Neil Armstrong OpEd in the Guardian

A smiling Armstrong inside the X-15′s cockpit. Credit: NASA

I was asked to write an opinion piece on Neil Armstrong’s passing for the Guardian. I thought a lot about the role he’s played in spaceflight history, not just because of the missions he flew but because of what he stood for in the space race. “With Armstrong’s death, the chapter of spaceflight history that opened with Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 has closed… we’ve lost the man who is recognised the world over as embodying Apollo’s triumph.”

 I think it’s up to historians to preserve Armstrong’s legacy within the context of the space race so he might serve as an inspirational figure to future generations. After all, he will always be the first man to have walked on the Moon and symbolic of Apollo’s success no matter what comes next. Read my full article on the Guardian.

Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot

Armstrong enjoys a cigar in March, 1969. Credit: Ralph Morse/Life

I walked in the house this afternoon to find a heap of emails, text messages, and voicemails about Neil Armstrong’s death. I was shocked. My next thought was that Armstrong will never be truly gone. When he stepped on the Moon on July 20, 1969, he inspired a generation to pursue careers in science. A generation later, children reading about Apollo (including myself) were similarly inspired. I don’t think the effect will wear off in generations to come. But Armstrong’s legacy is so much more than just Apollo 11. His contributions to and role in some of the earliest and most innovative early spaceflight programs are significant. Preserving that legacy will keep him alive and is vital to doing his memory justice.

I can’t possibly sum up all the projects Armstrong was involved in in one article, so here’s a brief look at his career leading up to the Apollo 11 Moon landing with links to full stories I’ve covered elsewhere.   [Read more...]

NASA’s Other Peanuts Traditions

The Apollo 10 crew pets Snoopy on the nose for good luck as they walk towards their spacecraft the morning of launch. May 18, 1969. Credit: NASA

Three years after JPL started what’s become the tradition of eating peanuts during launches, NASA developed another peanuts-based tradition. This one centers on Peanuts the cartoon strip rather than the legume, specifically the beagle Snoopy. Since the Apollo program, Snoopy has been a spokesbeagle of humour and safety in America’s space program.

[Read more...]

Learning to Land on the Moon

Bringing anything airborne down for a safe landing takes considerable skill, but landing on other planets presents a whole world of new challenges. In preparation for the Apollo lunar missions, astronauts spent considerable time in simulators learning to land on the Moon. One vehicle, the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, was the closest approximation they had to the real thing.

How JPL’s Peanut Tradition Started

A bottle of peanuts in JPL’s mission control on August 5, 2012. Credit: NASA

Last Sunday night, everyone watching NASA’s feed of Curiosity’s landing saw engineers in JPL’s mission control eating peanuts before the rover entered Mars’ atmosphere. Eating peanuts at particularly nerve-wracking points during a mission is a long standing tradition at JPL that dates back to the Ranger program. Specifically Ranger 7. The first peanuts eaten in Mission Control were a distraction for engineers during that very tense launch on July 28, 1964. Read the whole story on Discovery News.

Apollo’s Youthful Glow

Ferdowsi’s mohawk in JPL’s mission control during Curiosity’s landing. Credit: Associated Press

Since Curiosity landed on Mars last Sunday night, the internet has been buzzing not about the Sky Crane that delivered the rover to the surface but about “Mohawk Guy.” Bobak Ferdowsi is a 32-year old flight director at JPL who looks more like a rock star than an engineer. Consensus on the internet is that Ferdowsi – specifically his mohawk – has made NASA cool, young, and relevant; the most common refrain is along the lines of “this isn’t your father’s/grandfather’s NASA.” But Ferdowsi is actually older than most engineers of the Apollo era. In fact, the average age in mission control has risen since the Apollo days as engineers stay with the agency over multiple long-term programs. Though 1960s engineers may look old fashioned, your father’s or grandfather’s NASA was a fairly young one.   [Read more...]

The Enduring Apollo Flags

The Apollo 16 flag seen from lunar orbit. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter returned another amazing set of images last week: photographs of flags still upright at the Apollo landing sites. It’s unsurprising they’re still standing; after all, there’s no wind, rain, or rowdy teenagers to knock them over. They’re in a vacuum. Of course, the LRO images don’t show what shape the flags are in. There is a substantial amount of radiation and unfiltered sunlight hitting those flag, which are just from a government issued catalogue. Because they were planted in such a harsh environment, a lot of engineering went into those Apollo flags. Read my article on Motherboard for the whole story.

Gearing Up for the Sky Crane

The first image from the surface of Mars taken by Viking 1 in 1976. Credit: NASA

This Sunday night around 10:31 PST, the Mars Science Laboratory Sky Crane will deliver the rover Curiosity to the surface of Mars. It will land inside the geologically interesting Gale Crater, to be exact. Even among planetary landings it’s an exciting one, and for an historian it has some pretty interesting heritage. I’ve covered a few aspects of the mission’s history before, so here’s a small selection of articles to get you up to date on teh mission and excited about the most daring landing attempted to date on Mars. [Read more...]