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.

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.

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.