Kobayashi Maru, a.k.a. the Loss of Space Shuttle Cooling

Marianne Dyson, June 2017

As a young flight controller, I was assigned to write the crew procedures for what to do if the space shuttle’s cooling system failed. A total loss of cooling was considered a “basket case,” as in the expression, “going to hell in a handbasket” because the space shuttle required electricity to land safely. The fuel cells that provided electricity would overheat and fail within 10 minutes without active cooling by the shuttle’s two Freon loops.

In a cartoon included with a review of my memoir, A Passion for Space, artist Dale DeBakscy aptly compares the loss of two Freon loops case with a famous Star Trek no-win training exercise named after a ship, the Kobayashi Maru, that can’t be rescued without causing the rescuers to be destroyed by the Klingons. The exercise is supposed to reveal a cadet’s decision-making process. Cadet Kirk is the first to beat the simulation, but he does it by cheating: reprogramming the Klingon ships so they lose their protective shields. [See Kobayashi Maru scenario.]

Cartoon created by Dale DeBakscy for Scheduling for Success, Preparing for Disaster. WomenYouShouldKnow, May 31, 2017. Used with permission.

Back in the real world, the Loss of 2 Freon Loops certainly provided a good training experience in real-time decision-making for flight controllers. Our top priority, similar to the rescue of the Kobayashi Maru, was to bring the crew home safely.

The first time the training team threw this failure at the STS-1 Ascent Team, we crashed and burned. It was a humbling experience that led to much discussion of actions that offered a better outcome.

Time was our equivalent to the Klingon war birds. We had to work fast or be destroyed.

An analysis indicated we could use a maintenance procedure called a purge, designed to clear contaminant buildup, to help remove heat from the fuel cells. This bought us 30 to 60 minutes if we could get the power load down to 8 kW within 10 minutes.

My fellow flight controller Carolynn Conley created a power down list, and I redid the entry procedures assuming all that equipment was turned off. We then ran a simulation with the STS-1 crew, John Young and Robert Crippen. We crashed. Three times. We needed a faster way to get the power level down. The crew suggested we use pictures of the cockpit panels showing the switches to be turned off rather than listing them in a checklist. This saved a lot of time. Also, we discovered that if we put the switches into the right position for launch, the ground could send commands to start the fuel cell purge and help shut things down. The crew didn’t have to get out of their seats, a real chore during ascent.

John Young and Robert Crippen

John Young and Robert Crippen in the simulator in 1980. The displays are black, meaning the simulator has crashed. Bob says, “Well, John, it’s the ole Loss of 2 Freon Loops.” (NASA photo)

But we still crashed. So just like Kirk, we had to cheat! We programmed one of the temperature values to stay low (like the analysis said it would) so we’d have power long enough to verify it really was the temperature that was causing the crashes and not something wrong with the procedures. Imagine how awful it would have been if Kirk had used his trick to dispatch the Klingons and then run out of fuel before he could rescue the Kobayashi Maru!

We didn’t uncover any issues with our plans. We put them in a checklist onboard for STS-1, and they stayed part of the flight data file all the way through STS-135.

Could a crew have survived the Loss of 2 Freon Loops, or was it as hopeless as rescuing the Kobayashi Maru? You can read my answer in a science fiction story called “Fireworks in Orbit.” It was published in Analog in 1990 and is included in my collection Fly Me to the Moon (see below for special offer!). Was there a way to beat the Kobayashi sim without cheating? I have no doubt a team of flight controllers could do it. After all, failure is not an option!

Writing about Space

ONE WEEK ONLY! Saturday June 3 to Saturday June 10, my science fiction eBook Fly Me to the Moon is only 99 cents on Amazon. If you prefer a print copy, order from CreateSpace and get 10 percent off the normal price of $8.99 by using this coupon code: FHKGHV2K (posted on my website Book Orders page). Autographed copies are available through my website for $8 plus tax and shipping.

Autographed copies of my shuttle memoir, A Passion for Space, are available for $32 plus tax and shipping.

Speaking about Space

I’d love to share my space stories with you! Invite me to speak to your school/university, conference, or library. I’m offering a 20 percent discount for any author visits to Houston area schools or events scheduled in October (international Space Week is October 4-10). I offer short programs and STEM workshops for adults, kids, and mixed audiences. For programs and prices, visit: Dyson Author Visits.

Mission Control: Unsung Heroes

Marianne Dyson, May 2017

I saw the premier of Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo at Space Center Houston on April 11. The documentary tells the story of the Apollo years (1967-72) through the eyes of the flight controllers in Houston’s historic Mission Control. Based on the book, Go Flight! by Rick Houston and former Flight Director Milt Heflin, the movie consists of interviews with flight directors, controllers, and astronauts interspersed with audio and video footage from the Apollo missions. Chief among those interviewed was the man who invented Mission Control and whose name adorns the side of the building where it is housed: 92-year-old Dr. Christopher C. Kraft, Jr.

When I joined NASA in 1979, Dr. Kraft was the Director of Johnson Space Center. Many of the Apollo veterans he trained were actively involved in the Shuttle Program (which first flew in 1981). It was my privilege to train under their guidance. They set a high bar for us newcomers who were expected to learn our systems inside and out (what’s the minimum electricity needed?), to identify potential failures (what would a lightning strike do?), to decide ahead of time the criteria we’d use to abort (what alarms are “go/no go”?), and to respond to unexpected challenges with Flight Director Gene Kranz’s “failure is not an option” attitude. As Courtney McMillan, a present-day flight director says in the documentary, “We wouldn’t be here today without the achievements these folks made.”

L to R: Movie Director David Fairhead, and Apollo Flight Directors Chris Kraft, Jr., Glynn Lunney, Milt Windler, Gerry Griffin, and Gene Kranz at the premier of Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo. Photo by Marianne Dyson at Space Center Houston, 4-11-17.

Even though it was fun to see all our “founding fathers” and hear their stories again, and it was nice that McMillan and Flight Director Ginger Kerrick were included in the show, I found myself wishing they’d included some interviews with the women who worked in Mission Control during Apollo.

I sat next to one of these trailblazing women, Flora Lowes, who supported the Flight Dynamics Officer during Apollo and the early Space Shuttle Program (as “Nav” for Navigation). I could not find her on the Apollo rosters, perhaps because she was in the Mission Planning and Analysis Directorate (MPAD) versus Flight Operations who published the list. I did find Frances M. “Poppy” Northcutt who worked for TRW as RETRO Support for Apollo 8 (and 10, 11, 12, and 13) and who is generally considered the first female flight controller.

However, she never advanced to the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR, pronounced “moh-cur”), the “front room” seen on TV. The first woman in one of those primary positions was Dr. Carolyn Huntoon who served as Experiments on Skylab IV in 1974. (See my list of the first female flight controllers.)

These women proved themselves as flight controllers, thus opening the door for more women, like me, to be considered for MOCR positions during the Shuttle era. And like the two young women I met after the show who are in training to be Flight Dynamics Officers (FDO, pronounced “fi-doh”) for Orion. They said their supervisor is a woman, and there are women in their chain of command all the way up to the Center Director Ellen Ochoa.

They asked Apollo FDO Jerry Bostick (who appears in the film) if he had any advice for them. He told the story of how he and two other men, who had more experience and better credentials than he had, were at the Cape in the early 60s vying to be hired as flight controllers. Kraft tested their mettle during a simulation where everything went wrong. Afterwards, during the debriefing, Jerry admitted he had screwed up big time while the other candidates tried to gloss over their mistakes as not important. “Kraft sent those guys packing,” Jerry said. Kraft wanted someone willing to take responsibility for his mistakes. So his advice for the new FDOs? “Be honest.”

As astronauts continue their explorations in space, and passengers join in the adventure, they can rest easier knowing that a team of bright young people like the new FDOs are in Mission Control watching over them. Thanks to this movie, perhaps some of these “unsung heroes” will finally get the recognition they deserve.

The International Women in Aviation & Space Museum has issued a set of playing cards featuring women in aerospace, and I’m honored to be the Ace of clubs! Decks are only $10, but order cards soon because they only printed 1000 and will sell out quickly! All sales go to support this fine museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

Writing about Space

Learn more about what it was like to be one of the first female flight controllers in A Passion for Space: Adventures of a Pioneering Female NASA Flight Controller.

Read a science fiction story “Fireworks in Orbit,” based on one of the contingency cases I created as a flight controller. The story was originally published in Analog in 1990, and is reprinted in my collection called Fly Me to the Moon available in print or as an eBook.

Watch for three of my articles about future plans for the Moon in the summer issue of Ad Astra magazine published by the National Space Society.

Speaking about Space

I’d love to share space with you! Invite me to speak to your school, conference, or library. I offer short programs and STEM workshops for adults, kids, and mixed audiences. Dyson Author Visits.

Saturday, May 6, 10 AM to 4 PM, Workshops for Writers. Morning: Write a Short Story in a Day. Afternoon: How to Publish a Book. Location: Southwestern Presbyterian Church in Bellaire. Cost is $30/$35 for either session or $50/$60 for both for members/nonmembers of Houston Writers House.

Saturday, May 13. Comicpalooza at George Brown Convention Center, Houston. Moderating Literary Track panel on Creative Collaborations from 2:30-3:30 & signing books at the Barnes & Noble booth in the exhibit room 4-4:45 PM.

Thursday, June 8. All day. STEM activities/demonstrations & book signing. CCISD “Setting the Trend” librarians conference at Victory Lake Intermediate School in League City.

The First Woman on the Moon

Marianne Dyson, April 2017

Russia is selecting six to eight new cosmonauts this year. The March 14 Roscosmos press release said, “They will be the first pilots of Russia’s future spacecraft Federatsiya (“Federation”). All will be trained under the International Space Program and will be the first Russians to fly to the Moon.”

Will one of these new recruits be the first woman on the Moon?

The Russians proudly claimed the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova in June of 1963), the first female spacewalker (Svetlana Savitskaya in August 1982), and the first woman to make a long duration flight (Elena Kondakova in 1994). They have only flown one other woman to date, Yelena Serova (on Expeditions 41/42 from September 2014 to March 2015) who is not expected to fly again. There are currently no female cosmonauts.

But if the new cosmonaut class has women, it may signal Russia’s intent to lay claim to the first woman to fly by the Moon and land on it. Given funding constraints, analysts predict a flyby (in their Federation) no sooner than 2023, with a human landing (using their PTK-L) no sooner than 2030.

NASA has 14 female astronauts and will (supposedly) choose more this summer. Orion on top of the new SLS booster is scheduled for a crewed circumlunar test flight (EM-2) in 2021 which might be moved up to 2019 on EM-1. But to land an American woman on the Moon, NASA would need to fund and develop a new vehicle, such as the Altair lunar lander cancelled in 2010.

Artist’s rendering of Altair lunar lander on the surface of the Moon. (NASA image JSC2007-E-113280 Dec. 2007)

Perhaps ESA could help? They are already providing the service module for Orion. In 2016 they unveiled a vision for an international collaboration to build a Moon Village by 2030 using huge 3D printers. To realize this vision, they need partners. If not NASA or Roscosmos, maybe they will work with SpaceX?

Elon Musk announced that two people have reserved a SpaceX flight around the Moon in 2018 using his Falcon 9 heavy and Dragon capsule. The gender of the SpaceX clients is unknown. Could one of them be the first woman to reach the Moon? SpaceX plans to test a human-capable lander on Mars in 2018. Could it be adapted for the Moon in time to celebrate the Apollo 11 60th anniversary in 2029?

The Chinese have flown six human spaceflights (11 taikonauts, 2 women) starting in 2003, and plan a permanently staffed space station in 2022. They have mapped the Moon with orbiters and landed a rover on the surface that hibernated through 32 lunar nights using plutonium heaters. Chang’E-5 (named after the Chinese Moon goddess) is scheduled to launch in late 2017 and return the first lunar sample since the Russian Luna 24 in 1976. Their official news agency announced a goal of landing humans on the Moon between 2031 and 2036. Thanks to stable multi-year funding and political support, the Chinese have met all their official milestones and are just as likely to meet this one.

So who will be the first woman to walk on another world? Will we call her First Woman like we call Neil Armstrong First Man? What will her first words be and in what language?

Regardless of where she is from or what she says, I know what my response will be: “It’s about time!”

Speaking about Space

I’d love to share space with you! Invite me to speak to your school, conference, or library. I offer short programs and STEM workshops for adults, kids, and mixed audiences. Dyson Author Visits.

Wednesday, April 12. 6-10 PM. Yuri’s Night & STS-1 Anniversary Party hosted by Clear Lake Area National Space Society & Moon Society. Held at the “party palace” (a member’s home) in Nassau Bay. To RSVP & get directions, email to info@nss-houston-moon.org. Donations for food & beverages appreciated.

Thursday, April 27, 7PM Deer Park Public Library. Presenting “A Passion for Space.” Free, open to the public. Books will be offered for sale afterwards.

Saturday, May 6, 10 AM to 4 PM, Workshops for Writers. Morning: Write a Short Story in a Day. Afternoon: How to Publish a Book. Location: Southwestern Presbyterian Church in Bellaire. Cost is $30/$35 for either session or $50/$60 for both for members/nonmembers of Houston Writers House.

Saturday, May 13. Comicpalooza at George Brown Convention Center, Houston. Moderating Literary Track panel on Creative Collaborations from 2:30-3:30 & signing books at the Barnes & Noble booth in the exhibit room 4-4:45 PM.

Writing about Space

My novelette, “Europa’s Survivors,” with a strong female lead character, is in the March/April issue of Analog Science Fiction magazine.

My article “Terraforming Mars: Could We? Should We?” is in the spring issue of Ad Astra magazine published by the National Space Society.

Black Women Astronauts

Marianne Dyson March 2017

March is Women’s History Month, and Wednesday, March 8, is International Women’s Day, a celebration of women’s achievements and a call to action for gender parity.

As we celebrate the trailblazing achievements of pioneering women like those in the movie Hidden Figures, it seems appropriate to ponder why, some 50 years later, there is only one female black astronaut, Jeanette Epps.

When Epps makes her first flight in May 2018, she will be the fourth black woman to fly in space. The others were Mae Jemison (in 1992), Stephanie Wilson (in 2006, 2007, 2010), and Joan Higginbotham (in 2006). Yvonne Cagle, class of 1996, never flew and is no longer eligible.

Jeanette Epps is currently the only black female astronaut eligible to fly. (NASA photo)

Why so few black female astronauts?

I suspect the short answer is that not many apply for the position. As dramatized in Hidden Figures, lack of access to educational resources (the latest technical books at the library and advanced courses in engineering) can be a huge barrier to qualifying for high-tech jobs. Besides supporting our local libraries and colleges, what can we do to help girls (and boys) prepare for a bright future in space?

Studies (see Books in the Home Are Strongly Linked to Academic Achievement) have shown that a home library increases a child’s success in school, especially kids in families with little education or low-status occupations.

Don’t have a clue what books to give to your aspiring astronaut or their school? Check out the new STEM book list for K-12 developed by the National Science Teachers Association, in cooperation with the Children’s Book Council.

About a third of the list of 31 books feature female scientists, including three about Ada Lovelace who created the first computer program, one about biplane pilot Ruth Law, one about 33 trailblazing women in science, one about female architects, and another about women computers from WW II. One book is about a young black scientist, Benjamin Banneker. Happily, the list also includes Welcome to Mars, the book I coauthored with Buzz Aldrin.

As the website Fatherly points out, the answers to the question of what kids want to be when they grow up reveals a lot about the cultural influences on today’s kids. Fatherly speculates that boys aspire to be pro athletes because that’s what they see hyped in the media. Girls, who naturally tend toward careers that help others, chose doctor and teacher.

I hope that as more black girls and boys are exposed to movies like Hidden Figures, books about female and black scientists, and hear more about black astronauts in the news, they will be inspired to pursue STEM careers and apply to be astronauts.

NASA had 18,300 applicants for the astronaut class of 2017. Selections will be announced in June. Here’s hoping that the choices move us a little bit closer to gender and racial parity in space.

As cheap as it gets! My memoir, A Passion for Space, was selected by Amazon as a Kindle Daily Deal in celebration of International Women’s Day. Order the eBook from Amazon for only $3.99!

Writing about Space

Welcome to Mars was chosen as a Best STEM Book by the NSTA.

My novelette, “Europa’s Survivors,” with a strong female lead character, is in the March/April issue of Analog Science Fiction magazine.

My article “Terraforming Mars: Could We? Should We?” is in the spring issue of Ad Astra magazine published by the National Space Society.

Speaking about Space

I’d love to share space with you! Invite me to speak to your school, conference, or library. I offer short programs and STEM workshops for adults, kids, and mixed audiences. Dyson Author Visits.

March 19-23. I’m attending the Lunar & Planetary Science Conference to gather data for articles for Ad Astra magazine and settings for new science fiction stories. Contact me to schedule an interview or meet-up.

Thursday, April 27, 7PM Deer Park Public Library. I’m presenting “Mission Control: Solving Problems in Realtime.” Free, open to the public.

Saturday, May 6, 10 AM to 4 PM, Southwestern Presbyterian Church in Bellaire. Morning session: Write a Short Story in a Day. Afternoon session: How to Publish a Book. Cost is $30/$35 for either session or $50/$60 for both for members/nonmembers of Houston Writers House.

Mars Needs Moms

I had the privilege of speaking to the brilliant and amazing women at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Rice University January 14. Photo by Rice Professor Marj Corcoran who sadly died in a bike/train accident Feb. 3.

Marianne Dyson February 2017

Space enthusiasts imagine Martian moms and dads happily raising families on the Red Planet. This dream future will not happen if something about the trip to Mars or the environment on Mars causes adults to become infertile or children conceived or born on Mars to have serious birth defects.

Though there is currently no reason to expect such a dire outcome, maybe we ought to reassure ourselves of a bright future in space by flying more women. Not surprisingly, this is the top recommendation that came out of a study conducted by NASA and the National Science Biomedical Research Institute, “The Impact of Sex and Gender on Adaptation to Space: A NASA Decadal Review,” which was published in November 2014.

Key differences between men and women in space. Image from Journal of Women’s Health, Vol. 23, #11, 2014. © Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. Page 943.

Flying more women might reduce cost (because women weigh less and require fewer supplies), but even implementing that recommendation is bound to encounter political barriers. Let’s start with astronaut selection. To make up for decades of hiring 20 percent women, NASA increased the last selection to 50/50. But even so, those 4 women are only 4 of 14 available for flight assignments versus 30 men. NASA spent a lot of money training those guys: should they be forced off flight status to make room for more women? Should an “only-fly-once” policy apply to men from now on?

Since the shuttle retired, six women have flown to the station: an average of one per year. (And usually only ONE woman isolated with five guys for six months: I’d like to see how ONE man handles that stress!)

So if this rate continues, we might get 12 new data points before we select the first human crew for Mars.

Will our international partners fly more women? Not in the near future. Currently, the Russians have one woman and 33 men on their roster. The Japanese have seven men, the Canadians two men, and the Europeans have one woman out of 13 astronauts. Combined with the U.S., the total available talent pool is then 98 men and 16 women. The Chinese have flown two women, but their current roster is all male.

Will the commercial sector fly some women? The new crew capsules are scheduled for first test flights at the end of 2018, so the first commercial flights aren’t likely until the 2020s. The pilots are likely to be all male because they will probably follow NASA’s lead on requiring flight test/jet experience and/or use retired astronaut pilots—all but two of them male. As for the passengers, unfortunately, the price is likely to be sky high and there are few female billionaires. Let’s hope that whatever women do fly, someone signs them up to be medical test subjects!

What can space settlement advocates do about this situation? At the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics last month, I suggested that if women want to be part of settling Mars, they need to let their politicians know that space research is important to them, and then be the ones to propose and do that research, find sponsors to fund the research, participate as subjects, and get ready to be the mothers of those first beautiful baby Martians. Because Mars Needs Moms!

Writing about Space

Inspire some future Martian scientists with a copy of The Callahan Kids: Tales of Life on Mars or Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet.

My novelette, “Europa’s Survivors,” with a strong female lead character, is in the March/April issue of Analog Science Fiction magazine.

My article “Terraforming Mars: Could We? Should We?” is in the spring issue of Ad Astra magazine published by the National Space Society.

Speaking about Space

I’d love to share space with you! Invite me to speak to your school, conference, or library. I offer short programs and STEM workshops for adults, kids, and mixed audiences. Dyson Author Visits.

March 19-23. Got some exciting new research to share? I’m attending the Lunar & Planetary Science Conference to gather data for articles for Ad Astra magazine and settings for new science fiction stories. Contact me to schedule an interview or meetup (best days Sunday/Tuesday).

Thursday, April 27, 7PM Deer Park Public Library. “Mission Control: Solving Problems in Realtime.” Free, open to the public.

New Year’s in Space & Time

Marianne Dyson January 2017

When does the new year begin? It depends on where you live! When my grandfather’s clock rang in the new year in Houston, it was already 7 PM on January 1 for folks in New Zealand while friends in Hawaii still had four hours to wait.

The space station crew use universal time, so their new year began when it was midnight in Greenwich, England (and 6 PM the day before in Houston). They celebrated by decorating cookies, taking photos of Earth, and sending a video greeting. [Ref. Space.com]

How might lunar pioneers ring in the new year? Will they sing Auld Lang Syne and drop a ball like they do in New York’s Time Square? If they want to use their family grandfather’s clock imported from Earth, they’ll have to adjust the pendulum to keep proper time in low lunar gravity. (My son the engineer suggests adding a tension spring.) Maybe they will just celebrate the new year “live” (actually 1.28 seconds time lagged) while they sip champagne and discuss how the bubbles are bigger and rise more slowly than on Earth?

If they are Chinese, they may postpone the celebration to the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month of the Chinese calendar. This year that falls on Saturday, January 28. [Ref. TimeandDate.com] They will likely wish friends 新年快樂 (xin nian kuai le) which is literally, new year happy and offer them red envelopes of “luck” money. They’d need fireworks with their own oxygen source since there’s no air on the Moon, or maybe they’d just go with red lanterns for safety reasons. They might also beat drums (indoors where you could hear them!) and perform dragon and lion dances which would be very cool in low gravity!

Red Dragon Eggs on Mars?

The new year on Mars begins at the vernal (spring) equinox when the Sun crosses its equatorial plane going north—making the day and night of equal lengths. Because Mars year 1 was (arbitrarily) set on April 11, 1955, and a year on Mars is 669 sols (each 24 hr. and 37 min.), it is currently Year 33 on Mars. Year 34 (Sol 1, Month 1) begins when it is May 5, 2017 on Earth. [Ref. Planetary Society.]

What might Martians do to celebrate their new year? Fireworks would have to be rocket-based like on the Moon because the atmosphere of Mars lacks oxygen for burning. Dropping a ball would also have to be adjusted for the lower gravity. Red dragons would be appropriate on Mars—especially if Elon Musk is there since he has named his Mars spacecraft the Red Dragon! But because the new year coincides with the start of spring in the northern hemisphere, perhaps New Year’s celebrations will adopt some of the trappings of spring festivals on Earth?

I therefore suggest a red “Easter” egg hunt with coins or candy inside “dragon” eggs. Red eggs would celebrate new life (and good fortune) on the “lucky” red planet. Instead of being delivered by a rabbit, the eggs might be hidden by The Great Martian Galactic Ghoul! (The Galactic Ghoul subsists on a diet of Mars probes. The phrase was coined by Time Magazine journalist Donald Neff in 1997.) What might the Ghoul look like?

However, wherever, or whenever you celebrate the start of a new year, may it be a happy one for you!

Writing about Space

My article, “Reducing the Risk of Long Duration Spaceflight,” which appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Ad Astra magazine, is now available free online. I have an article on Terraforming Mars in the upcoming spring issue of the magazine published by the National Space Society.

My latest science fiction novelette, Europa’s Survivors, will be in the March-April 2017 issue of Analog. Get your subscription (bimonthly print or eBook) now so you won’t miss it!

Speaking about Space

Watch my website Contact Page for appearance updates & Twitter for photos.

Saturday, January 14, speaking at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at Rice University.

Thursday, January 26. “The Business of Writing.” 7 pm. Bay Area Writers League. Clear Lake Park (5001 NASA Road One, Seabrook). Free and open to the public.

Tuesday, January 31. 7 PM. Attending (and volunteer for) Exploration Green Open House meeting. Clear Lake United Methodist Church. Free and open to the public. Come and learn about this amazing nonprofit project to convert our old golf course into a beautiful park.

Star of Wonder

Marianne Dyson December 2016

One of my favorite Christmas carols is “We Three Kings” which includes the chorus, “Star of wonder, star of night, star of royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect Light.” Was this star a light from God only visible to the kings, or was it perhaps an actual astronomical event?

To answer this question, the first thing to know is when Jesus was born. Although Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25, no one knows the actual date or year of his birth. These were adopted in A.D. 354 to supplant the Roman festival of the winter solstice and the birthday of the sun god Mithra.

Jesus’s birth year can be narrowed down by historical references. “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” [Matthew 2:1-2]

In his 2011 book, The Zodiac: Myths and Legends of the Stars, astronomer Richard Hall explains that Herod died shortly after an eclipse of the Moon, and that Passover was celebrated after a period of mourning. There was an eclipse in 4 B.C. in March, 29 days before Passover. There was another in January of 1 B.C., 88 days before Passover. Thus Jesus was born some time before 1 B.C., and likely before 4 B.C. (Hall notes the inconsistency of this date with A.D. 6, the year of the census by Roman Emperor Augustus that required Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem. Some suggest Jesus was 12 in A.D. 6 and references to his separation from his mother and being wrapped in cloths refer to his Bar Mitsvah.)

I bought this excellent book at Stonehenge Aotearoa, a few hours’ drive east of Wellington, New Zealand after hearing author Richard Hall speak. It is only available via Xlbris NZ.
I bought this excellent book at Stonehenge Aotearoa, a few hours’ drive east of Wellington, New Zealand after hearing author Richard Hall speak. It is only available via Xlbris NZ.

Checking the List

So what astronomical phenomena occurred around 4 B.C.? The Chinese recorded a nova in the constellation Capricorn in 5 B.C. that lasted 70 days. Nova are old binary stars that suddenly brighten and then fade. Many people feel this nova is a perfect fit for a sign in the heavens.

However, Astronomer Johannes Kepler suggested in 1606 that a triple planetary conjunction in 7 B.C. was the Star of Bethlehem. [Ref. Martin Gardner. “The Star of Bethlehem” CSI. 1999.] Hall notes that such an event occurred three years before the birth of Moses and was expected (by the wise men of the day) to occur prior to the birth of the messiah. The triple conjunction involved three encounters between Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces (considered the sign of Israel) on May 29, October 3, and December 4. Hall suggests the wise men left from Babylon in May and arrived in Jerusalem around the time of the second conjunction in October, just after Jesus’s birth on the autumn equinox.

Hall favors an autumn birth interpretation because in Jewish tradition, all important events occur on equinoxes or solstices. For Jesus to be a king of the Jews, he had to be born close to the autumn equinox. However, the only time shepherds watched their flocks at night (another biblical reference) was during lambing which would indicate the spring equinox. There’s currently no way to know for sure.

But as a scientist and a Christian, I have no need for the Star of Wonder to be identified as an astronomical event or to prove that Jesus was born on an equinox or solstice. There is wonder enough for me in knowing that life exists because of stars and that babies are miracles worth celebrating whenever they are born. I also enjoy a good mystery and thank God for keeping me entertained trying to figure out all these cool puzzles!

I hope this holiday season that you take the opportunity to stop and look up at the night sky, and consider the wonder of it all.

Writing about Space

Because of the NatGeo Mars special, I’m offering The Callahan Kids, Tales of Life on Mars Kindle edition for only 99 cents Monday to Monday, December 5 to 12th. For 10 percent off the print copy (offer never expires!), grab the code off my website and order via CreateSpace. All proceeds go toward a future art contest for kids.

If you need some gifts or just a good read on the plane, check out more than 300 reviews of space-related nonfiction, fiction, and children’s books on the National Space Society’s Reading Space page. Use the Amazon links to benefit NSS’s educational programs without costing you anything extra.

Speaking about Space

Watch my website Contact Page for appearance updates & Twitter for photos.

Note the podcast of my November 15 appearance on The Space Show is available for download.

January 14, 2017, speaking at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at Rice University.

January 26, 2017. “The Business of Writing.” 7 pm. Bay Area Writers League. Clear Lake Park (5001 NASA Road One, Seabrook). Free and open to the public.

The Moon’s Black Eyes

Marianne Dyson, November 2016

The November full Moon is super-sized! Of course the Moon is not actually changing size: it only appears about 14 percent larger (and 30 percent brighter) because it is closer to Earth. Though the Moon passes this close (called perigee) every month, it doesn’t usually happen when the Moon is full. This alignment won’t happen again until 2034.  

While viewing the super Moon, notice that the “eyes” of the “man in the Moon” are black. Was the Moon in a fight at school? No, but it did get pretty banged up in its youth. This month’s science snack is about the science behind those black eyes.

The best time for Americans to see the super Moon is Monday morning about two hours before sunrise. If you’re not up that early, look east on Sunday or Monday night just after sunset. Connect the six dots of the Apollo landing sites to make a letter “N” for nose using my Animated Moon Map. Image from Inconstant Moon, John Walker, May 1997.
The best time for Americans to see the super Moon is Monday morning (Nov. 14)  about two hours before sunrise. If you’re not up that early, look east on Sunday or Monday night just after sunset. Connect the six dots of the Apollo landing sites to make a letter “N” for nose using my Animated Moon Map. Image from Inconstant Moon, John Walker, May 1997.

Let There Be White

Cooks know that heavier items in soups sink to the bottom of the pan, while bubbles of gas rise and escape as steam. This separation also occurs when planets form. Thus iron, which is the heaviest of the top five most abundant elements (oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium) on Earth, sunk to the hot core. Lightweight oxygen and silicon rose to the surface, combined into silicate rocks and formed a crust as Earth cooled.

Then along came the big bad Giant (impact) that formed the Moon. A bully a third to half the size of the juvenile Earth, struck Earth off center and left the world spinning. The Earth gobbled up most of giant, but spit a huge gob of molten mantle into space, forming a ring around the planet. About half the ring fell back to Earth and the rest (minus the water and gases that steamed away) collected into a ball that became the Moon.

The iron in the infant Moon sunk toward its core. Lightweight elements floated to the surface and cooled. Oxygen combined with silicon, aluminum, potassium, calcium, and sodium formed into silicate minerals such as quartz and feldspar that are basically white like beach sand. 

So the baby Moon had a smooth white face. 

Let There Be Dark

But the early solar system was a tough neighborhood. There was a lot of rock throwing going on. The Moon got pounded. The left (Sea of Rains) and right (Sea of Serenity) “eyes” were two of the biggest hits. An even bigger bruise on the far side (South Pole Aitkin Basin) raised rings of mountains higher than Mt. Everest.  

These impacts left deep craters and created shallow places in the crust. As the Moon’s gravity pulled it into a smaller ball, it wrinkled and cracked. Pressure pushed hot lava up through these cracks to spew onto the surface between 4.2 and 1.2 billion years ago. This lava had the consistency of motor oil. It flowed on top of the white “skin” and pooled in the low places formed by the impacts.

Because the lava was from the “bottom of the pan,” it contained iron which is black. These black pools of lava cooled and became the seas that make the “eyes” and other dark areas of the Moon.  

The Moon continued to be pummeled. Effects of unfiltered sunlight and impacts that kicked up dark dust turned all the white areas to gray. Some impacts punched through the layer of black lava to the original white surface underneath, shooting white rays across the surface. An example is Copernicus, a white-rayed crater below the Moon’s left eye (it makes a triangle with the Apollo 12 and 14 landing sites). Tycho’s rays are harder to see because they are white on gray. They show up best during a full Moon—especially a Super Moon!  

All the mountains on the Moon are rounded like Mt. Hadley (from Apollo 15) because they are buried under fallout kicked up by eons of impacts. Astronauts reported the upper layer of dust was as fine as flour and slippery enough to ski on. NASA image.
All the mountains on the Moon are rounded like Mt. Hadley (from Apollo 15) because they are buried under fallout kicked up by eons of impacts. Astronauts reported the upper layer of dust was as fine as flour and slippery enough to ski on. NASA image.

And call it… Super!

So the “eyes” of the Moon are black because they contain a lot of iron. The highlands are light because they contain a lot of feldspar, which is basically white.

The blackest of the Apollo landing sites is Apollo 15’s between the “eyes.” Rocks collected there averaged almost 20 percent iron. The whitest landing site is Apollo 16’s in the highlands. Rocks collected there averaged only 5 percent iron. [Reference permanent.com] But under the of dust at Apollo 17’s site, Harrison Schmitt found the remains of a fire fountain that produced colored beads coated with rare volcanic gases. And they were orange. I call that pretty darn super!

Writing about Space

To learn more about the Moon’s formation and how future lunar pioneers can use its resources to live and work there, please get your kids a copy of my book, Home on the Moon: Living on a Space Frontier, published by National Geographic and winner of the American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award.

Speaking about Space 

Watch my website Contact Page for appearance updates & Twitter for photos.

Monday, November 14, 2016, 4-5:30 PM Central Time live (and archived for listening any time after), interview on The Space Show with Dr. David Livingston to discuss the 35th anniversary of STS-2’s landing, experiences as one of the first female flight controllers, and current efforts to encourage young people to consider STEM careers.

January 13-14, 2017, speaking at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at Rice University.

The (Soft) Power of Space Policy

Marianne Dyson, October 2016

On October 3, I attended “Lost in Space: 2016” at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The program brought together seven space policy experts (see photo) who reviewed the status of NASA and offered their advice to the next Administration regarding the Agency’s future.

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Rice University’s Baker Institute hosted “Lost in Space: 2016” with space policy experts, L to R: George Abbey (moderator), Mark Albrecht, Leroy Chiao, Joan Johnson-Freese, Neal Lane, Michael Lembeck, Eugene Levy, John Logsdon. Photo by Marianne Dyson, 10-3-16.

The panelists agreed that the space program is inexorably tied in with our nation’s perception of itself and its reputation as a world leader. Several panelists stressed the benefits of exercising soft power (the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion) to reduce tensions and increase the security of the United States, specifically by cooperating in space with China.

Former astronaut Leroy Chiao noted that cooperating with Russia has not caused the security or technical transfer issues that people feared which should qualm fears of similar cooperation with China. Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College added that cooperating with China on the civilian side makes strategic sense through reducing tensions on the military side.

This discussion naturally begs the question of what space project might be selected by the next Administration that would exercise soft power and appeal to the international community?

My answer is: A Night’s Watch Telescope on the Moon!

Why a telescope? We’ve been lucky so far, but it only takes one asteroid to wipe out civilization. Even a small strike on a major city could cost tens of billions of dollars. Obviously, preventing a global catastrophe is far cheaper than dealing with the aftermath (assuming we survive!). But establishing a “Night’s Watch” (ala “Game of Thrones”) on the Far Side of the Moon may not only prevent catastrophe, but reap immediate soft power benefits as well as scientific discoveries and the first steps to human space settlement.

What I call the Night’s Watch Station and Telescope Array offers a clearly defined mission and use for the Space Launch System and Orion while providing opportunity to other nations to supply landers, modules, telescope arrays and computing facilities, rovers, crew, and scientific experiments. The lunar outpost and array could be assembled using a combination of human and robotic missions. Remote placement or operation of surface equipment might be conducted from Orion (or Soyuz? or Shenzou?) capsules in lunar orbit, good practice, technically and politically, for establishing a first base on Mars.

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Artist’s concept of radio telescope array being emplaced by human-controlled rover on the far side of the Moon. “How Robots Could Build a Radio Telescope on the Moon,” by Leonard David. Image by Joseph Lazio/JPL.

While building the telescope, scientists will have the opportunity to obtain samples and study the Moon’s far side mysteries up close. With the incentive of reducing logistical costs, engineers will develop ways to extract oxygen, water, and minerals from lunar soil. This capability will allow asteroid threats to be turned into resources—and help us prepare to live on Mars. Incrementally, a human-tended presence may become a permanent research base and testbed.

This project also offers a smooth transition and opportunity for growth to the nascent private space industry that has little time to establish its customer base between now and when the ISS is retired. If we lose the capability to launch crew and cargo into space again, who will save us when the asteroid looms?

Spinoffs in new technologies, astronomical discoveries that could rewrite our understanding of the universe, and savings in security costs by exercising soft power leadership, could payback much of the government’s investment in a Night’s Watch project. And saving the planet from an asteroid strike is, of course, priceless.

So, what’s next for NASA? Could it be the “sword in the darkness… that guards the realms of men”? If you like this idea, please share a link to my website blog page or invite me to come talk to your club, school, or library. To the stars!

Writing about Space

October 18-December 13, 4:30-5:30 PM, teaching an after-school 8-week course called “Write Now!” for ages 10 and up (parents and adults welcome). Through a series of exercises and critiques, students will learn how to craft a story and pursue publication. Course meets at St. Thomas the Apostle episcopal school in Nassau Bay. To register, contact the school and ask for the Enrichment Coordinator. Cost is $200.

Speaking about Space

Second Mondays. Houston Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers Meetup.

Fourth Tuesdays, 6:30 PM, The Black Labrador on Montrose (at Richmond), Houston Writers House.

Fourth Thursdays, 7 PM, Clear Lake Park, Bay Area Writers League (BAWL) monthly meeting.

Wednesday, October 19, presenting “Get READ-y for space?!” at Harvard Elementary School’s Literacy Night. Students will learn what it feels like to go into space and check out a scale model of the International Space Station.

Monday, November 14, 2016, 4-5:30 PM Central Time (and archived for viewing later). Guest on The Space Show with Dr. David Livingston to discuss the 35th anniversary of STS-2’s landing, experiences as one of the first female flight controllers, and current efforts to encourage young people to consider STEM careers.

Night Sky on Mars

Marianne Dyson, September 2016

My Night Sky Observing at the Worldcon in Kansas City was rained out. I hope some of you had clear skies and observed Saturn, Mars, and Antares aligned in Scorpio (which is now a triangle), and used my Animated Moon Map to find the Apollo sites.

This month the autumnal equinox falls on September 22, and that got me wondering about what season it is on Mars, and what I might take people to see if I did a Night Sky program there. My brain liked this exercise, so I thought I’d share this “snack” with you.

An equinox is when the sun’s path crosses a planet’s equatorial plane. On the equinox, day and night are equal lengths. Like Earth, Mars is “tipped” on its axis, so it too has equinoxes. But because the north pole of Mars points to a different part of the sky, and the inclination is 25 (versus Earth’s 23.5) degrees, the constellations we associate with spring and fall equinoxes are different on Mars.

Polaris is our north star because it is “above” the spin axis of Earth. All the other stars (and their constellations) appear to rotate around it in a big circle every 24 hours.

The Martian north pole points to a spot without any bright star about 28 degrees from Polaris in the direction of Capricorn (RA 20.5 hours). This pole is about halfway between Alderamin in Cepheus and Deneb in Cygnus a.k.a. the Northern Cross. (Reference: Byrd, Deborah, “Does Mars have a North Star,” EarthSky, 6-16-16) Since Cepheus and Cygnus are on opposite sides of the pole, and rotate around it every Martian sol (24 hours 39 minutes), they can be used to tell time and month on Mars like the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia on Earth.

Mars does not have a pole star. But Deneb and Sadr in constellation Cygnus, can be used as “pointer” stars to locate the pole in the direction of Alderamin in Cepheus. The constellations Cepheus and Cygnus rotate around the pole and can be used like a clock to tell time.
Mars does not have a pole star. But Deneb and Sadr in constellation Cygnus, can be used as “pointer” stars to locate the pole in the direction of Alderamin in Cepheus. The constellations Cepheus and Cygnus rotate around the pole and can be used like a clock to tell time. (Image by Tomruen via Wikimedia Commons with labels modified by Marianne Dyson)

Equinoxes occur twice a year as the sun passes north (spring), then south (fall), of the equator. On Mars they are the first sol of Months 1 and 7 of a 12-month year where a month is the time it takes Mars to pass through 30 degrees of its orbit. Because the orbit is elliptical, instead of each month being 56 sols (668 sols /year divided by 12), the northern fall and winter months average 50 days and the spring and summer months last about 62 days.

The months of fall (gray) and winter (red) are shorter than the months of spring (green) and summer (orange) because Mars moves faster at perihelion than aphelion. (Image from Kuuke’s Strerrenbeelden.)
The months of fall (gray) and winter (red) are shorter than the months of spring (green) and summer (orange) because Mars moves faster at perihelion than aphelion. (Image from Kuuke’s Strerrenbeelden.)

The Martian fall equinox was July 4, 2016. Fall lasts until the winter solstice which is November 28 on Mars and December 21 on Earth. So this October, it will be fall on both Earth and Mars. We will be admiring Cassiopeia (the “W”) and Cepheus to the north, Cygnus overhead, and Perseus (the square) to the south.

For the Martians, the sun is moving toward Leo and then into Virgo at their winter solstice. Cassiopeia and Cygnus are high up for them, too. But because their pole is shifted toward Capricorn, they also have a good view of the Sagittarius teapot and should also see some of Earth’s southern hemisphere constellations, Indus and Piscus Austrinus.  

Like us, Martians will see Venus as an evening star in October, while Earth and the Moon will be visible in the morning. And the Milky Way should be spectacular without any light pollution or buildings to spoil the view. It will also look different because the atmosphere of Mars is too thin to make stars twinkle. 

If we had the Worldcon on Mars, we’d never have to cancel because of rain. I’ll volunteer to do Night Sky Observing, and then lead a discussion about why we should build a Martian Stonehenge to help us view the vernal equinox in Mars Year 42 (Earth date 5-22-32). I hope you’ll join me!

Writing about Space

I’m teaching short story writing in an after-school enrichment program at St. Thomas the Apostle school in Nassau Bay (across from JSC) that may be expanded to include members of the community if there is interest. If your student in 4th grade and up likes creating stories, and would like a published mentor to help them develop their skills, please call the St. Thomas and ask for the Director of Enrichment.

I offer technical and content editing for adult writers, as well as workshops for groups of five or more on writing memoirs and publishing them. See my Resources for Writers page for more information.

Speaking about Space

Watch my website Contact page for updates & Twitter for photos.

Monday, September 12, Houston Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers MeetUp.

Saturday, September 17, 6-9:30 pm. 35th Anniversary of STS-1 & 2 at Space Center Houston. (Tickets no longer available.)

Monday, November 14, 2016, 4-5:30 pm Central Time. I’ll be a guest on The Space Show with Dr. David Livingston. Listen live & see list of upcoming shows