a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Apollo 11, The True Story of the Lunar Landing

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd July 2009


I remember staying up and watching this at 4 AM or some ungodly hour in Germany, where we happened to be living at the time.

I was 11; I felt proud of the U.S. for being able to do it, and think I also knew that was a little absurd of me, though I couldn’t swear to that now. I do know I was worried about the landing — and that I was also convinced I was watching history, and wouldn’t have believed so little would come of it all; I thought maybe I’d be up there someday.

I realize this puts me in the same ballpark as Charles Krauthammer, and that does worry me a little, but I don’t know why people get so proud of being tough-minded about manned space missions, and sometimes any space missions at all. ‘It’s a waste of time and money and we have poor people to feed’ blah blah like we can’t possibly do both. I understand the low benefit to cost ratio in any reasonable accounting of it; I understand people pointing that out. But when they act like that’s all there is to say I feel a little sad for them.

As for the video: I learned about the tough landing choices later on, but not about the computer malfunction. Armstrong really seems to have been the guy with the right stuff for the mission.

BAFFLED “TECHNICAL NOTE”: I actually tried to submit this sometime last night at the original YouTube page — nothing happened; I clicked again — nothing happened again. Now here it is. I’ve deleted the other one.

UPDATE, 7/24: The online science fiction magazine held a “Moon Landing Day” (and not coincidentally its first anniversary) with reminiscences by at least two dozen authors and editors, including Greg Bear, Nancy Kress, Larry Niven, the Nielsen Haydens and others — each illuminated by original NASA photographs that make the visit doubly rewarding. The introduction by Torie Atkinson is my introduction to her; it’s very well done, with links to NASA and other sites commemorating the occasion. Via Patrick Nielsen Hayden (“Making Light”).

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Remarkable Phoenix Lander microscope image

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th July 2008

This image was acquired at the Phoenix landing site on day 5 of the mission on the surface of Mars, or Sol 4, after the May 25, 2008, landing. The optical microscope acquired this image at 12:34:19 local solar time. The camera pointing was elevation null degrees and azimuth null degrees.

Remarkable -- it's in English, too!

How about that — a tiny, tiny newspaper clipping. And in English, too! I suppose it’s just possible they’d have put it aboard for calibration purposes, but … nah. Then again, “thanks bridge two planets”. MECA is the name of the microscope instrument package (Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer) …well, maybe this wasn’t hacker mischief.

Anyway, the Phoenix lander is busy scooping and photographing and measuring away, have a look at the other photos it’s sent from Mars.

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Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th June 2008

My Mars Phoenix Lander question

…if it’s looking for water a robot-arm-scooper length away from where it lands, how much sense does it make to use retro rockets in the final descent? Seems like the bouncy ball idea would have made even more sense this time than last time with the two rovers.

answered. I’d been imagining the lander sending back telemetry to the effect, “that’s funny, it’s as if everything around me had been scorched, blasted, and desiccated by some kind of retro-…. d’oh!”

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taking a breather: rivers, tides, music, stars

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th March 2008

  • from Rivers and Tides, Andy Goldsworthy, movie by Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2001 (6:35)
  • Billie Holliday, Lester Young, “Fine And Mellow,” 1957 (9:04)
  • The Hubble Deep Field Image, movie by astronomers at SUNY, 1995 (4:30)

    assembled from 342 separate exposures taken with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) for ten consecutive days between December 18 and 28, 1995. [...]

    Representing a narrow “keyhole” view stretching to the visible horizon of the universe, the HDF image covers a speck of the sky only about the width of a dime located 75 feet away. Though the field is a very small sample of the heavens, it is considered representative of the typical distribution of galaxies in space because the universe, statistically, looks largely the same in all directions. Gazing into this small field, Hubble uncovered a bewildering assortment of at least 1,500 galaxies at various stages of evolution.

  • Miles Davis, “So What,” 1958 (8:22)
  • from Rivers and Tides, Andy Goldsworthy/Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2001 (4:01)

NOTES: Holliday video clip via Bernard Chazelle (“A Tiny Revolution”) where you can read more about it. The first “Rivers and Tides” link is to the IMdB movie database, the second is to the Powell’s Books entry. “Hubble Deep Field Image” link is to the news release web page. Emphasis added; by my calculation, that means there are well over 25 million more distinct views like this one. A subsequent exposure, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image, is discussed here.

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Maryland’s messenger meets Mercury

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th January 2008

Messenger image of Mercury
Vivaldi Crater, Mercury.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University
Applied Physics Laboratory/
Carnegie Institution of Washington

The MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) probe is engaged in its first flyby of Mercury, and is sending images back to Earth:

This MESSENGER image was taken from a distance of about 18,000 kilometers (11,000 miles), about 56 minutes before the spacecraft’s closest encounter with Mercury. It shows a region roughly 500 kilometers (300 miles) across, and craters as small as 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) can be seen in this image.

The voyage is itself something of a triumph of celestial navigation: the probe was timed and programmed to fly by Venus twice to slow it sufficiently to enter Mercury’s orbit — with the first visit taking place when Venus was on the opposite side of the sun (October 2006), and with the final approach to Mercury orbit slated for 2011, after two more fly-bys of that planet. A critical course correction — a.k.a. “trajectory course maneuver,” or TCM — took place late last year, monitored by mission controllers in Laurel, Maryland:

Mission controllers at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, verified the start of the maneuver about 13 minutes after the start of TCM-19 when the first signals indicating spacecraft thruster activity reached NASA’s Deep Space Network tracking station outside Canberra, Australia.

So what can be learned from Mercury? It’s apparently an unusually dense planet — 60% metal core, twice as much as Earth — and may thus provide a new data point for understanding planetary formation generally, including the Earth’s:

Understanding this “end member” among the terrestrial planets is crucial to developing a better understanding of how the planets in our solar system formed and evolved.

(Via Chad Orzel’s delicious astronomy and uncertain principles.)

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Cassini-Huygens, Titan / Opportunity, Mars

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th November 2007

Movie built from telemetry data during the descent of the ESA probe “Huygens” to the surface of Titan. Some Brian Eno type had the nice idea of associating the activation of different mechanisms on board the Huygens with specific musical tones and colors:

This movie, built with data collected during the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe on Jan. 14, 2005, shows the operation of the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer camera during its descent and after touchdown. The camera was funded by NASA.

The almost four-hour-long operation of the camera is shown in less than five minutes. That’s 40 times the actual speed up to landing and 100 times the actual speed thereafter. [...]

Sounds from a left speaker trace Huygens’ motion, with tones changing with rotational speed and the tilt of the parachute. There also are clicks that clock the rotational counter, as well as sounds for the probe’s heat shield hitting Titan’s atmosphere, parachute deployments, heat shield release, jettison of the camera cover and touchdown.


Sounds from a right speaker go with the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer activity. There’s a continuous tone that represents the strength of Huygens’ signal to Cassini. Then there are 13 different chimes – one for each of instrument’s 13 different science parts – that keep time with flashing-white-dot exposure counters. During its descent, the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer took 3,500 exposures.

The “instrumentation” sidebar panels are also explained. For a sense of Titan’s strangeness, watch the ESA video “Huygens on Titan: one year after“; the planet seems to have a liquid methane cycle the way Earth has a water cycle: methane-soaked “mud,” methane rivers, methane clouds, methanefall.

Meanwhile, on Mars, the Opportunity and Spirit rovers keep on ticking, with the Opportunity rover poised to enter Victoria Crater via “Duck Bay,” the safest (rockiest, most shallow sloped) entry point to the crater:

For the current state of the mission, visit the JPL “Mars Exploration Rover Mission” web site.

NOTES: Cassini Huygens video via commenter sglover; that and “methanefall” link via Thoreau (“Unqualified Offerings”). Other posts at this site mentioning Cassini-Huygens: 2005/01/15: “Touchdown on Titan: Bravo Cassini-Huygens!“; 2004/12/09: “Rings, shadows, moon,” a beautiful image of Saturn’s rings.

UPDATE, 11/12: There is some nice footage from Mission Control at JPL from when the rover landed back in January 25, 2004 and started transmitting. Give those folks a hand. Man, Gore is everywhere, isn’t he? See also a favorite video of mine (also on YouTube): “Six Minutes of Terror” — as well as this funny animation.

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Hubble telescope repair mission in 2008

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st November 2006

Crab Nebula by Hubble (NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (ASU))
Hubble mosaic image of Crab Nebula
Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll
(Arizona State University)

Greenbelt, Maryland’s Goddard Space Flight Center will be at work with the Hubble through about 2013; NASA has decided to repair the Hubble space telescope after all. The Washington Post’s Marc Kaufman reports:

NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said yesterday that his 18-month review concluded that the mission could be safely accomplished. His announcement, made at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, home to much of the Hubble workforce, was met with an eruption of joy. [...]

Marylanders can also note that the Hubble project has generated an estimated 1000 jobs in the state, and brought expertise to the area that can’t hurt in the future.

The telescope needs work because gyroscopes and batteries are wearing out, but the repair mission was also worrisome because the International Space Station would be out of reach as a safe haven for astronauts if problems develop with the shuttle. The plan now is to have a second shuttle ready for launch in case it’s needed to rescue the repair crew.

This kind of mission has always been part of the plan for Hubble:

The true beauty of Hubble lies in its ability to be serviced and improved as technology advances. From the outset, Hubble was designed to be visited and upgraded over the years by NASA astronauts. There have been four servicing missions so far — designated SM1, SM2, SM3A and SM3B. The new mission is designated SM4.

With each servicing mission, Hubble’s overall performance has been greatly enhanced. The observatory today is tremendously more powerful than when it launched in 1990, and after the next mission, Hubble will be at its peak, performing anywhere from 10 to 100 times better in various areas.

Thus, this seems like a very good use for the space shuttle — earth orbit missions furthering exploratory science that can’t be done any other way.

Meanwhile, a number of new space telescopes are planned for the near future, including ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory (2008) and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (2013); both are planned to inhabit the Sun-Earth L2 point, a gravitationally stable place to “park” a satellite and shield it from the Sun. At about 1.5 million km these will be about 4 times further away than the moon, so I’m guessing these space telescopes will be beyond the reach of manned repair/upgrade missions for the foreseeable future.

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Specialty blogwatch

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th October 2005

This is just a quick survey of recent posts from some of the interesting, specialized blogs I read now and then from my “specialty” blogroll — maybe you’ll start reading one or the other of them, too.

Schneier on Security — Those tiny little yellow dots you never noticed? They’re Secret Forensic Codes in Color Laser Printers: Many color laser printers embed secret information in every page they print, basically to identify you by. Here, the EFF has cracked the code of the Xerox DocuColor series of printers.

Mystery PollsterGetting Past the Noise: Bush Slide Continues (10/19/2005): The bottom line: the President’s approval has fallen all year, declining about 1% every month since January. But since August we’ve seen a sharper drop. Call it the “Katrina effect.”

Lunar DevelopmentShall McArthur return?: “Russia has met all the engagements on transferring NASA employees to the ISS. Formally, we even do not have to return McArthur to the Earth,” Russia’s space agency Roskosmos senior official Alexey Krasnov said.[] Karen Cramer writes that the story is connected to the Iran Non-proliferation Agreement as well.

Savage Minds — No more “Bushmen of the Kalahari.” Bushmen expelled from Homeland: All but a few of the Bushmen living in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve have been forcibly removed from their homes in recent days in what spokesmen for the affected communities said is a final push by the government to end human habitation there after tens of thousands of years. [Washington Post, 10/10/2005] … Before forced removals started in the late 90s, there were over 2,000 Bushmen living there.

The Panda’s Thumb — Covering the “intelligent design” case in Pennsylvania with Waterloo in Dover: The Kitzmiller v. DASD case: The defense needs to defeat the plaintiffs’ arguments concerning both the purpose and the effect of the “intelligent design” policy. For the second, they are most likely to try to convince Judge Jones that “intelligent design”, and specifically the policy adopted by the DASD, are scientific in character, and thus have a place in the science curriculum regardless of any secondary effect they might have in the way of having implications for religious belief. DASD is the Dover Area School District, which is trying to enforce ‘intelligent design’ teaching in biology classes. The post is now updated with new developments every couple of days or so as the case proceeds.

RealClimateGlobal Warming On Earth discusses the latest NASA Goddard Institute surface temperature data analysis: The 2005 Jan-Sep land data (which is adjusted for urban biases) is higher than the previously warmest year (0.76°C compared to the 1998 anomaly of 0.75°C for the same months, and a 0.71°C anomaly for the whole year) , while the land-ocean temperature index (which includes sea surface temperature data) is trailing slightly behind (0.58°C compared to 0.60°C Jan-Sep, 0.56°C for the whole of 1998).

Chris Mooney — Henry Waxman (D-CA-30) is Busy, busy on a number of Bush vs. science fronts, including avian flu, misinformation about sexual health on a government web site, and the ongoing Plan B “morning after pill” fiasco at the FDA. On the latter: The chronology ends with yet another resignation: that of Frank Davidoff, a former FDA advisory committee member who voted for the approval of Plan B and who wrote, “I can no longer associate myself with an organization that is capable of making such an important decision so flagrantly on the basis of political influence, rather than the scientific and clinical evidence.” (link added)

BlogrelReturn to Gyumri: What lessons could Pakistan learn from Armenia’s sputtering reconstruction process, which, 17 years later, has 3,500 families in the city still living in “temporary accommodation” – a euphemism for shacks, metal containers and disused railway wagons? [Guardian]

Effect MeasureYou can’t stop a wrecking ball in mid-swing: As state and local health departments gear up to battle a possible avian flu outbreak, they face a sharp cut in funding from the Department of Health and Human Services. However, the loss could be fixed through funds intended to cover the costs of controlling a pandemic, added as an amendment to the 2006 Defense Department Appropriations bill.

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Touchdown on Titan: Bravo Cassini-Huygens!

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th January 2005

Congratulations to the European Space Agency and its collaborators on the successful landing of the Huygens probe on the surface of Titan! From an ESA press release:

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperation between NASA, the European Space Agency and ASI, the Italian space agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, is managing the mission for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

“The teamwork in Europe and the USA, between scientists, industry and agencies has been extraordinary and has set the foundation for today’s enormous success,” concludes [ESA director general] Jean-Jacques Dordain.

Nice to know that can still happen.

In addition to those pictures of the shoreline and landing site, one of the nice bits of web candy so far from the mission is a reconstruction of sounds during the descent: the rushing sound of atmosphere is unmistakable and electrifying. (There’s also an odd industrial-sounding drumbeat; some machinery, I suppose, or maybe some effect of vibrating parachute cords transmitted to the Huygens microphones.)

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Rings, shadows, moon

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th December 2004

False color composite, courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

In a splendid portrait created by light and gravity, Saturn’s lonely moon Mimas is seen against the cool, blue-streaked backdrop of Saturn’s northern hemisphere. Delicate shadows cast by the rings arc gracefully across the planet, fading into darkness on Saturn’s night side.

The image was photographed by the Cassini-Huygens probe en route to Saturn and Titan. (Via The Panda’s Thumb)

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