Mars Rocket Yadda Yadda Horses’ Butts


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According to an old story that’s circulated the internet for years, the dimensions of the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were prescribed by the width of a horse’s rear end.

The story goes from Roman chariots that were made wide enough to accommodate the back end of two war horses to British roads that were built for those chariots and ended up with ruts where their wheels were to Engish wagons that were built wide enough to fit those ruts to trains that were built from the jigs and toolings for those wagon and thus U.S. railroads were all built to the width of a Roman chariot and thus based on the width of two horse’s butts. And then it takes it a step farther to the fact that the shuttle solid rocket boosters were designed to be transported via rail and thus had to fit through a railway tunnel determined by the width of a  train and thus, yadda yadda, horses.

The particulars of the story get some stuff wrong. U.S. railways didn’t originally have a standard gauge, and were built to a variety of widths before being standardized, so there was no particular magic number that they had to be. On the other hand, it’s also worth noting that the original railroad cars were horse-drawn, so there was a more direct connection between the widths of train tracks and horses, so there is some basic truth to the story, even if the particulars aren’t exactly right.

I was thinking about this story again recently because of interesting fact I learned about the Space Launch System rocket I’m honored to support.

The core stage of SLS is 27.6 feet in diameter, because it’s designed to have the same diameter as the space shuttle’s external tank in order to more effectively take advantage of existing manufacturing and launch facilities. We were talking about that at work, and the question came up as to why the shuttle’s external tank had that diameter. We suspected at first it, in turn, had something to do with the facilities left over from the Saturn days, but weren’t able to find the answer anyway.

So I called someone I know who worked on the external tank, and asked him. And the answer has to do with the fact that the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were to be mounted to the side of the external tank. Given the volatility of the fuels inside the tank, you wanted the attach points to be somewhere on the structure off of the fuel tanks inside it. The length of the solid rocket booster had already been established, and that determined what the length of the external tank would need to be to properly accommodate the attach points. The engineers knew what the volume of the tank had to be in order to hold enough fuel for launch, so once the length was established, the diameter was just a question of division.

Which means that the next time astronauts fly around the moon, they’ll be launched on a vehicle with a diameter determined loosely by the width of horses’ butts.

Dead Man Talking


20121214-065702.jpgAnd then there was the time I dressed up as a dead man and hung out in the cemetery.

Someday, there’s going to be a post about how the last year and a half or so have changed me, and this post relates to one of those ways. My writing and acting backgrounds have merged into a new skillset, and I had a neat opportunity to put it to good use a little while back.

I met the awesome Jacque Reeves, who has an incredible knack for breathing life into Huntsville history, through the Depot earlier in the year, and mentioned that if she ever needed help with any of the fun things she does, I’d love to come play. That chance came a few weeks ago when I was invited to participate in the annual Cemetery Stroll at Maple Hill Cemetery.

In the Stroll, local folks dress up as historical characters buried in Maple Hill, stand by their graves, and tell their stories to visitors. The event continues to expand each year to the point where it’s now almost impossible to hear all of the stories, which keeps it fresh for repeat visitors.

I was called in as a last-minute replacement to portray Thomas Bibb, the second governor of Alabama. My museum connections helped my lay hands on some rather dapper period attire, and I rather misguidedly shaved my full beard off in favor of muttonchoppy sideburns. (I was apparently the only guy to sacrifice facial hair for his character, and I’m not entirely sure it was worth it.)

The last-minuteness of it added an element of challenge; I was provided a couple of sheets of information about Bibb, which I supplemented with a bit of my own research, but then had only a few days to make it my own and be ready to perform it. I found myself wishing it had been this easy to learn history when I was in school; it’s far more interesting when you take a narrative approach instead of a raw data-dump angle.

Bibb was an interesting guy. His family played a huge role in the formation of Alabama as a state, and he became governor when his brother, the first governor, was thrown from a horse and killed. He served out the remainder of the term, and decided he’d had enough. Of course, for all his accomplishments, the fact that capture more people’s attention was that, after he died in New Orleans, he was shipped back home in a barrel full of whiskey; a testament to his stature.

It was a great honor to get asked to participate this year, and I look forward to giving another lifeless performance next year!

Stars And Stripes Forever


So two of the things I love about working at the Huntsville Depot Museum — learning new things, and playing dress up.

The whole experience has been an adventure in the former. I knew nothing about anything when I started. I’d worked as a tour guide before, as a volunteer at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, but that was very much in my comfort zone. Space and rockets are two things I know. The Depot plays to multiple areas that are very much not my strong suits, from trains to the Civil War. But I’ve greatly enjoyed learning about those things, and getting to the point that I can give an informative and engaging tour that also has my personal touch to it.

As to the latter — in addition to giving tours, a big part of my job at the Depot involves children’s programs, of which we have several, and are continuing to add more. For the train programs, we just wear our usual black-and-white Depot duds, but for others, we dress up a bit. So far, I’ve worn both the blue and the gray for Civil War programs.

Yesterday, we had a new program honoring veterans and giving an overview of different aspects of American wars throughout history. I was told last week that I needed to be ready to lead a session on medicine during the Korean conflict, and to get a costume together. And I loved both parts. I enjoyed the challenge of going from zero to ready on the session material, and it was surprisingly enjoyable to walk around the Depot grounds this morning in costume. I actually do feel different sometimes when I don the different garbs.

Everyone did an awesome job with the program, and it was really neat seeing the diversity of the costumes. As much as I enjoyed my part of the program, I loved being the official photographer and getting shots of all the presentations.

Speaking Event Tonight


If anyone’s interested, I’ll be giving a free talk tonight at the Decatur Public Library  at 504 Cherry St. NE, Decatur, Ala., beginning at 6:30 p.m. The event will be open to the public.

I will, of course,  be hitting the high points of my “Homesteading Space”-inspired lecture, “Everything I Really Need to Know About Space Exploration I Learned From Skylab,” which is a lot of fun, if I do say so myself.

But, given the recent end of the space shuttle program, and my post-NASA freedom to talk more candidly about the current state of spaceflight and the future, I’ll also be updating the talk some to discuss those issues, and I’ll take questions from the audience as well. I’ll also have some books to sign after the event.

I’m too modest to toot my own horn about my speaking abilities, but I will note that after my first public lecture two years ago, one of the members of my improv troupe came up to me, and, with a shocked expression, noted, “You were actually funny!” Um, thanks, I think?

If you can’t make it tonight, I’ll be giving another talk on Saturday, August 13, at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

“Magnificent Desolation” — An Interview With Buzz Aldrin


I published this interview with Buzz Aldrin seven years ago for a NASA Web site that no longer exists. Since the agency is no longer using it, I figured the 42nd anniversary of the first manned moon landing would be a good opportunity to post it here.

Buzz Aldrin was the Lunar Module pilot for the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, during which he and commander Neil Armstrong became the first humans to land on the Moon.

David Hitt: Dr. Aldrin, thank you for agreeing to talk to us today … We have just a few questions about your involvement in Apollo. As we prepare to mark the 35th anniversary of the first Moon landing, what do you believe is the most important legacy of Apollo 11?

Buzz Aldrin: Well, I think there are many legacies. It clearly fulfilled a dream of many people over the centuries. It was a response, clearly, to a cold war environment of Soviet actions in space following Sputnik. I think as a legacy it has inspired people the world around that remember where they were when that event happened. And that, in a way, gives testimony to the importance of the legacy.

Hitt: The words that you spoke after stepping onto the Moon—“Magnificent Desolation”—have become probably the most famous description of the lunar surface. Tell us a little more about what it was like walking on another world.

Aldrin: My sort of spontaneous words, “Magnificent Desolation,” were a contrast really of the magnificence that I felt represented the achievement of so many people, and yet the desolation of what the destination was that we had sought out. Walking on the surface of the Moon was really a lot easier perhaps than we had even been led to believe. The horizon clearly curved away in that rather smooth part of the Moon chosen for our landing site for Apollo 11. The sky was black as could be—crystal clear visibility with no air. The backpack caused us to lean forward a bit. But, clearly, moving was like in slow motion because of the restrictions of the suit. Walking on another world, knowing that you’re more distant than two people have ever been before, and yet, at that time, more people back home were witnessing what we were doing. That was quite an ironic situation, an unusual one. And, it occurred to me that this was, indeed, unique in the history of travel.

Hitt: Alright. Thank you for sharing that. Through your numerous public appearances, your BuzzAldrin.com Web site, your many books, including an upcoming children’s book, you’re an outspoken advocate for space exploration. What is the most important message you want to share with the world today?

Aldrin: I think with the world today, the most important message might be the plaque that we left on the Moon that said, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969.” And, the most important part is, “We came in peace for all mankind.” The world is in turmoil today, and I think the efforts that we put forth are an inspiration to those who seek freedom in the world, that this is an example of what that freedom can bring. Space travel is something that is now reserved for only those very specially selected people, but I think there’s an inspiration involved also that one day in the not-too-distant future, many other people, not specialists in astronaut or cosmonaut activities, but more and more of the ordinary common private citizen, may one day have the opportunity to experience, perhaps not landing on the Moon, perhaps not reaching the Moon for a good while, but attaining not just suborbital flight, but flight into orbit around the Earth.

Hitt: Today, after more than 30 years, there is serious talk about returning to the Moon and exploring the solar system. What do you believe should be the goals of space exploration today?

Aldrin: Well, clearly today, I think the goals must be affordable. They must be sustainable through many different administrations. So, we need a bipartisan approach that inspires the people. And, through the people of our country and of the world, it motivates the leaders and the people allocating the funds, in our case, the congress, to be able to ensure the continuity of funding support for NASA and the private sector. But, we need a sustaining leadership in the executive branch of the government. The goals, clearly, must be attainable, and they must be evolutionary. I think there are several steps involved in reaching the Moon. We need to chart out the potential landing sites by robotic spacecraft. We need to decide what is the best selection of launch vehicles to launch the exploration vehicle and the landers, that they can evolve into maximizing the potential support for journeying beyond the Moon, perhaps visiting the asteroids on the way to the moons of Mars, then supporting landings on Mars itself. All of this should be viewed with an objective of accepting the objective of permanent occupancy on Mars, rather than just several expeditions that could be postponed in a discontinuous way. We need to have a growing evolutionary commitment that doesn’t turn on and off the support for space.

Hitt: Thank you. The students of today will be the explorers that will bring that future about. What advice would you have for children in school today?

Aldrin: I guess the students of today need to have an open mind, explore many avenues of career choices, pay attention to the working tools that might be needed if the student aspires to a career supporting space activities or actually participating in them themselves. They need to be operators, they need to be communicators, have a significant individual background. And for longer and longer duration spaceflights, they need to develop the skills of compatibility with the close quarters that would be required for their fellow travelers. Not an easy task, but an inspiring one.

Hitt: For you, what was the most exciting part of the experience of flying in space?

Aldrin: Maybe that fits into three categories, the experience of flying in space. One is the physical sensations, and the observations. And, I guess the third is that your life is different. You are now looked upon as an individual who has been to unusual places. And, this gives you a status in the eyes of your fellow citizens. So, there’s the visual scenery from space, the fantastic view, there’s the sensation physically of floating in zero-gravity, and, then, there is the lifetime experience of sharing those wonderful opportunities to fellow human beings.

Hitt: Although your last spaceflight was 35 years ago, you’ve been very involved in space exploration ever since. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing today.

Aldrin: I’m involved in a number of things moving toward, let’s say, technical contributions. I’ve formed a rocket company for reusable rockets, demonstrating what NASA and the Air Force could use in small reusable rockets, progressing to boosters of larger and larger size. This is just a booster that gets the launch vehicle to Mach 3, 3 and a half, and then the booster glides back, or Mach 6, part of the way up into space, and the booster then flies back. We also have an expertise in crew modules, safe crew modules that can be matched with appropriate launch vehicles, to carry out flights beyond low Earth orbit, to be able to join up with landers and support missions to the Moon and beyond. That’s part of the technical contributions. The other contributions, perhaps, are in the more non-profit, the inspirational, and they come under the category of my Share Space Foundation. The objective is to share space with as many people as possible, so that there’s an increasing commercial return from spaceflight and an inspirational aspect for those who are afforded the opportunity to share in space. I’m organizing global space travelers, those individuals who are non-professional astronauts and cosmonauts, who have had the opportunity to reach orbital flight, either in the Space Shuttle or with the Russians. Then, there’s suborbital space travelers that would also be a part of this group. These role models, global space travelers, can inspire adventure travel, space camps, and perhaps eventually space scout type organizations, not just nationally, but internationally. Space camps are a part of this, but I think perhaps more important is to try and look at how the exploration missions can also be augmented by similar applications of those launch vehicles and crew modules so that adventure travel can take place with minor modifications of the launch vehicles and crew modules that are needed for exploration. Otherwise, adventure travel would be far, far too expensive. But, we need a partnership between the government civil space exploration needs and the commercial private sector human space travel objectives.

Hitt: Dr. Aldrin, it has been an honor and a pleasure talking to you today, and we appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

Aldrin: Thank you. I hope this helps. It’s an interesting prelude to the 35th anniversary of that wonderful opportunity that three of us had on Apollo 11 to carry out the first lunar landing.

Biographical Data

Hometown: Montclair, New Jersey
Born: January 20, 1930
Education: Bachelor of Science degree from United States Military Academy at West Point, Doctorate of Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Spaceflight Experience:
Pilot, Gemini 12—Aldrin established a new space walk duration record on this 1966 flight.
Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 11—Aldrin and Armstrong became the first men to walk on the Moon during this 1969 mission.

For more information about Buzz Aldrin, visit his NASA biography at http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/bios/htmlbios/aldrin-b.html or his official Web site at http://www.buzzaldrin.com

More Post-Launch Thoughts


• That’s the best picture I took of the STS-135 launch. I took my camera, just in case, and had my iPhone, but really before I ever went down that I was going to do like I did the first time I saw one launch, STS-125, and just watch. I’ve taken pictures of three shuttle launches since then, and gotten some good pictures, but I wanted to watch the last one take place with my own eyes, and not through a viewfinder. I was particularly glad since, as again with STS-125, a low-cloud ceiling meant that the shuttle was visible for only a short time before it disappeared, and I’m glad I didn’t waste that time trying to get the perfect shot. I knew there would be plenty of great pictures of this launch; it would be OK if none of them were mine.

• This was my tenth trip down specifically to watch a launch. On four of those trips, I watched, or attempted to watch, from the NASA Causeway at Kennedy Space Center. I watched one each from KARS Park and from the Saturn V Center. On two trips, the launch was scrubbed early enough each day that I never even made it to a viewing area.

On my first trip, I had no idea what I was doing. I went down with some friends, and we headed down to Highway 1 on the riverside in Titusville the night before the launch to scout the area out, and found this cool pier jutting out from a public park. We came back the next day, and set up on the farthest leg of the pier. The launch was scrubbed near the last minute, and I got possibly the worst sunburn of my life. We came back the next day, and sat for a while in the rain, only to have the launch scrubbed two or three hours before T0. We drove home the next day, and watched the launch on television in my living room.

I’d been back to that pier several times, generally on the day before launch to look at the pad at night. But it ended up that I had never gone back there to try to watch a launch again. Until last week. Friday morning, we got up early, and headed back to my pier in Titusville, with the weather looking no more promising than it ever had.

And yet, it flew. And I got to end my shuttle-launching streak where I started it, successfully watching a launch from where I’d first tried unsuccessfully five years earlier.

• I lost my radio scanner on this trip. I had it clipped to my belt, using it to listen to an amateur-radio rebroadcast of the NASA TV launch feed, and at about T -2 minutes, I leaned over to pick something up, and it came off my belt, bounced once on the pier, and dived into the water.

I was sad for about two seconds before realizing there was really no reason. I’d had the thing for 15 years. My parents gave it to me when I started my first post-college newspaper job; I used it to listen to the emergency band channels at home so I could go take pictures of house fires or car wrecks or the like. And when I left the newspaper business, it sat neglected on a shelf until five years ago, when I went to a launch for the first time, and used it to keep up with what was going on. It’s served me well in the years since for that purpose. So after all that time, I was a little sad to lose it. But I realized that it had served its purpose. Twice. It had been with me through my newspaper days until they were done, and it had been with me through the shuttle launches until they were done. It was sort of fitting to lose it right as it finished it purpose. Dulce et decorum est.

• The trip itself had an ambient feeling of it being the last time. We drove into Titusville on Thursday night and I saw the VAB for the first time on this trip, a familiar vista over the many trips I’ve made down there over the past few years. And now, I don’t know when I’ll see it again. And that’s weird. And there was a lot of that — places I didn’t know when I’d see again, places that I went while I still had a chance, places that I’ve never been and may now never get to. A lot of memories from a lot of trips over a significant period of time. I still haven’t fully wrapped me mind around the fact that the space shuttle program itself was almost over, and so those feelings of an ending were probably the closest I came to experiencing that finality.

• And the launch itself? I still can’t describe my emotions. There were too many, all at once. There was the standard awe, the standard elation, a tinge of sadness, a visceral sense of history. But the significance? Still beyond me.

Yeah, it was an ending. And, yes, the standard way of doing business is over. But I’m a dreamer. It’s hard not to have hope. The old way is done. I have no idea what exactly the future looks like. But there are other dreamers bringing it about right now. I have a real feeling that things will not only be as good as they are 15 years from now, they’ll be better than we expect. I couldn’t help but think o Isaiah 43:19:

“For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.”

Author-y Stuff


Various and sundry author updates:

• I recently had the opportunity to buy several copies of my first book, “Homesteading Space” for $15, and would be glad to sell a few at that price. A few people have contacted me already, but if you would be interested in one, let me know. (Out of town folks would have to pay shipping, also; I would be glad to sign/inscribe books per request.)

• I will be giving a couple of “Homesteading”-inspired talks in the next few weeks; one at the public library in Decatur on July 28 at 6:30 p.m., and the other at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center on August 13, time TBD. I would love to see some familiar faces in the audience. I’m planning on revamping my standard talk a bit, after giving an updated version at ISDC in May, to tie history in to the current state of American human spaceflight.

• On Monday, I reviewed the new index which will be included in the forthcoming paperback version of “Homesteading,” which will be published this fall.

• We’ve gotten notes back on the manuscript of our early-space-shuttle history book, “Bold They Rise,” and are working with the publisher on how best to address those. God willing, we’ll be able to begin work on those edits before too long and get that book turned around as well.

Kind Words


I was flattered recently to see this exchange on Twitter:

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As an author, it’s pretty hard to see that as remotely merited, but it’s also hard not to be very flattered by it.

And speaking of Homesteading Space, I’ll be giving a brief talk inspired by the book at the ISDC conference in Huntsville tomorrow.

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