Apollo 11 command module Columbia. Photo: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
The long-awaited exhibit Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission, opens April 13 at The Museum of Flight. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the mission’s command module Columbia, which is on the last leg of a two-year, four-city journey that is the historic spacecraft’s first since being parked at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. in 1971. The Columbia took astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon for the first Moon landing. The exhibit will be here through September 2, including the date of the 50th anniversary of the giant leap, July 20, 2019.
While some common elements of the exhibit have traveled to all four cities—Destination Moon stopped in Houston, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh prior to its Seattle trip—each museum has been able to put its own spin on the artifacts. At the Museum of Flight, Destination Moon represents an expansion of the Apollo exhibit that opened in May two years ago. (Here’s our article about the exhibit.) It’s here the the Museum of Flight has an edge, with the exhibit including two enormous F-1 engines that powered the launch of Apollo missions. Other museum artifacts are also included, as is a gallery about the legacy of Seattle-area industry, astronauts and engineers to the space program.
Your correspondent with the Apollo 11 command module Columbia in August 2018 at the St. Louis Science Center. Photo: Greg Scheiderer
Visitors can get pretty close to Columbia, but they can’t go inside. However, they can do so virtually through an interactive 3-D tour created from the Smithsonian’s high-resolution scans of the interior of the spacecraft.
The exhibit promises to be extremely popular. A free preview for museum members last weekend was well attended, and a host of special events for the first weekend are likely to draw many visitors. We were fortunate to see the exhibit in St. Louis last summer; it was near the end of the run and it wasn’t at all crowded. Waiting might be a good option if seeing it early and often isn’t a big deal for you!
The Columbia is a big deal artifact. I spent hours with it in St. Louis and a good bit of time at the member preview this week. Don’t miss this great opportunity to see a super cool piece of space history!
The helmet and gloves used by Buzz Aldrin when he walked on the Moon, from the Destination Moon exhibit in St. Louis. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.
With less than a month to go until its opening, the Destination Moon exhibit about the Apollo 11 mission is taking shape at the Museum of Flight. Museum staff announced in a news release this week that the helmet and gloves used by astronaut Buzz Aldrin during his walk on the Moon have been installed in the space. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, but it will feature many other artifacts of the historic mission.
I saw the exhibit when it was in St. Louis last summer (story here) and it was great. It opens at the Museum of Flight April 13 and runs through September 2, a stretch of dates that includes the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969 “giant leap for mankind.”
There will be some differences in the exhibit from when it was in St. Louis. For example, the Museum of Flight release notes that the helmet and gloves display will include a magnifying glass so that museum visitors can read the to-do list on Aldrin’s glove reminding him of his tasks during the moonwalk. A key item on the list: get a photograph of a boot print on the Moon!
Shelley Sterns-Blackburn, ELY, Inc, and Lisa Young, Conservator at National Air and Space Museum make some final adjustments to spacesuit gloves worn by Buzz Aldrin while on the surface of the Moon. Aldrin’s helmet and visor are in place on the left. Photo Ted Huetter/The Museum of Flight.
Tickets for all dates of the exhibit are now on sale on the Museum of Flight website. Tickets are $10, or $5 for museum members, and must be purchased in addition to museum general admission, which is $25 for adults, $21 for seniors, and $16 for youth. Kids under 4 years of age are admitted free.
In addition, there is a free member preview of the exhibit scheduled for Sunday, April 7, which sounds like an excellent reason to join up today. Several free days are planned during the run of the exhibit, though no details on those have yet been published.
When I saw the exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center I went on a weekday afternoon and there were no lines or crowds; I just walked up and bought a ticket. Weekends might be a different story.
NASA turned 60 on October 1, 2018 and last weekend the Museum of Flight hosted a talk by the agency’s chief historian, Bill Barry, as part of the anniversary celebration. Since we all know about the Moon landing, the space shuttle program, explorations of the planets, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, and various NASA research and discoveries, Barry focused his talk on six things you may not know about NASA.
#6: NASA science data saved us from disaster
In a day and age when there’s significant distrust of science, it’s interesting to note NASA’s role in solving a difficult environmental problem. Researchers as early as the late 1950s noticed that there was a depletion of ozone in the atmosphere above the South Pole, but it was difficult to document.
NASA chief historian Bill Barry gave a talk at the Museum of Flight Oct. 6, 2018 celebrating the 60th anniversary of the creation of the agency. Photo: Greg Scheiderer
Barry explained that NASA used the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) on the Nimbus 7 weather satellite to confirm and map the hole in the ozone.
“It was pretty clear that the ozone hole was big and getting bigger,” Barry said, and that got people’s attention. Scientists postulated that the ozone depletion was caused by chemical reactions with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) such as refrigerants and spray-can propellants, but again it was tough to prove. Observations made from NASA’s ER-2 aircraft and DC-8 Flying Laboratory eventually confirmed that the CFCs were the culprit.
This led to an amazing act of international cooperation on an environmental issue. In the Montreal Protocol in 1987 nations agreed to phase out CFCs and other ozone depleting substances. It’s working; Barry noted that the ozone is gradually recovering.
“Demographers suggest that this action saved us at least two million cases of skin cancer,” since then, he said.
#5: NASA almost didn’t happen
At the dawn of the space age, after Sputnik, the military became keenly interested in spy satellites and possible space weaponry. US Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with the aim of collaborating with academic, industry, and government partners on military programs involving space.
Hugh Dryden was director of NACA from 1947 until NASA was formed in 1958. Photo: NASA
In the meantime over at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) director Hugh Latimer Dryden had pushed the committee’s research agenda toward high-speed flight and space research. In January 1958 he wrote a key report suggesting that space efforts be a collaboration between the DOD, NACA, National Academy of Science, research institutions, universities, and industry. That’s pretty close to the ARPA mission, with a civilian bent.
Barry said that within about a month of the issuance of Dryden’s report, President Dwight Eisenhower went along with it, and sent Congress proposed legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. Congress soon approved it.
In the early days of the collaboration there was still arm wrestling over control. A memo from Eisenhower directed that NASA would run all programs “except those peculiar to or primarily associated with military weapons systems or military operations.” The DOD took a broad definition of that—figuring putting people in space was military and so that was within their bailiwick. Eisenhower intervened to clarify that the legislation made NASA a largely civilian organization.
“This key decision on Eisenhower’s part was really important,” Barry said. “NASA in some ways has become the world’s space agency, one of the most positive aspects of US international relations,” and the civilian nature of the agency is vital to that.
#4: NASA is a serial creator of new industries
Barry said smartphone cameras with CMOS chips may be as good or better than DSLR cameras, so we put it to the test. Smartphone pic is on the left. Problems may be due to operator error! Photos: Greg Scheiderer
There’s a common belief that Tang, Teflon, and Velcro were creations of the space program. Barry said those aren’t correct, but a lot of other stuff has NASA origins. Excimer lasers developed for ozone detection proved useful for laser surgery, for example, and the complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chips in your smartphone camera were originally developed to build a better camera for space probes. Oddly, those never flew, but they’ve taken off here on Earth. NASA’s annual Spinoff magazine highlights stuff that originated in the space program.
Beyond those, NASA has spun off entire industries. Weather satellites and communication satellites (now a $2 billion/year industry) came from NASA. Under COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) companies such as SpaceX and Boeing are building crewed vehicles and plan to begin testing next year.
“We hope by the end of next year to be launching US astronauts from Florida again up to the International Space Station and paying American companies to do it for us,” Barry said.
#3: NASA revolutionized the understanding of the universe
One’s first response to that is, “Well, duh!” but Barry said it’s easy to take for granted what has happened over the last 60 years.
“We don’t often think about how much things have changed since 1958 when NASA was created,” he said. Sixty years ago otherwise sane people thought there may be civilizations and canals on Mars and dinosaurs on Venus. They figured the outer solar system was just boring ice. There were nine planets; we now know that virtually every star has at least one. We had no idea the Van Allen Belts existed. Now we have a photo of the cosmic microwave background.
#2: Why did we go to the Moon?
President John F. Kennedy wasn’t actually that big on space; in early speeches after he was sworn in he kept proposing that the US and Soviet Union team up on space projects.
The Soviet Union wasn’t too keen on that. They were using the success of their space program to proclaim the superiority of their system and to recruit allies in a world that had been “decolonized” after World War II. The Soviets were winning the propaganda war. JFK wanted a way to beat them without breaking the bank.
Trailing in the game, Kennedy moved the goalposts and declared the race to the Moon.
“The Soviet Union’s success in space was a major strategic strategic problem for the United States,” Barry explained, “so investing money in going to the Moon was a way to prove that the western, capitalist model of government was, in fact, at least as good as if not better than the Soviets.”
#1: The race to the Moon was closer than you think
JFK made his speech to Congress about setting the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” in May of 1961, shortly after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. It wasn’t until years later, with President Lyndon Johnson pushing the goal as Kennedy’s legacy, that the Soviets took notice.
“It’s really obvious by the summer of 1964 that the US was serious about going to the Moon and had the political will and the money to make it happen,” Barry said.
The Soviet response was the Zond program. They wouldn’t orbit the Moon, but would instead fling their spacecraft around it and then return to Earth.
The Soviets made five Zond launches in 1968 had a few successes. Zond 5 in September took some tortoises and other life forms along and landed back on Earth, though in the Indian Ocean rather than on land as intended. Zond 6 made the trip and landed on target in Kazakstan, but its heat shield failed. Tests weren’t going well on the N-1 rocket, the Soviet counterpart to the Saturn V that would be their way of launching people to the Moon. In December 1968 Apollo 8 and three US astronauts orbited the Moon.
“It was pretty clear they weren’t going to get their guys on the surface of the Moon before we did,” Barry said. But the Soviets didn’t give up. They sent up a Hail Mary.
The Soviets had been launching Luna spacecraft since the late 1950s, and in the space of six months they cobbled together a robotic craft that would land on the Moon, collect a few rocks, and bring them to back Earth.
A first launch attempt failed, but Luna 15 blasted off three days before Apollo 11. The Eagle got to the Moon first. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did their Moon walk and were catching a few winks before launching to return to the command module Columbia.
“While they’re sleeping in the lunar module the Soviets fired the retro rockets on Luna 15 and landed on the surface of the Moon. It crashed,” Barry said. But he added that if it had landed successfully, the Soviets may well have been able to get their Moon sample back to Earth first.
“The race to the Moon ends July 20, 1969 after the first Moon walk actually happened,” he marveled. “It was that close.”
The New Horizons spacecraft is hurtling through deep space toward its New Year’s Day encounter with the Kuiper Belt object “Ultima Thule,” a nickname which is better than the object’s official moniker of 2014 MU69. New Horizons collected amazing photos and data during a 2015 fly-by of Pluto, and I’ve just finished reading the account of that mission, Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto (Picador, 2018). Penned by New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern and astrobiologist and author David Grinspoon, Chasing New Horizons is a fabulous read that tells the tale of the nearly 25 years it took to get the mission from a back-of-the-napkin concept to a real spacecraft that delivered those amazing images of the former ninth planet.
Stern and Grinspoon visited Seattle in May in support of the book. Grinspoon called the tale of New Horizons an unlikely story.
“The effort to send a mission to Pluto,” he said, “was one that had so many twists and turns, seeming dead ends, and inescapable traps that it’s still amazing to me that it happened.”
“I think there’s a lot of genuine suspense and drama, and yet, you know how it ends!” Grinspoon added. “It really is an adventure story as well as a nerd-fest of solving technical problems and ultimately succeeding spectacularly in this amazing exploration.”
The story truly is incredible. The New Horizons team that at its biggest included 2,500 people had to battle from the beginning. The first fight was simply getting approval just to do some preliminary work on a project as audacious as sending a mission to Pluto. They had to compete over whose proposed project would be selected, to get funding, to decide what science would happen, to actually build, launch, and fly the craft, to get it to the right place at the right time, and to deliver the science that was promised. Stern said they euphemistically referred to their challenges with the resident reptiles around the Kennedy Space Center in mind.
“There were so many alligators in the water at one point that we had no idea how we could solve all of the problems that we were having,” Stern said.
Yet—spoiler alert!—they did, and they accomplished it for a fraction of the cost of the Voyager mission, for example, and in a time frame that, by NASA standards, was break-neck.
Grinspoon (left) and Stern spoke about Chasing New Horizons at a Town Hall Seattle event at the Museum of Flight on May 17, 2018. Photo: Greg Scheiderer
Grinspoon interviewed Stern and more than two dozen others for the book, so it is really something of an oral history of New Horizons team members’ recollections of what happened along the amazing journey.
All of the jockeying makes for interesting storytelling, but the near loss of the mission just days before it’s Pluto fly-by, and how that was solved, is an incredible tale. Many of the team were taking a quick breather before the fly-by and trying to enjoy the Independence Day holiday when contact with New Horizons was lost. The work the team did to figure out what happened, to fix the problem, and to make sure the craft’s computers were ready for the complicated maneuvers ahead, is simply remarkable. Imagine doing that work around-the-clock with the whole mission hanging in the balance. For Stern, there was the real possibility that 25 years of work could go down the drain. That’s a whole lot of egg aimed right at your face. Cool heads, smart engineers, preparation, and a little luck prevailed. The science we got out of it is amazing.
“Pluto is an exotic, sci-fi world,” Stern said. “This book is a page-turner; it is a techno-thriller.”
You don’t necessarily want the author writing his own dust-jacket blurbs, but in this case we agree! Chasing New Horizons is highly recommended.
Last month New Horizons, about 100 million miles away from Ultima Thule, was able to spot its next destination with its own cameras, something the team announced on Twitter.
You can purchase Chasing New Horizons through the title link or by clicking the book cover image above. A small percentage of the fee comes to Seattle Astronomy and helps us create interesting astronomy stories. We thank you!
We tend to remember where we were at the time of major historical events, like when we found out that Elvis was dead or when a gimpy Kirk Gibson hit that home run against Dennis Eckersley to win the first game of the 1988 World Series. For space geeks and for anyone over age 56 or so, the ultimate such shared experience has to be when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon. Estimates are that up to 600 million people worldwide and more than 130 million in the US alone watched the Moon landing on live television.
Your correspondent with the Apollo 11 command module Columbia last month at the St. Louis Science Center. Photo: Greg Scheiderer
Thus, it was a thrill for me to recently stand about a foot away from an amazing piece of space exploration history, the Apollo 11 “Columbia” command module, at the St. Louis Science Center. Columbia hadn’t left the Smithsonian since doing a national tour in the early 1970s, but the historic space capsule is part of a touring exhibit called Destination Moon that will visit four cities before returning to the National Air and Space Museum as part of a new comprehensive Apollo exhibit. The tour started last year in Houston and the St. Louis stop wraps up Sept. 3, 2018. It will be on display in Pittsburgh starting later this month and then—get this!—its final stop on the tour will be the Museum of Flight in Seattle, where it will be on display beginning in March for a stay that will include the 50th anniversary date of the Moon landing. Huzzah!
The Destination Moon exhibit is great, with lots of information about how we got there, who the key players were, and why we did it. But the Columbia capsule was just completely mesmerizing, at least for me. I was a total space nut kid, kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings of stories about the space flights, and was glued to the TV for launches and landings. Standing next to Columbia took me back to my almost-12 self. I dare say I was giddy in its presence. I spent a couple of hours in the exhibit, mostly just looking at this fabulous artifact.
There were a couple of other cool items in the exhibit. Aldrin’s helmet and gloves used on the Moon were there, as was a sample collection case in which he and Armstrong stowed their Moon rocks. They also have one injector plate from an Apollo engine, of they type around which the Museum of Flight has built its popular Apollo exhibit. Columbia’s escape hatch is on display separately from the capsule. There a collection of gear such as first-aid items and a survival kit in case the capsule splashed down far away from its target upon return to Earth. And, oh yes, there’s a Moon rock, too. Interestingly enough, I saw Moon rocks at both the St. Louis Science Center and Adler Planetarium in Chicago during a recent trip to the Midwest, and visitors showed little interest in either. THAT’S A HUNK OF THE MOON FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! OK, rant over. Maybe that’s not a big thing in the age of virtual reality and interactive exhibits. Alas.
Elsewhere in the St. Louis Science Center they have Mercury and Gemini capsules, too, and another current exhibit is Mission: Mars that is a lot of fun. The center is also home to the James S. McDonnell Planetarium, built in 1963 and named for the co-founder of McDonnell-Douglas, who kicked in a good chunk of change for equipment for the facility.
Membership has its priveleges; I got $1 off admission to Destination Moon thanks to my membership in the Museum of Flight. Parking would have been free had I driven, but I took public transit to the center.
The annual Seattle Astronomical Society banquet and Astronomy on Tap Seattle are the highlight events for the coming week. The Museum of Flight kicks off Astronaut Remembrance Week, and regional planetarium shows cap the calendar.
The Seattle Astronomical Societybanquet always draws an excellent guest speaker, and this year is no exception: renowned photographer Robert Reeves will keynote the annual banquet, and talk in particular about observing and imaging the Moon. The banquet gets under way at 4 p.m. Sunday, January 28 at the Swedish Club on Dexter Avenue North in Seattle. Reservations are $65 for the general public, $55 for SAS members. Don’t wait; there were only 18 spots left as of this writing. Reservations are available online.
Reeves will do a special master class on lunar photography for the SAS Astrophotography Special Interest Group. The class is open to the public and will be held at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, January 27 in the Red Barn Classroom at the Museum of Flight.
Astronomy on Tap Seattle
The topic will be exploring alien moons when Astronomy on Tap Seattle holds its first event of the new year at 7 p.m. Wednesday, January 24 in the beer garden at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. Second-year UW graduate student in astronomy and astrobiology Tyler Gordon will speak about his research on the search for exoplanetary satellites using current and future telescopes. UW Ph.D. student in oceanography Max Showalter will discuss looking for life when the trail goes cold, an update on his work using movement as a sign of life in icy places.
Showalter did a talk at Town Hall Seattle almost two years ago. Check our recap of that talk and learn how SHAMU is helping hunt for ET.
The Washington State University Planetarium in Pullman has a new show this week titled, “Millions of Miles to Mars.” The show explores the whats, hows, and whens of Mars visits. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Friday, Jan 26, and 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan 28. Tickets at the door are $5 cash or check; they don’t accept credit cards. Kids under six get in free.
America’s three great spacefaring tragedies all occurred at this time of year. To honor the sacrifices of the fallen astronauts, the Museum of Flight holds an annual astronaut remembrance week. The event runs from Friday, January 26 through Sunday, February 4 and features displays and exhibits about the fallen astronauts and their accomplishments. Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs will give a presentation about the tragic missions, and about the risks and successes of space travel, at 2 p.m. Saturday, January 27. It’s free with museum admission.
A total eclipse of the Moon will be visible in the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 31. The event begins just after 3 a.m. PDT, the partial eclipse starts around 3:45, and it will be total from just before 5 a.m. until a little after 6:00. All you really need to do is go outside and look up, but if you want to watch with others, the Seattle Astronomical Society plans a group viewing event at Solstice Park in West Seattle.
You can always scout out future events on our calendar.
Ladies who launch gather this week at the Museum of Flight, and there’s a lot of local club activity on the calendar.
Ladies who Launch
Elsbeth Magilton, executive director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications law programs at the University of Nebraska College of Law, will speak at a special Ladies Who Launch event at 6 p.m. Tuesday, January 9 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Magilton’s areas of specialty include commercial space law and policy, cybersecurity and cybercrime, and national security. She will focus on the need for more women in leadership positions in aerospace and the technology sector, and positive, concrete steps we can take to advance our careers accordingly.
Ladies Who Launch is a specialized networking group for professional women with ten or more years of experience and a passion for flight, who are actively seeking to advance their careers in any industry and hold, or desire to obtain, leadership roles. Tickets to the event are $35 and are available online.
The Battle Point Astronomical Association’s monthly public events are coming up Saturday, January 13. Family date night starts at 4 p.m. when BP Astro Kids look at how things spin and what that means. The presentation repeats again at 5 p.m. Following at 7:30, the monthly planetarium show looks at the similarities between telescopes and dragonflies, and examines the work of a new class of ‘scopes. There will be stargazing, too, weather permitting.