Houston, We Have a Turd

Apollo 10 floating turd
The crew of Apollo 10, from the left, Eugene Cernan, John Young and Thomas Stafford at the Kennedy Space Center. In the background is the Apollo 10 space vehicle on Launch Pad 39 B. Photo Credit: NASA
Fans of television’s The Big Bang Theory are familiar with the memorable episode where Howard’s space toilet, the Wolowitz Space Disposal System, went horribly wrong and threatened to turn into a waste distribution system. As it turns out, such a scenario was more closely grounded in fact, rather than comedic fiction.  Continue reading

Humor — It Really Is Rocket Science

NASA computer source code humor

A lot of brains are needed to get a man to the moon and back, but a little bit of humor doesn’t hurt, either.

The computer program used to guide the first astronauts to the moon was massive. Perhaps that ‘s why it took nearly fifty years for the public to begin to discover the

NASA Apollo 11 source code
Margaret Hamilton stands next to the source code she wrote for the Apollo 11 moon landing.

lighter side of NASA rocket scientists. When the entire source code was published online, reviewers began to discover “Easter eggs” throughout the programming.
Computer programmers frequently leave comments within the program to explain the purpose of particular portions of the commands. Occasionally these comments are laced with irony, and sometimes they appear to have no purpose whatsoever. Consider these gems from Apollo 11’s source code:

A few hundred lines into the program, a programmer included the line, “HELLO THERE”, followed a few lines later with “GOODBYE AGAIN SOON.”
NASA source code Apollo 11
A “temporary” couple of lines ended up becoming permanent


NASA computer program easter eggs
A quotation from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” appears for reasons that seem to be known only to the programmer who added it.
NASA Apollo 11 source code
Programmers include a provision to instruct the Apollo 11 astronauts to “PLEASE CRANK THE SILLY THING AROUND” and “SEE IF HE’S LYING” before going “OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD.”
NASA source code Burn Baby Burn
One of the source code files is entitled “Burn_Baby_Burn–Master_Ignition_Routine.” The opening comments in the program explain why.

Major Metric Malfunction Means Missed Mars Mission and Millions of Moolah

Mars climate orbiter lost because of metric mishap

Hopes were high when the Mars Climate Orbiter launched from Cape Canaveral on December 11, 1998. The robotic space probe was designed to study the climate, atmosphere, and surface changes of Mars and to act as a communications relay for the Mars Polar Lander.

For the next ten months, all went according to plan as the Orbiter sped to the Red Planet. On September 23, 1999 the Orbiter began its orbital insertion maneuver exactly on schedule. Four minutes later NASA lost contact with the spacecraft — never to regain communications.

What caused this $125 million failure? Was it alien incursion? Industrial sabotage? An uncharted quantum singularity?

Actually, it was the metric system — at least, according to Lockheed Martin, the supplier of a vital piece of software. Of course, if you ask NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), they would say the problem was the failure to use the metric system.

After two months of investigation, the Mars Climate Orbiter Investigation Board released their report, concluding that two different pieces of software aboard the Orbiter used different units of measurement. The measurements used by Lockheed Martin calculated the thrust for orbital insertion with “pound-seconds.” NASA, on the other hand, used “newton-seconds.” The result was that the orbital insertion maneuvers — which should have placed the spacecraft in orbit at an altitude of 110 kilometers — brought it to within 57 kilometers of the surface, where the spacecraft disintegrated, due to atmospheric stress.

This should be a lesson for all engineers, who hopefully will not come within 100 miles kilometers of a similar mishap.

Now Free to Pursue E.T.

ETAs of 1991, U.S. citizens are free to pursue contact with extraterrestrial beings or their vehicles without legal repercussions.

On July 16, 1969 — the same day Apollo 11 departed for the moon —  the “Extraterrestrial Exposure Law” (C.F.R. Title 14, Section 1211) was adopted. This law was in response to concerns about contamination that could endanger human life as a result of contact with little green men, their ships, or anything that “touched directly or came within the atmospheric envelope of any other celestial body.”

The law did not criminalize reaching out and touching E.T. or his ship, but it did require the person who made contact with anything related to a NASA manned or unmanned space mission to be quarantined at the discretion of a NASA quarantine officer. Failure to comply with the quarantine requirements could subject the offender to a $5,000 fine, a year of imprisonment, or both.

The law was repealed in 1991 upon a finding by NASA that it had “served its purpose” and was “no longer in keeping with current policy.”

Still, it would probably be a good idea if you wash your hands after handling anything that has been in space — alien or otherwise.


Hoping for the Best; Preparing for the Worst

President Richard Nixon welcomes the Apollo 11 astronauts (confined to a mobile quarantine facility)  back to earth.
President Richard Nixon welcomes the Apollo 11 astronauts (confined to a mobile quarantine facility) back to earth.

When the Apollo 11 astronauts left earth for the moon in July 1969, it was the culmination of the best efforts to make good on President John Kennedy’s pledge to send a man to the moon before the decade was over and return him safely to the earth. Despite their best efforts, everyone knew the mission was fraught with risks.

With that in mind, President Richard Nixon commissioned a speech written by William Safire to inform the nation in the event that the astronauts became stranded on the lunar surface and could not return to earth.

It began: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.”


Who Wants to Spend Christmas Looking at Planets?

voy_trajFor the Voyager space exploration program, engineers plotted around 10,000 potential trajectories and then narrowed them down to find the optimal mission objectives. They chose trajectories that would reduce or eliminate planetary encounters taking place over the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays.