Curiosity is a famous, car sized rover currently exploring Gale Crater on Mars. Famous because it has an impressive track record. Landing on Mars in August 2012, the rover was designed to last 687 days/668 sols (martian days) but was extended to indefinitely in December 2012. Although at the time of writing it is trying to wait out a dust storm that has forced Opportunity into a deep sleep, it is still going strong to this day, and has managed to even take a selfie while waiting for it all to blow over. That is over 2100 earth days, still functioning and completing chemical analysis on soil from 560 million km (350 million mi) away!
Even though this impressive piece of engineering has been collecting samples and completing scientific experiments for over 5 years, the rover still has time to take the occasional selfie. It has a 2.1m robotic arm, and a sophisticated camera (MHLI) mounted on the end of it. The obvious thing you will notice about the images is that you can’t see the arm taking the image. To many of the NASA sceptics and flat earthers this is conclusive proof that the rover is in a film studio somewhere in California rather than on our nearest neighbour planet. At first glance you can understand the problem, where is the arm? The first clue is that the arm isn’t in the picture at all, and when you see the images taken of it here on Earth you can see it is a very prominent feature.
The simple answer was explained by NASA/JPL when these questions came up after the first self shot. As the Curiosity camera has a limited view, it cannot get the entire rover into one shot, and even when it does, it looks slightly odd depending on the angle. This is also a problem that they have when taking images of the martian landscape. To get round it, the camera takes many images at differing angles. The images can then be stitched together in photoshop by engineers. They did something similar when putting together images of the moon taken by satellites. As the following image posted by NASA shows, the arm has to move during the changes in camera location, often moving out of frame. Even when the arm is slightly in an image they tend to cover it with another image, so it doesn’t confuse the people looking at it. The selfie would look odd if it had more than one arm showing.
Even though they take care to put together the images in a way that dont look like many stitched together there are still sometimes some inconsistencies. Notice that in the next image the shadow of the arm is still in the image, and there is a slight ghost of the arm below the rover. As you can see below this shot too 72 images stitched together to be made. 20 of those images, over 2 tiers just make up the horizon. Selfies are generally taken at each new drill site, as part of an overall effort to document the trip and of that site. The entire picture taking sequence has now been automated, and tested rigorously on the second identical rover that is here on Earth. If the rover were to take the multiple pictures from individual commands the process would be too long and drawn out.
There are at least 7 of these selfies taken over the years, all from a very similar angle. The big thing to notice is the difference in the rover itself. Over time it slowly gets covered in more and more dust, starting to blend in with the martian soil behind it. The saddest part to see is the slow deterioration of the wheels. There are small holes developing and getting bigger in the metalwork on the wheels, and in some images they can seem prominent. Either way, these selfies show a slight human side to the robot. There are many people throughout Twitter that anthropomorphize Curiosity and its predecessors, wishing them well on their journey.
Thank You for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space or electronics, or follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.
On May 21st 2018, Orbital ATK’s Antares launch vehicle orbited the companies Cygnus OA-9 cargo hauling spacecraft. Launched from the little known NASA Wallops Island in Virginia, it took off from pad 0A at 08:44 UTC. OA-9 took 3,250 kg of cargo to the international space station, along with several cubesats that with deployer hardware added roughly 120 kg. This launch was in honour of J.R.Thompson, former Orbital Science CEO, who passed away in 2017.
It was the third flight of the Antares 230 variant, a redesigned vehicle powered by two Energomash RD-181 engines instead of the AJ-26 engines that powered the first five Antares flights. The change was made after one of the AJ-26 turbopumps failed and triggered a destructive explosion above the pad in 2004. Cygnus OA-9 was the sixth enhanced Cygnus with a stretched cargo module, but only the third to fly on Antares, Atlas 5 launched the other three.#
According to Orbital ATK, Cygnus OA-9 weighed 6,173 kg at launch, matching OA-8 payload for heaviest launched by an Antares rocket. The RD-181 engines produce a total of 392 tonnes of thrust at liftoff, that powers the 293 tonne rocket into the sky. Built in Ukraine (former Soviet design), the first stage burned for 211 seconds. After first stage shutdown it seperated and coasted “up hill” for 37 seconds before the Orbital ATK Castor 30XL second stage motor ignited to produce 51 tonnes of thrust for 160 seconds. The payload fairing separated 12 seconds before second stage ignition. Cygnus separated into a 198 x 317 km x 51.63 deg orbit about 9 min 6 sec after liftoff.
Previously I went through the three input NOR gate that ran the Apollo Guidance Computer and how the circuit works. Previous to that I also told the story of how this chip partially funded Silicon Valley as we know it today. This post builds on that and goes through how the silicon works, and the simplicity of the circuit. Quite a famous image of the chip, fairly detailed image of the silicon inside the device spurred on this post, and taught me lots about silicon that I want to pass on.
The above schematic of the 3 input NOR gate is also shown in previous posts. It is from the NASA Apollo Guidance Computer schematic, but I have annotated it so that I can reference to specific parts. It is a handy schematic considering it was right at the start of the development of semiconductors. The first image in the post is the best image of the silicon, but is not very big. The biggest image I can find is not quite as sharp, but is much better to annotate, it is the same chip. The first annotation shows the pinout of the device, and how those pins actually connect to the pins.
The noted parts of the above images are pins 5 and 10, and are the starting points to deciphering the layout. If you look at pin 5 and 10 on the schematic, they correspond to GND and power respectively. They are the only pins that are shared between both NOR gates. Apart from that the two sides look remarkably similar, and are basically a mirrored version. To figure which is ground and which is power, the resistors need to be taken into account.
The above image shows the resistors found on the device. They tend to just be a thin section of P doped silicon, and above connect two sections of aluminum to form a resistor. It is also noted that there is big section of brown surrounding the whole circuit. Although it functions like a resistor and is made in the same way, it is puterly for ESD purposes, protecting the circuit. This big ring also is a big hint that it is connected to ground (pin 5). the second hint is that GND has no resistors attached to it on the schematic, but power has two. They are R1 and R2, connecting to pin 9 and 1 respectively, and are pull up resistors. Pin R3 to R8 are simply the base resistors for the transistors. They are all roughly the same size, and are there are 6 of them. The transistors are also fairly obvious in the centre of the silicon.
The above image is showing the heart of the device. the 6 transistors that make it resistor-transistor logic. As you can see in the above image, all the collectors are connected together, connected to pins 1 and 9. If you look closely, the base and emitter of each transistor sit inside a brown section like the resistors. This is P doped silicon and forms the base-emitter junction. This allows the base and emitter to sit anywhere within that P doped silicon detection to work. This means that the transistors do not conform to the standard Collector-base-emitter topology. All of the emitters are also connected together via the aluminium placed on the top, but the P doped sections of each device are seperate. As all the transistors of each device have common emitters, it doesn’t matter that they are all connected together, by design, only one of the transistors needs to be on for it to function.
The above image found on Ken Shirriff’s blog shows how the transistor works with the emitter and base in the P doped silicon. I may do some more posts about it, but his blog is a great place to find more information on silicon reverse engineering.
The above image is an interesting one I found while researching this chip. A section in electronics world 1963 showing how micrologic is made. The type G chip was part of the second batch of micrologic circuits. This section was useful to see how silicon was actually manufactured, and in some ways, still is today.
Fifty years ago, 5 unmanned lunar orbiters circled the moon, taking extremely high resolution photos of the surface. They were trying to find the perfect landing site for the Apollo missions. They would be good enough to blow up to 40 x 54ft images that the astronauts would walk across looking for the great spot. After their use, the images were locked away from the public until after the bulk of the moon landings, as at the time they would have revealed the superior technology of the USA’s spy satellite cameras, which the orbiters cameras were designed from. The main worry was the USSR gaining valuable information about landing sites that the US wanted to use. In 1971 many of the images were released, but nowhere near to their potential quality, and mainly to an academic audience as public interest in the moon had waned. Up until 2008 most of the reported images from the project were the 1966 versions that were grainy and lower quality.
These spacecraft were Lunar Orbiter I to V, and they were sent by NASA during 1966 and 67. In the late 1960’s, after the Apollo era, the data that came back on analog tapes was placed in storage in Maryland. In the mid 1980’s they were transferred to JPL, under the care of Nancy Evans, co-founder of the NASA Planetary Data System (PDS). The tapes were moved around for many years, until Nancy found Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing. They decided they needed to be digitised for future generations, and brought them to NASA Ames Research Centre. They set up shop in an abandoned McDonalds, offered to them as free space. They christened the place McMoon. The aim was to digitise these tapes before the technology used to read them disappeared, or the tapes destroyed.
The Lunar Orbiters never returned to Earth with the imagery. Instead, the Orbiter developed the 70mm film (yes film) and then raster scanned the negatives with a 5 micron spot (200 lines/mm resolution) and beamed the data back to Earth using lossless analog compression, which was yet to actually be patented by anyone. Three ground stations on earth, one of which was in Madrid, another in Australia and the other in California recieved the signals and recorded them. The transmissions were recorded on to magnetic tape. The tapes needed Ampex FR-900 drives to read them, a refrigerator sized device that cost $300,000 to buy new in the 1960’s.
The tape drive that they found first had to be restored, beginning with a wash in the former restaurants sink. The machine needed a custom built demodulator to extract the image, an analog to digital converter, and a monitor connection to view what was happening. As the labelling system of the tapes had been forgotten, and documentation was not readily available, they had to hand decode the coordinates on the tapes. They also had a big collection from parts of other FR-900’s and similar designs. The spare parts were constantly needed to keep the recorder going, there was good reason that the format didn’t continue for long.
In order to read the tapes, the heads of the FR-900 apply a magnetic field to the tape inducing a current through it. The current can be measured and run through the demodulator. This pulls out the image signal, that is then run through an analog to digital converter. The data is then processed on a computer using the custom system they set up. They made custom software that interfaced with Photoshop to link the relevant parts of the image together. The orbiters sent out each image in multiple transmissions, with each strip (one tin) making up part of the image. the software manages to link up the images nearly seamlessly at the full potential resolution. The best of the images can show the lunar surface at a resolution less than 1m, much better than any other orbiter that has been there.
They were huge files, even by today’s standards. One of the later images can be as big as 2GB on a modern PC, with photos on top resolution DSLRs only being in the region of 60MB you can see how big these images are. One engineer said you could blow the images up to the size of a billboard without losing any quality. When the initial NASA engineers printed off these images, they had to hang them in a church because they were so big. The below images show some idea of the scale of these images. Each individual image when printed out was 1.58m by 0.4m.
Orbiter IV was there to produce a single big image of the front side of the moon. In pictures taken between May 11-25, 1967 the Orbiter took a number of images that span the area from the north pole to the south pole and from the eastern limb to the western limb. The complete mosaic of an image stretched 40 by 45 ft. The engineers laid it out on the floor and all the observers including the astronauts had to crawl over it and take off their shoes. The images were so good, even at this size that some astronomers used magnifying glasses. This giant image was the primary source to select the sites for Orbiter V to photograph in a higher resolution. The images taken by Orbiter V decided the exact locations for Apollo 11 to land.
Since 2007 the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project has brought back 2000 images from 1500 analog tapes. The first ever picture of an earthrise. As Keith Cowing said “an image taken a quarter of a fucking million miles away in 1966. The Beatles were warming up to play Shea Stadium at the moment it was being taken.” To find more of those images go to their website, but I warn you those images are huge.
Thank You for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space or electronics, or follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.
On the 11th of May 2018, at 20:14 UTC the first ever block 5 Falcon 9 rocket launched Bangabandhu 1 into geosynchronous transfer orbit. Launched from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, the F9-55 (launch designation) was delayed after an automatic abort on May 10th, 1 minute before liftoff. Bangabandhu 1, a Thales Alenia Space Spacebus 4000B2 series satellite is Bangladesh’s first geostationary communications satellite.
The block 5 has been long awaited by SpaceX fans, with many images in the news, and plenty of hints on Twitter. SpaceX has been incrementally improving and upgrading the Falcon 9 v1.2 booster design since it’s first launch in December 2015. Designed to be much easier to refurbish, with potentially 10 reuses in each booster. Previous block designs have only been able to be reused once before being decommissioned.
The Block 5 incorporates higher thrust Merlin 1D engines that have turboprop modifications that were requested by NASA. These modifications are to accommodate future potential crew launches. Another big change was mentioned in the livestream, where the pressurisation method in the second stage has been improved. After the AMOS 6 Falcon 9 explosion, the new version allows for faster, later and denser, chilled kerosene fuel loading. It also has new landing legs that can be retracted without being removed like previous Falcon 9’s. There are other changes, but they have been featured in previous designs.
The first stage had designation B1046. It burned for 2 minutes and 31 seconds, before separating ro perform reentry burns. It opened its new landing legs and landed on the autonomous drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, 630km downrange in the ocean. The second stage burned for 5 minutes and 43 seconds to reach parking orbit at T+8 minutes and 19 seconds. It then restarted ar T+27 minutes and 38 seconds for a 59 second long second burn that accelerated the craft to GTO.
In the 31 attempts, 25 Falcon 9/Falcon Heavy booster have been successfully recovered. Four of the landings have been on “Just Read The Instructions” off the coast of California. 10 on land at Cape Canaveral from LZ1 with another one on LZ2. 10 have landed on the autonomous drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You off the Florida coast. Nineteen individual first stages have been recovered, eleven have flown twice, with five of those ether expended or lost during their second flights. All the recovered stages have been v1.2 Falcon 9’s.
In early 2005, two security officers at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida were doing a check of a facility known as the Launch Complex 5/6 museum. NASA Special Agent Dann E. Oakland and Security Manager Henry Butler, of the company that oversees the museum, Delaware North Parks and Resorts, discovered a locked room. The problem was they had no key, and nobody else did! Luckily, being security officers they found a master key and gained entry. By the looks of things the room hadn’t been accessed in many years, at least not by people, the rodents had made themselves at home. With no power the officers explored with torches and found some interesting stuff.
They found retired spacesuits designed for Americans in the 1960’s that were training to be space spies. Initially they assumed the spacesuits were training suits from the end of Gemini or the beginning of Apollo space programs. When inspected by their manufacturer, the Hamilton Standard Corporation, they determined they were actually MH-7 training suits. Kept in surprisingly good condition, the suits were made for a short lived cold war-era military program to put a manned space station in orbit.
In 1964 the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program was an Air Force initiative to send a Air Force astronauts to a space station in a Gemini capsule, as they had plenty of experience with it. While up there they would take part in surveillance and reconnaissance efforts. After spending a few weeks in orbit, the crew would simply un dock and return to Earth. A test launch from Complex 40 on Nov. 30, 1966, of a MOL was conducted with an unmanned Gemini capsule. The MOL was constructed from tankage of a Titan II rocket. The program was abandoned by the Air Force in 1969 but not before they made a great deal of technological developments. when the USAF abandoned the MOL program, they transferred all equipment and their astronaut corps to NASA.
There were two spacesuits found, one identified as 007 and another 008. The spacesuit with identifying number 008 had the name “LAWYER” on the left sleeve. The suit was traced to Lt. Col. Richard E. Lawyer, a member of the first group recruited to be MOL astronauts in 1965. Three groups of military officers trained to be MOL astronauts, when the program was cancelled seven of the younger ones were transferred to NASA’s human space flight program, and went on to have standout careers. Notable mentions are Robert Crippen, pilot of the first Space Shuttle mission, and Richard H. “Dick” Truly, who later became a NASA Administrator. All MOL astronauts who were under age 35 and survived eventually flew in NASA programs, either on board Skylab or the space shuttle.
At 11:05 UTC on May 5th 2018 the forth Atlas launch of the year launched the long awaited InSight mission on a course for mars. Launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base the AV-078 (the launch designation) was an Atlas V in 401 configuration. It was the first interplanetary launch from the west coast of the United States. Liftoff of the Atlas V with a 4m payload fairing was from Space Launch Complex 3 East.
The rocket had one main payload, the InSight Mission and two CubeSats. InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is a robotic lander designed to study the interior of the planet Mars. I weighed 694 kg at launch, including a 425 kg fueled lander. The lander carries a probe that will be hammered 15m into the Mars surface, a seismometer, a magnetometer (first expected to land on the surface of Mars), a laser reflector, along with other instruments. The lander also has a robotic arm to move payloads around, but there will be another post in the future discussing the instruments in more detail. The two CubeSats on board are known as MarCO-A and MarCO-B, each weighing about 13.5 kg. They will fly by Mars while conducting a data relay experiment with InSight.
The design of InSight was developed from the 2008 Phoenix Mars Lander. The previous lander was launched on Delta 2 rockets compared to the Atlas V, both built and launched by the United Launch Alliance. The Atlas V does have excess capability for the mission (slightly overkill) but this allowed it to be launched from Vandenberg AFB. Previous solar orbit missions (like this one) were launched from the Cape to gain the site’s eastward earth rotational velocity. Vandenberg launches have to fly south or westerly direction across the Pacific Ocean. InSight was originally planned to launch in 2016 but was delayed to 2018 due to the main instrument failing.
AV-078 started on a 158 degree azimuth, aiming towards a 63.4 degree Low Earth Parking Orbit. The LOX/RP-1 fueled RD-180 powered first stage fired for 4 minutes and 4 seconds. The Centaur’s RL10C-1 LOX/LH2 engine then fired for 8 minutes and 48 seconds to reach the parking orbit. It then coasted for 65 minutes and 40 seconds then performing a second, 5 minute and 23 second burn to accelerate into a trans-Mars solar orbit. Insight separated 9 minutes after at about T+1 hour, 33 minutes and 19 seconds. The CubeSats separated shortly after.
On April 18th, 2018 at 22:51 UTC a Falcon 9 took off from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral AFB. Aboard was NASA’s latest research satellite TESS. A mission that cost $337 million, Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is the latest in a line of space based observatories that are set to launch this decade. Launched into an arching elliptical orbit that will take the spacecraft over two thirds of the distance to the moon. The first stage of the Falcon 9 landed on the autonomous drone ship Of Course I Still Love You to be refurbished and reused.
After a 5 day checkout of the spacecraft, basically a hardware check, the ground controllers will switch on the TESS cameras. TESS is designed to scan around 85% of the sky during the two year mission, with astronomers estimating as many as 20,000 new planets could be found. It plans to build on discoveries made by NASA’s Kepler telescope which was launched in 2009 to find earth like planets. TESS carries four 16.8-megapixel cameras, and will look for dips in light coming from 200,000 preselected nearby stars. The four cameras cover a square in the sky that measures 24 x 24 degrees, wide enough to fit the Orion constellation into a single camera. the cameras together study a set area of sky for 27 days before staring at the next section.
The orbit TESS is being launched into is known as P/2, and requires time and finesse to reach. TESS will slingshot by the moon at a distance of around 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers), using gravity to reshape its orbit, increasing the satellite’s orbital perigee, or low point, to the final planned altitude of around 67,000 miles. After the lunar flyby, the high point of the satellite’s elongated orbit will stretch well beyond the moon, and another thruster firing will nudge TESS into its final orbit in mid-June. Science data is planned to start in july, with the first year of the two year campaign aimed at the stars in the southern sky. TESS has been built to have enough fuel to last 20 or 30 years, assuming funding by NASA and the components on board continue to function correctly.
Each of TESS’s cameras have four custom built re-sensitive CCD sensors designed and developed by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. The sensors are claimed to be the most perfect CCD’s ever flown by a science mission. The lenses used by the cameras are only about 4 inches (10mm) wide, meaning it has a fairly low light collecting power compared to other space telescopes. The James Webb Space Telescope for example launching in 2020 had a 21.3ft (6.5m) primary mirror, although the satellite has cost over $8 billion to make. TESS is a bit like a finder telescope, it will lay a bedrock for future missions such as Webb and ground based observatories to make better readings. It gives a good idea of the best places to look, where the most likely exoplanets are.
TESS works by looking at a star, in this case mainly M-dwarf stars, which are cooler than our sun. They are also known as red dwarfs and make up most of the stars in our galaxy. When a planet goes in front of the star the light received by TESS “dips” and changes slightly in colour. This change in the light it receives can tell scientists alot about the size of a planet, and other things like density and velocity. They expect TESS to find between 500 and 1,000 planets that are between one and three times the size of Earth, and 20,000 planets the size of Neptune or Jupiter. The readings will give a good idea of where to focus on and ‘follow up’ on future missions. Then missions such as JWST can probe and use more complex tools to find information such as atmospheric composition, and whether they could be habitable.
The Falcon 9 used was a v1.2 with designation F9-54. It used a brand new “Block 4” first stage. The booster designated B1045 has a clear 45 written on the side in some of the close up booster images. The fist stage boosted for 2 minutes and 29 seconds, then detaching and slowing itself down. The booster landed downrange on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You”. The first successful drone ship landing since October 2017. A total of 24 Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy booster stages have now been recovered in 30 attempts. Four of which were on “Just Read The Instructions” off the coast of California, ten at Cape Canaveral Landing Zone 1 and 2, and nine on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” off the Florida Coast. 18 first stages have been recovered, 11 of which have flown twice, five have been lost during their second flight. B1045 was the last brand new “Block 4” Falcon 9 booster.
In a previous post I talked about how the going to the moon kick started the silicon age. If you haven’t read it, it is short but really interesting story about how NASA made Integrated circuits cheap, and partially funded what we now know as Silicon Valley. In this post I am going to take a slightly closer look at the circuit that ran the famous type “G” Micrologic gate that ran the Apollo Guidance Computer.
As you can see in the above image, the circuit was not particularly complicated. You have to remember that this is very early logic, before CMOS or NMOS or any other fancy IC technologies. This is basically two 3 input NOR gates, they both run off the same power, with pin 10 at the top, and the negative which was likely ground being shared on pin 5. The output for the left NOR gate is pin 1, and the output for the right is pin 9. The three inputs for the left are pins 4, 2 and 3, with the right having pins 6, 7, and 8 as inputs. Simply put, the output is “pulled” high to power when all the inputs are OFF. The resistor between pin 10 and pin 1 (or 10 and 9) are a simple pull up resistor as you would find in most electronic circuits. As expected with a NOR gate, the output will be only be ON when all the inputs are OFF. When any of the inputs are ON the output of that gate will be pulled to ground. One two, or all the inputs can be on, but it just needs one to turn OFF the output. The resistors going into the base of the transistor are just to limit the current.
I made a simple recreation of this circuit using BC547 NPN transistors, but most NPN transistors would work, these were ones I found in my parts box. As you can see in the image above, I have made it on a breadboard, with the inputs being a DIP switch attached to the power (5V in this case). The base resistors for the transistors are 1K and the pull-up to 5V is a 10K. I recommend making up this circuit if you want to learn a bit more about logic, and is a cheaper method than going out to buy 74 series logic chips! As you can see in the images there are a number of states that I showed the circuit in, and notice that if any of the switches are on, the circuit turns on, this is slightly against what I mentioned earlier, but thats due to the output LED using the transistor as a current sink, not a source, so the output is inverted. Basically, when the output is 0 the LED turns on. The only time the LED is off (output high) is when no switches are on, meaning all the transistors are off.
The final point for this post is why the circuit is actually quite inefficient. Modern logic is amazingly low power compared to this. One of the biggest issues is that it is always taking power in some way. When the inputs are off, there is still some leakage through the pull up resistor, when an input is on, then there is current going through the resistor to ground. Also, by the nature of the transistors there is always parasitic leakages, and inefficiencies in the process. They are only small numbers, but the AGC used over 3000 of these circuits, so the small leakages soon add up to draw some hefty power needs, especially for battery powered operations.
If you enjoyed this post, take a look at the rest of my blog, there is lots about space, electronics and random history. I am always open to ideas and feedback, and where is best to post links to my posts.
There are not many people who know off the top of their head who James Webb is, even many lovers of space may not know who he was. Yet they are about to launch the James Webb Space Telescope into space to replace Hubble. James Webb wasn’t an engineer, or a physicist, or even really an academic; he was a lawyer and politician. He turned a small government research department into an organisation that had links to almost every state, and had control of 5% of the US federal budget. Webb’s NASA controlled the jobs of half a million workers across America, and he introduced new working practices and management techniques that are still used today.
If you were to go out and read the biographies of the astronauts, or histories of spaceflight, Webb doesn’t really come up. He was portrayed as just a bureaucrat in Washington, funnelling orders down the chain, living the politician life. In this new age of spaceflight, we see the Apollo years as some sort of poetic story, with NASA being the figurehead of the battle to win space against the evil russians. In 1961 though, America did not follow this narrative, nobody in America cared about space, least of all the brand new president, John F Kennedy. When he set up his first reshuffle of the cabinet they simply could not get anyone to run NASA, they asked 18 high level politicians, and everybody said no, space was a dead end job, and NASA was just a collection of squabbling mission centres. Eventually, JFK’s vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson suggested Jim Webb, a guy who had worked under the Roosevelt administration and had some experience with private businesses. When asked, by JFK personally, Webb agreed to run NASA, as long it was the way he wanted it. JFK, desperate for an administrator gladly agreed.
There had been heavy opposition to the idea of manned spaceflight. Up to this point, the head of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, Jerome Wiesner, had issued a critical report on project mercury. Kennedy, as a senator he had openly opposed the space program and wanted to terminate it. Kennedy put his vice president LBJ as the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Council because he had helped create NASA, but it was mainly to get him out of the way. Although Kennedy did try and reach out for international cooperation in space in his state of the union address in January 1961, he got nothing from Khrushchev. Kennedy was poised to dismantle the effort for space, purely because of the massive expense.
He began his NASA administration on February 14th 1961. A month later on April 12th, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. Reinforcing some fears that America was being left behind in a technological competition with the Soviet Union, America suddenly cared about space. Kennedy made a U-turn and space sped to the top of the list. This lead to Kennedy making his famous speech on May 21st where he spoke those famous words “we will put a man on the moon before the decade is out”. Kennedy wanted to take lead in the space race. Suddenly, putting a man on the moon was the number one priority.
This meant that James Webb just got handed the opportunity to run the biggest single project the country had ever seen. Webb was told to go back to his engineers and figure out how much it will cost to get to the moon. His engineers came up with the number of $10 billion (a scary big number in the 1960’s), and sheepishly told Webb, expecting to be told to make cuts and slashes to the plan. Instead he told them to go higher, because he knew problems would come their way, and extra money will need to be spent, so they come back with the figure of $13 billion. Webb accepts the number, and goes to congress and tells them he needs $20 billion over the next 7 years. Jaws hit the floor, but he used this political knowledge to get a huge amount of leverage.
The key leverage he had was jobs, and he knew it. At its height, NASA employed half a million people in some form, that’s roughly the number of people living in Wyoming. The two biggest investments were in Cape Canaveral, FL and Houston, TX. The most controversial was the Manned Spaceflight Centre in Houston, donated by Rice University. Originally based in Langley Virginia, and named the Space Task Group, the senator didn’t care much for space. The entire operation was moved to Houston, LBJ’s home state. It was central, and had good universities surrounding it. There were many Texas based representatives in the space political landscapes at that time, such as Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the House of Representatives.
One thing that Webb understood was what NASA needed to run. He implemented a very flat organisational structure, with very few middle managers. Webb was the very top, controlling Washington. He also had the head of NACA (precursor to NASA) Hugh L. Dryden as an associate director. He had overseen the development of the x-15, and understood the technical needs of Apollo. Also Robert Seamans, also an associate director, acted as the general manager of NASA, and oversaw the everyday running of the program. Using a team of people, each with their own particular strengths helped NASA, especially in the early growth years, much more so than any one of them could achieve on their own.
Part of what James Webb did, to the dislike of congress, was to invest in academia, specifically universities. $30 million dollars a year was put into the Universities Development Fund. A fund designed to help students get into engineering, and to develop talent, skills, and academics that could not only work for NASA, but help the science behind it. As it was taken from a fund that congress had no control over, the money continued to help 7000-8000 students a year get through university at a time where NASA needed engineers. Webb believed that NASA was more than just the one shot to the moon, and frequently fought with the presidents on that fact. He wanted NASA, and space exploration to benefit science, engineering and even society. He believed that this project could fix other problems not even related to space, such as poverty and disease. The management style of NASA, and the way these big projects were handled showed the impossible could be achieved. He frequently lectured on this subject, and universities became an important part of NASA.
There was huge pressure from washington to spend all of NASA’s budget purely on the Apollo moonshot. Webb was instrumental in making sure that NASA and spaceflight was more than that. be made sure other projects like the Mariner and Pioneer space programs happened, and that JPL still functioned even with a terrible track record at the time. At the time, the academic community worked with NASA, in large part because of the importance Webb put on furthering science. Webb would frequently lecture at universities, and teach about the management styles that made NASA was. Unfortunately, some in Washington didn’t care for the extra spending, especially the states that did not have a mission centre or any of the major manufacturing plants located there. So when the Apollo 1 fire happened, there were a small group that were willing to use it as a way to make changes.
The Apollo 1 fire was a very unfortunate accident, and a national tragedy. For some, it highlighted some major problems with the Apollo program and how it had been run by the major contractor North American Aviation. Committees were set up, and Webb suddenly went from running NASA to trying to defend it. During the inquests, NASA still ran, it continued to fix problems and aim for the moon. This was because James Webb was there defending it. Left to just take the heat, some believe (me included) NASA’s funding would have been significantly cut, and we may have never got to the moon. Webb stood up in Washington and fought hard for the continuation of the project, defending the decisions that his team had made. At the end of it, he had used up most of his political sway, and called in so many favours that NASA was safe for the time being, and that Apollo was possible.
At this point, Johnson had decided not to run for re-election, Webb felt that he should step down to allow Nixon to choose his own administrator. On October 7, 1968 he stepped down from office. To put that into perspective, Apollo 11 landed on the moon July 20th, 1969, barely a year later. Webb went on to be a part of many advisory boards and served as regent for the Smithsonian institute. He died in 1992, and was buried in Arlington National cemetery.
This post was inspired by reading the book: The Man Who Ran The Moon by Piers Bizony. For anyone interested in the subject of how Webb actually made his dealings, and a much more detailed account of how NASA became what it is, I recommend this book. He also did a Lecture on Webb that I found on YouTube where he tells the story really well.