Saturday, December 2, 2017

Frank Kelly Freas, Sci-Fi Pulp Art, and His Lasting Skylab Legacy

Dr. Joseph Kerwin, Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr., and Paul Weitz, each sporting the mission patch designed by artist Frank Kelly Freas. 1973 NASA photo.
A grand, spider-like space station, stark and monolithic, silhouetted against the seas of a blue and green Earth, all against the backdrop of a fiery, violent Sun flaring away: this was one of the first images associated with Skylab iconography in the early 1970s, and was courtesy of someone who may have seemed to be an unlikely space mission patch designer. The artist was called “the dean of science fiction artists” and was perhaps more well-known for his magazine and book covers, which adorned science-fiction pulp magazines with pithy names such as Weird Tales and Astounding Science Fiction. How did someone commonly associated with buxom space divas become the originator of one of the (in my estimation) best space mission patches?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In Which We See Paul Weitz Claim A Dubious Spaceflight Record, And Then We See It Promptly Snatched Away By His Former Boss: 1974 AvWeek Edition

The Skylab 2 crew in happier times, NASA photo: "The three members of the prime crew of the first manned Skylab mission discuss their scheduled flight before a gathering of news media representatives, in building 1 auditorium, April 17, 1973. They are (left to right) astronauts Charles Conrad Jr., commander; Paul J. Weitz, pilot; and scientist Joseph P. Kerwin, science-pilot." 
One of the most curious spaceflight "feuds" emerged in the spring of 1974, and it played out in the pages of Aviation Week & Space Technology. Unearthed by Mike Poliszuk in the Facebook group Apollo Spacecraft History, we see a tense dynamic emerge between a quiet, yet determined mission pilot and a salty veteran commander keen to defend his space "record" at any cost. 

I will let the screenshots from AvWeek explain themselves; please click on the images to enlarge as needed. Here we see a short vignette from the magazine's Washington staff in the March 18th issue, entitled "Star Streak": 

Sadly, Weitz was only able to hold on to his record for two months, perhaps even less. He was unceremoniously thrown under the bus by his Skylab 2 commander, Pete Conrad, in a letter to the editor published in the May 27th edition: 

My favorite part is the end of the letter, in which Conrad appeals to the editors asking them if they required further clarification, "please let me know." I have a sick image of them ordering a junior reporter to cold call Pete, and ask him for more information about this whole nudity in space thing. 

This may be the greatest thing I've seen shared on Facebook in a very long time.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

This Space Available’s Corrections Section: Félicette, not Félix

From Matthew Serge Guy's Kickstarter, "The Meow-cury 14": "The cats in training harnesses. Félicette on bottom right."
On November 7, 2010, over seven years ago, I published an (admittedly not very good) blog post about the story of France’s first space cat, Félix. The problem is...there was never a space cat named Félix. Read more about how I messed up, contributed to a falsehood concerning animals in space, and how a Kickstarter begun by Matthew Serge Guy intends to right these wrongs and honor the first real kitty who went to space. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Rest In Paradise, Richard F. Gordon, Jr.

NASA photo, labeled Sept. 22, 1969: "These three astronauts have been named by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the prime crew of the Apollo 12 lunar landing mission. Left to right are Charles Conrad Jr., Richard F. Gordon Jr., and Alan L. Bean."
The space community has lost too many legends this year from the Apollo era, and today we lost one more: the congenial Dick Gordon, Gemini 11 pilot and Apollo 12 command module pilot. I'm personally a bit too numb from all the losses to write anything profound; linked here is an obituary from collectSPACE, which sums up Gordon's life and career more beautifully than I could. 

Dick Gordon was a warm, funny, always enthusiastic man, and a friend to everyone. That's how I will remember him. The photo above shows him in his prime years at NASA, posing with the Ultimate Apollo Dream Crew - three best friends who braved a freakin' LIGHTNING STRIKE to pull off one of the program's most successful, memorable missions.

Feel free to leave your memories of Gordon in the comments' section. I send my sincerest condolences to his family and friends.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Paul Weitz Was A Comedy Genius

NASA photo, 1973: "Astronaut Paul J. Weitz, pilot for Skylab 2 (first Skylab manned) mission, looks over off-duty recreational equipment in the crew quarters of the Skylab Orbital Workshop (OWS) trainer during Skylab simulation activity at the Manned Spacecraft Center." 
Born on July 25, 1932, Paul Weitz was one of the more reserved astronauts from 1966’s Group 5 (“The Original Nineteen”), and following his two missions – 1973’s Skylab 2 and 1983’s STS-6 – he seemed more than happy to recede from the spotlight, and simply focus on the job at hand.

I was fortunate to have a few encounters with Weitz (who was known to many of his friends as “PJ”) because of my involvement with Spacefest, and I was honored to moderate last year’s Skylab panel, and this year’s Skylab/Apollo-Soyuz Test Project panel. While I would like to emphasize my dealings with him were all-too-brief, I did find him to be a humble, thoughtful man who exhibited a quiet pride over saving Skylab, and ushering in a new era of space exploration with the maiden voyage of Challenger. One of the most unforgettable moments of last year’s Spacefest VII, for me, was when Weitz stood up and explained his Skylab 2 standup EVA in detail, using a great Ed Hengeveld painting to illustrate one of the most iconic spacewalks of all time. I was nervous he wouldn’t want to share much because of his natural humility, but he absolutely lit up when he saw that painting, one of his favorites.

That’s not to say Weitz wasn’t a complete riot and had an incredible dry sense of humor. I’m sure his closer friends and family have a wealth of untold stories, but here is one of mine. At Spacefest VIII in June, I went to the Thursday night cocktail party that opened the event. The drinks flowed, and at one point I saw Weitz and Jack Lousma chatting away on the floor. Emboldened by a bucket of wine, I went up to them, politely said hello, and told them I’d be moderating the panel again. I think I said some gibberish about how I wanted to “focus a little more on science” or something; I wasn’t exactly sober and I am sure they thought I was nuts, but they seemed polite and shook their heads in agreement. Weitz then said with a completely straight face, “I love science. I have a PhD in science...piled high deep.”

I noticed he was drinking a martini, and said something stupid like, “Are you enjoying the martini, sir?” He said with utter seriousness, “Come closer, I have a secret to tell you.” Of course, being a massive Skylab fan girl, I’m thinking, “Oh my God, he’s going to tell me there were aliens on Skylab, or Kerwin started growing a tail, or something insane that nobody’s ever heard...and I’m going to be the only one to ever know about it.” I leaned in closer.

He said with a small smirk on his face, “I had a couple of drinks before I got here.” That was his secret.

Fun fact: I also asked him, “Weren’t you roommates with Al Worden at some point?” He snickered audibly and said, “Yeah.” (I did not inquire further about this particular topic.)

Paul Weitz died on October 23, and he and his brand of quiet courage will be missed immensely.

NASA photo, 1973: "Astronaut Paul J. Weitz, pilot for the Skylab 2 first manned mission, is suited up for Skylab training activity in the mission simulation and training facility at the Manned Spacecraft Center."

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Machines and People: Why Do We Have Feelings About the End of Cassini?

From NASA: "In the shadow of Saturn, unexpected wonders appear. The robotic Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn drifted in giant planet's shadow for about 12 hours in 2006 and looked back toward the eclipsed Sun. Cassini saw a view unlike any other. First, the night side of Saturn is seen to be partly lit by light reflected from its own majestic ring system. Next, the rings themselves appear dark when silhouetted against Saturn, but quite bright when viewed away from Saturn, slightly scattering sunlight, in this exaggerated color image. Saturn's rings light up so much that new rings were discovered, although they are hard to see in the image. Seen in spectacular detail, however, is Saturn's E ring, the ring created by the newly discovered ice-fountains of the moon Enceladus and the outermost ring visible above. Far in the distance, at the left, just above the bright main rings, is the almost ignorable pale blue dot of Earth." Image Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

 “See the dark night has come down on us
The world is livin' in its dream
But now we know that we can wake up from this sleep
And set out on the journey
Find a ship to take us on the way.”

- Gerry Rafferty, “The Ark,” with apologies to Bill DeYoung 

In the early morning hours of September 15, as I awoke and readied for work, Cassini started its final plunge into Saturn, its home of 13 years. Launched in October 1997 from a Titan IV-Centaur launch vehicle, the spacecraft had spent its last few months conducting “dives” into the unexplored region between the gas giant and its signature rings. But alas, 20 years dissipated into a matter of seconds, and at 7:55 a.m. EDT JPL received the last signals from the minivan-sized spacecraft, just before it turned into a meteor among the high clouds of Saturn. By that time, I was clocking into work during a challenging week; my job had been relocated across town due to Hurricane Irma damage. Still, as I checked out the Cassini updates on social media, I found myself welling up with tears. Why?

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Hurricane Irma Updates and Live Blog - Largo, FL

"The NOAA-NASA satellite GOES-16 captured this geocolor image of Hurricane Irma passing the eastern end of Cuba at about 8:00 a.m. EDT on Sept. 8, 2017... Please note: GOES-16 data are currently experimental and undergoing testing and hence should not be used operationally." Entire NOAA caption can be viewed at this link. Image Credit: NOAA/NASA
7:40 p.m. Sept. 9: We are currently in Largo, Florida, having evacuated from our home in Saint Petersburg, waiting for what is being anticipated as the worst weather event in the Tampa Bay area since 1960's Hurricane Donna. As of 7:30 p.m. EDT, the track has the storm making its way through Tampa Bay in the early hours of Monday, Sept. 10 as a Category 3 hurricane. We are in a non-evacuation zone with plenty of food, sodas, water, and snacks, plus we have our cat, Felix, here by us, so we're about as safe as we will be given the situation. Still very nerve-wracking, nobody here is sure what they'll endure or find at homes once the evacuation orders lift. I figured I'd deal with my nerves by trying to document the storm as much as I can. 


Video filmed around 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9. Please excuse the terrible production quality.

12 a.m. Sept. 10: Sleepless, so I thought I'd share this cool 1960 radar image of Hurricane Donna over the Florida Keys, which was mentioned in the above update. As you can tell, radar technology at that time was rudimentary; the colorful, detailed images we see presently were still well into the future, but these images did mitigate what could've been a worse loss of human life and infrastructure in Florida. I know I linked a Wikipedia article above, but it's not a bad read, plus there is a cool time-lapse of radar images of Donna in there, if you're interested in that kind of thing.

Radar image of Hurricane Donna over the Florida Keys, 1960. Retrieved from http://www.whyy.org/tv12/franklinfacts/sep1200ff.html (Original source: NOAA) 
4:38 p.m. Sept. 10: Please check out my Facebook profile (http://www.facebook.com/emilybot) for updates concerning Hurricane Irma; as long as I have battery power, I will keep everyone updated as much as humanly possible.

So far, we are getting tropical storm-like conditions, and we are safe. For meteorological updates, I suggest checking out Denis Phillips' page on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/denisphillipswfts/). 
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Please stay with This Space Available for further updates; if updates cease we may have suffered a power or Wi-Fi outage, so please be patient. Thank you.