Tag Archives: NASA

The Men On The Moon: Basil Hero’s Heroes

Only 24 men have traveled to the moon. Just half are still alive.

Their experiences have been told often, in movies and books like “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13.”

We know nearly everything about their missions: the risks, the challenges, the triumphs.

But we know little about the astronauts themselves. And even less about how their space experiences changed them, as human beings.

Until now.

Westporter Basil Hero’s new book The Mission of a Lifetime: Lessons From the Men Who Went to the Moon is the first time this elite group of men reveals their inner selves.

They talk about courage, leadership, patriotism. And also spirituality, God, earth, and the entire universe.

It’s a remarkable book. It’s remarkable too that no one has heard these legends — men like Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders — speak so eloquently about these ideas before.

Why not?

“No one asked,” Hero — the marvelously named author — replies. For half a century, journalists have focused on the technical aspects of space flight.

But ever since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon — when the New York Times published a special section with quotes from world leaders about how that event would change man’s relationship with the cosmos — Hero has been fascinated by what he calls “the bigger story”: what it means, deep in one’s soul, to walk on or orbit the moon.

Buzz Aldrin, on the lunar surface.

Though it’s a vast distance from the earth to the moon, Hero’s long-lived idea got a boost from nearby: his next door neighbor.

Bill Burrows is a noted aviation writer and Pulitzer Prize nominee, for publications like the Times and Wall Street Journal. He does not know any Apollo astronauts personally. But he mentioned the idea to former space shuttle astronaut Tom Jones, who helped Hero send an email blast to his Apollo colleagues.

Bill Anders was the first to respond. On December 24, 1968 he took the astonishing “Earthrise” shot. It’s been called “the most influential environmental photograph ever.”

Anders was intrigued. He invited Hero to his Anacortes, Washington home.

Bill Anders in front of his P-51 Mustang, last year. At 86, he still flies his own plane — at least an hour a day. Frank Borman — now 91 — flies his own vintage plane too.

The visit went well. Anders was so impressed with Hero’s approach and questions, he called his fellow Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman. Retired now after stints as White House liaison during the lunar landing and CEO of Eastern Airlines, he told Hero to come see him in Billings, Montana.

That interview went well too. So Borman called Jim Lovell, the 3rd Apollo 8 astronaut, commander of ill-fated Apollo 13, and the first of only 3 men to reach the moon twice.

Lovell gave Hero one of the most astonishing insights in a book filled with them. “We don’t go to heaven when we die,” he thought to himself while orbiting the moon. “We go to heaven when we’re born.”

Jim Lovell and his wife Marilyn.

As one astronaut recommended Hero to another, the project took shape.  The author understands how important those personal contacts were.

“These guys get a lot of requests,” he says. “Some of them are in their 90s. They were tired of talking about their missions. They liked the intellectual approach I took.”

Each man asked Hero what he wanted to do that had not been done before. He told them, “I want ‘The Right Stuff 2.0’ — their story from the philosophical, spiritual side.

“They loved that. It’s a function of their age. Soon, the men who walked on the moon will be walking into the history books.”

During their careers, the astronauts had been happy to follow NASA’s directive to not talk much about Big Ideas.

“They didn’t want to appear too ‘intellectual,'” Hero says.

But, he says, “they are very deep thinkers. That separated them out during the selection process, even if no one realized it at the time.”

Hero says that the astronauts take the idea of “the common good” — duty, honor, country — very seriously. “That can sound quaint and outdated — like the ancient Greeks and Romans,” he notes.

But, Hero continues, “once they were in space, and saw the earth from the moon, they saw ‘the common good’ pertaining not just to country, but to humanity, and the planet. They came back to earth as humanitarian citizens.”

Bill Anders’ “Earthrise” photo — taken on Christmas Eve, 1968 — helped human beings see their planet in an entirely new light.

There was a lot they never said — at the time.

Anders’ Catholic priest was at Cape Canaveral when Apollo 8 blasted off for the moon. Six days later, he returned to earth an agnostic.

Hero paraphrases the astronaut’s epiphany: “To think that God sits up there with a supercomputer is bunk.”

On the other hand, Jim Irwin — the lunar module pilot for Apollo 15 — “found Jesus while walking on the moon,” Hero says.

Over and over, the astronauts talked to the author about their belief in “someone — or something — greater than oneself. These are very deep thinkers.”

The deepest of all, Hero says, was a man he never got to interview: Neil Armstrong. The first man to walk on the moon died in 2012.

Basil Hero

Hero is inspired by the Apollo astronauts. He always knew they were physically brave. But what comes through just as strongly in The Mission of a Lifetime is their moral courage.

Hero’s book should be read by everyone. He is particularly hopeful that it becomes a staple for high school and college students. He wants them to learn about the notion of “the common good.”

Reviews have been excellent. Amazon picked it as a Book of the Month. The Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt. Jane Pauley wants to interview him.

The timing is perfect. July marks the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s one giant leap for mankind.

And after half a century — thanks to Basil Hero — the real story of the Apollo space program has finally been told.

Astronomy Picture Of The Day

Every morning, NASA posts an “Astronomy Picture of the Day.”

Each one highlights a different image or photograph of the universe, with a brief explanation from a professional astronomer.

Yesterday, the photo of the day featured a panorama of Mars. The day before there was a volcano and aurora in Iceland; before that, a “gravitational tractor” that could intercept an earth-threatening asteroid.

Today’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day” shows Westport native (and Staples graduate) Matt Harding dancing in Afghanistan.

The text reads:

What are these humans doing? Dancing.

Many humans on Earth exhibit periods of happiness, and one method of displaying happiness is dancing. Happiness and dancing transcend political boundaries and occur in practically every human society.

Matt Harding traveled through many nations on Earth, planned on dancing, and filmed the result. The video, the latest in a series of similar videos, is perhaps a dramatic example that humans from all over planet Earth feel a common bond as part of a single species. Happiness is frequently contagious — few people are able to watch the above video without smiling.

Last month — the day after it was released — “06880” featured Matt Harding’s now-viral video.

It’s pretty cool that NASA — with millions more viewers “all over planet Earth” — has finally done the same.

To view Matt’s complete video, click the arrow below.

Westport Engineer Prevents World War III

For over 10 years, Marty Yellin was a control systems engineer at Perkin-Elmer.

Starting in 1965, the longtime Westporter helped design key elements of Hexagon — a reconnaissance spacecraft that, one NASA official says, “helped prevent World War III.”

For over 4 1/2 decades, Yellin was forbidden to talk about any aspect of his work.

Until last Saturday.

That’s when — 25 years after the top-secret, Cold War-era mission ended — Hexagon, and 2 other satellite programs were finally declassified.

The public got its first view of the Hexagon spy satellite last Saturday, at the National Air & Space Museum. (Photo courtesy of Roger Guillemette/Space.com

Last weekend Hexagon — along with Gambit and Gambit 3 — were open to the public.  The one-day-only event was held at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum’s Dulles Airport center.

According to MSNBC.com, a throng of joyous National Reconnaissance Office veterans were “finally able to show their wives and families what they actually did ‘at the office’ for so many years.”

It was quite a lot.

MSNBC.com says, “the Hexagon’s panoramic cameras rotated as they swept back and forth while the satellite flew over Earth.”  Intelligence officials called this process “mowing the lawn.”

“Each 6-inch-wide frame of Hexagon film captured a wide swath of terrain covering 370 nautical miles — the distance from Cincinnati to Washington — on each pass over the former Soviet Union and China. The satellites had a resolution of about 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to nearly 1 meter).”

The 60-foot long, 30,000-pound Hexagon carried 4 spools — a phenomenal 60 miles’ worth — of high resolution photographic film on its space surveillance missions.   The spools weighed 3,000 pounds.  Every few months a spool was dropped by parachute from the satellite to a waiting plane, which hooked it and reeled it in.  The force of the giant film would drop the plane 10,000 feet.

From there, the film was sent to an ultra-secret Kodak lab.  It was so sensitive to light that only blind people could work on it, Yellin says.

The developed film was sent to the Pentagon for analysis.

Between 1971 and 1986, NRO launched 20 Hexagon satellites from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

“The final launch in April 1986 — just weeks after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion —  also met with disaster,” MSNBC.Com says.

The Titan 34D booster “erupted into a massive fireball just seconds after liftoff, crippling the NRO’s orbital reconnaissance capabilities for many months.”

Of course, no one outside a small circle of political and military leaders ever heard about this catastrophe.  Marty Yellin, his fellow engineers — and everyone else associated with the spy satellite program — was sworn to secrecy.

Until last Saturday.

This week, Yellin looked back with pride at his decade of work on Hexagon.  He notes that the technology led directly to breakthroughs like the Hubble Telescope.

At the same time, he is awed and humbled by comments like this, from NASA’s Rob Landis:

“You have to give credit to leaders like President Eisenhower, who had the vision to initiate reconnaisance spacecraft.  He was of the generation who wanted no more surprises, no more Pearl Harbors.”

In fact, Landis continues, “I think that Hexagon helped prevent World War III.”

That scares the hell out of Marty Yellin.

“I wonder,” he says.  “What if it didn’t work?

“Would we all be dead now?”