Saturday, January 14, 2012

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer...

Captain Girlfriend and I went to a nearby library today for a lecture about Apollo 11. The fellow giving the lecture was a retired engineer who worked at MIT's Instrumentation Lab. He helped design the alignment telescope used in the Lunar Module.

Here's a picture of what the alignment telescope looked like inside the LM:

That camera looking thing behind the yellow guard rail was the Alignment Optical Telescope. It was a critical piece of hardware used to figure out where the Lunar Module was in relation to the Earth and the Moon. By pointing the telescope at two bright stars, the guidance computer could figure out where the ship was located in space. Quite an amazing bit of machinery that's often forgotten when looking at all the marvelous Apollo equipment developed during the same project.

The telescope and associated software cost $15 million for each unit delivered. The speaker told about how, when he was freshly hired at MIT, he was sent to give a demonstration of the new telescope to NASA. His sample telescope was placed on a table near a lectern, and several other engineers from other companies were also given space on the table to present their hardware projects. One of the other engineers got up to explain his system, and bumped into the table. The telescope began rollling... and rolling... and the speaker was sitting TWO ROWS away from catching the thing. Fortunately, nothing wound up broken, and the MIT folks didn't fire him for not wrapping himself around the scope 24/7.

The Q&A session was disappointing. I like going to popular science lectures to hear what average people want to know about, but it's usually quite depressing to think that most people believe the job of NASA is to redirect asteroids that are going to hit the Earth like a Michael Bay movie. The questions were about asteroid redirection, why America is "no longer in space anymore" and whether America would establish a permanent base on an asteroid. It's difficult to have a dialogue about the state of American manned space exploration when so few people actually follow what's in development at NASA. 

An interesting question from a 15-year-old boy in the audience made me realize how little of the Apollo era has translated to the current generation. The young man could not understand how the Apollo parachutes could have survived reentry. I've never noticed this before, but the landing sequence for Apollo really isn't described in much detail in movies about the missions. The engineer did his best to detail the Interface and Entry process in Apollo, but I'm not sure if the boy completely understood. 

After the Q&A, the small crowd broke up into little groups getting ready to leave for home. One family asked me a few questions, as they had heard some of the questions I had asked the engineer. I explained that there were many manufacturers working with NASA on manned spacecraft, and reading sites such as was a great way to find out what's new. Their son (also about 14 or 15) didn't ask questions but seemed very interested in the topic. I can only hope that his curiosity would turn into the passion so many folks my age still have. 

All in all, a fascinating day.

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