Monday, November 28, 2016

Space Pop Culture Moment: Landing On The Moon At The Arcade

Lunar Lander, The Real Life Version, NASA photo from July 21, 1969: "The Apollo 11 Lunar Module ascent stage, with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. aboard, is photographed from the Command and Service Modules (CSM) during rendezvous in lunar orbit. The Lunar Module (LM) was making its docking approach to the CSM. Astronaut Michael Collins remained with the CSM in lunar orbit while the other two crewmen explored the lunar surface. The large, dark-colored area in the background is Smyth's Sea, centered at 85 degrees east longitude and 2 degrees south latitude on the lunar surface (nearside). This view looks west. The Earth rises above the lunar horizon." 

The “launching to space” and “landing on another world” angles of gaming have a heritage stretching as far back as the days of Apollo. While I generally don’t like Wikipedia as a source, there is a decent article that explains the origins and development of these types of games, which usually involved navigating a lander of sorts among rocky portions of a world. Beginning in 1969, the golden year of the first Moon landing, those interested in computer-based gaming were looking to land their own Armstrongs and Aldrins upon the lunar surface. One of the earliest versions was even called Rocket, and had a quaint, if mercilessly blunt, “Game Over” screen. 

Gurl, you messed up: Rocket's "Game Over" screen. Source:

Commercially released in August 1979, the arcade game Lunar Lander – which used coins to replenish the lander’s fuel stores – was released, to soon be followed by another (very popular) space-related game called Asteroids. Lunar Lander was based on a 1973 game called Moonlander, which according to the Arcade History website, was “written by Jack Burness in 1973 as a demo for the DEC GT40 vector graphics terminal (based on a PDP-11/05 CPU). This game used a light pen to control thrust and rotation.” 

Pretend you're Dave and Jim, about to set Falcon down upon Hadley Rille. Screenshot from the arcade game Lunar Lander, 1979 (

While countless variants of this game have been created in ensuing decades, Lunar Lander, with its Apollo vibes and its simple LEM with a “flaming” engine, has a certain “of its time” charm. It’s not as exciting or visually stunning as more modern space simulators such as Orbiter and Kerbal Space Program, but it’s still stellar (okay, dumbest pun ever).

Read more about the Lunar Lander game and its various incarnations here and here

 What the game looked like. Video from Old Classic Retro Gaming on YouTube. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Pesquet Who? Let's Give It Up For The Original Space Station Hunk, Jack Lousma

"Listen, I know it's extremely difficult to fly with someone this handsome. Sorry, Owen and Al." NASA photo, dated Jan. 19, 1972: "Prime crew members of the scheduled second Skylab mission are introduced to the media during a press conference in January 1972 at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC). From left to right are astronauts Jack R. Lousma, pilot; Owen K. Garriott, science pilot, and Alan L. Bean, commander."

Nearly five years before ESA's Thomas Pesquet even existed, Jack R. Lousma was NASA's most promising entry in the "Sassiest Space Station Astronaut Awards," 1973. Selected to the astronaut corps in 1966, he made his first flight on 1973's Skylab 3 mission, becoming one of nine astronauts to live on the United States' mighty first fortress in space, all while being a total hunk, and a very nice fellow to boot. In all seriousness, Marine Col. Lousma's career was full of highlights, including 1982's STS-3, the only space shuttle mission to be landed at White Sands (this landing also tested the shuttle's autoland capability, but that's another story entirely). This was the third "test" space shuttle mission, which he commanded alongside pilot Gordon Fullerton.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

In Search Of...Skylab’s Lost Robotic Arm

HAVE YOU SEEN ME LATELY? Development Model of Skylab Serpentuator Arm, dated Jan. 3, 1969. Found at:
Sometimes curiosity can be sparked by a single image. Last week, a member of Space Hipsters posted a black and white, grainy, late 1960s photo of something called the “Serpentuator,” which I’d never heard of before in my life. But apparently, I needed it in my life. The photo, dated Jan. 3, 1969, added by user Ke4roh on Wikimedia Commons, has a caption that states: 
The Serpentuator is a 40-foot long articulated arm to aid astronauts on extravehicular activities with moving equipment and astronauts to particular locations outside Skylab. The Canadarm serves a similar purpose on the Shuttle, though it is not as dexterous. This photograph shows the Serpentuator at Marshall Space Flight Center flat floor facility of building 4711 set to be tested in two dimensions on air bearings in a manner similar to air hockey. At the near end of the Serpentuator is a 5 degrees of freedom (5DF) chair which allows a person strapped in to translate freely in two dimensions as well as roll, pitch, and yaw. The switch bank to the right of the chair controls the Serpentuator. Things that look in this picture like jellyfish provide air bearing support along the length of the Serpentuator. NASA caption: Serpentuator … straight, tip control out for viewing, inboard view. Photographer Moss.” (This image is sourced to the book/DVD Wernher von Braun, The Rocket Man: His Weekly Notes, 1961-1969, edited and researched by Ed Buckbee, released in 2010).
Naturally, I started scratching my head, wondering more about the thing that resembled a school of jellyfish rather than the sleek “robotic arm” we’re used to seeing on the Space Shuttle and the ISS. Turns out, the “Serpentuator” (comes from the words “serpent” - the device resembled a snake – and “actuator”) was a part of Skylab before Skylab even became Skylab, if that even makes sense.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Space Myths Busted: How Skylab Nearly Was Lost

Just seconds before chaos ensues, Skylab's Saturn V climbs into the skies on May 14th, 1973. NASA photo.
With rising internal temperatures and a trickle of electrical power, it became apparent shortly after Skylab’s launch on May 14th, 1973 that America’s first space station was in serious trouble. During the Skylab panel at Spacefest VII conducted on June 10th, 2016, astronauts Rusty Schweickart (Skylab 2’s backup commander) and Paul Weitz (Skylab 2’s pilot) discussed the fixes that were required to restore Skylab back to health after it had been severely crippled by several launch anomalies. Schweickart (along with backup crew members Dr. Story Musgrave and Bruce McCandless) devised many of the repairs on Earth, while Weitz valiantly attempted to fix Skylab’s jammed SAS-1 solar wing during a stand-up EVA using a special pair of “bolt cutters” at the beginning of his crew’s mission.

Indeed, the fact that Skylab was able to be salvaged after suffering several disabling blows – the loss of its micrometeroid shield (MS), the complete loss of one solar wing, and the jamming of another – was nothing short of incredible. But how did Skylab acquire these near-fatal wounds? And was there another strange anomaly that could have killed the whole mission? Read further…

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Brief History of Soviet Space Shuttle Buran, Part Two: Guest Post by Jay Chladek

A Buran wind tunnel model. Photo by author Kobel, from Wikimedia Commons.
Here is part two of space historian Jay Chladek's series about the real history of the Buran orbiter and its launch system, Energia. Enjoy!

So Why Is It Called Buran?

So why is the program called Buran, which means "Snowstorm" in Russian? That has to do with Soviet naming traditions in regards to space programs. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Brief History of the Soviet Space Shuttle Buran, Part One: Guest Post by Jay Chladek

Occasionally this blog features writing by other space historians and figures. During the next two weeks, I am proud and honored to present a history of the Soviet Buran space shuttle by someone who knows an awful lot about it. Here's the dirt on everybody's favorite shuttle, by space historian Jay Chladek:
A Brief History of Soviet Space Shuttle Buran, Part One (CLICK FOR MORE AFTER THE JUMP!) 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Viking Vibes and Mars Memories: Viking Forty Years Later, Part Three

NASA image: "Mariner 4 image, the first close-up image ever taken of Mars. This shows an area about 330 km across by 1200 km from limb to bottom of frame, centered at 37 N, 187 W. The area is near the boundary of Elysium Planitia to the west and Arcadia Planitia to the east. The hazy area barely visible above the limb on the left side of the image may be clouds. This portion of the feature has been enhanced in image m04_01h to bring out more of the haze-like features. The resolution of this image is roughly 5 km and north is up. (Mariner 4, frame 01D)"
More Space Myths Busted: There Were Mars Missions Years Before Viking

I was reading an online article recently (source redacted) that characterized the Vikings as the first robotic missions to visit Mars. While the Vikings made the first successful landings (read: returning useful data) upon the Red Planet, they were far from the first spacecraft to explore our planetary neighbor.

Several efforts to investigate Mars had been made by both the United States and the Soviet Union well over a decade before Viking 1 sent back its first image (of its foot!) on July 20th, 1976. This blog post seeks to survey these missions, and their results (successful, or not).