50 Years of Apollo

On July 21, it will be FIFTY years since mankind first walked on the Moon.

Although the Russians – with superior rocket power – managed to get not only the first satellite in space, but the first man in orbit, first woman in orbit, and smash the first man-made object into the moon, it wasn’t until May of 1961 when President John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech, challenging America that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

United for the Cause

Perhaps no other statement since Roosevelt’s “Date which will live in infamy…” speech has done more to stir an entire nation in a single united direction. Congress allotted funding. The infant technology industry ramped up. Mylar was invented. Velcro found a use. Manufacturing learned to miniaturize (in a time of bulky tubes and transistors, when each reel of magnetic computer tape could hold a whopping 184 Kilobytes of memory [for reference, an MP3 recording of the Star Spangled Banner runs around 900 Kb – half your memory]). The entire country surged forward with that dream, no doubt spurred on as an homage to Kennedy following his assassination. TV picked up the dream with serious and non-serious programs like Star Trek, Lost in Space, Dr. Who, and more. Movies gave way to huge spectacles, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, and a few thousand campy pulp films. Food wasn’t left out: the need to eat in space gave us the use of TANG, dehydrated ice cream, and Pillsbury Space Food Sticks.

The Final Frontier

The road to the moon was littered with failures – we didn’t even manage to smash a probe onto the moon until 1962. We made it through the Gemini program, only to learn that some things couldn’t be rushed or corners cut when the Apollo 1 crew – Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee – burned to death in an oxygen fire in a test module, because the pressurized doors opened the wrong way. This led to a pause – there was no Apollo 2 or 3, and 4-5-6 were all unmanned. If ever there was a lot of pressure on a crew, Apollo 7 was the first 3-manned crew to blast off Earth, period. Missions 8-10 looped the moon, giving us the famous Earthrise photo.

Apollo 11 pulled it all together. With less computer capability than an Apple watch, the lunar lander settled on the moon,  Armstrong sent out the famous words, “The Eagle has landed,” followed shortly by Armstrong’s historic “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” At the end of an incredibly violent, divisive, depressing decade, the entire world came together for a few brief moments to rejoice.

Fifty years later, we sit back on our Tempur-pedic cushions with our cell phones, tablets, LED lights, and flat-screen TVs, watching through scratch-proof lenses or LASIK-fixed eyes (all outgrowths of the space program),  and marvel at a time when space exploration was our future.


How do we know it wasn’t faked? Like everywhere Man goes, we left our garbage behind – landing modules, rovers, flags and plaques – more than 400,000 pounds worth, and though they can’t be seen by any telescope on Earth (you’re talking a 10-foot object from 239,000 miles away), they can by orbital satellites around the Moon.  The path to space is far too complex for a blog post, so grab a good book, watch a good film (join us for a viewing of the documentary Apollo 11 at CPL on July 18), and think on just how different our lives would be if we never tried to reach for the Moon.




The Martian is Coming!

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I have not read a book this gripping in ages. Oh, sure, I adore the Retribution Falls series by Chris Wooding, they are delightful and make my heart sing, but in The Martian, Andy Weir has managed to catch me in my weakest spot, a tale that feeds both my need for a good imagine-if story and lovingly nerdy details that set my non-fiction scientific brain on fire. I got to the end, and I wanted to read it all over again.

Very rarely do I seek a book out. They just happen to come to me in weird ways and tickle my interest enough that I open the cover (and covers are so VERY important. If it wasn’t for the fantastic artwork on the original Dragonlance books, I never would have entered a world that kept me trapped for more than ten years and ultimately sent to me to Lord of the Rings, which, really, is the Great-Granddaddy of the genre anyway). This time, I saw the trailer for the upcoming movie version of The Martian (release date: October 2, 2015), and was intrigued enough that when the book passed through my hands, I grabbed it.

Mark Watney is a crewman on the third manned mission to Mars. When a dust storm hits the crew on their way back to the lander, a piece of equipment snaps off and skewers his spacesuit, sending him reeling down a dune. His crew searches, but can’t locate him in the storm. His vital signs aren’t registering, and they all saw him toothpicked by that antenna. At the last possible second, they admit to themselves he’s dead and blast off to the mother ship while they can.

Only one problem.

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The story revolves around Watney’s ability to survive the impossible, figuring things out as he goes, making everything out of the most basic substances, James T. Kirk channeling MacGyver. Because the supplies left behind were meant for six and he’s only one, he’s able to piece things along using his own ingenuity until NASA realizes he’s still alive. They try and mount a rescue mission, but NASA being NASA and twisted up in bureaucracy and safety margins, not everything is going to go by plan. The chances of Watney making it or not remain 50-50 right up until the final pages. This is a book that will make you sneak off every possible second to read just one more paragraph. From the first page, it will grab you and never let you go. By the end, you’re going to be looking around your house to see if you, too, have anything that can free oxygen or create water, and you will never look at potatoes the same way.

Knowing that in the film Matt Damon has the lead role of Watney makes you read the story in his voice. He is a brilliant piece of casting; the book seems written for him and he will be utterly convincing in the role. Check out the trailer here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ue4PCI0NamI . Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise) is directing, and he is certainly adept at handling suspense. I’m waiting to see what they do with the soundtrack, since it’s a running joke through the book that the only music that was left behind is disco (can you imagine being stuck somewhere for months or years with nothing but a few tracks of disco to listen to? I love the Saturday Night Fever album, and I do love ABBA, but not for weeks on end!).

You don’t have to know science to enjoy the book. You don’t even have to know your Phobos from your Deimos. You just have to love a good pressure-cooker story. Don’t let this one skip your orbit.

Andy Weir, I love you.

Mars surface close to equator

Mars surface close to equator