What do you do if you fail the eyesight test for the US Air Force, then fail the eyesight test for the US Navy? You go straight over their heads and join NASA directly. That’s what Rick Mastracchio did to get the coolest job off the planet, spending 227 days in space, flying on the Space Shuttle, Soyuz, International Space Station and complete 9 spacewalks. Today I meet astronaut Rick Mastracchio.

Organised by the superb team over at Space Lectures, former NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Space Lectures connected over social media and now he’s here to give a talk and a feature packed presentation which I’ve managed to capture below. Its’ a long read but worth it – Rick Mastracchio is a very friendly, likeable character and gave a very enthusiastic talk!


Mission Specialist Rick Mastracchio

I often get asked, how did you become an astronaut? The truth is every astronaut has a different path. A lot of people think they are all military pilots, but I wasn’t. When I got out of college I tried to become a military pilot, I took the exams and the tests but I didn’t have perfect vision so I couldn’t be a pilot. I did that with the US Air Force and then US Navy, I got turned down by all of them so went over their heads and joined NASA. Now when I see an Air Force guy I say they fly too low and too slow!

The truth is I grew up in the north-east part of the US and NASA is on the opposite side of the country. NASA was this mysterious place for me and after I graduated from college with an engineering degree, my wife and I had a house with two small children, my wife saw an advertisement in a magazine. Nowadays they do it on the internet but back in the 1980s, I had never seen an advert for NASA astronauts, I thought that was great and wanted to see what an astronaut application looked like, thought it would be really cool. It’s just some government form, I threw it in the drawer and forgot about it.

Shortly after that, the Challenger accident happened. I was an engineer up in Connecticut, the Challenger accident happened, I pulled that application out and sent it in. The reason is because I knew that NASA would come back strong and recover from that accident, they would need people and they would need help, so figured I would send my application in and see. A few months later a I got a phone call, they said they wanted me to come down and work for them as an engineer, not as an astronaut.

I moved my family down to Houston. Houston is a great place but it’s not the prettiest place. We moved down to Houston in August, the temperature is near a hundred degrees and humidity is near 100% and we’re driving down the highway near Houston and my wife looks at me and says “you owe me big time for this one.” I’m still yet to pay her back 25 years later. So I’m down in Houston working as an engineer at Johnson Space Centre, applying over 9 years of applications, got interviewed 3 times and eventually got selected. Twenty years as an astronaut, selected in the 16th class of astronauts in 1986 and spent about 21 years as an astronaut, I left NASA in June 2017 and now work for Orbital ATK where I actually build the cargo ships that go up to the ISS.

Here we are in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), there’s a lot of talk about going back to the moon, going to Mars. Right now we are in LEO, this is basically where almost every mission have gone, all the Mercury and Gemini, some of the Apollo missions, all the Space Shuttle missions are in LEO, all the Soyuz mission, all the Chinese, Russians, everybody, the ISS are LEO, over 300 crews. Only 9 crews have gone beyond LEO to the moon. LEO is 250 miles, it seems like we are very far away but only 250 miles up, circling around the Earth at about 5 miles per second. These 9 crews went 240,000 miles, that’s a thousand times further. Now we’re talking about going to Mars, the distances grow exponentially. When people talk about going to the moon or mars and how difficult it is, it s just a question of distance but also a question of other challenges like radiation, keeping human crew members healthy and alive. NASA is trying to get beyond LEO and leave that to commercialisation.

I got to launch on 3 Space Shuttle missions, my first one was Atlantis on STS-106, STS-118 and then STS-131. The Space Shuttle is an incredible vehicle, the thrust to weight ratio is incredible. When those solid rocket boosters (SRB) light, you jump off the launchpad, like a kick in the pants, an incredible ride. (Video plays of STS-118 lift off) On STS-118, you may have heard of Scott Kelly, I’m sat in the middle as the flight engineer, the Commander is in the left seat, the pilot is in the right seat and then me in the middle as the engineer, or Mission Specialist 1, that was my area of expertise since I’d worked at Mission Control on guidance and navigation. My job was to watch the whole cockpit.

The Commander watches the left side of the cockpit, the pilot the right side and the flight engineer watches both sides. You had to have two sets of eyes. Once the two SRBs fall off, you’re at second stage, it then gets very smooth. You go from pulling 3 Gs to )Gs in 0.5 seconds, its like getting thrown out of your seat. Then everything floats up in to your face. Some of the astronauts get up out of their seats to photograph and video the external tank. They do that because the damage from Columbia accident was foam falling from the external tank, so want to get good documentation and send all those photos and videos back to the ground. Ascent is a very quick 8.5 minutes into orbit.

STS-131 lift off

I was lucky enough to fly on 3 Space Shuttles, STS-106 was Atlantis, STS-118 was Endeavour and STS 131 was Discovery. The Space Shuttle is incredible, I used to get up early morning when I was young and watch the first Space Shuttle launches, it history in the making and I had to see this, little did I know that someday I would be riding on this thing. The most capable spacecraft ever built by anybody. It’ll be a century before we see another spacecraft built like this because everybody is going back to capsules because they’re a little but easier to build. The first reusable spacecraft, 135 missions, the first reusable engines, Space Shuttle engines will be used on the Space Launch System (SLS) that’s going to lift crew members back to the moon in the next few years, using used Space Shuttle main engines. Of course they’ll then splash down in the ocean and we’ll lose them for good.

When you come in on a capsule, where you want to land has to be almost directly in front of you, very little cross range capability. The Space Shuttle had almost a 1000 miles of cross range capability, when you renter the atmosphere, you could turn the vehicle and land at a runway many miles away which extends your landing capability. First vehicle to have a robotic arm, first vehicle to have an airlock and pretty sure the first vehicle to have a toilet, which as an astronaut is kind of an important thing to have.

Ever since the Columbia accident, the Space Shuttle would approach the ISS using an RPM manoeuvre where the Space Shuttle would do a 360 degree pitch in order to expose its belly so astronauts of the ISS can do a photo survey of the tiles on the Space Shuttle. Those picture again are downloaded to the ground to see of there is any damage from the foam. On my second mission, STS-118, they actually did have damage, a big hole in our Space Shuttle. Once we got up there, we would then inspect it with the robotic arm, a detailed inspection using lasers the measure the depth and size of the hole and then send that data down to the ground and they would 3D print models of the damaged foam, put it in the chamber to test it. So while we are up in orbit doing our mission, engineers down on the ground were testing this damaged tile trying to see if we needed a special spacewalk to repair it. I was the lead space walker, prepared to go out and repair so we could all get home safely but it wasn’t needed. They ran enough tests that they were comfortable we could re-enter without any damage. After the Columbia accident, Shuttle damage became a very big issue.

Rick Mastracchio bolting the ISS together

STS-135 in 2011 was the last mission. We still have the ISS, the Space Shuttle was used to build the ISS. The Space Shuttle is like a pick up truck, can take up large pieces of cargo, the crew cab is very small. We’d bring up huge pieces of truss segments, large modules, the robotic arm would grab these modules, take them out of the payload bay and then guys like me would suit up and go outside and bolt together the space station, connect electrical lines etc. I was lucky enough to do that nine times. On STS-118 I did three spacewalks to bolt together parts of the space station, on  STS-131 I did 3 others and then when I was up there for my expedition I did 4 more repairs.

The ISS is a fully operational orbiting laboratory, it circles the Earth 16 times a day travelling at 5 miles a second. Its been crewed continually since 2000. We had about 200 experiments going on and I like to categorise them in 3 different ways. The astronauts are the experiment, we’re re taking blood samples, ultrasounds of our eyeballs, trained to do all these things and do science experiments.

The second kind is where we are the operators of the experiments. There was an experiment called BASS – Burning and Suppression of Solids (in Space) where I was in a glove box lighting things on fire on board the ISS. We would change the nitrogen/Oxygen content, burn different samples, video tape it and take pictures and the principal investigator, I would have them on the comms system talking to me directly I was their operator for their experiment. The people coming up with these theories and science experiments for working on these for decades, it was great because of their enthusiasm, and also a lot of pressure because you wanted to do this experiment right and didn’t want to disappoint  them.

The third kind is where we really had nothing to do with the experiment. We are the maintenance people of the ISS, maintaining the computers, make sure everything has power etc. These experiments are allowed to run automatically, the alpha magnetic spectrometer which is outside the ISS etc, lots of different experiments going on. Not all of them involved the astronauts. There’s a lot of students running experiments too.

Rick Mastracchio during a Soyuz fit check test

We don’t have a Space Shuttle anymore, so how do we get there now? We fly to Kazakhstan and hitch a ride with the Russians on a Soyuz. The Soyuz rocket has been around since the 60s, the capsule itself was originally designed to go to the moon during the moon race. The Russians are smart folk, they take a capsule, a rocket and adapt to what they want it to do. I felt very comfortable flying on Russian hardware, very well trained. I spent 2 1/2 years training for this mission, spent 52 weeks in Russia and had to learn Russian. If you think it’s hard to do rocket science, try doing it while speaking Russian.

So what’s it like on the inside? It’s a little bit more cramped than the Space Shuttle. Here we are in the capsule, we have a highly complicated G indicator (fluffy toy on string that floats when on zero G). If it point straight down then you are under acceleration or some kind of G forces, once its floating we know we are weightless. A very sophisticated instrument.

It’s a very cramped vehicle, the good news is that we were very lucky in that we were the second or third crew where the Soyuz launches, it usually takes about 2 days because of the trajectory, but they came up with a way to get us there in 6 hours. So when you are cramped up like that, 6 hours is way better than 2 days. We got there from lift off to docking in 6 hours. When I was up there after about 4 months, we were waiting for the next crew to come up and they had planned on a 6 hour arrival time but something happened to one of the engines and had tot change it to 2 days. Psychologically that’s got to do something to you when you were planning to be there in 6 hours.

The Soyuz capsule approaches the ISS, similar to the Space Shuttle but without the RPM manoeuvre. You come in pretty hard in comparison to a Space Shuttle docking. 6 hour after launch, we are docked and attached to the ISS. It’s funny because you get there in 6 hours and then I’m going to be there 6 months. better just take 1 day at a time. Great to have the experience on both vehicles.

We’ve got this incredible ISS up there but what are we doing up there? We’re doing science. All kinds of science, 200 different experiments. Experiments with sphere satellites, programmed by folks on the ground which are controlled by little CO2 canisters, and these satellites are used in many different ways. We have PhD from MIT programming control laws for satellites, then we also use them for students.

We also look at other experiments like bacteria. For some reason, bacteria in orbit is much stronger. We’re trying to work on antibiotics for an E coli bacteria so you would have tunes with bacteria on one side and the antibiotic on the other so you would mix these up and then place in an incubator and then fixate that experiment. We would then take those samples and then send them to the ground so the scientist could then figure what was the most effective.

How do we live up there? We’re up there for 188 days and we work Monday to Friday, Saturday is always cleaning, wipe the cheese broccoli off the ceiling, clean the filters etc and Sunday was our day off. What do you do? You can’t go home so you have to find things to do. Your sleeping back attaches to the wall so you don’t float away in a little personal space about the size of a telephone booth. I had to stretch my sleep bag out at an angle so I don’t have my head up against the ceiling. You can make personal calls to the ground, you’ve got a computer up there, you can tweet! It’s quite comfortable. In Space Shuttle mission you get zero privacy, the seven crew members, you all stretch out on the mid deck.

NASA astronaut Rick-Mastracchio on the ISS exercise treadmill

Exercise is very important up there. We have to exercise about 2 hours a day. We run on a treadmill but you have to use a bungee cord to pull you down to the treadmill. You would run for about 4/5 miles a day and then do resistive exercises lifting weights for an hour a day. You get in really great shape but you are doing that just so you can walk when you get home. Imagine if you laid in bed for 6 months your muscles and bones would deteriorate to the point where you couldn’t walk so you have to exercise. This was a big problem in the early days of Space Stations. Now what we are trying to do is make that even more efficient where we don’t have to spend 2 hours, try and get it down to every other day etc.

There’s a great selection of food up there, a lot of it is MREs, Meals Ready to Eat. Packaged foods with meats and pastas, a lot of freeze-dried food. Fresh food was really hard to come by. When a cargo ship would arrive, the Russians were great about bring up crates of oranges, grapefruits and apples etc. The vehicles on the other hand from the US were not so great at bringing fresh fruit. On one mission we got three rotten oranges and an apple, but the Russians had been doing that for a long time so they knew how to prepare the food and got the timing perfect while the Americans were still trying to work things out. I think sometimes that we had higher priorities than giving our fruit etc like setting up hardware. It’s the greatest place if you want to lose weight though, I had to eat 4/5 meals a day and I was still losing weight. That’s one of the concerns when you are up there so I would supplement that with protein bars which was a really bad habit when I got home.

RickMastracchio Shuttle Spacewalk

I was very lucky in that I got to do nine spacewalks. Spacewalks are done for many reasons, most of them in the early days of the Shuttle were going out there to build, to bolt something together. Now that the ISS is fully operational, most of the spacewalks are maintenance. The ISS is huge place that requires a lot of maintenance, changing out hardware that is getting too old, lubricating something, but the most difficult part, the most challenging is preparing for it. It takes days, you have to physically build your suit, check out every tool, tons of procedures, serial numbers to check, check every piece of equipment. They would tell you to use specific wrenches that matches the correct serial number, they are tracking everything, how many time wrench serial No 1 has been used etc.

The suits are very configurable, can be sized to anybody, they have different arm and leg inserts etc. Once you get outside, that’s where the fun starts. You don’t do any walking, it’s all hand over hand, there’s handrails all along the ISS. An EVA is very physically demanding and mentally challenging because you are out there for about 6.5 hours and you can use as much energy doing a spacewalk as you can doing a marathon. Sometimes I did three of these in a week. The most important thing to do on spacewalk is to take a picture. Even more important is that your buddy takes a picture of you. How you don’t do Spacewalks is like how you see in the film ‘Gravity.’  I watched that film the night before I did a spacewalk, I watched it to learn how not to do a spacewalk.

Whats the worst part of spaceflight? Sometimes gravity is your friend, and we actually did a live show here in the UK. We deal with a lot of stress launching off the planet, doing a spacewalk but the most stressful was thing I ever did was trying to describe how to use the toilet in space to a live TV audience during Channel 4 Live from Space. I had to be really careful with my words.

One of the things we got to do up there was receive cargo ships on a regular basis. The ISS takes a lot of maintenance, you can’t go out and get groceries, so cargo ships like Space X, Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft, Progress etc come up. Sometimes it’s like a traffic jam.  A Cygnus spacecraft launches on an Antares rocket, not far from where I live now. Once it achieves orbital velocity, it pulls alongside the ISS, the Shuttle and the Soyuz dock, we capture these with the robotic arm and grab them.

Once docked, it normally takes 2 hours to open the hatch. We then pass through the hatch opening, there are always two people doing things, with one reading procedures and looking over your shoulders. You don’t want to have one person doing something critical because if you make a mistake someone could get hurt. They Cygnus spacecraft came up and delivered all kinds of supplies. The one thing it really does well is take away your trash. Think about never being able to empty your trash except once every three or four months and you have to store it in your house. Its going to smell bad and get smaller. The ISS got darker because we were starting to block the lights.

The Cygnus spacecraft is with us for about a month. We finish emptying out, take the science experiments, water, food out etc and then pack it full of trash. We take out the spacecraft with the robotic arm and basically let it go. It slowly drifts away from us, fires a small little engine and it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere and burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere along with all the trash.

We do science!

What do we do for fun? Up there for 188 days. Astronauts work their whole lives trying to get off the planet and whats the first thing you do when you get off the planet? You look back at the planet, its beautiful. I love a night pass of city lights. the aurora borealis, we get fantastic light shows up there, we would sit tin the cupola and watch these green lights in waves come up off the planet. There would be nights when we see the moon rise up through the aurora and then Venus would come shooting up behind. Everything is moving fast up there, you are moving around the Earth pretty quick. When the moon rises, it rises fast.

You see some really incredible things, like over a hurricane. On one of my shuttle mission we were doing an EVA while over the eye of a hurricane on STS-118. We had to land early because a hurricane was heading towards Houston and they were thinking of evacuating the city where Mission Control was.  The Earth is an amazing place, you can’t get bored of it. I’ve got ten thousand photographs of the Earth, I’m still amazed at them.

Rick Mastracchio at the Quest airlock

It’s time to come home. The Soyuz spacecraft is pretty simple. You get back in the same Soyuz spacecraft that you came up in, release the clamps, a little spring pushes you gently away, the Soyuz turns away , breaks into 3 pieces with the crew in 1 part and you re-enter the atmosphere in a fireball. The window is a few inches from my shoulder, you can see the ablative heat shield burning off so that you can re-enter safely.

Once in the thicker part of the atmosphere, parachutes start to open. You have one job when reentering on Soyuz, just keep tightening your straps, because when you strap in you are in zero G and its hard to pull yourself down tight. When you start pulling G’s you sink into your seat and your straps are loose. When these parachutes start to open up, you swing around like a shoe in a dryer. Right before you hit the ground, the Soyuz fores soft landing engines. That’s not really a good name for them, should be ‘not so hard landing engines.’ You hit hard but after 6 months in space and after being tossed around like a shoe in a dryer, I thought I’d feel something as I crashed into the Earth but felt perfect, no dizziness, no pain whatsoever. That was until the big Russian technician reached in and grabbed me, pulled me out and threw me down the slide, then I started to feel it.

Soyuz expedition 39 return

We did some great things with the Space Shuttle programme, one of the greatest vehicles the world has ever seen. We have the Soyuz spacecraft right now and the ISS. What’s next? NASA is doing a lot of different things, not just NASA, the ESA, but especially Europe and NASA working on the SLS to launch the Orion. The Orion spacecraft will be built o hold 4 people and basically take them to the moon. Powered by the ESA built service module, all pushed into orbit by this new vehicle, the SLS (Space Launch System).

The SLS is a new vehicle similar to the Saturn 5 suing old Space Shuttle technology. 5 segment SRB as opposed to the 4 SRB that the Space Shuttle uses. It will use 4 Space Shuttle main engines as compared to 3 that the Space Shuttle uses. These will be used engines and with big external fuel tanks with hydrogen and oxygen tanks. Supposed to launch a test flight that’s has slipped back to 2019 or later. Maybe the unmanned version will launch in the next two years. After that they launch people beyond LEO.

They’ve taken an Apollo capsule and made it 50% larger so they can fit 4 people in. The Orion capsule itself is only good for 21 days. Obviously if we are going to go beyond the Moon and on to Mars, there’s a lot of other things in support in vehicles that we are going to need to do. There is more than just Orion being built. NASA has a commercial programme going on with Boeing and Space X building new vehicles that will take crew members to the ISS and no longer just have the Soyuz spacecraft to go to the ISS. We can then put a Russian on an US spacecraft and still share the resources.

The plan changes depending on who the politicians are. Gorge W Bush said go to the Moon, he left the White House and we were not allowed to say Moon anymore. President Obama came in and said Mars. Now I think the plan is to go back to the Moon and my personal opinion is that’s the right decision. Mars is very far away and very difficult to land on Mars. We use the atmosphere to enter and slow us down, Mars has 1% of the atmosphere that the Earth has so we can’t utilise that to slow down. ESA is very excited at the thought of the Moon and I think we’ll have folks going around the  Moon within 5 years.

Astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Nicholas Cook

Questions from the audience:

Obviously you did a lot of training for the EVAs, how accurately did the training for the EVAs match your experience?

The way I think of training is that its like pieces of a puzzle. You train all these different pieces, you never put the whole mission together until you do the mission. The way we train for spacewalks is several different ways. There’s the big swimming pool, the NBL (Neutral Buoyancy Lab), they put us in the water and make us neutrally buoyant, you don’t float, you don’t sink, you just stay in the water so you now have a 3 dimensional environment. That now becomes a very accurate environment because they will now sink a model of the ISS/Shuttle in the 40 foot deep, 200 foot long and 100 foot wide pool. That’s where you practice but the difference is that you have the drag of the water, if you go nice and slow you don’t feel the drag of the water, but I’m one of those guys who like to go quick, very physically demanding. Also when you flip upside down, when you are on a spacewalk, body position is everything. If you can’t reach something, you flip around. In NBL even though you are neutrally buoyant, imagine if you were upside down, all the blood is rushing to your head, all your body weight is on your shoulders.

The other thing we do is VR which we are starting to do more of. Wear a small backpack called S.A.F.E.R. a little unit so that if you fall off of the ISS and you’re tumbling, the ISS cannot come and get you, you’d have a small hand controller so you could fly yourself back with very limited fuel. It all comes together on the day of your spacewalk. Even with all that training, the first time you get pout that door it’s quite a bit different. one of the things that’s really difficult to simulate is the vacuum of space where you could just go flying across. it takes a lot of orientation so that when somebody goes out that door for the first time, they get 15 minutes of adaptation practice, moving and twisting around so you body can get used to it.

Preparation for a spacewalk training session in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL)

You said earlier about not getting in the Air Force and the Navy because of your eyesight, does NASA not have a restriction on potential astronauts with sight?

They used to, NASA back in the day when I became an astronaut, NASA had a requirement for eyesight also. I was good enough for NASA but not enough for the Air Force or Navy. But now, young people like you can get all kinds of surgery, and NASA and the military accept that you can get your eyes fixed. The bad news is that they have a bout a thousand other tests you have to pass. I’ve seen people disqualified for colour blindness, depth perception, look at a thousand different parameters on your blood, you can be a very healthy person but if one little parameter is out of whack then you are out. Very tough to get in.

You were lucky enough to fly on Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour, were there any subtle differences between the three and do you have a favourite?

They do have some subtle differences but to the untrained eye it’s almost imperceptible. There’s a few panels and switches that are different. Some of the Shuttles are upgraded differently, one might have GPS, the other might not. I loved them all, as I keep saying I think the Space Shuttle is an incredible vehicle but I have to have a little favouritism for Atlantis as it was my first mission. I have fond memories of first time in orbit, doing crazy astronaut tricks inside it. I’ve seen Endeavour in a museum, I’ve seen Discovery in a museum, I’m yet to see Atlantis, saving the best till last.

Leaving the crazy astronaut tricks till day 2 on Atlantis

When you are weightless, is it similar to when you are on a fairground ride? You go over a bump and feel that nauseous feeling and has anyone ever been sick and who cleans it up?

No one has ever been sick in space! You make it, you clean it! Yes it does feel like that, imagine if you will that you go over that top and that moment where your stomach goes to your mouth, that’s a quick sensation of zero G, probably  a little negative zero G, that’s the feeling you have. Imagine you’re in the Space Shuttle with 3G pushing down on you, several hundred pounds of force pushing down on you, you can’t simulate that so you’re feeling that for the first time.

My first mission on launching and all of a sudden, I’m looking real intense at all of these displays and all of a sudden all I can think about is breathing. How come? It’s because I had 3Gs pushing down on my chest and you’ve got to remember to breathe. Then instantly in 1/2 second you go from 3G to zero G and it is weird because now you feel like you are tumbling. Your neural vestibular system is telling your brain all these lies, you feel like you’re falling, a weird sensation till your brain re-calibrates. Some astronauts are very badly affected with one or two people who are really down for about 2 or 3 days with stomach awareness and other issues. I was fairly lucky, a little bit of stomach awareness but the next morning I wake up and feel perfect. I would avoid doing crazy astronaut tricks on day 1.

What was the biggest challenge when you were up there?

It depends on which mission. Every mission is different, we practice every mission in great detail. The biggest challenge on  my Shuttle missions were my spacewalks, trying to squeeze in 3 or 4 spacewalks in a period of 8 days. You’re up there moving the suits around, collecting hardware, prepping all the things for the spacewalk and then you go out and do the spacewalk. You come back in and instantly start charging batteries, getting the suits cleaned up, replenishing the consumables so the day after next you can get outside and do it again. You’re reviewing procedures, robotic arms, have to be well integrated with everybody on the ground, robotic arm operators, who is going to suit you up. Just getting all those things done without making a mistake that’s going to hurt somebody, that’s the biggest challenge.

The expedition when I went through the hatch on day 1 of 188, the biggest challenge was don’t think about day 188. Just take it 1 day at a time, it really didn’t bother me that I would be there for 188 days, it just seemed so far away. the mission was great and the challenge there was maintaining focus because you do get fatigued after a while so you have to be careful you don’t do something wrong etc.


Rick Mastracchio spacewalk

They keep talking about decommissioning the ISS, what will they do when that happens?

There’s a couple of things going on right now. All the international partners get together and have agreed to keep the Space Station on till 2024, and they’re going to get together again and may move that to 2026, 2028, who knows what. I heard some talk of 2028. Now you’ve got the President of the US who says shut it down in 2024. Several things can happen to it. if there is somebody out there like the Russians or other International Partners want to keep it going, they might want to come to some kind of agreement where the US gets out of it and other countries can continue, that’s possible but probably unlikely.

The most likely thing is de-orbit it, just like the Mir Space Station was de-orbited. We would send up some kind of vehicle like a Progress vehicle to de-orbit and bring it down into the Atlantic of Pacific ocean. That would be a terrible waster but everything that is built has a lifetime and the ISS probably already has had half its lifetime but the good news is that is has a lot of spare parts up there from before the Space Shuttle programme ended. We brought up stacks of spare parts so the ISS is very well stocked right now. That’s why they can still go up there right now and do maintenance. The problem is like if you are building a new house and you have an old house, it’s kind of hard to afford two houses and that’s what happens when you have NASA or an agency is trying to launch a new programme, the old programmes have to be shut down to use that money for other things.

How much was your ticket on the Soyuz?

I had a coupon for that so I got a little bit off. I don’t know the exact price but they didn’t take it out of my pay cheque thankfully. The Russians have a monopoly on the market so they were always raising the price. I think I was in a $50 million range for my seat to the ISS on board the Soyuz. That’s why the US is building capsules and anxious to get them in orbit. There’s a lot of bartering going on between the countries on the ISS.

Expedition 38 launch

How much of a problem is space garbage?

Orbital debris is a major issue. I worked the Orion programme before I left NASA for many years off and on and the number 1 risk to the loss of crew was orbital debris. When  you look at the risks, all the others are little, it’s a self-induced issue, if you will, its like a protective shield we’ve built around the planet and the ISS is a problem also. Many times I was out on spacewalks and I would see what I call bullet holes on the side of the space station. Luckily they weren’t in a pressurised module but I would see pieces of the truss where there was something like the size of the pinky of your finger where the metal was all flayed out. That’s where I cut my glove on STS-118 when out on a spacewalk. I probably slipped or grabbed a piece of material or metal that was cut open by orbital debris.

I came back on a Space Shuttle mission and we had a hole in our radiator panel. These are used to cool the Space Shuttle down and they are full of tubes but the orbital debris was right between the tubes. If it had it one of the tubes, we’d have lost a lot of our cooling system and would have had to do an emergency deorbit, so we were a fraction of an inch from having to abort the mission. It doesn’t take a big piece of orbital debris, the big pieces we know where they are, the little pieces we can protect  for but the bits between the big and the little that are big enough to hurt you are too small to follow and track. And when the Chinese blew up their satellite, that doubled the issue and made much worse.

Rick Mastracchio spacewalk during STS-118

Most of the Space Shuttle launches seem to happen on a Thursday, is there a particular reason why?

Yes, we launch on a Thursday because we don’t want to work the weekend, we’re lazy. A Space Shuttle launch countdown starts about 4 days before launch. We start the countdown on a Monday morning, shoot for launch on Thursday and go home on Friday! But how many times did that work out? Probably 50% at best!

When you landed in the Shuttle and you had the potential damage on the heat shield, did you pop outside and have a look?

Yes we all did, looked up at it, it was perfect and pristine, there wasn’t much charring around it, no burning. The folks on the ground did a fantastic job. As you can imagine, my wife, all our spouses were, we’re up in orbit doing our job, we may have a hole in our vehicle but the ground is taking care of it. We were not worried, we were just doing our job, we still had a full job to do.

Meanwhile our spouses down on the planet, on the news every night about a damaged Shuttle, we don’t see any of that, but we don’t know that our spouses down on the planet are probably sick to their stomach listening to all this stuff. John Shannon was the Space Shuttle Programme Director, he just did such a great job talking to the families. We analysed it, we tested it, we were 100% confident that is was going to be safe and take care of it and they were right. Spaceflight is a team sport, you’ve got ground controllers, your crew mates on the Shuttle, you’ve got the engineers who put the vehicle together and you have to rely on your team members to do their job and you do your job, if you try to do everybody’s job then nothing works.

Having gone through NASA as an engineer and a flight controller I trust them 100% to do the right thing. Somebody made a 3D model of it that was a little smaller than my fist. It want all the way through, it was just a big chunk of the tile ripped out. i think about ‘what if.’ I was the guy who would have to go out and fix it, I was the guy who 7 lives on the whole Space Shuttle programme, the whole Space Station was going to depend on, that would have been on my mind. I would have been less worried about me dying and more worried about letting the team down.

Ant Forage Habitat Facility which will study ant behaviour and colonisation in microgravity

What was your favourite experiment that you did in Space?

My favourite experiment. One of them was playing withe the little satellites, but the one that was fun was the same Cygnus spacecraft that came up delivered some ants. Basically a little container where you could see them and they would all path in one little area, we’d put a HD camera in front of them and open up a little container where they went to this bigger area where the ants could walk around go looking for food. It was an experiment and it was educational. All the schools were watching to see how the ants reacted in zero G. We kept opening up more and more chambers for the ants to walk around. Scientists were also viewing this trying to analyse how ants go out and forage. You know how if you drop a piece of sugar, eventually an ant find it and you think heck, how did the ant find that? The way it was explained to me was that they were coming up with a process to figure this out. Imagine if someone goes off in the wood and you programme a bunch of drones and just let these drones go, eventually they’re going to find this person lost in the woods. Educational and scientific watching ants walk around in space.

Have you had a particularly terrifying or scary experience apart from the whole of normal spaceflight?

Usually my fellow crew members would scare me a little bit. I get that question a lot and it’s a hard one to answer because I don’t really get scared, you tend to worry about things, you know, I’ve got a spacewalk tomorrow, that can be hard to sleep and you’re anxious about doing it because there’s a lot of work to do. Again it comes down to preparation and what you’re comfortable with and we prepared in training so much. In Space Shuttle mission we trained for a year and you practice in the NBL, we used to practice a 5:1 or 7:1 ratio so in other words for every spacewalk we did, we’d do it 5 times in the swimming pool. Every ascent, we would practice hundreds of ascents and they would give us 10 to 15 failures for an ascent and in a real mission you might get 1 if it was a really bad day. You are so over prepared, astronauts are the most highly trained people in the world.

When I tore my glove, they told me to hurry up and go inside the airlock, I was like “What! I’ve got work to do, I haven’t got time for this!” I wasn’t scared, I was a little embarrassed I tore my glove, I kind of blame myself. It was the third spacewalk of the mission, and I was just beating my gloves up on the first two spacewalks and on the third spacewalk I should have said that I would use my other pair of gloves but I had nice pristine gloves, I wanted to keep them pristine. They were so worn out from the other two EVAs that eventually they got ripped. I didn’t get nervous. You know you’re vehicle, you know your systems so well, you know exactly when you’re in danger and when you are not.

A huge thanks to Space Lectures for another great visit and to Proffoto for a great pic. Looking forward to the next one!


Space Lectures


My other astronaut visits:

Meeting Bruce McCandless from the first untethered spacewalk

Meeting the Moonwalker Charlie Duke from Apollo 16

Meeting Mike Foale from the Mir Space Station collision

Meeting Tom Cruise’s Middle Finger & Top Gun Shuttle Astronaut Scott Altman

The Twins Paradox – Meeting the twin Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly

Gemini and Apollo 10 Astronaut Tom Stafford

Apollo 8, Apollo 13 and Gemini Astronaut Jim Lovell

Apollo 7 Astronaut Walt Cunningham

Space Shuttle Astronaut Eileen Collins

Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13

Meeting Astronaut Ken Mattingly of Apollo 13 and Apollo 16

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean from Apollo 12

Meeting Apollo, Skylab and Shuttle astronauts at CosmicCon

I was 13 years old in 1984, the Cold War was still years away from thawing, Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative had been announced the year before, and Space Shuttle Challenger is launched on the 10th Space Shuttle mission.  During that mission, a lone astronaut drifts in the freezing cold of space 217 miles above Earth using a nitrogen propelled jet pack. That’s Bruce McCandless, floating free in the blackness of space on the first untethered spacewalk from the relatively safety of his spacecraft. Today I’m meeting astronaut Bruce McCandless who reminds us that we are all astronauts of Spaceship Earth.

Bruce McCandless joined NASA in 1966 and was CapCom on Apollo 11 during the first moonwalk. He was later assigned to Skylab and worked on developing the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), something he would later test as Mission Specialist on Space Shuttle Challenger on STS-41B leading to that famous image. His last flight was on board Space Shuttle Discovery STS-31 to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope.

Bruce McCandless

The presentation by Bruce McCandless was organised by the superb team at Space Lectures:

When I was growing up we didn’t have a space program as such in those days, we had comic strips and artistic works depicting fanciable space ports on Mars for inspiration. The family wisdom, if I ever talked about space, was that yes, man would go into space some day, but certainly not before the year 2000. With that I proceeded to college at the United States Naval Academy and was fascinated by submarines, particularly nuclear submarines and was looking at that for a career choice.

Then in 1957, my senior year, the Soviet Union unexpectedly launched a small satellite, Sputnik. The message that it carried was that the space age was upon us and that things were going to happen very rapidly. I changed my mind on my career, took the flight physical exam, got into aviation, became a navy fighter pilot flying off of aircraft carriers and was then sent by the navy to Sandford University where one afternoon, a very grand looking letter arrived saying that I met the basic requirements for the astronaut programme at NASA.

Everybody said that if I applied now I’d never be selected the first time around. So I applied and did get selected and joined the astronaut programme in June 1966. This was just a year after Ed White’s spacewalk. I would point out that Alexi Leonov of the Soviet Union was the first to do a spacewalk, lasting 12 minutes. The US of course had to do better than that, so Ed White stayed out for 23 minutes and made it look easy.

The next time the US attempted a spacewalk was with an air force built astronaut maneuvering unit that Gene Cernan attempted to fly, but the pressure suit technology over heated, the visor fogged up and we nearly lost Gene Cernan. Maneuvering Units acquired a bad name, undeservedly, so I collaborated on trying to rehabilitate the concept of flying around a spacecraft.

We did this by experiment M509, it was intended and did fly inside the Skylab workshop. the case study verse reality was somewhat different. It did fly beautifully inside the workshop. We stayed inside because that allowed us to operate without undue concerns for safety, we were contained inside the workshop. My compatriots worked satisfactory and we used their testimonies to develop a unit for flight with the space shuttle.

Alan Bean flies the M509 Astronaut Maneuvering Equipment on Skylab

In training for spaceflight, there’s no one perfect simulator. It’s a part test, pick up some information, do little more and pick up more information till you finally get into space where you integrate it all mentally. We had a simulator underwater that was a mock-up showing how you could get in and out of the docking station in a weightless environment. There was  much better simulator which was like a cherry picker that had a set of carriages and rails so you could move up and down, left and right, inside a room roughly 20 metres long and 6 metres high and wide.

This was very effective, the controls on the MMU were linked to a computer in the basement which would then make you behave as though you were flying in space. I got about 300 hours over the years flying this thing. The actual requirement for later crews was about 15 hours, I guess I was over trained.

The Untethered Spacewalk

Finally in February of 1984, a crew of 5 of us launched, we had a little trouble getting used to zero gravity. The Commander was Vance Brand, Hoot Gibson took the still photo that became famous, Ron McNair, myself and who was my partner in the spacewalk. The MMU turned out to be sufficiently difficult to get of out of the airlock hatch so we mounted it in the payload bay, got into it and flew off.

Finally the opportunity came to go flying. Looking back as I got further and further away, the Shuttle got to be tinier and tinier. I had planned on stopping at the greatest distance, I was supposed to go out 100 yards and stop. I wanted to turn around 180 degrees and contemplate the vastness of space and the Earth but somehow the conversations were just so busy, I forgot about it till I got back in.

But it is a true statement that sound does travel through a vacuum but radio waves do. I had 3 different people talking to me. Mission Control wanted to know how much oxygen I had left and how the battery was doing, what was the temperature. Commander Vance Brand wanted me to stay away from the engines and not go under the wing, stay where he could see me and Bob Stewart wanted to know when was his turn to fly.

Bruce McCandless, Astronaut, Spacewalker

It was pretty noisy out there. The system worked quite well and looking from the shuttle out, I got to be pretty small at 100 yards away, and Hoot took what has become an iconic photo, almost symbolic of the space age. you can see the nose of the shuttle in the reflection in my visor and by extension, the other 3 crew members. You have to remember that we had a very large team in NASA, around 500 people, and within he contracting facility, several thousand people working together in coordination, had other mission objectives on the flight, in addition to the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), but it was a team effort.

When I got away from the shuttle, I got very cold. My teeth were chattering, I was shivering. the problem was that the life support system, in reaction to people like Gene Cernan overheating during Gemini was engineered to keep a person who was working in a warm environment comfortable. When you get away from the shuttle, you are radiating more to space, and quite honestly, flying the MMU was an exercise in using your fingers. We had the control set up to put little pulses in, it wasn’t metabolic work so I got rather chilly. Fortunately it turned out that we could in fact shut down the entire cooling system of the life support system, warm up and then turn it back on.

One of the things that everybody who has gone into space, is the impact of looking down at the Earth. You start off trying to find your town, your launch facility and you realise that you really need to appreciate the continents, the land mass and that very few political division are visible from space, we’re all in this together, and that we have to work together.

This leads me to the concept of spaceship Earth. I have been introduced as the astronaut, but I submit that everyone in this room is an astronaut in the sense of being a crew member from spaceship Earth. Its a very big spaceship, nut its not infinite and it has systems, open and close valves to produce electricity, ocean currents, atmospheric circulation, concerns about pollution, ozone depletion, and somehow, if we are going to pass on a better spacecraft to our children of the next generation, we need to manage the systems in their best interest.

Bruce McCandless


Questions from the audience

  • To become an astronaut is a major achievement in itself, but could you tell us about becoming a naval aviator and in particularly how did you learn to land an aircraft on the deck of an aircraft carrier in rough seas, did you have any mishaps.

First I would like to give credit to the Royal Navy, they came up with the angled deck and for the mirror landing system. the original aircraft carrier configuration was a straight deck, the length of the ship, and when it came to land, you had to try and grab one of the spiders wires originally, if you missed, you had to park the aircraft at the front of the ship, or had a nylon web barricade that you ran into to stop you. the other feature was that we originally had Landing Signal Officer giving you advice on how to properly position yourself. That was very subjective.

The Royal navy came up with a mirror system, a light was reflected in a mirror with reference to a string of green horizontal lights that worked very effectively. With those two things I basically went though flight training and then practices with an instructor in the back seat till we made landings. I have to say in all honesty the most stressful moments in my career were making night carrier landings in bad weather with low fuel, it really gets your attention. Having said that within NASA we always had Mission Control to fall back on. Within the NASA environment, we had a much better management of the stress levels.


  • Could you tell us about your time as CapCom on the first moon landing, could you tell us what that was like.

First off in preparation for being CapCom, you trained with the crew ahead of time and the idea of being CapCom was the communication link to speak the same language as the crew in order to facilitate priority and understanding. In the case of the landing, Charlie Duke was CapCom for the actual landing and I standing in as a spectator behind him to make sure what the situation was and immediately after landing have a procedure for staying 5 minutes, check all your systems and safe to disarm the lunar module and stay for a while. After that I went home to get dinner because the flight planned for Armstrong and Aldrin to take a 2 hour nap to be refreshed for the spacewalk.

By the time I got home, which was a 15 minute drive, my then wife was running down the driveway, telling me to go back because they cant sleep. i turned around and drove back, the moon was about 30 degrees up in the sky, it didn’t look a bit different but I knew my friends were up there. We did go out 2 hours early, this meant the antennae at Goldstone couldn’t pick up the television signal, Honeysuckle Creek in Australia jumped into the breach and relayed the video to Houston. Everything went reasonable well for 4 or 5 minutes and then I hear this voice say “This is the Whitehouse communications room, President Nixon would like to talk to Buzz and Neil.” We never simulated that, we simulated all sort of failures and scenarios but never stiff-arming the President. It was contingency standard, get a rock, any rock and put it in your pocket, if you have to get out of there in a hurry, you’ve got at least one rock.

Apollo 11


  • Are you able to repeat your famous words as Neil Armstrong came down the ladder.

Let me comment that my job was not to talk much, to try and and get Neil and Buzz to talk because they were the people on the moon. My job turned out to be making sure they didn’t miss anything, make sure they stayed moire or less on the timeline and keep quiet.


  • There was a long gap between your selection and your first flight, how did you maintain your motivation all that time?

You don’t just sit around waiting for a flight. In the case of the Apollo mission I trained for Apollo flights, I was the youngest guy in the group, I was back up crew for one of the Skylab missions and then 2 assignments on the shuttle programme. In the mean time you are helping out with development activities at the contractors, training at research facilities.


  • You said night landings on the aircraft carrier caught your attention, I assume when you left the confines shuttle bay on the untethered spacewalk, that caught your attention as well. Once you left the spacecraft and got so far out, was there a rescue plan if you forgot to turn round and come back.

The Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) itself was totally redundant, it had two of everything, two sets of contacts for every switch, thrusters, batteries. Any single failure could be isolated and could keep on flying. if both systems had simultaneous failures, you could disable both and wait for the shuttle to fly in and get you. These days on the ISS you do have a miniaturised version of the MMU being used as a life jacket, a self rescue device. The ISS cannot chase you through the sky so you have to be able to tether yourself back. I felt very comfortable and we concluded that using a tether would be more hazardous.

Bruce McCandless modelling the MMU


  • In your opinion is to more important to focus on sending human beings back to the moon again or further development with the ISS?

I don’t think its an either or situation. We have the ISS in an operational mode, the annual expense of operating it is to get even less, we should operate it for as long as is reasonably feasible. There will come a time when systems start failing irreparably. If humans went back to the moon is something that we could do in parallel and try to do on a multi-national, cooperative collaborative basis.

Unfortunately former President Obama, with respect to the moon, said, been there, done that. A very short sighted opinion, we have not been to the back side of the moon and is very different from the front side. The back side continues to take meteor impacts and pock marked with craters. The front side is relatively smooth, we have not been to the poles where there may be water ice, we have not landed in the rough areas of the front surface, we picked out the smooth spots for safety. There is a lot we don’t understand yet.


  • You did so many hours of training for the MMU, how did the training compare with the reality? We know that plans are useless but planning is essential, would love to compare the training against the actuality.

I did about 300 hours on the simulator, the simulator was very good. The only discrepancy was an attitude hold feature and trying to accelerate, with a noise best described as chatter. The explanation for that was that my centre of mass was slightly displaced from the geometric centre of the thrusters. When I tried to accelerate, there was a little twitchy moment and the automatic attitude hold would marginally hold the thrusters.  The simulator had been performing properly, its just that it didn’t make any noise, we couldn’t feel it.

The more realistic question, on STS-51-A, Dale Gardner was not a pilot, had never flown an airplane, had 15 hours of training in the simulator and very successfully retrieved a satellite. We thought 15 hours was a reasonable amount, the bulk of my time was done in development testing. The simulator also allowed operators to introduce more than 100 failures to give a challenge in figuring out what a problem was, isolate the system and overcome it.

MMU development at the Martin Marietta plant in Denver, Colorado


  • On the second shuttle mission for the Hubble deployment, how evident was the extra altitude compared to normal shuttle missions in low Earth orbit?

As I recall we got to 336 nautical miles, we used 49% of our own propellant getting up there, we used 50% to come down for de-orbit and reentry and 1% left over. That altitude allowed the Hubble to go for a significant amount of time before a re-boost but also put us going through the Van Allen radiation belts in the South Atlantic Anomaly. When it came to going to sleep, there were little puffs of light, like cotton balls lighting u. These were charged particles stimulating or destroying cells in the retina of your eye. It was interesting from an abstract point, a bit disconcerting from the possibility of degrading your vision. We were only up on that mission for 5 days, we were unhappy about having to come back so soon.


  • Did you have any concerns or nerves about not having a tether?

Yes I did, NASA did spend 3 million dollars on developing what amounts to a giant fishing reel.When we stopped to consider the situation, if you have this cord totally limp, it was likely to tangle around something, a crewman’s foot, high gain antenna. if you had a small amount of tension on it, it was going to your motion and drag you back in. We felt it was more of a risk than making sure we had a reliable system. We built every conceivable test we could think of, including being in a vacuum chamber and the freezing cold.


Bruce McCandless and Nick Cook

Another great event from the team at Space Lectures, a great photo from Proffoto, and of course, a signed picture of one of the most iconic space images.



Space Lectures


My other astronaut visits:

Meeting the Moonwalker Charlie Duke from Apollo 16

Meeting Mike Foale from the Mir Space Station collision

Meeting Tom Cruise’s Middle Finger & Top Gun Shuttle Astronaut Scott Altman

The Twins Paradox – Meeting the twin Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly

Gemini and Apollo 10 Astronaut Tom Stafford

Apollo 8, Apollo 13 and Gemini Astronaut Jim Lovell

Apollo 7 Astronaut Walt Cunningham

Space Shuttle Astronaut Eileen Collins

Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13

Meeting Astronaut Ken Mattingly of Apollo 13 and Apollo 16

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean from Apollo 12

Meeting Apollo, Skylab and Shuttle astronauts at CosmicCon

Jerry Bostick is a former NASA flight controller who worked in Mission Control during the golden age of spaceflight on Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programmes, I’m meeting Jerry Bostick at the National Space Centre in Leicester for a lecture and Q& A session.

Jerry served in The Trench, the group responsible for the trajectory of the spacecraft, serving as Retrofire Officer and Flight Dynamics Officer (FIDO). Jerry Bostick was also a technical adviser on the Apollo 13 and Armageddon movies, From the Earth to the Moon TV series and one of the unsung heroes featured in the recent Mission Control documentary film.

Mission Control

What I’d like to do today is to tell you about the small role I played in the Apollo programme and what flight controllers really do, and what the whole of the free world accomplished, what we got from it and how we were able to do it. Mission Control used to be in what was called Cape Canaveral now called Cape Kennedy. It was really just two rows of consoles, the systems people would sit in the front room and would worry about the hardware in the spacecraft, the plumbers and the electricians, and the people behind were the flight dynamics team who worried about trajectory and guidance. The world map you can see at the front, has wires that would describe the orbit and a little spacecraft model that travelled along. the plot board were only really used in the launch and entry phases. The computers that drove all of this were in Greenbelt, Maryland,100 miles away. The Retrofire officer s and Flight dynamics officers were in what we called The Trench.

Then we went to Houston, Texas, which was a much bigger control room. The front row became the Flight Dynamics row, it became know as The Trench because it was a tiered operation, it was the lowest tier, Chris Kraft called us the front line of manned space flight. The systems guys and the Doctors were behind to the left. You’ve probably heard of John Aaron and Sy Liebergot on EECOM behind and behind them was the Flight Director row where Chris Kraft and Gene Kranz etc and management. They called call up displays but could not directly impact the computer.

The Flight Dynamics team in The Trench were sometimes called the ground pilots. The Mercury spacecraft had no computers, Gemini had very little and Apollo had a little bit more. We would complete all the maneuvers they would have to make, rendezvous, orbit, trans lunar injection burns, lunar orbit insertion, any changes to orbit. We calculated them on the ground and then patched the numbers up to the crew for state vector maneuvers, coordinated for when they would start to burn, the attitude of the spacecraft it should be in which they could then set up on their on-board computer and set to automatically start.

They didn’t do this all by themselves. The Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) was surrounded by staff support rooms. Each of the major consoles had a staff support room. There was a spacecraft analysis room and in there were programme management level people, not the managers themselves, they would be on the back room on the MOCR. the programme manger and the head of the contractors, North American Rockwell, Grumman were all back there. If we had a question, we would ask our staff support room. We would write out a request and submit it to the spacecraft analysis room who would try to answer it. They would send it via runner to the Mission Evaluation room in an other building. They had all of the systems managers and engineers who built the hardware, who really understood it. They had access to spacecraft drawings, test data etc and had contact with all the sub-contractors. All in all it added up to about 400, 000 people.

Jerry Bostick

The head of the Mission Evaluation Room was the Apollo programme test officer Don Arabian, often called Mad Don, he had a short temper and intolerance for other people who weren’t as smart as he was and had a totally different approach to testing with the contractors. The contractors wanted to test everything against specification requirements from NASA, his approach was to test to make sure it would do what it was supposed to do. He was a very valuable asset.

The messaging system was by P Tube (pneumatic tubes, you would use that to send messages to the computer room in the first floor etc. Any displays that we had on our consoles, we could hit a copy button and someone would send us hard copy through the tube.

  • What were the shift patterns that were worked?

In general it was usually 8 hours except it was a 10 hour shift because of a 1 hour overlap on each end. Some missions like the first lunar landing we worked 4 shifts with a specialised team that did descent and landing.

  • In your book, you had admiration for Chris Kraft. Was your regard for Gene Kranz any less so?

Chris Kraft was my boss, i was his deputy 4 times throughout my career, we were very close. Kranz was a systems guy and he finally admitted when he retired that he didn’t understand what we did down in the trench. it amazed him, he didn’t understand all that stuff.

What I think we accomplished. Well we went from not being able to put anything in orbit to being able to send tons of sophisticated equipment that human beings a 1/4 of a million miles away would need to land on the moon in about 8 years, it was a very significant achievement.

October 4th 1967, I was a freshman in college, scared me to death, I was driving home, I got home and my parents were even more scared that me. If they could do that, they could put a bomb up there. if they can deliver an 184 lb satellite into a pre-determined pattern by going 50 miles up in space, they could deliver to to a target anywhere on the Earth’s surface. We had to do something. A few weeks after Sputnik, we tried to put up a Vanguard into orbit but didn’t quite make it. NASA was eventually formed in 1958, they selected the first Mercury 7 astronauts and they got to witness a lot of those vehicle launches, studying the rockets they were going to go up on.

Alan Shephard on his Mercury Redstone 3, I was never a fan of him until later, was rolled out a cherry picker, there was no gantry, to get into the spacecraft. You had to admire somebody like that so when they light the fuse you hoped it didn’t blow up. Even though it was sub-orbital, it took a lot of courage, I don’t think I could have done it back then. Just a few week after that, President Kennedy made the address to congress:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

This message was key to how we were to do this. That is one sentence, no fuzz, very succinct. It says what i want you to do and the schedule it needs to be done in. At that time we didn’t know how to do this at all. For example we didn’t know if we could do a direct launch and landing on the moon or rendezvous in Earth orbit to rendezvousing in lunar orbit. That’s when the space race really started. Unfortunately the Russians were first with Sputnik, the dog Laika in orbit, and the first EVA. Finally with Gemini 6 and a rendezvous with an Agena rocket, a decision was made to launch Gemini 7 with Frank Borman and Jim Lovell on a two week voyage to launch them first and rendezvous with Gemini 6. That was areal high point for us, we had finally beat the Russians.

About 4 months later we did the first docking with Gemini 8 with Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott. The docking went great. It was getting towards the end of my shift, just prior to running out of ground contact, and when they came up over the next ground station they told us they were tumbling. To try and arrest the tumbling, Neil had to open up a secondary reactionary control system that was a back up. The mission rules were that if you had to use the back up, you had to come back down. They eventually came back down in the far west Pacific Ocean in the middle of the night. if you ever get a chance to talk to Dave Scott who was there he will tell you they were about to black out from the tumbling. Neil’s piloting control had no doubt, he had to bail out the lunar module trainer, called the flying bedstead. he landed, packed up his chute and just went back to the office and started writing his post flight report. He was just Mr Cool.

Then we had a major setback withe the fire on Apollo 1, not only was it a great technical setback nut a personal one. These weren’t just astronauts, they were friends, our wives used to socialise, kids went to school together. Their families didn’t want us to slow down, wanted us to increase our efforts because that’s what the crew would want. Some people say that Apollo 13 was NASA’s finest hour, I have a hard time arguing with that except  I really think that the time between the fire and the end of the Apollo 7 mission was only 21 months, completely redesigning the module to testing in orbit, that has to be something for NASA to be proud of. That is the most unheralded mission ever. The first manned flight of an Apollo spacecraft, if it hadn’t been successful we wouldn’t have landed on the moon.

Jerry Bostick during Apollo 13

Gus Grissom and Wally Schirra, the Commander of Apollo 7, were very close friends, even before astronaut selection. Wally took it very personal, Gus had been complaining about the spacecraft and had even hung a lemon in it, Wally was determined he was going to fix everything that Gus had complained about. Wally Schirra had been told that he would have to test out a camera, he didn’t want to do that, for him that was public relations, not testing the spacecraft. Then he got a bad head cold, he was pretty grumpy, Walt Cunningham can tell you more about that. After about 6 days he started telling the flight director that he wasn’t going to listen to them anymore, he had his flight plan and knew what he was supposed to do. you can imagine that didn’t go down too well, they never went into space again.

About a month before Apollo 7 flew, Gene Kranz, Cliff Charlesworth (another flight director) and myself were called up to Chris Kraft’s office and where George Low told us that if Apollo 7 was successful that he wants Apollo 8 to fly to the moon. We thought it was crazy, we knew that the lunar module was not going to be ready to fly the next flight, that would set the whole programme back and probably mean we wouldn’t meet the presidents goal. We started thinking what could we do to achieve the goal and we came up with of going into lunar orbit. Initially in the Mercury programme, I had been a Retrofire Officer before I became a Flight Dynamics Officer, and that return to Earth thing from lunar orbit was a Retrofire Officers responsibility which Chris Kraft asked me to do on this flight.

This was my favourite flight, I was involved in so early, it was a bold move, surprised a lot of people at NASA and accomplished everything we planned. When the crew started reading the first chapter from Genesis on Christmas Eve, it was very emotional. Several years ago I jumped out of a perfectly serviceable airplane, parachuting, I sent pictures to a lot of people, i got an email back from Bill Anders who said “Oh my god we rusted you to get us back from the moon!” The other thing I liked about Apollo 8 is that it was everybody’s favourite crew, Jim Lovell was everybody’s favourite. Frank Borman was enormously respected and very instrumental in directing activity at North American Rockwell redesigning and rebuilding the Command Service Module.

Then we put the icing on the cake, Apollo 11. Everybody was happy with Neil Armstrong as the Commander, he dealt well with the trouble during Gemini. With Apollo 11, people were really worried about running out of fuel during landing. We were down under 100 feet off the surface, I wasn’t that worried about it, it wasn’t my responsibility, Neil would land it, no doubt. I asked him later that if he was asked to abort, would he have done that? He just said “What do you think.”

Jerry Bostick at the National Space Centre in Leciester


Meeting Tom Cruise’s Middle Finger & Top Gun Shuttle Astronaut Scott Altman

The Twins Paradox – Meeting the twin Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly

Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford

Apollo and Gemini astronaut Jim Lovell

Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham

Space Shuttle astronaut Eileen Collins

Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13

Meeting Ken Mattingly

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean

Meeting Apollo, Skylab and Shuttle astronauts at CosmicCon

Meeting Sy Liebergot NASA Mission Controller

Meeting Chuck Dieterich NASA Mission Controller

In 1997 during a docking test with the use of an onboard remote control, an unmanned cargo vessel collided into the Russian Mir Space Station. The collision punctured part of the space station, leaking air and causing Mir to spin while knocking out much of its power supply. It remains the most serious collision ever involving a manned spacecraft. On board Mir at the time was Michael Foale and I’ve come to listen to his talk on the 20th anniversary of the Mir space station collision.


Michael Foale is a veteran NASA astronaut of six Space Shuttle Missions with extended stays on the Russian Mir Space Station and the International Space Station. He spent 4 months on the Russian Mir Space Station during the Mir 23 and Mir 24 missions. It was during Mir 23 that the Progress M-34 resupply vessel struck the Mir station’s Spektr module nearly losing the space station and without quick thinking from Foale, may have seen the loss of him along with his fellow cosmonauts Vasily Tsibliev and Sasha Lazutkin.

Astronaut Michael Foale – Expedition 8 Mission Commander

A British-American astronaut, Foale was born in Louth, Lincolnshire to an American Mother and his Father, an RAF pilot. he lived all over Europe and at some point became a boarding school child. It was going to America on holiday with his mum at the World State Fair in Minneapolis that he saw John Glenn’s capsule Friendship 7 and event that eventually changed everything. Friendship 7 had already been in space and completed orbits around the Earth, it wasn’t shiny and freshly painted and to this young child’s eyes looked like a charred dustbin but the young Mike Foale looked up to the ceiling and saw a precursor model of the Space Shuttle.

John Glenn and Mercury 7

At school he found science fiction as a great motivator, even if his teacher disagreed. Mike Foale was 12 years old when he saw the moon landings and allowed him to focus more on science and technology. He initially applied to the RAF, he was pretty sure the UK would have an astronaut programme by the time he finished university, before being turned down for any eye problem at the age of 16 and being told he would not be fit to fly.  With some scholarly advice from his Father, he focused and on what he liked doing and what he could do well. He studied astrophysics at Cambridge, flew gliders, went scuba diving, measured the brightness of galaxies with radio telescopes before moving to the USA to pursue a distinguished career in the US space programme.

Originally working for McDonnell Douglas, he then got a job at Johnson Space Centre in Mission Control. Dr Michael Foale applied 3 times to NASA and it was after his third attempt with his essay on teamwork and the Challenger disaster that he became an astronaut in 1987 and flew on 6 Space Shuttle missions. He has spent more than 373 days in space and completed 4 space walks totaling over 22 hours:

  • STS-45 – The first ATLAS mission to study atmosphere and solar interactions.
  • STS-56 – Carrying ATLAS-2 and SPARTAN satellites that made observations of the solar corona.
  • STS-63 – The first rendezvous with the Russian Mir space station and Foale making his first spacewalk to evaluate extremely cold spacesuit conditions.
  • STS-84 – Foale joined the Russian Mir space station with the Mir 23 crew. After the collision, Foale conducted a 6 hour EVA in a Russian Orlan spacesuit to inspect damage to the space station.
  • STS-86 – After spending 145 days in Space, Foale returned to Earth.
  • STS-103 – A repair and upgrade mission to the Hubble Space Telescope where Michael Foale replaced the main computer in an 8 hour EVA.
  • Soyuz TMA-3 – A 6 month stay on the International Space Station as Expedition 8 Commander.


The American Space Programme was about to build a non international space station, it was becoming expensive, it was the early 90’s, the Soviet Union fell apart. At the same time there was a perceived exodus by the CIA, British Intelligence that Russian scientists and engineers were not being paid because all of the military industrial complex int eh Soviet Union didn’t have a goal anymore and they might potentially be exporting nuclear and rocket technologies to North Korea and Iran.

We as NASA astronauts were told we were going top designing Space Station Freedom, President Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed to build the ISS so that NASA could put money into the Russian space programme so that Russian space engineers were paid so they don go to North Korea and Iran.

3/4 of the NASA astronauts are military, they were trained to kill the enemy and the enemy at that time was the Soviet Union. They didn’t think too much about this programme of working together in space. When we had Vladimir Titov on our flight, we gave him professional courtesy, but we all looked at him with suspicion. he was one of two that were sent over to fly on the Space Shuttle as an exchange to get both sides ready to work with the other. I had my 3rd flight on STS-63, I thought I was possibly going to do a joint mission where I would go up to the Mir station, do a glorious handshake and that would be it. I was on a PR to Moscow for the very first time, we were being shown around by Vladimir Titov. We go into an office where there were a couple of Americans and a Russian secretary and their job was to set up the programme where American astronauts would come to Russia to take part on the Mir space station. I’m there with my crew when the Russian secretary then tells me that I am going to be living here in 3 weeks time with my family. I had no idea.

As a small group, we were quite tight as we got ready to first speak Russian, learn enough Russian to study the Soyuz and Mir. It was cold, one of the first things we got was a sled, my wife Rhonda spent most of her time looking for food, buying eggs and bread off the back of a lorry, daughter goes to school along with Russian kids. Spent time with a gym instructor who insisted I do flips on a trampoline, even though I was already a professional astronaut because that is what Yuri Gagarin had done. I was having to deal with a change in culture and a language. I was training in a Soyuz spacecraft but had to keep my hands to myself, I wasn’t allowed to touch any buttons. I really had no role, we were not to learn any operations, they regarded me as a spy. I was either called Cambridge or Langley.

The spaceship is built differently, they have a different approach to building a rocket. If we want to navigate in space, we use a gyroscope, probably because in the west, we build gyroscopes really well but in Russia they couldn’t get a gyroscope to spin for very long so they did all of their navigation by looking at the change in attitude. We had big disconnects on language, the meaning of technical terms even though they sounded exactly the same.

Michael Foale on STS-103 in the Space Shuttle Discovery cargo bay

Went back to America to join the crew of STS-84 who had been working without me. The purpose of the mission as described to me by the Russian programme manager after he’d had a few vodkas was that I would be”the useful weight.” His wife Yelena Kondakova was a Russian cosmonaut who had been on the Mir station, Jerry Linenger was already on the Mir and had been through a fire which had almost brunt though the hull of the base block of the Mir space station. We already knew about the fire and I was being launched to the station wondering what I was going to. I really wasn’t part of the STS-84 crew because I hadn’t trained with them. It was Yelena Kondakova who had spotted that, she would chat to me in Russian and encouraged me that it would be a better experience than I was anticipating.

I was replacing Jerry Linenger, he wrote the report about the fire. When I was approaching Mir, it was with dread, I didn’t know how Vasily Tsibliev and Sasha Lazutkin would be, if my Russian was going to be good enough. Vasily spoke very quickly, very military, uses a bad word every third word. I’d brought movies with me and was showing them a movie when the TV player in the middle of a movie shorted and smoke filled up all around it. I asked them why did that happen and they said it was the first time they had used during their expedition, they had been there 2 months. It was another sign of decay.

Mike Foale and Jerry Linenger

I was speaking with Jerry when he told me that one morning he went into the base block which is where they spent most of their time as it was the control post and he saw Vasily looking really startled, using TORU, a hand controller with a TV screen, a camera on a Progress cargo ship and flying it to the station, the screen went blank, Vasily looked scared and he saw Progress go by in the bottom window about 18 feet away. NASA didn’t know anything about this.

The day before the collision, Vasily had set up the hand controller the night before and we were having dinner when I asked what they were doing. They replied that they would be doing a docking test with Progress and then I started to remember what Jerry had told me. I asked how that would go when Sasha asked why I needed to know with Vasily saying Cambridge! Langley! Sasha asked how I knew so much and I said that I listed to the lectures that you Russians gave us. He thought that was very suspicious, they really didn’t want to tell me that much about it. I’d heard a rumour that Vasily was one of the best manual docking experts already in the cosmonaut corps. They said the distance was 6km, it was normally done from 100 metres.

Vasily Tsiblieve on the TORU on-board Mir

If you are in space and in orbit around the earth, if you come from a distance greater than a few hundred metres, or if your journey time is more than 20 minutes, you will go in a curve and not in a straight line. That means its orbital mechanic and rendezvous because everything is in curves, I knew this because I had been a planning engineer on STS-63. I asked how they knew their range and distance, they turned their radar off. They had to measure the size of the Mir solar arrays in the TV screen and take the size in squares on the TV screen and look it up on a graph which would then tell how far away it is based on the size on the TV screen. They then write down the time and 10 seconds later do it all again, get another measurement to get the speed.

Americans do it slowly, because their loads are heavier, 100 tons, so there is a lot of time to do the method they had just described and Americans do use that as a back up method. But Soyuz is light and small, Progress is just like Soyuz, comes in fast and breaks quickly at the end because it uses less fuel. I asked what I could do to help to which they told me I had no role. They eventually let me use a laser range finder.

Vasily was up the next morning, he was going to do this right, had set it up the night before, he was sure the TV going off was just a glitch. Progress was coming but he was at right angles to the docking axis which meant he was coming in too fast, hasn’t braked enough and he’s got much more speed than he can extinguish using the thrusters. At this point Sasha tells me to go to the Soyuz and as I fly though the passageway to the Soyuz lifeboat, I see it shake around me and then feel my ears pop as the air leaves the space station as I hear the siren.

We disconnected all of the power from the Spektr module that went through the hatchway. The Russians had taken all the power from the solar arrays through the hatchway into the base block. It provided a 1/3rd of the electrical energy for the station. Because Progress had hit the Spektre module, there was a hole there and the air had rushed out of it. I didn’t think it was possible to remove all of those cables, but we did. They were big, big cables carrying 300 amps each, which were lives as we disconnected those. We got the cap in place, had disconnected the power, isolated the leak but the whack of the Progress hitting the Spektr module, the momentum that had been transferred had put us in a big wobble.

There are 12 big gyroscopes on the Mir station and they spin to torque the station. these had been disconnected, the batteries were all dead, we’d gone into darkness, in to night. This meant the angular momentum meant we were now tumbling in quite a chaotic way. The idea we started to have was that we could use the Soyuz which was still attached and use its little thrusters to stop the tumbling and then having stop the tumbling, spin it about the Y axis so that the solar arrays could point towards the sun.

Soyuz TMA 3 spacecraft carrying Foale to the ISS
Soyuz TMA 3 spacecraft carrying Foale to the ISS

We tried to measure our tumbling rate over about 30 hours using the stars and our thumbs. The only axis that we could twist about was the one that had the flip in it, the middle moment of inertia. It was unstable and all we could do was try and spin about that unstable axis. I was very afraid that we would end up putting the station into a permanent spin about eh X axis which we could not control which would mean we would never get power back and would have to come back to Earth.

We had two modules out of 5 completely dead. We had 7 tons of water missing because when we were in the base block it was about 40 degrees C and when we were in the dead modules it was about 3 degrees C, so the water was condensing in all of these cold traps. I spent a lot of my time. Because of that, the Russians sent up another plug with Progress cargo ship that was to be installed using an intra-vehicle activity, an internal spacewalk using Russian spacesuits to put it in place. Sasha had a bad moment when he disconnected another cable as we got ready for that EVA. The Russians said at this point that the crew was too unlucky and were going to bring them home.

I was shocked, I knew I had to stay, my ride home was on the Space Shuttle. Very sad to learn that my crew weren’t going to stay with me. I had to do a spacewalk in the Russian suits which I had not been trained for, and had to hold on Anatoli Soloviev’s legs as he dug into the side of Mir with his razor knife, not a good thing to have with rubber suits. We didn’t find the leak, we didn’t find a hole, we were unsuccessful during that spacewalk. About a month later, the Shuttle came to pick me up, or rescue me as the way I put it. Then I was in the Shuttle looking through the overhead window with my last look at Mir, I never saw it again.


Questions from the audience

  • Could you explain more on what you did on Mir to save Mir and whether the Russians appreciated it.

The biggest challenge I had on Mir was fitting into the crew and being included as a professional. That developed because I could that Sasha and Vasily were really busy trying to find a leak in the cooling system, they were just ripping the station apart trying to find this leak which had been going on for weeks. They were being asked to print out messages that came up on the packet radio ham. I wrote a C++ program in windows that did that for them using the original Russian fonts. I did all the DOS stuff and got it working which saved them about an hour and a half by printing out their messages quickly. It was very manual getting these messages up and down. I asked Vasily to persuade Moscow for me to run the comms and I ended up like Radar in the Mash movies. I was the one who would get all the messages from Moscow and they talked to me, not Vasily, and I would go through the messages. It was an amazing amount of trust, Russian managers were probably very uncomfortable but on-board they were happy with me doing it.

When the collision actually happened, Vasily was in a sort of state of shock that we had a dead station, it was on his shoulders that it had happened, we didn’t even know of we could get off the station to the Soyuz because it was not powered. Actually it turns out you can’t power up the Soyuz to operate without space station power. What I proposed to them was remembering that Titov had told me that you can move the Mir about using the Soyuz. What Moscow had said to us with their very last words before we lost power and lost comm, they said Vasily may have to move with Soyuz, I had picked up on that and I said that I remembered Titov saying this. Vasily and Sasha said no it couldn’t be done, Mir was much lighter then, it was 400 tons now, it was only 20 ten. We couldn’t do anything else and then I looked out the window and saw the tumbling and the spin rates building up, I started measuring them and said that we could try it at least.

I had to convince Sasha using a torch and model as Mir, spinning it to illuminate it. Because Soyuz is thin compared to the rest of the Mir, we could only spin 2 axis. That was a discussion that Vasily listened to and then said that he was going to use too much fuel trying to do that. We would need the fuel to get off and go home in case we didn’t succeed. I asked him how much would he use and he said I wasn’t trained for the Soyuz, of course, I was considered to be a spy. They were very vague about how much fuel it would use. In the end we only ended up using about 10kg of fuel, we probably had 100kg of reserve fuel. it was that persuasion, that challenge I had that was the greatest contribution.


  • How do you compare the Russian Orlan spacesuit with an American one?

They are different. The American suit operates at 4.2 psi, 27 atmospheres and is more flexible because its a lower pressure and is pure oxygen. The Russian suit 0.4 of an atmosphere, stiffer, difficult to work in, I would never want to do a Hubble mission in a Russian suit. But it is a higher pressure and has a rear entry, you don’t need anyone to help you put one on, the American suit you have to have someone helping you. The Russian suit is much more robust and more importantly can be maintained by just one person.


  •  What is the worst part about going into Space?

Physically, it’s going to the toilet. You have to deal with it every day, you have to be clean, hygienic, and without running water. Running water is a wonderful thing, water doesn’t run, it forms balls because of the surface tension, so the lack of running water is the most awkward thing about being in space. The other one is missing other people. If you have children, as a parent you are aware that you’re not there.


  • Were Sasha Lazutkin and Vasily Tsibliev considered an unlucky crew?

They considered themselves an unlucky crew. Based on the fire, the collision and then when Sasha pulled the cable, Vasily had his health issue. There were a lot of things that made them feel unlucky and when they left the Mir station to go back to earth and leave me behind, I felt very sad. I was asked by NASA if I wanted to go back at that point which I declined. After they landed in Kazakhstan, I didn’t hear from them for a week or so, I got a short message from Sasha saying “Mike its just as well you didn’t come home with us because your seat didn’t work.” It didn’t lift up to  cushion the impact of the landing.


  • When Helen Sharman visited Mir, there were times she was told to not be in particular areas while the Russians were working together, did that happen to you?

That was probably because they were men and she was a woman but there were spy activities going on Mir and that why they were so suspicious of me when I asked questions, with a whole bunch of equipment. I think I knew what they were doing with it, but they wouldn’t talk about it.


On route to the International Space Station
Michael Foale on route to the International Space Station
  •  What is re-entry like on a Soyuz compared to re-entry on the Space Shuttle, are they many differences?

Huge differences. On the Soyuz you are basically spinning in and you see a lot more flame very close to your face, it’s all pink and hot, you can feel the heat the heat of the window. it cracks, you can almost hear it crack, there are 3 panes, the outer one cracks, that lasts about 5 minutes at 4 Gs, its heavier through your chest. At that point you done feel too sick but then the parachute gets deployed and you’re spinning ans swinging around, you start to feel sick so you don’t move your head about. Along flight for about 15 minutes before the engines fire, this big jolt on your back and you think you’re back is broken, then realise it didn’t because you can still move your toes and can then see people running towards you across the grass in Kazakhstan.

The Space Shuttle takes much longer to come in to the Earth’s atmosphere, takes twice as long, can feel 1 and 1/2 Gs through your head, so you actually feel more light headed even though its less Gs and it lasts for longer, about 20 minutes. But it is like an airplane, doing a cool left bank maneuver, 90 degrees bank, straight down looking at Mexico whizzing along at an amazing speed, doing Mach 17 but low down zipping along. Then we get to Florida and the atmosphere is starting to get much thicker, the view is just awesome. I’d say you’d get just as nauseous because it’s doing these rolls, then it come around in an alignment circle. By the time it lands, it’s very soft so that’s the best thing.


  • How easy it to bring the Space Station down?

I think it’s going to be a lot harder than they think. I’ve made my opinion known they they should not de-orbit the Space Station. At least leave it unmanned for use of commercial crews or for commercial tourist destination. But there are people at NASA who just disagree and they raise all of the existing engineering concerns that I have with module survivability, and use a Russian Progress for a long time to bring it to a slow descending orbit to put it into the Pacific Ocean. I thought that was pretty touch and go when they did that with the Mir and think it will be 4 times touch and go with the ISS. Stand by Earth. They are meant to do that in 2024.


Astronauts Michael Foale (left) and Claude Nicollier during EVA 2 Hubble Service Mission on STS103
Astronauts Michael Foale (left) and Claude Nicollier during EVA 2 Hubble Service Mission on STS103
This event was run by the www.TheArmchairAstronaut.co.uk



Meeting Tom Cruise’s Middle Finger & Top Gun Shuttle Astronaut Scott Altman

The Twins Paradox – Meeting the twin Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly

Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford

Apollo and Gemini astronaut Jim Lovell

Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham

Space Shuttle astronaut Eileen Collins

Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13

Meeting Ken Mattingly

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean

Meeting Apollo, Skylab and Shuttle astronauts at CosmicCon

The weather is scorching, the residual heat from a thousand local BBQs are not helping the situation and it feels like my sunglasses have melted on to my head. The sun in shining and I can feel its heat on my head, its radiation giving me a redneck, all from 93 million miles away.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done any astronomy, and even longer since any solar viewing with Coronado PST, but its clearly cloud free and blisteringly hot, a chance to image the sun using my dedicated solar telescope, a Hydrogen alpha Coronado PST. Even though we’re now way past Solar Maximum, the sun cycles every 11 years, there’s still a little activity to view.

Filaments near sunspot

The sunspot that you see on the left of the image shows some quite squirly activity, boiling gas and plasma and a fiery filaments, view of prominences on the edge of the sun, huge ribbons of ionized gas projecting from the sun’s chromosphere.



Solar Prominence

Both of these images were taken using a Coronado PST and an ASI120MC camera. Unfortunately I can’t get a whole disc image as I need to use a Barlow lens to achieve focus.  Also be better to use a mono camera instead of a colour camera like the one I have. A mono camera would be far more efficient because with a color camera on the sun, it only takes in the red channel, in effect using only 1/3rd of the camera. This is not a cheap hobby, or an easy one at times.

I remember the 80s…a time for heroes, high-five flyers and top gun shuttle pilots. Just as well then that today, thanks to the team at Space Lectures, I met Scott Altman, a veteran F14 Tomcat pilot flying as Tom Cruise’s middle finger in that famous scene in Top Gun and a veteran of 4 Space Shuttle flights.

On STS-90, Scott ‘Scooter’ Altman was the pilot of Columbia and as Pilot for Atlantis on STS-106 to the International Space Station (ISS). His next mission was as Commander of Columbia on STS-109 on a mission to service the Hubble space telescope. Scott ‘Scooter’ Altman’s last space shuttle flight was as Commander on Atlantis for STS-125, the 5th and final shuttle mission to Hubble.

Meeting Scott in the flesh, I’m surprised how tall he is (6′ 4″), it’s enough to take your breath away. It’s the one thing that at 17 years old stopped him from becoming a pilot in the United States Air due to his ‘sitting height.’ Thankfully an enquiry to the United States Navy helped fulfil his ambition to become a pilot since watching “Sky King” growing up. He got to fly F14 aircraft out of Miramar and his first chance of international relations during a cruise over the sea of Japan. The Soviet Union were flying Bear Bombers and Russian Fighters would come out and have mini dog fights, not unlike in the beginning of the film Top Gun.

"Well, that's my finger"
“Well, that’s my finger”

When Scott Altman came back from the cruise, Paramount Pictures were in town, his squadron was selected to fly the F14 in the movie and he was chosen by his skipper to work with the movie people, feeling the need for speed completing the air combat manoeuvres and scaring the camera crew. This includes the memorable scene in the movie where the plane rolls over to keep up international relations “yes Goose, I know the finger”

“Well, that’s my finger”

He also got to do the tower fly by, called a low transition, lighting the afterburners and getting out of dodge, not once but actually 9 times. They filmed with people in the tower for the first 3 and then evacuated after that. Scott Atman didn’t think he was that close.

From there he went to test pilot school where he took a field trip to Houston where two things happened. He realised that astronauts were real people, something he hadn’t really believed before, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in some other category of human. He met guys who had had similar careers as his, looked around the Space Shuttle like a kid in a candy store and applied to NASA. After his week long interview, which is mainly a physical, he returned back to his base and awaited the call hopefully from Don Puddy, the rumour being that if he called you, you were in. Scott Altman did indeed speak to Don Puddy by telephone “I’m sorry to have to tell you this…”

Scott Altman, NASA Astronaut, Pilot on STS-106

When you want to do something though, you don’t give up. He went back to the fleet and got a phone call from NASA while he was on the ship in the Persian Gulf and was asked to comeback for interview with this time saying yes. AT On his first mission to space he visited the International Space Station before, the last crew to go to the ISS before people lived there full time. While there he got to run the lighting, install the treadmill and got to be a space plumber, installing the toilet, leaving a little sign on it saying ‘sanitised for your protection by the crew of STS-106.’

He flew with Yuri Malenchoko, who grew up in Ukraine, became a fighter pilot and one of the guys that Scott Altman trained so hard for in an F14 that he thought he would to go head to head against, each trying to kill each other. Because of space they got to work together on a common mission and instead of being an enemy, was a friend and crewman. As a result, he learned that they were more alike than they were different.

The destination for his final two flights was the Hubble Space Telescope. Looking back at the Earth, it took Altman several days to realise that the little blue band going around the Earth was the atmosphere, comparing the size of the planet to the size of the atmosphere. That’s where our oxygen comes from, that’s what protects us from radiation and gave him a new perspective on the planet.

“It feels fragile, this is our home we have to take care of it.”

Hubble has been in space over 25 years but is not a new telescope. On every servicing mission they put in new technology. His mission was the 5th and his office was the flight deck as the Commander in the left seat with the pilot on the right. Most people think the pilot lands but is actually a co-pilot and goes back to the Gemini days when one was a command pilot and the other was a co-pilot. These astronauts were a bunch of high-powered test pilots, they didn’t want to be called co-pilots. So they called one the Mission Commander and the other the pilot.By the time you launch, you know every one of those switches and what your responsibilities are, what happens if something fails on the right side and how it impacts the switches on the others. One of the other places he trained was the neutral buoyancy lab (NBL). A giant swimming pool 50 feet deep, where you can place the whole telescope down there and float. You can either float in the pool to simulate zero G or in a an airplane on the ‘comet vomit’ doing a parabola which only lasts about 20 seconds.

They trained in the NBL for 6 hours which matches what you would do in space. One of our tests was to repair an instrument that we couldn’t take a whole new box along, which was the classic Hubble repair, take the old box and out and put a new box in, relatively straightforward. One instrument had failed, they knew which card had failed but in order to keep all those cards stable during ascent when everything really shakes, they put 117 screws into it. Altman and his crew had to find a way in which to remove those screws without losing them or going into the worst place possible, inside the telescope and then replace the card, coming up with a fasten and capture plate to do it.

Scott 'Scooter' Altman at Space Lectures
Scott ‘Scooter’ Altman at Space Lectures

They were the first crew not to go to the ISS after the Columbia accident, so they also had to have a plan on what they would if their Shuttle was damaged on launch or while they were on board. They got two Shuttles ready to launch at almost the same time, with the rescue shuttle going up a week later. The Shuttle can only stay in orbit for around 20 days before it runs out of all power.

There is an 8 1/2 minute ride to orbit and right after the engines shut down, you are floating in space. One of the first jobs to do is get the payload doors open as they are the radiators to eject the heat that is building up in all the equipment. If you don’t do that, you don’t get a go for ‘Orbit Ops’ and then you would have to de-orbit and come home. You get a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes which is why you set the clock by mission elapsed time and not the sun, 16 orbits a day. Then you find the Hubble and rendezvous with that, hand fly the vehicle from the aft station using an overhead window and look up to find Hubble approaching until its floating right outside the window and then grab it with the arm to keep it secure.

The Hubble Space Telescope as seen by STS-109

The crew’s number one objective was Wide Field Camera 3, a lot more sensitive than the previous camera, but when it came to replacing, not everything moved as it should have done with the torque wrench on it. RSUs, a box containing gyros to help keep the telescope stable, also needed replacing. However, they didn’t fit. Without gyros, there wouldn’t be a Hubble and it meant a longer than normal spacewalk to resolve the problem with a less than high-tech repair by snapping a bar off. That’s the value of having people and robotics to come up with these contingency plans. This was also the last time that anybody visited Hubble.

All good things come to an and on return the Shuttle is a glider, there are no engines and the Mission Commander always takes over at sub-sonic speeds using guidance to land. Once you do get out, it doesn’t feel normal, like having your foot nailed to the floor and causes problems with your inner balance.When Hubble was launched, we didn’t even know some of the questions it had already answered. It clued us into Dark Energy, and along with Dark Matter, we find that 96% f the universe we don’t know anything about. Hubble allowed us to look back into the early universe with the light that it captures travelling for millions and billions of years. Hubble is still going strong, seven years after Altman’s last visit. It’s an incredible universe.

Scott Altman rode on the shoulders of giants, got to meet his own heroes, including Neil Armstrong and he is looking forward to the day that the next wave of astronauts go back to the Moon and on to Mars, flying the new spaceships and standing on a distant planet looking out and realising that we really can reach for the stars.

Nick Cook with Scott Altman at Space Lectures. Photo courtesy of ProffotoEvents
Nick Cook with Scott Altman at Space Lectures. Photo courtesy of ProffotoEvents


The Twins Paradox – Meeting the twin Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly

Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford

Apollo and Gemini astronaut Jim Lovell

Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham

Space Shuttle astronaut Eileen Collins

Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13

Meeting Ken Mattingly

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean

Meeting Apollo, Skylab and Shuttle astronauts at CosmicCon

Mark and Scott Kelly are the only siblings to have travelled in space with 4 spaceflights each and NASA’s only set of identical twin astronauts . Today, thanks to the great team over at Space Lectures, I’m meeting the time travelling twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. The team at Space Lectures announced the twins line up in spectacular fashion at the end of the Tom Stafford event last year with a video from Scott Kelly on board the ISS announcing their visit. I guess if you’re going to do it, do it in true astronaut style from space. The slightly younger Scott Kelly recently spending a year in space, essentially travelling in a high-speed rocket while his slightly older twin brother Mark remained on Earth as the ground control subject, and thanks to the effect of time dilation of special relativity, time travels slower the faster you go, Scott would technically find that when he returned to Earth, his brother Mark has aged more, even if only by a few milliseconds – the Twins Paradox.

Twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly
Twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly

Mark Kelly flew his first space mission in 2001 as space shuttle pilot on STS-108 delivering supplies to the ISS (International Space Station). His second mission was again as pilot on STS-121 with its mission testing new safety and repair techniques. His third mission was as commander on STS-124 delivering the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo to the ISS. Mark Kelly’s final mission was again as Commander on STS-134, the penultimate space shuttle mission and last flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour.

Scott Kelly flew his first flight on Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-103 for a Hubble telescope servicing mission. His second flight was as commander on STS-118 to the ISS. His third flight was as commander of Expedition 26 on the ISS. Scott Kelly’s last flight was to the ISS on Expeditions 43-46, commanding Expeditions 43-45 as part of the ISS Year Long mission to study the health effects of long-term spaceflight with a comparative study of his twin brother Mark who stayed on Earth during this time.


Twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly
Twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly

The retired former astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly are sharing the stage for this Space Lecture, part retired astronauts, part double act, but all in good-natured twin sibling ribbing. The rest is in Mark and Scott Kelly’s own words…

MK: Thank you very much everybody, I’m Mark Kelly, the smarter, better looking astronaut.

SK: Hey Mark, I’m standing right here unlike when I was in space for a year and can actually hear what you’re saying.

MK: That was the best year of my life.

SK: Mine too. Why do you get to talk first anyway?

MK: Isn’t it obvious, I’m 6 minutes older than you so I should talk first.

SK: That’s the only 6 minutes when he really was the smarter, better looking one. I’m the more experienced astronaut, I’ve flown in space for 500 days verses your 50 days or minutes or whatsoever that was.

MK: It was 50 days. but if you want to talk experience, I was the pilot of the Space Shuttle twice and the Commander twice and you only did that once.

SK: You know the great thing about being on the ISS for a year? You can’t hear your twin brother whining. I’m Scott Kelly, its great to be here, great to be anywhere with gravity and to those of you who do not appear to be space aliens, I’d like to say good afternoon, and to the rest of you ‘we come in peace.’

MK: It was in September 1962 that our president JFK said we choose to go the Moon and do those other things, not because the are easy, but because they are hard. the greatest gift we can all give our children is to continue to do those hard things, we do those and we can accomplish anything, go to Mars and other places. But what we also need is an enthusiastic, proud people like those in the US, like those here in this room today, space enthusiasts that want to see us go to Mars.

People often ask us what is the best part about flying in space ans having the privilege of being an astronaut, is it the launch, the landing, looking out the window at our beautiful planet Earth, is it floating around in zero gravity. All those things are great, but the best part of flying in space for my brother and I is that it’s really hard and difficult thing to do and that’s what makes it so great. Space is hard, a hard place to work and that’s what we want to talk to you about today, about doing those hard things, having a goal and a plan, taking risks, be willing to making mistakes, testing the status quo and about working as a team. When you put all these things together for us as our careers in astronauts, we’ve learned that the sky is not the limit.

Scott and I grew up in New Jersey, our Dad was a stereotypical tough New Jersey Irish  Police Detective, used to come home at east once a year with a cast on his arm and tell Scott and I that he broke his hand fighting crime. Bar fighting. More bar fighting than crime fighting. Our Mother was a secretary and a waitress pretty much at the same time and this was a time in our lives that we did not do particularly well in school, we didn’t have any goals or great direction and for some reason our Mother decided she was going to become a Police Officer like our Father, this was in New Jersey in the 1970s, and for a woman to become a Police Officer, was a really difficult thing to do. Our Mom had to take a test, part of test was a physical fitness test that included climbing over this 7 foot 2 inch wall. Our Mother was about 4 feet 13 inches tall and she had to climb over this wall.

To help our Mother out, our Dad made this built a replica ion the back yard and made it an inch higher and we’d watch our Mother go out there, initially she couldn’t reach the top ans when she could she would just often fall off into the dirt. But after moths of practising, our Mother took this test and instead of getting over in the required 9 seconds, got over in 4 1/2 seconds which was almost faster than all the men and became one of the first female Police Officers in that part of New Jersey. This was the first time in our lives we saw that the power of having a goal and a plan of what it meant to work really hard.


Astronaut Mark Kelly STS-134 commander
“Practice, persistence and just not giving up was the only thing that ever really worked for me.” Mark Kelly

SK: So Mark and I grew up in New Jersey in the 60s and 70s, the height of the Apollo space programme and a TV show ‘I dream of Jeannie’ and I remember when Neil and Buzz took those first steps on the surface of the moon but I don’t ever remember wanting to be and astronaut and thinking that was something I was capable of, I was such a poor student growing up, I couldn’t pay attention. I spent more tie looking out the window, willing the clock to run faster, more than looking at the blackboard. I think if I was at school today I’d be diagnosed with ADD, so being an astronaut was something completely beyond the realm of possibilities. I do remember the first time I said I wanted to be an astronaut. I was in the first grade, in the boys urinal, next to a classmate, doing what first graders do in there, peeing on the floor. He turns me to and asks what do I what to do when I grow up, I said play baseball of the Mets, he turns to me and says I want to be an astronaut. I thought that sounded cool and then said I wanted to be one.

MK: I think we all have goals, one of my early goals, even before I got out of high school, I was going to become one of the first people to walk on the planet Mars. This was when I was about 17 years old, I figured out if I worked hard enough and got lucky, I’d maybe make it to Mars someday. I left NASA about 5 years ago and never did make it to Mars. But I did get kind of close, I made it into space 4 times, many of you may think that’s impressive getting into space 4 times, just think of how impressed the aliens were when I told them I had visited the planet Earth 5 times. My plan was to become a naval aviator, navy pilot, then a test pilot, then an astronaut. I graduated from university in 1986, headed off to flight school in Pensacola, Florida to start flying for the US Navy. Top Gun came out in 1986, kind of embarrassed to tell you this but I’m going to tell you anyway, literally as I drove through the gate at the naval air station, that cheesy music from the movie, playing on the tape deck, think it was the Danger Zone song. I get there, I start flying and very quickly find out I am not Maverick. I’m not a particularity good pilot, I really struggled.

You know what the Navy does to you after a year at flight school? They send you to land on a ship for the first time. I could barely land on the runway. When the Navy sends you to land on an aircraft carrier for the very first time, there isn’t anybody crazy enough to go with you. Heading off to what felt like the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, you get above the ship, initially for a touch and go landing where you touch down and take off again, do that few times and on the third time down, I put my tailhook down, this hook is supposed to catch one of the 4 wires across the back of the jet. Well, it didn’t, went up in the air again and on the fourth time I landed generally in the right place, the hook grabs one of the wires, its like getting a crash in your car, you come to an abrupt stop, raise the hook, come to the catapult and shot off the front of the ship at a 130 mph in a couple of seconds.

Did that a couple of more times, the entire experience is just a blur, I barely remember any of it with the exception of one of the deck hands giving me a single obscene gesture with one of his fingers. Later I go back to the naval air station and I’m being debriefed by the instructor pilots that was watching from the back of the ship, you know the first thing he said to me is “Are you sure this career is for you.” I’d be the first to admit how poorly I did, I think Tom Cruise would have been better, I don’t mean the character from the movie, I mean the actor. I didn’t give up, I really believe this. No matter how good you are at the beginning of anything you try, it’s not a good indicator how good you can become. I’m a prime example of someone who was able to overcome a serious lack of aptitude, but practice, persistence and just not giving up was the only thing that ever really worked for me.


Astronaut Scott Kelly STS-118 commander
“Small manageable steps that became that giant leap for me.” Scott Kelly

SK: Despite all my efforts in school, I managed to graduate in the bottom half of my high school class, college year. I was 18 years old and it was just expected that I would go off to university. So I did and I applied to a few and got accepted to one and when I showed up I realised I had actually applied for the wrong school, I thought I was applying for another university in Baltimore, Maryland, thinking I was going to the university of Maryland College Park. I was waiting for the football game on Saturday and we didn’t even have a football stadium. I was basically going through the same experience in high school, I couldn’t pay attention, I didn’t know how to study, waiting for the day to get over, wasn’t even going to class very much. One day I was walking across the campus and I go into the book store to buy gum or potato crisps, not a book. So I see this book on the book shelf, it was a red, white and blue cover, I was attracted t it, it really caught my interest.

Brought it back to my unmade dorm room and was captivated by the stories of the early military pilots and the test pilots that became the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts. The book was The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. I read it from cover to cover very quickly and I recognised traits in these guys, that despite being this 18 year old kid who’d never been able to do his home work, I recognised traits in them that I had in myself. I decided right then and there, that this was the spark to get me moving in a positive direction, get me doing those hard things. You might wonder how this kid at 18 years old becomes this very successful astronaut at the end of his career, that’s a giant leap. But for me it was a bunch of very small manageable steps, teaching myself how to do my homework, going to class, changing schools, getting accepted into the Navy, getting to flight school, small manageable steps that became that giant leap for me.

MK: For all of us, life is a set of challenges, whether it’s personal or professional challenges. One of the big professional challenges for me in the summer of 1990 was when a guy named Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait. I was a pilot of an air plane A6 Intruder, a two-man, all weather ground attack plane. I was stationed over in Japan on an the aircraft carrier USS Midway and by the fall (Autumn) of that year we were going down by the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean, up into the Persian Gulf and we got there in November.  On January 17th 1991, it was time for me to fly my first combat mission, I’d been training for this for about 5 years. I was the pilot of the A6 Intruder, the other crew member was my bombardier navigator Paul Fujimora, really good at his job. We head up to the flight deck early to fly our first combat mission. It was a dark night, no moon, they guys were loading up hundreds of bombs and missiles onto the airplane and on that night we were to drop 8000 lbs of ordnance on a hanger on an airfield near Basra in southern Iraq. We get into this air plane, we turn on the batteries, the radios, we hear that another A6 Intruder just like ours has been shot down over southern Iraq. We start our engines and take off, go to an airborne tanker and get a full load of gas and then proceed north towards the southern coast of Iraq in the northern part of the Persian Gulf. As soon as we get over land, we see AAA (anti-aircraft-artillery) coming up at our airplane as the Iraqis move then guns back and forth, like a snake coming up at the sky at you. Winston Churchill said about his experience in combat that there was nothing more exciting than being shot at and missed. Speaking from experience, this part is kind of important.

We had top go through this part of Iraq that had these SAMs (surface to air missiles), big air defence systems that they got from the Soviet Union, we made this left hand turn and found ourselves right in the middle of these missile envelopes, most of the missile batteries to my left, over my left shoulder. I’ve got to tell you that one of the worst feelings that I’ve ever had in my life is seeing a missile come up at an aeroplane, big bright dot, just getting bigger and not moving forward or aft in the canopy. If it stays in the same position and just gets bigger, you know what that means? It’s coming right at you. Immediately as soon as I see this thing, I say “Paul, I think we have a missile tracking us.” Now Paul’s job is to find this hangar on our radar and infra-red displays. His only response to me was “Roger, I’m tracking the target.” A little while later I say “Paul, this isn’t good, the missile is getting really close.” Again, the same response. He’s doing what we in the Navy or NASA call compartmentalisation. Focusing on the stuff you can control, not worrying about the stuff outside your control. No matter what industry you work in, or your job, there are often things that are outside your influence, and the things that are outside of your control, it doesn’t make any sense to pay attention or worry about them. All we can do is focus on the stuff we have some control over.


Space Shuttle Endeavour’s last mission on STS-134 commanded by Mark Kelly
‘The Sky is not the limit’ Mark & Scott Kelly.

The missile is getting closer, I have to do a little last-ditch manoeuvre, I add full power, roll the aeroplane upside down, put the stick in my lap, the missile goes over the top and explodes, there’s a big flash and the air-plane shakes, I turn the air-plane up right, check the instrument panel and both engines are still running, hydraulic systems still have pressure, it doesn’t seem like we have any holes in the aeroplane. As we turn back from the target, you know whats worse than seeing the first missile? It’s not going well at all. We go through this same process again with Paul incredibly focused, focused on the stuff he can control. These time, we go upside down the missile goes over the top, the missile doesn’t explode and goes off into the distance. A little while later we end up in our 30 degree dive over the airfield, bullets coming up over the clouds, we’re going down through the clouds, eventually I can see the runway and the hanger. I hit the button on the stick and the bombs go flying, the aeroplane gets a lot lighter, and you don’t hang around to see if you hit anything, it’s not like TV, just turn around and leave. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is in all of our lives to just pay attention to the things we can control and not worry about the rest of the stuff.

SK: Eventually I started doing better, did well enough at my new college, this time the one I actually applied for on purpose to go into the Navy and flight school and I did well enough to get assigned to the aeroplane that my brother wanted top fly, the F14 Tomcat.

MK: You know what they say about fighter pilots and the F14 Tomcat? That fighter pilots make movies, Attack Pilots make history.

SK: I was assigned the F14 Tomcat and I’m taking it to the ship for the very first time, we don’t have a stick in the back, there is a seat in the back and its usually an instructor, radar intercept officer like Goose in Top Gun but he can’t control the aeroplane, only give a bit of advice, and I remember the first time in this F14 and looking down on the ship and my very first landing in the F14 and I landed so short that the hook of the aircraft hit the back of the ship, the bit that goes down towards the water, not the flat area its supposed to.

MK: This is actually called crashing.

SK: It’s called almost crashing. I rolled into the wires, stopped and I raised my hook and they, chained me down and took me out of the aeroplane and they said to me “the day part of landing on the ship is the easy part, if you can’t even do this during the day, how do you expect to be able to do this at night? You’re not very god at this.” They launched me back off to Virginia beach and had to really dig deep down inside and was given the option of applying for something else, you want to not fly again, guys usually didn’t disqualify during the day like I had just done. But I was willing to take the risk of failing to see what the limit of my achievement was going to be, what u can actually achieve. I was willing to challenge myself and take risks of failing to see what I could accomplish and that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, set yourself up for failure. But if you want to see how far you can go, it’s a pretty important trait to have – to be wiling to fail.

The Navy eventually set me up with a radar intercept officer that was good at helping guys who had problems and eventually we’re flying together and he says to me you can fly the aeroplane well enough, you can control what you need to do to land, altitude, heading, angle of attack, put the aeroplane where it needs to be but what you’re doing is getting too comfortable with everything that is just right. Too comfortable when everything is perfect, and by doing so, because you’re not making constant corrections, things will soon be off. What he taught me was to fly this aeroplane very precisely, make corrections all the time and test the status quo. If I wasn’t making constant corrections, things are never going to get better and likely going to get worse. I use this philosophy from flying the F14, flying other aeroplanes, flying in space,working in a programme, managing people, managing teams, wherever I work in the rest of my career, I’ve always tried to make constant very small corrections, testing the status quo all the time to make sure things don’t get worse.


Space Shuttle Endeavour docked with the ISS during STS-118
Space Shuttle Endeavour docked with the ISS during STS-118

MK: Scott and I became astronauts in 1996 and in 2001 it was time for me to fly my first space flight. When you go up the launchpad on the day you lit off into space, the launchpad is pretty much abandoned because the Space Shuttle is fully fuelled, pretty much a bomb sitting on a hill. You climb into the Space Shuttle about 3 hours before lift off, get strapped in to your seats, laying on your back and you’ve got to turn on all these systems, APUs, hydraulics systems, electrical, environmental, engines in correct configuration, computer system in different modes, 2000 switches and circuit breakers that need to be in the right place. You’re working through this checklist, countdown clock heading towards zero, that clock stops a couple of times to allow you to catch up and when its gets to 6 seconds, those three main engines start and come up to full power producing am million and half pounds of thrust and you’re still sitting on the launchpad with that Space Shuttle bolted down, When the clock hits zero, the bolts explode, the solid rocket boosters ignite and it is literally like the hand of god came down and grabbed you and ripped you off the planet. On TV it looks like you are going up really smoothly…doesn’t feel anything like that. What it does feel like, like going down a rail road tracks on a runaway train at a thousand miles an hour, an incredible amount of vibration. We accelerate from 0 to 17500 mph in just 8 1/2 minutes.

Two minutes into that flight, those solid rocket boosters, come off and parachute back down into the ocean, NASA sends a ship out there to pick them up, get them back to the factory and refurbish them and reuse them. A little while later we are going 25 times the speed of sound, 17500 miles an hour. Those main engines shut down and the external tank comes off, hits the atmosphere and explodes and now we’re in orbit around this incredible planet and its such an amazing thing to see, this round blue ball just floating there in the blackness of space. No strings attached, going around every 90 minutes and all 7 1/2 billion people are there and it is literally an island in the solar system.

SK: I’m nit sure why my brother is telling you all this because I flew in space for the first time about 3 years before he did, very much like he described and my first flight was to the Hubble Space Telescope which was having a science emergency. I remember the first 81 /2 minutes, I was so focused on just inside of the cockpit, like mark said there was 2000 switches and circuit breakers. You could push a button a the wrong time and blow the space shuttle up or throw a switch and blow up the auxiliary power unit. What I would tell myself in those kind of moments whether its being the pilot of the Commander of the Space Shuttle or flying on the Soyuz or ISS, that when I’m doing an activity that is so critical, just remind myself that there is nothing more important than what I am doing right now. So the first 8 1/2 minutes I’m looking inside and eventually the main engines cut off and we’re floating around in space. It was dark and I looked out for the first time and after a few minutes I see something on the horizon I don’t really recognise having never flown in space before.I turned to the Commander of the Space Shuttle and ask what the hell is that? That’s the sunrise. As the sun came up I saw how the brilliantly blue planet Earth was, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life, breathtaking.


Mark Kelly on space shuttle Endeavour
Mark Kelly on Space Shuttle Endeavour

Two days later we rendezvoused with the telescope, put it in the payload bay, did three spacewalks. fixed it perfectly and sent it out on its way. Ever since then I’ve had this kind of relationship with Hubble and an appreciation for how its shown us our place in the universe. A number of years ago they pointed the telescope at a spot in the sky that was absolutely black where they thought there was absolutely nothing and left it pointed there for two weeks. They developed the image and over 3000 galaxies, much like our Milky Way galaxy with billions of stars. A few years later they pointed the telescope in the exact opposite direction, same thing again. We know the universe is distributed evenly around us and from this data we got back from Hubble and elsewhere, astronomers have been able to determine there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sands on all the beaches and every desert on Earth. I’ve flown over a lot of sand during my 500 odd days in space and its hard to imagine more star than grains of sand on a single beach, let alone all the sand on planet Earth. People often wonder and ask about life out there, did you ever see anything funny, so what I tell them is that when I was in the Navy, I visited Area 51, there were no aliens there.

MK: Because we moved them all to Are 52. Please don’t share that with anyone. My wife Gabrielle Giffords is a member of Congress and when she entered Congress for the first time in 2007, I thought we had the risky jobs. I’d flown two flights in space, Scott had as well, but as it would turn out, my wife Gabby was the one who would nearly lose her life serving her country. On the day she was injured, nearly assassinated, there was no clock for us. What I mean by that, the big events in my life, a combat mission, a space flight, you know what decisions need to be made by what time. I was at home where I lived in Houston, she was in Tuscon meeting with her constituents, the people that elected her, met with them in a grocery store. I’d just got off the phone with my wife Gabby, I knew she was going to this event. A little while later my cell phone rings and Gabby’s chief of staff said that Gabby had been shot. Other than that call we didn’t have that much information. I started thinking to myself did that really happen. I called my wife’s chief of staff back and that’s when she gave me the really devastating news that my wife Gabby had been shot in the head from a would be assassin.


"I've flown over a lot of sand during my 500 odd days in space and its hard to imagine more star than grains of sand on a single beach, let alone all the sand on planet Earth" Scott Kelly.
“I’ve flown over a lot of sand during my 500 odd days in space and its hard to imagine more star than grains of sand on a single beach, let alone all the sand on planet Earth” Scott Kelly.

At that point I realised that this was going to be the biggest challenge of my life. I had to get to Tucson in Arizona in a hurry and I lived in Houston in Texas. I had a good friend with a private aeroplane, so we go to the airport and take off. One of the worst dumbest things I’ve done is to leave the TV on, on this corporate aeroplane and watch this day unfold on TV. We get about halfway with all the news channels pronouncing my wife Gabby dead. we just sat there looking at my wife’s picture for about 30 minutes with that little graphic at the bottom that says Gabrielle Giffords 1970-2011. A little while later the media comes back saying she was in surgery. The news shouldn’t be announcing people dead, that should be left up to doctors to do. My wife Gabby certainly wasn’t going to get taken out by cable news.

SK: On this day I was on the ISS, had been there for a few months already and had about 2 1/2 months to go, it was a Saturday and I was fixing the toilet, elbow deep in space toilet, sometimes astronauts do have to do those crappy jobs. I’m fixing the toilet and I get a call from Houston saying they are privatising the space to ground channel. I didn’t think a whole lot about it, they said the chief of the astronauts office was going to come on and they did they told me my sister-in-law had been shot, a bunch of others injured but didn’t have a lot of information. I immediately called my brother, he was getting ready to go to Tuscon, he tole me everything he could. Got off the phone and tried to do whatever I could to support him but being on the ISS there was no way to come home for about another 2 1/2 months. There’s nothing that can happen on the ground when you are in space that will bring you home, it has to be some kind of emergency on the spacecraft. Eventually being in such an isolated place, I realised I had a crew, a space station to take care of, I was the ISS Commander, I really need to focus the stuff I could focus on and control and not the stuff I count which was happening back on the ground.


Astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station
Astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station

MK: Around this time on 2011, NASA started considering sending an astronaut to the ISS for an entire year and eventually would turn out to be my brother Scott. Why would we sedn somebody to the ISS for a year? Up until this point we had only sent astronauts into space for as long as 6 months and this was going to be as twice as long. Its to prepare and to learn enough about human physiology and other things if we went to send astronauts to Mars some day. Mars is pretty far away , it’s going to take us 6 months to get there, 6 months to get back and if you want to stay more than a couple of weeks, you have to stay nearly a year. a really long mission if you want to send crew members to the surface of Mars. We have a good understanding of what we’re going to need to know about rocket science with propulsion systems and what the spacecraft are going to look like to do a mission like that. What we don’t understand, what we really need to improve our understanding of and our knowledge is in human physiology. So for that reason my brother Scott spent a year in space.

SK: So in March of 2015 I find myself in central Asia for the second time,getting ready to launch on the Russian Soyuz, similar to what my brother described, you’re in this van, the cosmovan going out to the launchpad. A much smaller rocket, fully fuelled, like a bomb on the top of this hill but unlike the Shuttle where the launchpad is abandoned, there’s like a hundred people up there. The Russian philosophy on this is that if you have friends and they’re going on a long trip, you’re going to be there to see them off. You’re walking past these people and some of these people are smoking cigarettes. You’re going into space, you have no choice, get in the elevator and you go up, get strapped in the Soyuz and its about as small as it can possibly be to fit three grown people inside. Its dark and its loud, you’re strapped in with knees up to your chin. But unlike the Space Shuttle there’s no countdown clock, it seems like its kind of unnecessary in the Russian system. You get to zero and start to hear things going on, somebody says ignition and pretty soon you’re off to the races.

Nine minutes later you’re in space, takes a little longer in the Soyuz, 6 hours later you’re docking with the ISS. Open the hatch and I go inside and it feels like I never left and I’m thinking man this is a dumb thing to do, I’ve got a year ahead of me. And its hard, living in space on the ISS is really hard. The ISS is really big, about the size of a football pitch, like a 5 bedroom house and a combination of a scientific laboratory and your grandmothers basement. When you’re in space you have to bring with you everything you need, food, water spare parts. We lost two rockets when we were on the ISS, the Russian Progress and the Space X Dragon blew up, so you need a lot of stuff up there. Its a really had place to live, when you go to sleep you’re at work, when you wake up you’re at work, everything floats, you have to take electricity form the sun, turn our urine into water, which we then drink, which we then turn back into urine, over and over again. Some of that we use to make oxygen.Not only is human physiology very important, we also want to know how to keep these systems working for very long periods of time so we can go to Mars some day. You’re going to Mars and your toilet breaks and your ability to turn urine into water breaks, you’re dead. Over the course of the time I was there we did 400 different scientific experiments in all different scientific disciplines, some exploration based, how to live and work in space and how to go to Mars. Others were about improving life right here on Earth with basic sciences, research in medicine, stayed pretty during the course of the year I was up there.


 International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour
International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour

MK: If you hadn’t noticed, Scott and I are identical twins, a lot of the experiments he focused on for the year while he was in orbit, and I also focused on while here on earth was a thing called the twin study which was a comparative scientific study between the two of us that was done by about 10 different universities, mostly in the US and also one in Europe. These are studies looking at the differences in our DNA genetic material and molecular differences that may have happened because he spent over 500 days in space compared to my 54 days in space, so it’s a significant difference. One of these studies we both find pretty interesting is the study on our telomeres, a piece of your DNA where the length of this structure on your DNA is indicative of your physical age.No the age according to the calendar but how old you really are. The theory is that because Scott spent 500 days in space his telomeres would shorten because of the radiation, zero gravity environment and the stress of being in space, so he would physically be older.

Albert Einstein, his theory of General Relativity which has been since been proven would tell you that the faster you travel, the slower time travels. So as Scott travelled at 17500 mph for 500 days, time actually slowed down for him. Remember at the beginning where I said I was 6 minutes older, somebody actually did the maths, now I am 6 minutes and 5 milliseconds older. But what is interesting is what is this radiation going to do with his telomeres. If we came back here in about 10 years and I look like I’m 60 and he looks like he’s 80, you’ll know what happened.

SK: Like I said earlier, living on that Space Station is hard and one of the hard things about it is that you always have to be ready for some type of emergency whether its a fire, ammonia leak, high concentrated ammonia that cools the outside of the ISS,if that stuff gets inside it becomes very very deadly. And also we’re at risk of depressurisation, something hitting us, all that space junk that’s out there, and if it hits us we might have to respond to an emergency depressurisation. So in summer of 2015, I’m running on the treadmill and the control centre comes up, say they’re privatising the space to ground channel, immediately thinking to about the last time and hoping that nothing on Earth to my loved ones. They said there was a satellite coming at you and its going to get within a mile, the same speed as you but in the exact opposite direction, 35000 mph closure, 20 times the speed of a bullet from a gun. We didn’t see it in time to move the ISS out of the way which is what we would normally do. The control centre says Hey Scott, I need you to close all 18 hatches on the US side, I was the only American up there, just in case this thing hits us, that way maybe only one of the modules damaged that way we can save the rest of the ISS, in theory anyway. Getting all 18 hatches closed would take me 2 hours, I go over to the Russian segment, I know what their philosophy is on this, but seeing it in real life is quite shocking. They’re not doing anything to get ready, not closing any hatches, they’re eating lunch. To the Russians, there are only two probabilities that really matter, it completely misses them or it hits them and they are going to disintegrate in an instant, the other possibilities of a glancing blow is so unlikely, they don’t even care to do anything about it. So they ask me if I want some lunch.


Soyuz - like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel while you're on fire.
Soyuz – like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel while you’re on fire.

With about 10 minutes to go, we go to the Soyuz, we’re going to use this as a lifeboat, knees up to our chins again and I notice Misha looking out the window and I say to him, you’re not going to see anything, its 35000 mph closure and its dark, I know this myself looking out of my window, and Mikhail says it will really suck if this hits us. It gets down to zero hour and all 3 of us are looking at our watches, getting tense. The clock gets to zero and starts counting up, at 30 seconds, the Russian Control Centre says the time has passed, you guys are safe you can go back to work now . So I go back to opening up 18 hatches and they go back to lunch. The reason I tell you this is because the way NASA approaches things is different from the Russian space agency, and other organisations for that matter, They (Russia) are very professional but NASA would look for every tiny thing that could possibly happen and try to protect for it, especially those things that have significant consequences. Even though it was very unlikely we would get hit, NASA looks to protect those type of things, every possible critical failure.

MK: Spaceflight is dangerous, sometimes I don’t think people understand the level or risk involved. A single spaceflight on the Shuttle or the Soyuz is almost as dangerous as storming the beach at Normandy on D-Day, almost that level of risk but not quite. If we wanted to demonstrate that risk in here to all of you,we could give everybody a deck of cards, you get to pick one card from that deck, but if you pick the ace of spades you lose your life, those are the odds that we deal with on each and every spaceflight. But we make a very strong attempt to drive that risk down to the lowest extent possible. We do that in hundred of different ways, focus on a lot of different things. As a Commander of a Space Shuttle flight or ISS, the one thing we always try to focus on is attention to detail, attention to those small details is so important in trying to reduce risk. If you’ve noticed in aeroplane accidents or accidents with spacecraft, it always seems like there was some minor detail that was missed and led to a chain of events and a catastrophic thing happen at the end. I can’t ever overestimate the importance of just focusing on those minor details.

SK: So eventually after nearly a year in space, it was time for me to come home, my two Russian colleagues and I would get in our Soyuz, undock and we slow down by a few hundred miles an hour to start re-entering the atmosphere. When you come back on the Space Shuttle its more like driving down Park Avenue in a Rolls Royce, the Soyuz is much different, enters much more steeply, there’s a window right here, there is fire at the side of your head, when the modules separate its done with a bunch of pyrotechnic explosions, there are things banging on the window that’s breaking off, the ablative material flying off in all different directions, like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel while you’re on fire. As soon as you realise you’re not going to die, it’ the most fun you’ve ever had. Pretty medieval but also effective.


Scott Kelly returns to Earth
Scott Kelly returns to Earth

Eventually we crash back in Kazakhstan, not far from where we lifted off. The Russians opened the hatch and I smell fresh air for the very first time in a year and within 24 hours I’m back in Houston in my house after a bunch of medical tests, walk in the front door, into the swimming pool, had some apple pie that was sent from the Whitehouse, took a shower for the first time in nearly a year and slept in a bed. The best part about coming home was the feeling that I had just done the hardest thing I will ever do in my entire life, pending a year in space. If you saw me coming out of the capsule, I was smiling, moving my head around, my only goal there was to look better than the guys I was with, a little bit of acting going on, I’m expecting an Academy Award this year. When I got home I was so sore for a number of days, I could barely get out of bed, anywhere where my skin touched, like sitting down, feet, I had Hives for a couple of weeks where my skin was reacting to the fact I had not touched anything for a year. When I stood up I could feel my blood rush to my legs and see my legs actually swell, that’s pretty disturbing. But after a few weeks that went away and after a few months I’d get less tired. My feet still bother me, that;s why you might see me moving around a bit more than my brother, I’m doing better everyday.

MK: Having a successful spaceflight, there are a lot of things that have to come together, leadership, teamwork, and sometimes one of the most critical aspects of making these a successful mission is putting the best team together. As a Commander of a Space Shuttle or ISS you have some say on who our crew members are going to be. There are certain things we look for in other crew members, personally I like people who lean forward and make things happen, then there are the things I don’t like, the ‘yes’ men ‘yes’ women, I am perfectly capable of agreeing with myself, we’re all pretty good at that. When we start training for a spaceflight, for the Space Shuttle, that’s bout 2 years before you lift off 3 years potentially for an ISS mission, I set my crew members down and tell them they are required to question my decisions, not optional, I also tell them don’t do it out loud where they can hear you. If you think we should be doing something differently that effects either safety or mission success, you’ve got to tell e about it, we’re going to figure this out as a team.

SK: So as I was undocking from the ISS for the last time, I was looking out my window and can see this truss of the ISS and was just contemplating the 500 days of my life that I’d spent on the ISS, how we’d built this million pound spaceship in low earth orbit, the hardest thing I believe we have ever done, an international partnership with 15 different countries, including my very good friend Tim Peake who I was on the ISS with, great guy, 15 countries, different languages, including Time Peake’s different language, different engineering standards, putting these modules together in orbit. Some of these modules had never been connected before on the ground, in a vacuum while flying around at 17500 mph in extremes of temperatures of plus and minus 270 degrees, and I just thought that this was the hardest this we have ever done, and if we can do this we can do anything. If we decide we want to go to Mars, we can go to Mars, if we decide we want to cure cancer, if we put the resources behind it, we can cure cancer, if we want to fix the problems with our environment with fiscal problems, political problems, I believe we can do it. We have challenges wherever you might work, you can fix those. We are true believers now that if you can dream it, you can do it, have a goal and a plan, take risks, be willing to make mistakes and work as a team because team work makes the dream work and you can choose to do the hard things and if we do that, then the sky is not the limit

The sky is not the limit.

Then, like an astronaut returning from space in a Soyuz capsule, its back to earth with a bump as the lecture and a polished performance is over from astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. A few questions from the audience to round off and another great event from the team at Space Lectures with a double signed souvenir.

With Scott Kelly and Mark Kelly
With Scott Kelly on the left and the smarter, better looking and 6 minutes & 5 milliseconds older Mark Kelly on the right.


Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford

Apollo and Gemini astronaut Jim Lovell

Space Shuttle astronaut Eileen Collins

Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13

Meeting Ken Mattingly

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean

Messier 15 The Great Pegasus Cluster
Messier 15 The Great Pegasus Cluster

My image of Messier 15 The Great Pegasus Cluster. In the constellation of Pegasus, easily found approx 4 degrees north west of the star Enif. Slightly smaller and fainter than the similar looking cluster of Messier 13 The Great Hercules Cluster, Messier 15 is relatrively bright at magnitude 6.2 and is resolved as a fuzzy star in binoculars and becomes a fine sight in an 8 inch telescope and above. This is a dense globular cluster is nearly 34000 light years distant and home to 100,000 stars. At 12 billion years old, it is one of the oldest known globular clusters , the universe is an estimated 14 billion years. The dense core of the Pegasus Cluster has undergone a contraction called a core collapse and with a black hole thought to be at the centre. This image is made from 21 x 120 second exposures which were stacked together to form this final image. A must see for any Messier hunters.

Trifid Nebula
Trifid Nebula

The Trifid Nebula, also known as Messier 20, is located over 5000 light years away in the constellation Sagittarius in a stellar nursery, a star forming region of the Scutum arm of the Milky Way. It is a combination of an open cluster of stars that surround a rare O type star, emission and reflection nebula, and absorption nebula which form the dark bands of of interstellar dust that block the light, that help to give the Trifid Nebula’s three-part recognisable structure and its name, Trifid means three lobes.

To find the Trifid Nebula, navigate by star hoping from the spout of the tip of the ‘teapot’ asterism and follow the steam, in reality, the faint glow of banding from millions of stars of the Milky Way, an edge view on to the centre of our own galaxy. This are is full of stars under binoculars, even more in a telescope, scan up and past the Lagoon Nebula (Messier 8) for a smaller, fuzzier patch to find this great summertime object. Don’t expect to see any colour, maybe a tinge of green, as with  most astronomical objects, colours are only obtained through long exposures which your eyes cannot do but cameras can.

This image was taken using the iTelescope network on a 12.5 inch RCOS, SBIG ST8 camera and comprises of 3 x 120 second red, 3 x 120 second green and 1 x 120 second blue filters.  Registered in CCDStack with adjustments in Adobe Photoshop.

That tiny round black dot is Mercury.  The 2016 Mercury transit of the Sun in a relatively rare astronomical event and visible in the UK for the entire time that Mercury’s silhouette will cross against the face of the Sun. Mercury transits only take place in May or November, occurring approx 13 to 14 times a century.

Mercury Transit 2016
Mercury Transit 2016. 30 x 1/1250 sec. exposures stacked together.

Mercury transits in May are rarer at 13 or 33 years apart but more favourable for viewing as the planet is at aphelion (its furthest distance form the Sun and closer to Earth) with its angular size of 12 arc-seconds across and easier to view at 1/158 compared to the apparent diameter of the Sun.

November transits recur 7, 13, or 33 years apart when the Sun is near perihelion (closest point to the Sun it its orbit) and only 10 arc-seconds across.  Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system (not counting dwarf planets like Pluto) and the nearest planet to the Sun and the transit occurs because Mercury passes between the Earth and the Sun every 88 days.

That inky black dot in the photos looks tiny compared to the mass of the Sun.  Lets not forget though that although Mercury is small, the Sun is massive and accounts for 99.86% of all mass in the solar system.  Mercury is only 3032 miles in diameter, the Sun, a medium sized star, is 865,000 miles in diameter.

Hydrogen alpha view of the Mercury Transit using a Coronado PST. The darker lines are filaments, huge arcs of plasma (electrified gas).
Hydrogen alpha view of the Mercury Transit using a Coronado PST. The darker lines are filaments, huge arcs of plasma (electrified gas). swirling around

Mercury’s distance from the sun means it bakes at an average daytime temperature of 167 degrees Celsius, the same temperature that my forehead reached while trying to image the Mercury transit that lasted for just under 7 1/2 hours. Being the space nerd that I am, I  booked the afternoon off work to view it unfortunately missing the start and then being clouded out on the latter half. Through the entire afternoon while trying to image the Mercury transit, I’ve been battling against haze and clouds which has made imaging difficult but quite happy to get Mercury in the same frame as sunspot 2542 and sunspot 2543.

These images taken from my garden in Nottingham have been acquired using specialist solar equipment.  For the false colour white light images, I have used Baader Solar Film with full aperture on a Skywatcher 200p telescope and either Canon EOS 1000D DSLR or ZWO ASI120MC. The Hydrogen alpha image was taken using a Coronado PST and ZWO ASI120MC.  PLEASE DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN WITHOUT CORRECT SOLAR FILTERS.


Sunspot AR2529 taken with ZWO ASI120MC CCD Camera
Solar test on Sunspot AR2529 with ZWO ASI120MC CCD Camera

A quick spot of solar astrophotography with ZWO ASI120MC camera on Sunspot AR2529 using Baader solar film white light filter.

Nice to see sum detail coming through with a faster frame rate camera, although I’ve over processed the stacked image, and now regretting not getting a mono version instead.  Mono is more advantageous, especially for when using the Coronado PST in Hydrogen alpha as this is only captured through the red channel on a colour camera, in effect, only using 1/3rd of the camera.  Solar white light filter only has white colour coming through, false colour is added later.  Sunspot AR2529 is the largest sunspot of 2016 and wide enough to swallow the Earth twice.

Equipment Used:

Skywatcher 200p,

EQ5 mount, ZWO ASI120MC CCD camera,

Baader Solar film

Captured in Nottingham, England.

General Thomas P. Stafford is a veteran NASA astronaut who flew in space 4 times and in 4 different spacecraft, completing 6 rendezvous, orbited the moon and accumulated 507 hours in space. I am lucky enough to meet astronaut Tom Stafford today.

Tom Stafford
Tom Stafford


A brief space summary. His first flight was piloting Gemini 6 for the first rendezvous in space and less than 6 months later was Commander on Gemini 9 rendezvousing with an Agena Target Vehicle but without docking.  Tom Stafford’s next flight in space was as Commander on Apollo 10 with an all-up test of the lunar module (LM) “Snoopy” flying to within 9 miles of the lunar surface, the point where powered descent would begin for landing and considered to be the dress rehearsal for the first manned moon landing. During Apollo 10 on their back from the moon, Tom Stafford and his crew mates also achieved the highest speed ever attained by a manned vehicle.  Tom Stafford had his final flight in space as the Apollo Commander of the Apollo Soyuz Test Program (ASTP) with the historic handshake in space between Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts.

The Apollo 10 Lunar Module “Snoopy” dropped down to 47,400 feet (9 miles) above the lunar surface.


It is unfortunate that Captain Eugene Cernan is unable to attend today after an unexpected illness and thanks to the fantastic www.space-lectures.com team and a phone call from Gene Cernan to his crew-mate of two missions, Tom Stafford, they have managed to persuade 85 year old General Stafford to attend at very short notice.  To steal a phrase, you could say “this was their finest hour, a successful failure.”  Tom Stafford turned out to be absolutely fantastic.

It’s not the first time they’ve managed to pull off these rare opportunities, (see my other posts).  If you have the slightest interest in attending astronaut space lectures, then this not-for-profit group will blow your mind in bringing legendary Apollo, Gemini and Space Shuttle astronauts. Tom Stafford is definitely a space legend. The simple fact is that from that golden age of space flight, all the men that have flown to the moon are now in their 80’s. These events are always sold out.  It’s time to get my space face on and meet the space ambassador Tom Stafford.

Astronaut Tom Stafford as command pilot of the Gemini 9A
Astronaut Tom Stafford as command pilot of the Gemini 9A


The lecture starts with a video, starting with background in Oklahoma and a summary of his long and illustrious career,  before coming out to greet the audience.  Tom Stafford may give the appearance of a frail elderly gentleman but when he speaks he won’t stop, his breath of knowledge and memory of the cold war space race and beyond is stunning.  This post will be lengthy with laughs along the way. I’ve done my best to record what I can and have separated into space eras.  This is Tom Stafford in his own words…

The Space Race

It’s a real pleasure to be here in the UK again, I’ve been here many times before, I always say its one of my favourite countries to come to, the natives speak English over here.  It’s a pleasure to be here at short notice, my dear friend Gene Cernan is under the weather, he called me on Wednesday and wanted to know if I could be here.

Tom Stafford at Space-Lectures
Tom Stafford at Space-Lectures

Humankind has always look up at the sky, and looked up particularly at the moon, the sun, the stars, where did they come from,will we ever go there?  Maybe a few people wrote about it but it was impossible.  However things have progressed over the years. To me, the defining moment was when the Soviet Union was when they put up the first satellite, Sputnik. America was this democracy, always fighting with each other among the parties, we are one of reaction, not a positive action but once we get our mind to things, the whole country gets behind it.  So as a result of Sputnik, congress pushed President Eisenhower and formed NASA.

Lyndon Johnson was not what you would call a space buff, he did start Project Mercury, the Soviet Union had already started although we didn’t know that and the defining moment came after President Kennedy, who saw the worldwide acclaim that Yuri Gagarin got on April 12 1961 when he did an orbit around the Earth and the acclaim on May 5th 1961 with Alan Shepherd went 115 miles up and 200 miles down range. So what he turned to was the National Space Council which was headed by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, he knew he had to get a winner and asked what could we do to get ahead of the Soviet Union in science, technology and also beat the Soviets.  So the Vice President gathered all the best heads at NASA, Von Braun, Gliruth, Silverstein etc and got back to Kennedy with 3 scenarios:

  • Fly a free return trajectory, fly by the moon and come back although we don’t think there is a way we can beat the Soviets doing it.  This was exactly the type of mission the Soviets had in mind.
  • There is a 50% chance we can beat them going into an orbit around the moon.
  • However we think definitely, that if we go and land a man on the moon and come back we can beat them, and this will push us ahead.

So May 25 1961, (Kennedy announced) that in this decade we will land a man on the moon and safely return.  I’m sure glad he had that second bit there.  We were going to go to the moon but how do we go to the moon?  There were several different ideas.  Dr Gilruth suggested a large booster, about 2 1/2 times bigger than a Saturn V and do a direct landing. Dr Von Braun had other ideas, he wanted 2 smaller ones, at least 50% larger than a Saturn V, put one in orbit, then the second one in orbit, rendezvous and then do direct ascent to the moon and direct ascent back.  Both ideas had very big boosters. However a team headed by Dr John Houbolt came up with an idea of a way to drastically reduce weight, less costs, faster and safer, which was to have a lunar orbit rendezvous.

In July 1962, NASA announced to the world, that we would use Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) to carry out Kennedy’s goal of landing on the moon and returning.  On my birthday in 1962 I was very lucky to be selected in the second group of nine astronauts where our job was to fly the Gemini program and Apollo.

LOR explained by Houbolt
LOR explained by Houbolt



Gemini is lost in history to a lot of people but it was so important, the first time we had a computer on-board a manned spacecraft, on-board radar, be able to do a rendezvous, demonstrate walking in space i.e. extra vehicular activities, support 2 people for 14 days and have a guided re-entry to a precise point, all of which we needed for Apollo. It would also get the crews trained for the techniques of rendezvous and docking.

Gemini was such a crucial program, without it, Apollo could have been a disaster.

All that we learned we incorporated into Apollo. I was originally chosen to be on the first Gemini crew with Al Shpeherd but he was grounded with an ear problem, so Gus Grissom chose John Young and they were chosen, Wally Schirra selected me and we were the back up crew.  We trained long and hard and about 3 days before we were interrupted with a newsflash that the Soviet Union had just had a cosmonaut walk in space, Alexi Leonov.  We saw him outside and pushing off and we thought it looked simple.

Later I got to know him real well on Apollo-Soyuz (ASTP), I could speak some Russian, him some English, we were having dinner together before the mission, we’d had a few drinks, he told me how he nearly got killed out there,how his suit had ballooned.  I said I’d sure wished we had known that.

So Gemini 3 went up, did 3 orbits, Gemini was in good shape, I was originally scheduled for the first spacewalk, it was going to be simple, just open up the hatch, stand up, turn around a little bit and get back down.  But after Leonov did that, NASA had to respond. So Ed White went out for 22 minutes and when he started to come back in, his suit ballooned.  The critical link for those of you that have seen Gemini spacecraft is your height. We had practised in the zero G air-plane, the commander would grab hold of you, called the ‘alles-oop’ manoeuvre, he’d pull down as hard as he could and with the other hand take the hatch flush and lock it down. When Ed White tried to get back in, his suit had ballooned so much, but I guess his adrenaline was really flowing that day, his heart rate went over 220 beats a minute. We nearly lost him,we could have lost McDivitt too. We still didn’t understand how to train, walk, work in space or do specific items.

Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford during Gemini 6 training
Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford during Gemini 6 training

Pete Conrad and Gordo Cooper went in Gemini 5 for a a long duration mission, 8 days, so we were getting nearer the time it would take to get to the moon and back. Then next was Gemini 6, Wally Schirra and I would do the first rendezvous with an Atlas Agena rocket.  The idea of rendezvous had been around for many years but nobody had ever done one.  What we had planned to do originally was to use the least energy, for those who study orbit mechanics, a Hohmann Transfer. When you go around the Earth, you do 25700 feet per second, if you add 1 foot per second, 180 degrees later, you’ll raise your orbit about 1/2 mile.  The lower you get the faster you go around, the higher you get the slower you go. So we thought we’d do a series of Hohmann Transfers to catch up with the target vehicle.  The problem is there are wide dispersion at the end of that 180 degree turn.

One of the members of mission planning analysis called Wally and I over, showed us Russian document called The Concentric Theory of Rendezvous of Three Bodies.  I couldn’t read a word of Russian but could see the diagrams and knew it had some merit. We got the document translated and used the Russian ideas.  All this was published in open literature.

The Atlas went up, the Agena went up but the Air Force (US) had goofed up with the sequencing but putting oxidizer first then fuel which a no-no. Should always be fuel first then come in with oxidizer and shut oxidizer off first, if you don’t you can have some bad consequences – combustion instability, explosion in the thrust chamber.  So here’s Wally and I in October 1965 with no target vehicle. We had Gemini 7 that was going to go up in a 2 week mission in December so why not put a radar transponder on Gemini 7, take Gemini 6 off the pad and as soon as Gemini 7 launches, put 6 back on the pad, launch them 12 days later and do a rendezvous.

Gemini 7 as seen by Gemini 6 during rendezvous
Gemini 7 as seen by Gemini 6 during rendezvous

Gemini 7 went up and we got ready to go 9 days after.  we were a T Minus 3 seconds when  the engines went off and started to shake, rattle and roll and the engine shut-down at exactly T Zero and we had the lift off symbol. By mission rules we were supposed to eject, we knew nothing about 100% pure oxygen. Wally and I had been soaking in pure oxygen for nearly 2 hours – you’d have probably seen 2 Roman Candles coming off the Gemini spacecraft. We knew by the seat of our pants we had not lifted off. It was his responsibility to pull the D-ring and my responsibility to back him up. We didn’t and then a fire broke out and for that we were on a hot mic, and that where I was quoted as saying “aw shucks.” That was a close miss, the closest we ever had and we had the lift off symbol. We had a dead man’s curve of about 0.75 seconds before the pyrotechnics went off and we would probably would have had a hard time making it.

On the 12th day after Gemini 7 we finally lifted off. We had a rudimentary computer, had a closed loop with the radar, computer and inertial platform but what happens if we lose the radar, the computer or the platform? So we worked out a series of nomographs, my job as the right seat pilot was to work those and figure out what would happen if it did. We worked on some slightly eccentric orbits, when we were below the target, worked out at a  given angle and feet per second to raise your orbit up. We used inertial line of sights, kind of the same way an aircraft works.

It worked like a piece of cake, we rendezvoused right on schedule. Also when the computer went I was taking data points, the radar locked on about 270 miles. By that time I had my solution about two minutes before the on-board computer had its solution. I told Wally we could use my solution right now and we could make it up on mid courses. We were coming in about 30 feet per second, brought it down to 15 and then stopped about 10 feet from Gemini 7. We flew around and started easing in, we couldn’t dock, to about 1 foot to 18 inches.  Just like flying formation acrobatics, when you are there it’s real easy to stay there.  Gemini was a great design.

The Agena target vehicle described by the Gemini 9 crew as an "angry alligator. "
The Agena target vehicle described by the Gemini 9 crew as an “angry alligator. “

On Gemini we flew 10 missions in 18 months, it was go, go, go.  I chose Gene Cernan to be my pilot, we were the back up for Gemini 9 and do the wrap up mission on Gemini 12. Elliott See and Charlie Bassett were later killed in an air crash so we had to take over the mission. We were going to have along duration spacewalk, an Air Force (US) experiment of a rocket pack. Cernan was to use the rocket pack of hot gas thrusters and so that it didn’t burn through his space suit, he had a mesh covering to protect him.

What we didn’t have was a de-fog solution on our visor. I told Cernan to concentrate on the EVA and I would concentrate on the spacecraft. The Atlas took off but the range officer had to blow it up.  We recycled a nose section from Gemini, 2 x 25 lb thrusters with a target docking adaptor called the Augmented Target Docking Adaptor.  On June 3rd 1965, Cernan and I lifted off.  With the ATDA they didn’t get a shroud deployed symbol, we didn’t know what to expect. We got up there and could see the two halves of the shroud, I was trying to describe it to the ground and said it looked like an “angry alligator.” I also called it a few other things too.

Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford discuss their Gemini 9 scrub
Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford discuss their Gemini 9 scrub

We couldn’t dock with it but we did the early phase rendezvous, first optical rendezvous and first ballistic overhead rendezvous which was to simulate a command module coming down to pick up a low level lunar module disabled in low lunar orbit. it’s one thing to do a rendezvous when you’re looking at the stars but when you are coming down over head, the more you pitch down, the faster the Earth is coming by, it doesn’t feel like 160 miles up, fells more like a couple of hundred thousand feet. You are really moving and nearly get vertigo.  Then came the spacewalk. we had a 25 foot umbilical, a bigger chest pack with batteries and water evaporator, no liquid cooled garments alike Apollo.  Gene Cernan was to do the first spacewalk for 2 hours in this rocket pack at the back of the Gemini.  This is one episode Gene Cernan and I never wanted to do again.

I had an incident occur as we were suiting up that morning, Deke Slayton, my boss walked in, he ordered the suit technician out of the room and said….

Tom, I want you to know NASA management has decided if Cernan dies out there, you’ve got to bring him back, we cannot afford to have a dead American astronaut floating around in space.

I blew my stack, 2 1/2 hours before launch and you’re pulling this on me, we’ve never talked about it, not discussed it with Cernan, never thought about the contingency plans.  Do you understand to come back, I’ve got to have the hatch open, what do you think a 400 lb rocket pack on a 150 foot tether is going to do on a 3000 lb re-entry vehicle? We’ve never practised that. How could I get through that, supposing I did, would he get caught up in the drogue chutes.  I was really pissed by then and said…

Deke, when those bolts blow and that Titan lifts off, I’m the Commander, I’ll make the decision, understand that. 

And with that, I slammed my visor down and stormed out.  Cernan was waiting for me and on the way up, he said to me “Hey Tom, what was Deke taking to you about?” I said “Geno, he hopes we have a real good ride.”  We scrubbed out that morning because of the Agena.

The Gemini 9 Spacewalk from hell

We finally get up for the EVA, Gene gets out, stands up and starts with his 25 foot umbilical cord. The Gemini spacecraft is that small I couldn’t put my feet together, it was cramped. Had more room in the front seat of a VW bug. He was going out at the end of the tether and Newton’s Law, for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. He’d come swinging back and start to twerk the spacecraft that I had to control.

He was really huffing and puffing, I was looking at a rear view mirror of him, he goes to the back of the spacecraft, the sun is going down and he says “Tom, my back is killing me.”  I asked what was wrong and he said his left side was starting to burn up.  What had happened was the 7 layers of insulation on spacesuit, a small section had separated away, so the sun was going right in and he received a second degree burn on his back.  He was trying to get into this astronaut manoeuvring unit (AMU) but as soon as the sun goes down his faceplate fogs over.  He’s blind and can’t see. Tried to use the AMU which had its own radio and we had lost one way of a two-way communication. We worked out he could hear me so I told him to get back on two-way communications.

The hatch was sticking and from Ed White’s experience, we had a simple mechanism, an aluminium T-bar to slam the hatch down. So we were coming across Australia at night-time, could see the Southern Cross coming up, here I am 130 miles up, my suit is pressurised, the hatch is sticking, my buddy is feet behind me and he can’t see. I said to Gene that when the sum comes up, within 10 minutes if you don;t get de-fogged, we’re calling it quits and you’re going to get back in the spacecraft. The sun comes up and he doesn’t de-fog, so we called it quits yet he couldn’t see. Fortunately we did have a rail on top of the Gemini adaptor section and I had to direct him to how to get hold of that bar.

He was walking hand over hand, got him to swing his body round to the left, grabbed his feet that were dangling in, put his feet in the ejection seat well and tried to get him in the general direction of the sun but that fog would not burn off. Had to try and get him to clear his faceplate with his nose by pushing as hard as could against it.  We had his umbilical cord snaking all around, not much room in Gemini, managed to get his feet below the instrument panel, but his suit had ballooned up like Ed White and Alexi Leonov had. His head was still a couple of inches out so grabbed the hatch and slammed it down and locked it home.

Gemini 9 recovery
Gemini 9 recovery

Gene told me his legs and back were killing him and he told me to get the pressure up quick. When the pressure was up, he opened his faceplate up and his face was completely pink like he’d been in a sauna. You’re not supposed to have water in the spacecraft but I just hosed him down. In that 2 hours outside, Cernan had lost 13 lbs of weight. Not a recommended way to lose weight.  We landed the next day, right off the coast of Bermuda, and they flew the suit back. That evening they poured a 1 1/2 lb of water out of his boot.

We landed, we had a way to second guess the computer, I told the Skipper of the (USS) WASP, this was way before GPS, we had a sextant for sunrise, my inertial platform is good, I think I can it right near your flight-deck. It was the first time you ever saw live TV of a Gemini coming down. We landed within 3.5 miles within the actual aim point, the closest of any Gemini or Apollo. It was quite an experience. We still didn’t know how to walk in space, from that the idea came out about training underwater.  Gemini 9 was one heck of a mission.



We did Gemini so fast, only two close calls in Gemini, the first one, with Wally and I at the shut-down when the fire broke out, the second one on Gemini 8 with Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott where they did a rendezvous and docked with an Agena. After a period of time, the whole mas started to wobble back and forth, everything looked fine so they thought it had to be the Agena.  Neil un-docks with the Agena and Gemini starts to spin up, getting as high as 1 revolution per second. Neil turned on his re-entry thrusters, which was the right thing to do. Dave Scott started to kill the channels for roll, pitch and yaw and the got the bad thruster. When it came to a full stop, all Gemini 8 had was one half weight of one re-entry thruster, the other one was gone.  They were two close calls but we made it.

Lunar Orbit Flight

There were still mistakes out there, tragically we lost the Apollo 1 crew, Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffe in January of 1967. That set us back about 18 months. In the meanwhile, the Soviet Union was still planning a free return trajectory around the moon. They were going to build a big booster like we had except they didn’t have a big thrust engine. We had 3 technologies that made it possible for Americans to go to the moon and if we didn’t, we’d have fallen flat on our back.

  1. Back in 1955 General Bernard Schriever ordered development of a single chamber, 1 1/2 million lb thrust engine using kerosene and liquid oxygen. The bigger the thrust chamber of a rocket engine, the more susceptible it is to instability and explosion. I remember still being a Captain, test pilot at Edwards (US Air Force Base) hearing roars and seeing the night light up, and some nights you’d hear a roar and a big bang. The F1 engine was still exploding while we were still flying Gemini but they got the stability worked out and we had 5 of those F1 engines on the first stage. In 1957, the Air Force stopped the F1 engine and turned it over to NASA.  When they decoded to go to the moon , NASA picked it back up again in 1961.
  2. In 1959, two years before Kennedy made the announcement, NASA had a meeting of heads with the top engineers; what is the best fuel we can use to out of low earth orbit, turns out to be liquid hydrogen. Its the lightest element and higher the exhaust velocity. We had to learn how to produce large quantities and liquefy it, transport it, store it, transport it in a booster, quite a challenge.  The Soviets had kerosene, even though they had a bigger booster, 9.9 millions lbs of thrust, we had 7500 lbs, we could put 300,000 lbs in orbit and the Soviets could only put a little less than 200,000 lbs. On their lunar lander, its only about half the size or ours.
  3. The third one was John Houbolt and the lunar orbit rendezvous (LRO).

Those three decisions made Apollo possible. We had so many things to fix after that tragic fire in 1967, we finally flew in October 1968 (Apollo 7), Wally Schirra was Commander. Before that, the Soviet Union in the spring of 1968 had their first success: a Proton could put Soyuz on a free return. They were going to have a big booster, the N1, which weighed more than the Saturn V, which would take to lunar obit with a command service module and a lunar lander.  It was a bit Mickey Mouse as they didn’t have docking tunnel, they would have to do a spacewalk to get into their lunar module.

My good friend Alexi Leonov, he had been chosen to go. The Soviets did a lot for publicity, he’s a natural born PR person, good speaker, he was there watching N1’s blow up. The first one got up about 12000 feet and blew up, the second one got up to 300-500 feet above the pad and one of the oxidizer swallowed a bolt and exploded.  It fell back and had all this kerosene and liquid oxygen and became the largest man-made non nuclear explosion in history. Between 1/6 and 1/7 the power of Hiroshima. Alexi Leonov told me about it later, he was standing about 3.5 km away and nearly got knocked down in the blast. They tried it four times and it never worked, that was the end of the program.

Apollo 7 went great, so in December of 1968 we launched Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders on Apollo 7 for 10 orbits around the moon, a real gutsy mission. We’d gone to the moon, orbited the moon but hadn’t landed yet. We had such a head of steam and team dynamics, by the time we had started to fly and by the time we had landed on the moon, there was nine months where we flew five missions, four of those on the big Saturn, three of those to the moon. It was all the experience we had on Gemini that let us do that.


Apollo 10

When it came to my third mission (Apollo 10), there was no person really selected to be the first one on the moon, it was all on rotations, prime, back-up, prime etc. I was back up on Gemini 7, Neil was back-up on Apollo 8, Pete Conrad back-up on Apollo 9, so I had Apollo 10, Neil had Apollo 11 and Pete Conrad at Apollo 12. I flew the first Lunar Module (LM) out, with Gene Cernan as my LM pilot and John Young as Command Module pilot.

Command Module Charlie Brown in lunar orbit as seen from the LM Snoopy
Command Module Charlie Brown in lunar orbit as seen from the LM Snoopy

I thought space was so beautiful, been there twice before, all we had was Hassleblad pictures of the Earth and some short 16mm film, I pushed for live colour television. People would often ask “were you afraid out there?” Absolutely not, it you’re afraid or scared you shouldn’t be there, you’re in the wrong profession. We were fighter pilots, test pilots, we knew what the risk was, knew how to minimise risks to the best of our abilities. We’d lost a lot of friends too. The funniest feeling I ever has was after we had left the Earth, from Earth orbit you can barely see a slight curvature. We docked with the LM and when you fly to the moon you BBQ to the moon, rotating in sunlight otherwise one side would be very hot and could explode the fuel and the other side would be very cold and could freeze the fuel.

We hadn’t seen the Earth, and during that BBQ attitude, we were 90 degree to the plain of the Earth. Gene Cernan was the first one to see it, what In saw gave me a sinking feeling. The Earth was the size of a basketball and it was just shrinking away from us. I knew I was in for a long ride that day. I wanted NASA to call England, head of the British Flat Earth society and tell him that the Earth was really round. Woke up the next morning and by then, the Earth was the size of a grapefruit, every 20 minutes the Earth would go by and then sun would go by. We didn’t see the moon, we were in eclipse and knew we wouldn’t see it till we got there.

We woke up to the news, the whole world had seen the first colour TV and also that Colonel Stafford had a message from the President of the British Flat Earth Society, “Tell Colonel Stafford, yes it is round but its a flat disc.” We had so much reflective sunlight it was hard for us to see our first big stars, Sirius, Canopus.  John Young called back and said “Hey, we’ve been out here for a day and half, we still don’t see that moon but we’ll take your for it that its out here. Finally we got about 6 hours out, John could see it through his telescope, a little slither of a moon. The sun went down, we were still in contact with the Earth and it was just a big black area, couldn’t see it. We got squared away in the right attitude, two minutes before we were supposed to turn on the engine to brake into lunar orbit, suddenly the moon appears right before us.

Transferred the colour TV back to Earth so they could see the first Earthrise. You’ll never forget your first Earthrise, it’s pretty unique. Your orbit around the moon is every two hours, the moon only has 1/6 mass, your speed is slow, only 5500 feet per second, about 3700 mph, that is slow compared top Earth orbit. In comparison I though we were going to stall out.

The ascent stage of the Apollo 10 Lunar Module "Snoopy" photographed from the Command Module "Charlie Brown" prior to docking in lunar orbit.
The ascent stage of the Apollo 10 Lunar Module “Snoopy” photographed from the Command Module “Charlie Brown” prior to docking in lunar orbit.

Unfortunately, our LM was too heavy to land, our job as to go down about 9 miles above the moon, radar map, photo map, visually look out and try to pick out potential landing sites. We did that twice, went way up above John Young, up 210 miles and down 9 miles and get further behind him to phase in for the rendezvous. On the second one, we were going upside down and backwards and we were just about to lose contact with the Earth and I noticed the thrusters start to fire, didn’t know why, wasn’t yawing, looked out the window and the moon wasn’t moving in that direction, I reached down for attitude switch but missed it so went to the abort guidance system to shoot us back up to John Young, suddenly we started spinning about 50-60 degree a second.

All the attitude controls on the ascent stage only weighed about 10,000 lbs, in total we weighed 30,000 lbs so I reached over about 45 seconds early and blew off the descent stage and went to the hand controller, only had a 3 gimble platform, there was a big red dot on both yaw angles, flew around that and that’s where I was quoted as saying “golly, gee whiiz.” Got everything back in attitude and performed the first rendezvous around the moon, stayed around for another and then came back where we set the all time world speed record. That should hold until somebody goes to Mars.

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

When I got back I replaced Alan Shepherd and became chief of the astronauts office, kept that till Al flew his flight on Apollo 14 and then I moved up to Deputy Director of Flight Crew Ops. In the meanwhile, the Soviet Academy of Science talked to the head of NASA and suggested a joint meeting with Apollo and Soyuz. I was chosen as the Commander.

With the Soviets you would not believe the secrecy, everything was state secret; oil production, wheat production etc. I was assigned in March 1972, the Soviets said they would announce their crew 6 months before. I went into Chris Kraft and Dr Lovell and said that we would need at least two years to work with the Soviets, to understand how to work with them, understand their systems, procedures and techniques. I drew my line in the sand and here’s my crew; Vance Brand as Command Module Pilot, Deke Slayton as Docking Module pilot. The press wanted the to know who the Soviet crew was and they reluctantly announced Commander Alexi Leonov and Flight Engineer Valeri Kubasov.

We found working with the Soviets tough negotiations and they signed on the line they lived up to it. With my Oklahoma accent I had a tough time learning a foreign language and the Russians always had a hard time understanding me. Under mission rules, each crew would speak their own language, the other crew would have to understand. After six months working back and forth, cosmonauts in Houston, we were in Moscow, we weren’t getting there. At a small reception I was talking to the back up commander Anatoly Filipchenko, we were having a few drinks, maybe more and we came up with the idea of I’ll speak Russian to him and he’ll speak English to me. it worked well, as when you are not fluent in a foreign language, you’ll speak it slower and more distinctly.

Soyuz 19 as seen from Apollo during ASTP
Soyuz 19 as seen from Apollo during ASTP

Even when I  speak to my dear friend Alexi Leonov over the phone, I speak Russian to him, he speaks English to me and we became very close. We were all professional pilots, no politics, its was a really great time, living there in the Soviet Union and having them come over here. Everything was censored, Pravda was a big 6 page newspaper with no ads and we were always pulling jokes on each other. Ron Evans brought over a Playboy magazine, we were having some meeting over there, open it up to the centerfold and throws it under the table and then I say in Russian “Pardon me is that yours?” They’d look under the table and Aargh!

They built a hotel for us in Star City, we moved in there and were there during the fourth of July 1974. The relationships were getting relaxed, détente, I’ll never forget a state reception with President Nixon he seemed to be semi-high when all hell was breaking loose back US because of Watergate. I remember him telling me we’d done so many things, asking me about 12,000 nuclear weapons and how many villages din India did we want to destroy. I wasn’t about to get into that discussion. I just said I hadn’t really thought of the Mr President! 3 weeks later he resigned.

Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford and cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov are seen at the hatchway leading from the Apollo Docking Module (DM) to the Soyuz Orbital Module (OM) during the joint U.S.-USSR Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP
Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford and cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov are seen at the hatchway leading from the Apollo Docking Module (DM) to the Soyuz Orbital Module (OM) during the joint U.S.-USSR Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP

As I said, if was the fourth of July and Ron Evans was a real joker and had brought half a case of fireworks and firecrackers. We’d had this big reception at a Dacha owned by very wealthy Russian before the revolution, out the back it had a huge courtyard, the head of the Politburo was there, Admirals and Marshals were there, we were having a great time with the cosmonauts. We go back to our own hotel and we had a few more drinks and it was time to fire the fireworks. Everything was quiet and nice so we set off the firecrackers, sounded like a machine gun going off. Then we fired sky rockets going off and noticed lights started to come on. pretty soon we saw the flashing lights of the police so Ron fired a bottle rocket firework at it, perfect shot. The police officer walks towards us, I’d had a few drinks, and said “Comrade, come here! Today is the birthday of our revolution, do you want to have a drink with us?”

It was a fun time. The Russian always kidding me about my Oklahoma accent. One of the last press conferences we had, a correspondent asked Alexi Leonov how we would work together with him replying that on this mission we speak in English, in Russian and in Oklahoma. Apollo Soyuz was a great mission, it opened up the Iron Curtain, it was the end of Apollo and a great, great era. We showed the world we had two super powers, different languages and different political systems but if you set a common goal, you can achieve it. That was my responsibility as commander from my side of the world and Alexi’s side. Alexi is like a brother to me, his Granddaughter is named after my daughters name and my grandson is named Alexi. I talk to Gene Cernan probably more than any other astronaut and I talk to Alexi about as much as I talk to Geno. He’s a great person, I see him about twice a year because of my experience with the Russians on Apoolo-Soyuz, I still go back there. It’s a really great relationship.

We pushed the administrator for an escape vehicle on the space station, at the time, we had just a Shuttle. The Soyuz is a simple vehicle and rugged vehicle, it can land anywhere – with the Shuttle if you miss the runway you’re dead. Since 2011, crews keep flying up and down on Soyuz. I didn’t know a lot about the background of what the Russians did, the idea of what it would take to go into orbit velocity, converging and diverging nozzles, multi-stages and even walking in space were all thought by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, he was really the father of modern spaceflight.

Nick Cook and Tom Stafford at Space-Lectures
Nick Cook and Tom Stafford at Space-Lectures

Tom Stafford wraps up his talk with a summary on how the modern US Air Force Stealth stealth and strike aircraft capability has been shaped by his influence. Tom Stafford has been a stunning success, an absolute pleasure, he’s given a remarkable lecture, all from memory, spoken with passion, pride over a pioneering and distinguished career, his friendships with Russian cosmonauts, particularity Alexi Leonov and the naming of each grand children provides a wonderful and personal insight.  He could quite happily have gone on talking all night, he had to be told to stop otherwise he’d be in danger of missing his fight back home. Astronaut Tom Stafford is a Space Lectures Legend.

I walk away with a great signed Gemini 6 rendezvous print and some great memories.  Here’s to the next event!  What better way to announce the next Astronauts visit in October than by one of them themselves by video clip from the ISS! Coolest intro ever!

See you in October!


Apollo and Gemini astronaut Jim Lovell

Space Shuttle astronaut Eileen Collins

Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13

Meeting Ken Mattingly

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean

Leo Triplet

My image of the Leo Triplet was taken over several nights, stacking Luminance, Red, Green and Blue data together for this final image.

The Leo triplet is a collection of galaxies  approximately 35 million light years away in the constellation of Leo and comprises the gravitational bound spiral galaxies of M66, M65 and NGC 3628.  These three spiral galaxies of the Leo triplet can be viewed in a single field of view even in a small telescopes south of the star Chertan which forms part of the lion shaped constellation of Leo.

NGC 3628 is the edge on galaxy in this image showing the band of dust on the outer edges of its spiral arms and tantalising detail. It’s often called the hamburger galaxy due to its sandwich shaped ‘tidal tail’ appearance and less often called Sarah’s galaxy. The slightly strange shape maybe due to gravitational interactions with its neighbours.

The Leo triplet also contains M66, a spiral galaxy (top of this image) which is most face on to us.  Discovered by Charles Messier in 1780, it measures 95,000 light years across. It also also had 4 supernovae which is relatively high and may be attributed to gravitation interactions with its neighbours.

M65 was also discovered by Charles Messier which he originally described as “very faint nebulae without stars.”  This tags along well with modern observations as this galaxy is poor on dust and gas and shows little evidence of star formation.

Comet C/2013 X1 (PANSTARRS) currently in the constellation of Andromeda at a brightness of magnitude 9.2.  Comet C/2013 X1 is expected to get brighter with perihelion, its closest approach to the sun at a distance of 1.314 AU (astronomical units) on 20.04.16.  Comet C/2013 X1 (PANSTARRS) is expected to pass within 0.6 AU of Earth mid June 2016 and predicted brightness magnitude of 7.5, possibly visible with binoculars from very dark sky locations.

Comet C/2013 X1 (PANSTARRS)
Comet C/2013 X1 (PANSTARRS)

A comet can be described as a dusty snowball, made of ice, dust and frozen gases such as methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia and other gases come from a time when the solar system was forming.  They often have highly elliptical orbits and varying orbital periods. As they travel towards the Sun, the comet nucleus heats up and starts to outgas, developing a nebulous fuzzy coma around the nucleus and pressure from the solar wind causes a tail to form that points away from the Sun.

This 600 second luminance image of C/2013 X1 (PANSTARRS) was taken on 30.11.15 at approx 21:45 GMT when it was at its highest point in the sky.  Image was taken remotely using the iTelescope network in Nerpio in Spain using a 12.5″ Planewave CDK telescope and SBIG-STXL-6303E CCD camera.


Tuesday November the 3rd sees us limping lamely along to the London Science Museum (£ Free), currently hosting the stunning Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition, a little steep at £14 each but very interesting for a space geek like me. The disappointing thing is not being allowed to photograph anything and to be honest, I’m feeling a little grievous at having to pay and not being able to take pictures. That’s why I decided to get some sneaky camera shots when one of the 1 million Science Museum staff weren’t looking, though I suspect my pictures won’t do the Cosmonauts exhibition justice.  Well, I got 3 shots anyway.


The Russians, although in the end they lost the race to the Moon, were the pioneers of space travel. They launched the first satellite, the first animals, the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first spacewalk and the first space station.  The Cosmonauts exhibition, opened by the first woman in space, Valentina Terashkova, is billed as a once in a lifetime and it is truly an outstanding collection of 150 Russian spacecraft and artefacts to visit the UK.

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, opens the Cosmonauts exhibition in London.
Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, opens the Cosmonauts exhibition in London.

Against a Cold War back drop, the Russians along with the Americans, turned the space race from science fiction to science fact. On the 4th of October 1957, Russia successfully launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, sending celebrations in Russia sky high and shocks to the Americans. The birth of space age was well and truly on.  In 1958, NASA was founded to take on soviet Russia, with John F Kennedy in his famous speech of 1961:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”


All this at a time when America had launched only one astronaut into space.  The achievements of the American space programmes, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo are well documented but it wasn’t until 1989 that Russia acknowledged its manned lunar program.  On display at the Cosmonauts Exhibition is the 1969 Russian LK-3 Lunar Lander, the most complete lunar lander in existence.  This 5 metre tall spacecraft is somewhat smaller than American version and would only have carried 1 crew member down to the surface and back again.  They would have had to space walk to the waiting spacecraft in orbit.  It looks stunningly scary, bare bones and best described as nothing more than functional. The Soviets had lost the race to the moon, the death of their Chief Designer, Sergei Korolev, was also their driving force and instead, the Soviets focused on the Salyut space station after the American moon landings.

Russian LK-3 Lunar Lander on display at the Cosmonauts exhibition
Russian LK-3 Lunar Lander on display at the Cosmonauts exhibition


Behind a glass case is Vostok 6, the capsule flown by the first woman in space, Valentina Terashkova, who also opened the Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition here at the London Science Museum.  This sphere shaped capsule looks distinctly other worldly, scorched with fraying fabric type, burnt and basic.  It is stunning, you can’t stop looking at it and wonder what it must have been like to plummet through fiery atmosphere as layers of its heat shield peeled away. How terrifying it would be when she had to eject from the capsule via parachute when 7 miles up returning to Earth.

Valentina Tereshkova (back to camera) outside of her Vostok 6 spacecraft
Valentina Tereshkova (back to camera) outside of her Vostok 6 spacecraft


Opposite is Voskhod 1, the first capsule to carry more than 1 crew member. Carrying Vladimir Komaorov, Konstantin Feoktistov and Boris Yegorov would have been a very snug fit for all three cosmonauts. Vladimir Komaorov would later become the first human to die on a space mission during Soyuz 1.  Displayed are also engineering models of Sputnik, the Lunokhod lunar rover, a Venera 7 descent module on display was used for drop tests on Earth for a soft landing on Venus.  Also Tsiolkovsky’s original drawings, Yuri Gagarin’s military uniform, Russian space propaganda, paintings of rocket engineer Sergei Korolev, spacesuits, including the spacesuit of Helen Sharman, the first Briton in space.

Lunokhod rover (engineering model) at the Cosmonauts exhibition
Lunokhod rover (engineering model) at the Cosmonauts exhibition


There are also animal artefacts including a dog ejection seat,  When you consider that by the time Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space 1961, 48 dogs had gone to space, only 28 survived.  Spare a thought then for the first space dog, Laika. Laika was killed this day in 1957 by extreme stress and overheating when she was aboard the Sputnik 2 spacecraft becoming the first animal to orbit the earth.  Laika was a stray found wandering the streets of Moscow and one of three dogs to be trained eventually becoming the flight dog.  Sputnik 2 was never designed to be recoverable and that poor dog died for no justifiable reason as scientists were already convinced that people could survive in space.  She only went up because the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, wanted to deliver a “space spectacular” during the cold war and space race.  I think about that poor dog often and wonder if man is dogs best friend.



The Cosmonauts exhibition is fantastic, the hardware is a sharp contrast to the American Apollo 10 Command Module that you see after exiting the exhibition.  You will not be disappointed.  The book that accompanies the Cosmonauts Exhibition is well worth the £30.  The only other place in the UK to see Soviet space hardware is the National Space Centre in Leicester where they have a Soyuz spacecraft on display.

Soviet space propaganda poster of Valentina Tereshkova. The caption reads "Long live the first woman in space!"
Soviet space propaganda poster of Valentina Tereshkova. The caption reads “Long live the first woman in space!”


I am, by every definition, a nerd, a geek, a space nut, from astronomy and astrophotography to astronauts and Apollo from aged 4 to 44 (as I currently stand anyway).  Readers of this site (Hello?…..) and the type of posts on this site should confirm that, geek and proud.  So it should come as no surprise that today I’m meeting a veteran of four space flights, a man who flew to the moon twice, without landing, NASA astronaut James Arthur “Jim” Lovell.

NASA Astronaut Jim Lovell, Gemini 7, Gemini 12, Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.
NASA Astronaut Jim Lovell, Gemini 7, Gemini 12, Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.

Astronaut Jim Lovell was Pilot of Gemini 7 along with Frank Borman spending 14 days in space and completing the first space rendezvous with Gemini 6 coming as close as 30cm to each other. Jim Lovell then served as the Commander of the final Gemini mission on Gemini 12 along with Buzz Aldrin. In 1968, Jim Lovell’s next mission was as Command Module Pilot on Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft using the Saturn V rocket to leave Earth orbit, the first to see the Earth as a whole planet, the first to orbit another world, the first to travel around the far side of the moon in lunar orbit and one of the first humans to witness Earthrise and becoming one of the most famous photos in history. The crew of Apollo 8 then made a Christmas Eve television broadcast reading the first 10 verses from the Book of Genesis, at the time becoming the most watched television broadcast ever.  Jim Lovell last flew in space along with Fred Haise and Jack Swigert on Apollo 13, when an oxygen tank explosion near crippled the spacecraft giving rise to his famous radio call to NASA:

“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”


Today’s event is organised by Ken Willoughby and the superb team of volunteers at Space Lectures, with a talk by Jim Lovell titled Apollo 13: A Successful Failure, followed by a Q and A session hosted by the floppy haired D:Ream(y) pop star of physics Professor Brian Cox.  These opportunities to listen to those who have gone around the moon, in this case twice, do not come along very often.  These events are not for profit and any coffers remaining go to supporting UNICEF.

The talk starts with a few clips from the Apollo 13 film directed by Ron Howard.

Professor Brian Cox and Jim Lovell during the www.space-lectures.com Q & A session
Professor Brian Cox and Jim Lovell during the www.space-lectures.com Q & A session

It’s a real pleasure to be here, my first time, I know you’re all space enthusiasts and I know that a lot of other astronauts have all been here so maybe there’s nothing left for me to say.  I have brought my wife (Marilyn) though who is really the stalwart of the space programme, wives are very important, they keep the guys going straight, I appreciate that Marilyn is sitting here to hear, probably for the very first time.

I was actually in the first selection for being an astronaut way back in 1958.  That’s the time when they had the selection of Al Shepard, John Glenn, Wally Schirra.  I didn’t make it that time, we were a class of 32, they picked those 7 guys, I don’t know why.  But then, a couple of years later, they wanted a second group for the Gemini programme coming up, so I applied for that and this time I was selected and we called ourselves the Gemini astronauts.

I made 4 flights into space, they were all interesting flights and this was the time I called the golden age of our space activities.  Everybody was interested in it, a large group of the population was for the programme,  My first flight was Gemini 7.  Gemini 7 was a wonderful flight, there were doctors who didn’t think we could stay or live in space and zero gravity.  When you think about it, we evolved under the influence of gravity, so to prove that we could live in zero gravity and the maximum length of time to go to the moon and back again, we were starting to work on a lunar programme.  Gemini 7 was designated as a medical flight, we had some 23 experiments…and it was really bad news. Those who have seen the Gemini spacecraft, smaller that a Volkswagen.

Astronauts James Lovell Jr. (left) and Frank Borman are pictured just before final countdown of the Gemini-7 launch. The spacecraft has been sealed and is ready for launch. Photo credit: NASA
Astronauts James Lovell Jr. (left) and Frank Borman are pictured just before final countdown of the Gemini-7 launch. The spacecraft has been sealed and is ready for launch. Photo credit: NASA

My companion on that flight was Frank Borman, we had suits that were designed that when they were worn, they were cut so that when you were in flight, you were in a sitting position, because we weren’t going to go out of the spacecraft and if there was a problem, the spacecraft atmosphere failed and went to vacuum, we’d be in this position. We had EEG’s on our heads, blood pressure and heart rate monitors, cuffs on my thighs and calf.  Those of you who have been in hospital might remember that they blew up every 2 minutes, deflated every 6 minutes and this goes on for 2 weeks.  It was a miserable situation.  We were in there for 2 weeks.

Back in 1968, doctors said that in zero gravity, you won’t need the calcium to build up your bones because you’ll be in zero gravity.  Over a period of time, you just fall off with calcium, you don’t store it and consequently we were the first guinea pigs to give that a try. So two weeks before the flight they carefully monitored all of the intake, even to the perspiration of our bodies, they were pouring distilled water as we stayed in little bathing pool to see what the calcium out go was.  Then during the flight they knew exactly what we had for fluid.  Then 10 days after the flight, they again put us in isolation to then see what fluids we needed.  This was to see if there was a change in our calcium balance.  Well ladies and gentlemen I have to tell you that a 2 week mission is not the length of time to find out whether you flew off calcium.  As a matter of fact, even up to today, Scott Kelly who is now flying on the ISS for a whole year, is still doing a calcium balance study.

What happened to the body in the two weeks, we found out several things, first of all we all know, if you can’t walk around, the first thing that goes bad is the muscles, they become weak.  We found out after the flight walking across the carrier deck, my leg muscles were weak, my wife saw that in the move later on and said it looked like I had my pants full. of course the arms weren’t that bad and as we know today in spaceflight they have exercise equipment which is very necessary because otherwise the muscles deteriorate quite fast.

Gemini 7 as seen from Gemini 6 - the first manned space rendezvous .
Gemini 7 as seen from Gemini 6 – the first manned space rendezvous .

One of the other things that we saw was that zero gravity has an effect on blood flow to the heart.  It takes about 6 hours to get fully acquainted in zero gravity and the heart is pumping against hydrostatic pressure of about 1 1/2 feet, in zero gravity it doesn’t, so maybe the brain somehow tells the heart it doesn’t need to be pumping as hard, it can slow down.  So we found out that the heart rate slowed down about 10 beats per minute slower and also we found out that the amount of blood in the body increased.  When we first got information about that, we told the astronauts to drink more water, turns out they didn’t have to because you didn’t need as much blood in the body in zero gravity.  Why, because blood tends to pool down with a gravitational pull, so we have through evolution, have enough blood to keep it up around the head.  One of the things that we continued to do throughout our space flights was medical experiments and how man evolves and whether eventually we can go as far to Mars.

My second flight was different, Gemini 12, the last of the Gemini flights. We had in our Gemini’s 9, 10, and 11 attempted to go outside the spacecraft to do work.  On Gemini 4 Ed White did go out, he was attached to his oxygen hose but he just floated, he had a good time and got himself back in. In Gemini’s 9, 10, and 11 we thought we’d get people to do work around the spacecraft and all were unsuccessful, all the astronauts got overworked, heart rates went way up, they were breathing hard and fogging up their faceplates.  It turned out that we had forgotten Newton’s 3rd law of motion: For every action, there is an equal opposite reaction.  When you take away the effects of Earth’s gravity, the spacecraft became the mass and every time they would touch the spacecraft, it would react.  So we had to figure out on Gemini 12 how could we work outside the spacecraft with this effect.

Buzz Aldrin works on a mock up of Gemini 12. Photo credit: NASA
Buzz Aldrin works on a mock up of Gemini 12. Photo credit: NASA

One brilliant engineer said why don’t we put the crew into a swimming pool, we get a mockup of the Gemini spacecraft, Buzz Aldrin was my companion on this, we put Buzz in a spacesuit, it works just as well in water as it does in space. So we rented a pool in Baltimore and bought the equipment up with the mockup spacecraft down in the water, put weights around Buzz to make him neutrally buoyant, telling Buzz not to swim, and planned certain footholds and handholds and try to see if he could do work under water.  It worked out quite well.  Today, both the United States and Russia have huge pools where they take astronauts before they do any work and practice that before they go up.

One thing about Gemini 7 which was very important, we did the world’s first rendezvous.  Gemini 6 was supposed to go up and do a rendezvous with an unmanned vehicle called Agena.  The Agena blew up on the transit up and then Gemini 6 did not have a part.  Then they realised that Gemini 7 would be up for 2 weeks, so they sent Gemini 6 up 12 days after we were up and we did the world’s first rendezvous.

Jim Lovell has a temperature check with an oral temperature probe attached to his spacesuit during a final preflight preparations for the Gemini 7. The temperature probe allows doctors to monitor astronauts' body temperature at any time during the mission. Photo credit: NASA
Jim Lovell has a temperature check with an oral temperature probe attached to his spacesuit during a final preflight preparations for the Gemini 7. The temperature probe allows doctors to monitor astronauts’ body temperature at any time during the mission. Photo credit: NASA

The 3rd flight of my experience was Apollo 8, this was in 1968.  It was an interesting flight in several respects, it was not supposed to be a flight to the mood.  Two things had happened though in the late fall (Autumn) of 1968 that changed things completely.  We had information that the Russians were going to put a man on the moon in the late fall of 1968. As a matter of fact now that the cold war is over, they were very serious about this, they had put a Zond 5 and a Proton booster, in the Zond spacecraft were animals and they fired it to the moon, it went around the moon, came back and landed in the pacific.  But it was not successful, they had not got their reentry and progress orders good and they suspect the animals overheated and died.  They were very concerned about safety and so they brought another Proton on the launchpad, put Zond 6 onto the vehicle, which also went around the moon.  But there was something wrong, they wanted to be sure.

In the United States, two things also happened, one was the fact that Grumman Aircraft building the Lunar Module, said they could not build the Lunar Module and deliver it by the end of 1968.  Apollo 8 was going to be an Earth orbital flight with the Command Module, Lunar Module, going around the Earth and test the Lunar Module, detach it, make sure it was working while we were in Earth orbit, jettison it and have it land in the ocean, then take the Command Module high, 4000 miles, turn it around, fire the engines down to a Lunar orbit returns, a speed of around 23-24,000 mph to fully test out the heat shield.  When we didn’t have the Lunar Module, what should we do?  It was decided at that point, a really bold decision on part of NASA management, that Apollo 7 was supposed to go up in 11 day Earth orbit, test the Command Module, and that came out successfully, we would change the mission on Apollo 8 and go all the way to the moon. Not only circumnavigate but also go all the way, orbit it and come back.  That was the decision and it was taken in the summer of 1968, we were planning the Earth orbital but we got the word the mission had changed.

I was a navigator on Apollo 8, I spent many a day at freeman Labs at MIT in Boston learning the new guidance system, how we could navigate and adjust our gyros so that we would be able to navigate to the moon.  We did it with gyros in our guidance systems and would always tell us our attitude with respect to the celestial sphere.  The flight on December 21st 1968, those of you who are old enough to remember the year 1968, kind of a bad year, especially in the US, we had Vietnam going on, we had riots, assassinations.  The navigation was successful, we got to the moon, fired ourselves to slow down and got around the moon and saw the ancient old craters on the far side of the moon.  We were like 3 school kids looking into a candy store window, we kind of forgot the flight plan for a second.

Earthrise as seen by the crew of Apollo 8. 24 December 1968.
Earthrise as seen by the crew of Apollo 8. 24 December 1968.

Finally on the 3rd orbit, what we were looking for were landing sites. We were looking for flat areas, the mares, to give the people who were doing the actual landing the greatest chance of survival.  As we came around the near side on the 3rd orbit, suddenly we saw this Earth come up out on the lunar horizon.  Really a fantastic site to see the Earth as it was, all you can see is the whites and the blues of the Earth, the tans of the desert areas.  As you look at the earth, just 240,000 miles away, it looks completely uninhabited, just a small body tucked away going around our rather normal star and that star is just ticked away on the outer edge of the Milky Way and you think to yourself how insignificant we all are.  There’s 6 billion astronauts all trying to do the same thing.

How fortunate we are that we have this place to live.  People often say that I hope to got heaven when I die, ladies and gentlemen, you go to heaven when you were born, because this is what it all is, the sky, the water, the interaction among people, this is really the place that is a heaven. This was the most significant flight of my career, the first to navigate that whole area, to see the Earth as it really is, look for suitable landing spots for the later landing flights.

Jim Lovell at Space Lectures, 31st October 2015.
Jim Lovell at Space Lectures, 31st October 2015.

My last flight was Apollo 13, it was to be the 3rd lunar landing mission.  We had landed Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 on flat areas, they wanted us to go into the hills of the lunar highlands so we selected a place called Fra Mauro.  But this flight was plagued by bad omens from the very beginning.  Years before the flight was about to take out, the factory making the oxygen tanks dropped one of them on the factory floor. They picked it up, refurbished it and made sure it was ready for anything it could do in flight.  the tank was originally scheduled to go on Apollo 10 but since it was delayed in transfer they redesignated it to go on Apollo 13.

I was scheduled for Apollo 14 but months before my take off time, NASA said that Al Shepard who had 13, he was grounded for several years, they didn’t think he’d had enough training and would you mind taking Apollo 13 and giving Al Shepard 14.  I said no, I’ll take off 6 months earlier.  i came home and told my wife that I just got Apollo 13, she said “you did what!”  She said “don’t you know about Apollo 13?”  Two weeks before the flight though they did a test on the spacecraft, called a countdown demonstration test. The spacecraft sat on the big booster, no fuel on it this time, to make sure everything worked fine, launch crew was in place, the flight crew went into the space craft and counted this down all the way to zero to find out if everything had worked, all the systems had turned on at the right time ready for our flight.

Apollo 13 crew before launch. Jack Swigert, Jim Lovell and Fred Haise.
Apollo 13 crew before launch. Jack Swigert, Jim Lovell and Fred Haise.

The test was perfect, no problem.  After the test was completed, the ground crew came over and started to secure the spacecraft.  When they started to remove the liquid oxygen from the tanks, with one of the tanks they couldn’t remove it in the normal manner.  This was the tank that was dropped at the factory.  So when you think about it, everything works fine in flight, the only thing we can’t do is remove the oxygen in one of our tests,  In that tank was a little heater and the heaters purpose was to blow of a little bit of the liquid to pressurise the spacecraft, provide oxygen for breathing and also to the fuels cells to provide electricity.

After a while they said while don’t we just boil the oxygen, that way we don’t have to wait another month to put another tank in there, take at least a month do all the tests, this way we can cut a little time and see if it works.  The spacecraft flew on 28 volts of DC power, everything was built around that system.  But what the crew did was put ground power to the spacecraft to turn on the heater.  Ground power was 55 volts DC power, and as they expected the heater came on, they started to boil off all the liquid oxygen but there was a little thermostat above the heater that when the temperature got up to around 80 degrees, remember that liquid oxygen is around -250 degrees, the little thermostat started to open up to kill off the power and prevent it from doing any harm.  The high voltage welded the contacts shut and from then on we had no protection.  We know now from tests after the flight that inside that liquid oxygen tank, when all of the liquid oxygen was almost depleted that the temperature got up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Damage to the heater system with the wires exposed and teflon had melted, but from the outside it appeared that nothing had happened and everyone was happy. On launch day when they filled up the tank with liquid oxygen, it was a bomb waiting to go off.

Apollo 13 explosion
Apollo 13 explosion

4 days before the flight, we discovered the entire crew had been exposed to the measles, talk about bad omens.  the doctors found out that were were married, our kids had measles too, that we were immune to the disease.  But Ken Mattingly was a bachelor, never had the measles and the doctors were sure that when he was by himself orbiting the moon waiting for fred Haise and I to come up and rendezvous, that he would get the measles. Suddenly Ken was dropped and Jack Swigert was put aboard.  On launch day we took off on April 11, 1970 at 13:13 central standard time.

The Saturn V took off, the first stage worked perfectly and jettisoned that, lit the engines on the second stage and about 2 minutes before it should have, the centre engine (there were 5) shut down.  We know now that it was going divergent on its structure and had it not shut down, it would have disintegrated, caught the other 4 engines and made for a very short flight.  we went around the Earth to check out our spacecraft and then fired our rocket to go all the way to the moon, that was the 2nd time on the third stage.  What we had was what was called a free return course at 24000 miles per hour and put it on a course that could cruise all the way to the moon, the course was such that if we had lost our main maneuvering engine on our spacecraft, it would still take us to the moon and just with the attitude rockets, with the help of the moon’s gravity as it passes, we would turn around and come back to the earth with the proper course to make it through the atmosphere and land back on earth.  That’s why it’s called free return, every flight from Apollo 8 to Apollo 17 started out on this extra safety factor.

About 13 hours out though, i got a call from mission control and they said that if you want to land at Fra Mauro, you want the sun in the proper position so you can see the shadows of the rocks on the surface, we’d have to get off that free return course.  We said fine, flipped over the spacecraft, they were married together now, the lunar module called Aquarius, Odyssey was our main spacecraft, so I got the instruction on how to make the attitude change, lit the lunar engine, it worked perfectly happy and we got a new course to to the moon called a hybrid.  This course will also take us directly to the moon, but now if something should happen to the engine, we were on a course that would take us to the moon and with our our attitude rockets and the moon’s gravity, could turn around, come back down to the Earth to the closest point of approach, about 40, 000 miles out.  That’s too far out to be captured by the Earth’s atmosphere for any kind of plan.

Apollo 13 Command/Service Module damage
Apollo 13 Command/Service Module damage

I didn’t worry about it, this was my 4th flight at this stage, second time to the moon, the stars, the sights, the sounds, even the smells were familiar, everything was fine.  Two days out, we were just finishing up a TV programme, so on April 13, the explosion occurred and the whole project changed from lunar landing on the moon to one of survival.  At first we didn’t know what went wrong, we thought maybe a meteor had hit the lunar module and we knew that we would be losing atmosphere so we quickly tried to put the hatch in to separate the Command Service Module, which we were in, with the lunar module – much like what a submarine crew would do if they had the same type of a problem.  Believe it or not Fred Haise and Jack Swigert tried it several times, couldn’t do it, I pushed them aside and let me try it, I couldn’t put the hatch back in and that hatch had to be back in to make a safe landing back on Earth.  We tied the hatch up and then realised we weren’t dead yet, so obviously a meteor hadn’t hit and what was the situation.

I then for some reason looked out the side window and saw escaping at a high rate of speed a gaseous substance, then it dawned on me what the situation was. It had happened somewhere back in the service module and we were losing oxygen.  At that time I went back to look at the instrument panel and sure enough, the gauge on one tank was zero and the gauge on the other tank was starting to come down.  We knew at that time that the only way we were going to get home was to use the lunar module as a lifeboat to get home.  Mission Control couldn’t believe what was happening, when they say that we had lost 3 fuel cells, computer telemetry and radio for a while, they thought it was a communication problem.  They thought the communications that come from the spacecraft and give us the same reading on our consoles probably got interrupted by a solar flare.

Jim Lovell during Apollo 13 training.
Jim Lovell during Apollo 13 training.

We knew what was happening and we got into that lunar module.  They’re a very fragile device, the skin of the vehicle is so thin that if you really wanted to you could punch a hole right through it. It was only designed to last 45 hours.  once you were in lunar orbit, you power up, 2 people would get in, land explore, come back up, dock again and then of course flew the vehicle away.  Of course it only supported 2 people for 45 hours, after the explosion, i counted the crew..1..2..3… We turned on all the systems anyway, the guidance system, the computer, now what do we do to have to get home.

The first thing after the ground realised we were in serious trouble was perhaps that he had better get you back on the free return course.  I thought that was a good idea, I thought I would rather come round and come back to the Earth and would somehow intercept the Earth, not so much that it’s survivable, rather than be a monument to our space programme that went out 240,000 miles in along elliptical orbit, around the Earth at perigee at 40,000 miles and keep doing that for years and years and years…

They asked if the Command Module was dead, I said there was no power, no oxygen, we can’t use the propulsion system because we’ve lost electricity.  They said to use the lunar module landing engine to make the transition, so they work out the attitude to move these two vehicles so that you can get back on the free return course.  When I got the attitude and started the maneuver, I learned something that I took with me for a lifetime – always expect the unexpected.  I used the attitude systems on the lunar module to make the maneuver. It turns out the lunar had never been designed to be maneuvered with the Command Service Module attached, that’s a 16,000 lbs dead mass.  The centre of gravity was way out in the field some place, not in the centre of the lunar module where the attitude rockets were good.  I had to learn in a short period of time how to maneuver in that situation, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you learn if in a deep problem.  I thought I had the proper attitude I needed, we lit the lunar landing engine and maneuvered onto the proper course.

Jim Lovell. Apollo 13 Hasselblad image from film magazine 59/R - Transfer from LM to CM; LM undocking prior to reentry
Jim Lovell. Apollo 13 Hasselblad image from film magazine 59/R – Transfer from LM to CM; LM undocking prior to reentry

We still didn’t have enough electrical power to get home, it was only designed for 45 hours, we were 90 hours from home, so I knew we were in deep trouble. The ground called us up and told us they were working on a plan that would get us around the moon, speed us up to get us home before the batteries died out which is the most important thing. They they told us to remember that when we go behind the moon that we will lose communication so be ready to copy these instructions, we’re sending a crew down to the simulator, have them work through these procedures.  I had my two companions sitting right here with me so I miss something, they’ll pick up, all 3 will be listening.

In a little while the moon kept getting bigger and bigger, we’d passed the sphere of influence now.  On the way to the moon you slow down to about 2000mph because the Earth is pulling you back all the time, the moon’s gravity is now in control.  They then said they’d got the procedures, “are you ready to copy?”  I said yes and looked at my companions thinking they were interested – they weren’t even listening, they were looking at the moon, they had cameras in their hands!  I said gentlemen, what is your project here, what are you doing.  They said “Jim, we’re on the far side of the moon, we’re going to take some pictures, we don’t see the far side from the Earth.”  I said if we don’t get home, you won’t get them developed!

Jim, we're on the far side of the moon, we're going to take some pictures, we don't see the far side from the Earth." I said if we don't get home, you won't get them developed!
The far sideof the moon as photographed by Apollo 13.
“Jim, we’re on the far side of the moon, we’re going to take some pictures, we don’t see the far side from the Earth.”
“I said if we don’t get home, you won’t get them developed!”

They took their pictures, I got the instructions and after about 2 1/2 hours after we’d got around the moon, we luit the engine for a second time for over 4 minutes, pushed us faster and faster.  Then we shut off all those other devices you would not be caught up there without, guidance system used up too much power, the computer, auto pilot.  The only thing we had going was the radio to talk to the Earth and a little fan to circulate the atmosphere.  Things were kind of quiet and when things are quiet and you’re in a tough spot with nothing to do, you start to think.  i think it was Jack Swigert that came up and said “Jim, I’ve been thinking, we might be exceeding escape velocity,”  I said that free return course should guarantee us a passage through the atmosphere and safe landing.  Let me explain that you have to enter the atmosphere in a 2 degree pie shaped wedge,with respect to the atmosphere.  If you come in too shallow, you’ll skip out like skimming stones across a pond, if too steep, the sudden deceleration will make you fiery for a few milliseconds and that would be it.

I said to Jack, don’t worry, we have it made.  I was wrong.   The ground was tracking us now and told us we were no longer on the free return, course we’d probably miss the atmosphere by at least 60 nautical miles.  I said thanks a lot, we’d turned off everything, we were flying by the seat of our pants.  they asked me to remember my flight on Apollo 8, we looked at emergency procedures and especially the last one if everything else failed, I’d helped to developed it.  They said we were going to have to use it now.  What that consisted of was for to somehow manually maneuver the spacecraft around without the help of an autopilot, get the Earth in the window of the lunar module, you’ve all seen the Earth from space, daylight, darkness, that line between the two we call the terminator.  In the module of the lunar module I had a gun sight, a cross-hair, if I could somehow maneuver the spacecraft around to superimpose the horizontal line of sight on the gun-sight on the Earth’s terminator, that would then place the engine in a position to steepen of shallow that angle.

Jack Swigert's Omega Speedmaster. 14 seconds later Jack said "stop"
Jack Swigert’s Omega Speedmaster.
14 seconds later Jack said “stop”

I said to Jack that even the clock is not running you have a wristwatch, you tell me when to light the engine, you tell me when to turn them off.  Fred Haise was sick now, but I said to him when that engine comes on, to help stabilize the vehicle, to stop the Earth from going up and down to much with my primary manoeuvre handle, the back up you take and stop sideways too much.  I had on my console 2 buttons, one said start and the other one said stop.  Probably the only time they were ever used, it was a direct electrical link between the battery and the engine.  When he said start, I hit the start button, the engine came on, I jockeyed vertically, Fred jockeyed horizontally and then 14 seconds later Jack said stop, we stopped the engine and waited for the ground to track us to see if we came in for a safe landing.

I have with me now some highlights of that flight (video plays), we made it for congress in 1970:

  • That’s our Saturn V, one of the tragedies of our spacecraft is not to keep doing these vehicles after Apollo, perfect for putting more mass to the ISS.
  • That’s Fred Haise as you probably saw previously, getting suited up…
  • That’s Jack Swigert, probably still figuring out how he got on that flight
  • Werner Von Braun was instrumental in designing this vehicle, those fins are his kind of signature, we can control, the vehicle by gimbaling those 4 engines, much like the V2 which needed fins.
  • Burning fuel now at about 15 tonnes per second 0- about as much as my ’73 Chevrolet did…
  • Jack Swigert is guiding the probe to dock the vehicles, he was a very confident pilot although the movie made him look like he had to earn his wings every day.
  • The interior of the lunar module looks bigger than it really is, that’s because of the wide angle lens
  • Back in the control centre, things are different now, all kinds of contractors now
  • That’s Ken Mattingly, he never got the measles…
  • We were being poisoned by our own exhalation , Carbon Dioxide was building up, we had canisters to remove but in the lunar module we had round ones and in the command module we had square ones, we sued duct tape, an old sock, a piece of plastic to jury rig a square lithium hydroxide canister to a round one.  Ingenuity and initiative came through.
  • Fred’s looking out the window, you can put your thumb up there and you can hide the Earth completely and realise what we really have here.
  • That’s Fred Haise trying to sleep, he has one hand in his blouse. The reason he does that is because on an earlier flight, Pete Conrad was flying in a completely darkened spacecraft, he looked and saw this strange eye staring at him, he thought maybe there is something to these ET’s and UFO’s, turns out his arm had drifted up and it was the luminous  dial on his wristwatch.  That’s how these stories get started…
  • The last crisis of this flight was those 3 parachutes, the pyrotechnics had been so cold for 4 days, if they didn’t fire the chutes would not have come out and we;d have hit the water as such a speed it wouldn’t be survivable.
  • Some 55 countries offered us water recovery assistance, even countries like Paraguay, Czechoslovakia – they don’t even have coastlines!
  • There we are talking to the President, then I’m talking to my wife, Fred is talking to his wife Mary, Jack Swigert was also a bachelor, probably talking to every single steward on Eastern Airlines…
Apollo 13 splashdown
Apollo 13 splashdown

I often wondered what would have happened if Apollo 13 was successful, if there was no explosion, we landed on the moon, picked up some rocks, said some forgettable words and got back safely with 7 successful lunar landings.  The history of Apollo 13 would have been swept into the dustbin of space history and I wouldn’t be here probably.  But for years I was very much disappointed, frustrated that I could not land on the moon, this was the end of my active space career.  But after the years came by, we wrote a book, Lost Moon, then Apollo 13, I thought to myself, if we had landed on the moon, there would be no “Houston, we’ve had a problem” or “Failure is not an option.”  It brings out what people can do when there is a crisis, it finally dawned on me that the best thing could have had happened in our space program at that particular time was to have an explosion like this, that brought up various things, how talented people are, an almost certain catastrophe back to a safe landing. Let me leave you with an old saying I’ve heard “there are 3 types of people in this world, there are people that make things happen, there are people that watch things happen and there are people who wonder what just happened.” Back in April 1970, those people in Mission Control were the group that made things happen.  Thank you.”

Commander Jim Lovell reads a newspaper account of the safe recovery of Apollo 13
Commander Jim Lovell reads a newspaper account of the safe recovery of Apollo 13

Jim Lovell has given a great presentation followed by a Q & A session by Professor Brian Cox. Followed up with a signature of “Earthrise.”  Another great event from www.space-lectures.com, keep up the great work. Next up in April is Apollo 17 Commander, Captain Eugene Cernan: The Last Man on the Moon.


You may also like some of their other events I’ve attended:

Space Shuttle astronaut Eileen Collins

Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13

Meeting Ken Mattingly

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean


Apollo 7 Astronaut Walt Cunningham was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 7, the first manned mission in the Apollo program after the fatal cabin fire of Apollo 1.  Today I’m meeting him in Walsall and listening to his talk “Apollo – The Golden Age of Spaceflight.”

Walt Cunningham, Apollo 7 astronaut.
Walt Cunningham, Apollo 7 astronaut.

Walking in to have my photo taken with him, he spies my photo I’ll be having signed later, grabs my hand and says…

“That photo you have over there, that’s one of my favourites – I took it.”

To which we then both laugh and explains my goofy look when the photographer takes the picture.  His lecture today is not specifically about his spaceflight, but on what he considers to be the golden age of Apollo. During his talk, Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham references Apollo against the stark contrast to today’s risk averse society against the Delage Definition of Adventure:

  • Must advance human knowledge
  • Must have a real risk of dying
  • Must have an uncertain outcome

That was the Apollo programme; to land a man on the moon.  Walt Cunningham’s talk today is more of a personal reflection of Apollo, his memories of being selected for astronaut group three and undergoing tests, his room mate Robert Shumaker later being captured by Vietcong, having the Right Stuff and large egos, losing friends in the Apollo 1.  How 6 landings and 12 men walked on the moon and advanced man’s knowledge, each of these missions being uncertain until splashdown.

Saturn IVB (S4B) stage from Apollo 7. Cropped image of still number AS07-3-1551 from the Project Apollo Archive.
Saturn IVB (S4B) stage from Apollo 7. Cropped image of still number AS07-3-1551 from the Project Apollo Archive.


We were warm, feeling, emotional and committed individuals.  Five hundred years from now there will only be one event in the 20th century that will stand the test of time and that is landing on the moon. The most spiritually elevating event in our lifetime. For a brief time, our society felt good about itself. We felt together.

Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham
Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham

The Apollo 1 launchpad fire, January 27th 1967, 3 good men paid the price of progress, and I lost 3 good friends, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

Group 3 astronauts. Back row, L-R: Collins, Cunningham, Eisele, Freeman, Gordon, Schweickart, Scott, Williams. Front row, L-R: Aldrin, Anders, Bassett, Bean, Cernan, Chaffee.
Group 3 astronauts. Back row, L-R: Collins, Cunningham, Eisele, Freeman, Gordon, Schweickart, Scott, Williams. Front row, L-R: Aldrin, Anders, Bassett, Bean, Cernan, Chaffee.

After more than a 1000 changes, Apollo 7 rose from the ashes of the Apollo 1 flight, very much like the phoenix, Apollo 7 was an ambitious effort to make up for the lost time; we were racing the Russians to the moon.

Apollo 7 crew Command Module pilot, Don F. Eisele, Commander, Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Lunar Module pilot, Walter Cunningham.
Apollo 7 crew Command Module pilot, Don F. Eisele, Commander, Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Lunar Module pilot, Walter Cunningham.

Apollo 7 was launched on October 11 1968, an 11 day Earth orbit test flight, the first launch of the Saturn rocket (the slightly smaller Saturn IB booster compared to the Saturn V), first manned test of the redesigned Command Service Module and first live TV broadcast from an American spacecraft.  Although the flight did not carry a Lunar Module, Walt Cunningham was kept busy completing system tests with Commander Walter Schirra and Command Module Pilot Donn Eisele on essentially a practice flight testing guidance and control systems, simulated rendezvous and docking operations between the CSM (Command Service Module) and the S-IVB stage.

Walt Cunningham inside the Command Module during Apollo 7
Walt Cunningham inside the Command Module during Apollo 7

Apollo 7 was considered a success and gave NASA confidence to launch Apollo 8 around the moon only two months later. The flight was not without controversy though, with the so-called “mutiny in space” after the crew’s development of severe head colds and motion sickness which caused tensions with Mission Control and some of the task they were required to do.  As a result of these tensions, Walt Cunningham and the rest of the crew were rejected for future missions and never flew in space again. Walt Cunningham later became management in the Skylab program and during his talk today stated that he thought this was a greater contribution to NASA than his Apollo 7 flight.

You might also like the other astronaut events I’ve attended:

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean

Ken Mattingly – The Spirit and Triumph of Apollo 13

CosmicCon – Apollo, Skylab and Shuttle Astronauts

Shuttle Commander Eileen Collins

Fred Haise Apollo 13 – Failure Is Not An Option

Sunspot Active Region 2396 on 8th August 2015
Sunspot Active Region 2396 on 8th August 2015

Sunspot 2396 has grown rapidly over the past few days and yesterday I had a chance to quickly capture between the clouds.  Sunspot 2396 stretches more than 150,000 km (93,000 miles) from end to end and that main spot itself is 3 times the size of Earth. Sunspot 2396 has a beta-gamma magnetic field and has the potential to emit an M-class flare but the chances appear to be subsiding as the sunspot turns to face away from the Earth.

We’re approximately 2 years past Solar Max, the point in its 11 year cycle where solar activity is at its peak and the sun’s magnetic poles switch.  Its peak was expected in 2013 but fewer sunspots, flares, coronal mass ejections and increased aurora activity in the atmosphere were observed.  Since then we’ve learned that the sun probably has its solar max in its north and south equator not quite at the same time making it appear quieter.  So it’s good to see a large sunspot in this lull of activity.

The Active Region around Sunspot 2396 is huge, the largest core of that clustered group of sunspots is at least three times the size of the Earth.  Sunspots appear darker than the surrounding surface because they are cooler with the lighter Penumbra surrounding the cooler central Umbra making it look black against the glowing surface of the sun.  If these sunspots could be isolated, they would be brighter than a full moon.

This image is composed of approximately 20 x 1/320 sec exposures through a white light Baader solar film, Skywatcher 200p telescope, 3 x TeleVue Barlow lens and a Canon 1000D DSLR.  Image copyright Nick Cook.

Moving around the galactic circles that I do (even though I’m not  a heavenly body or will ever be accused of having a heavenly body), I’m up in Manchester meeting meeting Apollo, Skylab and Shuttle astronauts at CosmicCon.  My chance to attend a series of talks and mingle among the stars who have been in space, repair in space and collect space.  I’ve even managed to get a few extracts from some of the talks I attended on the quieter of the two days.


Al Worden Command Module Pilot, Apollo 15.
Al Worden Command Module Pilot, Apollo 15.

Al Worden was the Command Module Pilot for Apollo 15, the fourth lunar landing, where he orbited the moon in the Command Module Endeavour and became “the most isolated human being” while his fellow astronauts explored Hadley Rille, 2235 miles away on the lunar surface. He also performed the first deep space spacewalk to recover exposed film from the Service Module’s scientific instrument bay.  Al Worden is 83 years old, he’s chipper, bright and loud, the audience love him and he loves talking, retirement is state of mind for the chap, he’s full of life.  This guy is a great character and full of humour.

Al likes being retired, writing books and giving talks when he can. “You poor saps, I feel sorry for you.”  “Apollo 15 was very different, we carried a lot of extra equipment, the lunar rover and a scientific instrument module.  I flew with Dave Scott who flew with Neil Armstrong on Gemini 8, the one that lost control and the thruster continued to fire, started spinning and had to take over manual control.  He also flew on Apollo 9 which was the first check out of the lunar module. Jim Irwin was a lunar module pilot.  The commander in flight like Dave Scott was, his responsibility was to fly the lunar module to the surface,  my job was to fly everybody out to the moon, stay in lunar orbit while they were down on the surface and then bring everybody back home.  Jim Irwin’s job as lunar module pilot was to watch all the instruments.”

Al Worden talking about the design of the Apollo 15 crew patch at CosmicCon 2015 at Manchester, UK.
Al Worden talking about the design of the Apollo 15 crew patch at CosmicCon 2015 at Manchester, UK.

“The space suits we wore were made by the International Latex Corporation in Delawarwe, their primary product is women’s girdles.  How in the world they got a job to make spacesuits, I’ll never know.  The lunar module we named The Falcon, we were all military Air Force academy graduates and selected their mascot as the name.  The guy who helped us design the crew patch was Emilio Pucci, he was a fighter pilot and after World War 2, he did what all fighter pilots do, got into ladies clothes, quite successfully I might add.”

I spent 3 wonderful days in orbit by myself, after 4 days with those guys (Scott & Irwin), I was so damn glad to get rid of them. While I was there I operated the SIM bay, Scientific Instrument Module, couple of big cameras in it, remote sensors, a little subsatellite we left in lunar orbit before we came back.  I had to recover the film canisters and bring them back inside the Command Module.  On launch day, you get up to the 35th level and get inside the spacecraft, the left side is all for flying and the right side for systems, in the middle is the sextant you use to navigate while in flight.  You have 733 switches and circuit breakers, people wonder why it takes so long to train for a flight, it’s because of all those switches and circuit breakers.  I used to start memorising form the left and by the time I had got to the right, I’d forgotten everything on the left hand side.  In the 3 years of getting ready for my flight, I got 1500 hours of simulator time.  When an Apollo launches, it lifts off very slowly, we didn’t even know, launch control centre had to tell us, took us 12 seconds to get past the launch umbilical tower.  We burned up 5 million lbs of fuel in the first 2 1/2 minutes but you don’t get any perspective on fast you are going.

Soon as we got going, we undocked, I backed of about 50 feet, turned around and grabbed the lunar module and head to the moon.  We’re reliant on gravity to do several things for us. To go to the moon, you have to increase your speed and somewhere along that line, the moon’s gravity becomes greater than the earth’s gravity, grabs the spacecraft and pulls it around the back side of the moon.  You have to leave the moon by 3 days, when you launch, you don’t shoot straight at it, you have to shoot ahead of it and during the 3 days we’re on our way up there, the moon travels far enough to meet us up there.

Endeavour in lunar orbit.
Endeavour in lunar orbit.

There was a wedge-shaped piece on my trajectory round the moon when I was in the shadow of the earth and the sun at the same time and was the most unbelievable thing on my flight, this gave me a really good look at the universe.  I had the 37 brightest stars, navigation stars, when I got to this wedge-shaped area, I couldn’t find them, all I could see was light, I could see the horizon of the moon but the light that got cut off from the stars. Think there’s an end to the universe? I don’t. Think there’s a beginning to the universe? I don’t know, couldn’t be, I think time is endless, we’ll never know what infinity means.”


Dr Kathy Thornton was a Space Shuttle astronaut of 4 missions. The first a Department of Defense mission that’s classified, the second was to capture and repair an Intelsat that was stranded in low earth orbit and also where Kathy took part in the fourth EVA for space station assembly demonstrations, or lessons on how not to build the space station.

Kahy Thornton at CosmicCon 2015, Manchester, UK.
Kahy Thornton at CosmicCon 2015, Manchester, UK.

In her third mission, the famous STS-61 mission, she completed spacewalks to repair the Hubble Space Telescope replacing the solar arrays and the COSTAR corrective optics so the Hubble Telescope could focus properly.  This is one of the most complex missions in Space Shuttle history, personally, I can’t think of a cooler job. Remember when the Hubble was launched and it couldn’t see any better than ground based telescopes because of a primary mirror problem? This mission corrected that to give us stunning views of the universe.

Dr Kathryn Thornton repairing the Hubble Space Telescope
Dr Kathryn Thornton repairing the Hubble Space Telescope

Her final mission was a spacelab mission where they have laboratory io the cargo hold, no windows, which was kept on operations continuously for two weeks, again in preparation for the space stations.  “The shuttle was a short-term space station for a lot of us.” During this talk Kathy gave a us a slide reminding us about her Uncle Charlie who remembered as a child travelling in a covered wagon, then watching Kathy launch twice on the Space Shuttle.  A reminder of how much technology changes in a single lifetime.  “We are in the infancy of the space age, 50 years ago seems like a long time but in the bigger picture it’s not long at all.  In less than a decade we went from creeping around the edge of the planet to walking on the moon.”

Dr Kathryn C Thornton, STS-33, STS-49, STS-61, STS-73.
Dr Kathryn C Thornton, STS-33, STS-49, STS-61, STS-73.


Jack Lousma was part of the Skylab 3 space station crew in 1973, along with Alan Bean, completing spacewalks to construct a second solar shade over the Skylab space station and completed other experiments to understand living and working in space.  Later, he was the commander of the Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-3 during the third test flight where he and astronaut Gordon Fullerton spent 8 days in space testing the shuttle arm (Canadaarm – Remote Manipulator System) and completed thermal stress tests by pointing parts of the Space Shuttle Columbia at the sun.

Jack Lousma aboard Skylab 3
Jack Lousma aboard Skylab 3


Donald A Thomas was a mission specialist and veteran of four space shuttle flights and has logged over 100 hours in space.  Don later became Director of Operations for NASA at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre at Star City in Moscow.  What a lovely guy Don was and a great speaker.  Don’s talk focused on Space Shuttle mission STS-70 which was to deploy a tracking and data relay satellite using a “very complicated button” and how a woodpecker tapped 205 holes in the external tank delaying the mission.

Don Thomas, one woodpecker and 205 holes.
Don Thomas, one woodpecker and 205 holes.


Astronauts are not the only ones attending CosmicCon, it’s also got the Meteorite Men who like….err meteorites and the Asteroid Defence Project Team who err….don’t like those bigger types of meteorites. Even if Cristina Stanilescu and the rest of her team in the Earth Asteroid Defense Project prevent another disastrous Armageddon movie, I’d say that was enough, otherwise “I’m a gettin’ outta” here (say it quickly….see what I did there?).  Besides all of that, there is the reminder that you are 14 times more likely to die by an asteroid than a terrorist and that NASA know just over 12,000 Near Earth Objects but there are likely to be many more.  Seriously though, the Meteorite Men, Geoff Notkin and Steve Arnold, were a great double act, real personalities on stage and great stories and insights to their TV series, getting a world première preview of their new show, Meteorite Men Unlimited.

Geoff Notkin and Steve Arnold are The Meteorite Men.
Geoff Notkin and Steve Arnold are The Meteorite Men.

The European Space Agency (ESA) have also turned up, the team responsible for sending Rosetta to orbit around comet 67p/Churyumove-Gerasimenko and the Philae Lander on the surface which must surely be the coolest thing off the planet to happen in science.  I’ve got enough posters off them to redecorate my shed/observatory/mancave.

Early attempts at asteroid defence did not go well.
Early attempts at asteroid defence did not go well.


We’ve had some interesting talks, wrapped up with a great Astronaut Q & A panel and I now know more about pooping in space than ever before.  Whether its lining yourself up with a tube, being caught on toilet cam, using the “rear view mirror” Jack Lousma talked about, or simply placing a sticky bag to your bum, we all know that everybody poops.  It was quite a discussion.  I was lucky enough to ask a question about how the experience of Spacewalking compares to the training and simulations. Three of the four astronauts here have completed a spacewalk, which Kathy Thornton and Jack Lousma gave detailed answers for and I swear Al Worden looked straight into my soul when answering me.

Thanks to these guys on the CosmicCon astronaut Q and A panel, I now know more about pooping in space than ever before.
Thanks to these guys on the CosmicCon astronaut Q and A panel, I now know more about pooping in space than ever before.


I’ve had a great day and the events have been solidly organised by the fantastic team at CosmicCon. This post can not do the event justice, but you can by attending next year.

Hot on the heels of meeting high flyer Eileen Collins, today I’ve met Chuck Deiterich, NASA RETRO Flight Controller during the Apollo program, to attend his talk ‘A Tour of the U.S. Lunar Program and Beyond.’

Chuck Deiterich RETRO Flight Controller
Chuck Deiterich RETRO Flight Controller

Chuck became involved in NASA after working on a Link Trainer, a simulator, and at about the same time, NASA came to Houston and he submitted an application for operations which was seen by the Chief of Flight Dynamics Glynn Lunney.

Chuck Deiterich was involved in some of the most historic American spaceflight moments, notably as Retrofire Officer (RETRO) flight controller in ‘the Trench’ at Mission Control during Apollo 11 landing.  As RETRO, he drew up abort plans, Trans Earth Injection (TEI) maneuvers, de-orbit burns, reentry, telescope pointing jobs and also responsible for mid-course correction burns during Apollo 13.

After Apollo, Chuck moved onto the Skylab program becoming Flight Dynamics Office (FIDO/FDO) monitoring space vehicle performance and flight paths and overseeing the historic docking of Skylab and Soyuz.  Later, Chuck worked on the Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests as FIDO and designing the mating of the Shuttle and 747, “the neatest job I ever had.”

Chuck Deiterich discusses the Apollo 13 flight profile.
Chuck Deiterich discusses the Apollo 13 flight profile.

An interesting talk from Chuck, with his view from the Trench at Mission Control.  As RETRO flight controller, he was worried about vehicles running into each other.  On Apollo 10 when they jettisoned the ascent stage, which didn’t land on the moon, they forgot to depressurise the tunnel between the two spacecraft, when they separated, they popped off.  That would become important to remember. In the simulator, Fred Haise confirmed there wasn’t a problem, but in real life, when they jettisoned the LM, the sun blinded you and you lost sight of the ascent stage.  You had to do a push/pull to ensure the service module was on a separate trajectory.  This was particularly important for the docking of the Apollo Soyuz Test project due to the difference in pressure between the two space vehicles.

When he was over in Russia for training Apollo-Soyuz docking, he had a sore throat so went to the American embassy for medicine and on the way back went on the subway, couldn’t read the signs, nobody spoke English, fell asleep and someone woke him up and told him he was on the wrong subway.  “He was my KGB guardian angel, he put me back on the right subway back to the space centre at Star City.”

Space Shuttle Enterprise mated to the 747 for the Approach and Landing Tests.
Space Shuttle Enterprise mated to the 747 for the Approach and Landing Tests.

“There was always a discussion about whether this was hoax and the flag waving on the moon etc.  Turns out the engineer who had to build the flag and the pole didn’t have a lot of time and it didn’t work perfectly, it didn’t extend all the way out, that why it looks like it’s waving, not because the wind is blowing  Besides, we couldn’t keep our simulators up long enough to fake a lunar landing.  Couldn’t get through a whole afternoon without failures.”

“Apollo 13 lifted off at 13:13 Central Standard time can anybody guess what my console number was?”

“On the Apollo 13 oxygen tank explosion, had they not done any maneuvers, in 3 days, they’d go round the moon, and in 6 days would come back but miss the Earth by 2600 miles, in 15 and 25 days, they’d miss the Earth by 1600 miles.  By this time, the crew wouldn’t have survived as all the consumables would be gone, oxygen, battery power, food etc. Eventually, 39 days later, they’d have come round and entered at around a 7 degree flight angle, they’d have never survived reentry.  We had to get them on a free return trajectory, we used the descent stage to do burns, and because they were drifting around, had to do several burns, manually on mid-course correction 5 with Jim Lovell controlling two axis and Fred Haise the other axis using the hand controllers, using the Lunar Module looking down at the Earth to do a retrograde burn to increase the flight path angle because there were looking shallow.  The LM was venting, there’s no such thing as a non propulsive vent. This vent changed the trajectory.”

Chuck Deiterich in The Trench at mission Control during the Apollo 11 landing.
Chuck Deiterich in The Trench at mission Control during the Apollo 11 landing.

You can read more about Chuck Deiterich in The Trench at Mission Control in his book; From The Trench of Mission Control to the Craters of the Moon.

The event with Chuck Deiterich was organised by www.somethingastro.com

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