Steely-Eyed Missile Man

My favorite guy in all of NASA history is someone you’ve likely never heard of – John Aaron, the engineer they called the “Steely-Eyed Missile Man.”

ap13-388-may07I’ve been crazy about the space program since I was a kid, but oddly it has never been the astronauts that captured my fancy. I love the guys like Gene Kranz, one of the earliest flight directors. (Ed Harris played him in “Apollo 13.”) Not only was he a great pilot-turned-mission-leader, he was one of those guys who learned every aspect of the program. He had to. His first job upon arriving at the just-built Cape Canaveral base was to write up all the procedures. All of them. Everything from steps before launch to abort procedures to mid-orbit docking maneuvers. He was writing official rules for things that hadn’t been invented yet!

And that’s what I love about all of those crews in the 60s. None of this had ever been done before — had barely been conceptualized — but they believed! And this small band of nerds, armed with math, bravado, and steel, took us to the moon.

The Right Stuff astronauts helped, of course. I’m not discounting their actions, their knowledge, or how heroic it was to strap themselves into a shaky metal cage that was three times more likely to have blown up on the launch pad then to actually complete the missions. Each of the early missions, from Mercury through Gemini and Apollo, had near-brushes with catastrophe. It’s a miracle that we weren’t killing our space cowboys left and right.

What saved them, of course, besides a dollop of ingenuity and a smattering of sheer luck, were the procedures that Kranz and the other early leaders put together. Looking at all the stations in master control, each with a small staff focusing on different aspects, the men who would become the flight controllers were swamped by the enormity of the project. They had simply too many things to consider at any given second, too many potential emergencies to consider. They came up with preset checklists for each station so that at launch they could sum everything up into “Go” or “No Go.”

A “No Go” from any desk meant the launch was delayed; anything else kept them in motion.

These same preset checklists were used for aborting missions, as well. If anything on the list of catastrophes happened, you told Flight it was time to abort.

Their prep lists were so extensive that, even though they were constantly on their toes with surprises and decisions to make, there was almost never a scenario that they hadn’t planned for …

… until Apollo 12 was hit by lightning during take-off.

NASA photograph of the Apollo 12 launch

They didn’t even realize at first that it had happened. So much was happening that the astronauts didn’t get a chance to mention the blinding flash they’d just flown through, and the windowless master control had no visuals. The entire roomful was bent over their individual monitors, scanning data, and doing manual calculations to verify those numbers.

A word about their early computers – these things were so basic they barely deserve to be called computers. They were limited to doing the things that couldn’t be done by humans, basically reporting the gauges and switch positions of everything inside the cockpits. When they had to adjust telemetry, it was easier for these men to pull out a slide rule and do it by hand.

They were rocket scientists, after all.

John Aaron

This is where we get to my man, John Aaron. He was in mission control that day, monitoring the cabin pressure when everything went crazy. Systems left and right blinked out, then came back with scrambled data. As Commander Pete Conrad reported, “We got a bunch of alarms, and … we had everything in the world drop out.”

Mission control spent a minute in panic, desperately trying to analyze flawed data and speculating whether the navigation and life-support systems could still be trusted.

They were on the verge of aborting the mission when Aaron piped up.

“Flight, have the crew take the SCE to Aux.”

He might as well have been speaking Swahili. Nobody had a clue what he was trying to say. The command had to be repeated a few times and even Conrad said, “What the hell is that?”

It turns out, during his training, Aaron had taken an interest in how the systems were put together, even studying a minor unit called the Signal Conditioning Equipment, which supplied power to instruments in the control, fuel cell, booster, and cryogenic systems. The SCE’s power was damaged, so it was undervolting everything down the chain.

They flipped one switch to auxiliary power and within seconds all major systems were back online.

NASA has the Audio feed of Apollo 12 launch available in their archives. Listening only to the main channel, what comes across is how quickly and efficiently everything is fixed. The total time from the lightning strike to resolution is roughly two minutes. During the brief stretch of total quiet, however, master control was in tightly-controlled pandemonium.

It takes a great mind to stay calm and work the problem during intense conditions like that, and NASA put great training into their entire staff to get such results. But taking those twenty seconds to analyze a glitch that had never been reported before and recognize an almost trivial schematic loop, then conceptualize a solution that would save the mission …

That takes a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.


Erwin Schrödinger, Cat Killer

red_cat_eye_picture_jpgSchrodinger was a sick puppy. If you really look at his experiment, it’s very disturbing. In fact, if you stop to look at it in detail, you’ll find a number of things that the common public gets wrong about it.

1. That cat’s gonna die.

There’s no getting around it, the cat is going to end up dead in this experiment. Thank goodness this is “theoretical” physics, because it’s kind of gruesome.

What Schrodinger envisioned was a cat locked into a box with a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, a sample of radioactive material, and a hammer. Sounds like a creepy Tom and Jerry cartoon, doesn’t it?

tomjerry_1The poison is there to kill the cat. The hammer is to smash the poison. The Geiger counter triggers the hammer. And the radioactivity is to freak everyone out and turn the cat into a zombie if the poison doesn’t work.

No, not really. Sorry.

The point of the radioactive material is that it’s unpredictable. At any point it could trigger the geiger counter, which sets in motion the events that will kill the cat. Or it could sit there undetected for a very long time. And if the hammer never smashes the poison, the cat isn’t necessarily dead.

Oh, eventually the cat’s going to either suffocate, be poisoned, or succumb to radiation poisoning. This is basically the physics version of a kitty snuff film. But the point is that at any given moment the scientists won’t know whether it’s still alive. And scientists hate uncertainty like that.

2. So how does this prove that the cat is both dead and alive? It doesn’t. That’s just nonsense.

You and I know that any living thing is either alive or dead, but can never be both. So why do we nod our heads when brilliant scientists say nonsense like this? It’s because they use fancy words like Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Superposition and we start to question the truths that we know.

schrodingers_catIn the famous “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, they stated that any given object can exist in a variety of states. It’s the observer who is important, because the act of observing the object pidgeonholes it into a single state of being.

I’m sure they got a number of medals for that theory, but I’m with Schrodinger in thinking it’s just a fancy way of saying, “Heck, we don’t know.”

The point of his cat experiment is to prove that this isn’t the case, at least not for anything larger than an atom. The cat, quite obviously, is either alive or dead. Saying that it is both at once is just the scientist being lazy – and not wanting to admit that he doesn’t know.

3. You never know what you’ll be famous for.

Shroedinger suggested this whole experiment to disprove the Copenhagen interpretation. I’m certain that he never thought people would take his conclusion seriously, and that eighty years later he’d be known for saying the silly phrase, “The cat is both dead and alive.”

There’s the danger of publishing satire.

The world should just be glad that it didn’t take Jonathan Swift this seriously for his “Modest Proposal.”


p.s. Despite the name of my blog, I am not suggesting that anyone hurl cats into forests. Thank you.



Subliminal Advertising

The thing you should know about subliminal advertising is … absolutely nothing. Why waste brain cells on something that doesn’t exist? And, unlike other silly sciences like, say, alchemy, nobody ever seriously thought it did exist.

Why do we all talk about it, then? Advertising.

The whole concept was a Hail Mary move by a struggling advertising company. This guy, James Vicary, needed a gimmick to compete, so he convinced a movie theater owner that he could improve his concession sales. He rethreaded the film to cut in a few frames here and there with the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola.” Then, after the movie aired for a weekend, he ran to all the other movie joints in the area to brag that he’d increased sales of both popcorn and Coke with this little maneuver.

So did it work? No, not really. That particular weekend did see a slight increase in sales, though it quickly leveled off again and was more likely due to a change in the room temperature of the theater. They certainly never conducted any research on the subject.

Vicary himself admitted in later interviews that the whole thing was a hoax. There is even speculation that the whole thing never happened at all, as no theater ever admitted to working with Vicary on this.

So why on earth do we still talk about it?

A) We are such a paranoid society, constantly worried that someone will make us do something we don’t want to by getting inside our heads. It’s why shrinks make us uncomfortable and stage hypnotists have such clout.

Kids, there is nothing subliminal about this.

B) Vicary wasn’t the last adman to need a hook. Though the FCC quickly banned subliminal advertising from television and movies (just in case it did work), it’s common practice in graphic design to insert or suggest things within graphics – to hide elements of one image within another. This is so prevalent in modern print advertising that a quick search will turn up thousands of websites “exposing” this, but they get the terminology wrong. Subtle or suggestive is not synonymous with subliminal advertising. Or, to put it even more simply:  if you can see it, it’s not subliminal.

C) And finally, it’s exactly the sort of thing that Psychology Departments love to experiment with.*

*Though I’ve always preferred the “electric shock to amplify ESP” experiments, myself.

Oodles of tests have been conducted over the last fifty years trying to link Subliminal Perception to actions. In other words, we know that if you flash images too quickly for the person to fully process what they’ve seen, they still may retain a vague sense of it. But it’s not strong enough to make a person do anything that they weren’t already planning to do. You just can’t manipulate people that easily.

But I’ll give Vicary credit — it would have been a billion dollar idea if it could have worked.

Astronauts are Boring

Astronauts are boring. There, I said it.cool_astronaut

The real reason that nobody cares about the space program these days isn’t just the lame-sounding studies they are always doing; it’s that we no longer have people to root for.

Back in the 60s you had the Right Stuff team, the boys of legend, the guys we still talk about today with awe. But in this century? The only NASA astronaut anyone has heard of in the last decade was the chick who drove cross-country wearing a diaper to confront her ex-boyfriend.

Not inspiring.

So why is it so lame? The change came after we conquered the moon, and therefore checked off everything in easy distance. After that, the techs set their sites on long-range missions and have spent the last few decades doing necessary but utterly boring research: what plants can grow in space; the effects of long-term weightlessness; sustaining life-support systems with no external input. Sure, we need all these things detailed out or the first deep-space crew has no chance.

Ready for this? There is an actual NASA program called “Bed Rest Study” that pays people to stay in bed for months at a time to study how their muscles will atrophy if they cannot walk around. No bathroom breaks. n some studies, they can’t even sit up to eat. The 2013 study paid $18K for 70 days of lying around.

nasa_bedBut the reason the space-race was so exciting in the 60s is that it was a race. We had a goal, we had a short time period, and, man, did we make fast advancements! With no real target in mind, we are now researching for the sake of research. No wonder it feels like we never really accomplish anything.

And the crews! Back in the early days, they were looking for fighter pilots, men who loved danger and excitement and were willing to risk their lives every day to do great things. Today – no lie – the main attributes they are looking for are: quiet, docile, one who follows instructions perfectly. They want groups of people who can live in confined quarters (like the International Space Station) for long periods of time without conflict.

Gone are the Gus Grissoms, the Yeagers. In come the worker bees. This is the century of the space botanist.

pluto_crewThe real excitement of space exploration now comes from a branch of science that didn’t exist until NASA began to stagnate: the Planetary Geologists and Geophysicists. These are the people who, with the help of increasingly powerful microscopes, are finding out what’s going on Out There. These are the crews behind the space probes like the one that just buzzed past Pluto.

Yes, the coolest people in the space program today are right now sitting in their air-conditioned offices, analyzing data.

Wow. I’m as cool as an astronaut!