Tuesday, July 19, 2022


Issue 582: Space Summer Redux, Redux


The years just seem to fly by of late, muchachos. I simply cannot believe this little epistle on my wonderful space summer is from 10 fricking years ago! You’ve heard oldsters remark how the days speed by for ‘em. Well, according to neuroscientists, that might be real and not just our imaginations or the effects of ennui out in the suburbs (with which I am well acquainted). Maybe, as we age, the brain’s “clock” slows down, causing external time and events to seem to speed up…

That sure sounds reasonable to me. I cannot fathom how that birthday week of Unk’s in July recounted above could possibly be a decade in the rearview mirror. But what a week it was! As you’ll learn if you read thatun, I spent those days in July recreating the Race to the Moon on Chaos Manor South’s dining room table, drinking margaritas and eating Mexican food, and…to cap it all off, driving hundreds of miles to Chiefland, Florida and imaging hundreds of Herschel objects. Today, just thinking about all that makes me tired.

Back then, though, it was a good tired by the time my week was out. I was only on the verge of my 60s, still pretty hardcore as an observer, and able to stay up till the wee hours—under the stars or not. Ten years down the line? Heck, y’all, I am lucky to make it to 2300 on or off the observing field (my backyard, not the CAV’s Billy Dodd Field these nights). 

Still, this week was once again my birthday week, and what’s a birthday without involving astronomy, or at least “space”? It looked like the former was o-u-t. The weather here on the borders of the Great Possum Swamp was and is horrible. Even if it ain’t cloudy (or thundering and raining, more like), it is miserable. It’s not dark enough to do anything till 2100 at least, and it is miserably hot and humid (and hazy) even then. Oh, and the bugs? They just love your old Uncle—as a square meal!

So…that left…SPACE, THE FINAL FRONTIER. Not with the crew of the fictional Enterprise, but with some real space heroes. What in tarnation is Unk goin’ on about now? Has being over the hill and ready to proceed down the opposite slope deprived him of what little sense he had?

Found it!
I was vaguely thinking the other day I might get my plastic space program going again. It would if nothing else be something spacey I could do in comfort indoors. That thought was quickly followed by me recalling I’d lost the kit I really wanted to build, Revell’s 1/24th scale Gemini spacecraft, when we moved from Chaos Manor South to suburbia. That kinda drew a pall over that idea.

No replacing the Revell either. The long out of “print” kit can be had on eBay but expect to pay a hundred bucks for it. Which didn’t seem reasonable to cheap ol’ Unk given current economic conditions. Oh, well…I guessed that meant the closest I could come to recreating that fondly remembered 10-years-ago week was drinking a Margarita or two at El Giro’s…or maybe just an Ultra down at Heroes Sports Bar and Grill.

And then…and then…sometimes the stars  align. I opened the door to the closet in the New Manse’s office to get something—I can’t remember what and it does not matter—and for some unknown reason, looked up. What should I spy? A familiar box on the very top shelf. Could it be? No…no way! Yep, my “lost” Gemini capsule. And the box next to the kit? The Realspace add-on accessories to fix the mistakes Revell made and add the things to the kit they left out. I figgered this must be some kinda sign I really should build the Gemini capsule.

What to do first? Well, I take this rather seriously. If I’m gonna build a spacecraft model, I’m gonna build a spacecraft model. I’d need to do some research. I still had the excellent DVDs mentioned in the above-linked blog entry, DVDs from Spacecraft Films. I wondered, though, if they might have some more Gemini-related films available…

I was actually somewhat surprised to discover their website is still on the air in this mostly post-DVD age. It is, but has an untended, near-ghost town look and feel to it. Trying to order any of their products takes you nowheres. But that was OK, I still had their Gemini disks and, more importantly, found there’s tons of material on Project Gemini—documentaries, old NASA films, you name it—on cotton-picking YouTube. Tons, campers.

Gemini was a hot rod compared to Mercury...
It was reassuring there was plenty of reference material available, since Gemini (pronounced “Jiminy,” like the cricket, not jeh·muh·nai like the constellation, young’uns) is the redheaded stepchild of NASA. Almost everybody knows about Project Mercury. It was there first, sending Alan Shepard and John Glenn and the rest of the legendary Mercury 7 into space just slightly behind the Russkies. Even folks who don’t know as much about NASA as my cat, have likely heard of Apollo. Gemini? Not so much.

Truth is, that One Small Step of Apollo would have been far too large a leap from Mercury. There had to be a program in-between. Something that allowed us to perfect the vital arts of rendezvous and docking.  But not just that. Mercury was a primitive little spacecraft that depended on batteries. The longest duration Mercury mission was Gordo Cooper’s Mercury 9, Faith 7. After less than a day and a half, the Mercury spacecraft was on the ropes with multiple failures. We’d have to do better to get to the Moon.

Gemini was a considerably more advanced spacecraft. Oh, it wasn’t roomy. There was no room for the crew to speak of. The two astronauts (one of the reasons the program was named “Gemini”) had to endure something akin to spending an entire mission in the front seat of a VW bug. But, yes, the Gemini capsule made Mercury look like a Wright Flyer. All but the earliest spacecraft were powered by fuel cells rather than batteries, and the capsule was much more “flyable,” which it would have to be for rendezvous and docking.

Gemini and the Gemini pilots delivered on that. Not only did Gemini VI and VII rendezvous in space, there were highly successful dockings with the Agena Target Vehicle, five of them over the course of the program.  The first, done on Neil Armstrong’s Gemini VIII mission, was a near disaster, not due to Agena, but due to a stuck thruster on the Gemini spacecraft itself. Armstrong dealt with it in his accustomed cool and competent manner and the mission was deemed a success despite an early landing being dictated by Mission Rules after the thruster problem.

It was with Gemini we began to first catch up with and then surpass the Soviets. Gemini set some impressive records. In addition to those docking missions, Pete Conrad and Richard Gordon’s Gemini XI set an altitude record of 739.2 nautical miles (with the help of an Agena’s engine). On the last Gemini, Gemini XII, Buzz Aldrin made a record-breaking 5-hour and 30-minute EVA. Maybe most importantly, Gemini VII, crewed by Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, set an endurance record of nearly 14 days. That proved NASA’s spacecraft and astronauts could hold up for considerably longer than the time required for a lunar mission.

Post-Gemini, it looked as if it were full-speed-ahead to the Moon for NASA and the consarned Russkies would be left in the dust. Alas, then came the disastrous Apollo I fire that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom (who was the odds-on favorite to be the first man on the Moon), Ed White (the first NASA space-walker on Gemini IV), and Roger Chaffee. That set the Apollo program back twenty months and turned the space race into a little bit more of a race (at least we thought so; the Soviet lunar program was in real trouble). Apollo I notwithstanding, Gemini prepared us for the Moon.

That’s a brief summary of NASA’s Gemini. If you want the complete story, there are plenty of resources including the above-mentioned NASA documentaries to be found on YouTube. Want a book? There are many. Some I can recommend? If you’re a space nut like ol’ Unk, you probably know about Apogee Books. They are still in business and offer an outstanding volume on Gemini. They also have individual books on some separate Gemini missions.

What did Unk need to do to get his own Project Gemini off the ground? I needed a few inexpensive supplies…the usual things required for building plastic models. Much of what I was using 8 - 10 years ago—paints, putty, glue, airbrush propellent—was ready for the trash. Luckily, our local hobby shop (we have a real hobby shop, Hobby Town, in addition to the strange and execrable Hobby Lobby) fixed me right up. Those things obtained, I thought I’d go ahead and do something about the decal situation.

The washing of the parts...
The Revell 1/24 Gemini comes with a tiny, maybe 2” x 2”, sheet of decals. Not only are they few, the included decals are mostly wrong. Also, not surprisingly, the sheet was yellowed and looking brittle nearly 10 years down the line. Luckily, another space modeling goto, Steve, the CultTVMan, is still in business, too. He got me three big sheets of authentic Gemini decals in just a few days…

Just before Unk’s birthday. Which arrived as it always has with fun and foolishness. How did your increasingly aged Uncle celebrate this year? It was not that different from the space summer that decade ago. Oh, no Chiefland…I haven’t been Down Chiefland Way these seven years, so I suppose that is finis for me.  But, no, not that different; there was even an expedition of sorts.

On my birthday eve, I did a sorta spacey thing for Apollo 11 anniversary week by watching Sandra Bullock in Gravity on HBO Max. When it first came out, I remarked here that, while I appreciated being able to watch the pretty Ms. Bullock cavort in her skivvies, I was disappointed in the scientific faux pas in the movie. I hadn’t watched it again since it was in the theatres (which I was amazed to realize was nearly 10 years ago).  This time? The film looked beautiful on the 4K TV…and…I must be gettin’ less critical and cynical in my old age, cause I really enjoyed it.

The big day brought that expedition, to Meaher State Park here on the Causeway across Mobile Bay. Why there? It’s a nice place to activate for (amateur radio) Parks on the Air. Miss Dorothy and I drove out to Meaher State Park on Mobile Bay, which is only about half an hour away, and I made contacts all the way from Maine to Texas and everywhere in-between with my battery-powered 20-watt Xiegu G90 transceiver.

And as a suitably appropriate finish to the day? Well, there was Mexican food. El Giro’s, our ancient haunt back when we lived at Chaos Manor South (and often the site of our legendary Christmas Eve dinners), burned down many years ago. Not long after, they built a new El Giro’s out in west Mobile, which, we found after we moved out here, was barely three miles away from our new home. Yes, sometimes the stars, yes, really do align.

But what about that Revell Gemini spacecraft, huh, what about that? I got it underway, beginning the Saturday before my birthday with the ritual Washing of the Parts (to get rid of any lingering mold-release lubricant). But…I decided what I want to do is Gemini VIII, the Armstrong mission. To that end, I ordered the Apogee book on that mission to use as reference and am cooling my heels until it arrives. Rest assured; I will update you as we go along, at least occasionally.

I thought I was done with long, long blogs, but I’ve just kept going and going like the dadgum Energizer Bunny. We are well and truly out of time and space. Almost…

El Giro's!
What’s next? For my personal space program? When I finish Gemini VIII? As I mentioned here, the Launch Umbilical Tower I build for my Airfix Saturn V was destroyed during our move to the suburbs from Chaos Manor South. And at this time, it appears the Saturn V may be gone as well. Oh, there are a few more boxes for me to look it and I have my fingers crossed, but I am not overly hopeful.

So, while it might be covering old ground, I think I might do another Saturn and that LUT too. I have the feeling being able to work on the latter for longer stretches and without any pressure to finish may make it a more fun and less harrowing experience. Be that as it may, Uncle Rod’s Little Space Museum is opening up again.

Astronomy-wise? Amateur astronomy-wise? I have but two words: “Destination Moon.” Unless the weather becomes a lot more comfortable and clear a lot sooner than I think it well, deep space, the deep sky, will wait a few months more.

We’ll have plenty of DEEP space at this year’s DEEP South Star Gaze
Happy Birthday Unk
At age 65, I am toying with the idea of also getting back into nostalgic youth and building
the spacecraft models I once had all over again. There is a "Grumpy Old Scale Modeler" Group on FB with like-minded people. It is a good hobby for sedentary seniors.
If you’re interested in an excellent podcast about the early space and Apollo program, I recommend “Moonrise” by Lillian Cunningham.
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