Thursday, December 26, 2013


Well, going to set aside the Yutu miniature for a while. 
Conflicting information. 
The model I started on was based upon the first bits of information as it became available, and as such was incomplete. More images have since become available, and while my dimensions were pretty good, my proportions weren't.
Going to suspend the work on the model for a while, and probably conclude work on that version. More than likely, before too much longer, I expect some Chinese company to produce their own model of the Jade Rabbit.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Behold, Our Robotic Proxies

The Jade Rabbit & Alan Bean
image by Robert Little
Since the landing and deployment of the Yutu rover on the surface of the Moon, my mind has gone back to thinking about robotic vs. human missions on planetary surfaces. Recently, Katy Levinson posted over at BoingBoing a piece talking about how the Moon really is a harsh mistress ("The Moon is Terrifying, and That's Why I Love It")
As a child, I remember clearly the images of the astronauts after those landings, and especially the later ones. Their once pristine white suits were now dingy, covered with lunar regolith, dust. Lunar dust, it turns out, is nasty stuff. Not only does it cling mercilessly to just about everything, it has sharp edges that makes it something of a real threat, not just to equipment, but to human life. Breathing the stuff could be potentially hazardous.
At the same time I read her article, I was working on a model 1/12.5 scale of the Yutu (still frozen in construction, at the time of this writing). As I analyzed every available image I could about the rover, I made a few observations, and in many ways it truly drove home how this approach is in many ways preferable to having human prospectors at this time. 
As I mentioned in my previous entry, I talked about what dimensions for Yutu that were available. The most stated dimension was its height, 1.5 meters, or around 59 inches. This is very close to the same height as human eyes. The way the camera array is setup on Yutu's mast gives the operators an almost human view of the lunar surface. Not quite telepresence, but close. This makes Yutu more than just a rover, gathering data and performing experiments. 
It is very much a human proxy. That's what my drawing up there symbolizes. 
The Yutu rover is going to be exposed to the elements far longer than any human can as well.
Does this negate sending humans to the Moon, let alone any other world within the Solar System?
I don't believe it does. However, having these robotic pathfinders out there doing the grunt work makes the best sense for now. The time is coming when, once again, human beings will step foot on the surface of these other worlds. Until that day, we should leave it to these mechanical proxies. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Trying To Capture The Jade Rabbit In Miniature

Now that China has become the third nation to successfully land a probe on the surface of the Moon, I felt it necessary to do what I usually do.
I decided to build a model.
This isn't normally such a big deal. Just find a good set of drawings, decide on a scale, and start building. In this case, I decided to build the model in the same scale as the old Mattel/Hot Wheel Mars Pathfinder "Sojourner". Unfortunately, the folks at Mattel didn't post the scale for their little rover. Some measurements put it at around 1/12-1/13, so I decided to split the difference and go for 1/12.5, or thereabouts.
The bigger problem, of course, is the lack of drawings. 
This is really not surprising. The CNSA doesn't seem to normally share this information. Trying to build accurate models of their spacecraft is a little daunting. The only dimension that has really come out is the rover's height, 1.5 meters. Fortunately, the shape of the Yutu rover is pretty simple; a box on a box, with six wheels, a neat little suspension system, a mast with both cameras and a radio dish, some weird little masts on the back.  
Actually, it is a bit more complicated than meets the eye. 
There have been various models displayed, namely this larger one.

This model was the oldest displayed, and in actuality is quite a bit different. The wheels are far different than these, the suspension system as well. The hull has a different shape. In short, not really very accurate, but for a long time, it was all we had.
Then, they began showing this model.

(Those Taikonauts are not to scale, by half!)

This one is much closer to the final design. At an indicated scale of 1/8, it seems to show most of the details that actually made it to the operational rover. In fact, there appears to have been a prototype photographed as well, different in small details but otherwise very close

This is the actual Yutu on the Moon.

Looking at the 1/8th scale models, though, there are questions about some details. These details are on the operational rover as well. For instance, on the PV (solar) panels are pairs of probes that stick up for no apparent reason.

The set on the right panel (left in this image) are actually larger in diameter, more like tubes, whilst those on the left (right here) are nothing more than thin rods. Because the panels fold one on top of the other, my guess is that these serve as supports. The port panel folds over the starboard panel. These supports prevent the fragile PV cells from bouncing off one another; the port pair rests inside the tubular starboard, probably down to a stop, while the starboard supports rest against the "floor" of the case on top of Yutu. A simple yet elegant solution.
While I cannot be certain what the other masts and antenna do, at least I have a better idea of their location on the actual rover. We will wait to see if CNSA releases more information. I expect a model to appear soon, but in the meantime, I will plug away on mine.

That little rover below the shiny, foil covered box?
Yes, that's the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover from 1997.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Starship Dreaming.

Like many who became enamored with space, I grew up with a healthy dose of "Star Trek". I was too young to remember when it premiered, but I do remember seeing the final few episodes on NBC in 1969. They re-ran it for a season or two in syndication, but it was gone from the airwaves in Jacksonville by 1971. It returned to the air on WJKS-TV, channel 17, in early 1974, at 5 P.M., and immediately I began watching it. As a starry eyed youth with dreams of space, "Star Trek" was the perfect show. Not only did it give me spaceships; it gave me a daily morality play as well as good stories. I was hooked.
It was that way for the next year and a half, until "Space:1999" premiered. For the first few episodes of this new show, I was convinced that my "Star Trek" days were behind me. A few episodes later, I began to have my doubts. While the designs from "Space:1999" were in many ways better, the stories were a bit too philosophical and a touch slow. 
It was in late 1975 that I met a fellow Trekkie named Greg Staylor. (I am probably misspelling the last name). He lived nearby, and was one of the few people I knew who had picked up copies of those most desired items; the blueprints to the "Enterprise", and the "Starfleet Technical Manual". Both came from the mind of Franz Joseph Schnaubelt (or as we knew him, Franz Joseph). 
My recently turned thirteen year old mind was amazed. Greg let me look through that manual for hours once, and I couldn't put it down.
Over the next few weeks, my mind was abuzz with my own Starfleet designs. Most of them were support craft, cargo carriers, tugs, exploration vessels, etc. But one would stick out.
The U.S.S. Los Angeles.
I recall naming it after the US Navy dirigible, and pictured a small class named likewise. This would only have been like four ships, the Los Angeles, the Shenandoah, the Akron, and the Macon. By the time of "Star Trek," the original series, it was the sole survivor.
Because I knew it was old, akin to the legendary DY-100/Botany Bay class vessels, I decided to borrow from vessels that looked late 20th-early 21st century. It had a primary hull that was spherical, maybe 37 meters (121 feet) in diameter. Length was around 243 meters (800 feet). That basic design borrowed heavily from the "Discovery" from "2001: A Space Odyssey", as well as the designs built by Martin Bower for "Space:1999". 
What separated it from those designs were the two warp nacelles. 
I did a profile drawing of the ship, along with a full description and history, on a notepad that I did all the starships in. 
When my eighth grade school year began, I brought in the notepad to show my art teacher, Mrs. Sullivan. She was very impressed, and encouraged me to do more.
As the school day was ending, a fellow student named Steve came up behind me, knocked the pad out of my hands, and took off with it. Days of pleading, even giving him a bribe of $5, never saw the notepad returned. 
It was simply gone.
But I never forgot that design.
Recently, I had the design come to mind while finishing up a story that involved my thirteen year old alter ego in 1976. After all these years, I never forgot that ship.
Today, I decided to resurrect it. 
This is just a quick sketch, really. It captures the design well. What's different is that my skill as an artist has improved. 

So, what has changed about the ship?
The Los Angeles is not an official Starfleet vessel, so it is not "U.S.S.". It is operated by a civilian crew and spends most of its time near the major Solar System based naval yards. It is based out of Utopia Planitia Yards, Mars. The design allows for easy removal of the warp nacelles (in this case, labelled "TEST", with yellow and black diagonal bands on their sides). Most of the time, it operates using impulse power. When it does do warp drive testing, it normally travels no further than a few light years out. The forward nacelle mounts can slide in tracks down the length of the spine of the ship, allowing for various lengths to be tested. As per my original story, not only is it very old, it is also the sole survivor of its class.
It felt good to bring this design back to life. For a couple of hours today, I was that thirteen year old again, huddled over my dining room table, carefully designing one of my first starships.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

An "Inspirational" Idea?

For the past couple of months, many of us in space circles were waiting for more details on entrepreneur  Dennis Tito's "Inspiration Mars" concept, and in the last week, they were revealed.
In what is surely a case of ironic timing, we may have been handed a turkey of sorts. 
Tito's plans are contingent upon a partnership with NASA. In fact, it relies upon the US government buying into the plans and helping to fund the project. Tito's group is convinced that the mission is possible for less than $1 billion USD, of which the US government would pay a healthy chunk of.
For those following the mission, the idea is simply this; it will carry two explorers (I hesitate to use the word astronaut or any other naut for that matter) on a fly-by of the planet Mars. It uses a mixture of NASA and commercial spacecraft design, and on paper, looks possible. 

Behold, Inspiration Mars.
Image courtesy
The question is whether the US government is willing to foot the bill. Of course, there are other concerns. This concept relies heavily upon untried hardware. There is the question of safety. And of course the question as to why just a fly-by, why not press for a landing?
The biggest hurdle, though, considering all those concerns, is the date; he would like to be able to do this by 2018.
That's really not that far away.
As optimistic as I'd like to be, I just do not see how this is possible. We're talking four years from now. 


The idea of human crewed interplanetary fly-bys goes back to the beginning of the "space race". Some of the better mission concepts grew out of the Apollo program, and borrowed heavily from that hardware heritage. In 1965, McDonnell/Douglas proposed a fly-by that would utilize four Saturn V launches, with three carrying into orbit fully fueled S-IVB. These would be assembled in tandem to form a booster stage. A fourth Saturn launch would carry up the last component, another S-IVB and the Apollo/Mars portion of the space craft. Total length of time for building the spacecraft on orbit would be thirty days. Mission duration would be 655 days. They believed it could be done by 1974.
The McDonnell/Douglas Mars Mission, visualized, 1974.
Drawing by Robert Little
The closest the spacecraft would get to the Red Planet would be 3000 miles. That is a lot further than Tito's 100 mile fly-by. 
As the Apollo-derived ship would fly-by Mars, it would deposit a large unmanned lander. This has since been done, repeatedly, using robotic craft. This has proven to be a far cheaper alternative. 
There were other fly-by concepts. One my favorite's is a model kit, the "Pilgrim Observer", which was released by MPC in the early 1970's. It was a large NERVA powered spacecraft that would be launched on a single Saturn V, and then proceed to dive towards the planet Venus, and then outwards towards Mars, finally returning to Earth. It had other advantages that the aforementioned Apollo derived mission did not. It had three lobes that would deploy, and the whole spacecraft would then spin to produce centrifugal force, supplying artificial gravity to the twelve person crew. It would carry a telescope. It also had an "Apollo M" module, a small service craft. All this, and simply a fly-by mission. 

The Pilgrim Observer, an interplanetary mission unhindered by reality.
Image courtesy Round 2 Models
Of course, when you are dealing with a model, you have plenty of creative license. 
Dennis Tito and his Inspiration Mars Foundation are not planning a model, though they are certainly creative. It is this project's ambition that may be its undoing. This 501 day mission may never leave the ground, but you certainly can't fault them for their creativity. 


On a personal note, I remain skeptical. Our own government is retreating from human spaceflight. The argument has been made that robotic missions are far cheaper, and have accomplished quite a bit. Still, the romantic notion that the Inspiration Mars project presents is alluring, and who is to say, I could be wrong. I just doubt that not only will our government shy away, I suspect that this might prove far more daunting than expected.
Still, we can dream.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Feeling the Effects of "Gravity"

This past weekend saw the opening of what I feel is the best space movie to date, even better than "2001: A Space Odyssey". The movie "Gravity" deals with a space mission gone horribly wrong. This has been a recurrent theme in most space movies, and repeatedly points to the obvious.
Space is a dangerous place.
In spite of this danger, humans have felt compelled to go there for the past five decades. Things have gone wrong, yet we still go, with more countries seeking human access to space, if only in slow steps. 
Space enthusiasts have had to endure the naysayers for decades, and whenever a movie premiers that shows what can go wrong, they usually fear that it will have a negative effect.
What is important to note, however, is that most movies dealing with space have built around the danger to be found there. For instance, while the basic theme to "2001" was humanity's discovery that we are not alone in the universe (and, indeed, these beings shaped our destiny), it also dealt with how dangerously alien an environment space. Not long after "2001" was released, the movie "Marooned" dealt with a crew being trapped in orbit after the failure of their Apollo spacecraft to have retro-burn and begin de-orbit. In the 1950's, the potential problems of spaceflight manifested themselves time and time again, from the first modern space movie, "Destination Moon", forward (I should mention "Rocketship X-M". another mission gone wrong. While released before "Destination Moon", it was actually made in response to it). Time and time again, the movies have shown the hazards of spaceflight. 
And yet, we still chose to go. 
Many of my colleagues who fear that "Gravity" will have a detrimental effect on interest in spaceflight have legitimate concerns. However, I feel that the biggest threat to public interest in spaceflight has little to do with entertainment and more to do with attrition and a lack of effort to get the positive word out. That's the challenge. For those of us who fear that humanity will be forever stuck on this sensitive little ball of mud, and who also feel that the best hope not just humanity, but life itself, has to be the moving beyond our world, it is easy to see this lack of interest as a death knell. It isn't, and shouldn't be; it is simply a setback. 
When skeptics approach us with negativism and point to movies such as "Gravity" as proof that going into space is folly, just remind them that the oceans of the world are littered with hundreds of examples of what was once before also considered "folly". Dangers exist, yes, but we press on.

Friday, April 12, 2013

STS-1 and Me

Thirty two years ago today was a Sunday. I was to be graduating high school in a little over a month and a half. On that Sunday morning, I finally got to watch the culmination of a decade of dreaming, the first flight of a space shuttle.
It would be pointless to go into what the space shuttle was, how different it was to the previous generation of spacecraft. It was supposed to be inexpensive, the child of differing, sometimes vastly so, requirements. 
To me, and to a lot of people, it was still lovely, and so different from what some of us were expecting. 
When the idea was first proposed, it was a fully reusable system, and was equipped with straight wings. The original orbiter design's payload capacity was much smaller, because fuel would be carried internally.
The powers that be, though, lacked the vision, it seemed, and NASA's budget was whittled even more as the Apollo missions wound down. The Department of Defense was also interested, so between the budget changes and military requirements, the final craft was smaller with a larger payload capacity though not fully reusable. The largest component, the massive external tank, was designed to burn up after it was emptied. 
All of this stuff was not alien to me that Sunday morning more than three decades ago. We were supposed to be heading for church, and the sky was much like it is right now, somewhat overcast, with storms almost reaching the launch site not quite a hundred and fifty miles further south. 
It was looking iffy, and I needed to be getting ready for mass.
I stayed at the television, however, watching Walter Cronkite, while the rest of the family got dressed. 
If it was space related, there were only two sources I trusted on network news. Walter Cronkite at CBS, and Jules Bergman at ABC. Today, as it had been with Apollo 11, it would be, it had to be, Cronkite. 
The actual launch was something I couldn't wait to see. This was the first time in the history of the US space program that a manned spacecraft would have its first, full on test flight with a crew. No unmanned missions, all the test flights would have crews. There was a real element of danger here, especially where some of the components, namely the tiles, were concerned.
This was expressed over and over again in the days and minutes leading up to the launch. Robert Crippen and John Young, the crew, appeared steadfast and committed. A part of me wondered, and still does, what was really going on in their minds.
What would a shuttle look like at launch, though, how about that, I wondered. A summer night two years earlier, some friends and I went to go see the James Bond movie "Moonraker". As dreadful as the movie was, it still met one of my basic requirements at the time; it had a spaceship in it, and one based upon actual hardware. 
The launches that Derrick Meddings, the special effects director for the film, produced looked great, fiery and smokey. The Moonraker shuttles rose on columns of fire much like the old Saturn V, nice, a little slowly, and majestically.
And as it turned out, completely wrong.
At the appointed time, 7:00 A.M., following a few seconds of main engine burn, the solid rocket boosters ignited and the shuttle, the whole stack, leapt from the pad. It was as if, after waiting so long, it was in a hurry, plain eager, to get into orbit. The whole area surrounding the launch pad was engulfed by thick blankets of smoke, much more than I think anyone truly expected. Columbia roared up and above it very quickly. 
As the rocket climbed, the broadcasters (including Cronkite himself) all commented on the way the shuttle climbed, literally rocketed, off the pad. 
My pulse was rocketing as well. I also think I was crying. It was beautiful. It was finally happening. This wasn't a capsule, this was an honest to goodness spaceship. This was going to make going into space routine. Why I bet that by the time I forty we'll have had missions to Mars and a moon base, maybe even a space station or two. And there'd be plenty of shuttles, as surely there'd have to be a similar craft to follow the shuttle, right?
It climbed, shedding its boosters and arching towards the east. The tracking cameras soon only showed a small speck heading towards space. 
As the shuttle disappeared, I was reminded that I had to get ready for church. What I wanted to do was stay and watch.
It was later that day that I would catch up, and found that some tiles had dropped off the OMS pods, and there were concerns. But the crew and NASA were certain that the ship would be alright. 
We all thought it would be alright.
At least I thought it would be alright.
The mission ended, the shuttle inspected, the flight declared a success, a new era of spaceflight had begun. 
At last, space felt closer than ever. Much closer.

Winking Yuri!

I love Gimp...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sucker for the Shuttle

Tomorrow, April 12, 2013, will be the 32nd anniversary of space shuttle Columbia's inaugural flight, and the beginning of the STS, the Space Transportation System. It was a day I had waited for since 1971, when I first heard the word "space shuttle".
Now, the idea of a shuttle vehicle really wasn't that unusual to me. I was eight, and I saw the shuttlecraft Galileo, and others, on "Star Trek". Of course, this wasn't the same thing. It was akin to a ship's launch, lowered over the side and rowed ashore when necessary, not that you were actually rowing these shuttlecraft onto those planetary shores. But my hazy memory of that time during the summer of 1971 is still there, as we watched the Apollo 15 mission.
I do not recall if it was an official NASA animation. Strangely, my memory recalls it as a commercial for Tang. But they showed animation for the next phase to follow Apollo, a winged spaceship that was carried up on the back of another, larger winged vehicle. They called it the space shuttle.

Spaceships with wings weren't new to me, either. With a healthy, regular dose of old science fiction films, I knew that real spaceships were supposed to have wings. Walt Disney said they would, so did George Pal, both back in the 1950's. And even if they didn't have wings, they had fins and were streamlined.

Courtesy Fantastic Plastic

I didn't quite know who Werhner von Braun was, or that he was one of the early propagators of winged spaceships. I knew about the X-15, though, courtesy of World Book Encyclopedia, and I knew it could go pretty high and pretty fast. I'd even had a model of a winged spacecraft, the booster stage of Revell's "Atomic Space Explorer Solaris", a reissue/rehash of their "Helios" spaceship from a decade earlier. So winged spaceships were not a strange idea to me. That NASA was seriously considering doing it basically blew my little mind.
I tried as best I could to follow the development of the program, but I was a pretty typical nerdy kid, messing with model rockets, chemistry sets and building plastic kits. In the fall of 1973, when I really started getting into model rockets, I discovered that Centuri Model Rockets had made a model based upon the initial straight wing, flyback booster shuttle design. 
Clearly, this thing was going to happen.

What I didn't know was that NASA had already finalized the design, a compromise from all the requirements being foisted upon it; smaller budget, bigger payload, smaller budget, defense requirements, smaller budget. It was a year later that Popular Science published an article that really proved, again, that NASA was going to do this thing, just in a different way.

Clearly, they were really going to do it. Really.
Over the next few years, I followed its development. When the last Apollo mission flew, not to the Moon but to low Earth orbit to meet the Soviets in a show of detente, the anticipated four year gap leading up the shuttle's first launch, from summer of 1975 to 1979, seemed like forever. 
When you're a kid, four years is a very long time.
But I followed it, with the most rapt attention my pre-teen (and soon teen) brain could muster.
I watched the CBS Evening News in the summer of 1976 as they rolled out the first shuttle, the Enterprise, with most of the cast "Star Trek" on hand. I was giddy. "Enterprise"! Cool! I gobbled up magazine articles whenever possible.

As the shuttle program was rolling along, they were making changes. The colors, the markings, the names ("Kitty Hawk" was one of the names considered). Estes Model Rockets was now doing shuttle, and it looked nice. Complicated, yes. But nice.

The first plastic kits were hitting the shelves at Art's Hobby Shop by the summer of 1977, and yours truly was there. Didn't buy any, because I couldn't afford to, but I was there nevertheless. 
More magazine and newspaper articles, and some harsh truths.

Not only an ad, but an iron on.

The official names finally came out, and the first bird up would be "Columbia". Enterprise, having served its purpose, was to be retired (I gasped, too). However, NASA was going to have to delay the program. There would be no launches in 1979 for certain, and 1980 looked a little. Bit. More.Certain.
Then they pushed it back to early 1981. The machine that had promised to lower the price of going into low Earth orbit was proving complicated and fairly expensive.
A lot more expensive.
All of the compromises led to problems no one anticipated. It was around that time that one of my teachers taught me a little known engineering axiom. In short, low development costs almost always lead to high operating costs (probably no longer true, but you get the idea).
Not that any of this really mattered to me at the time.
When Columbia finally rose off the pad that Sunday morning thirty two years ago, none of that mattered. All that mattered was that the shuttle, our wings into space, was really flying. Finally.