A Note from Newt Gingritch about Space

I'd been planning on running some columns about the different candidate's ideas concerning space.  I had already done one about what Newt Gingrich really said.  Now, you can see his follow-up in his own words:

In the past 10 years – since the Columbia tragedy led President Bush to retire the Space Shuttle, we have spent almost $150 billion on NASA and the civilian space program. We have spent additional money on defense aspects of the space program. Yet the United States currently has no way to launch a human being into space, other than buying seats from Russia.

NASA has accomplished some difficult things in its history, but spending $150 billion on the space program without developing a rocket and spacecraft to launch astronauts into space is near the top of the list.

For Americans who lived through the heroic era of early exploration in space and getting to the moon, it is hard to believe that in 2012 we are once again stranded on the Earth's surface.

NASA has reached this point by achieving a perverse breakthrough: the bureaucratization of space. The modern NASA is so risk averse, and so heavily burdened with safety processes, management, political meddling, and institutional inertia that it takes decades for new programs to get off the ground.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. The time from Glenn's Mercury 6 mission in February 1962 to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon in July 1969 was seven years and five months, to the day.

In that period we figured out how to perform frequent launches, keep humans alive in space for weeks, conduct space walks, rendezvous and dock two spacecraft in orbit, travel to the moon, land on it, walk around there, launch back off, and return to Earth. Each of these achievements presented innumerable challenges. Yet from launching one person to landing on the moon took less than seven and a half years.

The Shuttle program lasted 30 years, not counting the decade it was being developed.  And after 30 years, we are reduced to buying seats for American astronauts on a class of Russian spacecraft first launched 45 years ago, in 1967.

Even if rocket scientists and astro-physicists do view time scales a little differently than most people, it would be desirable for the human space program to make some significant advances over the span of their entire careers.

The men and women who went to work at NASA after having been inspired by our bold space achievements during their youth or by dreams of a spacefaring future cannot be satisfied with what our space program has become. The elected officials who direct them should not be either. And the American people should be dissatisfied with both.

The way forward for the U.S. in space should be rooted in our entrepreneurial values and our spirit of adventure. We must open space to the private sector, allowing free citizens take risks--both financial and physical--in pursuit of our aims on this frontier.

The model for rapid progress at low cost can come straight from the history of aviation. In its infancy, aviation advanced by a series of monetary prizes set for particular feats. Starting in 1906, the U.K.'s Daily Mail offered rewards for the first people to achieve various milestones, including a non-stop flight between London and Manchester and flying across the English channel. In the U.S., William Randolph Hearst offered $50,000 in 1910 for the first person to fly from coast to coast in 30 days. Most famously, Raymond Orteig offered a prize of $25,000 in 1919 for the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. It took eight years, but Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize in 1927.

These competitions were far more dangerous than many today might imagine. In the 1927 Dole Air Race from California to Hawaii, only two of more than 15 entrant planes made it to Hawaii. But the pilots took such risks eagerly and freely, and in doing so made enormous strides in advancing and popularizing aviation.

A prize system similar to that of the early 20th century, aimed at enticing private companies to pursue our goals in space, would be a far more effective and exciting approach for the United States, and it would better reflect our values than does a massive bureaucracy incompetently managed by Congress and appointed bureaucrats. 

The privately funded X-Prize Foundation conducted such an experiment in recent years, offering a comparatively small $10 million prize for a two manned suborbital flights in a reusable spacecraft within two weeks. It drew more than two dozen competitors, and the prize was awarded in 2004.

If, instead of spending almost $20 billion each year and getting nothing new in terms of human spaceflight, Congress set aside a large sum for prizes--say 10 percent of NASA's budget, or $18 billion over a decade--we could save hundreds of billions and still get better results. We could dramatically reduce the size of NASA and refocus its mission on breakthroughs in science and technology, rather than developing or operating basic launch vehicles and spacecraft. 

After I discussed the prize concept with Robert Zubrin in the 1990s, he estimated in his book The Case for Mars that if Congress posted “a $20 billion reward to be given to the first private organization to successfully land a crew on Mars and return them to Earth, as well as several prizes of a few billion dollars each for various milestone technical accomplishments along the way,” it would draw numerous competitors. The actual mission, he estimates, could cost as little as $4 billion, leaving the winner with a $16 billion profit and the taxpayers with a system that gets to Mars thereafter for a fraction of NASA's annual budget.

Prizes have several huge advantages, which Zubrin also points out:

  • We don't pay anything unless and until we actually get results--and we never pay more than the prize amount. If no one offers a system of  launch vehicles and spacecraft that meet the prize specifications, it doesn't cost anything. And cost overruns are impossible even if there is a winner. After spending $150 billion on NASA for no current manned capability, this is quite a virtue.
  • It would result in systems radically cheaper than those NASA has produced. NASA contractors are paid on a cost-plus basis, meaning whatever they spend “plus” a markup. This gives them a disincentive to save money. In a prize system, a company has to raise or borrow every dollar a company it spends, and then decreases their ultimate profit.
  • Many competitors will spend money investing in technology and developing new solutions, but won't win the prize. And they spend all the money before the taxpayers ever have to pay anything.
  • Competition breeds better, more diverse results. While NASA projects typically result in only one working design, a single prize incentive could produce several viable designs that make it to the flight stage--each will have different merits.  Awarding runner-up prizes further stokes the competition. 
The golden age of the space program is a piece of our history that makes all Americans feel proud. But today's non-manned interim program discredits that history and disappoints its employees and supporters. It's obvious that the bureaucratic model is failing, and failing expensively. With a prize-based, entrepreneurial approach, we can recapture the spirit of adventure and again be the envy of the world in space.
Your Friend,

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Watching the Space Race: Popular Science Education

by Walt Staples

When the reality of spaceflight jumped out at Americans in the fall of 1957, we kids at least were primed for it by our long hours of education, mostly spent in front of black and white TVs and occasionally in darkened movie theaters on Saturday afternoons.

With the exception of half hour snippets of intense scientific information from TV shows such as “Tom Corbett: Space Cadet,” “Rocky Jones: Space Ranger,” and “Science Fiction Theater,” long term study opportunities were afforded by WDBJ Channel 7's “Science Fiction Saturday” and downtown Roanoke's American Theater.

Television broadcast of movies tended to lag six and seven years behind their theatrical showings, thus, we were able to view such select fare as:

“Cat Women of the Moon” (1953)

            Lesson learned: The last few woman surviving on the moon could control Earth women by mental telepathy and Earth men by wiggling. (Happy, being six-years-old, we were immune.) Looking at the lunar inhabitants' costuming, it's possible this is where the term “cat-suit” originated.

“Radar Men from the Moon” (1952)

            Lesson learned: Tony Stark had a predecessor—Commando Cody, a wealthy industrialist and mind-boggling engineer. We also learned that “Cat Women of the Moon” was  apparently incorrect that the moon was airless; both good guys and bad guys wandered it's surface under an atmospheric pressure of around 15 pounds per square inch (it's 1957, we haven't heard of metric yet) and within a 1G gravitational field. The grip of this serial masterpiece was so strong that 15 years later the world was enlivened by the music of Commando Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (the group's lead said he lost the toss so he had to be Commando Cody).

“Abbott and Costello Go to Mars” (1953)

            Lesson learned: The importance of good navigation. Like Voltaire's remark about the term, “Holy Roman Empire,” being a fallacy, there was a basic flaw involved in this one's plot, it'weren't Mars they hit. Instead, they ended up on a Venus ruled by (what else?) beautiful women, by way of New Orleans (a planet all its own). This movie blazed the way for a later movie entitled “The Queen of Outer Space” (a 1958 satire on this more serious work).

“Rocketship X-M” (1950)

            Lesson learned: If you're a lousy navigator, maybe chemistry can save your fantail. In this jewel, the intrepid astronauts (a term coined eight years in the--then--future) manage to miss the moon—hey, it could happen to anybody; after all, it's only 2,160 miles wide—and fly on to Mars. The rocket's engine cuts out half way to the moon (those old Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems A6s did tend to vapor lock at high altitudes) and the crew mixes a special fuel and restarts the engine with it. The EPA mileage must have been pretty impressive as they find themselves waking up an hour later and 50,000 miles from Mars. The acceleration involved to travel 50,000,000 miles in a hour makes for an interesting thought picture of the number of Gs they must have pulled. (Actually, I may do them wrong, with that much “umph,” they may have hit the moon, blown through, and out the other side—if you're going to chuck small matters like physics over the side, why stop there?) Another thing learned is that Mars is so cold and the atmosphere so thin that people on the surface must dress in leather A2 flight jackets and use World War II era aviator's oxygen masks.

“Destination Moon” (1950)

            Lesson learned: Somebody in Hollywood was actually awake during high school physics and astronomy. This movie stands out from the rest because George Pal tried very hard to get the science right. No monsters, no fatal women—actually, no women at all in the last two-thirds of the movie—and lunar vacuum can kill you. In this one, a consortium of private businesses build and fly a mission to the moon and back because the government can't or won't afford it (I wonder if the folks at Orbital Science Corporation, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic saw this movie as kids). The space suits (NASA uses “spacesuit,” but it's several years in the future when I'm watching this) were so good and “right” looking, that they were used in films and TV shows into the mid-to-late 60s. Chesley Bonestell's moon was harder surfaced and craggier than that seen by TV audiences all over the world 19 years later, but the actors did indeed appear to be functioning in one-sixth gravity.

“Conquest of Space” (1955)

            Lesson learned: Even your mom can be interested in science fiction if it's done well enough. I got to stay up 'til nine on a school night when she took me with her to see this one downtown at the American Theater (unlimited buttered popcorn refills). As in “Destination Moon,” George Pal worked hard to get the science right on this trip to Mars. Everything was 1955 state-of-the-art—the Mars ship and space station were straight out of Wernher von Braun's books, Project Mars: A Technical Tale (a novel he wrote in the late 40s as he cooled his heels in Fort Bliss while the Army decided what to do with him—frankly, it probably reads better in the original German) and The Mars Project (this is the one with lots of graphs, charts, formulae, and a requirement for heavy-duty slide rule slipping). It also included von Braun's horizonal aircraft-type Mars landing and erection of the return portion of the ship. Pal's Mars is red, dusty, cold, and very thin-atmosphered—kinda like the real thing.

Thus, when the Soviets shoved the U.S. into the space age, the kids of America were ready.

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Learn the basics of Spaceflight Online

Not much to post today, because I want all of you space geeks to go check out this website instead:

Have fun and learn something cool today!  Then come tell us about it!

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Maybe We Should Tip the Cosmonauts, Da?

This is a shortie today, because I spent the entire last week racing to finish my next science fiction novel, tentatively titled The Old Man in the Void, and then the weekend trying to catch up on everything else I let fall by the wayside.

As many of you know, NASA just closed its application process, with 6000 applicants.  What you may not have known is Russia was also seeking cosmonauts.

They had 43, and at least one applied because he lived close, so the commute would be easy; and another didn't want to release his mental health records.  Let's hope that there are some actual serious and qualified applicants.

The Russian space agency is saying that part of the problem is the danger and part of it is a simple reflection of the economy.  It probably doesn't help that  baggage porters make better money than cosmonauts.  Maybe if we tipped them?  And should be mention the recent troubles with the Soyuz capsules?

I have to wonder, too, if it's because the Russian people have lost the dream?  Has space travel become a grunt job?  If so, then we might want to be careful about our own society's attitudes toward space.  Right now, we still have the dream, but we face a lot of frustration in program changes and bureaucratic and political concerns gumming up the works.  Commercial space, IMHO has given us a shot in the arm of enthusiasm.  Let's hope we can sustain that.

You can read more about the cosmosuats here.

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Next step for Human Colonization. Build a better suit

Obviously, if we're going to go out into space on a more permanent basis, we need to have suits that will protect us from the environment.  That means not only oxygen, but protection from extremes of temperature and the effect of microgravity.  Until now, we've had "gas bag" type space suits, but there may be something new and more comfortable on the way.

Here's a cool video explaining how a standard spacesuit looks, feels and works:  Efficient but bulky.  (and here's a "fun fact":  one of the most common injuries sustained in EVA suits are hand related, especially fingernails falling off from the trauma of pressure against the hard "thimbles" on the fingertips.  (Good thing my man has nibbled his past the quick.  Point in his favor for astronaut!))

Researchers are looking into an alternative--the Muscular Counterpressure (MCP) suit.  This design has been in the works for at least a decade, and imagined long before that.  (For sci-fi fans, Jerry Pournelle used these suits in Exiles to Glory.)  These suits use the material itself instead of air to provide the pressure to protect you from vacuum.  Here's another cool video explaining it.  And if you really want to know more, you can find a thesis from 2005 here and a recent article here.

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Watching the Space Race: Some (School) Assembly Necessary

By Walt Staples

Recently, I read about an presentation that packed in well over 3,000 in the the small town of Wise, Virginia. Considering Wise has an official population of 3,286, this isn't that shabby a house. I can think of a number of reasonably successful bands that would cheerfully sacrifice their lead singer—on stage—for those kind of numbers. So who were the headliners who brought people from five rural mountain counties to over-fill the University of Virginia at Wise's Convocation Center? One gentleman who was there, and two who weren't.

The draw in this case was astronaut Leland Melvin in the flesh, and astronauts Dan Burbank and Don Pettit, who happened to be about 250 miles (400 km) overhead. They were taking part in something NASA does right--outreach to students. While Melvin hosted, Burbank and Pettit aboard the International Space Station fielded questions on camera from the kids.

Somehow, these talks seem to make more of an impression on country folk. Perhaps, it's because they're less distracted than city dwellers, or they're less into “cool” for coolness sake. Either way, the citizenry comes away with the feeling that this view of their tax dollars in action is very acceptable.

Being a hick, I remember these shots of rural and small town excitement very well. The first one I experienced occurred when I was in third grade in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. I was more than pleased when Mrs. Whitlock announced that we were going to go to an assembly that afternoon. I don't remember her saying exactly why we were going to it, but it would short-circuit my bete noir, spelling—a very good thing. We trooped into the cafetorium (a combination cafeteria and auditorium that did neither function well) along with the other eleven grades and seated ourselves with some expectation. Standing down front behind a table was a man who looked remarkably like Don Herbert, the host of NBC's Saturday science show for kids, “Watch Mr. Wizard.” On the long table before him were a number of drop cloth-covered objects. He raised his hands, and magic happened—we all fell silent. You might say he had presence. He announced that he was a scientist for the new Federal agency, NASA, and he was there to talk to us about spaceflight. He began sweeping the drop cloths from their hidden treasures with a flourish very like a stage magician. It worked beautifully, we were his. Among the items disclosed were a number of models of rockets such as the Explorer-Jupiter C and Vanguard and full size models of the two satellites. He explained why satellites didn't fall from orbit and that rockets operated using Newton's Third Law of Motion—reaction--and that they worked just fine in a vacuum as they didn't need to push against anything to move forward. To close his talk, he drew our attention to what appeared to be a three foot long piece of pipe resting horizontally on a wooden stand. He said it was a working jet engine that he would start, and warned us that it might be a bit loud. The man was a Jedi master of understatement. He touched it off and our eardrums met in the center of our heads (nowadays, such an action would result in six or eight Federal, state, and local agencies being all over him like a cheap suit and Lord only knows how many non-cheap lawsuits would be launched). Ears ringing as we walked back to our classrooms, I made a decision: to heck with the Flying Tiger P-40 model I'd planned to blow my one dollar allowance on that Friday, I was getting a rocket!

Nine years later, I was sitting in the bleachers of the county's only high school. We now lived on the south bank of the Potomac River. And standing down on the floor of the gym was another man from NASA. He was an astronaut in training for the follow up to the Apollo program and had the look and air of an aviator--unfashionable crewcut and all. He too had a number of models, only this time, they were of the Saturn V booster and Apollo spacecraft, the Apollo capsule with its Service Module, the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), and a model of a moon-suited astronaut. One other model looked a whole lot like a truncated trumpet. He explained that it was a model of one of the five rocket engine nozzles on the first stage of the Saturn booster. He told us about the gazillion pounds of thrust it produced and asked the guys in the audience to consider how something like that might improve the performance of the Camaros, Furys, and Mustangs some of us were lucky enough to drive. He produced a model of a Mustang Fastback and remarked that there might be just one sticking point. He explained that the car and the nozzle were the same scale. He then demonstrated the problem by completely covering the car with the nozzle. Yep, a modification or three might be in order. He sent us off with one last word; in three months time, we would be the only people ever to witness the first time a man set his foot on soil that was not the Earth's.

He was very right. We few, we lucky few...

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What did Newt Gingrich REALLY say about space?

The purpose of today's blog is to illuminate what has been said about space and not to promote a particular candidate.  Comments are welcome, but rude or disparaging comments, insults, or political comments outside the scope of space policy will be deleted.

So, a lot of debate and some misinformation and, shall we say, politically motivated hyperbole, about Newt Gingrich's proclamation that he wants a moonbase by 2020.  I looked all over for transcripts of the speeches that said that, but either they don't exist or they're buried in all the debate, misinformation and hyperbole.  So I found videos of his speeches and transcribed them for you:

Why not post the videos?  This way we can see exactly what he said without the emotional inflection or the audience reaction, which can cloud people's reactions.  You can easily go to YouTube to see them.  I've highlighted a couple of phrases to comment on.

From the Debates: 
Question: Would you put more tax dollars into the space race and commit to putting a man on Mars instead of relying on the private sector?

Gingrich:  The two are not incompatible.  For example, most of the great breakthroughs in aviation in the ‘20s and ‘30s were the result of prizes.  Lindbergh flew to Paris for a $25,000 prize.  I would like to see vastly more of the money spent encouraging the private sector into very aggressive experimentation, and I’d like to see a leaner NASA.  I don’t think building a bigger bureaucracy and having a greater number of people sit in rooms and talk gets you there.  

Candidates are attacking Gingrich for wanting to fund a half-trillion dollar space station with our tax dollars.  Actually, Gingrich says here (and below) that he wants to private sector to fund the station, but will offer prizes--much like we're doing now for manned flights to the ISS.  Later, he said he wants that money to come out of NASA's existing budget.  I could not find the speech itself, but did find this from Discover online

Gingrich wants to pioneer space without a huge standing government bureaucracy and with investments by private industry. To help lure companies and research organizations to space, Gingrich proposes to spend 10 percent of NASA's budget, which is currently $17.8 billion, for prizes for an array of competitions.

The idea is similar to what the X Prize Foundation did to spur the first private human spaceships in 2004. The winner of the $10 million Ansari X Prize, SpaceShipOne, become the model for a commercial spaceship, currently undergoing testing, that is expected to begin passenger surborbital spaceflights in a year or so.

But if we had a series of goals that we were prepared to offer prizes for there’s every reason to believe you have a lot of folks in this country and around the world who would put up an amazing amount of money and would make the space coast literally hum with activity because they’d be drawn to achieve these prizes.  

Going back to the moon, permanently.  Getting to Mars as rapidly as possible.  Building a series of space stations and developing commercial space.   There are a whole series of things that you can do that could be dynamic that are more than just “better government bureaucracy;” they’re fundamentally leapfrogging into a world where you’re incentivizing people who are visionaries and people in the private sector to invest very large amounts of money in finding very romantic and exciting futures.

From a Florida press conference about the future of space:  

The weirdest thing I’ve ever done (because sooner or later (Romney’s) researchers will find it)…
At one point early in my career, I introduced the Northwest Ordinance for Space, and I said when we got—I think the number was 13,000—when we have 13,000 Americans living on the moon, they can petition to become a state. …

I wanted every young American to say to themselves, “I could be one of those 13,000.  I could be a pioneer.  I need to study science and math and engineering.  I need to learn how to be a technician.  I can be part of building a bigger, better future.  I can be part of building a bigger, better future.  I can actually go out and live the future, looking at the solar system and being part of a generation of courageous people who do something big and bold and heroic.  

And I will as President encourage the introduction of the Northwest Ordinance for Space to put a market down that we want Americans to think boldly about the future, and we want Americans to go out and study hard and work hard and together we’re going to unleash the American people to rebuild the country we love.  

I’m going to make a set of observations about how to achieve those goals:

By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American.  We will have commercial, near-earth activities that include science, tourism and manufacturing, and are designed to create a robust industry precisely on the model of the development of the airlines in the 1930s because it is in our interest to acquire so much interest in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to matching.  And by the end of 2020, we will have the first continuous propulsion in space capable of getting to Mars in a remarkably short time because I am sick of being told we have to be timid, and I am sick of being told we have to be limited to technologies that are 50 years old.  

"Chinese and Russians"  Here, I see comments disparaging Gingrich for using fear tactics and "the Red Menace."  I can only think, "Grow up, people."  These two nations are our most viable competitors in manned space.  And I, for one, would prefer NOT to have to depend on the Russians to take us to Mars.
"Limited to technologies that are 50 years old."  Amen to that.  However, I also don't want to have the "let's change our focus every administration" mentality that NASA has been working under.  By encouraging commercial industry and rewarding progress, we can do that.

And honestly, if we truly inspire the entrepreneurial spirits of America, we may get some of this stuff a lot faster.

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Company Profile: Virgin Galactic, Spaceport

Here's the photo from it from Google Earth, but the satellite coordinates are wrong:
Can anyone find this on Google?  How will I ever get to drive there if I can't get directions? 
What a tragedy--I can't get to space because I can't find the vac'ing spaceport!

The spaceport is actually owned by the State of New Mexico and leased to Virgin Galactic.  Other companies have used it for launching from the spaceport as well.  Virgin Galactic said they picked the area for several reasons:

  • World's first purpose-built commercial spaceport
  • Estimated construction cost $209 million
  • Stable weather, dry climate
  • 4,600 ft. altitude above sea level means nearly the first mile of vertical travel is "free"!
  • Low population density around Spaceport America
  • Congestion-free, shared restricted airspace with neighboring White Sands Missile Range
  • Long local history of spaceflight pioneering and innovation
The runway is almost two miles long and is, of course, designed for the horizontal take-off of White Night Two.  (It's apparently not the longest runway in the Mohave, however.)  There 's a training area for the astronauts as well as things for visitors to see.  (Probably a nice gift shop, thought you can get the stuff online, too.)  A lot of the spaceport is dug into the ground to protect it from the extreme temperatures of New Mexico.  And you have to admit, it looks very cool.

Now that they have nifty new facilities, they're starting "shakedown cruises" with the goal of first commercial flights this year or next.  They have over 400 people with tickets. 

If you want to learn more about it, check out

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Watching the Space Race: The Marines Have Landed!

By Walt Staples

February is such a lousy month that back in 1962, two holidays were necessary to get through it, Lincoln's Birthday (12 February) and Washington's Birthday (22 February).  Valentine's Day was in there too, but that was for girls. On 20 February of that year, though, we effectively had a third real holiday. That day, Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr., USMC, was the first American to orbit the Earth and nothing got done all day.

It was its usual miserable Northern Virginia February morning, that Tuesday, as I walked the mile and a quarter to my elementary school for another jazzy day of fifth grade boredom. It was cold, gray, and spitting snow ineffectually. It matched the mood of most of us kids. The Russians had orbited a cosmonaut nearly a year before, Soviet Air Force Captain Yuri Gagarin. It was bad enough that the U.S. was playing catch-up as usual, but with delay after delay, it seemed Col. Glenn might be drawing retirement before the bird got off the pad.

Things were different as I slouched through Garfield Elementary's doors this morning. Rather than allowing the first-through-sixth graders to gravitate to their respective rooms, a number of teachers formed a skirmish line directing us to the cafeteria. Entering, we saw a 24 inch TV sitting atop a high cart. Mrs. Peachtree, my teacher was at the door and told us to sit on the floor, forming lines facing the TV. Oh, ho—maybe?

CBS News' evening anchor man, Walter Cronkite, was sitting out in the sun at a news desk at Cape Canaveral, wearing a huge pair of headphones, and talking animatedly with a blocky-looking blondish man who might have been Dr. Wernher von Braun. The sound of the black and white TV was off and there was the usual cacophony of four hundred kids suddenly released from the depression of arithmetic, spelling, and penmanship. The principle (whose name completely escapes me, never having had direct dealings with him) came in, walked to the set, raised the volume, and grinned at the sudden kid-silence as Cronkite turned to the camera and said, “We now go to Mission Control for the countdown.” The countdown picked up at, “...T-minus ten-nine-eight-seven, etc.” and the Friendship 7 Mercury-Atlas combination lifted off.

The TV in the cafeteria was left on all day. Each lunch shift was preternaturally quiet as every eye stayed glued to the screen, not that there was a whole lot to see. While there was a camera trained on the astronaut during the flight, the pictures weren't broadcast back to the ground yet. Instead, a drawing, looking over the astronaut's right shoulder, showed the instrument panel and the supposed view from his periscope of the ground and water Friendship 7 was passing over via an animation appearing in a circle in the panel's center.

We were marched back into the cafeteria about 14:15 to see the splashdown. What we saw was a map of the Atlantic Ocean with a big Maltese cross marking where the Mercury capsule was to land. We waited and waited and nothing on the screen changed. It began to dawn on some of us that NASA had apparently misplaced Col. Glenn and Friendship 7. After what seemed like forever, a scratchy voice from the recovery task force flag ship, aircraft carrier USS Randolph (CV-15), reported that Friendship 7 had missed the target area. The Marine kids looked at each other—Col. Glenn got “Maggie's Drawers?!” The voice continued that astronaut and capsule were safe and had been picked by the destroyer USS Noa (DD-841).


“Maggie's Drawers” refers to the uncomfortably large (for the embarrassed marksman) red flag waved back and forth in front of a target on the range signifying a complete miss. The reason Glenn missed his splashdown target was that he'd been forced to use more fuel than expected because of a faulty automatic attitude thruster control. It allowed thrusters to fire, caused the Friendship 7 to yaw out of position unless he manually flew the capsule. The heavy use upset the calculations for the expected splashdown site.

A second problem he experienced was overheating in his spacesuit. When he attempted to remedy this, he began to receive warnings about the amount of humidity in the cabin atmosphere.

The third problem was the heart-stopper. A number of times, Glenn was requested to make sure that the landing bag deploy switch was in the “off” position. This controlled the deployment of a inflatable bag between the capsule and its heat shield that had been added to the Mercury capsules due the sinking of Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 after his suborbital flight the year before. After the umpteenth time a ground communicator made this request, he began to suspect he might have a problem. On the ground, they were receiving a message that the heat shield was no longer locked in place. If true, when the retro rocket pack was released during reentry, the heat shield would move out of place and astronaut and capsule would burn-up. If, on the other hand, the retro rocket pack was retained, there was the chance of an explosion if all of the pack's propellent had not been exhausted. Mission Control decided the pack would stay on.

Over the U.S., on its third orbit, Friendship 7 began reentry. Flaming pieces of the retro rocket pack gave Glenn pause as they flew by his window, causing him to worry that they might be part of his heat shield disintegrating.

Just past the highest G force, the capsule began to oscillate strongly, fluttering “like a falling leaf,” in Glenn's words. At 28,000 feet (8,615 meters), the drogue chute automatically deployed rather than at the programed 21,000 foot (6,462 meter) altitude. Friendship 7 splashed down 40 miles (64 kilometers) short of her target. USS Noa spotted the capsule descending and radioed Glenn from six miles as she sped toward him.

Coming along side, she hoisted the capsule aboard. Glenn warned the crewmen to stand aside, and blew the explosive bolts on his hatch. As he stepped onto the deck, a sailor painted a circle around where his feet first touched. Glen was ushered below to Sick Bay for a quick check over and three hours later was helicoptered to the USS Randolph.

As it turned out, the “Segment 51” sensor, that caused so much worry, had malfunctioned and there had been no danger of the heat shield becoming displaced.

Naturally, with the exception of Friendship 7's being semi-lost for 20-30 minutes as far as the TV audience was concerned, none of the problems listed above and their seriousness became known outside the program until sometime later.

The next Saturday morning, I was in line at the post office with my four cents to purchase a first-class Project Mercury stamp.

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Here's your chance to find a habitable planet!

The past year has been an incredible one for space as we have found more and more extra-solar planets that could possibly sustain life.  However, the data from the Kepler telescopes that is supplying those discoveries is immense, and computers can't always do an accurate job of interpreting or catching a trend or anomaly--and there just aren't enough dollars to pay scientists to do it all.

That's where you come in!  How would you like to see hitherto "science-eyes-only" data and learn how to interpret it to find possible life-sustaining planets...and then get to search for them?

The project is called Planet Hunters is is found at :

Welcome to Planet Hunters from The Zooniverse on Vimeo.

 So, here's the chance for us non-sceince-types to contribute to manned space.

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