisphere summer. When the camera was returned to Earth, the film was developed and the image revealed – there were no digital previews in 1972!

The image on the right is a fabrication. It uses ‘data’ acquired by a low Earth orbit satellite (Suomi) which is cleverly pasted together as described here.

Illustration of the way in which the right hand image was fabricated

Illustration of the way in which the right-hand image was fabricated. Despite being acquired by a satellite at a height of around 300 miles, it simulates the view from much further away. Image courtesy of NASA.

So what do we conclude? The view is no less amazing for having been simulated. And the whole Earth perspective it represents is as much a philosophical perspective as a physical one. But despite the ubiquity of a similar image as the default iPhone desktop, I find the original more emotionally powerful. The fact that an individual human being took the picture on the boldest adventure of a generation somehow resonates with me.

The six and a half minute video below describes in more detail how the images are made – it is shockingly complicated. Enjoy 🙂

http://www.sciencefriday.com/embed/video/10425.swf


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