Satellite Communications, With a Natural Satellite

On July 24, 1954 — 55 years ago today — researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory used the moon as a reflector to transmit Earth-to-Earth voice messages from Stump Neck, MD.

And, in other moon-related space history, forty years ago today the Apollo-11 astronauts splashed down after their historic and highly successful mission. Would that we had as exciting and inspiring events today.


Image credit: From Flickr, by longhorndave, licensed under Creative Commons.

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Shuttle COLUMBIA Launches Lands — Five Years Apart

Fifteen years ago today — July 23, 1994 — NASA mission STS-65 ended when Space Shuttle Columbia landed at Kennedy Space Center. Astronauts Robert D. Cabana, James D. Halsell, Richard J. Hieb, Carl E. Walz, Leroy Chiao, Donald A. Thomas, and Chiaki Naito-Mukai had launched from KSC on July 8. The mission was the second flight of the International Microgravity Laboratory, which carried 82 Space Life Science and Microgravity Science experiments — over twice as many as it had on its first mission. Chiaki Naito-Mukai was the first Japanese woman to fly in space and set the record for longest flight to date by a female astronaut.

Then, ten years ago today — July 23, 1999 — Shuttle Columbia launched from KSC on mission STS-93, carrying astronauts Eileen M. Collins, Jeffrey S. Ashby, Steven A. Hawley, Catherine G. Coleman, and French astronaut Michel Tognini. Eileen Collins was the first woman to command a Space Shuttle mission as she directed the deployment of the most sophisticated X-ray observatory ever built: the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, originally known as the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility.

For more on these missions, see the STS-65 and STS-93 pages. In between those two flights, Columbia flew an additional eight missions.

Oh, and forty years ago today, the Apollo-11 astronauts were on their way back to earth. Take a look at the Smithsonian’s commemorative site if you have a few minutes.

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Space History Today: Rockets, Retrieval, and that Moon Thing

Lots of interesting July 20th space history (even though I only concentrate on anniversaries in multiples of 5 years).

(View of Earth from lunar orbit, prior to the [I]Eagle‘s landing. Click to enlarge. NASA image from the Apollo-11 Image Gallery.)[/I]

Forty-five years ago today, in 1964, the Space Electric Rocket Test (SERT-1) launched on a suborbital test flight from Wallops Island, Virginia. The vehicle tested electron bombardment ion engines. (I find this interesting because Area 1-14 at the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Lab [my first assignment in the USAF] tested electric propulsion concepts and, I believe, some ion engines. Ion thrusters are used for stationkeeping on many different spacecraft.)

And for terrestrial history with a connection to space, ten years ago today, in 1999, the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft was pulled up from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, about ninety miles northeast of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. Astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom had flown in the Liberty Bell 7 on our country’s second manned spaceflight. (I find the retrieval particularly interesting, since my first project in the Titan System Program Office was to find and retrieve pieces of a failed Titan-IV rocket so the investigators could confirm the cause of the malfunction.)

That’s it, right?

Of course not. I’m actually pleased with the attention being paid to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo-11 landing, with dedicated sites like We Choose the Moon — and today is the day.

(Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. flag. Click to enlarge. NASA image from the Apollo-11 Image Gallery.)

Forty years ago today, in 1969, the Lunar Module Eagle landed on the moon in the first manned lunar landing. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepared to step out on the lunar surface, while Michael Collins orbited in the Command Module Columbia. A few hours later — at 10:56 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, which was 2:56 a.m. Greenwich Mean (Universal) Time — Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto the moon.

“One small step,” indeed.

I dream about the giant leaps.

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Cometary Impact and Other Space History Items

Fifteen years ago today — July 18, 1994 — fragment G of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet hit the planet Jupiter. Pieces of the comet had started impacting the gas giant on July 16, and continued to bombard it until July 22.

(Hubble Space Telescope images of the Shoemaker-Levy “Fragment G” impact. The bottom image shows the plume about 5 minutes after impact on July 18, 1994, and the next shows the “fresh impact site” about 90 minutes later. The upper images show the evolution of the impact area over the next few days due to Jupiter’s winds. NASA image from

In other space history, which I didn’t post yesterday because it was a crazy busy day:

Eighty years ago yesterday — July 17, 1929 — Dr. Robert Goddard launched a liquid-fueled rocked in Auburn, Massachusetts. The vehicle carried a small camera, a thermometer, and a barometer, and actually generated publicity about a possible “moon rocket.”

It only took forty years before men were on their way to the moon on the same date. Pity that we haven’t made similar progress since.

And 25 years ago yesterday — July 17, 1984 — Soyuz T-12 launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome to carry Vladimir A. Dzhanibekov, Svetlana Y. Savitskaya, and Igor P. Volk to the Salyut 7 space station. A few days later, Savitskaya would become the first woman to conduct a spacewalk.

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Apollo-11's Journey Begins, 40 Years Past

Forty years ago today — July 16, 1969 — Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard a Saturn V booster (number SA-506) on Apollo-11, the first manned mission to land on the moon.

(Apollo-11 mission patch. NASA image.)

I’m not old enough to remember President Kennedy and his bold proposal to land men on the moon and return them safely to earth. I wish I remembered more about the lunar landings as they happened, but memory is a fickle thing and my childhood memories are fleeting at best.

Thankfully I have access to the Internet to augment my memory. From one of the NASA history sites, here’s a list of the firsts accomplished by Apollo-11:

  • First lunar landing and return mission.
  • First test of landing radar and other landing systems on the Lunar Module under operational conditions.
  • First lunar surface extravehicular activity (EVA).
  • First human foot print on the lunar surface: Neil Armstrong’s left foot.
  • First man-made items on the lunar surface, including: the first seismometer, first laser reflector, and first solar wind experiment deployed on the Moon.
  • First lunar soil and rock samples returned to Earth.
  • First use of mobile quarantine facility.
  • First use of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center).

And, my personal favorite: the first meal eaten on the Moon “consisted of four bacon squares, three sugar cookies, peaches, pineapple-grapefruit drink and coffee.”

If you want to learn more, NASA’s Human Space Flight Office has a good web page about Apollo-11, and the “We Choose the Moon” site is a nifty interactive tribute to the mission.

I don’t know if it’s because of the Apollo program and the space enthusiasm that permeated the country when I was young, or because of STAR TREK, Robert A. Heinlein, Larry Niven, and the many science fictional adventures I enjoyed, but when I look at the moon I still want to go there, live there, explore and build there. And since I can’t do that in real life, I do it in my imagination and in my stories — even if only I and a few friends will ever enjoy them.

So Godspeed, Apollo-11, and thanks.

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A Moon Launch, and the MOON Movie

Forty years ago today — July 13, 1969 — three days before the U.S. launched Apollo-11, the Soviet Union launched the Luna-15 probe on a Proton-K rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. According to,

Luna 15 began its journey on 13 July 1969 as a last-minute attempt to regain national pride in the face of the pending Apollo landing. Luna 15 was a fairly sophisticated craft designed to land on the surface of the Moon and collect soil samples to be launched back to Earth. It was hoped that the soil could be returned prior to Apollo 11’s splashdown making the Soviets the first to bring lunar material back to Earth. Though the probe was successfully launched and made its way into lunar orbit, bad luck again struck the Soviet lunar program. Luna 15 had completed 52 orbits of the Moon when it attempted to make a soft landing on the surface. Unfortunately, the final retrorocket burn failed and the probe crashed in the Sea of Crises on 21 July 1969, just one day after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic walk on the Moon.

In contemporary space-related news, we saw the movie MOON yesterday at the Galaxy Cinema here in Cary. It was, as we’d been led to believe, impressive in its production quality — so much that at times it was easy to forget it was an independent film. The issues with the lunar setting (e.g., noise where there shouldn’t be any, the inconsistent treatment of gravity) and the lunar infrastructure and equipment (e.g., no alarm on the secret door, vehicles sturdy enough to withstand rocks landing on them) would only be problematic for geeks. (Yes, I qualify on that score.) It had a few plot holes as well, but all in all was a worthy effort and an enjoyable ninety-seven minutes.

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Does the Moon Matter?

As someone who a) loves to look up at the bright, shining moon, and b) has written two novels about life at a lunar colony,* I naturally answer “yes.”

New Scientist apparently agrees, in its commemorative series of articles entitled “Why the Moon Still Matters.” This month, if you didn’t already know, is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo-11 lunar landing. As you might imagine, that’s a big deal to the likes of me.

In related news, here’s a Spaceflight Now article about NASA’s preparations for launching the Ares X-1, which will become the country’s “new moon rocket.”

So, to repeat: yes, I think the moon matters.

*The first one, like so many first novels, was not worthy of being published. I thought it was, and so did a very small publisher, but that’s a story for another day. The second one, WALKING ON THE SEA OF CLOUDS, is making the submission rounds now. I think it’s a much better book, so here’s hoping….

(Image Credit: Full moon image by longhorndave, licensed under Creative Commons, from Flickr)

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First Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Images: Near the SEA OF CLOUDS

How cool is this? From NASA’s LRO web site:

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has transmitted its first images since reaching the moon on June 23. The spacecraft’s two cameras, collectively known as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC, were activated June 30. The cameras are working well and have returned images of a region in the lunar highlands south of Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds).

(L: An LRO image of the highlands south of Mare Nubium [the Sea of Clouds]. R: A Clementine image of the moon, showing the location of Mare Nubium. NASA images. Click to enlarge.)

Since I’m currently trying to interest publishers and agents in WALKING ON THE SEA OF CLOUDS — a novel of survival and sacrifice at the first commercial lunar colony, located on the southwestern edge of Mare Nubium — the fact that the LRO’s first images are of that area is exceedingly cool to me. That made my day!

So … if you know of anyone interested in publishing such a novel … or even if you’re interested in reading such a novel … let me know. That would make my day, too.


P.S. Here’s the NASA LRO page with the images on it, and here’s the LRO main page.

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LCROSS, and the Hazards of Writing Near-Future Science Fiction

Today the LCROSS (Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite) is supposed to launch on an Atlas-V rocket, along with the LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter). LCROSS is specifically designed to check for water in shadowed craters at the lunar south pole.

(Artist’s conception of LCROSS approach to the moon, from Click to enlarge.)

The mission profile involves crashing the Centaur upper stage into an as-yet-undetermined crater, with the LCROSS vehicle and its sensors following close behind. Not only will LCROSS itself examine the ejecta for signs of water, but the debris from the impact is expected to rise high enough above the moon’s surface to be visible to earth-based instruments as well. Analysis should show whether hydrogen detected by previous missions (e.g., Clementine) is in the form of water.

Why does this demonstrate the hazards of writing near-future SF? Because I know of a novel — written by me, for which I’m trying to find a publisher and an agent — in which a major part of the plot is a difficult journey to the lunar south pole to retrieve ice to keep the fledgling colony alive.

The LCROSS mission could either lend credence to my treatment of lunar conditions, or it could make the novel much more fiction than science. So here’s what I would like:

  • First, I’d like the mission to detect appreciable amounts of water ice, no matter what crater they choose.
  • Second, I’d like NASA to select a different crater than I did, so no matter what LCROSS finds my story could still be plausible. I picked Faustini Crater for my ice expedition, so anywhere else, okay?

Such is the hazard of writing realistic, near-future SF — your assumptions may be subject to verification before your story ever sees print! (Here I repeat my hope that my story will indeed see print. Time will tell. But if you know of a publisher looking for such a story, point them my way!)

If you want more info, here’s the NASA page about the mission.


And, how about a little space history: Five years ago today — June 18, 2004 — marked the first time a U.S. astronaut was in space when his child was born on Earth. Edward Michael “Mike” Fincke was aboard the International Space Station when his wife gave birth to their second child.

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Today in Space History: Soviet Lunar Orbiter

Thirty-five years ago today — May 29, 1974 — the Russians (i.e., at that time the Soviets) launched the Luna-22 orbiter on a Proton-K rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

(Luna-22 Spacecraft. Image from NASA Space Science Data Center Master Catalog.)

What makes that so much more interesting to me is that the Russians still launch Protons from Baikonur. In 2002 I spent three weeks at the cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, monitoring Nimiq-2 payload processing and its mating with the Proton rocket.

I spent Thanksgiving of 2002 flying with the spacecraft aboard an AN-124 transport, and monitored the checkouts and prep work until my boss relieved me a little before Christmas. So I missed the actual launch … but I got to spend Christmas at home, which was better.

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