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Luděk Pešek's lunar expedition was intended to alight in Sinus Medii, a relatively flat region NASA would in fact select as an alternate landing site for early Apollo missions. In his book, Pešek generated drama by landing his eight-man crew off-course in rugged, unstable terrain between Reaumur and Flammarion. Image credit: Defense Mapping Agency/U.S. Geological Survey
In the 1969-1973 period, the post-Apollo era of robotic planetary reconnaissance was only beginning. The National Geographic Society wanted to give its members a preview, so it turned to Luděk Pešek. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1919, Pešek was out of his home country when Warsaw Pact tanks crushed the 1968 Prague Spring. Rather than return home to tyranny, he took up residence in Switzerland and became a Swiss citizen.

Luděk Pešek's photorealistic paintings of planets and moons dominated the August 1970 and February 1973 issues of National Geographic magazine. The 1970 magazine took in the entire Solar System. It bore on its cover Pešek's painting of Saturn as seen from its moon Titan. The 1973 issue celebrated the discoveries scientists had made using cameras on the Mars probe Mariner 9, the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. The magazine included as a special supplement an airbrushed map of Mars based on images from Mariner 9 and Earth-based telescopes. The map's reverse side featured Pešek's impression of the surface of Mars during a dust storm. It was probably the last great artistic rendering of Mars's surface before Viking 1, the first successful automated Mars lander, touched down in Chryse Planitia on 20 July 1976.

In 1964, as the real-life Moon Race between the Soviet Union and the United States gathered pace, Pešek had written a short novel about a lunar expedition. It was published first in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1967, then in the United States as Log of a Moon Expedition in 1969, a few months before the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle became the first manned spacecraft to land on the moon.

Pešek's account now reads like alternate history. In some respects, his expedition plan resembles the Lunar Surface Rendezvous (LSR) Apollo mission mode the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) proposed in 1961-1962. LSR aimed to accomplish the Apollo manned moon landing using technology derived from the planned automated Surveyor soft-lander.

In JPL's LSR scenario, several automated landers would touch down on the Moon before any humans arrived. The first lander to reach the site would carry scientific instruments, a TV camera, and a homing beacon. After engineers and scientists used its data to certify the site as safe for further landings, other Surveyor-derived landers would touch down nearby. Their combined cargo would amount to three or four solid-propellant rocket motors, a robot rover with a mechanical arm, and an unmanned crew capsule with space for up to three astronauts, an Earth-atmosphere reentry heat shield, and parachutes. Controllers on Earth would guide the rover as it collected each rocket motor in turn and attached it to the lander bearing the crew capsule.

After JPL's lander/crew capsule combination was ready, an identical crew capsule on a Surveyor-derived lander would depart Earth bearing up to three astronauts. With help from homing beacons on the robot landers, it would slow its descent by firing solid-propellant rocket motors identical to those attached to the lander/crew capsule on the Moon. The astronauts would then transfer to the waiting lander/crew capsule and ignite its solid-propellant rocket motors to begin their return to Earth. Nearing Earth, they would cast off the lander and spent rocket motors and position their capsule for reentry.

Although billed in the U.S. at the time of its publication as a book for children, it is hard to believe that Log of a Moon Expedition earned much affection from that hard-to-please audience. This might account for the fact that it is not well known today. Pešek's tale reads like a technical paper told through a first-person narrator. Though fiction, its many technical details make it fair game for discussion in this blog.

Pešek's lunar program began with several years of hardware development and testing and at least four precursor lunar flights. An automated sample-returner collected rock samples at the proposed landing site and returned them to Earth for engineering analysis. Meanwhile, at least one automated spacecraft and at least two piloted expeditions (designated KM I and KM II) imaged the Moon's surface from lunar orbit.

Pešek considered the first piloted Moon landing to be the first step in Project Alpha, the intensive exploration of the entire Solar System by astronauts. He did not specify which country or consortium would carry out Project Alpha, nor did he provide a location for "Earth Control," the equivalent of NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston, ESA's European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, or the Flight Control Center near Moscow.

Spacecraft KM III. Image credit: Luděk Pešek/Alfred A. Knopf, Jr.
Pešek dispatched his lunar spacecraft, which he dubbed KM III, to Sinus Medii (Central Bay), a patch of relatively smooth, relatively flat mare ("sea") terrain at the center of the Moon's Earth-facing Nearside hemisphere. KM III was streamlined, with tail fins, short wings, a pointed nose, and at least one tail-mounted chemical-propellant rocket engine. Its pressurized cabin housed padded "anti-gravity" (acceleration) couches for eight men, an airlock, a radio/meteoroid-monitoring radar station, and an impressive array of stores and equipment, including at least 16 180-pound steel-shelled space suits (two for each expedition member). KM III was designed to land upright, with its nose pointed at the black lunar sky, on "stilts" that extended from its tail fins.

Before KM III left Earth, three automated cargo landers landed in Sinus Medii. Designated S 1, S 2, and S 3, they set down in a triangular pattern about 15 miles wide. Fat drums about 45 feet tall with silver-and-gray dome-shaped tops, the cargo landers each contained scientific equipment, tools, sturdy electricity-powered tractors for lunar surface transport, construction materials, a pressurized living volume stocked with air, water, and food, and, most important, a 40 tons of Earth-return propellant for KM III, which would land on the Moon with nearly dry tanks. Forty tons of propellant was sufficient to launch KM III off the Moon and place it on course for Earth.

Cargo lander S2. Image credit: Luděk Pešek/Alfred A. Knopf, Jr.
The expedition was planned to last eight Earth days. KM III was meant to land at the center of the S 1-S 2-S 3 triangle just after lunar dawn. Pešek wrote that the expedition included enough supplies to remain on the Moon for 14 Earth days (about one lunar daylight period), but that it could not stay past lunar sunset.

This was because the landers and tractors drew electricity from batteries kept charged by dish-shaped solar concentrators. Silver dishes would focus sunlight onto a boiler containing a working fluid that would turn to gas, move through pipes to a turbine generator with would make electricity, pass through radiators to shed heat and return to liquid form, and then return to the boiler to begin the cycle again.

Pešek did not give his intrepid lunar explorers names. Instead, they had three-letter "shortwave radio" designations. CAP was the calm, stoic leader of the expedition, while DOC, the narrator, was the "documenter" and photographer. MEC was the wise-cracking mechanic and navigator, PHY the expedition doctor, and RNT the radio and TV engineer. The expedition included three scientists: GEO, a geologist; AST, an astrophysicist specializing in radiation; and SEL, a selenologist ("Moon scientist").

The lunar expedition crew wore cumbersome steel Moon suits. They were prone to inexplicable oxygen regulator malfunctions and featured awkward sanitary arrangements. The numeral "5" on this suit's backpack identifies its wearer as MEC. Image credit: Luděk Pešek/Alfred A. Knopf, Jr.
Murphy's Law ruled Pešek's lunar expedition. Trouble began even before KM III left Earth. The S 1, S 2, and S 3 landers formed a triangle as planned, but its center was about 20 miles south of the intended target zone. This placed it uncomfortably close to rocky, rifted terrain between the craters Reaumur and Flammarion. Despite this, Earth Control decided to launch KM III on schedule.

The explorers did not pilot their spacecraft during descent to the Moon: instead, they strapped into their couches so that they could withstand KM III's rapid deceleration. The spacecraft's guidance system locked automatically onto the cargo lander homing beacons and steered it to a landing.

At touchdown, KM III released a "natrium" (sodium) cloud that fluoresced in lunar dawn light, permitting Earth-based telescopic observers to confirm its location on the lunar surface. As they waited for the sodium cloud to disperse so that they could see outside, the explorers worried that they had landed off target. Their radio could not pick up the homing radio beacon from S 2 and S 3's signal was very weak. In addition, the ground was apparently less stable than expected: KM III had an alarming tendency to list to one side. The crew extended the landing stilt on that side slightly to keep their spacecraft level.

When the shadowy landscape around KM III became visible outside the viewports, the terrain was unfamiliar. No elevated surface features should have been visible, yet there was a 190-foot-tall hill a few hundred yards to the north and a taller ridge beyond that. They named the former Revelation Hill. As the gravity of their predicament became clear, they dubbed the latter Disappointment Ridge.

CAP and DOC donned their cumbersome armored Moon suits and took humankind's first small steps on another world. Pešek wrote that, when they shook hands outside KM III, they felt as though they were "congratulating mankind." They then inspected KM III's landing stilts. All were sunk into the rock more deeply than expected. The stilt on the side toward which their spacecraft listed was extended to half its total length.

Soon after CAP and DOC climbed back inside KM III, Earth Control confirmed that the same navigational error that had affected the cargo landers had caused their spacecraft to land at least 20 miles southwest of its target. This placed KM III entirely outside the triangle. S 3, most northerly of the three cargo landers, was out of reach at a distance of at least 35 miles.

In addition, obstacles blocked the way to all three landers. KM III had landed at a straight-line distance of about 17 miles from S 1. A three-man sortie party consisting of DOC, RNT, and AST wandered at least 20 miles through a maze of small craters and rifts before turning back to KM III empty handed.

On the way home, the radio signal from KM III abruptly broke off and the party became lost. AST's oxygen system malfunctioned, so he became exhausted and had to be carried. They abandoned a large camera and other equipment. Fearing for the lives of his companions, AST begged to be left behind.

Fortunately, as the situation grew desperate, DOC spotted a signal flare on the horizon. On course once again, they soon resumed radio contact with KM III, where the main radio transmitter had been down for four hours.

S 2, just five miles away, was behind Disappointment Ridge on the far side of a jagged rift up to 65 feet wide and 150 feet deep. The rift, which began close to Reaumur crater, ran for many miles, often through rugged terrain, so could not be circumvented. S 2 was, nevertheless, judged to be the most easily accessible of the three pre-landed cargo landers.

To help ensure that the KM III crew could reach at least one cargo lander, Earth Control hurriedly dispatched two backup cargo landers designated S 4 and S 5. After flights lasting 70 hours, they alighted south of KM III, on the same side of the rift and ridges as the piloted lander. This should have made them easy to reach; however, they set down in terrain even more rugged and inhospitable than that separating KM III from S 1 and S 2.

By that point, the crew of KM III had abandoned all scientific exploration so that they could focus on saving themselves. Displaying his artistic bent, Pešek described the length and slow motion of the shadows on the lunar surface and the mood they created among the explorers. As the Sun sank toward the horizon and shadows lengthened, the expedition became a perilous race against time.

The explorers confronted and defeated one challenge after another, pushing themselves and their equipment to their limits. They first injected "oxycrete," a specially constituted lunar concrete, under the sinking landing stilt to stabilize KM III.

Next, they set up a 15-foot-diameter solar concentrator near the lander to charge their batteries. They also erected a 130-foot-tall radio relay tower atop Revelation Hill so that they could communicate with S 2.

Pešek's brave crew climbed and found a pass through Disappointment Ridge, then found places where they could enter the rift and, after traveling some distance along its rocky, shadowed floor, climb out on its far side with the aid of ropes. They marked their way using red metal disks mounted on poles. At last reaching S 2, they activated its living quarters and unloaded tractor TK 2.

They were plagued with Moon suit oxygen regulators that functioned flawlessly in labs on Earth and in Earth orbit, but which failed inexplicably whenever they passed into cold shadow on the Moon. The curious malfunction was at first life-threatening - it allowed exhaled carbon dioxide to build up in the Moon suits, and probably accounted for AST's difficulties during the nightmarish trek home from S 1 - but through trial-and-error it become a mere persistent annoyance.

AST and CAP suffered injuries that left them unfit to do heavy work, and all the men suffered rashes and sores from wearing their Moon suits for far longer than originally planned. As they hiked and labored for long hours, they were obligated to try to sleep in them.

DOC was part of the three-man team that reached S 5 on foot, a grueling hike through 10 miles of boulders and steep hillocks. They barely managed to unload tractor TK 5 before S 5 tilted on unsteady ground and toppled into an "abyss." Soon after their close brush with catastrophe, DOC called the Moon "a world of death" that could "not be underestimated for a minute."

Nevertheless, retrieval of TK 5 marked a turning point for the Moon explorers. Availability of TK 5 on the same side of the rift as KM III permitted the crew at last to devise a plan for refueling their spacecraft. They would load 650-pound, six-foot-long propellant tanks from S 2 onto TK 2 and transport them to the rift. The tanks would then be transferred to buckets hanging from an aerial tramway intended originally for unspecified selenological studies, and finally to TK 5 for the slow, slippery climb over Disappointment Ridge to KM III.

TK 2 and TK 5 could each carry up to 20 propellant tanks at a time, and the tramway buckets could move 20 tanks across the rift in one hour. Twenty tanks had a mass of about 6.5 tons, so about six trips were required to transfer from S 2 the 40 tons of propellants KM III needed to return to Earth.

The challenges did not end - TK 2 became stuck, meteoroids damaged KM III's solar concentrator, the aerial tramway nearly collapsed into the rift and had to be moved, and KM III began again to list to one side as propellants filled its tanks - yet Pešek's intrepid lunar explorers won through. With the glaring Sun touching the horizon and small features of the landscape casting long shadows, KM III lifted off with just hours to spare.

Sources

Log of a Moon Expedition, Luděk Pešek, Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, 1969

Man-to-the-Moon and Return Mission Utilizing Lunar-Surface Rendezvous, Technical Memorandum No. 33-53, P. Buwalda, W. Downhower, P. Eckman, E. Pounder, R. Rieder, and F. Sola, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, 3 August 1961

"Man-on-the-Moon and Return Mission Utilizing Lunar-Surface Rendezvous," J. Small & W. Downhower, Jet Propulsion Laboratory; paper presented at the American Rocket Society Lunar Missions Meeting Held in Cleveland, Ohio, 17-19 July 1962

Ludek Pesek: Space Artist (accessed 10 April 2018) 

More Information

Space Race: The Notorious 1962 Proposal to Launch an Astronaut on a One-Way Trip to the Moon

Plush Bug, Economy Bug, Shoestring Bug (1961)

Around the Moon in 80 Hours (1958)
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Image credit: Turner Entertainment/Metro Goldwyn Mayer
The amazing film 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in Washington, DC, on this date in 1968. In 2016 I wrote a series of posts about the film and how existing and foreseeable space technology might yet make the journeys it depicts possible. Enjoy!

Could the Space Voyages in the Film and Novel "2001: A Space Odyssey" Really Happen? (Part 1)

Could the Space Voyages in the Film and Novel "2001: A Space Odyssey" Really Happen? (Part 2)

Could the Space Voyages in the Film and Novel "2001: A Space Odyssey" Really Happen? (Part 3)

Image credit: Turner Entertainment/Metro Goldwyn Mayer
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ISS, Earth, and Moon. Image credit: NASA
In August 1992, I was a new contractor employee at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. NASA JSC was at that time reeling from cuts in the Space Station Freedom (SSF) Program. At the same time, JSC engineers were trying to reconcile themselves to the agreement U.S. President George H. W. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin had concluded in Moscow on 17 June 1992. The agreement called for a U.S. astronaut to live and work on board Russia's Mir space station, a Russian cosmonaut to fly on a U.S. Space Shuttle Orbiter, and a Shuttle Orbiter to dock with the Russian Space Station Mir, the first element of which had been launched by the Soviet Union in 1986.

In addition, NASA had paid Russia $1 million to assess use of a series of three-person Soyuz spacecraft as SSF lifeboats until a U.S. lifeboat could be built, and to look at possible U.S. purchase of other Russian-developed space technology (for example, the docking unit built for the Soviet Buran Shuttle, which was based on a U.S. design developed for the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Program and the Soviet design proposed for the abortive Shuttle-Salyut Program).

The Soyuz lifeboat was not intended to transport a crew to SSF. Instead, it would launch to SSF, which would circle Earth in an orbit inclined 28.5 degrees to Earth's equator, from U.S. soil in a Shuttle Orbiter payload bay or atop an expendable U.S. rocket. In November 1992, a NASA-Russia team traveled to Australia to assess its wide open spaces as possible emergency landing sites for Soyuz lifeboats.

Just before the joint team toured Australia, voters in the U.S. went to the polls to elect William Clinton as their President. NASA JSC trembled - many employed there as Federal civil servants and contractors felt sure that President Clinton would end SSF. In fact, he did just that, but he did not end the Space Station Program. Clinton also retained NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, an appointee of President Bush.

In March 1993 - 25 years ago next month - Clinton ordered NASA to provide three new, lower-cost designs for a U.S. space Station and tasked his Vice President, Al Gore, with overseeing the redesign. Gore appointed a committee to assess the three redesign options NASA would develop.

Also in March 1993, Yuri Koptev, director of the newly formed Russian Space Agency, and Yuri Semenov, director of Russia's chief piloted spaceflight design bureau, NPO Energia, wrote to NASA Administrator Goldin to formally propose the merger of the U.S. station with Russia's planned Mir-2 station. The Russian Federation was broke, so unless it could find a new funding source, Mir-2 would never fly.

In addition, Russian space engineers were going unpaid. It seemed likely that, if they could not work on Russian space hardware, they would sell their expertise abroad to the highest bidder. This could lead to world-wide missile proliferation at a time when the Russian nuclear arsenal was judged by many to be poorly supervised.

The U.S. House of Representatives nearly killed NASA's space station on 23 June 1993; by a single vote it survived in the NASA Fiscal Year 1994 budget. Meanwhile, the proposal to merge the U.S. station and Mir-2 gained momentum. A major sticking point was the orbit in which the station would be assembled. Nevertheless, as I celebrated a year of work at NASA JSC, I became increasingly confident that the joint station would be built. Space science arguments seemed not to move the Congress; Russian involvement, on the other hand, gave the station a geopolitical purpose Congress seemed ready to endorse. The U.S.-Russian space station plan became a reality in November 1993; at the same time, NASA and Russia expanded the Bush-Yeltsin agreement to include multiple U.S. Shuttle flights to Mir.

The International Space Station (ISS) would be built with contributions from the U.S., Russia, Canada, the European Space Agency, and Japan in an orbit inclined 51.6 degrees relative to the equator - close to the latitude of Baikonur Cosmodrome. This enabled Soyuz to default to its role as a space station crew transport. It would carry international crews to ISS, where it would remain docked for up to six months. If it became necessary to abandon ISS, Soyuz would land in long-established landing zones on Russian soil. The U.S. Space Shuttle could reach that orbit with U.S., Canadian, European, and Japanese station components, but with a diminished payload.

I need not go into the history of the Shuttle-Mir Program and ISS Program in great detail. Suffice it to say that the U.S.-Russian relationship was rocky at times. NASA, of course, had no choice but to make it work.

In March 1995, I left NASA JSC to edit Star Date magazine, but NASA was not through with me; I was hired to write a series of publications for NASA JSC and NASA Headquarters. I quit Star Date after editing two issues and in effect became my own company, just like Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, or Boeing. I retained a NASA JSC badge until 2001 and even worked for several months as a short-term Federal civil servant with an office in Building 2, which houses NASA JSC Public Affairs. I was offered a permanent job - editing the employee newspaper, The Space News Roundup - but ran away screaming for reasons I will not go into here.

In April 1996, on my own dime, I toured Russian space facilities and met Russian space engineering students, space engineers, cosmonauts, and Russian Space Agency officials as part of the first Friends and Partners in Space Workshop. I wrote about it for Astronomy magazine. Almost all the Russians I met were cordial, welcoming, and open.

At this moment, when the U.S. teeters on the edge of crisis, one detail in particular stands out in my memory. At the close of the workshop, we had dinner in the revolving restaurant high above Moscow on the Ostankino TV Tower. As the restaurant turned, we could see different parts of the city spread out below us. A closed-off neighborhood of mansions came into view. It stood out against the more ramshackle buildings of Soviet-era Moscow. I asked one of our student guides about it. He hesitated, looking nervous, but also a little disgusted. "Those are the mansions of the oligarchs," he said. "We do not talk about those."

In the mid-1990s, many hoped that Russia might become a functioning democracy, but that hope faded in the first decade of the present century. The corrupt oligarchs finished building their mansions and took power, led by Vladimir Putin. They began to "meddle" in the affairs of other nations, starting with countries that had been part of the old Soviet Union. As the years passed, their methods became more sophisticated and were expanded beyond the old Soviet sphere. Meddling became outright attack on democratic institutions.

At some point, many histories will be written about this period. I do not propose to attempt that here. Suffice it to say that the U.S. has been attacked and remains under attack. It will win through, but doing so will likely require drastic (though lawful) measures.

Among these could be the end of the U.S.-Russian partnership in space. So far, little has emerged to suggest that NASA and Russia might be in conflict (at least, they appear to be in no greater state of conflict than they have been before); however, if they are not in conflict, perhaps they should be.

I believe it is time to consider closing the hatches between the Russian Service Module and the U.S.-owned FGB and cutting all the connections that bind the U.S. and Russian segments together. Russia has attacked our most fundamental institutions; how can we continue to work with them off the Earth? Discarding the Russian segment would be a highly visible sign that the U.S. and its partners are not prepared to tolerate Putin's actions.

I am, of course, aware that U.S. piloted spaceflight is highly dependent on Russia. Russian Soyuz spacecraft transport Station crews, and Russian propellants and rocket motors keep ISS in orbit. I am also aware that, in the past, the U.S. has been able to respond with remarkable rapidity to attacks waged against it. I think we could do so again.

For example, SpaceX and Boeing could be required to accelerate their piloted spaceflight efforts - to put on hold, for the good of the nation and as a sign of their patriotism, other work until their piloted Earth-orbital spacecraft can be certified as flightworthy.

Modifications to one or all of the various commercial logistics vehicles that visit ISS might enable them to raise its orbit. The U.S. Air Force X-37 spacecraft might also be modified.

I expect there are other options as well. Perhaps Europe, Canada, and Japan could draw upon their technology and experience to provide options; for example, NASA might pay ESA to revive the ATV cargo vehicle. Perhaps ESA would do so for free; after all, among its members are nations that have also been subjected to Russian attack.

Protest and punishment mean nothing unless they inconvenience those they are directed against. The Russian segment would suffer an acute electricity shortage. Losing power from the U.S. arrays might, in fact, kill Russia's part of ISS, and with it, perhaps, its piloted space program.

There was a time when that knowledge would have led me to reconsider what I propose here. For me, however, that time is now over.

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The Earth-Moon binary as imaged by the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Shoemaker Discovery mission during its Earth gravity-assist flyby on 23 January 1998. Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/NASA
On 29 July 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law legislation creating the civilian National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Eisenhower saw NASA as a way of separating the serious military business of nuclear missile and spy satellite development from "stunts" aimed at responding to Soviet prestige victories in space. In the old General's view, such stunts included launching a man into Earth orbit.

In a presentation to the American Astronautical Society at Stanford University the following month, Dandridge Cole and Donald Muir, engineers with The Martin Company in Denver, Colorado, detailed how NASA might launch humans around Earth's moon. First, however, they warned that the "Russians may have such a long lead. . .that they will have made landings on the [M]oon before. . .our first circumlunar flight." They predicted that the Soviet Union would be capable of a piloted circumlunar flight in 1963, four years before the United States. In a dig at President Eisenhower, Cole and Muir added that "on the technical side, at least, there seems to be no reason why this goal could not be accomplished [by the U.S.] by 1963."

They outlined a general plan of piloted spaceflight development. Within four years, Cole and Muir wrote, the first American would be launched into Earth orbit using a missile already under development. The same missile might then be used to launch components for a circumlunar flight into Earth orbit, components which would be joined to form a cislunar spacecraft. Alternately (and this was the method they preferred), missiles might be clustered to form a single large rocket capable of launching the circumlunar spacecraft from Earth's surface on a direct path around the Moon.

The four-stage "Missile B" rocket would launch the circumlunar astronaut around the Moon. Image credit: The Martin Company
The Martin engineers estimated that a 160,000-pound-thrust U.S. launch vehicle ("Missile A") could become available by 1963; to create their circumlunar launcher ("Missile B"), they proposed clustering four Missile A's to create a first stage capable of generating 610,000 pounds of thrust. Missile B's second stage would comprise a single Missile A, and its third and fourth stages a 40,000-pound-thrust rocket and a 10,000-pound-thrust rocket, respectively.

Though a two-week circumlunar trip would require the least energy (and thus the smallest launch vehicle), Cole and Muir opted for a trip lasting three or four days to protect the astronaut's psychological health. "For one man alone in a tiny sealed capsule on a journey of 250,000 miles from the [E]arth," they explained, "the difference between three or four days and two weeks might approach infinity."

Reduced trip time also would slash the quantity of life-support consumables the pilot would need. The amount of energy required to reduce the trip time from two weeks to three or four days would be modest, they estimated, though reducing it still further would demand a prohibitive amount of energy (and thus an undesirably large launch vehicle).

The bucket-shaped circumlunar capsule would weigh 9000 pounds. Cole and Muir may have based its shape on nuclear warhead delivery systems under development at the time they wrote their paper.

The capsule's circumlunar path would have three parts. The outbound leg would require 35.4 hours. It would be followed by a 9.3-hour "hyperbola" past the Moon. The capsule would pass just 10 miles over the unknown Farside, where the "synthesizing power of the human brain [would] permit collection of more accurate and more meaningful data than could be obtained by photographic techniques alone." The third leg of the mission, the 35.4-hour fall back to Earth, would mirror the outbound leg. The circumlunar voyager would be treated to a magnificent view of Earth rising over the lunar horizon as he began his journey home.

Cutaway of Cole and Muir's circumlunar capsule showing the water-filled "tub" for protecting the astronaut from high deceleration during Earth-atmosphere reentry. A variant of the circumlunar capsule would serve as the first lunar lander. Image credit: The Martin Company
The heat shield for high-speed Earth-atmosphere reentry would weigh just 500 pounds, Cole and Muir estimated. As Earth filled the capsule's view ports, the pilot's "bathtub-type" couch would fill with water to cushion him from reentry deceleration. A lid with a window would prevent the water from escaping in zero-G before deceleration commenced. Cole and Muir wrote that, because "the water would be needed only in the last phase of the trip, it could be reserve drinking or washing water." Despite the potential weight savings, they hesitated "to suggest that it might be water. . .already used for drinking or washing."

The capsule would enter Earth's atmosphere blunt nose first. As deceleration began, the bathtub couch would pivot so that the pilot faced the capsule's flat aft end. This would cause him to feel capsule deceleration through his back, enabling him to withstand greater sustained deceleration loads.

After a fiery atmosphere reentry, the capsule would deploy fins for steering. Landing would be by parachute at sea or on U.S. soil near a waiting recovery crew.

Cole and Muir expected that the the piloted circumlunar journey would merely open the door to lunar exploration. A series of automated lunar landings would soon follow it. Some would deliver automated scientific instruments that would explore the lunar environment, while others would stockpile propellants and supplies on the surface.

Toward the end of the 1960s decade, the same multi-part "Missile B" rocket design that launched the circumlunar flight would launch a piloted lunar lander. The pre-landed supplies and propellants would, Cole and Muir wrote, enable use of a variant of the circumlunar spacecraft as a small, low-cost lunar lander. Landers would set down on the Moon with nearly empty propellant tanks, refuel using the pre-landed propellants, and draw on pre-landed supplies to enable ever-longer surface stays. A temporary lunar base would be established by 1970, and permanent bases permitting "extensive exploration of the major areas of the [M]oon's surface" would follow soon after.

Cole and Muir ended their paper with rousing words. "Time may well prove," they wrote, "that the man who climbs out of [the circumlunar] capsule to receive the cheers of the recovery crew. . .made a voyage of greater importance to the human race than that of Columbus."

Source

"Around the Moon in 80 Hours," D. Cole and D. Muir, Advances in Astronautical Sciences, Volume 3, Proceedings of the Western Regional Meeting of the American Astronautical Society, 18-19 August 1958, pp. 27-1 through 27-30, 1958

More Information

"He Who Controls the Moon Controls the Earth" (1958)

Plush Bug, Economy Bug, Shoestring Bug, (1961)

Harold Urey and the Moon (1961)

Space Race: The Notorious 1962 Proposal to Launch an Astronaut on a One-Way Trip to the Moon (1962)

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The Lunar Module was a two-stage spacecraft. This image, captured from television transmitted to Earth from the parked Apollo 16 Lunar Roving Vehicle, shows the moment the ascent stage engine of the Lunar Module Orion ignited. Hot gas from the engine plume blasted thermal insulation for kilometers in all directions. Image credit: NASA
On the Earth's moon, nothing is a valuable resource. The lunar surface is a nearly pure vacuum, making it a potentially important site for high-tech industrial processes. The total amount of gas spread over the Moon's entire surface - which has an area greater than that of Africa - is less than 50 metric tons. The Moon owes its lack of atmosphere to the Sun. Solar wind and ultraviolet light ionize gas atoms, making them susceptible to transport by the interplanetary magnetic field. Half the atoms escape into space and the rest are driven into the lunar surface material.

In 1974, in the pages of the prestigious publication Nature, Richard Vondrak of NASA's Goddard Research Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, pointed out that lunar vacuum "is a fragile state that could be modified by human activity." He urged that it be "treated carefully if it is to be preserved."

At the time Vondrak wrote, his concern was not entirely academic. In the early 1970s, not a few engineers within NASA expected that the Space Shuttle would lead to a return to the Moon in the 1980s. Lunar outposts where experiments in mining and industrial processes could be conducted would follow soon after.

Vondrak estimated that, owing to life support system and space suit leakage and release of rocket exhaust, each of the six Apollo landing missions had doubled the mass of the Moon's atmosphere. The atmosphere returned to normal after a month, however, leading Vondrak to assert that "small lunar colonies" and modest mining would "present no lasting hazard to the lunar environment."

If, however, more "vigorous" human activity pumped up the lunar atmosphere to a mass of one billion metric tons, solar wind and ultraviolet light would be unable to ionize more than its outermost fringe. The thin lunar atmosphere would then persist for centuries even if no more gas were added, Vondrak wrote.

Vondrak looked briefly at the far-out prospect of creating an Earth-density atmosphere on the Moon by vaporizing oxygen-rich lunar dirt using nuclear blasts. He estimated that this would need 10,000 times the U.S. nuclear arsenal, making it "impractical that such an amount of gas could be generated by current technology."

Source

"Creation of an Artificial Lunar Atmosphere," Richard R. Vondrak, Nature, Vol. 248, 19 April 1974, pp. 657-659

More Information

There's a Hell of a Good World Next Door

The Eighth Continent

Rocket Belts and Rocket Chairs: Lunar Flying Units

"A Continuing Aspect of Human Endeavor": Bellcomm's January 1968 Lunar Exploration Plan
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Gateway to the lunar surface base. Image credit: Boeing.
As some of you are aware, at the end of December I left my job as archivist, map librarian, and outreach guy at the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. At the beginning of January, I started a new job as Community Outreach Specialist at the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera Science Operations Center (LROC SOC), which is part of the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) at Arizona State University in Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona.

I am currently working remotely and part-time - we'll move down to Phoenix in a few months and I'll go full-time - yet I find myself putting in a lot of extra hours to get to know LRO, LROC, SESE, and ASU as quickly as I can. This is, after all, a dream job for me. I had long hoped that I might become part of a space mission team, and now I've made it happen.

This is a big life-change, which unfortunately means that I have neglected this blog. I've stopped scratching items off my list of planned posts and stopped suddenly writing impromptu new posts. I've managed a couple of omnibus posts bringing together in chronological order links to past posts and also an opinion piece, but I completed my most recent meaty new post just before Christmas. I have completed a large portion of a post on early NASA circumlunar plans, but it has stalled for the time being.

It might sound as though I plan to abandon writing about spaceflight outside the boundaries of my LROC job. That is, however, not correct. In fact, my new job has me so fired up that I can foresee a day when I'll be settled in to it and have a lot of excess energy to expend. It feels like someone turned the oxygen back on.

I am looking for ways to make this blog serve two purposes: first, to be a really nifty blog that teaches people about cool space history stuff and, second, to help me learn things applicable to my LROC job. So - you heard it here first - I hereby declare 2018 to be The Spaceflight History Year of the Moon Base.

I know what you are thinking now. "Yeah, right, he's making promises again and he ain't gonna come through. He'll get distracted and it'll be like, 'Hey, look, Mars is at opposition!'" (More likely, it'll be like, "Dammit, kiddo, pack up your books, the moving van is due in 15 minutes!")

So, getting back to this moon base thing. You see, several years ago I contracted with NASA to write a lunar counterpart to my book Humans to Mars. Then my wife was killed and my daughter gravely injured in a car crash, putting everything on hold, NASA changed historians, and when I asked them about getting started on Humans to the Moon again, I found that they had lost interest.

I had, however, by then done much of my research. I still have the documents I collected, and now the time seems right to put them to good use.

Just to get you in the proper frame of mind, here are links to the few moon base-type posts that are already part of this blog. Enjoy!

"A Continuing Aspect of Human Endeavor": Bellcomm's January 1968 Lunar Exploration Program

As Gemini Was to an Apollo Lunar Landing by 1970, So Apollo Would Be to a Permanent Lunar Base in 1980 (1968)

SEI Swan Song: International Lunar Resources Exploration Concept (1993)
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Image credit: NASA
Periodically, I write a post in which I list in chronological order links to posts in this blog which I originally presented in no particular order. This post brings together posts with the label "Failure Was An Option," and is offered as a memorial to the 17 persons who have died on board NASA spacecraft.

The end of January and beginning of February is a time of remembrance for NASA piloted spaceflight. On 27 January 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives in the Apollo 1 fire. On 28 January 1986, the crew of Space Shuttle mission STS-51L (Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ron McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe) perished after the Orbiter Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch. On 1 February 2003, the STS-107 crew (Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon) died when the Orbiter Columbia broke up during reentry after a nearly 16-day mission in Earth orbit.

Piloted spaceflight has never been routine, though sometimes, for reasons that have little to do with best practices in space engineering, it has unwisely been treated that way. Throughout the history of U.S. piloted spaceflight, however, NASA and its contractors typically have tried to anticipate possible malfunctions and, where possible, develop emergency procedures.

What If an Apollo Saturn Rocket Exploded on the Launch Pad? (1965)

What If Apollo Astronauts Could Not Ride the Saturn V Rocket? (1965)

North American Aviation's 1965 Plan to Rescue Apollo Astronauts Stranded in Lunar Orbit

What If an Apollo Lunar Module Ran Low on Fuel and Aborted Its Moon Landing? (1966)

If an Apollo Lunar Module Crashed on the Moon, Could NASA Investigate the Cause? (1967)

What If Apollo Astronauts Became Stranded in Lunar Orbit? (1968)

A CSM-Only Back-Up Plan for the Apollo 13 Mission to the Moon (1970)

What If a Crew Became Stranded On Board the Skylab Space Station? (1972)

What If a Space Shuttle Orbiter Had to Ditch? (1975)

George Landwehr von Pragenau's Quest for a Stronger, Safer Space Shuttle (1984)

What If a Shuttle Orbiter Struck a Bird? (1988)

NASA's 1992 Plan to Land Soyuz Space Station Lifeboats in Australia
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Lunar Truck. Image credit: Grumman
As long-time readers of this blog know, occasionally I get creative and change history. Not in my history posts, if I can help it, but through alternate history posts I group under the general title "Dreaming a Different Apollo." Some are silly, some not, and some (most?) are brazen exercises in wishful thinking. All, however, are entertaining to a greater or lesser degree (or so my readers seem to think) and maybe even a bit instructive, since I try to make them as realistic as possible.

Below is a list of all the "Dreaming a Different Apollo" posts so far, with a brief description hinting at what each is about. Have fun.

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part One: Shameless Wishful Thinking (Apollo/Saturn continues indefinitely, much as has Soyuz in our timeline, but with more capabilities.)

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Two: Jimmy Carter's Space Shuttle (President Jimmy Carter looked carefully at the Space Shuttle he inherited from Nixon and Ford and said, "Holy crap, this thing is dangerous!")

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Three: Circumnavigation (The Mercury-Atlas 10 mission ended in tears, discouraging President Kennedy and emboldening the Soviets. The U.S. lost the moon race - but soon opened a new chapter in lunar exploration.)

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Four: Naming Names (Fleshing out Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part One.)

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Five: Victory Lap (A fully reusable Space Shuttle was phased in during the 1980s. A vignette about a hero returning to Earth.)

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Six: Star Trek as an Exemplar of Space Age Popular Culture (An excerpt from my Master's Thesis in an alternate timeline.)
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Image credit: U.S. Air Force
I am fond of Mars - honestly, who isn't? It looks a little like some parts of Arizona, the southwest U.S. state where I live, so at first glance it seems cozily familiar. The cultural history of Mars is rich: it has been a favorite science-fiction setting for more than a century. Most exciting to me, Mars might yet prove to be a home to life. We'll likely determine whether Mars lives by exploring the planet's delightfully complex geology. It seems probable, given how inhospitable is Mars's surface, that, if there is life on Mars, then it will be life in Mars. After all, much of Earth's biomass lives deep within its crust, happily metabolizing rocks and hot water, and has for billions of years.

Mars exerts a powerful pull on our emotions. That being said, however, one has to exercise caution when emotions are part of the mix (as they always are). The thought of humans on Mars is exhilarating. Should humans, however, actually set booted foot on Mars?

I think the answer to that question must be yes - eventually. Humans should travel to every place they can. As we gain experience, improve our technology, develop new spaceflight concepts, and mull over data received from our robotic spacecraft, we become more capable. As we become more capable, we increase the probability that we can achieve success.

By "success," I mean several things. There's the obvious one: we increase the likelihood that humans will survive the Mars trip without short-term or long-term injury and be able to perform meaningful exploration. We also increase the likelihood that we will not clumsily interfere with the study of any native living things by accidentally introducing terrestrial biological contamination.

It would be really handy if we had a place nearby where we could prepare ourselves for journeys throughout the Solar System. A good-sized world with a range of alien environments and a complex geology. A world from which we might return rapidly if we got ourselves in over our heads. Bonus points for a world we can reach cheaply, using technologies we have at hand, and from which we can extract resources that could facilitate our journeys to more distant worlds.

Such a world exists. It bears boot prints half a century old. Using technology shockingly primitive by modern standards, 12 humans walked, worked, and drove there. When they needed advice and assistance, they spoke with a support team back on Earth with a one-way radio time-delay of only 1.25 seconds. One mission suffered a grievous malfunction, but it was close enough to Earth that it was able to limp safely home.

I've expressed my opinions about this world before, calling it a part of Earth. Together with Earth, it forms a binary world unique in the inner Solar System. Mercury and Venus have no moons; Mars has two, but they more closely resemble middling-sized asteroids than they do planets. Earth, however, has as its neighbor the planet-sized Moon, a world which, were it a continent, would rank after only Asia in surface area. It is the fifth-largest moon in the Solar System; only Ganymede, Titan, Callisto, and Io, all moons of outer Solar System gas giants, are larger.

We have barely explored our Moon. Automated and piloted orbiters have surveyed its entire surface off and on over the past half-century, but no functioning spacecraft has landed on the Farside, the hemisphere of the Moon we cannot see. Nor has any spacecraft soft-landed near its poles, where ice lurks in permanently shadowed craters at temperatures lower than those the New Horizons spacecraft measured at Pluto.

The ice at the lunar poles could supply rocket propellants to space-faring humankind for at least tens of thousands of years. Given the cost of establishing a lunar propellant manufacturing and shipping infrastructure, however, it would be foolhardy to develop lunar resources to accomplish only Mars expeditions. If Mars is our only goal, then it would be cheaper to use heavy-lift rockets to launch from Earth piloted Mars spacecraft components with propellants already inside. That is, incidentally, the SpaceX Mars plan.

It need not be so, however. By virtue of its low gravity - just half that of Mars and one-sixth that of Earth - and its lack of an atmosphere, the Moon could become an economical propellant supplier for an Earth-Moon infrastructure that might include habitats, spacecraft service stations, powerful observatories, lasers for boosting light sails, human-tended factories, and other facilities no one has thought of yet. Many of these facilities could be built at least in part from lunar titanium, aluminum, and glass. By the time the Earth-Moon infrastructure is that sophisticated, propellants needed for fast and frequent piloted journeys to Mars will amount to an incidental fraction of the total produced on the Moon.

Developing the Moon also gives us time to try to determine, using robots, whether life exists on Mars. It buys us time to decide what life on Mars - and, indeed, on other worlds - should mean for us and our posterity.

As important, it creates many new opportunities beyond Mars. If we determine that long-term habitation of Mars is undesirable, then the lessons we learn and capabilities we acquire by developing the Earth-Moon system could be readily applied to worlds throughout the Solar System. Consider this: Earth and Moon resemble more worlds in the Solar System than does Mars. The Moon resembles any number of vacuum worlds with significant surface gravity (Mercury, Ganymede, Iapetus, Miranda, Pluto), while Earth shares traits with Venus and Titan. Only Mars combines significant gravity with just enough atmosphere to raise dust storms.

If Mars pulls on our emotions, then it is probably not too bold to say - without any hint of superiority - that the Moon pulls on our minds. Of course, people who value the Moon have an emotional stake in it. It seems different to me, however, than the exuberance many feel toward Mars. I suspect that, if you have read this far, then you might see a difference, too.

Image credit; NASA
Source

The post title is a play on the last line of e. e. cummings' free-verse sonnet "pity this busy monster, manunkind," published in 1944. That line reads - "listen: there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go"

More Information


The Eighth Continent

Harold Urey and the Moon (1961)

"A Continuing Aspect of Human Endeavor": Bellcomm's January 1968 Lunar Exploration Program

Rocket Belts and Rocket Chairs: Lunar Flying Units

Apollo's End: NASA Cancels Apollo 15 & Apollo 19 to Save Station/Shuttle (1970)
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Final approach: the Shuttle Orbiter Discovery lands on the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, at the end of its longest mission (STS-131, 5-20 April 2010). Image credit: NASA
The first NASA astronaut to die in the line of duty was U. S. Air Force Captain Theodore Freeman. Little known today, Freeman was a member of the third astronaut selection group, which NASA introduced to the world on 18 October 1963. The group included 10 astronauts who would become famous - Michael Collins, Edwin Aldrin, Alan Bean, David Scott, Russell Schweickart, William Anders, Eugene Cernan, Walter Cunningham, Donn Eisele, and Richard Gordon - and three besides Freeman who would perish before reaching orbit - Clifton Williams, Roger Chaffee, and Charles Bassett. Of the seven pre-Shuttle NASA astronaut groups, Group 3 experienced more pre-flight astronaut deaths than any other.

The astronauts had at their disposal T-38 training aircraft, which they used to accumulate flight time so that they could maintain their piloting skills and flight status. On 31 October 1964, 34-year-old Freeman took one up from Ellington Air Force Base, located between downtown Houston, Texas, and NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC).

NASA's Third Astronaut Group. Theodore Freeman is in the back row, fourth from left. Image credit: NASA
As he returned to Ellington, a flock of Canadian geese took wing to one side of his flight path. As he made a turn, the flock rose up around his plane, and one bird struck and shattered the T-38's plexiglass forward canopy. Plexiglass shards entered the jet's twin air intakes. Moments later, its single engine began to fail.

The eight-pound goose did not enter the T-38's air intakes, though some sources report that it did. In fact, after striking the canopy, it struck the plane's rear seat, then rolled away along the jet's upper fuselage.

Freeman tried to line up with an Ellington runway, but the engine flamed out and his plane began a steep dive at low altitude. He ejected, but before his parachute could open he struck the ground and was killed.

In October 1983, nearly 20 years after Freeman's untimely death, The Christian Science Monitor published a puff piece on NASA's efforts to keep wild pigs and alligators off the 15,000-foot-long, 300-foot-wide Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) runway at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. The story was timely because NASA aimed to achieve its first SLF Orbiter landing in January 1984. The space agency had planned to land Challenger on the SLF runway at the end of mission STS-7 on 24 June 1983, but had diverted it to Edwards Air Force Base (EAFB) in California after KSC became fogged in.

The north end of the SLF is about a mile from the Visitor Center for the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR). MINWR and KSC both owe their origins to President John F. Kennedy's 25 May 1961 "moon speech." In 1962-1963, NASA acquired more than 140,000 acres of orange groves, swamp, and beaches to create a safety buffer around its Apollo Saturn V launch pads and other facilities. As landowners moved out, sometimes grudgingly, wildlife moved in.

On 28 August 1963, the space agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that the latter would manage the roughly 90% of KSC that NASA did not actively use. The interagency agreement assumed that KSC activities would increase and its facilities expand. Apollo-related construction leveled off in 1966-1967, however.

Major new facilities expansion at KSC did not begin until April 1974, when Morrison-Knudsen Company began work on the $22-million-dollar SLF. The facility, modeled on flight research runways at EAFB, was completed in 1976 and put to work as an airport for astronaut T-38s, Gulfstream II Shuttle Training Aircraft, and other planes and helicopters. The first spaceworthy Orbiter, Columbia, arrived at the SLF atop a 747 carrier aircraft in March 1979.

The Shuttle Landing Facility. Image credit: NASA
A NASA spokesman told the Monitor's reporter that KSC played host to "all kinds of bald eagles, vultures, lots of brown pelicans, and ducks in winter." This was, however, not of great concern; the Shuttle Orbiter was a glider, he explained, so lacked air intakes that might ingest birds.

The Monitor reporter wrote that the Orbiter had "triple-strength windows." This was a reference to the design of the six windows making up the flight deck windshield; each was three panes thick, with empty spaces between the panes. The outermost pane, the "thermal" pane, was attached to the fuselage structure; the innermost pane, the "pressure" pane, was attached to the crew cabin structure. Between these, also attached to the crew cabin structure, was a thick "redundant" pane.

On its second try, at the end of mission STS 41-B (3-11 February 1984), Challenger glided to a safe landing on the SLF. NASA hailed the landing, little more than five miles from the launch pad Challenger had left just eight days before, as a major step toward routine Shuttle flights and Shuttle flight rates of up to 25 per year.

A little less than two years later, on 28 January 1986, Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff from KSC's Pad 39B, killing its seven-person crew. The disaster revealed that the Shuttle stack - twin reusable Solid Rocket Boosters, expendable External Tank, and reusable delta-winged Shuttle Orbiter - was far less robust than many had assumed.

Under intense scrutiny, NASA commenced a wide-ranging examination of Space Shuttle systems and operations. The U.S. civilian space agency soon found that many of its comfortable assumptions were incorrect.

Shuttle windshield: the Orbiter Endeavour during mission STS-123 (11-27 March 2008). Image credit: NASA
NASA engineer Karen Edelstein and Robert McCarty of the Wright Aeronautical Laboratories at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, reported on results of their study of bird impacts on the Orbiter windshield. They determined that, far from being "triple-strength," it was "a poor barrier to bird impacts."

In fact, computer modeling showed that, in every case, a four-pound bird - for example, a typical turkey vulture - would penetrate the three windshield panes and enter the flight deck if the Orbiter were moving above an indeterminate speed between 150 knots (172 miles per hour) and 175 knots (201 miles per hour). They noted that the Orbiter traveled at about 300 knots (345 miles per hour) as it fell past 10,000 feet and only slowed to 195 knots (224 miles per hour) by the time its rear wheels touched the SLF runway. This meant that at no time during descent through altitudes where birds fly did the Orbiter's windshield provide protection from bird strikes.

A turkey vulture. Image credit: Wikipedia
Edelstein and McCarty noted that, short of a major redesign, there was little NASA could do to beef up the Orbiter windows. They urged designers of future space planes to seek materials more sturdy than glass when designing their windshields.

The Edelstein and McCarty paper did not lead to a major Orbiter redesign or new Orbiter window materials. Instead, NASA redoubled its efforts to scare birds away from the SLF. Mostly it relied on loud noises. For a time in the mid-1990s, KSC seriously considered hiring falconers; a June 1994 study noted that falcons had been used intermittently since the 1940s to scare birds away from airfields in the U.K., the Netherlands, Spain, France, Canada, and the United States. The study found, however, that most of the more than 300 bird species in MINWR had little experience with falcons, so were unlikely to be frightened by them.

The birds most threatening to Orbiters and other aircraft at the SLF, the 1994 study found, were various species of vulture. It noted that groups of up to 30 individuals were frequently found around a single roadkill and that a "roost" of 300 vultures had become established on the SLF's southern approach path. The birds, which weighed up to five pounds, took to the skies to ride thermals over KSC beginning in mid-morning. Mostly they glided lazily between 150 and 1800 feet above the ground. If they caught wind of carrion, however, they could move rapidly, thwarting efforts to track and deter them. Loud noises, effective in control of most other birds, were of little concern to vultures.

During the mid-morning launch of Discovery at the start of mission STS-114 on 26 July 2005, a large bird collided with the External Tank as the Shuttle stack cleared the tower. The bird, probably a vulture, was estimated to weigh about twice as much as the chunk of ice-impregnated foam insulation that had punched a gaping hole in Columbia's wing leading edge on 16 January 2003, at the start of mission STS-107. The damaged wing caused NASA's oldest Orbiter to break up during reentry on 1 February 2003, killing the seven-member STS-107 crew. Though it caused no damage, the bird strike during the STS-114 launch was especially disturbing because it was the first Shuttle mission since Columbia was destroyed.

After the STS-114 bird collision, KSC managers decided to apply SLF bird control techniques to the twin Shuttle launch pads. They also adopted a launch day vulture "trap-and-release" policy.

By 2009, KSC's Bird Abatement Program relied on quick removal of roadkill to pare down vulture numbers, bird detection radar and cameras, sirens, shotguns firing blanks and whistlers, and 25 liquid-propane-fueled "cannons." Installed along the SLF in 2007, the noise-producing cannons could be set off from the runway's control tower or by bird observers on the ground. They could also fire automatically at random times and in random directions. Despite these measures, the problem of bird strikes on Space Shuttles remained largely unresolved as the Orbiter Atlantis rolled to a stop on the SLF at the end of STS-135, the final Shuttle mission, in July 2011.

Sources

"Space Shuttle Orbiter Windshield Bird Impact Analysis," ICAS-88-5.8.3, K. Edelstein and R. McCarty, Proceedings of the 16th International Council on Aeronautical Sciences Congress held in Jerusalem, Israel, 28 August-2 September 1988, Volume 2, pp. 1267-1274

A Review of Falconry as a Bird Control Technique With Recommendations for Use at the Shuttle Landing Facility, John F. Kennedy Space Center, Florida, U.S.A., NASA Technical Memorandum 110142, V. Larson, S. Rowe, D. Breininger, and R. Yosef, June 1994

"History of the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center," E. Liston and D. Elliot; paper presented at The (40th) Space Congress in Cocoa Beach, Florida, 28 April-2 May 2003

Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon, Revised Edition, C. Burgess and K. Doolan with B. Vis, University of Nebraska Press, 2016, pp. 1-45

"NASA Tries To Keep The Hogs and 'Gators Off the Shuttle's Runway," G. Klein, The Christian Science Monitor, 12 October 1983
https://www.csmonitor.com/1983/1012/101225.html

"It's a Jungle Out There!" L. Herridge, 26 June 2006 - https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/behindscenes/roadkill.html

"Bye, Bye, Birdies," C. Mansfield, 30 June 2006 - https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/behindscenes/avian_radar.html

"Bird Team Clears Path for Space Shuttles," L. Herridge, 12 August 2009 - https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/behindscenes/clearbirds.html

More Information

Where to Launch and Land the Space Shuttle? (1971-1972)

What If a Shuttle Orbiter Had to Ditch? (1975)

What Shuttle Should Have Been: NASA's October 1977 Space Shuttle Flight Manifest
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