Leadership and Apollo 13

40 years ago yesterday, on April 13th, 1970, an onboard explosion crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft’s service module, forcing the ground crew and astronauts to abandon their original mission of landing on the moon. The story is a well known one, second only to the Apollo 11 mission and still resonates for the actions that occurred over the next week as all involved worked to bring the crew home alive. The successful return of the crew underscored the importance of organization, leadership and innovation on the part of NASA, and remains one of the best examples of the traits to this day.

On April 11th, the Apollo 13 mission blasted off from Cape Canaveral, headed towards the Fra Mauro formation, which was rich in geological significance, with a number of hills and meteor craters. Shortly after liftoff, the mission experienced its first problem with a premature shutdown of one of the main engines, but with a longer burn from the four remaining engines, the spacecraft was able to make it to space and on its way. The far better known disaster that befell the crew occurred two days later when the crew stirred the oxygen and hydrogen tanks onboard the ship, causing a short in a wire, thus detonating the tank, causing damage to the Service Module. With depleted oxygen, the crew had to shut down their fuel cells to conserve electricity, and used their Lunar Module as a lifeboat to survive the trip home. Mission Control on Earth decided that the crew would be better off by using a free-return trajectory (allowing the Moon’s gravity to pull the ship around and back in the proper direction) in order to return. In addition to their problems with power and returning home, the crew was forced to improvise a device that would allow them to filter out the carbon dioxide from the ship’s atmosphere. Despite the challenges that faced them, the crew returned to Earth and landed safely.

The Apollo 13 mission has long been a triumph of NASA, not just because of its successes in returning a crippled spaceship to Earth, but because it represents one of the best examples of leadership and ingenuity on the part of a massive organization in order to accomplish an almost impossible task. Oftentimes, these sorts of examples are seen amongst military operations: the Apollo 13 mission is a rare, highly public example of this in the civilian world.

The steps taken on the part of leadership were clearly laid out. The crew and ground teams had to first determine what the problem was – initially, the crew feared that they had been hit by a micrometeorite, but determined the problem shortly thereafter. From that point, they determined the steps to stabilize the spaceship, and ruled out the main mission objective: landing on the moon, and then were forced to work out exactly how the crew would be returning home. What makes Apollo 13 a good example of leadership lies in the successes of bringing the crew back: the clear objective in this instance was to prevent the death of the crew, and highlights a sort of ‘Commander’s Intent’ directive where the leaders of Mission Control, namely Gene Kranz, the lead flight director. From his position, he directed the people underneath his command to come up with solutions to the numerous problems, acting as an intermediary, collecting information and making a decision based on what he knew at the time. The responsibilities of the people below him were with specific issues: determining the extent of the problem, then the solution to either fixing it, or minimizing its impact on the event. These items included the supply of oxygen and trying to figure out exactly how to conserve power because of a reduction in supply, how to scrub the CO2 out of the ship’s atmosphere, how to accomplish burns and ultimately, bring the crew home safely. The end result was the return of Jim Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise. They owe their lives to good organization and leadership on the part of NASA and the flight control teams.

In the end, the crew received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their actions, and the Fra Mauro highlands were visited in the next mission, Apollo 14, crewed by Alan Shepard (The United State’s first astronaut into space), Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell.

The sequence of events and actions that were taken demonstrate leadership in moments where the consequences were most dire. However, the lessons that can be learned from the event, such as identifying problems and then identifying their solutions, delegating to other team members and trusting their findings and conclusions, while fitting all of these elements together into the framework of an overall mission are essential traits that can be applied to any number of practices outside of space travel, any place where there are numerous, organized people. While the consequences might not be dire in all instances, having proper leadership and organization is essential to achieving an eventual goal.

God Speed, John Glenn

On February 20th, 1962, John Glenn Jr., atop an Atlas rocket, became the third American to leave the Earth’s surface, on his way to fulfill the core objective of the Mercury Project: orbit the Earth and return safely. His flight was met with joy from the people United States, who idolized the seven Mercury astronauts, as this mission would allow the United States to finally catch up to the Soviet Union, who had not only beaten America to space with Sputnik, but they also put the first man into orbit just a month before the American’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard Jr.

The first two Mercury missions were undertaken by American astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, demonstrating that the United States could not only send men into space successfully, but that they could repeat the experiment. However, where the United States had been overtaken by Soviet Union Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was orbital flight, something that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration hoped to catch up with during the Friendship 7 Mission.

The mission came at a crossroads with the development of the space race, and at particularly chilly relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Much of NASA’s pitch to Congress depended upon a Soviet lead in the race to orbit, something that the US would meet up with when it came to the Friendship 7 mission, and diplomacy at the time was intertwined with international arms agreements and cooperation with US allies. (Walter McDougall, And the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, 365.) At this point in time, the United States and the Soviet Union were still at the early stages of the Space Race, where both countries had strategic interests in space, namely with the use of spy satellites. As the race progressed, objections to most arguments were dropped. (McDougall, 348). Within this context, it’s hardly a surprise at the reaction to the success of Friendship 7, but also the drive that the Mercury Seven astronauts displayed during their training. There was an acute awareness that the space program was an element of the nation’s security, something that acted as a more visible deterrent for both countries, as an indicator of technological sophistication. (Francis French and Colin Burgess, Into that Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965, 138).

The Friendship 7 mission itself was delayed from its original December 20th, 1961 date, due to technical and weather related issues. There were numerous launch attempts, all resulting in a count-down halt, until February 20th, where there were only minor technical delays and a break in the weather, allowing for a launch. (French, 140). At 9:47 in the morning, the rocket roared to life, and Glenn was on his way to orbit.

This marked the first time that an Atlas Rocket was used to launch a human in the space program. The two prior Mercury flights were powered by Von Braun’s Redstone Rocket (William Burrows, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, 326), which allowed Shepherd and Grissom into space, but only on ballistic trajectories. The Atlas Rocket, which was also used to launch nuclear missiles, was powerful enough to bring Glenn to an orbital altitude. The Atlas, first proposed in 1946, was now the survivor of an intense inter-rivalry fight between the United States Army, Navy and Air Force. (Neil Sheehan, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon, 222-223)

Glenn’s flight started off better than expected, with a perfect launch, but once the spacecraft reached orbit, a warning light indicated that the heat shield had come loose on Friendship 7, which could mean that the spacecraft and astronaut would burn up in orbit upon re-entry. Mission control ordered Glenn to conduct several tests designed to confirm the nature of the problem, but at that time, he wasn’t told of the issue, but knew that at that point, something was wrong. Glenn was able to conduct three orbits of the Earth, and as the spacecraft reached the point of reentry, Mission Control instructed the astronaut to leave the retropack in place, to keep the heat shield in place should it be loose. After a hair raising trip back to Earth, Friendship 7 landed near the USS Noa. Technical follow-ups with the spacecraft revealed later on that the heat shield had in fact remained in place, and was never loose in the first place: a faulty microchip had malfunctioned, giving off a signal that the spacecraft was in trouble. (French, 146)

The success of the mission helped to fulfill a couple of functions with the US’s image in space. The first aspect was concerned with catching up with the Soviet Union’s achievements in space. With the flight of Friendship 7, the United States had caught up with the Soviet Union in terms of space technology, matching Yuri Gagarin’s flight just 10 months earlier. But the successful flight helped to demonstrate the capabilities of the Atlas rocket once again. While the rocket had been used in a fairly public demonstration with an orbit of the Earth in 1958, Glenn’s use of the rocket to reach orbit was something that was looked upon by millions from around the world. After the mission, Glenn and Friendship 7 went around the world in what was called the 4th orbit, no doubt as a calculated public relations tour that helped to underscore the technological abilities of the United States. (Burrows, 342)

Glenn’s flight was a success for the space program, achieving the goals of the Mercury program: send a human to space and orbit the Earth. The mission demonstrated that the United States could replicate their earlier successes on preexisting hardware, and also demonstrate that the Soviet Union did not necessarily have the final say on spaceflight. But, it also showed that there were issues in command between the crew of the spacecraft and Mission control, issues that would occur later: who would be in charge of the spacecraft in the event of an emergency? In this instance, Mission Control was able to work out possible solutions to the perceived issue on Glenn’s flight, but future missions would strain the ties. Despite that, the Friendship 7 mission was widely celebrated for its contributions to the advances in American spaceflight, allowing the United States to catch up to the Russians and eventually, overtake them in the race to the Moon.

The Future of American Space

A friend of mine from work forwarded me an editorial from conservative writer Charles Krauthammer that went up a couple of days ago. It’s an article that is both misinformed and contradictory between a number of different points, attacking the Obama administration by likening the recent cancellation of the Constellation program to shutting the United States out of space for good. Nothing could be further from the truth in this when it comes to the future of the American Space industry.

It is noted that Russia will hold a monopoly on spaceflight for the first couple of years following the shutdown of the space shuttle. True, but as a recent Wall Street Journal editorial by Peter Diamandis (one of the founders of the X-Prize) notes, this will come to significantly lower costs for the US, as the operational cost will be borne by the Russians, as the United States sends up hardware and personnel. Considering that the US currently spends billions on going to space with the shuttle, it’s a good move for a democratic administration trying to cut spending. Cooperation with the former Soviet Union makes sense, especially as we’re not enemies with the nation anymore, but competitors, as we both have mutually accessible goals with the International Space Station. Indeed, space technology, while in the hands of the Americans, has long been a way of surpassing diplomatic closed doors: the Apollo 11 astronauts toured Russia, while the Apollo/Soyuz test project helped to bring the two countries closer together over time.

In the meantime, getting to space is not too expensive for private industries: it’s been done before, and a number of other companies are well on their way. Last year, SpaceX became the first company to launch and deploy a satellite into space, and over the past year, has been testing their own equipment on launches – one of the recent shuttle launches contained a new navigational unit, designed for SpaceX’s proprietary technology, as well as other instruments so that their own ships would be able to locate and lock onto the International Space Station. NASA has already awarded a contract to this company, starting in 2010, to run through 2012, for launch capabilities, most likely to get supplies and materials up into orbit with their Falcon 9 rocket. A manned spacecraft, the Dragon, is to be used with the Falcon 9, and will no doubt be playing a large role in the near future. In this regard, Krauthammer is misinformed as to the capabilities of the US Space Industry.

This is one of the more puzzling elements of the space industry, especially when it comes to the political table. Numerous presidents, from Kennedy to Regan to Nixon to Bush have all played the space card, often suggesting lofty goals for what the United States can achieve. In a way, the ability to reach space is a marker for the progress of the technology and science, and the United States has proven, and continued to prove its resilience and dedication to these goals. However, in how these goals are carried out is telling, especially when one considers the background motivations behind why these men have suggested that we go to space. President Kennedy, in his famous Rice Stadium speech on May 25th, 1961, came just after the April failure of an invasion of Cuba. Faced with a desire to help scrub the administration’s image clean, Kennedy focused on some of his campaign priorities, including the space gap issue, and announced that the United States would go to the moon – a move that wasn’t supported by everyone in his administration, and even the President himself had his doubts about it. The recent Constellation program was announced by President George W. Bush during a period of sagging rating from a war that was going sour, suggesting that there was much of the same rational going on behind the scenes. Space is an inspirational goal, and none of the presidents really deserve any criticism for their intentions, but they do for their own personal lack of support. Constellation was most likely doable, but at enormous cost that just doesn’t make sense in the current economic climate.

Indeed, when it comes to conservative support, the condemnation of the cancellation of Constellation runs contrary to both parties internal philosophies: conservatives, who seek to reduce the federal budget, taxes and overall governmental footprint, are eager to continue this expensive and limited program, while it is the liberals, who advocate larger government spending and influence who are asking for the program to be cut away. Space has a very strange influence on governmental politics, because of the moral and popular boost that only going to the moon can reveal. In this instance, cancelling one program for another one that has the potential to better cement America’s hold on space seems like the better option, especially if the incentives for private business enterprises are there as well, another puzzling aspect of Krauthammer’s argument, which likewise runs counter to typical conservative thinking: there is something that American ingenuity and hard work can’t accomplish? I honestly find this incredibly difficult to believe, and think that an American space industry will help bring the US to orbit and keep us there, long-term.

Diamondis’s article points out some very good reasons to go to space: asteroids contain a wealth of minerals and metals that can be used here at home, as well as on the Moon. The space program has long been argued as being a great public relations program, but one without practical gain. A space program and industry that pays for itself is the only way forward for anyone to remain in space, and the United States needs to continue that momentum by building up an industry and a space program that can work with it in the future. Other countries are still reasonably far behind, but while there is no reason to allow them to catch up, the United States needs to be intelligent about its decisions in how it remains in the lead.

Finally, the argument that Mars is too far away makes sense to a limited extent, but if going into space is only for limited goals, then what is the point of the United States remaining in orbit if there is little payback for our efforts? The Space Shuttle was a remarkable achievement in its time, and there will be others in the future: humanity will make its way to Mars, if anything because it is in our nature to do so: we are a curious people, and will always be looking ahead to the next challenge to overcome, and the next place where we can stick our feet.

The Constellation Program & The Future of Spaceflight

Over the weekend, it was widely reported that the Obama Administration has proposed cancelling NASA’s next big project, The Constellation Program, which was designed to return humanity to the Moon, but instead, increased NASA’s budget by $6 Billion. The official explanation was that Constellation would largely be a repeat of the Apollo program by returning Americans to the moon, and was rejected by an independent review panel. While there has been a considerable amount of press regarding this, it is most likely better for the US space program as a whole.

I was happy to see President Bush announce the Constellation Program, but in the couple of years since its announcement, it’s become increasingly clear that this was a project that wasn’t going to work in the long run. In the history of space exploration, numerous presidents have used the space program as a way to launch legacies and to bolster public support for their administration, most notably with the Kennedy Administration, as well as the Nixon Administration. Undoubtedly, this was a goal of the second Bush Administration, which faced flagging support as the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars were getting worse. This sort of support from an administration isn’t unwarranted, or really unwelcome, but given the absolute complexity of something such as Apollo or Constellation, there needs to be broad public support and administrative support for the program. This worked extremely well during the 1960s, as politicians were able to use the advances of the Soviet Union as a way to link both spaceflight and military technologies together. If the Russians were able to reach the moon first, they would be perceived as being technologically superior. In a world of unorganized terror and irregular warfare, this threat doesn’t exist. While it’s clear that Iran and North Korea has experimented with IRBM and ICBM technology, there isn’t a race to see who’s better. Thus, public and political pressure for a successful moon landing project isn’t behind a push to go to the moon, which will hurt the project in numerous ways, such as budget cuts.

Beyond that, however, is the entire purpose of a moon landing program. The Mercury and Gemini programs were both designed with much different criteria in mind: Could humans go to space, and could humans live in space? The successes of both and the subsequent Apollo program indicated yes, making them an unparalleled success. When it came to Apollo, the end goals are more limited: Could humans land on the moon? While Apollo proved that this was true, it was far more limited, with no aftermath plan put into place, and with fewer tangible results that could come out of it. Once humanity reached the moon, public support slowed, and the last three Apollo missions were cancelled, despite the hardware and training that had gone into them. A repeat of Apollo wouldn’t prove anything new, other than advancing some of the known technologies. Until a good reason is found to return to the lunar service, it shouldn’t be subjected to the constraints of taxpayer whims and political points, and this is what would have happened with Constellation. A return to the moon would be a tremendous boon to the United States, but it would be a superficial one, without real substance.

While this shuts out a lunar moon program on the part of NASA, this does open the doors for private aerospace companies, new and old. Earlier today, NASA announced five companies were receiving large grants, while other companies, such as SpaceX, will be tasked with shuttling people and materials back and forth between the earth and orbit. Private industry will likely be a better choice for space technology, because it is freed from the constraints of public funding and politicians. This doesn’t necessarily mean that NASA will be out of the space business either – several programs that will be brought up will be focusing on robotics and orbital stations, as well as investigating new equipment and technology, which will undoubtedly help create a foundation for further exploration to the moon and solar system.

There are some drawbacks to this. It’ll take longer, which will push the United States back a bit, and it will place some exploration in the hands of machines, rather than people. That, however, is a smaller price to pay if it helps to put the United States and humanity on track to reach the stars on a bit more of a permanent basis. What I can foresee, is a buildup of additional companies such as SpaceX, which will help to build a large industrial and commercial basis for human habitation in space. That, I believe, is incredibly important, especially given the problems with the economy as of late. This would provide the US with a wholly unique industry, something that is badly needed.

The problems with going to space are complicated, and returning to orbit will be a very different thing after twenty years of depending on the space shuttle. Hopefully, these changes will be the start of new priorities for the space agency, and hopefully, exploration to the Moon and Mars won’t be too far behind.

Remembering Gus Grissom

On January 27th, 1969, the three members of Apollo 1 were conducting a routine test of their spacecraft when the unthinkable happened: a spark, most likely caused by a short in the cockpit wiring and fueled by a pure oxygen environment, caused a flash fire that killed the crew. The tragedy pushed America’s spaceflight ambitions back as many elements of the program had to be redesigned to better crew safety.

The commander for the mission was Gus Grissom, a forty-one year old astronaut who was the likely candidate to become the first man to land on the moon. Born to a Midwestern family in 1926, Grissom joined the US Army Air Corp during the Second World War, but never saw flight time, as the war ended. Using the GI Bill, he attended Purdue University and obtained a degree in Mechanical Engineering. In 1950, with the United States headed back to war with Korea, Grissom rejoined the US Air Force and trained as a pilot, eventually flying 100 combat missions. In 1959, Grissom was summoned to Washington, along with over a hundred other test pilots, where he learned that he was selected for a number of tests to screen out qualified pilots for the newly established space program. In the end, he was one of seven astronauts chosen for the program, who would later be known as the Mercury 7. The next couple of years would see intense training and preparations for the missions. In 1961, John Shepherd Jr. become the first of the Mercury astronauts to be launched into orbit; Grissom would be the second, in the Liberty Bell 7, on July 21st, 1961.

Arguably, Grissom held what was the more important of the two launches. While Shepherd is better known for being the first American in space, Grissom should be better known for the astronaut who proved that American spaceflight was on the right track, and that the flight of the Freedom 7 was not just a lucky break. Grissom demonstrated that spaceflight was a repeatable event, and did so at considerable risk, as his spacecraft was lost when the door blew off after landing. Grissom almost perished in the accident, but was pulled to safety.

Grissom was also scheduled for the second flight of the Gemini Program, but when Alan Shepherd was grounded due to illness, Grissom and astronaut John Young were tasked with the first flight, which launched in 1965. The flight went well, orbiting the earth three times before splashing down, helping to demonstrate that men could do more than merely go into space for short periods of time: the Gemini project helped show that people could live in space, and set the groundwork for Apollo. Following that mission, Grissom and other astronauts helped with the design process for the Apollo module, although their frustrations grew as more errors were discovered with the spacecraft.

At the point of his death, Grissom was one of the United State’s most experienced astronauts, having completed missions on both the Mercury and Gemini projects. The astronauts were integral to the development of the space program, and Grisson’s background in Mechanical engineering, as well as his experience as a test pilot, made him an ideal candidate to lead the way into space. Despite Grissom’s death, space travel did continue onwards, although it would be another two years before Americans would set foot on the moon, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin manning Apollo 11. There is much speculation that Grissom would have been in charge of that mission, had he survived.

Interestingly, one of the quotes attributed to Grissom sums up one of the harsh realities of space travel: “If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it wll not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” (Gus Grissom, John Barbour et al., Footprints on the Moon, Associated Press, 1969, p 125.)


Top Geek Things of 2009

Now that it’s close to the end of the year, it’s time to look back, like everyone else and their mother on the internet, on the past year. 2009 has been a fantastic one for all things geek. There have been a number of fantastic movies, books, television shows and so forth, as well as a bunch of things that really didn’t come off as well. Here’s what I’ve been geeking out (or complaining about) this year:

The Best:

Moon is easily one of the best Science Fiction films that I’ve ever seen. Ever. It’s been added to a very small list of films (The Fountain, Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, etc) of exceptionally conceptualized, produced and thoughtful SF/F films out there. Moon is one of two really good films this year that I really enjoyed and for a number of reasons. The story is fantastic, playing off of common themes with new eyes, it’s visually stunning and it’s a largely original story, one that’s not based directly off of prior works. And, it has a fantastic soundtrack by Clint Mansell.

Star Trek
This appears three times on this list, because I’m still largely split over how I feel about it. The best parts of this is that it’s a fantastic, visually stunning film, and really does what Enterprise and Nemesis failed to do: reboot the franchise in grand style, with over the top action, adventure, everything that really comes to mind when you think Big Budget Space Movie. The cast, pacing and visuals made this one of the most successful films of the year, and the best of the big budget films that came out this year.

District 9
When it comes to fantastic Science Fiction films, Moon and Star Trek didn’t have a monopoly on this at all – District 9, coming out of San Diego Comic Con with an incredible amount of buzz and a good viral marketing campaign showed that there was still a place for an innovative filmmaker armed with a good story. The end result is a compelling take on first contact. Instead of an us against them, or invaders from outer space flick, we see refugees from outer space, with an acute political message that makes this movie even more interesting.

The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button
This was an interesting film, one that got a bit of press, but wasn’t a blockbuster by any means. The story of a man who ages backwards from birth, one that proved to be a powerful and somewhat heartbreaking love story leaves much room for discussion, but at points, was slow and ponderous. Brad Pitt did a fantastic job, as did the special effects artists who provided the CGI throughout.

The Magicians, Lev Grossman
The Magicians was a book that came out of nowhere for me, until a Borders email let me know about it. Picking it up, with few expectations, I was enthralled with Lev Grossman‘s take on the fantasy world. Drawing much from C.S. Lewis‘s Chronicles of Narnia and elements of Harry Potter, this book looks at a boy in a magical academy in a far more realistic sense, injecting a good dose of post-college reality into a field that is often ripe with monsters and epic quests. A quest of sorts is in here, but the buildup is fantastic.

Wired For War, P.W. Singer
Wired For War is a book from earlier this year that looked at the developments of robotics in warfare. P.W. Singer takes a long and comprehensive look at not only the state of robots and their use in combat operations, but also looks to how the use of robotics is integrated into wartime planning, and how this impacts command and control structures already in place. From this point, he looks to the future of warfare, where robotics will go through the next decades and what the face of futuristic warfare might look like. It’s also peppered with numerous Science Fiction references. I had a chance to speak with and interview Mr. Singer, who was extremely pleasant and eager to talk about his book, and write up several major articles for io9, which was a thrill as always.

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
Recently selected as one of Time Magazine’s top books of the year, Paolo Bacigalupi‘s first novel, The Windup Girl is a stunning one. Taking place in the near future, in a world without oil, alternative energy has become paramount, while agricultural firms have put profit before common sense and as a result, plagues ravage the world, except for Thailand, whose isolationist policies hold back the outside world and its problems. The book covers a lot of ground, from governmental policy to corporate greed to bioethics, with a wide range of characters who all fall within a gray area. This book is fantastic, and if it doesn’t win a Hugo, there’s seriously something wrong with the world.

The Moon Reigns Supreme – 40th Anniversary of Apollo 11 & Water on the Moon
This year marked 40 years since 1969, when man first landed on the moon with Apollo 11, and with a successful follow-up mission with Apollo 12. Easily one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments and it has been followed up with a number of projects. NASA found and restored footage of the landing and EVA activities, cleaning it up a little. NASA also took pictures from orbit of the Apollo landing sites, down to footprint trails with some stunning work from LCROSS.
In addition to NASA’s efforts to celebrate the anniversary, there were a number of other things out there. The Kennedy Library launched the website ‘We Chose the Moon‘, which documented, in real time, the Apollo 11 mission. I listened at the edge of my seat, following along with the mission transcript and listened as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the lunar surface. Finally, Craig T. Nelson‘s book, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men On The Moon, was released earlier this year to also commemorate the mission, which proved to be a detailed and fantastic read, one that helped to influence my thinking on the lunar mission.
The Lunar landing wasn’t the only press that the moon got this year – the LCROSS mission launched a component that slammed into the surface and let up a plume of debris – analysis revealed that there is water on the moon – a lot of it. And for all of those people who complained about this, keep in mind the number of craters that are already there.

Last servicing mission to Hubble.
NASA wasn’t just in the news for Apollo 11; this year marked the last servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in orbit since 1990. Despite its troubled history, the satellite has returned some of the most fantastic, beautiful and stunning images of the universe around us, and will continue to do so for a couple more years. Space Shuttle mission STS-125 was launched in May, where a new camera was placed onboard and several other minor repairs. The satellite is slated to continue operation through 2014, so don’t fret yet.

James May’s Toy Stories
James May, one of the three presenters on Top Gear, has been doing a limited TV show on classic toys, including Mecano, Plasticine, and eventually, Lego, looking a little at their history and then building something supersized out of them. It’s quite a treat to watch.

I called Fringe one of the worst things last year, but it’s turned around for me. Picking up the boxed set, I was hooked. It’s a bit cheesy, gory, but a whole lot of fun. Walter, weird science, teleportation and alternate universes make this show a huge joy to watch. Season 2 is proving to be just as good, now that they’ve locked down a story, and I’m eager to see where it goes.

Dollhouse debuted earlier this year with a short, 13 episode season that started off slowly, but picked up an incredible amount of steam. While it’s more uneven than Joss Whedon‘s earlier show, Firefly, Dollhouse‘s better episodes help make up for the slack by introducing some of the most challenging moments in Science Fiction, and deal with issues such as the soul, personality and consent, while also offering cautionary tales on the uses of technology. Unfortunately, with the show’s cancellation right as it gets good, there’s a limit to what can be told, but with plenty of time for this show to wrap up all the remaining storylines, I think that this will become a cult classic.

Battlestar Galactica
Where to begin with Battlestar Galactica? It’s been a rush over the past six or so years, with a miniseries and four seasons of television and two movies, and like all good things, it had to end sometime. Fortunately, it ended when it was good, and while the finale garnered quite a lot of talk and dismay from some people (io9 listed it as one of the bigger disappointments), I think that it was carried off well, with a rich blend of religious allegory, action and a satisfying ending that few science fiction shows seem to get.

Sadly, Kings was another short lived show that was cancelled before its time. Taking the story of David and Goliath from the Bible and updating it in a modern, alternate world with inter-kingdom politics, faith and destiny. The stories were superb, well told, with a fantastic cast. This is precisely the type of show that should have been on SyFy, especially with their upcoming show Caprica.

Stargate: Universe
SyFy’s latest show from the Stargate Franchise, Stargate: Universe is possibly the most interesting and compelling installment in the series. Taking the very basics of Stargate SG-1/Stargate Atlantis, this show takes more cues from Battlestar Galactica than it does Stargate. The result is a far more realistic show, with more personal stories and situations that are much darker, and more grown up from the first show.

Landing At Point Rain
The Clone Wars thunders on, with mixed results, but easily the best episode that’s aired thus far is Landing At Point Rain. Taking influences from Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan and other war movies, the show finally lives up to its title: The Clone Wars. There’s plenty of action, less of the stupid lines and fantastic animation that really made this episode one of the most exciting moments in the entire franchise.

The Hazards of Love, by the Decemberists
The Decemberists have long dabbled in interesting and wordy music, as well as fantasy, with their last album, The Crane Wife, and The Tain, but The Hazards of Love is their most ambitious attempt at a concept album to date, one with an overarching story of Margaret and William, a town girl and a cursed man, their love for one another and the Forest Queen who conspires to keep them apart. The album is filled with supernatural elements, and seems to draw from Lord of the Rings and traditional mythic stories to put together one of their best works to date. The band in concert was also a treat to see.

Do You Want To Date My Avatar?
I’m not all that familiar with The Guild, but Felica Day‘s clever music video is hands down fantastic.

Dr. Horrible Wins an Emmy
Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog was one of the coolest things to come out last year, and this year, it received an Emmy, which helps to solidify the web as a growing platform for serious and professionally produced entertainment. Hopefully, its success will mean that we’ll see smaller, independent productions going online and succeeding.

Symphony of Science
Symphony of Science is a project that puts noted scientists (notably Carl Sagan) to music by using an auto tuner. The result is a series of music videos and songs that help to convey some of the beauty and wonder of physics though some fairly clever songs. I’ve been listening to them constantly, and as a sort of electronica style music, they’re quite fun, and very geeky to listen to. Best of all, there is plans to make further songs.

Star Wars In Concert
One of the most iconic elements of Star Wars isn’t just the action and epic story; it’s the music that it’s set to. For much of this fall, a travelling show, entitled Star Wars In Concert has been travelling around the nation. Unfortunately, it’s winding down, but it will likely continue into next year. The 501st was called out at most of the events, and through that, I was able to watch the show. Combining a live orchestra, clips from the movies and narration from Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), the entire evening was a fantastic experience that gave me chills throughout.

Tauntaun Sleeping Bag
The Tauntaun Sleeping bag started out as an April Fool’s Joke, but the demand and interest was so prevalent that ThinkGeek actually went out and made it. What a fantastic idea – I kind of want one.

The final thing on this list is Slingers, a short conceptual teaser for a show that’s heading towards production. The 3 minute teaser is easily one of the best moments in SF that I’ve seen in a while and I’ve been bouncing around, positively giddy at the prospect that this might be made. It’s got humor, some interesting characters and a very cool look to the future. Plus, it’s a space show, and there aren’t many of those around now. It left me seeing more, and I’m sure that we’ll see more in the next year or so.


For all the hype, Fanboys was a bit of a letdown. The cancer story was kept in, but so were some of the immature and cheap laughs that brought the entire film down. It’s good for a laugh, and there’s a lot that went right with it, but still, I was left wishing that there was more to it, without the frat boy humor in it.

Don’t get me wrong, Watchmen was stunning. It looked, felt and acted like the comic book that it was inspired by, and the transition to the screen worked fairly well. At the same time, for all the hype that there was here, I’m not that enthused to see it more than once or twice. It’s still on my to get list, but it’s not necessarily a priority. I think my biggest issue with this is that it’s too much like the comic book, and that the drive to make everything exact harmed the overall production. It’s less of a movie than it is an homage from the director. Sin City was the perfect comic book movie, this wasn’t, and it really should have been. Still, it’s worth watching.

Star Trek
Star Trek, one of the best, one of the eh, moments of the year. It looks and feels spectacular, but when you get down to it, there’s the shoddy science, and an incredibly weak story that pulls the movie along. The story’s really not what the film was about, this was a character start for more Star Trek, but for me, story is central to Science Fiction, and this just didn’t have it.

The trailers for 9 looked great, and there was quite a bit of interest in this. I went into the theater with high expectations, and those were largely met – the film looked spectacular, and it was a fun ride, but the story and characters were pretty lacking. It needed quite a bit of story and character development that was needed, and that harmed the film. Plus, it didn’t seem to know if it was a kid’s movie or one for an older audience. This is probably something to rent, not to buy.

The new V should have been great – the cast, producers and network put together a good premise, but with the first couple of episodes sped through just about everything that made the show interesting. The themes of first contact, of a ship arriving over earth with a message for peace contain so much when it comes to religion, science and society, all rich territory that could be exploited, but instead, it’s gone past too quickly, with crappy teenage romance storylines. I’ll probably not pick up watching again, but I’ll see what’s going on in the show, in case, by some miracle, it’s picked up for a second season.

The Prisoner
AMC’s The Prisoner was another show that should have been great. The trailers presented a fantastic looking story of psychological stress with a weird desert backdrop, but honestly? I can’t tell you what it was about. It was convoluted, unconnected and dull, and while it looked very pretty, and had some decent episodes, it was a pretty big letdown.

Spirit gets stuck in the mud
The Spirit Rover on Mars got mired down in a patch of sand earlier this year. Put into operation in 2004, and only intended for a 90 day mission, the rover was still going strong until it got stuck. Hopefully, the boffins over at the JPL will be able to get it out and about once again, although if I remember correctly, the last thing that they were intending to try was to back it out the way it came in. I would have thought that would have been the first thing to have tried.

Google Wave – lights are on, but there’s nobody there.
Late this year, Google Wave got turned on, and like any major Google product with exclusive access, it was, well, popular. But nobody really seems to know what it’s for, and unlike Gmail, which could be used as an e-mail client from day one, its limited access restricts a lot of what you can do with this. People aren’t using it like e-mail if it was designed today; it’s essentially a glorified Gmail chat window, or a really good business collaborative tool. Still, it’s pretty nifty, and I really hope that they can integrate it into Gmail someday.


G.I. Joe, Star Trek, Transformers, Terminator & Big Budget Crap
I know I’ve singled out Star Trek a couple times here, but more than ever, especially with far superior, low budget films competing with them this year, we see once again that tons of special effects doesn’t necessarily equate to a good film. G.I. Joe landed with horrendous reviews, Star Trek had a smaller plot than a television episode and Terminator: Salvation was a huge disappointment, critically. (I thought it was decent, but nowhere near as good as the trailers led me to believe). My biggest gripe is extravagant use of CGI and an over-reliance on special effects for a dumbed down audience. Among other things, Moon and District 9 demonstrated that a good looking, intelligent film could be done for a fairly low cost, and I know that I’ll be going back to those far more than the others. Still, big budget summer movies aren’t going anywhere – a lot of these films made quite a bit, and the jury is still out on Avatar, which drops in a couple weeks.

Karen Traviss Quits Star Wars – Twice
Karen Traviss was really a shining star within the Star Wars Universe. Her first entry, Republic Commando : Hard Contact, was followed up by several very good novels, with some different and intelligent views on the Clone Wars. Then, there was a bit of a row over Mandalorians, causing her books to come into conflict with the Clone Wars TV series. Since then, there’s been a bit of a row about this, and Traviss has left the universe for others, such as Gears of War and Halo, and hopefully, her other works. Karen explains everything here, and makes some good points. She will be missed, however.

Black Matrix Publishing Row
With harder times coming around, some publishers found a new revenue stream: aspiring writers who have little common sense. One notable SF ones was Black Matrix Publishing, called out by author John Scalzi recently on his blog, Whatever. While Scalzi had quite a lot of very good advice in his usual up front fashion, there were a number of people who went on the offensive and critizised him as an elitist writer, issuing some of the most ridiculous arguments for why Black Matrix had been wronged. I’m not necessarily involved in either side, but Scalzi presented a reasonable argument. Why is that so hard?

The ending to Life On Mars
I really got into Life on Mars. It wasn’t as good as the UK version, but it was unique, interesting and divergent from it. While the show basically adapted the original show to a large extent at first, they had an interesting pace and storyline starting up, and far better than the first pilot that was shot, which was just terrible. The creators had a delicate balancing act to follow, and did a very good job with giving their characters their own personalities and stories that diverged from the UK version. Then, the show was cancelled and they ended it, and the last ten minutes of the show just dropped like a rock. Clunky, very, very poor production values that made me wonder if this was all slapped together at the last minute, and quite honestly, it dimmed the entire series for me, especially compared to the brilliance of the UK version. I’ll watch the show again, but I’ll be doing my best to forget about the conclusion.

SciFi becomes SyFy, nobody cares
One of the biggest furies of the year was when SciFi became SyFy, and the internet erupted into such indignation that I thought the world was going to end. Quite simply, the channel changed names to create a stronger brand, not change content, and so far, they seem to be doing pretty well, with Warehouse 13, Stargate Universe, Alice and presumably, Caprica doing really well in the ratings. All of which is good, for the network to expand further and really show that geek is really in right now. While the name looks silly, it’s really a superficial change. Now, if they would just get rid of wrestling. Or pick up Slingers for five seasons.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashes – Mission Failure
This was a satellite that I tracked earlier this year while really watching the space stuff. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory was an expensive one, designed to monitor global carbon levels to get a better idea just how climate change is progressing and providing us with a very good look at just how the environment is changing around us. Ultimately though, part of the nose failed to separate from the capsule, and with the extra weight, the rocket crashed into the south Atlantic.

Heroes continues. Meh.
I’ve given up on Heroes, after the dismal decline in quality, storytelling and characters. They should have stuck with the original plan, and killed off the first season’s cast when they had the chance, instead of bringing people back time and time again. The fact that ratings are declining is just stunning to me, especially now that the show is into it’s fourth season, and I have doubts that it will return. Hopefully not.

Look, if I want to watch LOST, I’ll watch LOST. I’m not going to watch a show that’s a poor copy of it.

Every year, there are a number of deaths in the geek genre/fan community. A couple notable ones were Ricardo Montalbán, who played Kahn in Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, Michael Jackson, who’s song Thriller places him on the Geek spotlight, Kim Manners (X-Files/Supernatural Producer), Philip José Farmer, author of Riverworld and numerous other SF books, Dave Arneson, one of the D&D co-founders, and Norman Borlaug, who saved the world through science. There are others I’m sure, but it’s still hard to see people in the genre leave us forever.


A couple of unknowns for me include The Lovely Bones, Sherlock Holmes, Avatar and Zombieland, which I haven’t seen, Deathtroopers, which I haven’t read, and Halo ODST, which I haven’t played. (Okay, haven’t played much. I’ve liked what I’ve played. And the soundtrack. And the fact that the entire Firefly cast is somewhere in there)

What’s coming up for next year? The new Tron movie is coming out, which I’m horribly excited for, especially after watching the trailer and then the old movie. Slingers is likely going to get some more buzz. Iron Man 2 will be big, as well as Clash of the Titans, Inception (Really want to see that one), Chronicles of Narnia 3, The Book of Eli, and Toy Story 3. Hopefully, Scott Lynch will have his third book out, and Caprica will be beginning (High hopes for that one), as well as the second half  and second Season of Stargate: Universe. Who knows what else?

Apollo 12

On this day in history, Apollo 12 touched down on the lunar surface, allowing Astronauts Alan Bean and Pete Conrad to become the third and fourth men to step onto our nearest neighbor in space. Command Module pilot Richard Gordon remained in orbit during the EVA operations.

Where Apollo 11 saw the first steps in lunar exploration, quite literally, Apollo 12’s mandate was far more important in the greater scheme of things. While there were some shaky beginnings to the mission, caused by an electrical strike upon liftoff, but the mission was salvaged by the quick actions of the astronauts on. On November 19th, the lunar lander touched down in the Ocean of Storms, and saw the first success of the mission, a more accurate landing that what had been required of Apollo 11, where Neil Armstrong had manually flown the craft to its eventual location. In this instance, the craft was within 200 meters of their intended target.

Apollo 12’s landing zone was chosen because of its proximatey to Surveyor 3, a probe that had landed two years earlier, in 1967. Samples were taken from the probe to be brought back to Earth, and the Astronauts collected rock samples, in addition to sensors that were put into place to better determine some of the characteristics of the moon’s surface and environment – sensors that determines seismic events, magnetic fields and solar wind were put into place, which were designed to operate long-term.

NASA also sought to improve the quality of the footage that they shot on the moon by bringing along a color video camera – however, this was something that they weren’t able to carry out as the camera was pointed directly at the sun, disabling the camera and putting it out of commission.

After taking off from the lunar surface, the newly reunited crew remained in lunar orbit, taking pictures, and returned to Earth on November 24th, 1969, thus completing the 6th manned Apollo mission. The next mission, Apollo 13, took off in April of 1970, and was aborted due to an onboard explosion that terminated the mission, although the crew was returned safely.

One of the things that has been bothering me a little is the relative lack of interest in the missions that took place after Apollo 11 – aside from Apollo 13, the other missions were successes in that they reached, explored and returned to Earth safely, but not nearly as dramatically as the first steps on the moon, or a major accident. This is a trend that has largely continued through to the present-day – when naming space shuttles, Columbia and Challenger come readily to mind, and attract the most attention for their destruction, but how many people could name the remaining shuttles in the fleet, or tell me right now which one is in space at this very moment? (It’s Atlantis).

This is even more of a shame, because this mission contained some of the more interesting astronauts, Pete Conrad and Alan Bean. Bean is by far one of my favorite astronauts – he left the service after becoming an instrumental member (and Astronaut) for the Skylab program – another incredible mission on NASA’s part – and has since become a painter. His artwork is stunning, and well worth checking out.

To me, a moon landing is an incredible spectacle, where humanity has demonstrated a proficiency in technology that allows us to reach another body, and to tell us so much about our world and the next. Apollo 12 showed us that humanity’s first steps on the moon were not its last, and in true scientific method, repeated an experiment with the same results. It showed that we can return to the moon.