Thursday, April 27, 2006

Land Me On The Moon ... Softly: Apollo's LLRV.

How do you train astronauts flying in Earth's full gravity to land on the Moon, with its 1/6th gravity?

Dr. Christian Gelzer spoke tonight at the San Diego Air and Space Museum about NASA's Lunar Lander Research Vehicle (LLRV), developed by Dryden Flight Research Center for the Apollo program, to train astronauts to land on the Moon.

The genius of the LLRV, and later the LLTV (Lunar Lander Training Vehicle), was the use of a jet engine vertical thruster to provide 5/6 of the lift needed to lift the vehicl. The remaining thrust was provided by two hydrogen-peroxide thrusters. Control was provided by 16 other hydrogen peroxide thrusters.

Five vehicles were produced and three survived the training program. The training vehicle was an ungainly contraption susceptible to the wind and Neil Armstrong was first to crash one in a crosswind.

Yet, according to Gelzer, Armstrong later attributed his successful landing on the Moon to his training with the landers on Earth. He said that training with the landers made him feel comfortable and at home flying in Lunar gravity. Astronaut William Anders, who was in the audience, seconded that. He said without training on the LLRV, with its ability to mimic 1/6 gravity, astronauts landing on the Moon would have tended to dramatically overshoot their landing targets.

The training vehicle was dangerous to fly and NASA administrators wanted to stop using it in favor of simulators. But the astronauts kept the vehicles flying because it gave them real-life experience flying compared to simulator training. According to Gelzer, as astronaut Gene Cernan put it, flying the LLRV/LLTV "put your tail on the line." Although dangerous, it was apparently fun to fly. Astronaut Anders spoke fondly of the enjoyment he got out of flying the LLRV/LLTV.

Gelzer spoke of the legacy of the LLRV/LLTV. Its first legacy is obvious; it trained the Apollo astronauts to land on the Moon. Its second legacy is a broader one for aviation; its use of fly-by-wire controls with three onboard computers marked the advent of fly-by-wire technology. (Although see here for the sad story of Canada's Avro Arrow jet fighter.)

Gelzer told of a fitting twist that brought the legacy of the LLRV's fly-by-wire technology full circle. In the early 1970s when engineers from Dryden submitted a proposal to NASA to test the technology in a jet fighter, they admitted they had no computer to run it. NASA provided an off the shelf computer from the Apollo program, and the system was later flown in an F8 in 1972.

Two LLTVs remain. One is hanging from the ceiling at Johnson Space Center out of public view. The other is in a hanger at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, where it can be viewed by visitors. Dr. Gelzer serves as Deputy Historian at Dryden.

Read more about the LLRV/LLTV here and about NASA's fly-by-wire F8 here. Visit the San Diego Air and Space Museum website here.


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Monday, April 24, 2006

Red Sky At Morning, Spacers Take Warning?

It's been said that every historical analogy is a lie. While such analogies can be misleading there are lessons to be learned from history. One of those lessons involves colonization or settlement of new worlds.

The American colonies after Columbus evolved differently. The key to the differences seems to depend on who was the mother country. The American colonies of Britain evolved into prosperous and free democracies. The American colonies of Spain have a long history of authoritarian government and poverty.

Today there are three countries with manned space programs: The US, China, and Russia. Among the three China's movement into space has generated no small amount of controversy between those who are concerned about China's ambitions in space and those who are more sanguine.

Transterrestrial Musings scores a point on the sanguine side with a comment on China's very slow pace of human spaceflights. (Here.) China's capabilities in space clearly have not yet matured much. The program is hardly a threat in the near term. China's government is a threat, however, and in the longer term, is it really a good thing that China is extending her influence into space?

As with all our futures, China's future is unknown. Since space settlement is not a near-term endeavor, whether China will be a positive or negative force in space is unknown and unknowable. What we know of China's past is that it swings back and forth between unity and disunity, and that its political culture has a long history of authoritarian rule.

What we know of China's present is not reassuring. China remains a communist country with a government that oppresses its people. That government relies more and more on nationalism to hold the country together, it is making strategic moves around the world to expand its political and military influence, and, although not technically an enemy of the United States, it is a "strategic rival." On the other hand, authoritarianism need not be a characteristic of Chinese society; Taiwan has a strong democracy alongside a healthy economy.

So, who knows? Maybe China will be democratic by the time humans get around to settling the Solar System. Maybe China will have fallen into another of its periods of disunity by then. Or maybe China will remain united, nationalistic, and unfree at the time.

The historical lesson for space settlement from America's colonization is obvious. It makes a difference to future space settlers who is the mother country. That's the most important reason why the US, still free so far and with its history of freedom, should remain a leader in space exploration. It's also why it's not necessarily a good thing that a presently and historically unfree China has a manned space program.


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In Memoriam: Vladimir Komarov

Thirty-nine years ago today, April 24, 1967, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed when his Soyuz I spacecraft crashed on return to Earth. His flight was plagued by problems from the beginning. His death is likely the result of political pressure from Soviet leadership, which pushed for the mission to proceed despite technical problems that plagued the Soyuz spacecraft at the time. (Here.) There's a lesson there.

Take a moment today to remember Komarov's sacrifice.


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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Captain Kirk, Is That You?

There's a mystery in America's skies. All around the country people are hearing loud explosions so powerful they seem to shake the earth. (Here.) Investigations reveal no plausible answer from earthquakes to sonic booms. Which begs the question: Just what is the sound of a Federation-era spaceship entering Earth's atmosphere? (Here, here, and here.)


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Friday, April 14, 2006

All That Sunlight, All That Energy, All That Power.

Last night in San Diego author David Schrunk (here) spoke about his vision for the next 50 to 100 years of development of the Moon and the inner Solar System. His talk was hosted by professor Phil Blanco at Grossmont College and presented by the Mars Society of San Diego.

Schrunk's vision of the next century sees humans leaving the Earth to use resources in space independent of resources on Earth in order to inaugurate a spacefaring age. Schrunk contrasted the Industrial Age to the future Spacefaring Age. What made the Industrial Age was the "linking of human expertise to limited resources" of a single planet. The Spacefaring Age will "link human expertise to unlimited resources" of our Solar System.

The logical first step for Schrunk is the Moon, which he described as an "oasis in space that will protect humans from the hazards of space." Using the Moon's abundant mineral resources, humans will start a new industrial age in space based on non-terrestrial resources.

The Moon is short on water but long on energy. Solar energy bombards the Moon unfiltered by an atmosphere. Lunar regolith is abundant in the materials necessary to build solar power cells. In Schrunk's vision of the future, the Moon could become the energy producer for our entire civilization if we were to ring the circumference of Luna with solar cells and transmit the energy created there to the Earth using microwaves.

He proposes that Lunar development start near the South Pole on Malapert Summit, a five kilometer high peak that is in sunlight for 90 percent of the time and is always in a straight line view of the Earth. Over time, development could expand around the polar circumference with solar power stations and manufacturing facilities linked together by a railroad or maglev system. More dramatic transportation off Malapert could be achieved by a cable car that would descend from the peak to the floor of a crater eight kilometers below.

He says that we would live underground on the Moon for protection from radiation, micrometeorites, and the temperature extremes on the surface. For instance, one meter under the Lunar surface the temperature is a constant -20C. Not very warm but better than the extremes on the surface that can range from 130C down to -110C.

In Schrunk's vision, humans would use all the resources the Moon has to offer and recycle, recycle, recycle. Even Lunar dust, or especially Lunar dust, which is nearly everywhere and could be a health and mechanical hazard for human colonization with its sharp edges and tiny size would be treated as an asset. Future colonists could produce water out of the hydrogen found in the dust and the oxygen found in Lunar rocks.

His vision for the Inner Solar System relies heavily on the most abundant resource available within the orbit of Mars: solar energy. He envisions power stations on Mercury with a Solar Sail hovering over a pole to transmit energy elsewhere. He also suggested that extremely large Solar Sails could be placed in the L1 orbital position between Venus and the Sun to cool down the atmosphere of our overheated sister planet. At Mars, Solar Sails could hover around the planet and transmit energy down to bases on the surface. Near Earth Asteroids could be mined for their minerals as well.

He also envisions using the abundant solar energy available in the Inner Solar System to power an interplanetary transportation system. For example a sail-driven spaceship could fly from the Moon pushed by Lunar lasers powered by the Sun. Around Mars solar powered lasers could take over and slow the ship down.

After Schrunk spoke, the Mars Society's Gerry Williams told the audience about some people who are working here and now on Earth to make human development of the Moon a reality. Williams described a recent two week simulated Lunar mission in the Utah desert in which members of the Moon Society took over the Mars Society's research station. (Read more about Crew 45 and view photographs here.)

Nobody can tell now how long it will take until Schrunk's vision, or something like it, becomes a reality. But someday motivated people with the talent, the money, and the ambition, will make it so.


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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Fly Me To W3(OH), Milky Way.

Far, far away in the W3(OH) region of the Milky Way galaxy there's a giant cloud of alcohol 288 billion miles long. As Homer Simpson would say, "woohoo." Or "mmmmmmm, alcohol clouds."

Turns out it's not drinking alcohol, though. It's methyl alcohol: methanol. That's fuel, baby! Maybe we won't have to give up our SUVs after all. Read more here.


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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Conquest Of Mars: A SciFi Oldie And Goodie Enough.

Garrett Servis is not well known for his contribution to science fiction. The glory goes to his contemporary, H.G. Wells. But in 1898 Servis published Edison's Conquest of Mars a groundbreaking sequel to The War of the Worlds by Wells.

Servis's novel is available now through Apogee Books. The book tells the story of Earth's counterattack against the Martians. Fortunately for the Earthlings Thomas Edison invents an electric space drive and disintegrator gun. Armed with their new weapons and flying their new ships, an international fleet exacts Earth's revenge on Mars for the unprovoked attack chronicled by Wells.

The writing is somewhat stilted and some of the ideas come off as mildly offensive to modern sensibilities. But overall the book is a decent read.

The novel is touted by the publisher as an overlooked classic in science fiction that introduced a host of firsts to the genre: space battles, alien abductions, disintegrator beams, cigar-shaped spaceships, and aliens building the pyramids. It's also praised for its scientific accuracy and predictions.

Servis contributes another staple of science fiction. The easy victory by the good guys because they attack the single vulnerability of the bad guys: think the central computer in Independence Day, the power station of the Death Star and centrally-controlled robots in Star Wars, for example.

Oh yeah, and it's a sequel. Where would science fiction be without sequels?

Read more here.


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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Roving Mars As Good As It Gets

San Diego's Reuben Fleet Science Center showed the new Imax film Roving Mars in their big dome this weekend. (Here.) It's a great film. There are spectacular images from the rovers' mission that work really well in the Imax format, and which especially worked on the dome.

Let's face it: Roving Mars is education, but it's education made exciting. The film is a 40 minute joyride from Earth to Mars.

That ride starts with an animated flight across the universe to Mars, and then across the Martian landscape, from Olympus Mons to Valles Marineris, and from there to Earth. From that spectacular beginning the pace is unrelenting as we see behind the scenes images of the making of the Rovers, the launch and flight sequence, the landing on Mars, and then the rovers on Mars.

The film blends actual photos and CGI very well. The most spectacular images on the giant screen are the true-life video sequences of manufacturing the rovers and the photos taken by the rovers on Mars. Those hematite blueberries are amazing to behold spread across a dome.

The animation sequences of the rovers rolling across the Martian landscape linger in the mind, and amazingly enough, watching those little guys roll across the lonely and vast landscape of another planet, the heart finds itself traveling across millions of miles of space to join them on Mars.

The film is not all imagery, however. The director intersperses interviews with the NASA/JPL team at key points in the story to explain what the mission is all about. The passion and the excitement those scientists and engineers have for their work is enviable.

There is one fault with the movie for spacers like us. For dramatic effect the director chose to add sound to the flight through space sequence. Admittedly, the drama is heightened by the addition of sound but reality is ruined by the addition of something patently false. For an education film that's a large mistake. Consider it a teaching opportunity.

Roving Mars is exciting stealth education. Adults should enjoy it, whether for the eye candy imagery, or the science, or as a report on tax dollars well spent. Seeing it should be mandatory for school kids across the country. Science teachers, start planning your field trips!


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