Friday, January 16, 2009

Gettin' on the Space Station Program

In January 1987, I was a Contracts Manager for Boeing Computer Services, a division of The Boeing Company. I had just been pulled from the commercial contracts side of the house to the Government contracts section, because I had Government contract experience, and the company needed someone to manage the contract for a new project we had just won with the Army at Ft. McPherson, Georgia. Two weeks after I started that project, the contract award was protested by an unsuccessful bidder, and to our shock, the Army cancelled the contract.

As I was preparing to leave Atlanta to return to Washington, I got a call from my director. I was ordered to fly to Houston and go to Johnson Space Center, where we were being awarded a contract with NASA for the Space Station Freedom Technical and Management Information System (TMIS). I was to be the contract manager for this $350 million, 8-year project! I couldn't believe it...I was part of the space program! -- and totally without any effort on my part.

TMIS was NASA's way of bringing all the technical and design documents for the budding Space Station Freedom, no matter where in the country they were produced, into one system. This was before the Internet was accessible commercially, before there were common document formats. TMIS gave NASA the first capability to transmit and share rich-content documents across NASA centers. We were also implementing what was at the time one of the largest Oracle databases ever designed - several terabytes (which is pretty small by today's standards).

I was on the program for more than two years. My office was right across the parking lot from the Space Station Program office. I really enjoyed being able to say I was part of the program. Things got messy in 1989 when I became aware of some improper behavior by a NASA manager. I got drawn into a whistle-blowing situation and ended up being taken off of the program. I left Boeing a month later. And ultimately, Freedom never flew, although many of its design ideas were eventually used by the International Space Station program.

I found this TMIS paperweight on eBay in 2006, celebrating the completion of the Preliminary Design Review for the system.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Bulls-eye on the Moon

This week's full moon - supposedly one of the 'biggest' in many years (because the Moon was full when it was at perigee) - reminded me of a feature that we never really get to see from Earth, the Mare Orientale basin. It is just over the eastern rim of the Moon as seen from Earth, and is just becoming illuminated at full moon.

Telescopic observers have known about Mare Orientale since 1906. It sometimes peeks over the rim when the Moon is turned toward us the right way, and at best we can only see a portion of it, and that edge-on, from our vantage point on Earth. So, we all shared a collective gasp at the shock of seeing it when Lunar Orbiter 4 sent back the first dramatic image of it from directly overhead in 1967.

The 600-mile wide basin forms a perfect bulls-eye. The impact that created the feature left a dark 'sea,' and the resultant shock waves from the impact created two perfectly circular and concentric mountain ranges around the maria, the Rook Mountains and the Cordillera Mountains.

This feature is so huge that it could easily be visible with the naked eye from Earth if the Moon were rotated by 90 degrees. Scientists speculate that our ancestors would have evolved their own mythologies or religions based on Mare Orientale if it had been pointed at Earth.

This map is from the US Geological Survey from 1978. It shows the Orientale basin in great detail. This has always been one of my favorite lunar features. I have seen it edge-on in my telescope a couple of times, and I have seen the Rook and Cordillera Mountains as bumps on the rim of the Moon. I would dearly love to see it from lunar orbit someday!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Skylab student project entry form

Here's a little something that I picked up at NASA Headquarters in the summer of 1971. It is an entry form for students to submit ideas for projects to be flown aboard Skylab.

NASA wanted to use Skylab not only for 'official' experiments from scientists and researchers, but also as an opportunity for creative ideas from students to be investigated. At this point in the space program, we didn't have experience with microgravity for more than a few days at a time, and the time and space available for experiments on the Apollo flights were next to nothing. Skylab offered the chance to see experiments unfold over the course of up to 84 days, and there was plenty of room to try new things.

An illustrative example cited in the application form was an experiment to investigate the behavior of paper airplanes in zero-g. Interestingly, Al Bean and his Skylab 2 crew actually played with paper airplanes in the cavernous Skylab interior. Bean noted that you had to make them with more folds than traditional Earth-bound paper airplanes. You also had to be careful not to give them too much lift (bending the ailerons up), or they would circle in ever-tighter spirals. Bean and crew almost filmed some of their experiments with the paper airplanes, but they decided not to, believing that the public would think they were wasting taxpayer money.

Perhaps the most famous of the Skylab student experiments was to see how spiders would spin webs in zero-g. Arabelle the spider became world-famous. Her initial webs were chaotic, but within a week, she spun normal webs just like those on Earth. Bean and crew were somewhat resentful of the attention that Arabelle got. The media paid much more attention to her than she did to all the other science being conducted on Skylab. Indeed, many people seemed to think that Arabelle was the only experiment being conducted on board, and they wondered why NASA would spend so much money and effort just to study spider webs in space.