When astronauts ‘saved’ the worst year in American history


The Apollo 8 crew, from left, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman.

You know it’s been tough times when a Dumpster fire is the meme of the year. Indeed, 2016 has been rough: pop culture icons died, police and activists squared off in major cities, we survived a cutthroat presidential election, Syria burned, terrorists attacked around the globe. And, like today, most people were eager to tack a new calendar on the wall by the time Bill Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell launched for the moon on December 21, 1968 — the unofficial worst year ever in the U.S.

That year, MLK had been shot dead, Bobby Kennedy, too. U.S. soldiers were dying every day. Hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians were killed in the Mai Lai massacre. Political unrest and violence gripped the country. Riots hit the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And Richard Nixon was elected president. “By Dec. 31, I was literally too pessimistic to say Happy New Year,” historian Susan Strasser told Slate in July. (The piece revisits the worst years ever).

But as Christmas neared, humanity found reason for hope. Astronauts — heroes in those days — were making their first trip from the Earth to the moon. For NASA, the mission was a Hail Mary. It was a last ditch effort to beat the Russians, who U.S. intelligence believed was readying to launch their own crewed spacecraft.

In the wee hours of the morning, on Dec. 29, 1968, thousands of people gathered at the Ellington Air Force Base to welcome the members of the Apollo 8 crew back home. NASA

So, the American space agency scrapped its plans to orbit Earth and test the lunar lander. Instead, Apollo 8 would orbit the moon. Their ride — the titanic Saturn V rocket — had seen few tests. And three astronauts had just died the previous year. MIT engineers cooked up new navigation plans and the astronauts retrained for their new destination.

As they planned the flight changes, the astronauts realized that they’d be orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve. They wanted to do something special. “So we thought, well how about changing the words to ‘The Night Before Christmas’?” Lovell told Astronomy magazine in a recent interview. “That didn’t sound too good. Or how about ‘Jingle Bells’? No, that was even worse. So we were at an impasse.” A friend suggested farming it out to a newspaper reporter he knew, figuring he was pretty good with words. As Lovell tells it:

He spent one night trying to figure out what these three people should say. It was going through quite a bit of the evening, and pretty soon, around midnight, his wife came down the stairs and said, “What are you doing?” And he told her the story that he was writing this thing for the Apollo 8 crew. He hadn’t really come up with anything yet. And she said, “Well, you know, that’s simple — why don’t they read from the Old Testament the first 10 verses of Genesis? I mean, it’s an emotional time, sort of a holy time, but Genesis, the first 10 verses, is the structure of most of the world’s religions — especially Christianity, but Judaism and also Islam.” All had their origins somehow from the Old Testament. So that’s what we did. Got it down and put it on fireproof paper, and it was put in the back of the flight manual.

The Dec. 21 launch went off without a hitch. Anders, Borman and Lovell soon became the first to leave Earth’s gravity behind. And on Christmas Eve, as the trio completed their fourth orbit around the moon, something totally unexpected happened: The spacecraft turned perfectly just as Earth broke over the lunar horizon. “Oh, my God, look at that picture over there,” Anders told Lovell. “There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!”


The iconic Earthrise photo. NASA

That Earthrise image became one of the most iconic in human history.  Five orbits later, just as evening settled across America, the astronauts appeared on television as scheduled.

The eyes of the world — an audience estimated at half a billion people — turned to watch. The space farers showed Earth rising out the spacecraft window, and panned their cameras across the lunar surface. Then they took turns reading from the book of Genesis.

“For all the people on Earth,” Anders said, “the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you.” After concluding, Lovell added: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.” At the time, with their focus solely on the mission, the astronauts hadn’t realized how powerful the event was for humans back on Earth. Time magazine went so far as to name them people of the year.

“It really wasn’t until we came back that we suddenly realized what the flight had accomplished as to the attitude of the Americans,” Lovell said in 2014. “We got so many telegrams, and one I remember distinctly, all it said was ‘You saved 1968’.”

The Woman Who Named The Moon And Clocked Variable Stars


Mary Adela Blagg was a talented astronomer in two fields, but her work has been forgotten.

Today, keeping track of features on the Moon is fairly straightforward, thanks to the meticulous naming system overseen by the International Astronomical Union. But a century ago, it was a free-for-all: whoever drew the map chose the labels, and the same crater or dome could have four different names.

That is, until Mary Adela Blagg stepped in. Blagg was in her late 40s when she fell for astronomy. Even though she was mostly self-taught, she made important contributions to two areas of astronomy, lunar nomenclature and variable stars. In 1916, she was one of the first four women admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society in recognition of her work—but today, she is almost forgotten.

Blagg, who was born in 1858, spent most of her life in Cheadle, a small town in England. “In their time, the Blaggs were kind of local royalty, they were involved in all aspects of Cheadle life,” says Mike Plant, a local historian at the Cheadle Historical Society. Her father was a lawyer and when her mother died, Mary became responsible for her family.

She went to school in London, but not to college—instead, she borrowed her brother’s math textbooks. Her interest in astronomy likely dates to 1904 or 1905, when she attended a local lecture series by Joseph Hardcastle, the grandson of Uranus discoverer William Herschel.

By 1906, they were communicating enough that he had arranged for the publication of her analysis of a year’s worth of star observations—4,000 in all. Blagg also traded letters with H.H. Turner, a prominent astronomer at the time, who was publicizing her work by 1913.

Correspondence and collaboration with leading astronomers threaded through her entire career. “Although people like to think of her working under others, in fact she did most of the analysis,” says Jeremy Shears, president of the British Astronomical Association, a society of amateur astronomers, of which Blagg was a long-standing member. “They did a very good job supporting her and probably gave her the confidence to let her get on with the research she was stimulated by.”

Hardcastle and Turner guided Blagg to both her of the fields she did her best work in: They recommended her to astronomers looking to sort out the chaos on the moon and sent her stacks of observations of variable stars. Impressively, Blagg at times seems to have worked on both of these projects at once.

Blagg’s first foray into lunar nomenclature, published in 1913, was a book-length table aligning named craters and other features from three main lunar maps, two German and one English. She continued tracking mismatched names and led the creation of the International Astronomical Union’s first formal list of features, published in 1935.
For both these projects, Blagg would have pored over maps and reports by previous astronomers, cross-referencing them with the latest images of the moon she could find—first early photographs of the moon made in Paris, later more detailed ones from the Lick telescope in California.

Planetary geologist Chuck Wood, now at the Planetary Science Institute, did similar work in the 1960s when NASA wanted to revisit naming, which had gotten sloppy since Blagg’s work. “I can attest that that’s very difficult,” Wood says. With even with more modern, higher-res images, “it was still almost impossible sometimes to identify what the maps showed with what the photographs showed was the reality of the moon.”

Similarly, Blagg’s work with variable stars combined raw data from predecessors and her own strikingly meticulous analysis. Turner had acquired a stack of notebooks in which an astronomer compared the brightness of variable stars over time with their steadily-lit neighbors. Blagg had to identify those nearby stars and calculate the variable star’s brightness in each observation.

She then calculated the length of that cycle thanks to her advanced math skills, whereas previous astronomers had simply graphed the data and eyeballed it. It’s the kind of analysis that’s easy to do today, but took immense skill when computers were still humans. “If I do it now I just stick it in a computer until it gives me a spectral analysis,” Shears, who studies variable stars, says.

Among her other conclusions, Blagg determined that in one star, Beta Lyrae, the cycle of brightening and dimming was gradually slowing. That observation has held up over time—in 2008,data from the CHARA Array Inferometer confirmed Beta Lyrae is a binary star. “One of the stars is cannibalizing its companion,” says Stella Kafka, director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers. “It’s literally sucking the life out of its companion through an accretion disk.”

Both projects involved grappling with vast amounts of information—without the aid of modern technology. “Back in Mary Blagg’s days, you had to have an analytical turn of mind to take that raw data and make sense of it,” Kevin Kilburn, an astronomer and astronomical historian, says. “That’s what makes Mary Blagg rather unusual at that time.”

Her correspondences with other astronomers were key to earning Blagg her place in the Royal Astronomical Society. “There was a bit of social networking going on,” for all four of the first female fellows, says Sian Prosser, the society’s librarian. All four had personal or professional ties to prominent astronomers—a trait they shared with plenty of freshly minted male fellows through the years as well.

Women had been awarded honorary membership for at least 80 years, but the society had to pay the king 3000 pounds and edit its charter to make it clear that women could be fellows. And according to a letter from Turner to Francisca Herschel, who was elected later in 1916, there had been some concern of “opposition” to female fellows, but the backlash never appeared.

Blagg was also recognized with a crater on the moon, named for her before she died in 1944. Her quiet personal life belied her scientific achievements—she had never married and had rarely even left Cheadle, communicating with the astronomical community primarily in writing.

While her contributions relied on unique skills and she was more independent than most women in astronomy, Blagg wasn’t alone in conducting professional-grade research as an amateur. “I think the thing that strikes me most is she wasn’t ahead of her time, she was part and parcel of late Victorian astronomy,” says Kilburn. “She was certainly recognized for her work, but I think it came at a time that attitudes were being relaxed. It was recognized that women were involved in science, they weren’t just pressing flowers into books.

When Humans Saw Earth from Space for the First Time

The view of Earth from outer space has utterly transformed perspectives on our civilization, our planet, and our relationship to the universe beyond our skies. This Monday marks the 70th anniversary of the day we first saw the planet from this extraordinary, quasi-alien vantagepoint; a pivotal event that occurred on October 24, 1946, at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Snapped from an altitude of 65 miles by a Devry 35-millimeter motion picture camera, the black-and-white image captures the Earth’s curvature and the sweep of cloud cover over the American Southwest.

The camera was mounted on a V-2 rocket, a Nazi-developed series of long-range ballistic missiles that Hitler had deployed against Allied targets in London, Antwerp, and Liège during World War II, resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians.

In the final months of the war, American forces accepted the surrender of key German rocket scientists, including Wernher von Braun, who later became the architect of the Saturn V Apollo Program rockets. These spaceflight experts immigrated to the United States in secret under Operation Paperclip, and they brought dozens of their V-2 rockets with them to help kickstart the American space program.

At first, the US Army was mainly interested in feeling out the limits of the V-2 for space exploration and military defense. From 1946 to 1950, teams launched scientific payloads to increasingly higher altitudes aboard the adopted missiles, which yielded about 1,000 of these ground-breaking photos of Earth from space.

First photo of Earth from space, taken October 24, 1946. Image: US Army/White Sands Missile Range/Applied Physics Laboratory

The camera’s rolls of film were protected from the shattering impact with Earth’s surface on the return trip by specialized steel cassettes, which were retrieved from crash sites by military men. Fred Rulli was on the retrieval team that picked up the first images from space 70 years ago, and recalled that the importance of the pictures was appreciated right away.

“[The scientists] were ecstatic, they were jumping up and down like kids.” Rulli told Air & Space magazine. “When they first projected [the photos] onto the screen, the scientists just went nuts.”

Before this point, the highest images that had ever been captured were taken by the two-man crew of the high-altitude helium balloon Explorer II, which ascended to a record 13.7 miles in 1935. As impressive as that feat was at the time, the first V-2 images from space were taken from an altitude nearly five times that high.

Not surprisingly, the portraits are rudimentary by today’s standards. They would later be overshadowed by more sophisticated images such as “Earthrise” or “Blue Marble,” captured by Apollo Program crews, or “Pale Blue Dot,” taken by the Voyager 1 probe when it was 3.7 billion miles away from the planet. Indeed, the first image ever taken from space hasn’t even warranted its own snazzy nickname like its more famous successors.

But what the image lacks in style, it makes up for in novelty. No matter how stunning future views of the Earth become—and they get better all the time—this modest black-and-white scene will always be our first glimpse of our planet from space.

Documentary Shows How Balloon Tests Paved Way to Space

Ask most Americans about the early space program, and the first names mentioned will probably be Alan Shepard and John Glenn, the first NASA astronauts to reach space and orbit Earth, respectively.

But a lot of work led up to these epic 1961 and 1962 flights, as the new PBS documentary “Space Men” makes clear. And this work was done not just by test pilots in jets, but by brave balloonists, the film reveals. You can see an exclusive clip from “Space Men” here.

“Space Men,” which premieres on PBS Tuesday (March 1), covers the research of an Army doctor named John Paul Stapp. Stapp was interested in how the human body would cope with spaceflight. He started his work in the 1940s, years before the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. [Giant Leaps: Top Milestones of Human Spaceflight]

“It was just this kind of forgotten history, and then I was drawn into that,” Amanda Pollak, the documentary’s writer and director, told Space.com. “In the late 1940s and ’50s, he [Stapp] saw the progress around him and what was happening with rocket technology. As a med doctor, he saw people flying faster and higher, and he wanted to protect the human body in that situation.”

Stapp secured funding for experiments on the human body and, ultimately, a set of six balloon flights to the stratosphere, which were conducted as part of projects known as Manhigh and Excelsior. Balloons can’t make it to orbit, but they can get above 99 percent of Earth’s atmosphere, to altitudes of about 100,000 feet (30,000 meters). (Jets at that time were unable to approach such altitudes.)

“The purpose of Manhigh was to come up with the life-support systems,” said retired U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph Kittinger, who flew one flight in 1959 during Manhigh and three times during Excelsior, in 1959 and 1960.

Kittinger jumped from his gondola during his three Excelsior missions, skydiving back to Earth. The goal of these jumps was to find out how an astronaut might cope with a high-altitude bailout. On Kittinger’s third jump, in August 1960, he set a skydiving altitude record — 102,800 feet (31,333 m) — that remained in place until 2012, when it was broken by Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner. (Former Google executive Alan Eustace broke Baumgartner’s record in October 2014, jumping from a height of 135,908 feet, or 41,425 m.)

Kittinger said the challenge was to come up with a bailing-out system simple enough for anyone to use. “Pilots aren’t skydivers,” he said.

For example, one problem is rotation: When jumping out of a plane, a skydiver will start to rotate. At low altitudes, this isn’t a problem, because air resistance keeps the spin rate down. But at the altitudes Kittinger jumped from, there is so little air that the rotation keeps getting faster — as he discovered on his second jump, in November 1959, when a parachute malfunction resulted in a spin of 120 rotations per minute that knocked him unconscious. Kittinger’s emergency chute opened up at about 10,000 feet (3,000 m), saving his life.

The result of Kittinger’s jumps, though, was the drogue parachute design that spacecraft still use today — a small parachute is released at high altitude, when the spacecraft has built up enough speed for the thin air to catch it. That smaller parachute guides the larger one, which is opened later, and prevents tangling.

Stapp’s project also gave engineers the equipment that they almost take for granted in astronaut training today, such as the centrifuge that subjects test pilots and astronauts to high gravity loads.

Beyond testing the limits of human bodies, there were scientific experiments to be done. In the 1950s, not much was known about the region beyond the stratosphere. It wasn’t clear, for example, how dangerous superenergetic cosmic rays might be to human health.

Despite their importance to the later space program, the balloon projects got little funding. Stapp had to be creative in finding ways to make a few dollars go further. The balloon projects were disbanded shortly after NASA was established in 1958, though the space agency did use the data Stapp and his colleagues had gathered on the stratosphere and the effects of stratospheric flight to design its own astronaut training. And Stapp himself helped NASA with its astronaut selection.

Pollak said politics likely played a role in the balloon projects’ demise. The Dwight Eisenhower administration wanted NASA to be an entirely civilian program, so the associations with the U.S. Air Force were downplayed. It was also difficult to get the public excited about balloons when rockets were on offer.

Meanwhile, Kittinger, who still flies planes and performed the first balloon trans-Atlantic crossing in 1983, says he’d do his jumps all over again. “I’d need a bigger pressure suit,” he said.

 Joseph Schmitt, Spacesuit Technician For Early Astronauts, Dies


In Norman Rockwell’s 1965 painting “Grissom and Young,” the suit technician Joe Schmitt, far left, is depicted assisting the astronaut John Young while another technician, Alan M. Rochford, tends to Gus Grissom as they prepare for a Gemini mission space flight. Credit The Norman Rockwell Family Agency

Joseph Schmitt, second from left, in 1965 with the astronauts James A. McDivitt, right, and Edward H. White II as they prepare for the Gemini 4 mission. Second from right is another suit technician, Clyde Teague. Credit NASA

Joseph William Schmitt was born on Jan. 2, 1916, in O’Fallon, Ill. His father, Benjamin, was a city marshal who was killed in the line of duty only a few weeks after Joseph’s birth. His mother, the former Apollonia Berkel, raised him and his siblings with the help of extended family.

In the 1930s, his high school principal, knowing Joe was mechanically inclined, suggested he join the Army Air Corps. He first studied aircraft engines but, with World War II still in the future, found himself looking for more to do.

“It was kind of a slow period,” Mr. Schmitt said in an oral history. “I asked if I could go back to take a parachute riggers course and also an aircraft clothing repair course.”

That proved pivotal when, after leaving the service in 1939, he found his way into the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a forerunner of NASA. He started as an airplane mechanic, working on the 1947 flight in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, but was later put into its Space Task Group as the agency began thinking about manned spaceflights and what astronauts would need to wear.

As an equipment specialist, or a suit tech, Mr. Schmitt would accompany astronauts to the spacecraft and hook up the various connections that would keep them alive, monitor their health and enable them to communicate during flight. It was a job that above all required a high level of attentiveness. “Joe was a perfectionist in many respects,” James W. McBarron II, his supervisor, recalled in a telephone interview.

Mr. Schmitt assists the astronaut John Glenn as he prepares to practice for a mission in 1962. Credit NASA

Mr. Schmitt suited up John Glenn for the 1962 flight in which he became the first American to orbit the earth. The many missions he worked also included Apollo 11, the first lunar landing, and other Apollo missions, where a less-heralded part of the job — care of the suit after a flight — took on new significance.

“We vacuumed out all the moon dust,” Mr. Schmitt said in the oral history. “A lot of people at that time, contractors mostly, they would take some of that dust and try and give it to their friends.” Officials eventually clamped down on that practice, he said.

Mr. Schmitt married Elizabeth Ann Rayfield in 1939; she died in 2008. He is survived by a son, Joseph Michael; a daughter, Norma Jean Spencer; six grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Mr. Schmitt accumulated an enviable collection of mementos, including a medal with Mr. Schmitt’s initials on it that Glenn gave him after taking it with him into space.

He also made a game-show appearance: He was a mystery challenger on “What’s My Line?” in May 1963, just days after he had suited up Gordon Cooper for the final Mercury mission. (The celebrity panel surmised that he was part of the space program but failed to guess his role.)

He also became an artistic footnote during his NASA career: That’s him kneeling on the left in “Grissom and Young,” a 1965 painting Norman Rockwell made of the Gemini astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young as they’re being suited up. But Mr. Rochford said Mr. Schmitt is actually in the painting one and a half times.

Rockwell took photographs of the astronauts to work from, pictures that Mr. Schmitt posed for in his role as suit tech. Later, Rockwell asked NASA to send him a spacesuit so he could get the details just right. Mr. Schmitt brought a suit to Rockwell’s studio in Massachusetts and, Mr. Rochford said, told the artist that there were actually two suit techs for the Gemini 3 flight: He had dressed Mr. Young, while Mr. Rochford had dressed Mr. Grissom. So Rockwell obtained a photo of Mr. Rochford’s face and put a second suit tech into the painting, on the right.

“He took my head and put it on Joe’s neck,” said Mr. Rochford, who is 20 years Mr. Schmitt’s junior. “He put a young head on an old body

 Rare glimpse into the lives of monkeys Nasa sent into space

 Miss Baker in front of a certificate celebrating her achievement

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Miss Baker in front of a certificate celebrating her achievement

A video created by NASA in January 1961 shows Ham, a chimpanzee who was trained to operate certain levers while in a space-bound rocket, being strapped into a special bio-pack couch before being blasted into space.

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Ham the brave space chimp waits in his capsule before blast off

 An MR-2 rocket takes off with Ham aboard it

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An MR-2 rocket takes off with Ham aboard it

 Ham is treated to a snack after safely returning to earth

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Ham is treated to a snack after safely returning to earth

And photos from two years earlier show several different monkeys being prepared for their own trips into space with one, South American squirrel monkey Miss Baker, becoming the first to survive the stresses of spaceflight.

The images come from a period which saw the United States and USSR go neck and neck in the “space race”, with each having the goal of going further than the other in space exploration.

The U.S. sent its first monkey into space in 1948, with rhesus monkey Albert dying of suffocation during a 63km flight on a V2 rocket.

Over the next 11 years, Nasa sent several other monkeys into space, none of which were able to survive the rigours of space travel and its after-effects.

This changed, however, with the flight of Miss Baker and Miss Able on May 28, 1959.

The two were sent up in the nose of the PGM-19 Jupiter flight, reaching an altitude of 95km and a top speed of 10,000mph during their 16-minute flight.

Sadly, Miss Able died a few days after the flight landed due to complications during surgery, but Miss Baker had a very different experience.

 Rhesus monkey Able shortly before take off

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Rhesus monkey Able shortly before take off

 A Rhesus monkey is inserted into a bio-pack ahead of his flight

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A Rhesus monkey is inserted into a bio-pack ahead of his flight

 Scientists prepare a squirrel monkey for a journey into the heavens

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Scientists prepare a squirrel monkey for a journey into the heavens

She survived the flight and lived for another 15-years, eventually dying in 1984.

Her body is buried on the grounds of the U.S. Space and Rockets centre.

The survival of Miss Baker opened the door for NASA to begin testing on hominids, the class of apes which includes both humans and chimpanzees.

Selected from a group of 40 possible candidates, Ham became the first hominid to be launched into space when his project mercury mission MR-2 took off from Cape Canavarel, Florida on January 31, 1961.

 Ham with a Nasa team in the moments before he is loaded onto a rocket

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Ham with a Nasa team in the moments before he is loaded onto a rocket

 Monkey Miss Baker poses on a model of the rocket she travelled in after successfully completing her flight

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Monkey Miss Baker poses on a model of the rocket she travelled in after successfully completing her flight


Ham was given a series of levers to pull and small tasks to complete during his flight, to test the effect space travel had on reaction time.

Scientists found that Ham’s reaction time was only slightly slower than while on earth during his 16-minute flight, which reached a top speed of 9,426 km/h and carried him 420-miles from the launch site.

Despite some unexpected complications during the flight Ham survived both the landing and the aftermath, eventually passing away on January 19, 1983.


When The Space Shuttle Didn’t Come Home

Wayne Hale was an up-and-coming manager at NASA at the time of the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster.

The morning that the space shuttle Columbia was supposed to return home, Wayne Hale was at the landing site. At age 48, Hale was an up-and-coming manager with NASA. He’d just taken a job overseeing shuttle launches. But since this was a landing day, he didn’t have much to do.

It was Feb. 1, 2003. He and other managers were hanging out in a grassy viewing area near the landing strip at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Families of the astronauts were there, too. Loudspeakers were playing communications between Columbia and mission control.

“Really it was a kind of party atmosphere,” he recalls.

Hale was chatting to his friends, feeling relaxed. The astronauts were scheduled to land any minute.

“And finally somebody, I can’t remember who, said: ‘Isn’t it unusual for them to be out of contact for so long?” he says.

The shuttle sometimes passed through a brief communications blackout during re-entry. But it never lasted more than a few minutes.

Hale looked over at the large countdown clock near the landing strip.

“And I said to myself, I thought, ‘No, this is really unusual. Not to have communication with the crew at this point is not good. There is something seriously wrong.’ ”

Hale and the others rushed back to the main buildings at the space center. By the time they made it, the television was already showing footage of the shuttle streaking across the sky, breaking apart, with seven crew members inside.

Hale had spent his entire adult life in the space business. He knew it was dangerous. But he thought NASA had the smartest engineers, the best rockets.

“I mean, I thought our organization was great. I thought we could handle anything,” he says.

Hale and everyone at NASA that day felt an incredible sense of loss and also of failure.

The space shuttle Columbia lifted off on Jan. 16, 2003. Damage to the orbiter’s left wing doomed the crew 16 days later, when the shuttle broke apart during re-entry. The space shuttle Columbia lifted off on Jan. 16, 2003. Damage to the orbiter’s left wing doomed the crew 16 days later, when the shuttle broke apart during re-entry.

“Our job was to keep the crew safe, and they weren’t safe. That’s an immediate failure. Now you’re just asking, ‘In what way did we fail?’ ”

Trying to answer that question changed Hale’s life forever.

The first step in the chain of events that led to Columbia’s loss came more than two weeks earlier. On Jan. 17, the day after the launch, an engineer named Bob Page walked into Hale’s office. Page was in charge of the video cameras watching the shuttle as it shot upward. Those cameras had seen something, he said. He popped a CD in Hale’s computer and pulled up the clip. It showed something fuzzy coming off the shuttle’s big orange external fuel tank. The object smacked into Columbia’s side and went “poof” somewhere around the left wing.

Pretty much right away, Hale knew what had happened. The big tank is covered in foam insulation. Some of that foam had fallen off and hit the shuttle during liftoff. Hale and the other managers had daily meetings to look at the incident. In the end, they decided it wouldn’t be a problem.

“The bottom line was, we all felt pretty good. This was not going to be a safety issue. We’d have to do some maintenance work, but it’s not a safety issue. And that’s what we told the crew,” he says.

Foam had been striking shuttles every now and then for years. It had done some damage in the past, but not too much. This time was different, though. On this fateful flight, the foam punched a small hole in the left wing. When the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere, hot gases seeped into the hole. The aluminum frame melted. The wing buckled, and the Columbia broke apart.

So the wing failed because the foam failed, but for Hale and NASA, that was not the real failure.

“All real problems are people problems. It’s not, ‘Did the foam come off the tank?’ It’s ‘Why did people let the foam come off the tank? Why did we think it was OK to let foam come off the tank?'”

He’d known about the foam problem for years. He’d been in meetings where he could have said something.

“I was senior enough. So yeah, I feel like this was probably the worst failure of my life,” he says.

After the accident, an official investigation found there were some smart people at NASA who were worried. Engineers lower down in the shuttle organization had discussed problems with the foam many times before. But their concerns weren’t clearly understood by people at the top like Hale.

Managers had a lot to worry about. They needed to keep the shuttle program on schedule and on budget. And there were always problems that needed to be fixed. So if an engineer couldn’t explain an issue clearly, it got ignored.

“If somebody brought a concern to you, and it just didn’t sound logical, you were very dismissive and told them to get a life,” he says.

Wayne Hale (center) at the console in Houston’s Mission Control Center in 2001.

After the accident, the heads of the shuttle program were removed. Hale was promoted to second-in-command of the entire fleet.

“You talk about feeling guilty, now there is something to feel guilty about,” he says.

Part of Hale’s new job was to change the cultural problems at NASA, and he resolved to start right away.

“I said the first thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to put the arrogance aside,” he says.

Hale became a listener. When an engineer came to him with an issue after the accident, even if he didn’t understand it, he tried.

Hale oversaw many of the shuttle flights after the accident. It did not fail again. He says they made plenty of changes to checklists.

But he thinks the biggest change was that everyone who worked at NASA became better at talking — and listening.

The first voice transmission from space was Eisenhower

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his White House office, looks toward the nose cone of an experimental missile which he said had been hundreds of miles to outer space and returned to earth completely intact, Nov. 7, 1957. The president spoke on a nationally televised broadcast on the subject of Science and Security. ()

Ike liked rockets. (AP/Charles Gorry)

In December 1958, the Cold War got a spark of warmth when the US broadcast a holiday message of peace and goodwill around the world—from an orbiting nuclear missile.

A little more than a year after Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was launched by the Soviet Union to kick off the space race, the US found a way to demonstrate its own technological prowess. Where Sputnik had communicated with the world by transmitted radio beeps, the US mission known as SCORE—Signal Communication by Orbiting Relay—would transmit a human voice from orbit for the first time.

“Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you from a satellite circling in outer space,” Eisenhower said in a recording played over short wave radio. “My message is a simple one. Through this unique means, I convey to you and all mankind America’s wish for peace on earth and good will to men everywhere.”

 A message of peace, carried on a deadly weapon, encapsulates the promise and peril of space then and today, 58 years later.

Back then, rockets were a multi-agency business. NASA had only been created a few months earlier, in July 1958, as part of a scramble to match the Soviets. The first US satellites put in space after Sputnik—Vanguard and Explorer—had been launched by the US Army and US Navy. SCORE, the third US satellite and first experiment with space communication, was put together by a small US Defense Department office that would eventually become DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Rather than create a unique spacecraft for their experiment, the Defense Department engineers simply adapted an Atlas missile, which had gone into service the year before as the first US missile capable of carrying nuclear weapons between continents. Taking out the nuclear payload, the engineers inserted radio transmitters, tape recorders, and batteries, so that it could receive messages, record them, and relay them again.

The rocket was ready for launch on Dec. 18 with a recorded message from one of the team’s technicians. But at the last moment, Eisenhower was persuaded to record a message himself. The recording was transmitted to the rocket while it sat on the landing pad before launch.

Lift-off was successful, which was no easy feat: Five of the 13 Atlases launched so far that year had failed. Fear of an explosive outcome led the rocket’s mission to be kept secret even from many of the technicians working on the launch. Once the body of the rocket containing the communications equipment was in orbit, ground stations were able to link up cleanly. On Dec. 19, they transmitted the president’s message to the world, a first in the history of space communication. Still, the signal was fairly weak. The message was mainly heard in media broadcasts at the time:

Death Of Space Heroes Always Overcome

The 50-year anniversary of the first fatal tragedy in the American space program helps focus us on the positive that has come out of it all: a technological revolution.        Coincidentally, the two other space disasters in the U.S. manned space program all occur in the same, darkest week of NASA.

There is so much in our 21st Century that we owe to the 1960s Space Race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. This spawned the Moon rivalry, won by America and then abandoned for the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle. Today, China says they are determined to return humans to the Moon: America, Russia and Japan are also making vague plans.

Now after six decades as a space-faring civilization, the handful of space disasters by both America were quickly overcome and have resulted in an incredible safety record during the 10-year construction and 15 year of continuous occupancy of the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

Russia, too, has had its share of fatal setbacks.  It also quickly recovered from two deadly missions in the early days of their three-man Soyuz spaceship.  The SUV-sized capsule has gone through three generations of upgrades over 50 years of operation.  And the Soyuz-MS is the only spaceship available in 2017 to ferry astronauts to the ISS.

NASA is developing their 4-6 person Orion spaceship, which looks like the Apollo capsule. It is 3-5 years away from launch.  Also trying to develop manned spacecraft in the next five years are Space X and its ship called Dragon; Orbital Science with Cygnus; and Blue Origin’s New Shepard.  All are 5-10 years from becoming a reality, fraught with the unique dangers of space travel.

The space disasters of the old Soviet Union cost them the Moon Race when their gigantic rocket booster, called the N-1, blew up three times, once on the launch pad—killing dozens of their top rocket scientists. This was Top Secret stuff in the 1960s, known only by Department of Defense spy satellite imagery and sensors.

Shuttle Columbia Debris on grid floor

Shuttle debris in process of evaluation

The incredible disasters, and many details of the Soviet space program, were not confirmed to the public until the 1990s—30 years later. That’s when cosmonauts and astronauts began training together for the Shuttle/Mir Space station missions in Houston and Moscow. And, well, people everywhere talk!

The two fatal space disasters of the U.S.S.R. occurred in the early days of their Soyuz spacecraft, each accident providing a brutal lesson in the dangers of conquering the unforgiving outer space environment.

The three American space fatalities and two Russian ones all occurred in Earth atmosphere:

  • Apollo 1 had a flash fire inside the spacecraft that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee while rehearsing on the launch pad on Jan. 27, 1967. A spark in the pure oxygen atmosphere ignited combustibles, suffocating the astronauts struggling to open the complicated hatch. The Apollo module inside was completely redesigned and proved reliable as 15 were flown on successful missions.
  • Soyuz 1 was cussed at as the “Devil Ship” by its lone cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, as he knew the orbiting spacecraft was at the wrong angle and in peril during reentry. Break downs in major spacecraft systems doomed the maiden voyage of the spacecraft from the start. Komarov, the first person to fly in space twice (Voskhod 1) had openly criticized the flight worthiness of his spaceship. His ashes are interred in the Kremlin Wall.
  • Soyuz 11 ended with the death of three cosmonauts when a valve cracked opened one-sixteenth of an inch during reentry, caused by a pyro blast of separating modules. Quietly asphyxiated as air escaped were Georgy Dobrovalsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev. That was June 30, 1971. They had just spent a successful month on the world’s first space station, Salyut 1.
  • Challenger and the entire Space Shuttle system were destroyed just 70 seconds into launch when the right side solid rocket booster sprung a leak, the hot fire ripping through the segmented section and then crashing into the Orbiter and the huge, orange External Fuel tank. Seven American astronauts died in front of a television audience that mid-morning of Jan. 28, 1986. Forever remembered across the country in the names of streets, schools and science centers: Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnick and teacher-in-space, Christa McAuliffe.
  • Columbia, the flagship of the Space Shuttle fleet, was destroyed the 28th time it reentered from a successful mission on Feb. 1, 2003. A hole in its left wing ripped the spaceship apart at 30,000 mph and 7 miles above Texas. Like Salyut 11, the seven astronauts performed flawlessly in a 16-day science mission aboard a Space Lab in the cargo bay. Columbia’s hole was punched by a suitcase-sized chunk of insulation foam on the outside of the orange, External Tank, filled hydrogen and oxygen fuel, -200 F. degrees below zero. The three-foot hole went undetected, and the astronauts died, not know knowing what happened or why. They were: Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first spaceman.

Those are the 21 astronaut/cosmonaut pioneers who died, all because of human errors in their spaceship.

But there are a dozen or more who have been killed while on active spaceflight status, including seven NASA astronauts killed in flying accidents or car crashes.

The most famous of those are the prime crew of Gemini 9, Elliott See and Charles Bassett. On Feb. 28, 1966, they were flying a T-38 jet front-seat, back-seat and landing during a storm at the air strip at the St. Louis aerospace factory constructing their spaceship.  The jet clipped the very building at the McDonnell plant manufacturing the Gemini 9 and 10 spaceships, and the astronauts were killed in the crash.

Watching in horror from another astronaut T-38 taxi behind them was back-up crew Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan.  They carried out the Gemini 9 mission in June 1966. World hero and first man in space Yuri Gagarin was also killed in a training jet crash when his MiG-15 washed-out in a tail spin caused by another passing jet. That’s according to Soviet space hero Alexi Leonov, the first spacewalker, who had a close call on his historic 1965 mission.

Close calls were the growing pains of exploring the unknowns of outer space.  There were plenty that were certainly underplayed by NASA, and all Russian mishaps were swept under the rug by the Soviets. The Apollo 13 rescue in April 1970—just before the three astronauts ran out of air and energy needs!—was a small miracle.

Another lucky break was the ability of Neil Armstrong to stop the once per second, end-over-end tumble of 4-ton Gemini 8 (caused by a stuck thruster) just seconds before he and mission-mate David Scott passed out from the centrifugal force.

MarQ CROPPED at telescope Studio -

Mark D. Marquette. American Correspondent

Scott Carpenter’s Mercury spacecraft overshot by 250-miles its Pacific Ocean target after a 3-orbit, 5 hour flight. His whereabouts went unknown for about an hour, and he waited three hours in a lifeboat next to his floating spaceship until rescued by ship.

The USSR widely exaggerated their space successes, and lied about their failures.  Many unmanned tests of their moonship, Zond, were referred to as “Cosmos” missions; the name the Russians gave most of their satellites regardless of their purpose to confuse the Western space watchers.

In the early decades of the 21st Century, China has begun an anticipated dominance of Earth orbit by making calculated steps in building small space stations and testing the abilities of their spaceships and “taikonauts.”

Meanwhile, America, Russia, Europe and Japan are winding down the commitments of their two-decade cooperation, the $200 billion International Space Station. Each space-faring nation wants to go their own way.

Humans in outer space are serious business.  After six decades of manned exploration, we are lucky that the only fatalities have occurred during the blast off and the fiery reentry.

Nobody has been left for dead in space or the Moon.  Not yet. But as we push outward off Earth into the space frontier, fatalities are inevitable. Let’s put that off as long as possible.

By Mark D. Marquette. American Correspondent. Marquette has owned telescopes and been crazy about the space program since the 1960s.  He has shared his passion for astronomy as a writer, lecturer and star party speaker for more than 30 years in America’s Southeast from his home in Boones Creek, Tennessee.

Seeing Sunspots as Early Astronomers Did

Galileo sunspot drawing

Galileo Galilei recorded this drawing of sunspots on June 23, 1613. Galileo was one of the first to observe and document sunspots. The Galileo Project / M. Kornmesser

Astronomers have been counting sunspots — the most accessible tool they’ve had to measure solar activity — for the past 400 years. In more recent times, technology has advanced, making it easier to pick out smaller sunspots or even measure the magnetic field directly. But some astronomers are now turning back the clock. They’re reconstructing ancient telescopes to observe sunspots as our forebears did to better understand the Sun’s evolution.

Sunspots are irregular shapes on the surface of the sun; the cooler gas, held still by strong magnetic fields, appears dark against the rest of the boiling-hot surface. The more sunspots, the more magnetically active the Sun is. Sunspot observations through the centuries have shown two long-term trends in the Sun’s activity: a possible 100-year cycle and a long-term increase in sunspot number. However, it turns out this second trend isn’t real — it’s due to inconsistencies in sunspot-counting.

A team led by Leif Svalgaard (Stanford)built 18th-century telescopes to count sunspots and record the evolution of the solar cycle in the same way as astronomers from yesteryear. The behavior of the solar cycle is crucial to studying solar dynamics, forecasting space weather, and modeling climate change. Our general understanding of the Sun relies on our knowledge about its past behavior.

Early Observations

In the early days of astronomy, sunspots were often ignored or confused for something else. For instance, in 1607, Johannes Kepler wished to observe a predicted transit of Mercury across the Sun’s disk. On the given day, he projected the Sun’s image though a small hole in the roof of his house, a camera obscura, and observed a black spot that he interpreted to be Mercury.

Just a few years later, Galileo and Thomas Harriot, Galileo’s British contemporary, became the first to observe sunspots through telescopes.

Their early telescopes were far from perfect — spherical aberration, caused by the shape of the lens, was a common artifact that blurred images because light didn’t focus at a single point. Aberration coupled with small scopes and corresponding low resolution, made observing and counting sunspots a challenge.

But astronomers were game to try. From 1749 to 1796, German amateur astronomer Johann Casper Staudach observed and drew sunspots using a 3-foot “sky tube.” He drew sunspots for a total of 1,016 days, including days with no observed spots. In 1847, Swiss astronomer Rudolf Wolf started counting and recording the number of sunspots he saw every day.

Wolf used his own observations as well as Staudach’s to create the International Sunspot Number, which described the Sun’s spottedness. But this number, Svalgaard’s team realized, was inaccurate.

Counting: A Method to the Madness

When Wolf started counting sunspots, he knew two people could look through the same telescope and see two different things – after all, human vision isn’t consistent and degrades with time. He came up with the idea of not only counting sunspots, but also groups of sunspots to make a more accurate representation of the Sun.

But his definition wasn’t enough: modern instruments have not only better resolution but also are free of aberrations. The improvement in clarity enables modern observers to resolve one big group of sunspots into two or more smaller groups. As of June 1st, having started on January 14th, Svalgaard’s team has produced 160 drawings over 120 days using the telescopes designed after 18th-century scopes. He’s found that on average, modern observes see about three times as many sunspots as what the ancient telescope reproductions show.

That effect is enough to explain the supposed upward trend in sunspot counts seen by other researchers — when Svalgaard accounts for the different telescopes and counting methods, the trend goes away.

How to Make an 18th-Century Telescope

John Brigg built this solar telescope to observe and record sunspots. It's pictured in front of the Stellafane clubhouse of the Springfield Telescope Makers in Vermont. J. Briggs

John Brigg built this solar telescope to observe and record sunspots. It’s pictured in front of the Stellafane clubhouse of the Springfield Telescope Makers in Vermont. J. Briggs

John W. Briggs, a member of Svalgaard’s team, reconstructed an 18th-century telescope to observe and draw sunspots the same way Staudach did more than 200 years ago. Briggs used a 30-mm lens of 1-meter focal length and glued it a large steel washer.

Then he glued the washer to the end of a cardboard mailing tube decorated with a spiral layer of copper tape. For the eyepiece, he used a brass ocular in fair condition and borrowed a brass draw tube from a 7-inch Clark telescope, built circa 1865, to better focus the image.

Briggs’ replica has a clear aperture (the diameter of its main, light-gathering lens or mirror) of about 20 mm. At such a small aperture and long focal length, spherical aberration becomes less significant.

After Briggs mounted the replica on a light tripod, he projected a 3-inch solar image onto a white sheet of paper clipped to a screen. The larger sunspots were obvious, including the penumbrae, but not the smaller sunspots.

Several other members, who are also part of the team and live in different parts of the country, have made similar reconstructions and observations. “After drawing spots for six months, my expectation is that future results from a variety of telescopes will prove quite similar,” said Briggs.

The ongoing investigations were reported at the 2016 meeting of the Solar Physics Division in Boulder, Colorado. Svalgaard and his team plan to continue the project to add to existing sunspot records and aid in our understanding of the Sun’s evolution.

Voyager’s Legacy Continues at Saturn


Saturn, with its alluring rings and numerous moons, has long fascinated stargazers and scientists. After an initial flyby of Pioneer 11 in 1979, humanity got a second, much closer look at this complex planetary system in the early 1980s through the eyes of NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft.

Voyager 2 made its closest approach to Saturn 35 years ago — on Aug. 25, 1981. What the Voyagers revealed at the planet was so phenomenal that, just one year later, a joint American and European working group began discussing a mission that would carry on Voyager’s legacy at Saturn. That mission — named Cassini — has been studying the Saturn system since 2004. Cassini has followed up on many of Voyager’s discoveries, and has deepened our understanding of what some might call a “mini solar system.”

“Saturn, like all of the planets the Voyagers visited, was full of exciting discoveries and surprises,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at Caltech in Pasadena, California. “By giving us unprecedented views of the Saturn system, Voyager gave us plenty of reasons to go back for a closer look.”

Many Mysterious Moons

Voyager’s Saturn flybys provided a thrilling look at the planet’s moons — a diverse menagerie of worlds, each with unique character and charm. Voyager’s images transformed the moons from points of light to fully realized places. Dramatic landscapes on Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Iapetus and other moons tantalized scientists with features hinting at tortured pasts.

“The stars of the Saturn system are the moons, which surprised all of us on both the Voyager and Cassini missions,” said Linda Spilker, project scientist for Cassini at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena. Spilker also served on the Voyager science team.

One of the key findings of the Voyagers’ visits to Saturn was that the planet’s moons had evidence of past geological activity and that Enceladus — the brightest, most reflective planetary body scientists had ever seen — could still be active.

Cassini set out to delve deeper into the nature of these moons, and found that, indeed, icy Enceladus has geysers erupting to this day. Cassini also confirmed that Enceladus is the source of Saturn’s E ring, which was suggested by Voyager. But while Voyager images of wispy terrain hinted at ice volcanoes on Dione, Cassini found this feathery coating was actually a system of bright canyons.

…Especially Titan

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, was a high-priority target for the Voyager mission. Gerard Kuiper, for whom the Kuiper Belt is named, had discovered in 1944 that Titan had an atmosphere containing methane. Observations from both Voyagers showed that Titan’s atmosphere was primarily composed of nitrogen, with a few percent methane and smaller amounts of other complex hydrocarbons, such as ethane, propane and acetylene. No other moon in the solar system has a dense atmosphere.

Mission planners mapped out a path through the Saturn system that provided the gravitational boost needed to send Voyager 2 onward to Uranus. But because of intense interest in Titan’s atmosphere, the giant moon was the higher priority. In fact, the team would have directed Voyager 2 much closer to Titan if Voyager 1 had not been successful in observing it.

“To fly close to Titan, Voyager 2 would have swung upward out of the plane of the planets, and couldn’t have gone on to visit any others,” Stone said. “It was fortunate that Voyager 1’s observations of Titan went flawlessly, so that Voyager 2 could continue traveling to Uranus and Neptune.”

To the Voyagers, Titan appeared as a featureless orange ball because of dense haze in its atmosphere. Seeing through this haze was a chief goal of the Cassini mission. Cassini carried cameras with infrared vision that could see through the haze, a radar that could map the surface in detail, and the European Huygens probe, which landed on the moon’s frigid surface on Jan. 14, 2005. We now know, thanks to Cassini, that smoggy Titan has methane lakes and flooded canyons.

New Shapes and Sizes

Voyager discovered four new moons and sharpened our view of some that were previously known. The spacecraft also revealed how the gravitational pull of these satellites causes ripples in Saturn’s rings, much like the wake of a ship on the sea. There were also surprising gaps in the rings, some caused by moons embedded within them.

Voyager also revealed an immense hexagonal feature in the clouds that surrounded Saturn’s north pole, which Cassini found was still going strong a quarter century later. Additionally, Voyager measured the wind speeds, temperature and density of Saturn’s atmosphere. With Voyager’s measurements as a starting point, Cassini further explored how Saturn’s atmosphere changes with the seasons.

Lingering Mysteries of Saturn and Beyond

While both missions have vastly improved our understanding of Saturn, its rings and moons, there are still mysteries galore. For example, the exact length of Saturn’s day continues to elude researchers. The Voyagers measured it to be a period of 10.66 hours, but Cassini has measured two different, changing periods in the north and south.

Voyager also made the first up-close observations of Saturn’s rings, discovering new thin and faint rings, along with the ghostly features called spokes. But despite more than a decade of observations with Cassini, scientists are still unsure about the age of the rings — they could be hundreds of millions of years old, or several billion. Cassini, in turn, has prompted new questions of its own, such as whether the ocean worlds Enceladus and Titan could be habitable.

“The twin Voyagers rewrote the textbooks on Saturn, its rings and moons, and we couldn’t wait to go back with Cassini,” Spilker said. “New mysteries uncovered by Cassini will await the next missions to follow in the footsteps of Voyager.”

Voyager 2’s mission of discovery continues to this day. It is now part of the Heliophysics System Observatory, a collection of missions that explore our space environment, and which contribute to protecting future missions on their journeys. Voyager now explores what’s known as the interstellar boundary region, where material blowing out from the sun encounters similar winds from other stars.

The two Voyager spacecraft, as well as Cassini, were built by JPL, which continues to operate the three missions. JPL is a division of Caltech. For more information about the Voyager spacecraft, visit:http://www.nasa.gov/voyager

Throughout human history, space has remained a distant realm full of mystery and wonder. From early star charts to the first telescopes, we have long been working towards new discoveries in space and discovering what lies beyond our planet, and perhaps one day revealing the secrets of the universe. Progress had been slow and steady for centuries until the Space Race in the 1950s, when space exploration became a competition between world powers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

1967 solar storm nearly took US to brink of war

A solar storm that jammed radar and radio communications at the height of the Cold War could have led to a disastrous military conflict if not for the U.S. Air Force’s budding efforts to monitor the sun’s activity, a new study finds.

On May 23, 1967, the Air Force prepared aircraft for war, thinking the nation’s surveillance radars in polar regions were being jammed by the Soviet Union. Just in time, military space weather forecasters conveyed information about the solar storm’s potential to disrupt radar and radio communications. The planes remained on the ground and the U.S. avoided a potential nuclear weapon exchange with the Soviet Union, according to the new research.

Retired U.S. Air Force officers involved in forecasting and analyzing the storm collectively describe the event publicly for the first time in a new paper accepted for publication in Space Weather, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

The storm’s potential impact on society was largely unknown until these individuals came together to share their stories, said Delores Knipp, a space physicist at the University of Colorado in Boulder and lead author of the new study. Knipp will give a presentation about the event on August 10, 2016 at the High Altitude Observatory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

The storm is a classic example of how geoscience and space research are essential to U.S. national security, she said.

Had it not been for the fact that we had invested very early on in solar and geomagnetic storm observations and forecasting, the impact [of the storm] likely would have been much greater,” said Knipp, a research professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. “This was a lesson learned in how important it is to be prepared.”

Keeping an eye on the sun

The U.S. military began monitoring solar activity and space weather – disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere – in the late 1950s. In the 1960s, a new branch of the Air Force’s Air Weather Service (AWS) monitored the sun routinely for solar flares – brief intense eruptions of radiation from the sun’s atmosphere. Solar flares often lead to electromagnetic disturbances on Earth, known as geomagnetic storms, that can disrupt radio communications and power line transmissions.

The AWS employed a network of observers at various locations in the U.S. and abroad who provided regular input to solar forecasters at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a U.S. and Canadian organization that defends and controls airspace above North America. By 1967, several observatories were sending daily information directly to NORAD solar forecasters.

On May 18, 1967, an unusually large group of sunspots with intense magnetic fields appeared in one region of the sun. By May 23, observers and forecasters saw the sun was active and likely to produce a major flare. Observatories in New Mexico and Colorado saw a flare visible to the naked eye while a solar radio observatory in Massachusetts reported the sun was emitting unprecedented levels of radio waves.

A significant worldwide geomagnetic storm was forecast to occur within 36-48 hours, according to a bulletin from NORAD’s Solar Forecast Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado on May 23.

Radar ‘jamming’

As the solar flare event unfolded on May 23, radars at all three Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) sites in the far Northern Hemisphere were disrupted. These radars, designed to detect incoming Soviet missiles, appeared to be jammed. Any attack on these stations – including jamming their radar capabilities – was considered an act of war.

Retired Colonel Arnold L. Snyder, a solar forecaster at NORAD’s Solar Forecast Center, was on duty that day. The tropospheric weather forecaster told him the NORAD Command Post had asked about any solar activity that might be occurring.

“I specifically recall responding with excitement, ‘Yes, half the sun has blown away,’ and then related the event details in a calmer, more quantitative way,” Snyder said.

Along with the information from the Solar Forecast Center, NORAD learned the three BMEWS sites were in sunlight and could receive radio emissions coming from the sun. These facts suggested the radars were being ‘jammed’ by the sun, not the Soviet Union, Snyder said. As solar radio emissions waned, the ‘jamming’ also waned, further suggesting the sun was to blame, he said.

During most of the 1960s, the Air Force flew continuous alert aircraft laden with nuclear-weapons. But commanders, thinking the BMEWS radars were being jammed by the Russians and unaware of the solar storm underway, put additional forces in a “ready to launch” status, according to the study.

This is a grave situation,” Knipp said. “But here’s where the story turns: things were going horribly wrong, and then something goes commendably right.”

The Air Force did not launch additional aircraft, and the study authors believe information from the Solar Forecasting Center made it to commanders in time to stop the military action, including a potential deployment of nuclear weapons. Knipp, quoting public documents, noted that information about the solar storm was most likely relayed to the highest levels of government – possibly even President Johnson.

The geomagnetic storm, which began about 40 hours after the solar flare and radio bursts, went on to disrupt U.S. radio communications in almost every conceivable way for almost a week, according to the new study. It was so strong that the Northern Lights, usually only seen in or near the Arctic Circle, were visible as far south as New Mexico.

Societal impact

According to Snyder and the study authors, it was the military’s correct diagnosis of the solar storm that prevented the event from becoming a disaster. Ultimately, the storm led the military to recognize space weather as an operational concern and build a stronger space weather forecasting system, he said.

The public is likely unaware that natural disasters could potentially trick contemporary military forces into thinking they are under attack, said Morris Cohen, an electrical engineer and radio scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta who was not involved in the new study.

“I thought it was fascinating from a historical perspective,” he said of the new study.

The May 1967 storm brought about change as a near miss rather than a full-blown catastrophe, according to Cohen.

Oftentimes, the way things work is something catastrophic happens and then we say, ‘We should do something so it doesn’t happen again,’” he said. “But in this case there was just enough preparation done just in time to avert a disastrous result.”

 Kennedy’s vision for NASA inspired greatness, then stagnation

During a September, 1962 visit to Houston President Kennedy told a crowd of 35,000 at Rice Stadium, "We intend to become the world's leading spacefaring nation."

The spring of 1961 was a time of uncertainty and insecurity in America. The Soviets had beaten the United States to space four years earlier with Sputnik, and in April 1961, they flew Yuri Gagarin into space for a single orbit around the planet. Finally, on May 5th, America responded by sending Alan Shepard into space, but he only made a suborbital flight.

Few would have predicted then that just five years later the United States would not only catch the Soviets in space but surpass them on the way to the moon. Perhaps that is the greatness of John F. Kennedy, who found in such a moment not despair, but opportunity. When Kennedy spoke to Congress on May 25th, 55 years ago, NASA hadn’t even flown an astronaut into orbit. Yet he declared the U.S. would go to the moon before the end of the decade.

“No single space project in this period will be more exciting, or more impressive, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish,” Kennedy told Congress. “In a very real sense it will not be one man going to the moon, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”

This was such a bold statement that some NASA personnel at the time were incredulous. A few years ago, legendary Mercury flight director Chris Kraft recalled thinking, “How the hell are we going to do that?” A little more than a year later Kennedy reiterated his ambitions even more eloquently in a speech at Rice University in Houston. Kennedy’s desire to surpass the Soviet Union led to arguably the greatest human technological achievement of the 20th century—the Apollo moon landings.

But as NASA contemplates undertaking an even greater adventure in the coming decades—sending humans safely to the surface of Mars and back—it’s worth remembering exactly why Kennedy put America on a course to the moon. Those historical lessons remain relevant today, as the space agency attempts to muster the will and funding to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972.

Perhaps the best insight into Kennedy’s motives can be found in a recording of a November 21, 1962 meeting in the White House Cabinet Room. Kennedy had boasted of the lunar plan just a month earlier at Rice. The main participants that day were Kennedy and James Webb, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. At issue was the true purpose of NASA and the Apollo program, and at the outset of the meeting Kennedy asked Webb, “Do you think this program is the top priority of the agency?”

In hindsight, Webb’s answer was surprising: “No sir, I do not. I think it is one of the top priority programs, but I think it is very important to recognize here, that as you have found out what you could do with a rocket, as you find out how you could get out beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and into space to make measurements, several scientific disciplines that are very powerful have (begun) to converge on this area.”

To this Kennedy responds that Apollo is the top priority. That ought to be very clear, he explained. “This is important for political reasons, for international political reasons,” Kennedy said. He told Webb he did not want to finish second to the Soviets in the “race” to the moon.

Later in the conversation, Webb mentions scientists who have doubts about the importance and viability of the moon project. These “people that are going to furnish the brain work,” as Webb called them, thought the highest priority was to “understand the environment and the areas of the laws of nature that operate out there.” The scientists wanted to science.

But Kennedy did not. Science was all well and good, Kennedy replied, but only when it applied directly to the Apollo program. Webb argued further, saying the overall program should be tied to preeminence in space, including space science. Kennedy dismissed him: “You can’t because by God, we keep—we’ve been telling everybody we’re preeminent in space for five years and nobody believes us because they have the booster and the satellite.” After the meeting President Kennedy left no doubt about what he wanted from his NASA administrator.

A couple of points stand out from this exchange: the Apollo program succeeded because it was the top priority of the President of the United States, and its success was linked directly to the national interests of the country. America was fighting a Cold War, and the best way to prove to the world that Democracy was superior was to achieve something like landing humans on the moon.

After the strategic significance of NASA faded, so too did its budget, beginning a decline in the late 1960s from 4.5 percent of the federal budget to less than 0.5 percent today. During testimony to Congress in 2014 one of the final four space shuttle astronauts, Sandy Magnus, summed up the space agency’s predicament since then.

“For NASA, it became, to a certain extent, a survival game,” Magnus testified. “There was no committed long-term strategic plan, even though there was a community that was engaged in trying to define and institute one. In the absence of a strategic vision we instead planned and executed short-term tactical goals outside of a larger defined stable framework. This is the operational mode we are still working under today.”

No president has been a stronger champion for NASA than Kennedy, and no president has worked so hard to see his vision for NASA carried out. Did a lack of interest on behalf of subsequent presidents lead to NASA’s ever-shriveling budget and decreased relevance to national security? Or did NASA’s declining budget and decreased relevance to national security mean that presidents were less willing to champion it? Debate persists to this day. Whatever the cause, stewardship of the agency has been left mostly to Congress, which often has a more parochial view of policy rather than an overarching view of how to move NASA forward. The legacy of all this is that NASA’s “Journey to Mars” is more likely to benefit states with key congressional representation such as Alabama than it is to get off the ground.

The brilliance of the Apollo program is that it led the world on a grand voyage of discovery and demonstrated the superiority of a free world and free market system. Even today, nearly half a century later, we still marvel at images of astronauts on the moon. The unfortunate legacy is that this exploration paradigm led to an unsustainable space program. NASA planted flags on the moon, but lacked the funding and planning to make that presence permanent. Absent a national security mandate and strong presidential leadership, NASA has scaled back its ambitions. We’ve been locked in low-Earth orbit ever since.

But in the last 10 years another powerful aspect of Democracy has emerged to push the United States back toward deep space—capitalism. A growing number of companies is working to lower the cost of launch in order to facilitate business models built around resources that can be found on the moon, asteroids, and beyond.

NASA, finally, is talking about going back into deep space. This is welcome. But equally welcome is the vision by companies such as SpaceX, which wants to colonize Mars, and United Launch Alliance, which wants to help other, smaller space businesses commercialize the moon. It is not clear whether government alone, private industry alone, or some combination will get us back into deep space. Nevertheless, more than half a century after Kennedy’s grand vision, we are finally moving into an era in which just going is not enough. We will go to stay.


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