Why Are There No Stars On the Moon?

Moon hoax wackadoos have long complained that we couldn’t have gone to the moon because there are no stars in the pictures. It all had to have been shot on a sound stage. By idiots. Too stupid to think of the stars.

Right. Actually, prominent stars in the Apollo picture would have been suspicious. As anyone who’s ever played around with a camera at night can tell you, stars are only a little brighter than moon hoaxers. We went to the moon in the daytime. When you set a camera’s exposure to capture shiny spacecraft and smiling ‘nauts posing on a gleaming lunar surface, the stars kinda fade away. They ARE there, though, if you look for them.

This is frame 5905 from magazine 40 shot during Apollo 11. Stars are clearly visable at full res (http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/AS11-40-5905HR.jpg).as11-40-5905hr
AS14-64-9197, from EVA2 on Apollo 14:https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a14/AS14-64-9197HR.jpg
That’s Earth up in the sky, and Venus to the right of the antenna. Blow this image up and you can see a number of the brighter stars.
Here is 9207 from magazine 64, with a number of stars clearly in evidence even without full resolution:
And here is a color shot from magazine 67 showing a few dim stars, the brightest directly above the lunar ranging retroreflector:
The stars are right where they are supposed to be. The only mystery is, why a bunch of numnuts who don’t understand such a fundamental aspect of photography as exposure, presume to attempt photoanalysis in the first place.
By the way, these are all scans from prints, available at Apollo 14 Lunar Surface Journal


As always, skepticism is healthy, paranoid delusion, less so. Have your own favorite example of moon hoaxican tripping over their own brains? Leave a comment and share.

Outer Spacey Music

The media has been all abuzz today with amazing “revelations” of alien music heard by the crew of Apollo 10 on the dark side of the moon and “classified” until 2008.


Got a source for that guys? A source other than Fox News or the Interwebs? Cause I do, and it’s not classified, it’s right on the official web site of Nasa’s history office: http://history.nasa.gov/ap10fj/as10-day5-pt20.htm

Some Apollo data was classified at the time (remember the Cold War and the Space Race?) and some of it might not have been released in a timely manner due to oversight, but there was certainly no special treatment given to this event on some “spooky” account. How do I know? Simple. I read the freakin transcript.

Here’s the deal. Apollo 10 went to the moon and did everything but touch down. They detached the LEM and maneuvered in space, the CSM and the LEM, orbiting together as the LEM prepared to go down on a checkout flight. The idea was to run through a landing, but do a planned abort to test the ascent propulsion system and guidance without getting too low for rescue by the CSM in case of failure.

What is being reported as some great mystery is this exchange, plainly recorded in the publicly available transcript just as they were testing their radar (Snoopy is the Lunder lander, flying free of the CSM):

102:12:53 Stafford (in Snoopy): You want some more brownies?

102:12:54 Cernan (in Snoopy): No.

102:12:56 Stafford (in Snoopy): [Garbled] go hungry.

102:13:02 Cernan (in Snoopy): That music even sounds outer-spacey, doesn’t it? You hear that? That whistling sound? (This is the first mention of the sound.)

102:13:06 Stafford (in Snoopy): Yes.

102:13:07 Cernan (in Snoopy): Whooooooooooo.

102:13:12 Young (in CSM): Did you hear that whistling sound, too?

102:13:14 Cernan (in Snoopy): Yeah. Sounds like – you know, outer-space-type music.

102:13:18 Young: I wonder what it is.

102:13:20 (Cernan and Stafford discuss burned insulation outside their LEM windows.)

102:13:29 Cernan (in Snoopy): – eerie, John?

102:13:34 Young: Yes, I got it, too. I was going to see who was outside.

102:13:45 Stafford (in Snoopy): You mark that set of features, Gene-o. I’m going to fix us some grape juice. OK? (Stafford is clearly taking Young’s remark as a joke. All is well.)

. . .[The next three minutes are spent discussing photography of a lunar crater, altitude and range, and how well the radar is performing.]. . .

102:17:58 Cernan (in Snoopy): Boy, that sure is weird music.

102:18:01 Young: We’re going to have to find out about that. Nobody will believe us.

102:18:07 Cernan (in Snoopy): No. It’s a whistling, you know, like an outer space-type thing. (He means like a theramin, commonly used in scifi movies of his youth. In fact, it sounds more like a lightning strike creating shortwave radio noise that travels around the ionosphere back on earth, but its much more uniform than that.)


102:18:10 Young: Probably due to the VHF ranging, I’d guess. (Yeah, that’s what it sounds like to me too, either that or electrical noise from static charge movement we now know to occur near the lunar terminator due to the solar wind.)

102:18:16 Cernan (in Snoopy): Yes. I wouldn’t believe there’s anyone out there. OK, Tom, I’m going to call up P20 (Program 20, universal tracking–using the radar).

102:18:26 Cernan (in Snoopy): We want to pressurize our APS here. You get your Rendezvous Radar breakers all In?

102:18:29 Stafford (in Snoopy): Oh, yes. I’m locked on to him (The LEM radar is locked onto the CSM)

102:18:31 Cernan (in Snoopy): OK.

102:18:42 Stafford (in Snoopy): It may be a side lobe (The “music” might be a side lope of the radar beam interfering with the radio.

102:19:01 Stafford (in Snoopy): It’s weird, isn’t it?

102:19:03 Cernan (in Snoopy): Isn’t that weird?

102:19:11 Stafford (in Snoopy): I think that’s a side lobe.

102:19:15 Cernan (in Snoopy): Is it? Huh?

102:19:17 Stafford (in Snoopy): Yep.

And there you go. Later analysis confirmed the cause to be interference between the VHF radio gear on the two spacecraft. The great mysterious “space music,” which according to “News” reports was “classified till 2008” was just the rendezvous radar leaking into the radio spectrum. You know, my college radio station had sideband leakage into the shortwave bands, and even though our transmission was FM, we once got a letter from a guy 600 miles away in Illinois saying he listened on shortwave (AM).

I’m not sure where this “classified” recording would have come from. Apollo uses a special recorder to store voice and instrument data for compressed transmission back to earth. The recordings were transcribed back in the ’70s, and stuck in a warehouse somewere. The have been out on the Internet for a few years, but there is no good index and the recordings are raw. Crew voices are often inaudible beneath the thrum of the instrument signal data. It’s possible someone went looking for the “music” and was able to extract it from the background noise. It would not be surprising if it survived, given that it was heard over the radio by both the CSM and LEM.

At any rate, it wasn’t little green DJ’s playing “Space Music.” It was interference from the rendezvous radar other radio emmissions from the two spacecraft, and the (rather obvious) testement to that fact is the crew’s reaction: Hey what’s that? The Radio. Great, want some juice.

As if going to the freakin moon isn’t entertaining enough.


Help for a Moon Hoax Fence Sitter

Someone recently asserted that “his dad” said th moon landings couldn’t be real because blah, blah, blah and that’s impossible, to which I responded with reality. The questioner that came back with these followups:

“What was the radiant barrier [that keeps spacecraft cool] made of?” Several layers of aluminized Mylar (the same stuff that is now used in attics) over a “superinsulation” of alternating layers of Kapton and glass-fiber cloth.

“Water cooled, [referring to spacesuit thermal control undergarments] that must have weighted a lot” No. Tiny plastic tubes filled with glycol and water were sewn to a mesh garment worn over the permanent waer garment, so one layer over the underwear. The purpose was mostly to remove the astronaut’s body heat. The suit reflected much of the sun’s heat and the remaining extremes between the sunlit and shadow sides canceled each other out. Movement, air circulation, and the water garment ensured no hot or cold spots. Thermo regulation was absolutely not a problem..

“If I remember correctly, the suits were at 250 F which is 121 C, at 100 C water boils, so the air inside the suit, when reaching 100 C would make the body of the astronauts burn and the blood boil.” No, dark surfaces would have heated up, but the white suit and reflective visor, combined with insulation, prevented the surface from getting so hot and prevented the heat from reaching the astronaut. Air entering the suit was cold anyway, because it was stored under pressure. The was not a problem. Firefighting gear has it far, far harder.

“Since they were in low pressure inside the suits, they would have boiled at even less temperature.” Yes they would, at about 170 F, but that was never going to happen.

“And cooling that water would be really hard.” No, cooling that water was simplicity itself. When they were in the shade or resting they didn’t need to cool it much at all. Gemini suits had no water cooled undergarment at all, and they worked just fine until the astronauts started doing physical work. In the A7 suits used by Apollo, when they we in the sun for a while or getting hot, a porous plate sublimator was used to cool a heat exchanger, which cooled the glycol loop. The Astronaut could control how much of the glycol went through the heat exchanger soas to avoid overcooling. This method is still used today, and was used for supplemental cooling on the LEM as well.

“Handling half a tank of water in the tank would make a pretty unstable astronaut” Good thinking! Naturally, the engineers thought of that. Water for the sublimator was stored in two flexible bladders, a primary holding about a gallon and a secondary holding about half that much. This were no more problem than today’s CamelBak packs. Really, the inertia of the entire PLSS pack was more of an issue than water slosh.

“Since they were in space, I suppose those are psi absolute, which would mean about 1/3 of the pressure at sea level.” Correct. Apollo spacesuits were pressurized to 5.5 psi of pure oxygen.

“Bizarre that they would use only oxygen given Gus Grissom’s death because of that in 1967.” Not at all. They still use pure oxygen in suits to this day. The reason is that inflating to 14.7 PSI would cause the suits to balloon and make flexing the joints too hard for the wearer, and adding nitrogen to the mix would make the life support pack far more complicated, prone to failure, and tricky to operate. Fire is no more a risk at 5.5PSI and 100% O2 than normal air at sea level. The Apollo 1 pad fire was caused by procedural oversights that led to the cabin being filled with more than sea level pressure of pure O2—a very bad idea. Also, suits are carefully constructed to prevent any source of sparks, and the astronaut can’t exactly forget and light up a stogie.

Hamilton standard’s tests showed that a man can live on pure O2 down to 3.7PSI–provided it’s all oxygen.

“If they weighted 1/6 of earth gravity they would have been able to kick a ball and put it into orbit.” No they wouldn’t. The minimum speed for lunar orbit is well over 2km per second.

“Without atmosphere and with an escape velocity of just 2 m/s, even an astronaut jumping would have been able to put himself into orbit,” No, because we are talking about the moon, where the escape velocity is 2.38 THOUSAND m/s. Even if your astronauts brought a clown cannon, they aren’t entering orbit.

“all the recorded videos and photos show the moon as having its horizon between 100 and 200 m” No they don’t. The horizon on the moon is about 2 kilometers away if you are standing on a plain, and that’s what all the photos show, but there is nothing to give a visual sense of scale.You can’t tell how far away a lunar mountain is without looking at a map. Jack Schmitt took this telephoto image of the Apollo 17 LEM from a rise 3 km away, with mountains in the background:


Or consider this shot of Apollo 15 from its ALSEP site, which all by itself it about 100 meters away:

as15-82-11054 thru as15-82-11058

Or maybe you mean like this shot of Pete Conrad inspecting the Surveyor 3 probe that landed two years before he did, with the LM in the distance (note the big antenna used to improve TV reception back on earth.)


And lest you are concerned by the lack of a crater beneath the probe—like Apollo, it was designed to cut off the engine early to avoid disturbing the soil it was sent to sample. It malfunctioned, and ended up bouncing 35 feet in the air, no worse for wear.

“A normal person would have recorded around himself…that is what we do when we explore, naturally, we go up and take a look.” Yeah, they did that. I believe it was Apollo 12 in which the commander opened the docking hatch first, then stood up to survey the landing site before going down through the door to the surface. Every major site of every surface mission produced at least one panoramic photo.

“wouldn’t it be normal for astronauts to record the stuff they left on the moon as they take off? You mean turn around and take a picture as they were lifting off? You mean like this movie frame from the Apollo 14 liftoff?


Yes Virginia, We Really Did Land On The Moon

For those genuinely in doubt as to whether we sent twelve men to walk on the moon, some facts.

220px-alsep_as15-85-114681. We left retroreflectors on the moon, just like bicycle reflectors only bigger and not as pretty. Visit the McDonald Observatory or any other with the proper laser range-finding equipment and you can see for yourself that the laser energy returns when the telescope is pointed at the designated landing sites and does not return elsewhere.
2. Two recent survey missions have photographed the landing sites. The LRO has dipped low enough to resolve not just shadows and disturbed soil, but the descent stages and rovers we left behind. No word yet on the poop bags, but they’re here somewhere.584640main_apollo17-right-670

3. We have films of much of the research and testing, and if you know enough about science and engineering to know what you are looking at, it’s all clearly the real thing.

4. We still have much of the hardware. For example, F5 engines from the Saturn-V are currently being disassembled and in some cases fired as part of an effort to develop a cheaper follow-on engine. They clearly are what they claim to be. I’ve personally seen the Saturn-V stack on display in Houston, and it is clearly authentic. Among other things, a  prop would not be made of the same materials, and it would either have phony components or all off the shelf 1960’s hardware. But much of the Apollo hardware was custom developed at great expense, and if you know what you’re looking at, you can see it’s for real. A prop or fake would not have details that only an engineer (or nerd who’s studied the blueprints) would notice.


Workmen at JSC in Houston inside the SLA (the adapter where the LM sat during launch), looking up at the heat shield of a real Service Module without an SPS engine installed. The hole at top (behind the strut) is an access port for fueling, venting, and testing the SPS propellants.

5. We have thousands of pictures taken on the moon, which clearly are what they claim to be. All alleged problems with these materials only demonstrate the ignorance of the conspiracy nuts alleging the problems.

For example: Many conspirators complain that the lander didn’t kick up a lunar dust cloud. Of course it didn’t. Billowing dust can only occur in an atmosphere. In vacuum, each particle—no matter how small–flies off in a straight parabolic arc never to be seen again.

For another example: Motions of the flag claimed to be caused by air currents are—in every case—clearly inertial movements or static electric attraction caused by astronaut movement. The very movements the nutters complain about prove the landings were real. (For many other such examples, visit Bad Astronomy)

6. We have hundreds of pounds of moon rocks. Granted, you need access to them and you need to be a geologist with the right credentials to evaluate them, but at least some, such at the helium-3 impregnated rocks from by Apollo 17, could not have been produced on earth.

7. The Soviets were watching everything we did. They would have ratted us out. They would have LOVED to rat us out.

8. Thousands of people saw it. Not just the spectacular launches and the sailors on the recovery ships, either. Thousands in Hawaii, for example witnessed the Trans-Lunar-Injection burns.


 Others around the world watched the spacecraft on its way to the moon:

Hatfield photo of Apollo 8 fuel dump


Apollo 11 was observed by thousands in British Columbia, and the streak in this photo from Table Mountain South Africa shows the spacecraft in time exposure, midway through the lunar coast phase.


NASA telescopic photo of Apollo 13 and gas cloud

9. We have documentation in the form of operations manuals for the command and service modules, the LEM, the suits, the rover and much more–all completely authentic and sprinkled across the world including depository libraries like the one at Louisiana Tech where I read them before the conspiracy nuttery had gotten any legs.

10. This guy:

I’ll be posting in more detail soon about specific conspiracy claims and how what they really prove is the ignorance of those making them.

We went to the moon. It was expensive, but like Frosty the Snowman, we’ll be back again some day.

One Great Man, One Giant Legacy

The first ape to leave his planet of origin and go for a walk on another is remembered today as a “great man”. Perhaps, and the honor is certainly well deserved, but if Maj. General Armstrong was great, it was more for his conduct on the ground than for his exploits in space.

Humanity’s considerable success does not arise only from our intelligence or the dexterity of our opposable thumb. We have diversified, colonized, and advanced because of our unique balance of aggression and cooperation. Arguably, nowhere in our entire history is this better illustrated than in the Space Race of which Armstrong became such a key part.

We went to the moon for science and exploration and adventure, but we signed the checks to stick it to the Ruskies. We went because the two most powerful nations the world had ever known were locked in a stalemate of nuclear hair triggers that—once or twice that we know of—had brought us within hours of potential extinction. And yet, at this pinnacle of barbarism, we did what our ape family has been doing for over a million years: we hatched a bold plan, put together a team, and pulled off the win. At the height of the cold-war, we unleashed the combined creativity and dedication of 150,000 American engineers, scientists, managers and laborers to build a system of machines, the complexity of which makes the Great Pyramid just a pile of rocks by comparison.

Then we put together the procedures, policies, communications networks, and contingencies needed to test, perfect, and utilize this monster to do something that throughout history and until the last decade, had seemed to be impossible. We even broke the rules and put together a back-door alliance when it turned out that radio signals used by Soviet espionage vessels off the Florida coast had the potential to compromise the moon shots (in response to a long relay of unofficial personal pleas, the Soviet radios were silenced).

Armstong too, illustrated this human balance. He is remembered (rightly so) for his humility, but he didn’t get to the moon by being a wallflower. He was smart and sociable, but he was neither particularly well connected nor an academic superstar. He was, however, reliable. He made good grades and he did his job. When opportunities arose, he jumped on them with both feet. He fought in Korea, then he volunteered to be a military test pilot. Then he went to Edwards AFB, where he took the very unglamorous job of flying chase planes and the bombers that dropped the test aircraft. He went on to fly 600 different types of aircraft, most of them experimental. At Edwards, he regularly risked his life and just as regularly came back alive. Famously, when he ejected from a failed Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, he hitched a ride back to the office and started on the paperwork while some of the other Astronauts looked on in awe.

He made mistakes. He got a test plane stuck in the mud. He bumped into the ground with another and–through a serious of “bad day” challenges familiar to us all–ended up stranding three test pilots at another base. But when things went wrong, he handled them. He volunteered for Apollo, but was late getting his paperwork in. They took his packet anyway—they knew his reputation.

Neil Armstrong didn’t just go to the moon, he took us to the moon–all of us–and he saw his role in history with a clarity and humility that allowed him to step back and let us enjoy the ride. His passing, after 82 years, is a loss and sadness for his family, but his life will remain with us as a heroic example from a heroic time in our human journey. Neil Armstrong was indeed a great man, not because he was better than so many others, but because he was the sort of human being that any of us can be with a little bit of moxie, a little bit of smarts, and a whole lot of effort. He was a true hero, because more than anything else in this life, we all need to be reminded that we are all of us capable of greatness.Time and micrometeorites will erode the prints men left on the moon, but the down-to-Earth life of the first man who made them will forever be recorded, as truly a giant leap for mankind.

Dear Moon Hoax Conspiracy Nuts

Dear Moon Hoax Conspiracy Nuts:

Here is how you know when a moon landing is faked: In “Transformers: Dark of the Moon, they didn’t properly account for lunar gravity or for the vacuum and so they animated all the dust wrong. In every single image recorded by NASA on the moon, the dust behaves as it only could on the moon.

The spaceship impact at the beginning of the movie is WRONG. First, a ship traveling at that speed would have rebounded in the weak lunar gravity, and would almost certainly have cartwheeled as it plowed through the lunar soil.

Second, dust CAN NOT BILLOW in a vacuum. On Earth, dust billows (that is, roils out in overlapping spherical clouds) because it is running into and dragging against the air. Likewise, dust lingers in the air because there IS air to linger in. On the moon, every dropped object, from a spaceship to a mote of talcum power, travels along a ballistic trajectory with zero resistance. (This is actually one of the classic arguments through which conspiracy advocates shoot themselves in the foot. The Apollo lander didn’t create a dust cloud BECAUSE IT WAS ON THE MOON, WHERE DUST CLOUDS ARE IMPOSSIBLE!)

When a ship plows up dust in a vacuum, the dust grains travel out in flattened arcs and are gone. A dust cloud cannot rise, because there is no air to push against and suspend the particles. Dust clouds CAN NOT HAPPEN in a vacuum (except in orbit, where there is no gravity, but that’s a very different type of cloud). In the Apollo landing footage, ejecta from the engine can clearly be seen through the window flying out in rays, just as it should, and leaving no cloud.

When an astronaut kicks up dust on the moon, the dust DOES NOT linger around his foot as it does in the movie—it immediately falls to the ground as it does in all the NASA footage of the Apollo landings. There are only two ways this footage could have been produced in 1969: 1) on the moon, 2) on a sound stage built into a cargo plane that can simulate lunar gravity during a dive.

Finally, when the astronauts in the movie investigate the lunr crash site, they disturb dust which falls down through openings producing a slick reveal. Trouble is, it was shot on a sound stage and the dust accelerates under normal Earth gravity.

So there you go. NASA: Real deal. Transformers:Phony baloney. If you still can’t tell the difference, go back to third grade and spend more time in science class, In the meantime DON’T VOTE, because if you aren’t scientifically literate, your aren’t any kind of literate.

Customer Service: Key to Conservation

This article was published in the Region IV newsletter of the National Association of Interpreters, then picked up by the west coast region. “Interpreters”, in this context, refers to park naturalists and museum curators. Edward Abbey was one of the most famous of all such interpreters and is well-known for his book “Desert Solitaire” about his time as a ranger at Arches National Monument.


I am not a naturalist but I married one. My training is in management, but because I often join my wife when she travels on business, I enjoy unique opportunities to observe various presentational styles, activities, and programs from a perspective that lies somewhere between that of interpreter and visitor.

I recently had the chance to visit a park in Arkansas at which my wife was assisting in a program for boy scouts. As she had a busy schedule during the day, I availed myself of the opportunity to take a solo morning hike through the hills and beaver dams near the park and returned deeply entrenched in the role of observer. I spent the rest of the day visiting the various stations and observing interpretive programs by people of disparate backgrounds but similar passions. After dinner and the last of the orienteers recovered, we circled the picnic tables for the traditional bonfire and story telling. The park’s chief interpreter, who had just finished an exhausting day as policeman, coordinator, and teacher, rose and called the gathering to order. After introductory remarks, announcements, and jokes, he was prodded into telling The Story of the Purple Gorilla.

You are probably familiar with this tale, as were your grandparents and theirs before them. Some of the boys might not have heard it told, but we adults certainly had. Yet, this particular interpreter was not content merely to tell a story. He performed it; pacing about, modulating his voice, inflecting, gesticulating wildly, and weaving doors, cellars, airplanes and apes out of the very smoke and darkness around us.

Exhausted at last, the man yielded his stage to the riotous laughter of the scouts, who were then to exchange their own stories in competition. Since I had no other official duties this weekend, I ws drafted as one of the judges and watched as the first competitor drew near the fire, clearly enlightened and perhaps a bit intimidated by the performance he had just seen. He told another venerable story, probably the only one he knew, but he told it with all the soul and creativity of a young mind just awakened to new possibilities. He sold it, and in the end he left the park with top honors (a book of stories for future nights of revelry) and, I think, a little more self-esteem and a truer appreciation for the whole scouting experience. When, in twenty years time, he is telling those stories to his own troop in the same park, it may well be because one tired man wove apparitions out of thin air when he really would rather have been safely in bed.

Management consultant and author Tom Peters once pointed out a difference in attitude between contract and full-time employees which, I believe, makes my point well. The contract worker, he said, cannot afford to merely meet the stated needs of his employer. More than just doing his job, he must ensure that his efforts are noted so that he is invited back to work another day. He must market himself to those who write the checks.

This is very important. It is easy for a naturalist or curator to fall prey to the illusion that his lot in life is to preserve the wilderness, study God’s creature, protect ancient artifacts, and generally pursue loftier aspirations than merely entertaining the tourists. The truth is, though, that wherever you are, whatever you have lined out for this week’s programs — however important the studies and work that your visitors never see or appreciate — you are, first and foremost, paid to meet the needs of other human beings. How well you meet those needs not only determines how long you may expect to be paid, but how well the underlying resources you value will be preserved as well. Though Edward Abbey might not have liked to think about it, he could not have lived in the wilderness without the tourists, and as destructive and mindless as development can be, human beings are the dominant force on this planet for better or worse. As Jim Fowler said while speaking at my wife’s park, “wild animals will only survive if they are worth money”. If people aren’t hiking the wilderness, they’ll be building on top of it.

No one would like to retire to the wilds for a life of academic solitude more than I, but the reality is that naturalists have a responsibility that goes beyond greeting visitors and clearing trails. Through interpretation, creative marketing, and a business-minded outlook, MAI members hold the key to imbuing future generations with a love of nature and the dedication to save it. As humanity moves further from its organic roots and more children grow up in cyberspace, getting them into out parks and museums in increasingly important to showing them the value of the things and places we work so hard to preserve.

The key to preserving the resources we love lies in learning to manage and market them as a business. If we can study natural resource management, we can study marketing and business management. Only with marketing and service excellence sufficient to keep the voters coming back to stoke the campfires, can we keep the funds flowing and the resources protected. It is a balancing act to be sure, for with the money comes garbage, noise, and stress, but the alternative is unacceptable. Neither governments nor corporate sponsors exist to preserve our wild places, and when public interest is gone, so will the places themselves fade away as even the best tales do, when spoken into an empty darkness.

The Tale of Apollo 13


The Apollo 13 mission became perhaps the greatest real-life drama of the technical age when an oxygen tank exploded after the tiny ship was already half-way to the moon. In one brief moment, a billion dollar triumph of engineering and technology was transformed into a desperate struggle to bring three brave explorers back safely from the brink of doom. With the primary oxygen supply lost, the command Module’s fuel cells could not produce power, so it had to be quickly shut down to conserve its batteries. Without them, it would not be able to separate from the massive service module, fire its retro rockets, or maintain a survivable trajectory during reentry.

In the days that followed, three men would huddle in a tiny, half-frozen lunar module built for two, while engineers and technicians, not just here in Houston but in factories and facilities throughout the county, struggled to squeeze enough oxygen and electricity out of the beleaguered ship to bring them back home. NASA’s handling of this emergency is truly one of the great triumphs of engineering and management, but the events that led up to the crisis are an abject warning, of how the most mundane human failings can undermine even the best laid plans.

The explosion was caused by a damaged heater coil in the number two oxygen tank. This tank was more than just a metal can. It was a complex and fairly delicate cryogenics system that had to maintain oxygen in a semi-frozen state in which gaseous oxygen was always available at an acceptable pressure, and it had to be able to do this on the ground, in space, in zero gravity, and under the pounding of lift-off. This required a number of internal components, including a heater (to keep pressure up), a mixer (to keep the slushy oxygen flowing) and a thermostatic switch—a safety switch to keep the tank from overheating.

The Apollo spacecraft electrical system was designed to run on 28 volts, the voltage supplied by the fuel cells. The generators on the launch pad, however, produced 65 volts, and the spacecraft would have to run on this voltage during the weeks of tests leading up to the launch. This was not a problem for most components, but North American, the prime contractor, became concerned and ordered its subcontractor (Beech) to redesign the heater element inside the tank. Beech did so, but somehow overlooked the thermostatic safety switch. This omission, by itself, would almost certainly have causes no problems.

The tank that ultimately ruptured on Apollo 13 was originally installed in Apollo 10 but because a number of improvements had been made to the tank design, it was removed so that it could be upgraded and used on a later flight. During removal, a bolt had not been properly removed, caught, and caused the tank to fall a short distance back into its cradle. The jolt was slight, and the tank was inspected and found to be undamaged, so it was sent off for upgrade. This accident, alone, was no cause for concern.

Two years later, the upgraded tank was part of Apollo 13 as it sat atop the massive, fuming Saturn V booster for a critical test. In this test, the rocket, crew, and ground staff were all readied for launch, right up to the point of ignition. As part of the test, the oxygen tanks were filled with liquid oxygen just as they would be on launch day. The test was completed successfully, but trouble occurred as service technicians worked to shut down the spacecraft afterwards. All of the cryogenic systems had to be purged prior to shut down, and this was accomplished for each tank by pumping warm gas in one valve and forcing the refrigerated liquid out through another. On this day, oxygen tank number two became balky, releasing less than 30 of its 320 pounds of oxygen.

Engineers examined the design and the manufacturing history of the tank. They concluded that a vent tube had been bent slightly when the unit was dropped two years previously. Because of the misalignment, the purge gas was going in one valve and out the other instead of pushing the frozen slush out through the vent tube. This should have raised the alarm, but the vent tube would not be used in flight, it was only used on the ground, so they ignored the fact that a critical component of a precisely engineered system on which billions of dollars and human lives depended, was not working as designed.

Instead, they decided to turn on the heater inside the tank, and just let it boil off the frozen oxygen. This would take several hours, and was far outside the operational design of the heater, but the engineers saw no problem with the procedure. They knew that the safety switch would keep the tank from overheating. They also knew that a technician monitoring the tank could keep an eye on the temperature. What they didn’t know was that the safety switch had never been upgraded, and fused shut the instant the 65 volt test current started flowing through its 28 volt contacts. So as the heater ran in the super insulated tank, the oxygen boiled off and the temperature started to rise. The technician monitoring the tank saw the temperature stabilize at eighty degrees, because the sensor inside the tank was only designed to measure up to the maximum temperature expected to be encountered—eighty degrees. In fact, the temperature rose hour after hour to nearly one thousand degrees, and burned most of the Teflon insulation off the wiring inside the tank.

Weeks later and 200,000 miles from Earth, one of those wires sparked during a stir of the tank, igniting the remaining insulation and blowing off the neck of the tank. Exposed to the vacuum of space, the 300 pounds of Oxygen slush flashed into gas and blew out part of the service module, ripping apart the plumbing and wiring of the other tank, and crippling the spacecraft. It might have been far worse. Had the tank ruptured on the ground, the oxygen might have had time to burn what fuel was around it. The astronauts might have been killed before they ever left the pad.

So, what lessons does this twisted chain of events have for the rest of us? Apollo was built in “encapsulated” modules. It was well engineered. It was thoroughly tested. It had backups and fail-safes and redundant components. And yet it failed. It failed because human beings made predictable mistakes, indeed, mistakes that a mammoth bureaucracy was specifically set up to prevent. Jim Lovell, in his book “Lost Moon” recounted that at the time of the countdown demonstration test, he had asked the engineers how long it would take to pull the rack containing the balky tank. In retrospect, this was clearly the right thing to do. But of course, in the real world, we all make trade-offs all the time. Replacing the tank might have cost the launch window. But weighed against this tangible risk, was the unknowable risk that not replacing it could cost the mission–and lives.

I am not criticizing Jim Lovell, or NASA or engineers at North American or Beech Aircraft. I am merely pointing out something about human nature. We see what we want to see, but we have the mental capacity to defeat our imposed delusions – this is what the scientific method was created for. Fundamentally, Apollo 13 failed because NASA did not recognize that when an oxygen tank is in any way not operating to spec. this is a problem to be respected. Years later, different NASA engineers ignored the fact that solid rocket booster seals were not operating as designed, and as a result, the Space Shuttle Challenger blew itself into a billion pieces on national television. Another decade passed, and engineers ignored the fact that external tank insulation was not performing as designed, and my four and six year old daughters spent a morning searching the roadsides or north west Louisiana for pieces of another Shuttle.

We aren’t all trying to go to the moon. And I would not presume to judge any of these decisions where tax money and lives must be weighed in light of risks that just cannot be known. We all take risks all the time, whether running a red light, or voting with our party without researching their policy claims. Failure does not always lead to icy death or fiery cataclysm, but it can, over time, lead to unexpected consequences. The scientific method is how we test our assumptions and illusions. It got us to the moon and back. It can take us where faith never will.