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:

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). 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Viking Vibes and Mars Memories: Viking Forty Years Later, Part Two - Did Viking Discover Life On Mars?

Viking 1 surveys the "Big Joe" rock at Chryse Planitia. NASA image.
You should go there, it is so nice, Mars.
You should be there, it's out of sight, Mars.
You should see it, it ain't so high, Mars.
You should be there, up in the sky, Mars.
- Title track from Dexter Wansel’s Life On Mars LP, 1976

Throughout the 1970s, pop culture references to “life on Mars” were inescapable. The late David Bowie sang about it on his album Hunky Dory, and musician Dexter Wansel even made a sci-fi funk album called Life On Mars, released in 1976 (the year of Viking). Science fiction, of course, had bandied about the possibility of “little green men” on our neighboring planet for decades.

But did Viking really discover life on Mars, in any way, shape, or form? Did the “little green men” exist on a microbial level? This debate continues to this day. Read on, and make your decision:

Sunday, July 3, 2016

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

From NASA: "Taken by the Viking 1 lander shortly after it touched down on Mars, this image is the first photograph ever taken from the surface of Mars. It was taken on July 20, 1976." Image Credit: NASA 
“Time and time again I repeat, ‘It’s incredible.’ And it truly is. Nothing before or after can compare. It is transparent, brilliant, boundless. An explorer would understand. We have stood on the surface of Mars.” - The late Thomas A. “Tim” Mutch, leader of the Viking Lander Imaging Team, discussing his reaction upon seeing Viking 1’s first image
I can’t speak for others, but for me, the Viking program had the biggest cultural impact on how I viewed planetary spaceflight. While the Viking landers weren’t able to rove beyond their landing sites, and couldn’t take cool “selfies” upon the Martian surface, the images from school science books and the January 1977 issue of National Geographic forever made an impact on my mind: something from Earth had made it to a neighboring planet, landed successfully, and made its home there permanently. Along with the two Voyagers and ESA’s Giotto, the Vikings fired my imagination, making it seem as if the Solar System was wholly explorable. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Space Myths Busted: Buran Isn't This New Thing, People Have Known About This For Decades, And No, I Won't Write A Feature-Length Article About It

From Wikipedia: "Visitors at the 38th Paris International Air and Space Show at Le Bourget Airfield line up to tour a Soviet An-225 Mechta aircraft that is carrying the Space Shuttle Buran on its back." Posted by Master Sgt. Dave Casey on Wikipedia Commons.
I figured while I still have an audience after Spacefest VII (praise the Lort, I didn’t scare anyone off), I might as well address the dozens of links many have seen on Space Hipsters concerning the Soviet Buran space shuttle, and the copious requests I’ve received to write an article/articles about that subject. I’ll proceed with this anatomy of a year-long struggle, and underscore how one space program caused me to lose some sleep, not enjoy life anymore, and cause me to inadvertently amass what is probably the largest Buran paraphernalia collection in the United States… CLICK HERE, YOU WON’T EVEN BELIEVE WHAT IS UNDER THE JUMP! 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

You All Need To Know: Skylab Had A Superbadass Solar Telescope

From NASA: "This photograph of the sun, taken on Dec. 19, 1973, during the third and final manned Skylab mission (Skylab 4), shows one of the most spectacular solar flares ever recorded, spanning more than 588,000 kilometers (365,000 miles) across the solar surface."
Although its images are largely superseded by ones obtained by modern solar observatories (such as NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory), America’s first space station, Skylab, returned some pretty badass images of our closest star for its time, and had a pretty superbadass, human-helmed solar observatory, the first ever (and only, as far as I know) of its kind.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Remembering The World's Greatest All-Electric Flying Machine: An Interview with "Into The Black" Author Rowland White

From NASA, March 1981 photo: "The space shuttle orbiter Columbia is showered with lights in this nocturnal scene at Launch Pad 39A, as preparations are underway for the first flight (STS-1) of NASA's new reusable spacecraft system. Astronauts John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen are in training for the flight." 
Today, we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the launch of the first U.S. space shuttle mission, STS-1. While many associate this historic event with John W. Young and Bob Crippen, often major players in space shuttle development (both human and machine) are lost in the program's dense, decades-long history. 
Rowland White's book Into The Black launches on Tuesday, April 19th, days after the 35th anniversary of Columbia's iconic first flight. Photo Credit: Touchstone Books/Simon and Schuster
Enter author Rowland White, whose book, Into The Black, will be published in hardcover by Touchstone Books on Tuesday, April 19th. The book's foreword was written by astronaut Richard Truly, himself an STS-1 backup crew member. His book gives due credit to the figures who were, in many ways, just as responsible for the success of the first, very risky "test" flight. In addition, the book examines the complicated relationship between the "black" National Reconnaissance Office and how it contributed to one of NASA's finest missions (which, very possibly, could have turned into a tragedy). 

This Space Available was fortunate to interview White about Into The Black. Note: minor book spoilers included. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Greatest Mid-1970s Launch Photo Ever? Behold This Titan IIIE/Centaur Doin' Its Thang

From NASA: "On August 20, 1975, Viking 1 was launched by a Titan/Centaur rocket from Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 5:22 p.m. EDT to begin a half-billion mile, 11-month journey through space to explore Mars. The 4-ton spacecraft went into orbit around the red planet in mid-1976." Photo Credit: NASA
This itty-bitty version doesn't do it justice, but in my estimation, this is one of the most spectacular launch photos of all time (for a larger hi-resolution version, check out this link). The Titan IIIE/Centaur, THE magnificent launch vehicle of the mid-1970s, is seen here lofting one of the decade's iconic spacecraft on course for an unprecedented journey to Mars. In addition, the summer-y, late afternoon pastel colors and Florida palm trees are nice aesthetic touches.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Finding NEEMO: Revisiting Scott Carpenter and Sealab II, 1965

More than an astronaut, from May 22, 1962: "Astronaut M. Scott Carpenter, prime pilot for the Mercury-Atlas 7 (MA-7) flight, is seen in Hanger S crew quarters during a suiting exercise. He smiles at camera as suiting technician Al Rochford adjusts his suit." Photo Credit: NASA 
In my estimation, Mercury Seven astronaut Scott Carpenter has been the target of some rather unfair attacks from many people concerning his performance during his 1962 Aurora 7 orbital mission. That topic merits a whole separate blog post in itself, but to be blunt, Carpenter's own account is best told in his autobiography For Spacious Skies, co-written with editor and writer Kris Stoever (who is also the astronaut's daughter). Out of respect, I think I'll let the man – who left us in 2013 – tell that story himself. While that subject has been somewhat “controversial,” a couple of things cannot be disputed: Carpenter more than earned his place among the greats in spaceflight history, and deserves respect. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Guest Post by Francis French: Review of "Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight"

Cover of Leaving Orbit. Image Credit:
Occasionally, this blog features other contributors; on this occasion we are happy to host this review by space historian and author Francis French of Margaret Lazarus Dean's recently-published book, Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight. Read more after the jump...

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Space Myths Busted: Gus Grissom Didn't Blow The Hatch on Liberty Bell 7

Astronaut Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom is inserted into his Liberty Bell 7 capsule on the morning of July 21, 1961. He would soon be embroiled in a controversy that lingers to this day. Photo Credit: NASA
In this installment of “Space Myths Busted,” I'll tackle a myth that somehow still persists to this day despite many attempts to debunk it: On July 21, 1961, shortly after splashdown, a panicked Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom blew the hatch on his Liberty Bell 7 Mercury capsule shortly after an otherwise successful suborbital spaceflight. A clearly freaked-out Grissom then commenced to flail around in the water prior to being picked up by rescue helicopters. Read more after the jump...

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Space Myths Busted: No, There Wasn't A "Mutiny" On Skylab

From NASA: "An overhead view of the Skylab space station cluster in Earth orbit as photographed from the Skylab 4 Command and Service Modules (CSM) during the final fly-around by the CSM before returning home." Photo Credit: NASA
In the first of a series called "Space Myths Busted," I thought I'd take on the oft-reported myth that there was some kind of "strike" or "mutiny" in low-Earth orbit during the Skylab 4 mission, crewed by commander Gerald Carr, pilot William Pogue, and science pilot Ed Gibson. While the crew faced challenges due to being over-tasked early in the mission, nothing like a "mutiny" ever occurred, and with respect to the three crew members, it's time to set the record straight. Read more after the jump...