Wednesday, March 8, 2017

How Skylab’s Beast of a Computer System Inspired the Space Shuttle

From Dec. 5, 1973: "Scientist-astronaut Edward G. Gibson, Skylab 4 science pilot, stands at the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) console in the Multiple Docking Adapter (MDA) of the Skylab space station cluster in Earth orbit." The computer interface is at lower left, above the cables. Photo Credit: NASA
Skylab occupies a difficult spot in space history. One thing you hear too much when you’re a Skylab fan is how the first U.S. space station didn’t have any applications or purposes beyond its three crewed missions. This fallacy can be shot down on many levels, but one area that doesn’t get enough attention is how Skylab revolutionized the use of computer systems aboard spacecraft, and how its systems led to the development of the world’s most sophisticated flying machine, the Space Shuttle.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Future That Didn't Happen: An Interview with 'Amazing Stories of the Space Age' Author Rod Pyle

Several proposed military space programs, including the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, are covered in Amazing Stories of the Space Age, Rod Pyle's newest book. Image Credit: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

“Why didn't I learn to treat everything like it was the last time. My greatest regret was how much I believed in the future.”

- Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Author Rod Pyle's newest book, Amazing Stories of the Space Age (Prometheus Books), takes a different approach than many other titles in the spaceflight canon. Pyle educates the reader about little-known, little-flown, and defunct programs that didn't quite make it past the planning stage. Readers discover plans of military space stations, spies in orbit, robots resigned to suffer lonely deaths on remote planets, and a little Soviet space shuttle called...Buran something. 

This Space Available interviewed Pyle this week about his newest book. We discussed the impetus behind telling the tales of obscure space programs, and the importance of keeping the stories accurate, despite hard truths. Note: some book spoilers included.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Venus in Furs: An Interview with 'Island of Clouds’' Gerald Brennan

Venus: the enigma of the Solar System, and Island of Clouds' target. Gerald Brennan's newest book supposes NASA sent astronauts on a flyby mission to Venus in 1972. 1974 Mariner 10 image from NASA, processed by Ricardo Nunes 
I am tired, I am weary
I could sleep for a thousand years
A thousand dreams that would awake me
Different colors made of tears

- The Velvet Underground, “Venus in Furs”

One of the exciting new space titles to hit bookshelves in 2017 is Island of Clouds, part of the Altered Space Series from Tortoise Books. To be released during the spring, it tells the story of three astronauts who flyby a then-yet-unknown planet, and in the process – for better or worse – discover themselves, warts and all. The mission is based on actual Apollo Applications blueprints to fly astronauts to Venus, and the crew consists of three legendary (if somewhat unexpected) Apollo astronauts.

This Space Available interviewed author Gerald Brennan this week about his newest book, the lure of Venus as a destination, and the myth of the astronaut as “superhero.” Note: some book spoilers included.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

This Space Available's Best of 2016: The Top Five

The end of the year calls for a Skylab party, and enjoying food at the dinner table with good friends! From Dec. 28, 1973: "The three members of the Skylab 4 crew confer via television communication with Dr. Lubos Kohoutek, discoverer of the Comet Kohoutek. This picture of the three astronauts was reproduced from a TV transmission made by a TV camera aboard the space station in Earth orbit. They are, left to right, Gerald P. Carr, commander; Edward G. Gibson, science pilot; and William R. Pogue, pilot. They are seated in the crew quarters wardroom of the Orbital Workshop." NASA image.
As 2016 winds down, I'd like to thank everyone who read this blog and other articles I've written throughout the last year. Here is a short list of some of the most popular things I've written during 2016, if you'd like to revisit those pieces:
I've taken a bit of a break over the last couple of months (I was so busy, and needed to devote time to personal stuff, no biggie), but I am looking forward to devoting my time to new projects in 2017. I was delighted to be asked to moderate the Skylab/ASTP panel at Spacefest VIII in June 2017, so I am really looking forward to that!

Stay tuned, and I wish you all a great New Year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Ron Evans' Apollo 17 "Space Selfies": The Greatest Hits

Captain America chillin' out in his home away from home. Photo from Project Apollo's Archive on Flickr (Apollo 17 Magazine 160/YY; 35mm Color, onboard; NASA photographs; unprocessed 35mm film scans by NASA Johnson Space Center, circa 2005) 

As the 44th anniversary of the final Apollo lunar exploration mission winds down, we remember perhaps the most underrated facet of that iconic mission: America's command module pilot, Ronald E. Evans (aka "Captain America"). Born Nov. 10, 1933, the then 39-year-old Evans held down the fort for three days while his compatriots Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt completed the program's final scientific "J" mission moonwalks. Evans also undertook the program's last deep space EVA during the flight's trans-Earth coast period. Evans, who passed away too soon in 1990, still holds the record as the last human to complete a deep space EVA.

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: http://www.technologizer.com/2009/07/19/lunar-lander/3/

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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lunar_Lander.png)

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.