Not-So-“Deadly Engineering”

I might have chosen a name other than “Deadly Engineering” for the series, but I’m nonetheless honored to be on the Science Channel talking about Skylab again.

The Skylab segment in the first episode of the third season of this series and my previous SCI appearance on “Engineering Catastrophes” take a little more sensationalist approach than the “Searching for Skylab” and “Saving Skylab” documentaries I’ve appeared on, but I’m also far more likely to have people stop me randomly in public to say they saw on my TV from these.

:The Telly-award-winning and Emmy-nominated “Deadly Engineering” series is taking Skylab to the masses, and I’m glad to be able to be a part of it saying nice things about one of history’s greatest human spaceflight programs. You can watch it here –…/deadly-engineering… – or if you’re a cable-cutter like me, you can purchase the episode on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu and other fine places.

A Couple of Julys and a Space Race

Ever have that experience when you have dinner with two inspirational women one July and then two Julys later they’re racing each other into space?

You may have seen the news about the billionaire space race, with Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson each planning to fly on their companies’ respective suborbital spaceships within the next three weeks.

Honestly, while I’m hugely in favor of increased access to space, I’m utterly uncaptivated by the billionaire bragging rights part of the story.

But Thursday, it became a bit more interesting –

Bezos will be flying with aeronautics pioneer Wally Funk, famed as one of the “Mercury 13” women who passed medical tests like those taken by the Mercury 7 astronauts 60ish years ago.

Branson will be flying with Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut trainer and the first woman to earn commercial astronaut wings.

One thing Wally Funk and Beth Moses have in common is that I got to MC their inductions into the Space Camp Hall of Fame two years ago this month.

I’ve long hoped that Wally Funk would get to go into space, and it’s sort of surreal to me that two years to the month after I was having dinner with them, they’re making spaceflight history (again).

Review: “The Mission,” by David W Brown

Watch enough space movies, read enough space books, whether science fact or science fiction, and there’s a moment you’ll see play out time and time again – And Then A Rocket Appears On The Pad.

Maybe it’s not a rocket. Maybe it’s a starship or a science probe. But the moment plays out the same. An incredibly complex piece of machine appears out of nowhere – machina ex deus – having and needing no origin, and then the “real story” begins.

But rockets and starships and science probes don’t appear out of nowhere. They do have origins. For every rocket that appears on a pad, there’s a story of toil and ingenuity that explains how it got there.

David W. Brown’s “The Mission” is not that story. “The Mission” is the story before that story.

Before a rocket appears on a pad, before a space probe appears in a payload fairing, before a starship appears in the stars, there is an official program, a concerted effort of the aforementioned toil and ingenuity, and multiple flavors of engineering and probably some science.

But before that official program, there’s an idea. A dream.

“The Mission” is that story. The titular Mission is a mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, a smallish orb of rock and water and ice that looms far larger than its physical size in the landscape of solar system science because of that water. On Earth, where there’s water, there’s life. And Europa not only has twice as much water as the pale blue dot where we live, it’s conveniently spewing that water into space, right out there for a visiting spacecraft to taste.

“The Mission” is not a story of flying a yet-unflown Europa mission, nor a story of building a yet-unbuilt yet-unflown Europa mission. It’s the story of an idea, a dream dreamt over decades to explore this strange new world, and perhaps to seek out new life in its ocean.

It is still, most definitely, a story of toil and ingenuity. It is also a very human story, and it is there that Brown elevates his subject from interesting to captivating.

As an experienced journalist, Brown has a portfolio packed with well-told space stories. He has a demonstrated knack for taking “rocket science” and not only making it accessible, not only conveying Why It Matters, but also capturing Why It’s Awesome, finding amidst the data the things that stir souls.

That talent is brought fully to bear in “The Mission,” and impressively so – it’s one thing to bring that level of creativity to short-form non-fiction, but here Brown sprints a marathon, maintaining the same engaging style over hundreds of pages he delivers on the first.

The heart of “The Mission,” however, is a very human heart. It’s a story laden with science spacecraft and alien worlds and trajectory comparisons, but it’s a story about people. Brown’s tapestry here weaves the story of its Europa mission through the lives of the people who have touched, and been touched by, the dream of that mission, interlacing space science with chicken farms and car wrecks and former NSYNC member Lance Bass.

At the end of “The Mission” the call of Europa is still calling. Its mysteries are still mysterious. But Brown has pulled back the veil on another little-seen world – a world of men and women with dogged determination to clad a dream in metal and propel it toward the stars.

The Story of Amos, a Good Dog

Over the years there have been stories that I have known, when the time came to tell the story of Amos, would be the stories that I tell.

How he barked at me the first time he saw me because he was in Becky’s car and it was his job to protect it. It was his job to protect her, to take care of her. And he did.

How amused Becky was the first time we all went to a dog park and played. I was never a dog person, but I made a valiant effort at playing with Amos. Maybe partially to impress her, but I guess I thought he was OK, too.

How one day early into dating Rebecca, the three of us went to a state park in Mississippi. We’d been hiking for a while and he was hot and thirsty and there was a fountain, but he wouldn’t drink from it because he didn’t trust it. So I got some of the water in my hands, and he drank that, because he did trust me, and that made it OK to drink from the fountain.

How the day came when he could be in Becky’s car and not bark at me when I approached it. Her mom got barked at, but I didn’t. I’d never been a dog person, but I sort of became an Amos person. I would tell people I tolerate him. I loved that dog a lot.

How Becky would have to be careful, when she was living with her mom in Decatur, about saying my name, because Amos would get excited and look for me. I think he loved me a little, too. One day I went over to visit, and he was hiding because his paw was sore and it hurt to walk, but when he heard me, he made his way out to see me, step by painful step.

There are other stories I could tell, about how excited I was the first time I taught him a trick or how he unscrewed a jar to eat our wedding candy and it gave him superpowers or how he became a blogger or or how he convinced my mother-in-law to let him knock everything off her table and stand on it and how he bulked out into Tank Dog because he took me too literally one time. There are so so many other stories I could tell.

But the story, more than any story, that was my favorite Amos story was the first time Rebecca got sick after we were married. 

It was his job to protect her, to take care of her. And he did. If Becky was sick, nobody was allowed near her. Even if her mom was there, Amos would lovingly try to distract her and herd her away, and then go back to Rebecca’s side to watch one her.

But one day after Rebecca and I got married, she was sick, and she stayed home from work, and he stayed there by her side the whole day while I was at work.

And then, when I got off work and came home, this dog, who’d spent his entire life staying by Becky’s side when she was sick and making sure nobody came near her, got up, came and met me in the hall, gave me this look that let me know she was my problem now, and went to the other end of the house. 

His shift was done, he left her in my hands, and he went to get some rest.

Amos turned 13 in April, and he’d been an old man for the last two or three of those.

But he saw the woman he’d protected, that he’d taken care of, grow up and get married and have a baby of her own.

He loved that baby, and that baby loved him.

But he was old, and he was tired, and he hurt, and he’d seen that she was taken care of.

Today, his shift was done, he left her in my hands.

And he went to get some very very well-earned rest.

Review: “The Mars Challenge” by Wilgus and Yates

Mars is hard.

In fact, just the prospect of humans missions to Mars is so hard that even talking about why Mars is hard can be hard because, well, it’s hard.

Alison Wilgus and Wyeth Yates’ The Mars Challenge is a shockingly good book on this topic.

To say The Mars Challenge gets it right is an understatement.

The prospect of sending humans to Mars is daunting, and the reasons for that get very technical very quickly. Try to explain it, and you start talking about things like the rocket equation and orbital mechanics and EDL, and the specter of complex mathematical formulas starts quickly drawing near like a gathering storm. 

It becomes very easy to let the technical become so technical that the average person, or, for that matter, a decent number of fairly technical people who haven’t immersed themselves in this particular deep dive, get overwhelmed.

On the other end of the spectrum, there can be a temptation to try to make the topic accessible by watering down the technical to the point where you’re not really doing it justice.

The Mars Challenge does neither of these. It lunges bravely directly into the very real technical challenges of a human mission to Mars and then deftly unpacks them so that a lay reader can understand.

Oh, and did I mention The Mars Challenge is a graphic novel?

The framework for the book is a conversation between a teenager with dreams of dirtying her boots with Martian regolith, and her space professional mentor all too aware of the hurdles that must be overcome to make that happen. 

In Wilgus’ hands, that mentor speaks the language of spaceflight with a  realism worthy of an insider, but lovingly translates it into human in a way a teenager could believably understand.

Ably assisted by Yates, the creators overcome another substantial challenge to tell the story – keeping what is essentially a 200-page comic book consisting solely of two people having a conversation from becoming tedious. Both the writing and the artwork, replete with visions of the past, present and future of space exploration, are lively and engaging.

The Mars Challenge takes an admirably even-handed approach devoid of agenda – unlike many books on the subject, it eschews “all you have to do is” editorializing in favor of an honest analysis.

The book is a perfect primer for teens who feel the call to boldly go – or build the ships for those who do – and is a quick and accessible read for adults who’d like an overview of how space exploration works.

Mars is hard, but it’s doable, and The Mars Challenge is an inspirational tool for equipping the next generation of explorers for the challenges ahead.

DIY LEGO Rocket Garden

(Updated June 22 with Ares I-X.)
(Updated July 4 with scale converter and STS mod.)
(Updated July 7 with Sputnik R-7 and more STS info.)
(Updated July 15 with Vostok and Voskhod.)
(Updated July 28 with Soyuz and Long March 2F.)
(Updated August 31 with SLS, X-15, SpaceShipOne and Dream Chaser.)
(Updated September 24 with SpaceShipTwo and GSLV Mark III.)

It started with the Saturn V, combined with a love of Skylab.

Like many people, I bought the original LEGO Saturn V kit. And that was going to be the end of it.

But then I happened to see that there were instructions online to convert it into a LEGO Skylab Saturn V. And, obviously, I need to have a LEGO Skylab Saturn V. So I bought a second LEGO Saturn V set. And that was going to be the end of it.

But then I built my two Saturn Vs. And because I replaced the top part of the second Saturn V with the Skylab mod, I had a Saturn V third-stage-and-Apollo stack left over. And the site where I got the instructions for modifying the Saturn V to Skylab configuration also had instructions on how to build a first stage for that S-IVB-and-Apollo stack to make a Saturn IB. So I did. And by that point, I knew it wasn’t going to be the end of it.

And that’s how I ended up with a LEGO rocket garden, all built to the same 1:110 scale as the LEGO Saturn V.

When I’ve posted pictures of my LEGO rocket garden, I frequently get questions about how I built it, so I thought I’d put together a “guide” based on my experiences. So here’s pretty much all I know about building a LEGO rocket garden.

Basically, all you need are pieces and instructions. (If you’re cleverer than I, you can do it without instructions, of course; but I’m writing for this for folks who, like me, aren’t cleverer than me.)

I buy my pieces at Bricklink. There are other places you can buy them, including Brickowl. Different people use different sites, so while I prefer Bricklink, you may prefer something else. Bricklink is a portal to individual vendors; it’s not so much a store as a storefront for sellers. When you make a purchase, you’ll frequently be placing multiple orders split between different stores that have different parts you need. Particularly with the bigger builds, the parts can get pricy over time, so I’ll spread my piece purchases out. Bricklink lets you set up multiple want lists, so I’ll have want lists set up for multiple projects at once. When I buy pieces I need for the thing I’m working on, I’ll add a few bucks extra for a future project, so it doesn’t hit all at once.

I haven’t done this yet personally, but someone more experienced than I read this post and pointed out you can also buy pieces directly from LEGO. Their shop doesn’t have the variety you can find on Bricklink, but it can be good if you need a large quantities of specific pieces.

Here’s where I found the instructions for the different builds, along with any hints I have from building them:

V2 – The instructions for this one are here. The site they’re on is a Google Drive with instructions for an incredibly wide collection of space vehicles. I was late finding it, so haven’t used it much. I thought I was going to be clever and make mine narrower because I didn’t like the way it narrows, but it looked bad. In the process, though, I replaced the nose with a simple 2x2x3 cone, and I do like that mode. You’ll need to add, I think three more 3024 pieces to go between the 4733 and the cone.

(Quick update, since I mentioned the Google Drive here. Another experienced builder, reading this, pointed me toward this Gitlab site with a very comprehensive collection of designs, which I had not seen before but will be revisiting. Update update: The creator of rightfully reminded me it’s a good resource. I have downloaded his books, but haven’t had a chance to use them yet.)

Juno – The instructions for this one are here. LEGO Ideas is a good, but inconsistent place to find instructions. The site’s primary purpose is for designers to post their ideas for people to vote on them so that they might become official sets. A few, but far from all, designers will share the instructions for their builds. The site will do nothing to help you find them, and in fact hides old ideas after they’ve expired. The designer, Eiffleman, includes decal or wrap designs here; I prefer to stick to just bricks. Also included here are the instructions for versions of the next three builds I did. I didn’t do the Juno until I’d done the other three, so I used instructions from elsewhere. (As a result, my Juno and Redstone fins don’t match, even though they’re the same in real life.)

Mercury Redstone – Instructions are here. In fact, it’s from a source where I got the designs for a good chunk of the collection. I mentioned Bricklink as a place to buy bricks; it also has a “Studio” section where you can find or share designs. A benefit to finding designs in the Gallery at Bricklink is that it’s very simple from there to create Wanted Lists for the parts and order them. There’s a designer in the gallery named legorockets who is based in my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, and whose collection of designs includes my Mercury Redstone, Mercury Atlas, Gemini Titan and Falcon 9. This (or the Eiffleman version mentioned above) is a good one to start with; it and the Juno are probably the easiest and cheapest, and of the two the Mercury Redstone is arguably more iconic.

Mercury Atlas – I believe these are the instructions I used for this one. All all note here is the importance of paying attention to version numbers. legorockets has at least four versions of the Mercury Redstone, and they’re all still on the site. At least once I realized I’d ordered pieces using a different design version than the instructions I was using.

Gemini Titan – I think this is the version of the instructions I used for this one. Side note here: Remember at the beginning where I said all you need to create your own rocket garden is pieces and instructions, and you don’t actually need the instructions if you’re creative. Well, technically, you don’t actually need the pieces, either. There’s a branch of the hobby where, rather than building physical models, you just design them virtually, using LEGO Digital Designer or Studio. Designing virtually lets you figure out what you need before you start ordering parts, and creating a digital rocket garden has two advantages over a physical one – it’s a whole lot cheaper, and you can do things virtually you can’t do in real life. A model that would collapse under its own weight in real life works beautifully virtually. And, in the case of this Gemini Titan, you can use a piece that doesn’t exist in real life – a white barrel piece, shown at the base of the Gemini capsule. This same piece, or lack thereof, also shows up in my shuttle model at the base of the boosters. Some people will paint the pieces to the color they need; I find limiting yourself to the limits of LEGO is part of the charm of the hobby.

Saturn V – I built the official LEGO kit. Unfortunately, it’s discontinued now. (Update: It looks like this is being rereleased, at least temporarily. If you can buy one new when you read this, that’s your best route; I’m leaving the following alternative instructions in in case you can’t.) You can still find them for sale on places like eBay, but be prepared to spend a lot more than the original cost. (It looks like some folks have reverse-engineered the set so you can order the parts and build it yourself; this may be one.)

Skylab Saturn V – I found the instructions here (design by Eiffleman, who did the Juno above) to modify the official LEGO Saturn V kit to the Skylab configuration. Unfortunately, that requires an official LEGO Saturn V kit, and, as noted above, it may be discontinued. If you don’t want to buy one second-hand, I noticed in working on this that legorockets has a Bricklink Gallery design for the full-up Skylab Saturn V, engines to shroud. It looks like you can probably source the parts cheaper than buying a secondhand Saturn V.

Saturn IB – I found the instructions here. As mentioned above, this was a mod using the pieces leftover from the Saturn V kit when I built the Skylab Saturn V, so it has the same issue with needing the discontinued set (See note above). If you want to build it from scratch, here are instructions from legorockets. I’ll throw in another side note here – Most of the bigger rockets have a lot of internal structure that you don’t see. Generally, when you get the part lists, they’ll have a color assigned to the pieces for that structure. If the pieces isn’t going to be visible, Bricklink will let you change the color to “(Not Applicable)” so that you can order the piece in the cheapest color, rather than paying extra to match a color that doesn’t matter. Many designers make this easy by picking an obviously weird color, like blue cylinders on a rocket that’s all black and white.

Space Shuttle – Since I originally posted this, KingsKnight has created an improved version; the instructions for which are on sale at Rebrickable for $15. You can probably still find the old instructions for free, but I endorse buying the new ones both because KingsKnight has put a lot of time into this design and its worth the money, and because I’m pretty sure the new design can save you more than $15 in parts versus the old one.)

I found the instructions here for this design by KingsKnight. I used a part list from Bricklink Gallery to create an easy Wanted List. You can also find the instructions on the Google Drive mentioned in the V2 section, but I figured this would be a good time to mention the Bricks In Space group on Facebook, which is a great resource for general information. There’s also an r/legorockets subreddit on Reddit.  Since I built built my Saturns using official kits, this was the biggest project for which I had to source all the pieces. I started buying parts several projects ahead, and broke it into chunks – I did the Orbiter first, and then got serious about the boosters and then got serious about the ET. As designed, it’s a phenomenally expensive build because of some rare dark orange parts for the external tank. Some people buy other colors and paint them; some go with a “close enough” orange. I went with white, the way the tank looked for the first two launches, which not only matches the way the tank looks on the cover of my shuttle history book, Bold They Rise, but saved me maybe a couple of hundred dollars. Bricklink’s Wanted List makes it easy to filter the parts for a particular color (i.e. dark orange) and then bulk change them to a different color (i.e. white)

Update: At the suggestion of KingsKnight, I made a slight mod to my orbiter, replacing the front end of the wings with the distinctive black appearance of Columbia, making it more true to the STS-1 or -2 white external tank. (It’s a pretty simple change, and much more simple if you make it was your building instead of after you’re finished.)
Update Update: I recently came across a post where someone gave instructions for modding KingsKnight’s build to the exact appearance of any orbiter for *any shuttle launch.*

Falcon 9 – Instructions found here. Another one by legorockets. Side note here: Relying on other people’s instructions and parts lists, and letting Bricklink’s automated system find sellers for you, it’s easy to sink money into things you don’t care about. Case in point: My rocket garden centers around the history of human spaceflight, so I wanted to build the Crew Dragon configuration of Falcon 9. This design includes that, so I went with it. When I was buying the parts, I noticed that one order had a small number of parts and a big price tag. Upon inspecting it, I found it was because one of the fairing configurations used a rare, expensive part. I have no interest in building a fairing for the rocket, so I removed the part from my order, and saved about $18. My Atlas V had flames for the Starliner that were like $4 each. I’m displaying it as a full-up stack, so you’d never see the flames. Gone. This was the first build where I really noticed that; if I’d paid more attention, I could have saved even more. There were other fairing parts I could have struck, and this design has legs that are interchangeable for either a launch pad or drone ship configuration; I only needed the former. (I recently had met the designer online behind this version that has folding legs, but no Dragon, if you’d prefer to go that way.)

Atlas V – Instructions are here. This is the only one so far that I’ve paid for instructions for; it was the only one I could find that was proper Saturn V scale and included Starliner. They were on Rebrickable, where people can sell designs. I paid just over two bucks for the instructions, and it was totally worth it. I’ll take free instructions where they’re offered, of course, but people put real time and effort into coming up with these, and I don’t begrudge them at all making some money off that. A bit of jargon – Bricklink has a Gallery; Rebrickable has “MOCs.” MOCs? My Own Creations, as opposed to official LEGO designs. (Back when I was a kid, making your own creations was what you did with LEGOs, before they started becoming more like model kits. That said, I’m not really building my own creations now, so I can’t say anything.) A MOC is just a custom design; it’s still a MOC even if it’s someone else’s creation that you’re just building. More jargon – you’ll occasionally see AFOL. If you do, it’s Adult Fan of LEGO. Now you know.

Ares I-X – Design files are on the Google Drive site here, and on Facebook Bricks in Space. The design for the Ares I is by Sebastian Schoen, aka Moppe Stone. While the Studio files were available, instructions weren’t included, so I contacted the creator through the Bricks in Space FB group. I modified it to Ares I-X since I attended that launch and work with some team members; the mod mainly involved replacing orange pieces with white like with the Shuttle; but it also meant I could simplify things a little at the bottom of the upper stage.


Sputnik, Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz – Instructions are here. LEGO Ideas designer tech_niek submitted a Soyuz design for consideration to become a real set (which wasn’t chosen), and as a bonus included versions for an entire fleet of Soviet vehicles using the same approach – the launchers for Sputnik, Vostok and Voskhod, in addition to Soyuz. (The post also has instructions to mod them to the whitish appearance at launch caused by ice collecting on the rocket.) The upside is, it’s a great all-in-one approach to the highlights of Soviet launcher history, (Though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hear the siren call of building N1 and Buran someday, designs for both of which exist.) The downside is, it’s a design optimized for being created as an official set, versus sourcing parts on your own, particularly if you’re doing the entire fleet. The Sputnik R-7 uses six of this part; the others use even more. Currently, no Bricklink seller in the US has more than five in stock, which means shipping is going to drive the price up; and the Soyuz uses an orange version that is even more rare. (The design also leaves a gap between the boosters and the core that is very visible at some angles, FWIW.)


Long March 2F – Instructions are here. Like the Ares I-X, this one is by Sebastian Schön. If I recall correctly, if you use the .io file for ordering from Bricklink, you’ll need to reduce the part counts in half – his instructions show the elements assembled and in separate close-ups, so the file includes parts for both versions. This is a good intermediate build, since the .io file doesn’t include step-by-step instructions, but it’s relatively easy to figure out, particularly if you’ve built a few rockets before this.


SLS – Instructions are here. (I used the v29 .io and .pdf files for mine.) Yet another Sebastian Schön design; you’ll note that the Orion matches the one on the Ares I-X. I made a mod to mine – the original plans require 40 of this piece, which on Bricklink would have increased the cost by about $200 or much more. As you can see in that picture, I took an approach to the core stage intertank that made it slightly less rounded but made the grid pattern more consistent and avoided needing that part.


X-15 – Instructions are here. Design by Kevin Huang, with a version that works from originals by Dan Favell and Nico Daams and adds a bit more scale accuracy. Kevin’s .io file doesn’t include step-by-step instructions, so to get a little better idea what was going on inside it I referred to the instructions for the Favell version. It’s not exactly the same, but it made it a little easier.

Dream Chaser – Instructions are here. Another Sebastian Schön design.

SpaceShipOne – Design is by Rudi Landmann. I don’t see the .io file publicly; Rudi was kind enough to let me try out a work-in-progress. Pictures are here, if it helps.

SpaceShipTwo – Design is here, by Simon Paul.

GLSV Mark III – Design by me, my first full-up 1:110 rocket design. I haven’t learned to create in or LDD, so I don’t have files, but if anyone would be interested in building it, I’d be glad to help. (Alternately, there’s a Sebastian Schön version of the Chandrayaan uncrewed version of the rocket here.)

Space Stations and Other Things

In addition to my 1:110-scale rocket garden, I’ve also built a couple of builds to accompany the official LEGO Space Station kit, which is roughly 1:220 scale, about half the Saturn V. I started with a 1:220 Skylab found in the Facebook Bricks in Space files; it was fascinating to see the two stations in scale with each other. The visiting vehicles that come with the Space Station kit are out of scale with the ISS, and people have designed replacements for those. The space shuttle, in particular, struck me as bad, so I used a design from those Files for a properly-scaled 1:220 Space Shuttle. Like the Long March 2F, I didn’t have step-by-step instructions; I had exterior pictures and a list of parts and had to figure out how it went together from there, but this one was more challenging than the Long March was. It took a while, but it was rewarding. (As an added bonus, it meant that I could create in LEGO the planned-but-never-flown Shuttle-Skylab rendezvous mission.)

I’ve done one other true “MOC” – my own creation – the upper stage of NASA’s new SLS rocket deploying a CubeSat. It’s not as accurate to scale or as elegant, but I did it, and it was a good first step, before I did the GSLV Mark III. If you’re interested in creating your own design to Saturn V or ISS (or any other scale), here’s a useful tool for converting real-world measurements to LEGO measurements.

If you have any questions, leave a comment or find me on Twitter. Or, better yet, look up the Facebook or Reddit groups and join the conversation!

I hope this helps, and happy building!

Happy Birthday, Hubble!

Today is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope! I’m already being flooded with all sorts of great Hubble stories and imagery, and you can pretty easily find lots of cool stuff online.

So I want instead to share one of my favorite Hubble stories, which has almost nothing to do with those decades of incredible images and game-changing science. Today, of course, Hubble is considered one of NASA’s signature successes, but when it launched, it was seen as a devastating blunder – just months after returning to flight after Challenger, NASA had put up a $1.5B observatory (that was a lot of money back then) that had a misground mirror and couldn’t focus properly.

Plans began quickly on how astronauts could visit Hubble and repair it (and here I’m obligated to note that Goddard publisheda web feature yesterday that mentions how the foundation of that repair was Skylab – “With Skylab, in-space servicing was born.”) But shuttle missions take time to plan, prepare and execute, and it would be almost three and a half years before the first Hubble servicing mission could be flown.

Three and a half years in which NASA had a flagship space telescope – albeit a broken one – in orbit. Not wanting to let those years go to waste, a temporary stopgap fix was found. They couldn’t do anything on orbit to improve the images yet, but they could do something on the ground; image processing software was developed to compensate, as much as possible, for the mirror flaw, making the images in those early years more useful.

It turns out that if you develop software to improve images, sometimes you can improve multiple types of images with it. To quote a NASA web feature: “When applied to mammograms, software techniques developed to increase the dynamic range and spatial resolution of Hubble’s initially blurry images allowed doctors to spot smaller calcifications than they could before, leading to earlier detection and treatment. The sooner the cancer is found and treated, the better the chances are that a patient will make a full recovery and preserve her quality of life.”

Speaking to the public, I sometimes get asked if this whole space thing we do is worthwhile. And this story is one of my handful of go-to answers to that. If NASA can save lives even when it screws up, much less by being successful, and can revolutionize our understanding of the universe in the process, then, yes, maybe this is a thing worth doing.

“Saving Skylab” Launches Tomorrow

TL;DR – You should watch Hubbell Power Systems’ Saving Skylab documentary, premiering tomorrow.

Long version: There’s a short story I like a lot in Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story about this guy named Cliff Bosch. Skylab has launched, and had its anomaly during ascent, and the micrometeoroid shield and one of the solar arrays are gone, and the other solar array is stuck and won’t deploy, and teams all over NASA are figuring out how to resolve the situation in time to launch the first crew. And some engineers at Marshall working the solar array issue get the idea that what might help is a “limb lopper” like lineman use to cut back tree limbs at a distance. So they call the AB Chance Company in Centralia, Missouri, and end up talking to Cliff Bosch. Long story short, Cliff ends up throwing a bunch of tools in a box and hoping a ride on the head of MacDonnell Douglas’s Aerocommander and coming down to Marshall. Before the end of the day, he’s having to call his wife who doesn’t know he’s gone, telling her he won’t be home that night, and hopping a flight to KSC.

It’s a tiny anecdote, but I love the story of this “ordinary guy” that woke up one morning and randomly helped save a space station.

Well, last year, I was contacted by someone from Hubbell Power Systems, which now owns AB Chance, which is still around, and still makes lineman’s tools. And this story has been part of their corporate mythology for almost half a century, but they didn’t have the NASA side of the story until they stumbled across my book. And now they wanted to make a documentary. So they did.

Selfishly, I love seeing that tiny story brought to life that way. They talked to Chuck Lewis, the Marshall guy that was the interface to Chance – and who it turns out still had the original receipts for the tools and one of the original tool prototypes, after it was given to him by a friend of his who’d taken it home after the Skylab rescue and been using it to cut deer antlers. But they also talked to people I didn’t on the Chance side, so it was neat getting the other side of the story. It’s beautifully shot and edited; they even made me look decent.

Point being, coronavirus has scuttled their original plans to debut it tomorrow at an IEEE power convention, but they’re sticking with the original date – National Lineman Day – with an online debut at 11 am CDT tomorrow. “Saving Skylab” is a free watch, and you can find out more and see the trailer at the website I linked to at the top. I’ve seen an advance screener; it’s about half an hour long and, in my admittedly very biased opinion, well worth it.

Tough And Competent: Remembering Those We Lost

Time is a funny thing.

Seventeen years passed between the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and the loss of Columbia in 2003. During those 17 years, I went from my first year of middle school to finishing high school to graduating from college to have a career as a newspaper editor to taking a job on a contract at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

They were seventeen long years.

Seventeen years have now passed since the loss of Columbia. During those 17 years, I’ve gone from one contract at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to a different contract.

They were seventeen short years.

Today is NASA’s Day of Remembrance.

The agency’s three greatest tragedies – the loss of the Apollo 1 crew in 1967, the loss of Challenger’s 51L crew in 1986, and the loss of Columbia’s STS-107 crew in 2013 – all mark their anniversary this week, on Monday, Tuesday and Saturday, respectively.

Those tragedies occurred almost a generation apart. Nineteen years between Apollo 1 and 51L. Seventeen years between 51L and STS-107.

On average, eighteen years.

Next year will be eighteen years since Columbia.

The seventeen to nineteen year span starts this year and lasts until 2022.

From this year to 2022, we will see the first crewed flights of three new spacecraft.

There’s an expression you see a lot in media and discussions about spaceflight.

“Space is hard.”

To be certain, spaceflight is hard.

Kennedy described it as “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” I’d not argue.

Today, you hear “space is hard” as an explanation after something has gone wrong.

A rocket explodes, a capsule fails, a launch is aborted.

“Space is hard.”

After the Apollo 1 tragedy, Flight Director Gene Kranz told the Mission Control team that “Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect.”

In other words, space is hard.

But he didn’t stop there.

“From this day forward,” he instructed, “Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent.”

Space is hard. We have to be harder.

To be certain, spaceflight is hard.

In this industry, you have two choices.

You can either say space is hard every day before launch, as a reminder to be harder.

Or it will be said after launch.

As we prepare for a game-changing two years and the historic exploration to follow, may all undertaking this great adventure be tough and competent.

A Good Name Is Rather to Be Chosen…

Today is Owen Garriott’s birthday; the first after the loss earlier this year of the Skylab and shuttle astronaut, a brilliant scientist, a friend, and my son’s namesake.

In fact, we found out the day before Owen died. The fact I never got to tell him was the one bittersweet moment of the joyous news.

What I will tell my son about his name is this:

Owen Garriott was a great man, and he is named in part of the great man history will remember. Owen was brilliant and accomplished, possibly the most brilliant man I’ve ever known, and his work helped pave the way for everything in spaceflight that’s come since his first flight.

The name is a challenge. I don’t ask or expect my son to accomplish as much, but I challenge him to work to do his best, whatever that may be.
But more than the man history will remember, my son is named for the man I knew.

From the first time I contacted him, Owen was kind to me, and enthusiastic to share his stories and knowledge. I reached out to him hoping for an e-mail or a phone call I could use to write an article I was working on; he invited me to his home and spent time with me.

Months later, when I asked him whether he’d be interested in working on a book, I would have been beyond content if all that had come of it was getting to have lunch with a man who spent a couple of months in space.

Instead, he said yes, and changed my life.

Working on Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story was an incredible experience, and, more than that, it was an experience that continues to open amazing opportunities.

But he gave me so much more than that opportunity. He went out of his way to introduce me to people and to give me experiences that I will always carry with me.

More than any of that, he shared his knowledge, his experience, his insight, his wisdom. He asked hard questions, and made me think about the answers. I don’t know that, in my entire life, anyone’s complements have meant more than his, because, when they were given, they meant something.

I give my son his name as a gift, but also as a charge. To do his best to do good work. To observe, to analyze, to deduce. And, most of all, to use his gifts to give others the opportunity to use theirs.

The Owen Garriott history remembers was a great man. The Owen Garriott I knew was a good man. All I can ask of my son is to do his best to be one also.