Astronauts are the faces we see on the stage of the most mind-blowing theatre ever created, if you will. In those four incredible Apollo years between 1968 and 1972, there have been those astronauts who, for whatever reason, have stood out from the rest. From being the first person to set foot on the Moon, or the second, to being the last, or not in fact walking on the Moon at all, there are many accomplishments for which every astronaut should be recognised.
Bruce McCandless II is one of the 19 astronauts that was selected by NASA in the April of 1966, and was the youngest member of NASA astronaut Group 5. He was a ‘Capsule Communicator’ (CAPCOM) on Apollo 11 during the first lunar EVA, and a member of the astronaut support crew for the Apollo 14 mission, on which he doubled up as CAPCOM once again, and was the backup pilot for the first manned Skylab mission (SL-1/SL-2). He was a co-investigator on the M509 astronaut manoeuvring unit experiment which was flown in the Skylab Program, and collaborated on the development of the Manned Manoeuvring Unit (MMU) used during Shuttle EVAs. He has been responsible for crew inputs to the development of hardware and procedures for the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS), Space Telescope, the Solar Maximum Repair Mission, and the Space Station Program.
I had met Bruce McCandless before, back in 2011 at a private lecture and Q&A event held at a London hotel, and was very much looking forward to our reunion of sorts, this time returning to Yorkshire for a similar event organised by our excellent host, Space Lectures.
A veteran of two space flights, McCandless has logged over 312 hours in space, including 4 hours of MMU flight time. He flew as a mission specialist on STS-41B and STS-31:
STS-41B Challenger, 3rd-11th February, 1984 – Launched from the John F. Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on February 3, 1984, the crew on this tenth Space Shuttle Mission included Mr. Vance Brand (spacecraft commander), Commander Robert L. “Hoot” Gibson, USN, (pilot), and fellow mission specialists, Dr. Ronald E. McNair, and Lt. Col. Robert L. Stewart, USA. The flight accomplished the proper shuttle deployment of two Hughes 376-series communications satellites. Rendezvous sensors and computer programs were flight tested for the first time. This mission marked the first checkout of the Manned Manoeuvring Unit (MMU), and Manipulator Foot Restraint (MFR). McCandless made the first, untethered, free flight on each of the two MMU’s carried on board and alternated with Stewart in the activities constituting two spectacular extravehicular activities (EVAS). The German Shuttle Pallet Satellite (SPAS), Remote Manipulator System (RMS), six Getaway Specials, and materials processing experiments were included on the mission. The 8 day orbital flight of Challenger (OV-099) culminated in the first landing on the runway at the Kennedy Space Center on the 11th February, 1984. With the completion of this flight McCandless logged 191 hours in space (including 4 hours of MMU flight time).
STS-31 Discovery, 24th-29th April, 1990 – Launched from the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the crew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery included Col. Loren J. Shriver, USAF, (spacecraft commander), Col. Charles F. Bolden, USMC, (pilot), and Dr’s. Steven A Hawley, and Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan (mission specialists). During this 5 day mission, the crew deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, and conducted a variety of mid-deck experiments involving the study of protein crystal growth, polymer membrane processing, and the effects of weightlessness and magnetic fields on an ion arc. They also operated a variety of cameras, including both the IMAX in cabin and cargo bay cameras, for earth observations from their record-setting altitude of 380 miles. Following 76 orbits of the earth in 121 hours, STS-31 Discovery landed at Edwards Air Force Base, California, on the 29th of April, 1990.
There certainly is no shortage of awe-inspiring pictures from the space age, pictures that frankly challenge description; there’s Apollo 8’s iconic Earthrise that established our planetary facthood and beauty and rareness, Buzz Aldrin on the Moon during the Apollo 11 lunar EVA, Jim Irwin at Hadley base on Apollo 15, or the Apollo 17’s ‘Blue Marble’ capture of the full Earth taken whilst travelling toward the Moon (This is the first time the Apollo trajectory made it possible to photograph the South polar ice cap) to name but a few. In addition to these, the photograph taken on the 4th of February, 1984, of Bruce conducting his untethered spacewalk 320 feet from the shuttle Challenger, as he ventured further away from the confines and safety of his ship than any previous astronaut had ever been, has adorned countless books, albums, advertisements, magazines, posters on the walls of children and adults alike.
It’s an astronaut’s wildest dream: to fly effortlessly through space. In 1966, the US Air Force developed an Astronaut Manoeuvring Unit (AMU), a self-contained rocket pack very similar to the MMU. This was planned to be tested during Project Gemini on an EVA by Eugene Cernan on Gemini 9A on the 5th of June, 1966. However, the test had to be cancelled because Cernan, tired and overheated, sweated so profusely that his helmet visor fogged before he could get to the AMU mounted on the back of the spacecraft. Astronauts did not learn how to work during an EVA without tiring until Buzz Aldrin’s successful EVA during the final Gemini 12 mission, but no AMU was carried on that flight. McCandless’ faith in the MMU was the result of long experience: He had played a major role in developing it. I had a chance hear the story of the man in the picture, Bruce McCandless II.
The lecture began with a photoshoot for guests, and an opportunity for them to purchase images for the subsequent autograph session. Having heard of Bruce’s enthusiasm talking to youngsters in a school the previous day, the lecture he gave was the lengthier, more detailed, full-fat version. Here’s how the lecture went:
“Thank you for inviting my Wife and I to Pontefract, we appreciate the hospitality, and we also appreciate your interest in matters involving space. Ken (Ken Willoughby, Space Lectures organiser) has asked me to start of with a little bit of background of myself, so I’ve put together a few slides in that area, and a little later on, it’ll get a little more serious. My family was basically a Naval family, my two Grandfathers served in World War One and World War Two, my Dad served in World War Two and in the picture you see here, this is me holding a toy boat two days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. We were stationed out there, and my Dad left from there, out to sea, and we didn’t see him again for about a year. But, life went on and as I was growing up, I considered various things, we didn’t have a space program as such in those days, but I had the comic strips and the artists works depicting space ports on Mars and things or that sort for inspiration. The family wisdom if I ever talked about space was ‘Yes, man would go into space someday, but certainly not before the year 2000’. And with that, I proceeded to go to College at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and was fascinated by submarines, particularly nuclear submarines, and was looking at that as a career choice when in October of 1957, my senior year, this happened
The Soviet Union brazenly and unexpectedly launched a small satellite which went ‘Beep… beep… beep.. beep…’ but the message that it carried was that the space age was upon us, and that things were going to happen very rapidly, and I changed my mind, undertook the flight physical exam in aviation, became a Navy fighter pilot, spent four years flying off an aircraft carrier, and was then sent by the Navy to Stanford University, where one afternoon a very bland looking letter arrived from the bureau of Navy Personnel saying ‘Congratulations, you meet the basic requirements for the astronaut program that NASA was conducting and if you’re interested, apply to BUPERS (United States Navy’s Bureau of Naval Personnel) and think about it’. Well, everybody said apply now because you never get selected the first time around and it’s great practice, so I applied, and somehow got selected, and joined the astronaut program in June of 1966. This was just a year after the spacewalk of Ed White
I would point out to you that Alexey Leonov of the Soviet Union, was the first human being to do a spacewalk, it lasted 12 minutes and we of course, the United States, had to do better than that so Ed White stayed out for 23 minutes! And made it look easy! So the next time the United States actually attempted a spacewalk, was with an Air Force build astronaut manoeuvring Unit, that Gene Cernan attempted to fly, and due to deficiencies in the pressure suit technology, he had the visor flog up, and we nearly lost Gene Cernan. So manoeuvring units acquired a bad name, I felt undeservedly, so an Air Force Captain, and a Civil Servant and I, collaborated and tried to rehabilitate the concept of flying around outside your spacecraft. We did this via an experiment, M509, that was intended and did in fact fly inside the orbital workshop
Now having said that, it did fly beautifully, inside the workshop. I say inside because that allowed us to operate without undue concern for safety, that is we were contained within the workshop, and five of my compatriots aboard two different SkyLab crews flew it quite satisfactorily, and we used their testimony to develop an MMU to fly aboard the Space Shuttle. In training for spaceflight, there’s no-one-single perfect simulator, you do this and pick-up some information, you do that you get a little more information, and when you finally get in the spaceship, you integrate it all, mentally.
This shows an underwater scene, and this is me inside the mock-up, inside the MMU showing how you get in and out of the so-called docking station, in a weightless environment. We had a much better simulator which is much like a cherry picker, it had a set of carriages and rails, it could more up and down, left and right, inside a room roughly 20metres long, 5 or 6 metres high and wide.
This was really, very effective. The controls on the MMU were linked, were sent directly down to a computer in the basement, and it drove server motors to make you behave as though you were flying in space. I can’t tell you enough, I got about 300 hours over the years flying this thing, the actual training required that we settled on for later crews was 15 hours. So I guess I am over-trained. But finally, in February of 1984, the crew of five of us launched. The MMU turned out to be sufficiently larger, and it was difficult to get it out through the airlock hatch, so we mounted it in the payload bay, got into it, and flew off. And so, finally the opportunity came to go flying. As I got further and further away, the Shuttle began to get tinier and tinier.
I had planned of stopping at the furthest distance, I was supposed to go out to 100 metres and stop, which I did, and I wanted to turn around, 180 degrees, contemplate the vastness of space and the Earth, but somehow the conversations were just so busy, that I forgot about it, until I came back in. It is a true statement that sound does not travel through a vacuum, but, radio waves do, and I had three different people talking to me, Mission Control wanted to know how much oxygen I had left, how the battery was doing, what was the temperature, Vance Brand the Commander was wanting me to stay away from the engines, and not go under the wing, stay where he could see me, and Bob Stewart wanted to know when it was his turn to fly! So, it was pretty noisy out there. The system worked quite well, and looking from the shuttle out I had to have looked pretty small, 100 metres away.
Hoot (Robert L. “Hoot” Gibson) took what, if you pardon my say so, the iconic photo, this particular image, and two or three closely related to it, have become almost symbolic of the space age. I’d point out to you that you can see the nose of the shuttle reflected in the visor, and by extension the area that housed the other three crew members, and this shows a picture of just one vision but, you have to remember that we had a very large team within NASA, probably 500 people, and within the contract facility and the base, several thousand people working together and in coordination. We had other mission objectives on the flight of course, in addition the MMU, that it was indeed a team effort. I would also point out to you, that when I got a way out from the shuttle, I got very cold. You can’t see it here but my teeth were chattering and I was shivering. The problem was, that the life support system in reaction to anything overheating, during Gemini was engineered to keep a person working in a warm environment comfortable, well when you get a way out from the shuttle you’re radiating into space and quite honestly when you’re flying the MMU it was an exercise of using your fingers, we put pulses in at the end of your fingers, so I wasn’t doing much metabolic work, so I got rather chilly. Fortunately, it did turnout that we could in fact shut down the entire cooling system and the life support system, warm up and the turn it back on.
I want to show you is a piece of artwork by the late Kim Poor, a friend of mine, one of the things about art is that you can capture scenes that cannot be photographed. This could not be photographed because you did not have a third-party out there with the shuttle and the manoeuvring unit together. Here I think Kim captured the spirit of the free flight, in the vicinity of the shuttle. He passed away earlier this year (2017), but he leaves behind his artwork. The other side as it turns out, Grenada issued a postage stamp, I don’t know how much a Dollar fifty Granadian is, but I hope it’s a lot, but I doubt it.
One of the things that everybody who was going into space, and by that I specifically include the Russian cosmonauts, European astronauts, Japanese and others, is that they would marvel at the World, looking down at the Earth. You start off trying to find your town, or your launch facility, and you realise that you really need to appreciate the continents, the land masses, the very few political divisions that are visible from space, that we’re all in this together and we need to learn how to work together.
Looking down I did see, in this case, Florida, this is Lake Okeechobee, you may not be familiar but it’s a very unique spot on Florida, then there is the hook that is the Kennedy Space Center and test range, and the Florida Keys down there. Also, very prominent from orbit is the Indian sub-continent, and Sri Lanka.
This leads me to the concept of Spaceship Earth, and I am not talking about the Spaceship Earth at Epcot, but I am talking about Spaceship Earth, here. Now I am, or have been introduced as ‘The Astronaut,’ but, everyone in this room is an astronaut, in the sense of being a crew member on Spaceship Earth. It’s a very big spaceship, but it’s not infinite, and yes it has systems. You don’t open and close valves, to drain hydraulic fluid or electricity, but you do have ocean currents, atmospheric circulation, we have concerns about pollution, ozone depletion, and somehow if we’re going to pass on a better spacecraft to our children and their generation, we need to manage the systems in their best interest.
Now, I would like to get a little more serious for a moment, and as we’re talking about the roles of human beings in spaceflight, we take a lot of things for granted. The scientific community is looking very hard at what it costs, the human participation as opposed to artificial intelligence, robotic rovers and things of that sort. In the case of the Hubble Space Observatory, it was essential to realise its full capability and extend its life, it was originally planned for 15 years, but it passed 27 years this past April, and it’s going strong, but, at a heavily subsidised cost. Now, the cost of the spaceflight came out of the science budget, a lot came out of the manned spaceflight budget, looking at life sciences, there’s the biomedical research in space is a self-justifying objective, you need people to do research on people, and in the case of Mars, we have a speed of light time delay which communication wise can be up to 20 minutes each way. Which means if you’re trying to drive a vehicle on Mars from Earth and you see a cliff approaching and you put on the brakes, 20 minutes later the brakes go on and the vehicle is going off the cliff. If you were to put people on the Moons of Mars, they’re much closer, you can get that time delay down from 20 minutes to 20 milliseconds. So that’s an important potential objective, and the other problem is that once you put people on Mars or another planet, people are dirty, pardon me, no offence intended, but biologically you’re going to leak skin cells, perspiration and even with a pressure suit. Once that happens, the area in which you are located, is no-longer viable for checking of the pre-existence of life. You’ve put signs of life there, and you’ve contaminated it. Everything that has been to the surface of Mars so far has been biologically sterilised before it landed, so we have a trade-off there of putting people on Mars to look for life, as opposed to clouding the picture.
Now, on my second flight we deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, it was last seen by us over the salt pans of Chile, and there have been five servicing missions since then with a potential sixth one before it either returns, or burns up when it reaches its end of life. We can’t just leave it up there forever with the possibility of it decaying into the space station orbit. The Hubble has evolved greatly as the science from it was processed as we conducted servicing missions with new technology, and one example is this, the M16 Eagle Nebula in normal visible light, and this is the same thing in infrared
The significance with the infrared image is the dust particles are sufficiently fine and the infrared wavelengths are long enough, to go around the dust particles, and reveal stars within the structure of this dust cloud nebula if you will.
This is only one of many dramatic examples, this is the so-called twin jet nebula, which has two stars rotating around each other, one white dwarf and one ordinary star, and calculations have shown this is only 1200 years old which is an absolute fraction of a second in terms of cosmic time span, and we’re looking at the continued elevation of this particular vision.
One of the interesting things I found, was that in 1994 Comet Shoemaker-Levy approached Jupiter, and as it approached, the gravity gradient and strength of gravity and the rate of change of gravity, was such that it pulled the comet apart and you wound up with 23 separate impacts, and each one that came in created a disturbance in the atmosphere, and these were all recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope.
One other thing, Jupiter and Saturn turned out to have ultraviolet aurora, Australis and Borealis, we can’t see the UV light from the surface of the Earth because of our atmosphere but from a telescope above the atmosphere we can see this as indicative of the interaction of charged particles with a magnetic field.
Now, I mentioned the speed of light earlier, it’s about 186,000 miles per second, and movement was respective of a light source causing a shift in the wavelengths similar to a doppler shift when you hear a train going by, when the whistle goes from a high pitch to a low pitch as it goes past. This in turn allows us to look at black holes and confirm that they really are rotating at a really high speed.
The space imaging spectrograph is a picture, a scan, length wise though this black hole, and what the light here shows, is that the blue is coming at you very rapidly, and red shows it going away from you very rapidly, so you can confirm that it has a very high rotation rate and consequently there is a gravitational vortex in it.
Now these here, this light shift here, the Doppler I’ll call it, technically it’s slightly different, but it gives us a tool, Fraunhofer discovered in the light from the sun a number of lines specific with a number of elements. Hydrogen has one, Helium has two and these all turn out to be just like fingerprints. Fingerprints are the same regardless of the colour, and what this does is, say you have a fingerprint at the start, and it shifts through the colour, out on into the red, in reality you’re shifting along this line. The farther out into the red you go, the greater the speed away from the Earth and the greater the distance. This is turn allows us to measure the distance to distant objects, and probably the most extreme example of this is the so-called Hubble deep field image
This included some astronomers, including the Director of the Hubble Space Telescope science institute sitting around one afternoon wondering why there weren’t any stars in a certain part of the sky. And they said ‘Well, let’s make a really long exposure’, so they took 10 days worth of exposure of the empty black spot and came up with this particular image, which can be broken down and viewed as a series of smaller images, showing very strangely shaped galaxies and nebula, the conclusion here was that there is no direction in which we can look with no stars, everywhere you look you’re going to find hints of thousands of millions if you will of stars and nebula if you will, and it led to a re-imagining, or realisation that there are many more stars out there than we had anticipated. This in turn can be interpreted as allowing the Hubble to look back almost 13billion years into the history of the creation of the Universe, this also means that the Hubble is its own worst enemy in terms of lifetime because the Hubble is a room temperature telescope, the mirror and the structure and all that are about 20 degrees C and the problem here is that, when you look farther into the infrared these structures being warm emit energy and causes noise that prevents you looking farther out into the infrared. So, we have the James Webb Telescope which is due to be launched in early 2019.
It’s a cooperative project, the US is building it, an Ariane 5 is going to launch it, and in turn the ESA will get a percentage of observing time. The Webb Space Telescope is designed to orbit at a point roughly 1 million miles out of the Earth and hide behind this sun shield, so it will reach the ambient temperature of deep space, which is believed to be very close to absolute zero, and at absolute zero it will be able to observe into the deepest realms of the infrared spectrum.
With that, I’d like to briefly look back at the Shuttle program. We had 30 years of operation, 135 total launches, with 2 fatal accidents. 852 total crew members carried into space, and it acted as a tool of International policy. Now, having said that I submit that the Shuttle was very similar to the Duck-billed platypus, designed by committee. And those of you who studied biology will realise that it had a ducks bill, beavers tail, otters foot, it was venomous as a mammal, and it was also an egg laying mammal. So why do I claim this is the same for the Shuttle, well, the 65,000lbs payload capacity really came from the Air Force, and other government agencies, it was oversized for NASA, the 60ft x 15ft diameter payload envelope came from a similar source, and the requirement to launch with a crew of seven and to return with ten was intended to provide in orbit rescue capability. The Shuttle also had a fully automatic landing capability, with NASA developing something called the ‘Microwave Scanning Beam Landing System’ (at this point Bruce apologises as he often deals with acronyms and that he always thought that a poet or a human interest journalist should have been sent to space to truly convey the spectacle to the rest of humanity) “Ok, so what did the Shuttle accomplish, it proved the digital fly by wire, and it helped get acceptance for the Boeing 777, and the Airbus 320, and by digital fly by wire I mean that there was no direct connection from the flight controller to any of the controls, whenever you wiggle the stick a little in aerodynamic flight it sends a signal to a computer which processes it, and the computer decides what to do with the ailerons and rudder and things of that nature.
The Shuttle had five general purpose digital computers designed by IBM, the normal mode for launch and landing required four of these to be running in lock-step synchronisation, for redundancy you could have a failure on one of them, have it drop out and another failure, that could drop out, and as a last resort you could have number five, which was configured with different software, designed by different programmers, so you could also push the button and take your chances with number five. Fortunately, we never did. In 30 years of the Shuttle program, we never had to fall back on number five. It also showed that the average person can fly comfortably in space, we had 3Gs on launch, and let me point out to you; people have asked when you’re sitting on the launchpad you’re obviously at 1G by definition, you’re sitting there in the seat, when the shuttle launches it gets very noises and there’s vibration, but, the G level only goes to about 1 to 1.25, the reason for that is, the Shuttle is at its absolute heaviest at that instant. It’s after you start burning off propellant that the get higher and the G level rises, in the case of the Shuttle, you felt 3G on launch and 2.5G on re-entry, so anybody in the room here can quite safely and comfortably fly in the Space Shuttle. It also showed that we can repair things in space, we can build a reusable spacecraft, but what it did not do, in 135 flights we never demonstrated the automatic landing, we always had human interruption and flying for the last 25 or 30 seconds or so, and the Soviet Buran, one flight, did successfully do an automatic landing, I don’t know whether it was totally automatic or whether somebody was flying it remotely but it was a fully automatic landing. The Air Force X37B which looks like a miniature Shuttle, and I believe its flown three times now with mission duration’s up to 637 days, comes in and lands automatically at Vandenberg Air Force Base, no problem. On the Shuttle we never got around to doing that. We did not realise that the 10x reduction cost per lbs on the payload. The numbers cited were $20,000 per lbs to be reduced to $2,000 a lbs in terms of 1972 dollars as I recall, now the problem here was after the Challenger accident, the flight rate was cut back dramatically, and when you have a big number in terms of fixed infrastructure and overhead and you divide that by a little number like 2, or 3 flights a year the cost per flight gets to be astronomical. So in my opinion that is what eventually caused the demise of the Shuttle program.
We also had reusable main engines, which was supposed to be good for at least 10 to 20 missions, we wound up overhauling each after each mission, we scrapped the Vandenberg launch capability after the Challenger accident, and I submit that the investigation by the Rogers commission was too much of a public circus, and instead of being a military style accident and investigation which had in fact handled the Apollo 1 fire and Apollo 13 problem, and quite a variety of aircraft problems, it got to be highly politicised and that in turn cut back on the Space Shuttle. On the Challenger loss, it was the 7th launch attempt pretty much in a row, the previous day there had been a problem getting the handle off the outside of the hatch which resulted in missing the launch window and on that day of the accident, that was the day the President Reagan’s State of the Union address was scheduled. This may not mean a great deal to you but, every President of the United States is required to give a speech once a year on the situation, or the state of the Union, and Reagan was known to like to gesture up into the balcony and say ‘My fellow Americans…’ and we believe he dearly wanted to say ‘…tonight, we have a teacher in space’ and somehow I don’t think Reagan himself influenced the decision but, it launched in conditions that were too cold for the established launch crew and the launch criteria, the engineers were overruled by management and we lost the Challenger. I would also point out to you that in a similar environment the so-called the V22 Osprey…
…lost four aircraft with 37 lives lost in the development of phase, and the problems were overcome and it became successfully operational and is doing very well. NASA has the challenge of undertaking worthwhile objectives in the face of significant risk, not avoiding the risk, but overcoming the risk. President Kennedy stated this when he committed to sending people to the Moon and back, we chose these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. We need to choose our challenges carefully, but we need to overcome the risk, instead of working to avoid the risk. Now, in parallel to this there have been a considerable amount of commercialisation. Seven individuals have a total of eight flights, someone flew twice, for cash, typically on the order of $20-$50 million, this is done through the Russian Space Agency. These individuals had done very well, I personally couldn’t afford it but there seems to be a small trickle of individuals from around the World who come up with the amount of money to participate. The other thing that’s happening, is that NASA is stepping back from the arena of going to the low Earth orbit and coming back down, and we’re reserving deep space exploration, going back to the Moon, going to asteroids, going to Mars for Government operations, and leaving the cargo and eventually the personnel transfer to private companies.
SpaceX, ESA, Orbital ATK, Soyuz Progress, they have all been to the International Space Station, successfully delivering cargo and they’re jockeying for position to carry crew members up and back, and the point here of course is in addition to going to the ISS, as commercial enterprises there’s nothing stopping them going to this as a hotel, and offering a tourist destination in space. These things seem a tad frivolous, but they will happen, they will come to be that the price of space travel will come down, aviation evolved in the 1920s and 1930s to what we’ve got today in terms of Boeing 777s and the Airbus A380, and vehicles of this sort.
One thing I would like to comment on, with the Space Shuttle we struggled to recover the boosters, so that we can re-use them again without fishing them out of the Atlantic Ocean, take them apart and reassemble it. Good old Spacex has recovered I think 13 of their first stages, they’ve reused several of them, and this really is a way of bringing down the cost per launch. They have also acquired property near Brownsville, Texas and though they haven’t said, my belief is that they are looking at launching and recovering the boosters in the Gulf of Mexico near Florida, instead of going out into the Atlantic, turning around and bringing it back, this would be a much more energy-efficient type of operation. So stay tuned and we’ll see if that happens.
Space science, I’m just going to go over briefly, is the challenge we have between human operators and artificial intelligence or remote operations, one classic example we have is on the earlier shuttle missions we had a zero G electrophoresis experiment, which was intended to take insulin obtained from ground up pancreatic glands from slaughtered hogs and separate the insulin from other high molecule compliments, and by using electrophoresis we were able to separate the streams of fluid. Down here on the ground if you do it vigorously, everything heats up and you convection, and the fluid mixes back together again, and you can’t do it. Well, it was coming along very promisingly, until the Challenger accident, and a firm developed a way of getting bacteria called E.coli to make human insulin, and now the product on the market is human insulin and nobody worries about separating insulin out. There are other examples too, and I think eventually some manufacturing processes will prove superior to the ground work, but there are some very good people down here as well as people interested in space science and it’s a type of war in which one is faster.
Humans were needed on Apollo in order to demonstrate US technological superiority and also if you think back the so-called Moore’s Law says that ‘the density of electronics will increase by a factor of two every 18 months’ we’ve come to a point where we had a few thousand bytes of memory on Apollo, a smart phone probably has 32Gbs, it would have taken a trailer or small power station to power that amount of memory with the same technology we had in 1969, so we’ve made astounding advances, there’s no end in sight! When you use humans to do a job for you, there are a few costs, I mentioned the dirty factor earlier, they are also considered non-expendable, you have a need for continuous life support, you have a finite lifespan, you can’t really launch people to something that’s 100 lightyears away and expect any possibility of them ever getting there or getting back, and they come in one size. You also have to educate people as opposed to just putting in a new memory module, and going ahead. The counter argument is that the only way to defeat the speed of light problem with respect to Mars is that humans can recognised the unexpected and provide, if you’ve read the book or watched the movie, The Martian, you see a classic example of the first or only man managing to save his life, and eventually get rescued, and there’s also the public interest factor. But, the competition is that the Curiosity Rover on Mars, it’s a science lab, it’s plutonium powered, radiation hardened, self-propelled, it’s passing four years of operation, and it’s got a lot going for it. So in order to send people to Mars you really have proved you’re doing better than that, and actually the absence of indications of life by a robot is not and indication of an absence on life, by that I mean, if you get positive results that says there’s life on Mars, hopefully there’s life on Mars, if you get negative results that doesn’t mean there isn’t life on Mars, it means that it might have not found it yet. So eventually I think we will have to put people on Mars, probably a significant number of them, for a while to explore the area
This is Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, it’s the home of 1.9million year old humanoid fossils and it looks a lot like this area on Mars, so who is to say there isn’t some spot on Mars that harbours the evidence of an existence in the past of life, or potentially of a life form today.
I’m not talking humanoid, I’m talking very elementary. Only by going there we will eventually answer the question.
I’d like to close by quoting Yogi Berra, who said ‘It’s tough to make predictions… especially about the future.’ As a consequence I can’t really look in to my crystal ball, but I can tell you that the space program is alive and vibrant, the emphasis is shifting somewhat in the United States from NASA does it all, to NASA does the things that are scientifically interesting and are not anywhere near ready for commercialisation, and the rest of the space arena is open to private competition subject to Government regulation. Now, I’ve been expounding, if you pardon the expression, for quite a while, I have no idea if I’ve been answering your questions, but I’d like to break at this time and take some questions, thank you…”
Bruce finished with a Q&A session from adults and children alike, and took every opportunity to thank people for coming to see him. He signed every autograph, shook their hands, and smiled for the occasional picture.
Ultimately, Bruce McCandless is a proud Naval aviator with the mindset of an engineer. He is an example of the importance of rational thinking. In fact, it’s the affinity for the “rational” that attracts him to the field in the first place. Malcolm Gladwell, the consummate observer of human nature, points out in his book ‘Blink’ that generals in the field make life-and-death decisions all the time in situations where they have only 60% or so of the information required. They are able to do so because they are attuned to their gut instincts. It is the same for astronauts. It is the same for Bruce McCandless. The perfect balance of rational versus emotional. The pilot and the engineer. Bruce McCandless is a name relatively unknown to most; and yet he has his name written in most of NASA’s ‘Top 10’, either at the forefront of the event itself, or behind-the-scenes, from Apollo 11, to his ‘world first’ untethered spacewalk, to the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope. More recently, Major Tim Peake, test pilot and Britain’s very own ESA astronaut, having spent 185 days, 22 hours, 11 minutes in space, and even conducting his own spacewalk lasting 4 hours and 43 minutes, credited Bruce McCandless as his hero. He is the astronaut’s astronaut. He may not be the most well-known of astronauts to his audience, but his many contributions to the modern space era have often been their very foundations.
When somebody does something noble and beautiful and nobody notices, they shouldn’t be sad. For the sun every morning is a beautiful spectacle, and yet most of its audience still sleeps.
Thank you Bruce.