Hemorrhaging from the Fingertips

Beyond the Moon To Mars

Hemorrhaging from the Fingertips

Dr. Andrew Chaikin, book cover photograph. Banner image of Moon-Mars occultation, copyright, andrewchaikin.com.

Parts 1 * 2 * 3

NASA Research Park (NRP) launched a new Exploration Lecture Series at NASA Ames Research Center, to feature top researchers and academics, who will examine new technologies for human and robot-based exploration, as well as on-going and planned space exploration missions. The first lecture, “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” featured Dr. Andrew Chaikin, author of “A Man on the Moon: The Triumphant Story of the Apollo Space Program.” The book was the basis for Tom Hanks’ HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon,” which won an Emmy for best miniseries in 1998.

Chaikin has authored and edited several popular books about space, including “The New Solar System,” “Air and Space: The National Air and Space Museum Story of Flight,” “Apollo: An Eyewitness Account,” and ” Full Moon,” a collection of Apollo photography. Chaikin’s most recent book, “SPACE: A History of Space Exploration in Photographs,” was published in 2002 by Carlton Books.

Moon occulting Venus, the morning star, taken by the lunar probe, Clementine.
Credit: NASA/DOD/

A graduate of Brown University, Chaikin served as executive editor for space and science at Space.com until 2001 and was editor of Sky and Telescope magazine for many years. Chaikin is currently a commentator for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition program.

During Dr. Chaikin’s public lecture, he described the Moon-Mars exploration as ‘exciting and tremendously challenging’. His lecture featured a spectacularly symbolic image that he photographed from central Florida during last year’s closest approach between Mars and Earth–the nearest such view towards our sister planet seen in recorded history. Using a Celestron Nexstar 11-inch telescope and a webcam, Chaikin captured an occultation of Mars by our own Moon in silhouette. Six months later, the blue-ribbon Presidential Commission studying transits to the Moon, Mars and beyond formed with the same image in mind: How best to hopscotch humans safely to the moon first, followed by the challenging trek to Mars?

Chaikin’s perspective is unique since he had unparalleled access to the 23 living astronauts who pioneered the Apollo exploration of the Moon. Chaikin noted that humans left the moon for the last time, thirty-one years ago. While posing the question, What can we learn from the Apollo astronauts about going back to the moon and onwards to Mars in the coming decades?, Chaikin recalled a story told to him by Bob Gilruth, a key mission planner at the Johnson Space Center during Apollo. Gilruth was walking on the beach while a full moon was out. He looked up to the light-grey, shining disk and said, “Someday, they’re going to want to go back to the moon, and they’ll realize how difficult it is.”

Publishing on the question of whether humans can get to Mars fifty years ago on April 30,1954, Collier’s magazine consulted experts like W. von Braun Credit: Colliers

Chaikin, like many before him, took special note of the April 30, 1954 Collier’s cover article, entitled “Can We Go To Mars?” Fifty years ago today [Collier’s, April 30, 1954 (Volume 133 No. 9) ], many futurists considered the long human trip to the red planet as one of the key milestones–one first to motivate early exploration of the moon and also to build a space station. Chaikin noted a special advisory relationship that evolved between film producer, Walt Disney, and the German-American rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, as von Braun contributed to Colliers and also to three influential TV specials on space exploration for Disney’s popular TV series.

The current NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has described the challenges to fulfill “Moon-Mars and Beyond” as two-fold: biomedical and launch. Chaikin echoed the remarkable nature of the Apollo successes as unique to deeper space exploration missions, touching on both human and machine elements to reinventing a manned mission to Mars.

The launch problem is real, as heavy-lift capability now seems a treasure from the 1960’s. Heavy-lift has become a missing element of American efforts to stock the International Space Station. Even today, the Apollo rocket, the Saturn V, remains the largest rocket ever successfully flown. The behemoth stood 363 feet (or over 30 stories) high from base to top. Contractors at the time came up with their best analogy to describe the power of the five Saturn engines, as “exceeding all the rivers in North America, if they could be turned through turbines”, according to Chaikin. All the fuel in its three stages needed from launch to orbit exercised and channelled the energy equivalent of a small atomic bomb.

To the first humans who rode atop the Saturn V, the vibrations of its engine nozzles shook them in their seats like a whip antenna. In typical “Right Stuff” description, Bill Anders on Apollo 8 told a debriefing panel that they experienced “positive control motion”. But outside the debriefing, his experience was compared to being “a rat in the jaw of a giant terrier.” Anders felt as though the astronauts had been shaken within an inch of their lives.

Unlike previous orbital missions like Gemini and Mercury–or even today’s orbital views from the shuttle and space station–the feeling of leaving Earth was unique psychologically to moon exploration. Chaikin quoted Apollo 17 astronaut, Gene Cernan, when he described looking back on a thumb-sized blue planet in the window, “You know you’re leaving town.” Cernan went on to say that despite the psychological separation from home, the Earth was one of the most beautiful memories. Echoing Cernan’s sentiment, Apollo 16 astronaut Ken Mattingly felt that he “was looking back at the most incredible thing he’d ever seen.”

On its journey outwards to Jupiter, the Galileo probe captured this picture of the Earth and moon together. Will humans share a feeling of leaving home? Credit: Galileo

Following the launch and earthview, the next signal to the astronauts that they were entering an alien environment became the experience of zero-gravity. Compared to the cramped quarters on Mercury and Gemini capsules, the Apollo command and lunar modules were roomy. The astronauts could appreciate storing a spacesuit and floating around in short-sleeves. But for weeklong missions, the mundane biological needs to excrete waste products still posed challenges. According to Apollo 16’s Ken Mattingly, the lack of convenient bathroom facilities needed to be solved for long-term exploration: “If this is what it’s like going to Mars, forget it.”

Completing these mid-mission adaptations, the Apollo astronauts soon were stuck by the ever-enlarging Moon in their windows. Chaikin described the Moon as a rosetta stone to understand the origin of the solar system. But to the human eye, the Moon was also hauntingly beautiful. Notable among the alien views stood out a signature of approach to the Moon: the dominance of cratering. Small craters measured a few miles across, while large ones stretched hundreds of miles. The notion of the Moon as pockmarked like Swiss cheese became even more apparent as the Moon got closer in view. By some accounts, the imagery from orbit was even more spectacular to the astronauts than the view from the surface itself. For the later Apollo missions, one orbiting command module pilot could spend days alone circling the Moon–a contrast to the hectic schedules for the moonwalkers that gave them little time to reflect on where they were putting a first bootprint.

Comparing the surface exploration of the moon and Mars, Chaikin pointed out that one consideration for both is dust. As memorialized in a number of astronaut portraits, moondust had the consistency of talcum powder or powdered cement. The dust was cohesive and would ‘stick to everything’, according to Apollo 11 astronaut, Buzz Aldrin. But Chaikin said that the micron-sized Mars dust might be even finer and more electrostatically cohesive. “Mars is even dustier than the moon,” said Chaikin, “and may be toxic if the Viking findings of peroxides are globally true.” Peroxide is a strong oxidizer most familiar as hydrogen peroxide used to sterilize wounds. Viking scientists in 1977 concluded that Mars may have a self-sterilizing quantity of peroxide combined with the iron oxide, or rusty, soil that gives the red planet its unique colors.

What would one notice with one’s own eyes on another moon or planet that may not be evident in a framed photograph? Chaikin asked this question to several astronauts who walked on the moon’s barren landscape. To Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin, the moon near Tranquility Base was a flat area on large scales–at least that was the way the moon appeared in a picture. But since the moon is one-quarter the Earth’s diameter, or about 2000 miles across, Aldrin noticed a perception that the moon’s curvature was ‘moving away from him’. To Aldrin, it became apparent that he was walking on the surface of a sphere.

Apollo astronauts could launch themselves three feet by flexing their ankles, even in bulky spacesuits.
Credit: NASA

Having experienced free-floating as they departed the Earth’s gravity, the moonwalkers had to adjust to the moon’s one-sixth value compared to terrestrial gravity. For the astronauts who landed on the Moon, they discovered with a small flexing of their ankles, they could easily jump three feet off the surface even in their bulky spacesuits. Chaikin compared this sensation to what future Mars explorers might find when confronted with the one-third Earth gravity on Mars. Chaikin said that while “the moonwalkers felt near weightless, the Mars-walker might feel as if walking on a trampoline.”

The ergonomics of working in a spacesuit were challenging to the Apollo astronauts. Chaikin said the real pinch-points in doing work on the moon came when gripping a hammer or closing a rock sampler. The astronauts did not look forward to doing anything with their hands. “This was the weak link in the pressurized suits”, said Chaikin. “To wrap a hand around an object, one had to exert strength against the pressurized glove. If one squeezes a tennis ball enough, a burning sensation will develop in your arm. During seven hours of doing this on the moon, the astronauts reported being very tired.”

Tiny earth, a planet that could be blotted out with a lunar astronaut’s thumb.
Credit: NASA

In addition to being exhausting to wear, the gloves also rubbed until fingers became raw. Chaikin described the astronaut’s account that the “gloves would mash against fingertips. Blood vessels under fingernails would eventually hemorrhage. It was like getting hit on the fingertips with a hammer.”

One question often posed to the Apollo astronauts is to reflect on the bigger meaning of their journeys. A practical problem, according to Chaikin, was the lack of time for reflection however. The moonwalkers particularly felt it was ‘very hard to have time to think’. Their every movement on the Moon was carefully orchestrated and scheduled to the minute. Chaikin contrasts this hectic workload to what is typical of other voyages of scientific discovery, where often the least anticipated observation is the key to a new understanding. Apollo 15’s Dave Scott laughed at one point while working on the Moon, since two checklists–one on his right hand, the other on his left–instructed him to do two totally different things at the same time. Chaikin recommended the Apollo lunar transcripts as an authorative source to understand the demands of scheduling and how humans reacted operationally to a challenging and exhausting workload.

In the last few moon missions, the excursions got longer and had more mobility. Chaikin said these extra days on the surface did manage to fill the astronauts with glimpses of beauty on another world. Apollo 15’s Dave Scott flew on the first of these lengthened scientific missions and was struck by the ‘beauty of the Moon. The brilliant Sun against a pristine wilderness that had been untouched for four and half billion years. While the Sun was out, one is still surrounded by blackness.”

Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the Moon, compared this same contrast between darkness and illumination to being in an empty stadium, where the ‘playing field was lit for night-time photography.’

Tomorrow’s installment addresses the challenges of mobility on another world.

Related Web Pages

JPL Rovers
Spirit’s images and slideshow
Opportunity image gallery and slideshow
Making the Moon
Review of Theories of Moon-Forming Impact (Planetary Science Institute)
Big Bang, New Moon (SwRI)
Ion Drive to the Moon
SMART-1: Chips Off the Terrestrial Block
Treasures from the Lunar Attic
Lunar Scarface
End of an Era, Dawn of Another?

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