Spy Tech: How an Apollo Capsule Landed in Michigan after a Layover in the USSR

There’s an Apollo module on display in Michigan and its cold-war backstory is even more interesting than its space program origins.

Everyone who visits the Van Andel Museum Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan is sure to see the Apollo Command Module flanking the front entrance. Right now it’s being used as a different kind of capsule: a time capsule they’ll open in 2076 (the American tricentennial). If you look close though, this isn’t an actual Command Module but what they call a “boilerplate.”

Technically, these were mass simulators made cheaply for certain tests and training purposes. A full spacecraft costs a lot of money but these — historically made out of boilerplate steel — could be made with just the pieces necessary and using less expensive materials. What you might not know is that the boilerplate at the Van Ardel — BP 1227 — has a cold war spy history unlike any other boilerplate in the fleet.

The early life of BP 1227 is a little sketchy. It appears the Navy was using it for recovery training somewhere between the Azores and the Bay of Biscay in early 1969. We don’t know for sure if the picture to the left is BP 1227 or not. Comparing it to the one at the museum, it probably isn’t, but then again the museum’s does have a fresh paint job and possibly a top cap. Regardless, the picture to the left was from 1966 in the Atlantic, giving us an idea of how boilerplate capsules were put into service.

In those days — the height of the cold war — Naval ships were often followed by Soviet “fishing trawlers.” These were universally understood to be spy ships — Auxiliary, General Intelligence or AGI vessels.

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What is Our Martian Quarantine Protocol?

If you somehow haven’t read or watched War of the Worlds, here’s a spoiler alert. The Martians are brought down by the common cold. You can argue if alien biology would be susceptible to human pathogens, but if they were, it wouldn’t be surprising if aliens had little defense against our bugs. The worrisome part of that is the reverse. Could an astronaut or a space probe bring back something that would ravage the Earth with some disease? This is not science fiction, it is both a historically serious question and one we’ll face in the near future. If we send people to Mars are they going to come back with something harmful?

A Bit of News: Methane Gas Fluctuations on Mars

What got me thinking about this was the mounting evidence that there could be life on Mars. Not a little green man with a death ray, but perhaps microbe-like life forms. In a recent press release, NASA revealed that they not only found old organic material in rocks, but they also found that methane gas is present on Mars and the amount varies based on the season with more methane occurring in the summer months. There’s some dispute about possible inorganic reasons for this, but it is at least possible that the variation is due to increased biological activity during the summer.

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Books You Should Read: Sunburst and Luminary, an Apollo Memoir

The most computationally intense part of an Apollo mission was the moon landing itself, requiring both real-time control and navigation of the Lunar Module (LM) through a sequence of programs known as the P60’s. Data from radar, inertial navigation, and optical data sighted-off by the LM commander himself were fed into the computer in what we’d call today ‘data fusion.’

The guy who wrote that code is Don Eyles and the next best thing to actually hanging out with Don is to read his book. Don’s book reads as if you are at a bar sitting across the table listening to his incredible life story. Its personal, hilarious, stressful, fascinating, and more importantly for those of us who are fans of Hackaday, it’s relatable.

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Retrotechtacular: The Saturn Propulsion System

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too”

When President Kennedy gave his famous speech in September 1962, the art of creating liquid-fueled rocket engines of any significant size was still in its relative infancy. All the rocketry and power plants of the Saturn series of rockets that would power the astronauts to the Moon were breaking entirely new ground, and such an ambitious target required significant plans to be laid. What is easy to forget from a platform of five decades of elapsed time is the scale of the task set for the NASA engineers of the early 1960s.

The video below the break is from 1962, concurrent with Kennedy’s speech, and it sets out the proposed development of the succession of rocket motors that would power the various parts of the Saturn family. We arrive at the famous F-1 engine that would carry the mighty Saturn 5 and start its passengers on their trip to the Moon at a very early stage in its development, after an introduction to liquid rocket engines from the most basic of first principles. We see rockets undergoing testing on the stand at NASA’s Huntsville, Alabama facility, along with rather superlative descriptions of their power and capabilities.

The whole production is very much in the spirit of the times, though unexpectedly it makes no mention whatsoever of the Space Race with the Soviet Union, whose own rocket program had put the first satellite and the first man into space, and which was also secretly aiming for the moon. It’s somewhat jarring to understand that the people in this video had little idea that such an ambitious program would be as successful as it became, or even that in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination the following year there would be such an effort to fulfill the aim set out in his speech to reach the moon within the decade.

The moon landings, and the events and technology that made them possible, are a subject of considerable fascination for our community. We must have covered innumerable stories about artifacts from the Apollo era in these pages, and no doubt more will continue to come our way in the future. Films like this one do not tell us quite the same story as does a real artifact, but their values lies in capturing the optimism of the time. Anything seemed possible in 1962, and those who lived through the decade were lucky enough to see this proven.

Fifty years from now, what burgeoning engineering efforts will we look back on?

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Margaret Hamilton Takes Software Engineering To the Moon and Beyond

If you were to create a short list of women who influenced software engineering, one of the first picks would be Margaret Hamilton. The Apollo 11 source code lists her title as “PROGRAMMING LEADER”. Today that title would probably be something along the line of “Lead software engineer”

Margaret Hamilton was born in rural Indiana in 1936. Her father was a philosopher and poet, who, along with grandfather, encouraged her love of math and sciences. She studied mathematics with a minor in philosophy, earning her BA from Earlham College in 1956. While at Earlham, her plan to continue on to grad school was delayed as she supported her husband working on his own degree from Harvard. Margaret took a job at MIT, working under Professor Edward Norton Lorenz on a computer program to predict the weather. Margaret cut her teeth on the desk-sized LGP-30 computer in Norton’s office.

Hamilton soon moved on to the SAGE program, writing software which would monitor radar data for incoming Russian bombers. Her work on SAGE put Margaret in the perfect position to jump to the new Apollo navigation software team.

The Apollo guidance computer software team was designed at MIT, with manufacturing done at Raytheon. To say this was a huge software project for the time would be an understatement. By 1968, over 350 engineers were working on software. 1400 man-years of software engineering were logged before Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface, and the project was lead by Margaret Hamilton.
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Debunking Moon Landing Denial with an Arduino and Science

It’s sad that nearly half a century after the achievements of the Apollo program we’re still arguing with a certain subset of people who insist it never happened. Poring through the historical record looking for evidence that proves the missions couldn’t possibly have occurred has become a sad little cottage industry, and debunking the deniers is a distasteful but necessary ongoing effort.

One particularly desperate denier theory holds that fully spacesuited astronauts could never have exited the tiny hatch of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). [AstronomyLive] fought back at this tendentious claim in a clever way — with a DIY LIDAR scanner to measure Apollo artifacts in museums. The hardware is straightforward, with a Garmin LIDAR-Lite V3 scanner mounted on a couple of servos to make a quick pan-tilt head. The rig has a decidedly compliant look to it, with the sensor flopping around a bit as the servos move. But for the purpose, it seems perfectly fine.

[AstronomyLive] took the scanner to two separate museum exhibits, one to scan a LEM hatch and one to scan the suit Gene Cernan, the last man to stand on the Moon so far, wore while training for Apollo 17. With the LEM flying from the rafters, the scanner was somewhat stretching its abilities, so the point clouds he captured were a little on the low-res side. But in the end, a virtual Cernan was able to transition through the virtual LEM hatch, as expected.

Sadly, such evidence will only ever be convincing to those who need no convincing; the willfully ignorant will always find ways to justify their position. So let’s just celebrate the achievements of Apollo.

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Start Your Apollo Collection with an Open Source DSKY

Given that there have been only six manned moon landings, and that almost all of the hardware that started on the launch pad was discarded along the way, getting your hands on flown hardware is not generally the business of mere mortals. Such artifacts are mostly in museums or in the hands of very rich private collectors. Enthusiasts have to settle for replicas like this open source Apollo Guidance Computer DSKY.

The DSKY, or Display and Keyboard, was the user interface for the Apollo Guidance Computer, that marvel of 1960s computer engineering that was purpose-built to control the guidance and navigation of the Command and Lunar Excursion modules. [ST-Geotronics] has made a decent replica of the DSKY using 3D-printed parts for the housing and bezel. There’s a custom PCB inside that houses a matrix of Neopixels for the indicator light panel and seven-segment LEDs for the numeric displays. Sadly but understandably, the original electroluminescent display could not be reproduced, but luckily [Fran Blanche] is working on just that project these days. The three-segment displays for the plus and minus signs in the numeric displays proved impossible to source commercially, so the team had to roll their own for that authentic look. With laser cut and engraved overlays for the displays and keycaps, the look is very realistic, and the software even implements a few AGC-like functions.

We like this a lot, although we could do without the sound clips, inspirational though Kennedy’s speech was. Everything is open source so you can roll your own, or you can buy parts or even a complete kit too.

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