Book Review: Apollo 8

On Christmas Eve of 2010, my wife Lauren and I had been engaged for a little under an hour when she presented me with the book “Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13”. As I scanned through it, I came across a signature on the authors page that I did not expect.

Jim Lovell Autograph

Jim Lovell is my favorite astronaut–yes, I have a favorite astronaut. A veteran of the Gemini and Apollo programs, known most famously for Apollo 13. The co-author of that book was a man by the name of Jeffrey Klugger who is a senior writer for Time Magazine. While browsing a few weeks ago, I noticed that he had a new book out detailing the voyage of another mission involving Jim Lovell, Apollo 8, man’s first trip to the Moon.

Apollo 8 Cover

The story begins with Frank Borman being notified that his training for an earth orbital flight on Apollo 9 was being altered to a lunar orbital flight that would take place during Apollo 8. I had come across Frank Borman’s name and missions in other Apollo books such as Andrew Chaikin’s “A Man on the Moon”, but I had little knowledge of the backstory or personality of this veteran of the Gemini and Apollo programs. He along with Jim Lovell and Bill Anders are each introduced through details of their career and family life leading up to Apollo 8.

I was presently surprised with how much time the book spent on supporting events and individuals leading up to Apollo 8. The history of the National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics and its transformation into NASA takes up a good portion of the early book. Back stories for NASA officials such as Chris Kraft, Deke Slayton and Gene Kranz are delved into more than I expected.  The first half of the book is a nice, all be it brief, history lesson on the formation of NACA/NASA and the successes and difficulties of the Mercury and Gemini missions that preceded Apollo.

Apollo 8 Insert

With the tragic fire of Apollo 1, that cost the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, Kruger turns his attention to the story of Apollo and the almost insurmountable task of redesigning the capsule and putting a man on the moon before the decade was out. From this point on, the story moves at a nice pace and quickly moves to the decision to launch Apollo 8 as a lunar orbiting mission. I was inspired by the tenacity and boldness of this decision. Today, I feel the bold moves in space are being made in the private sector, with the Space X’s of the world. Apollo 8 is a nice reminder of how daring NASA was in the 60’s and 70’s with it’s lunar program.

Apollo 8 Launch Pad
Apollo 8 being moved out to the launch pad.

With the first successful launch of a Saturn V Rocket carrying a crew, a feat in an of itself, Apollo 8 was off to the Moon. By all intents and purposes it was a by the book mission. There were no major mishaps, system crashes or critical failures on their six day mission. This does not mean that the story is any less interesting. Going to the Moon is never a forgone conclusion, particularly for the first time. It took a tremendous amount of planning, testing and training to make this mission a success. Once the Lunar Orbit Insertion burn was completed, the Apollo craft fell into a stable lunar orbit. The crew became the first humans to see the far-side of the Moon with their own eyes. What they would witness next would become one of the most powerful photographs ever taken.

Earth Rise
Earth Rise: Photo by Bill Anders

Later into the mission, Frank Borman looked out the window of his Apollo 8 capsule and was amazed by what he saw:

“Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!”

While Frank Borman took the first black and white image of this event, it was Bill Anders, who was in charge of the mission’s photography, who snagged the color photo posted above that would go on to become one of the most acclaimed and viewed pictures in the world. On Christmas Eve of 1968, Apollo 8 took some time from their busy schedule to host a live televised broadcast. They were given little direction from NASA regarding what to do so they each went around and discussed what had impressed them the most about the Moon that they had been orbiting for the past several hours. The broadcast would end however with a touching message as each of the astronauts proceeded to read from the book of Genesis.

Excerpts from the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve Message:
Bill Anders:
“We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.”
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth….”

Jim Lovell:
“…And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day…”

Frank Borman:
“…And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”
“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

It is easy to underestimate the importance of Apollo 8, knowing the outcome of the space race and the successful landing of Apollo 11 that would follow. But, for those who were living through these events during the tumultuous year of 1968, the Christmas voyage of Apollo 8 surely stands out as a historic milestone that inspired and captivated a world desperately in need of a reminder of how precious our planet is. Jeffrey Kluger’s book “Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon” brings this event to life in an enjoyable and accessible way.

An Evening of Astrophotography

This past Sunday, February 26, 2017, a fellow member of the Roanoke Valley Astronomical Society, Bert Herald, invited me over for some observing. Bert has recently purchased an impressive Celestron Cassegrain telescope and tracking mount to do astrophotography.

He has just recently moved from afocal imagining, using an iPhone, to the big leagues of DSLR astrophotograpy. The evening started with a complicated and sometimes frustrating polar/5 star alignment which gave me a greater appreciation for the complexity of these advanced telescopes. After some initial difficulties with alignment, later in the evening Bert was able to get some nice exposures of NGC 1983, the Running Man Nebula. He described overcoming some difficulties with the tracking system for this observing session and the process of capturing the nebula:

Tracking continued to suffer even after a second round of alignment! But it was good enough to capture a set of 5 30 sec exposures. I stacked them and briefly edited…

The result of his efforts is an impressive image of NGC 1983, particularly for someone new to advanced astrophotography.

Bert Herald: Running Man Nebula, February 26, 2017

Late Night Astronomy’s Editorial Board: Presidential Endorsement

In the 76 year history of Late Night Astronomy, the editorial board has never made an endorsement in a presidential election. That ends tonight. After two debates and over a year of campaigning, it is obvious that only one candidate has the judgment, temperament and stamina to be President of the United States. Through these criteria and after great deliberation, we are throwing our support behind “Giant Meteor 2016”.

Image result for giant meteor 2016 poll

Only “Giant Meteor 2016” has the ability to wipe out the national debt and take America back to the glory days of our early republic. While some in the mainstream media will attack “Giant Meteor 2016” for bringing instant death to millions and a slow death to tens of millions more, we simply find these results preferable to a Trump or Clinton presidency.

In fact, a recent poll found that 13 percent of Americans prefer “Giant Meteor 2016” when given the option.

Image result for giant meteor 2016 poll

If you’re tired of politics as usual and want something that will truly shake up the system, we urge you to vote for “Giant Meteor 2016” this November. Our children’s future depends on it!

Adapting a Flashlight for Astronomy

Night vision is key to astronomy. On moonless nights when galaxies, nebulae or globular clusters are at the top of your observing list, properly adapted eyes can be as important as the aperture of the telescope for spotting a “faint fuzzy”. The June and July editions of Sky & Telescope each have articles detailing how to adapt a flashlight for astronomy. Inspired by these articles, I decided it was time to put together my own red flashlight. Since red light is more forgiving to the eye when it is dark-adapted, this is the preferred way to light up an area while still keeping most of your night vision. While red flashlights can be found from companies such as Celestron and Orion for fifteen to thirty dollars, I didn’t care much for their designs and decided to build my own.

Step 1:
After a trip to Target and Advanced Auto Parts,
I had an LED Flashlight and Red Tail Light Repair Tape.IMG_8936

Step 2:
Cutting out a small piece of the red tape, I placed it over the light.

Step 3:
Using a pair of scissors and a sharp knife from “Cutlery Corner”, I trimmed the tape and carefully cut it down to size, only covering the lens.

After using the flashlight to set up and organize equipment, I realized the beam was a bit more pink than red, so I added another layer of tape which turned it into more of a solid red beam. While the brightness, at 37 lumens, is slightly more than is recommended, I’m not too concerned about it because I already am contesting with neighborhood light pollution which will hurt my night vision long before this red flashlight will. For only about fifteen dollars, I now have a stylish LED red flashlight that will hopefully keep my night vision a little more intact on those nights of deep sky observing.

A Presentation By Apollo 14 Astronaut, Dr. Edgar Mitchell

Apollo 14 CrewAfter leaving work a couple minutes early to beat traffic, my good friend and coworker Eric Rader and I, arrived at the Science Museum of Western Virginia for a presentation we had been looking forward to for weeks. Dr. Edgar Mitchell was the sixth person to walk on the Moon and with that feat he joined an elite group of astronauts, of which only eight are still living. Dr. Mitchell’s presentation centered around his Apollo 14 Mission with fellow astronauts Allen Shepard and Stuart Roosa to the Fra Mauro region of the Moon, which was originally intended for the ill fated Apollo 13 mission. Going through the details of their mission reminded me of the complexity and ingenuity that was required to successfully take these men to the Moon and return them safely to the Earth.  Even though there wasn’t time for pictures or a handshake at the end, I still consider it an honor to say that I was in a room and got to hear the story of how we went to the Moon from someone who has actually walked on it.

It is incredible to me that there are only eight people alive who have walked on the Moon. After all of the promises of lunar bases and tickets sold for the Moon in the late 60’s and early 70’s, I’m sure few during those exciting decades of space travel would have guessed that we would just simply stop going. While I’m sure there will be a time in my life when we will return to the Moon, perhaps in decent numbers, until that time comes, the era of the Apollo program will continue to be our nostalgic view back at a future we had hoped would be more promising for lunar exploration.Edgar Mitchell