Sunday, October 27, 2013


Space Race Redux

I usually try to stick purty close to the subject of amateur astronomy in this blog, muchachos, but I do stray once in a while... To science fiction and odd sci-fi movies. To Unk's long-term obsession with amateur radio. To “space” and the current state of the U.S. manned space program. To Unk’s personal space program, which takes place on the dining room table of Chaos Manor South. In other words: 

The Moon is nearly full, it is raining to beat the band, and Unk has not had the opportunity to pursue any of the cool observing programs with the cool new gadgets he hopes to tell you about in the near future.

When we last left NASA, the Constellation system, which included the Apollo Command Module/Service Module-like Orion spacecraft had been cancelled. It’s back, but in reduced/changed form. The Orion capsule itself never went away; it continued to be developed because, it was said, it fits in with the Administration’s space goals—whatever those are.

What changed, mostly, was both the big Ares V booster that was to be used to propel Orion on deep space missions, and the Ares I, which would be used for low Earth orbit missions, were eliminated. A new concept, the “Space Launch System,” replaced them. In other words, Ares, which was fairly far along in development, was cancelled for SLS, which won't get off the ground for quite a while yet. The Agency suggests a test flight could take place in 2017, but that is a big "maybe" in my book. The SLS does have the advantage of versatility. The basic Block 1 is capable of lifting Orion into low Earth orbit, while the full-up Block II configuration can be used for lunar/interplanetary missions. That's if the Block 2 configuration is ever built. I am skeptical about that, since it's already been cheapened/downgraded.

How about a mission for Orion? That’s where things get even more murky. A lot has been proposed including the obvious, lunar missions, and the far-reaching, Mars missions, at least to Phobos if not the surface. None of this seems to have taken hold with the Congress or the Administration, however.  The Obama troops seem to be locked into a flight to a near Earth asteroid for some unclear reason, and recently came out with an idea that seems “far-fetched,” to say the least.

That is the Asteroid Retrieval Mission, “ARM,” a.k.a. “Asteroid Initiative.” The plan, such as it is, is to retrieve a “small” near earth asteroid and place it in lunar orbit where it can be studied by both unmanned and manned craft. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable enough. When you dig a little deeper, though, it is an utter non-starter for several reasons.

Start with the reaction on the part of the scientifically illiterate public and scientifically illiterate politicians to the idea of NASA monkeying around with an asteroid even as far away as the Moon. It won’t just be U.S. politicians who have a hissy fit about this, either. Every cotton-picking politico the world over will raise the roof to make political hay, because they are actually afraid of what might happen if NASA has an “oops” moment, and just because it is the U.S. doing it.

There is also the question of what this asteroid business would do to NASA and its other programs. The ARM mission from start to finish will consume at least ten years of NASA’s time and money. If history is a guide, it will cost far more than the agency “thinks” it will, and if it survives at least an election cycle or two it is likely to become NASA’s only mission and eat all the agency’s dollars.

If this mission were overwhelmingly important and couldn’t be accomplished any other way, it would be justifiable, but it is not. Anything this grandiose scheme could accomplish could be done as well by unmanned spacecraft, which have already proved their mettle in asteroid/comet rendezvous and flybys.

Actually, I am not worried about ARM gobbling all of NASA’s money. Beyond preliminary studies, this ain’t going nowhere. Not just because of the reasons above, but because no one at NASA seems capable of pushing big projects of any kind anymore. And there doesn't seem to be anybody left in Congress who is a true space advocate beyond Florida and Texas politicians concerned about jobs. This ARM idea will likely last about as long as Bush’s space plans lasted—till the next Presidential election.

What do I expect to happen with Orion? I believe it will get built in some form in some limited numbers. What do I think its mission will wind up being? Maybe ferrying astronauts to the ISS till the station’s end-of-mission (currently scheduled for 2016) if it's flyable on a non-SLS booster in time. There is supposed to be an unmanned suborbital test of the capsule and a Delta IV next year, but I wouldn't be surprised to see that slip. Orion is expensive and overpowered as an ISS shuttle compared to SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, anyway. After the ISS? Who the heck knows? Someone’s even pushing the idea of “Skylab II,” using a spent upper stage to recreate the 1970s space station, if’n you can believe that.

What do I think should be the mission of the Orion? That’s easy:  get us back to the Moon. Putting boots on the Moon again will be easier than last time (ought to be, anyhow), and will give us the experience to put us on the road to Mars. Will that happen? Some days I wake up thinking it will, other days that it won’t—at least not in my lifetime. I don’t think we’ll have any idea till the next Presidential election cycle is done.

That’s the cotton-picking politicians, though. How about the Joe and Jane Sixpack? The public might not know much about space, space travel, and NASA (the percentage of the national budget allocated to NASA is always way overestimated by the man-in-the-street in polls). And too many Americans are woefully scientifically illiterate. Still, it appears they are hungry for space, and not just the fantasy of Star Wars.

A case in point is the recent movie Gravity. Despite a perhaps overly simple plot and ignored scientific principles almost to the point of silliness, the public and the critics ate it up. I don't think it was just because of the chance to see plenty of (sound accompanied) explosions and pretty astronaut Sandra Bullock cavorting in her skivvies, either. Space as an adventure still has a powerful grip on the national psyche, no matter how NASA and eight Administrations have worked to erase that.  In case you are wondering, yes, Unk just fracking loved Gravity and hopes to see it again at least one more time.

Stage 2 Under Construction.
What could make Joe and Jane's hunger for space bubble up enough for politicians to notice and get the whole manned spaceflight works going again? Something beyond trips to low Earth orbit where we have been stuck for 40-years, obviously. Not pie in the sky asteroid missions “someday,” but missions to the Moon as soon as they can be undertaken and serious planning for Mars, now. Do I expect to live to see any of that? No, but Unk can dream, can’t he?

If NASA can’t run a manned spaceflight program, Unk can, at least vicariously. I’ve been building plastic space models for many a year, which I told y’all about here. It’s a kinda-astronomy-related activity I can pursue on cloudy nights. The point for me isn't the model spacecraft I turn out, really, but the research and learning about them and their history that goes into doing their construction right. I’ve gone through periods where I’ve done little or no space modeling, and times when I’ve done a lot. Right now, it’s more on the “lot” side.

When you are retired, as is your old Uncle, who retired a few months ago at the age of 59, you just naturally have hours to fill. I keep busy writing for Sky and Telescope and other astronomy magazines, am on the air a lot with ham radio, and I am keeping up my teaching at the university, but that still leaves plenty of time to build my spaceships. There are, after all, only so many hours of the day you can devote to the above (and to playing Halo 4 on the dadgum Xbox).

What have I been working on of late? It started with a new Saturn V. I’d done one a while back, but I wasn’t overly satisfied with the kit, a Monogram 1/144 scale job. I modified it heavily, adding detail to the engines and replacing the completely inaccurate Command/Service module with an aftermarket one in the form of a resin kit add-on, but it was still disappointing. I thought the other popular Saturn kit, Airfix’s 1/144, might be easier to get right.

It was. I didn't have to replace the CM/SM, and while the engines of all three stages required considerable additional scratch-built detail before they looked anything more than pitiful, that was easier to do than it had been with the Monogram and everything wound up looking better. The new Saturn went together right nice, and the paint job came out purty sweet. After a lot of trying, I have finally mastered the art of painting the black attitude striping on boosters, something that used to give me fits.

Not perfect, but not bad, either.
When I was done, I was pleased with my new Saturn. It wasn’t perfect, no, but what is? What mostly struck me, though, was how DUMB a Saturn V looks standing by itself on a cheesy plastic base. Outside the faux Saturn at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, you would never see one like that. A real Saturn always sat on the platform of the Crawler  Transporter next to the Launch Umbilical Tower, the “gantry.” OK, what would I have to do to provide my Saturn with an L.U.T.?

A little investigation seemed to reveal I was out of luck. Years ago, AMT provided a cardboard L.U.T. diorama with their “Man in Space" kit. Unfortunately, the L.U.T. was deleted after a little while, and I suppose if you could find a kit that included it it would be an expensive collector’s item. The 1/200th scale Man in Space L.U.T. was too small for my Saturn anyway. A garage type company tried to market a genuine plastic launch tower model fairly recently, but the price of it was to be very high, 750 fracking dollars, and it’s not clear to me whether they produced many—if any—L.U.T.s before going under.

No launch tower for Unk’s Saturn, then? That’s the way it looked till I did some extensive Googling one slow day during the last months of my engineering gig. There was, it seemed, an alternative, a paper model of the L.U.T. available in several scales including one for my Airfix rocket. But paper? I didn't sign on to space modeling to play with scissors and Elmer’s glue, for god’s sake. Still, paper spacecraft models are not unusual. It’s a sizable sub-hobby in the space modeling game, with even NASA offering quite a few complex paper models on their website.

It wasn’t the basic idea of a paper model that gave me pause, but building one. I did some more Googling and turned up some depressing facts:  this paper kit, produced by a talented artist, David Maier, who calls his little company “Educraft Diversions,” can look good when completed, but it is difficult to complete. The cutting, pasting, and gluing of hundreds and hundreds of parts, some of them tiny, has stymied more than one space modeler and left a few folks disheveled glue-covered wrecks.

Still, if I wanted an L.U.T. for my Saturn, this was the only way I’d get one. I was told by my Internet space modeling buddies that there were also some good things about the kit:  the instruction manual was as clear and easy to follow as such a thing possibly could be, and the seller was a stand-up guy who shipped kits quickly and responded to questions promptly. I bit the bullet, ponied up thirty bucks, and ordered a 1/144 L.U.T. off Educraft’s eBay store (you can also order directly from their website).

The THICK instruction manual
What did I get for my money? The kit, which was shipped in a large and sturdy mailing tube, was made up of eighteen 11 x 17-inch sheets printed on heavy 60-pound paper. Also included was a mini-CD with the 100-page .pdf instruction manual on it, which was a little work of art in itself. While 18-sheets might not seem like a lot, believe you me, many, many parts can be packed onto a single page, and, again, quite a few of them are very small indeed.

What next? Nothing, not for a spell. I let my L.U.T. sit for a couple of months. Ostensibly, that was to allow the rolled pages to flatten, but that could have been accomplished in a day or two by pressing them between heavy books. Part of the delay was caused by me being occupied with drawing my engineering career to a close and getting all my duckies in a row for retirement. I was also skeered of the kit. A good look at the instructions showed it to be even more complex than I’d feared.

Two things got me to work:  retirement and need for an extra “project,” and the 2013 Battleship Park ModelFest. The big model show, sponsored by the plastic modeling club here in Possum Swamp, wouldn’t take place till October, a good 7-months away, but the looks of the L.U.T. kit indicated I’d better get started on it if'n I wanted to enter it in the show.

So, off I went to the local craft store, Michael's, for the needed “tools,” lots of Elmer's Glue, multiple glue sticks, scotch tape, masking tape, sharp scissors, metal ruler, cutting board, and a new Exacto knife. Once I got started, I found the project was not quite as difficult as I’d feared. After a while, I began to understand the techniques described in the manual better, and was able to proceed fairly quickly after a slow start.

The hardest part of the kit turned out not to be the gantry tower itself, but the first things you build, the Crawler  Transporter deck and the “tower core,” the rectangular support that extends the entire height of the tower. What’s hard is that the kit parts are just the outer skin of these things. You scratch build them of heavy cardboard and lay the kit pieces over them. That is necessary to support the Saturn and the tower itself.

ModelFest 2013
I got through this initial rough spot, but it took a while, and after I was done I put the L.U.T. aside for another couple of months during the spring/summer observing season (such as it was) when I was chasing galaxies in Chiefland and other places. With July becoming August and August soon beginning to run out, however, I knew I had to get on the stick, and formulated a plan that would have me devoting a couple of afternoons a week to the tower.

I more or less stuck to that in the course of assembling the eighteen platforms (yep) that make up the gantry levels. That was followed by folding and gluing 50+ small cubical and rectangular parts that represent the equipment on the tower levels. That done, I took another break for the Almost Heaven Star Party, and, after I got home and got up the gumption, resumed by folding and gluing the tower girders that support the platforms.

None of this was exactly easy, but one thing maintained throughout construction:  unlike some similarly whacked-out kits of all kinds I’ve assembled over the years, from astronomy gear, to ham radio equipment, to plastic models, the L.U.T. actually seemed to want to go together. It was never a matter of it not being possible to assemble the thing, it was just a matter of lots of work and lots of time.

Coming down to the wire with just over a week to go, the tower was finally together, freestanding, and looking right good. Not perfect, but OK. The bottom 12-levels were fine, but the topmost sections (you do the tower in three parts), and especially the last couple of platforms gave me trouble, and came out slightly lopsided. 

Frankly, I was amazed at how well the thing turned out.
Not too shabby, though. That was the good news. The bad news was that there was only a week to go and plenty of work remaining. Most dauntingly, I had to roll, glue, and attach almost two hundred cross/support beams. And I was only able to devote one day to that. For that reason, the little paper tubes had to be taped into rolls instead of glued, which would have looked better.

Those damnable beams installed, I still had the swing arms, the service arms extending from the gantry to the booster, to complete. AND the detailed Colby crane that sits atop the launch tower. With two days remaining before ModelFest 2013, the only way I was able to finish was by simplifying. Following some advice in the instructions, I glued the swing arms directly to their supports rather than trying to fabricate hinges for them. I also left off quite a few of the highly detailed parts that go on the crane and some of the swing-arms. In the end, I only added enough detail to indicate, to suggest, appearances and functions.

Finally, it was done, on the Friday morning before the show. You know what? It didn't look half-bad. Miss Dorothy, who’d been kind enough to donate at least half her dining room table to the project for months, was impressed, and that alone was plenty of reward for my hours and hours of work on this crazy kit. Frankly, I could hardly believe I’d actually finished the dadburned thing.

After that, ModelFest was almost anticlimactic. We had a lot of fun at the big show, which was held at Battleship Memorial Park, which is home to the Battleship Alabama and the submarine U.S.S. Drum. Only downer? Saturday morning was predicted to be rainy and my model was made of paper. Miss D. and I got it inside the show venue, the Aircraft Pavilion, which houses the Park’s amazing collection of airplanes, just in time. Not ten minutes later the rain was freaking pouring.

How did we make out with our entry? As usual, I didn't win a thing. The L.U.T. actually looked good enough that I thought it, together with the Saturn V, might have chance. It might have had one under different circumstances. Unfortunately, contest officials declared the rocket/gantry combo was a “diorama,” and would have to be entered in that category. I would not be up against the OK Gemini capsule, Explorer 1, and Jupiter C entered in the “real space” category, but against near-professional quality World War II armor dioramas (the person who built 'em was selling others on a dealer table). Frankly, the biggest strikes against me were that I wasn't a member of their modeling club, and that they were largely focused on military modeling. But that is just OK. I still had a nice day. 

You know what, though? The large amount of interest and the kind comments the L.U.T. garnered were a great consolation prize. Honestly, there was no getting around the fact it was paper, and that I had not been able to execute it quite perfectly.

I didn't win a raffle prize, either, but that was OK, too. Almost all the kits offered as prizes were ships and aircraft, the focus of the show, and something that doesn't interest this real space modeler. I did BUY something cool from one of the many dealers, a huge 1/12th scale Mercury capsule kit from Atomic City Models I’d been yearning for for a couple of years. I probably paid a little too much for it, but the kind Miss Dorothy decided it would make a perfect Christmas gift for Unk. 

Despite the L.U.T.’s less than stellar showing--in the competition, anyway--it had been a fun day. We lunched at one of our fave Causeway joints, R&R Seafood, just down the road from the battleship. Strangely, neither of us ordered seafood. Unk got the BBQ chicken sandwich and mound o’ fries and was right happy, and Miss D’s roast beef looked yummy. Back at Battleship Park, I toured the Alabama and the Drum, and had a good time doing that despite rain that kept me off their weather-decks until late afternoon.

The Drum, a Gato Class submarine from WWII, is beautifully restored and maintained inside and is undergoing a fairly extensive restoration of her hull. My older amateur radio friends may be aware the Drum was the submarine Wayne Green, one of the more famous (or is that "infamous"?) members of our fraternity/sorority, served on during the war. It was cool to read the “sailing list” posted in the sub and see good, ol’ W2NSD’s name on it.

Yeah, seeing Wayne's name there was cool...but it seems poignant, now. When I finally got around to reading the November QST a few days later, I found out Wayne made silent key (SK) a few weeks ago at age 91. There will never be another W2NSD, an iconoclast (ahem) and visionary who helped revolutionize ham radio, published 73 Magazine, and became even more famous for his many computer magazines, which included the never-equaled Byte. 73, and good DX, OM...W2NSD/1 de W4NNF.... SK.

The Alabama? She is magnificent inside and out. She is also a little creepy. Despite being a devoted fan of the pea-picking Ghost Adventures, I am not convinced of the reality of haints—not in the daytime, anyhow—but I gotta say, when I go below on BB60, I feel a certain something. A slight air of gloom or tension almost like there’s some kind of emotional residue that charges the old girl like an enormous battery 70 years down the line.

“Alright, Unk. That’s cool and all. But can we please get back to amateur astronomy?” We dang sure can, Skeezix, and I’ve got some Good Stuff lined up, including reviews/tests of the Rspec spectroscopy program and a spectroscopic grating to go with it. AND a new (fairly new, anyhow) planetary camera, the Mallincam SSC, that I hope to try out Real Soon Now. Oh, and there’s the 2013 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, Unk and Miss Dorothy’s “home” star party, to report on. In other words, STAY TUNED, muchachos.

Nota Bene:  You can see many more images of Battleship Park and ModelFest on Unk's Facebook page, campers (Photos/Albums).

Postscript 2022

I am sorry to say after moving from good, old Chaos Manor South to the suburbs in 2014, I let my tabletop space program lapse every bit as much as NASA has let theirs go to seed. I might take it up again here sometime soon, though. I still have that awesome Mercury kit. 

ModelFest? Frankly, I just felt too much like an outsider at their events to keep attending and entering their shows. Even if I didn't, even in retirement I don't have the time to devote to another club. Yes, I discontinued my association with the local astronomy club (for reasons there's no need to go into today). But... I am now the president of the Mobile Amateur Radio Club, and am responsible for our legendary yearly show, The Mobile Hamfest. I simply cannot take on any other club commitments even if I wanted to. And I don't. 

I have been back to the Alabama. Not to visit the model show, though, which I'm not even sure has kept going through the covid years. Instead, I was pleased to be part of the group that activated the old girl's Radio Central for (amateur radio) Winter Field Day 2022. It was quite an experience to send Morse code from Alabama's radio room!

One thing I will say for myself? I look better now than I did that day at ModelFest. The final years of my career involved long hours, lots of commuting, and a diet just this side of junk food much of the time. Sometimes it was junk food of the worst sort. Changing that, losing a few pounds, and getting rid of the white Santa Claus beard has led to me feeling a lot better about myself these last seven years.

NASA? I've got to say I am no more sanguine about NASA's prospects than I was in 2013. I have made no secret of the fact that while I believe humans will return to the Moon, I am almost convinced their lander will bear the flag of the People's Republic of China. If that should happen, that is OK, too. We had our time in the Sun, I reckon. 

Finally, I feel more like getting my personal space program going again than I have at any time over these seven "different" years, muchachos. I feel better enough and interested enough in getting started with this again (in lieu of wasting time looking at fracking FACEBOOK) I might even do another LUT--sadly, the original was destroyed during our move from Chaos Manor South to the suburbs.

Rod ,
Congrats on your retirement hope you have plenty to persue your hobbies , for me I am still sticking it out at the FAA Engineering Lab inspite of the government silliness furloughs. You are going to love that 1/12 scale Mercury a lot of documentation exists online in the model building forums.
I have one of the 1/96 REVEL Saturns I plan to work on when time permits.
Haven't been on Cloudy Nights much it's been one heck of a year post Super Storm Sandy and the rotten weather since I really miss observing hopefully things will improve. I still read your blog for trips down memory lane they are the highlight of my weekend , I thought I would post because for the last couple of post no one has commented.
Now you know at least someone reads them.

congrats on your well deserved retirement.

Cloudy Nights Classic Telescope Forum

1/96 Saturn...enjoy, you lucky duck! :-)
Nice entry, as always, Unk. This little brazilian down here had a passion for space modeling too, when I was a child, at 13 or 14. At the time, NO space models here in Brazil, at all, and even if it were, NO money to talk about, so... paper! I remember doing some Roossian ones, Voktok and Voskhod, and even the Soyuz, with its weird spherical capsules. Apollo and the LM was the tops of my "career" as a model builder. LM spidery, alien-y appearance was very difficult to get, specially with so little reference material. No internet, of course, and a very frail public library in a little rural city. Mostly magazines, LIFE photos and such. You, sire, are awesome!
Thank you for sharing!
And, Saturn V stands very dignified in your model, a true homage to one of the greatest achievements of humankind and America. Stand Tall.
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