Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Lunar Ponderings

A stunning anniversary just passed: 50 years since Apollo 11. We have 6 more Apollo lunar anniversaries to go, (7 overall in this program if one counts the non-lunar Apollo-Soyuz Test Project). For years, I've tracked statistics of Apollo missions and astronauts as they aged. And each time I have to update my records, the solemnity of the loss halts all activity in my brain.

On December 19, 1972, upon the splashdown return of Apollo 17, there were 12 men on planet Earth who knew what it was like to walk on the surface of our Moon. This fact remained true for true for 18 years and 7 months.

Then, in August 1991, James Irwin (Apollo 15) died of a heart attack at age 61.

In 1998, Alan Shepard (Apollo 14) died of leukemia at age 74.

In 1999, Pete Conrad (Apollo 12) was killed in a motorcycle crash at age 69.

In 2012, Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11) died of heart failure at age 82.

In 2016, Ed Mitchell (Apollo 14) died in his sleep at age 85.

In 2017, Gene Cernan (Apollo 10 and 17) died of long-term illness at age 82 and Dick Gordon (Apollo 12) died of cancer at age 88.

In 2018, John Young (Apollo 10 and 16) died of pneumonia at age 978, and Alan Bean (Apollo 12) died of sudden illness at age 86.

Today, as we approach more 50th anniversaries of lunar landings, there are just 4 men left who remember traveling to and working on the Moon.

  • Buzz Aldrin turns 90 years old in January 2020.
  • David Scott is 87. 
  • Jack Schmitt and Charles Duke are both 84.
Among the other Apollo (orbiting or CSM pilot) astronauts, all are now octogenerians, with youngest Ken Mattingly reaching the age of 84.

Even if the youngest of them make it in to their 90s or to 100, will they see another Moon mission? Will they watch astronauts who are American or Chinese? Male or female?  Will it be just as inspiring to the world?

L to R: Charlie Duke (Apollo 16), Buzz Aldrin (11), Walter Cunningham (7), Alfred Worden (15), Rusty Schweickart (9), [Harrison] Jack Schmitt (17), Michael Collins (11), and Fred Haise (13).
PHOTO CREDIT: Felix Kunze/The Explorers Club

Some think we could pull off a Moon mission by 2024, though with how administrations roll (I've seriously been watching various plans and cancellations across my entire lifespan now), it will be more like 2027.
  • At that point, Buzz Aldrin will be 97. 
  • David Scott will be 94. 
  • Jack Schmitt and Charles Duke will be 91. 
  • Every living Apollo astronaut will be a nonagenarian. 
I wonder, will they make it? Statistically, the deaths in this tiny club are accelerating, and we can expect to lose a few more before we see a return to the lunar surface, given that even the best technological developments never seem to last past early stages. Anything could suffer cancellation again, in favor of Mars, Asteroids, or on the altar of war, economic depression, or unforseen disaster.

So, when we return to the Moon, if we return to the Moon, will anyone alive personally remember what it was like to visit the Moon?

Something to ponder.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

On The Moon in 1902

Thanks to the joy that is YouTube, I've been watching the very first science fiction film ever created in 1902. In fact, it was released TODAY, 117 years ago!  

Le Voyage dans la Lune or A Trip to the Moon was a produced and directed by Georges Méliès, and loosely based on stories in Jules Verne and H.G. Wells novels ("Earth to the Moon" and "First Men in the Moon" respectively). 

 The budget? 10,000 Francs or about $1800, which wasn't chump-change at the turn of the 20th century! (That would now be in the range of $50,000 dollars.) The silent film, originally narrated in French with a running time of 14 minutes, was extremely popular upon release, and is now public domain because its copyright expired after 100 years. 

Le Voyage dans la Lune The leader of an astronomical society proposes a trip to the moon, whereby most astronomers say the trip cannot be accomplished, but six agree to try. A hilarious scene building a "spacecraft" ensues, inexplicably showing men banging hammers onto what looks like a giant metal bullet! A pack of dancing girls push the bullet into a cannon, then "break the fourth wall" by waving to the audience! Makes me wonder if NASA ever considered hiring cheerleaders. 

The moon is characterized as a large face, and the space craft crashes into his eye – but then the view switches to a flat terrain. The astronomers fling open the hatch, disembark in their street clothes... and I guess "realism" in sci-fi mattered as much then as it does now – since they had no pesky problems with the atmosphere being breathable nitrogen and oxygen... too funny! 

 The astronomers watch Earth rise over the horizon, another understandable error of the time -- since to a person viewing Earth from the tidally-locked lunar surface, one side of the Moon always faces toward Earth and any such "rise" would only move slowly in a horizontal direction, taking many days to complete.  

You can tell I'm a barrel of laughs in movie theatres.


After the astronomers set up camp to sleep, a comet passes, and they are watched by human-faced stars in the shape of the Big Dipper. Saturn makes an interesting surprise appearance, but don't get me started on the snow flakes, the gigantic mushroom or the jumpy little Selenite acrobats exploding into smithereens. (???) 

Eventually, they are taken to a palace, where they kill the Moon King (we really can't be trusted to play well with others) and rush back to their big bullet. After toppling off a moon cliff and landing in Earth's ocean (I thought the jellyfish were nice touches), they are towed ashore where they are greeted by a parade. Hmm... wonder what Neil & Buzz thought of this masterpiece? ;) 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Moving To Planet Mercury

For any international readers, you may have noticed American social media buzz yesterday about a curious little holiday we call "Thanksgiving", which we pretend is about Pilgrims and Natives preparing meals together at the dawn of our colonial period. It's kinda not, but as with most holidays, we like myths more than we like historical facts.

This excuse to over-eat  is held each year on the third Thursday of November. Then, on the third FRIDAY of each November, we celebrate an even more curious custom known as... Wishing We Could Move To Planet Mercury.

Your Weight On Other Worlds
There is a great contraption at the San Francisco Exploratorium, where you can step on a large scale and see what you weigh on all the planets. I've been on it, and it's quite a fun experience. They also have their calculator on a web page, so you can see Your Weight On Other Worlds.

(I think it goes without saying, there will never be a book fad known as "The Jupiter Diet".)

Why the discrepancies? In simple terms, gravity is the force of attraction between objects. Gravitational pull is what makes the Earth orbit the sun, or the moon orbit the Earth. Suns, moons and planets are all surrounded by fields of gravity. These fields will be different, depending on things like planet size, mass, speed, its location in any solar system, and any other objects around it in space.

If Earth's force of gravity is measured at 1.00, force on other planets would be:

List of Planets and their Gravitational Forces
We'll include Pluto for the purists. And so I don't have to listen to any arguments.

More complex components of gravity come into play, but in general: the larger the object, the greater the gravity. However, the further away you travel from an object, the less you are affected by its gravitational field. Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, so it has the strongest field (except for our Sun, which is over 27+!). You cannot stand on Jupiter, because it's mostly gas. However, if it had a surface, the force holding your body on the planet would be much greater. This increases your weight, even though your mass remains the same.

At any rate, multiply your weight by any of these numbers, and you will see what you weigh on that planet.  Oh goody, math homework!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Scale of the Universe


Truly one of the most amazing pieces of visual art I have ever encountered in my life, and if you do nothing else on the internet today in your spare browsing time, visit this site to see The Scale of the Universe!

The Scale of the Universe
Cary and Michael Huang of HTWINS.NET released "The Scale of the Universe" in 2010, but recently updated their interactive visualization to include handy clickable descriptions... in twenty different languages!

The Scale of the Universe 2
Using objects varying in size from elementary particles up through the enormity of the entire universe, the scrolling "tunnels" help viewers grasp relative sizes in relation to creatures, known architecture, states and continents and finally planets and galaxies.

The Scale of the Universe
Ever wanted to know the difference between a Charm Quark or a Top Quark? Want to see the Cat's Eye Nebula? The Oort Cloud? Distance to the Hubble Deep Field?

Just click on the icons as you travel between Planck Lengths and Gigaparsecs.

The Scale of the Universe 2
Use the scroll bar along the bottom of the screen to move in and out of size comparisons, or simply flick the wheel of the mouse... if there is, in fact, a wheel on your mouse.

Don't go play The Scale of the Universe until you have some time on your hands, because you may get stuck there for hours!

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Pillownaut Muse

After my follow-up DEXA Bone Scan last winter, and the nice article NASA's Human Research Program published about me and other past pillownauts in preparation for the new simulation protocols, I didn't expect much more to happen. It's been many years since my studies, and my blog is now only rarely updated.

I pondered perhaps "over-hauling" this site to be a #SciComm hub -- but honestly, I think there are so many great existing Science Communication sites, and I will work to amplify those. I figured I'd had my 15 minutes of fame, and decided to leave my old blog "as-is" as a historical record of how I lived through the unique experiences of Space Flight Simulations projects at NASA.

But. Every time I think I'll never hear about it again, another author or press outlet comes knocking. Last time it was Charles Wohlforth, and you should definitely still read his great book, "Beyond Earth: Our Path To a New Home in the Planet." My father was very impressed they devoted more space to me than to Neil Armstrong, so we may have to put that on my tombstone.

Along came Minute Number 16...


Muse Magazine asked to feature my studies and chose the same title, just spelled a bit differently! In "Beyawned Earth," writer Jen Mason compiled many of my past blog excerpts, a few older press turns, and many of my personal photographs from quarantine into an exceptional article designed to teach students about space flight and how it affects the "biological packages" that travel in spacecrafts.

Reading the finished product, I was definitely the happiest I've ever been with an interview. I've had TV and radio stations ask me exhaustingly inappropriate questions; sometimes even reputable outlets go for the sensationalist spin by giving the study clever little [incorrect] nicknames or dwelling on incidental details, like how we manage to shower during simulations, or that we cannot have sugar or caffeine or salt in quarantine. Sure, those things are challenging, but not life-threatening. They pale in the quest for good data.


However, MUSE Magazine hired a skilled and serious writer who truly nailed the science. After literally a decade of interviews in varied formats, and even being featured on the NASA website itself, this was really the first full-length article that revolved around MY OWN WORDS REGARDING MY OWN EXPERIENCES. This is the closest article to what I would have written myself. Maybe someday, some outlet will invite me to do so. Hope springs eternal.

I was gratified that this particular entity put the science in detailed and accurate terms, because it's directed at students and young adults potentially getting started in scholastic concentrations, and beginning to think about choosing majors.

Issue came out in March, and I was thrilled to receive copies by May, after I returned from my 6-week trek in Europe. You can order back issues of Muse Magazine yourself, or subscribe your teens, at Cricket Media.

My entire list of articles has been updated to include the last 2 years.

Thursday, May 2, 2019


I've had such a fun time listening to "AstroCappella" music by an amazing group called The Chromatics, who recorded their first CD with the help of a NASA IDEAS grant (Initiative to Develop Education through Astronomy and Space Science).

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where the a-capella group originated, still features the singers on their website, where you can hear a lively version of The Sun Song...

The Chromatics

Left to Right: Padi = AstroPhysicist Soprano
Karen = Solar Scientist Alto & Mezzo
Alan = AstroPhysicist Tenor
Barry = Architect Tenor
Deb = Database Designer Soprano
John = Satellite Astronomer Baritone

I also searched around YouTube (a bit of a trick, since there is also an Oregonian Synth-Punk band with the same name), but I found the AstroCap YT Channel, which features a few clips of the spacey-group's live performances.

The Chromatics CD Covers
This harmonious form of musical astronomy was developed by the members of the Chromatics for education and public outreach, and all of their tunes are "astronomically correct"! My favorite was their humorous "Bad Hair Day" -- but they also cover comets, asteroids, Mars exploration, the phases of the moon, the habitable zone of our solar system, gamma rays and even a Historical Overview of Telescopes in the "HST-Bop." Highly entertaining!

They were even commissioned by the Johannes Kepler Project to write a special song for the International Year of Astronomy in 2009 called "Shoulders of Giants", which detailed Galileo's first observations of space through his newly-developed telescope in 1609.

Chromatics Christmas CD
They even have a Christmas CD! I purchased this entire set on iTunes along with some of their other selections, and I'm rather partial to "Pachelbel's Tantrum" ;)

Join their Facebook Fan Page or follow the Chromatics Twitter Feed to see when and where they conduct public performances.

Or, check out their AstroCapella Project to see how you can make the most of "the marriage of music & astronomy" to entertain at schools or introduce unique entertainment to your science, museum or planetarium public event!

Friday, March 8, 2019

More Moon Tree Road Trips!

Seventeen trees down, 75 to go! I seriously bit off more than I could chew again. When I first learned about the Apollo Moon Trees, and resolved to go visit as many as I could, I figured there were a few dozen. The catalog wasn't all that long in 2009 when the tracking project revived. 

Arcata California Moon Trees

Tree Hugger!! Humboldt Moon Trees, Arcata,
California 3 Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), 1974 

While mapping all the moon trees in America and abroad, my list stretched to 80 in total! I'm glad to see more companies and universities submitting their records to be counted now, but I've since given up being able to see all of the known plantings. So far, the most I have managed is six sites in California, one of which had multiple moon trees, and a seventh tucked away in the Grand Canyon State... not easy to find! Many of the resources online only give general whereabouts, so it often requires some detective work to find the right spots. 

Folsom California Moon Tree

El Dorado Hills Moon Tree, Folsom,
California Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), 1976

In many cases, the trees are marked with signs, commemorating the Apollo 14 mission in 1971, when NASA astronaut Stuart Roosa took the 500 tree seeds into space; however, many gifted with moon tree saplings in the 1970s lament that their signs have eroded or been stolen over the years. In a few cases, the trees have perished, leaving only the paperwork behind... and in one case, I found a tree that died -- but the plaque was still there. 

Happily, the largest contingent are trees that have flourished, growing taller in some cases than the "control trees" planted adjacent or nearby. In the case of all the California Giant Sequoias, micro-gravity clearly had no effect on the seeds! After planting, they thundered upward hundreds of feet, and there is no difference in their health as opposed to trees germinated on Earth.

 Flagstaff Arizona Moon Tree

Thorpe Park Moon Tree, Flagstaff,
Arizona Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga Menziesii), 1976 

The majority of the trees were planted during various American Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, as noted by their signs. However, the earliest were planted in 1974, and after a sparse smattering in the 80s and 90s, some of the second-generation moon trees were planted as recently as 2011. The Sycamores seemed the hardiest species in terms of survival, followed by the Redwoods, then the Loblolly Pines and Douglas Firs. The Sweetgums seemed to fare the worst, with only two known specimens left in existence.

San Luis Obispo Moon Tree

Mission Plaza Moon Tree, San Luis Obispo,
California Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), 1976

Next up, I still have some road trips to see the trees in Lockeford and San Dimas; perhaps I'll even head north to see a few in Oregon... To see all the California moon trees I've visited, and their signs, plus the one I visited in Arizona on the way home from driving to the STS-135 Space Shuttle Launch, go to the Pillownaut Gallery, or simply click on any of the pictures.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Technicolor Moon Rocks

Moon rocks like you've never seen them before! We generally tend to think of the moon in... oh, about 50,000 shades of grey, as it were.

However, samples returned to Earth are just full of secrets at many levels. BEHOLD! The microscopic colors of Luna Selene...

Apollo 12 basalt thin section

These amazing images are the work of Stuart Forbes, taken when he was a geology student at Edinburgh University, in preparation for an exhibition at a public observatory to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing.

Thanks to a loan scheme with NASA and PPARC (Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council), Stuart obtained access to a pack of lunar material, containing a lucite disk of six whole moon rocks and twelve "thin sections" -- slices of rock cut so thin (30 microns) that light is able to pass through them.

Apollo 15 Regolith thin sections

Because of the optical properties of minerals, two polaroid filters, one above and one below, produce an interference pattern that results in the lovely colors; interpreting them is one of the core skills learned by geology students.

Apollo 16 astronaut John Young was scheduled for a lecture, whereby Stuart asked the hosting museum if they would like the exhibition re-created. THIS time, when they got their hands on the moon rocks, he had special equipment prepared to photograph them!

Apollo 17 gabbro thin section

Stuart even had the pleasure of escorting Astronaut Young through the exhibition, and such was his exciting turn-of-the-century brush with planetary geology. These samples are available to borrow for schools, universities and museums in the USA & UK, so other educators should definitely feel encouraged to do wat Stuart did, if you are affiliated with spaces that hold science exhibits of any kind.

John Young's Thank-You Gift to the photographer!

Click on any of the pictures in this post to see the entire lunar gallery by Stuart Forbes, where you can see other examples of basalt, regolith, breccias, soilin, anorthositein and gabbro… and thank you, Stuart, for generously sharing these beautiful photographs with everyone!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Yon Flaming Orb

It would take 333,000 Earths to equal the weight of our Sun, which loses four million tons of itself each second as it delivers nearly a kilowatt of energy to each square yard of the Earth's sunlit surface.

The Sun is not always at the exact middle of the solar system. It shifts by its own diameter in varied directions, depending mostly on Jupiter's position. Jupiter's 12-year orbit is not around the Sun, but around a point NEAR the Sun. Meanwhile, the Sun too, performs a small orbit around that spot, which it completes every 11.86 Earth years.

Green Sunlight What does the sun emit most strongly? Yellow rays? Heat (Infrared)? Ultra-Violet? Gamma rays? Nope. GREEN LIGHT.

The first photograph of the sun was taken in 1845.

Greek scholar Thales of Miletus (624-546 BC) was the first human to accurately plot and record the path of the Sun across the sky, and the first to predict an eclipse in 585 BC. Anaxagoras (500-428 BC) was the first to postulate than the moon reflects light from the sun, rather than glowing on its own.

Aristotle (384-322) then held back science for the next two thousand years with his geocentric model of the universe, where the Earth was fixed and the Sun moved around it. This somehow became church doctrine until the time of Galileo -- and any attempt to question it meant being burned at the stake.

Sun Symbols In 1714, clergyman Tobias Swinton wrote a book claiming the Sun was Hell, since there would be too little room for all the current and future damned souls, not to mention that having the fire and brimstone beneath the earth's surface would soon be snuffed by lack of air. All righty then.

In contrast, Charles Palmer published a theory in 1798 saying the sun was made of ice, arguing that the Bible claimed light existed before God created the Sun. It must not be a source of light but rather simply a reflector of light from the rest of the universe, which was clearly focused on Earth.

The Sun kills about a million people per year, with desert exposure, dehydration complications, and melanomas.

People in the villages near the Konark Sun Temple (Orissa, India) bathe before and after any eclipse of the Sun, which is considered dangerous – so much so that any food prepared during such an event is regarded as poisonous and pregnant women take particular care to keep their eyes tightly shut, lest the fetus be malformed.

Spending just 10 minutes in strong sunlight, the kind you get from 11am to 3pm between April and August, will allow your body to make as much vitamin D as you would get from drinking 200 glasses of milk.

Facts, and much wit, courtesy of Bob Berman, in his new book The Sun's Heartbeat. This was just a taste!

Quips & Quotes IV

"Really, I have no idea why my acting career never took off." ~ Astronaut Garrett Reisman, who was in an elementary school play with Jane Krakowski

"The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition." ~ Carl Sagan

"Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth." ~ Ptolemy, 150 A.D.

Quotes about Space Travel "God has no intention of setting a limit to the efforts of man to conquer space." ~ Pope Pius XII

"It is humanity's destiny to explore the universe. When we start thinking and working on that cosmic level, we will transcend our parochial differences and tribal natures and become global creatures, solar system creatures. Then we will figure out where we fit in." ~ Astronaut Story Musgrave

"The rocket will free man from his remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet. It will open to him the gates of heaven." ~ Dr. Wernher von Braun

"We are irresponsible in our failure to make the progress we will need for protecting our severely threatened and probably endangered species – us. NASA is not about the ‘adventure' of human exploration, we are in the deadly serious business of saving the species. The bottom line is about preserving our species over the long haul." ~ Astronaut John Young

"Okay, so what's the speed of dark ?" ~ Stephen Wright

Space Quotes
"What was most significant about the lunar voyage was not that man set foot on the Moon but that they set eye on the earth." ~ Author Norman Cousins

"As we got further away, Earth diminished. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man." ~ Astronaut James B. Irwin

"When I orbited the Earth in a spaceship, I saw for the first time how beautiful our planet is. Mankind, let us preserve and increase this beauty, and not destroy it." ~ Yuri Gagarin

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Tinfoil Hats At The Ready

From time to time, people ask questions about conspiracy theories or they email essays about Area 51, or they even link to YouTube compilation videos that claim to "prove" the NASA moonwalks were faked. All of it is easily refutable, often through high school science and basic common sense.  But now? The newest hypes don't just take the cake, it explodes the whole bakery.

Teleportation to Mars? Really?

It's a Conspiracy
Professional heckler Joe Rogan was a notorious moon landing denier, and I'll admit, the few scattered clips of him working himself into a froth is sometimes rowdily entertaining. He's almost always inaccurate about science, but at least he's funny. My favorite clip was on Penn Jilette's  show, where he ranted about "the impossibility of passing through the radiation belt discovered by Robert Van Allen."

Well -- that would actually be James Van Allen -- and all Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle astronauts passed through this belt, as does the Hubble on each orbit. But this gives you an idea of the quality of arguments by the non-scientists who fall into the category of typical conspiracy theorists. Happily, Rogan has since recanted many of his beliefs about the Apollo program being a hoax, and it gives me hope for the future. At least, it did until the Flat Earth Society folks came after me and Lights in the Dark writer Jason Major on Twitter.

However, I choose not to get into arguments. Even when I dip my toe in the lunatic pool, I confine myself to humor, such as a newspaper outlet who actually fell for a deliberately false report that the moon landings were a hoax.

This past weekend, however, a tweeter who shall remain nameless attacked me personally about "championing the industry that perpetrated the greatest hoax of all time."  Still another personal friend posted (more benignly) to my Facebook page, asking about the newest allegations about Mars.

Really, you took time out of your life to wonder about Barack Obama marrying a man on Mars after using a "jump room" to teleport to the Red Planet? 

That was the capper for me. So my New Year's Resolution in 2019 is not to get into debates about these theories anymore.

I could list all the reasons it's impossible; the painful part is, I shouldn't have to. Ditto the Face on Mars story, Planet 9, life on Venus, Nibiru, Comet Elenin, Bigfoot on Mars, and pretty much any Asteroid about to crash into Earth (because if your tinfoil hat buddy spotted it, so would 500 other professional and amateur astronomers -- believe me, the sky isn't a secret).

 As for the Joe Rogan fans of the world who still haven't heeded his memo: NASA sent twelve American men to the moon between 1969 and 1972. Millions of people watched the launches, and thousands of people watched the splashdowns. To allege that is to wipe yourself forever off my radar, and I've officially answered my last email about that. Forever.

Multiple Mission Controls in varying nations tracked the Apollo program, monitoring communications throughout. By the end of the program, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin took not only a congratulatory but conciliatory stance about the US and USSR's space programs.

Honestly, if Russia believes we pulled it off – and they had a lot to gain if we didn't pull it off – that alone leads me to believe... we pulled it off.

Hey, that flag shouldn't be fluttering like that!

Hours of film footage. Innumerable technical companies and contracts. Thousands of workers were involved in multiple countries, and you'll be pretty hard pressed to find anyone who worked (or still works) for any space program who isn't absolutely fiercely proud of it.  NO inside whistle-blowers, in all this time?

Geologists all over the world have seen the 800+ pounds rock samples from the moon's crust, and not one educated scientist who spent time in the Lunar Sample Laboratory at Johnson Space Center has come away saying he thought the rocks were fake. Or Earthly.

Could the moon program all be an elaborate, international, 4-decade-long prideful prank... in between teleportation jumps to Mars? Think whatever you like. I think not.  If you really want a good conspiracy theory, go read about the Apollo 18 mission that never happened... or did it?