LaRC, and what my father did there

My dad spent more than 30 years, from the 1960s to the late 1990s, at NASA Langley Research Center, which turns 100 this year. During that time he worked on Apollo-adjacent technologies, atmospheric and environmental satellite based sensors, and diagnostic equipment for hypersonic jet engines.

That’s a grossly inadequate description of what he worked on. I got to know his work on coherent anti-Stokes Raman spectroscopy and its applications to high temperature sensors pretty well, because that’s what he was working on when I was in high school. And I’m old enough to remember his overnight or weekend trips to Wallops Island to fly missions to measure ocean environmental characteristics with lasers in the late 1970s, before funding for NASA environmental research was cut during the Reagan years. But he was also at the center when it was a hotspot of research for the Apollo program. I’ve driven by the huge concrete pad dwarfed by towering girders above where Neil Armstrong practiced manually steering the Apollo landing craft to a safe touchdown—skills he ended up using for Apollo XI.

Looking forward to watching this documentary about the center (narrated by none other than William Shatner) with my kids, if I can just get them to sit still long enough.

Where no minifig has gone before

Juno's flight grade aluminum minifigs, courtesy NASA via CNET.
Juno’s flight grade aluminum minifigs, courtesy NASA via CNET.

Just a note for those who missed it in the excitement of a high precision orbital insertion around Jupiter by NASA’s exploratory spacecraft Juno: it’s got passengers. Namely, custom Lego-style minifigs of Galileo, Juno and Jupiter made of space-grade aluminum.

It’s not really news—NASA publicized the existence of the minifigs back in 2011— but it’s still fun to think about minifigs going where no minifig has gone before.

Preparing to land on the moon


The anniversary of the first moon landing, on July 20, 1969, is always a special occasion for me. It’s my dad’s birthday too, and he was a NASA employee for over 30 years, so the story of the space program is the story of my childhood. I was too young to watch any of the moon landings on TV–hell, Apollo 17 took off when I was 5 days old, and the last Skylab mission happened when I was only 18 months old. But I was always hanging out at NASA Langley with Dad, whether it was for mundane reasons (eating lunch in the cafeteria, playing on the playground, going to the Visitors Center, now the Virginia Air and Space Center) or for historic occasions. I was in the main auditorium with Dad when the videos from the first Voyager flybys of Saturn came in, and for other flybys. And I feel a deep sense of family connection to the space program as a whole.

But I had never seen the photo reproduced above until today. When I was a summer intern at NASA Langley in 1992, I drove alongside what looked like a massive abandoned facility. Red girders above, cracked tan pavement below, weeds around. “It was the Lunar Landing Research Facility,” my dad told me. Apparently they suspended a mockup of the lander from the girders to simulate moon gravity, and the astronaut or research pilot would practice piloting it. I never actually saw a period photo of the facility, though, until today’s Big Picture feature, which includes the photo reproduced above of Neil Armstrong at the LLRF. The facility is apparently still in use today for “impact testing” (crashing) aircraft. (More details about the LLRF and Langley’s other contributions here).

I suppose this attachment to NASA explains my visceral reaction to the ongoing “moon landing hoax” foolishness (I would have been right alongside Buzz Aldrin in punching Bart Sibrel in the face). Thanks to Bad Astronomer Phil Plait for his many good humored but thorough debunking blog posts on the subject.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying the non-hoax-related coverage of the anniversary, including @AP11_CAPCOM, @AP11_SPACECRAFT, and @AP11_EAGLE on Twitter. You may want to follow @AP11_MOON as well.

In awe of the immensity of it all.

The Bad Astronomer (fellow UVA alum Phil Plait) points to a really spectacular Hubble image of an unusual spiral galaxy. For me, the takeaway is when you look at the really big version of the image (not the 28 MB one but the 4.3 MB one) and look at all the background galaxies. Not stars, galaxies–hundreds of them, all shapes and sizes. Here’s a tiny corner of the image:


When I see a picture like that, I think, how could we possibly be alone in all this beauty?

Remix culture: NASA’s bootleg Snoopy from 1969

I had read about NASA’s use of Snoopy and the Peanuts characters as unofficial mascots for Apollo 10 (it was well documented in Charlie Brown and Charlie Schulz, which sat on my Pop-Pop’s bookshelf alongside the Peanuts Treasury), but don’t remember seeing this. Courtesy Google Image Search and the LIFE archives:

As good an argument for the Commons as I’ve ever seen. The irony is, of course, that it sits in Google Images with no reasonable licensing in place. Even this bootleg image is claimed as copyright LIFE magazine.

Spacewalking boss

My dad called me last night and said, “What about our boy Steve?” I was confused, and so he had to point out that the astronaut who successfully performed the spacewalk to remove the dangling filler cloth on Discovery is none other than Steve Robinson, former chief of the Experimental Flow Physics Branch at NASA’s Langley Research Center—and my dad’s and my former boss.

My dad worked at NASA Langley for over 30 years and had his last research experience working in combustion flow diagnostics. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1992 I was a summer intern in Steve’s branch. I can’t claim to have been exceptionally successful at it, other than discovering a latent affinity for information technology, but I did learn a fair amount that summer and remember meeting Steve.

This is the definition of a small world: you turn on the TV and your former boss is spacewalking to rip off small pieces of cloth from the space shuttle.

Spies in space

I love this story about the discovery of spacesuits for spies (or, less sensationally, training suits from the Air Force’s short-lived MH-7 program) in a locked, forgotten room at Cape Canaveral. As a comment on Slashdot pointed out, it’s a great metaphor for the fate of much of our space engineering work from the 1960s.

A few other memories were dredged up by the Slashdot crowd, including the X-20 Dynosoar, a reusable space plane design conceived in 1957 and cancelled in 1963. I remember seeing models of some of the other proposed Air Force space craft in the visitors center at NASA Langley when I was a kid.

Manned espionage platforms speak of a vision of the future that failed to understand how quickly electronics technology would advance to provide communications and surveillance capabilities without costly human intervention. It’s a more Asimovian view of the future than the Philip K. Dick version we got instead.

Cassini’s big adventure

cassini image of saturn

I have been meaning for a while to post about Cassini, the orbiter that is currently approaching Saturn orbit carrying one of the most sophisticated arrays of imaging equipment ever fielded. What finally prompted me was my finding the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) photo blog. All the photos taken by the orbiter are available here, grouped by mission, including amazing recent shots of Cassini’s Saturn approach and moon fly-bys.

(Yes, in case you hadn’t guessed: there is a part of me that will always be a NASA brat.)

Faster than a speeding bullet

The hypersonic test flight of the X-43A, NASA’s scramjet test plane, had special significance for our family. My dad was working on the program that produced the engine while he was in research at NASA. His part was subtle but important: how do you figure out if your engine is running hot (or cold, or just how it’s running at all), when normal operating temperature is so hot that most probes would melt?

Cool stuff…

Incidentally, the title of this post is correct. Mach 7 = 7,815 feet per second. According to this article, the fastest projectile (not propelled by railgun) tops out at about 6,000 fps.

Why go to Mars? Let’s make the Northeast habitable first

Alarming, this finding from Cornell that the landing site of the Spirit, in the Gusev crater on Mars, was warmer yesterday afternoon than 14 major points in the Northeast. For the record, the landing site was 12° F, while the warmest city noted, Providence, RI, was only 9° F, while of course Mount Washington, NH, weighed in at -36° F.

Which is before wind chill.

Kind of puts Bruce Sterling’s comments about needing to settle the Gobi Desert before we go to Mars in the proper perspective. Maybe what we should really do is wait for global warming to make the Northeast habitable first.

Mars: US 4, Europe 0

mars spirit

You’ll have to forgive the highly Americentric tone of the headline, but when I saw that NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” landed safely tonight, just over a week after Europe’s Beagle 2 disappeared after its descent to the Red Planet, I had to let out a cheer. Just remember: I’m a child of NASA, and though my Dad had more to do with Aeronautics than Space, I grew up on tales and photos from Pioneer, Voyager (I was in an auditorium at Langley when the first pictures of Saturn came back from Voyager II), and the original Viking landers.

Tonight’s landing of the “Spirit” marks the fourth successful landing that NASA has managed on Mars, starting with the two Viking landers, going on through the Pathfinder, and (alas) the loss of the Polar Lander in 1999.

This was a heck of a landing, too—check out the 19 step plan posted here.

Update: Susan Kitchens blogged the landing from the Planetary Society event in Pasadena.

The Shuttle, America, and me

I was unable to speak or think past my grief yesterday. I was on my way to a choral practice when I happened to switch on NPR and heard the news. During a break, I used the library’s computers and got the story from Dave. Of course the first thought that went through my mind was, did someone manage to get a bomb on board? But, even though some Iraqis are reportedly saying it was divine retribution, this tragedy seems to have had nothing to do with the looming war and everything to do with the sadness of entropy.

They say about fighter jets that they are thousands of spare parts flying in formation, underscoring both the burden of maintenance and the miraculousness that we can ever get such complicated machines off the ground in the first place. It is so easy to take this for granted, but the Space Shuttle is anything but routine. Stripped down to its airframe every few years and completely rebuilt (as Columbia was recently), the Columbia’s millions of parts not only had to fly in formation, they had to be rocketed into space, then glide to a controlled landing from speeds in the upper atmosphere of about Mach 18. At those speeds, the complex system that holds the craft together can be upended. Entropy is never eliminated, only held at bay, and when the guard fails it reclaims its place with sudden, shocking ferocity.

I couldn’t watch any of the TV coverage last night, so I switched to the New Yankee Workshop and watched Norm Abrams make a table, leg by leg, rounding the top with an ingenious pivoting mount that spun the table at a fixed radius past his saw. That our hands, whose most complex craft until about four hundred years ago was furniture, could have pieced together the assemblage called Columbia and hurled it beyond the clouds on a pillar of flame, to spin around our world and show us what we look like, to bring skilled mechanics to perform a heart transplant on a four story telescope, yes (oh god no) to lift seven souls into orbit and then to heaven.

And, twenty-eight flights and almost twenty-two years ago, after a two day wait, lifting to the skies for the first time before my eyes as I blinked sleepy excitement and mosquitos away and, holding my father’s hand, watched it climb from the wide flat expanse of green Florida wetlands toward the stars.

Requiescat in pace. Aspiramus semper ad astra.