Friday 19 April 2024

The Total Solar Eclipse of April 8, 2024

The author and the eclipse on April 8, 2024

The millions of people who saw a total solar eclipse for the first time on April 8, 2024, now know about the power and magnificence of this celestial spectacle.

The April eclipse was the second of two total solar eclipses that were visible in North America in recent years, the first being the eclipse of August 21, 2017, that crossed the United States. Those two eclipses ended a long draught of total solar eclipses in North America that began in February, 1979. Both once seemed part of a distant future. Now eclipse chasers will have to travel to other parts of the world if they don’t want to wait for the next eclipse in North America, which won’t happen until 2044.

I saw the 1979 eclipse in Manitoba and the 2017 eclipse in Oregon, and I have written about them elsewhere in this blog. After 2017, I faced a difficult decision: where should I go to see the 2024 eclipse? The decision wasn’t simple because of the path of this eclipse and the fact that April weather is more problematical than the August weather we dealt with in 2017.

The narrow path of this year’s total eclipse first touched land in Mexico near Mazatlan and headed northeast through the U.S. starting in Texas and across several states, including Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, Vermont and Maine. The eclipse’s path also included parts of Canada, including parts of southern Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. Totality passed south of Toronto but was visible in parts of Montreal and in other centres such as Hamilton, Kingston, Sherbrooke, Fredericton and Gander. Most of the rest of the continent got a partial solar eclipse.

The weather on April 8 was more likely to be favourable in Mexico and Texas than elsewhere. Hotel bookings and transportation in those areas would be expensive and complicated. The odds of good weather in the Canadian portion of the eclipse on April 8 were less than 50-50. Each of the past few years on April 8, I checked the weather along the eclipse path, and most years in Canada it was cloudy.

In part because of the pandemic, I didn’t make arrangements for the eclipse years in advance as I had done for the 2017 eclipse. As 2024 dawned, I concluded it was too late to arrange a trip to Mexico or Texas for a reasonable price. I know many people in Toronto, but I felt that too many people chasing the eclipse in Hamilton and points south might complicate things. So I decided to go to Windsor, Ontario, just outside the path of totality. We have relatives there, and it would be relatively easy to cross the border there to chase the eclipse in Ohio if necessary. But it was still a big gamble, and I made sure I had other things to do to justify the trip.

I didn’t get carried away with long range forecasts for eclipse day since I had already made my plans. About a week before the eclipse, I began to see social media posts from my friend Alan Dyer, who has literally written the book on photographing solar eclipses. For this master of astrophotography, failure was not an option when it came to choosing a suitable place to see and photograph the 2024 eclipse. Setting out from his home in Alberta, Alan found that contrary to expectations, the weather in Texas was not promising. He decided to drive in the general direction of eastern Canada.

As the eclipse day got closer, weather predictions called for clouds in southern Ontario, and when I arrived in Toronto on April 4, I was greeted with cold, cloudy and rainy weather. Alan drove on to Quebec, where prospects for clear skies looked better. Two days before the eclipse as I made my way to Windsor, the skies cleared. Things were looking more promising, but clouds were still predicted for April 8.

The night before, the prediction was still more promising for Ohio than the Windsor area, and Ohio locations were closer to the centreline of the eclipse, which promised a longer period of totality. I prepared to cross the border.

April 8 dawned in Windsor with blue skies. The forecast still called for clouds in the mid afternoon, when the eclipse was due to take place. The forecasts for Ohio called for longer periods of cloudiness in the afternoon, which I feared meant thicker clouds, and so I decided to stay in Canada.

Accompanied by my wife, along with her sister and her husband, we drove south from Windsor through Amherstberg into the path of totality. Many eclipse chasers in the area were already arriving in Point Pelee Park, which was closer to the centreline but involved very limited access, so I thought we might set up in Leamington. Before we got there, we found a great spot to watch the eclipse at Colchester Harbour and Beach. The Windsor Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) had set up tents and telescopes there, a restaurant, coffee shop and other facilities were nearby, and scores of people were already settling in to watch the eclipse over Lake Erie.

Looking south across Lake Erie, we saw a bank of clouds that everyone hoped would stay where it was. But true to the prediction, the clouds moved our way and covered the sun as the partial phase of the eclipse began a little before 1 p.m. Fortunately, the clouds weren’t very thick and we could follow the Moon as it covered the face of the Sun, a view assisted by our eclipse glasses or the filtered ‘eclipse telescope’ I brought along.

A half hour ahead of totality, the temperature in the area began to noticeably cool. I recall the temperature reduction in the 2017 eclipse cooling closer to the time of totality, but that was in the warmer weather of August.

Finally, at about 3:12 p.m., totality began. We were amongst the first to see totality that day from Canadian soil. The transition from needing eclipse glasses to full totality with the naked eye seemed to be prolonged to me, but finally we got our 90 seconds of totality and dark skies. Venus was plainly visible through the thin layer of cloud, but I don’t recall seeing Jupiter or any other celestial object. The incandescent but not overpowering glow of the Sun’s corona took centre stage. No photo has ever done justice to that sight.

In the moments leading into and out of totality, the lighting of the area took on a strange hue. During totality, my viewpoint overlooking Lake Erie allowed me to see the approaching “sunset” to the west and the receding “sunrise” to the east. During this time, I took a couple of photos of the sun and of the light effects around the horizon with my iPhone, and I set up my iPad to film totality. I wanted to spend most of totality enjoying the view rather than spending a lot of time messing with cameras.

All too soon, totality was over, and soon people started to leave. We remained for most of the rest of the eclipse to savour the incredible spectacle. By the time we drove back to Windsor, all the clouds had disappeared. So had the crowds, and as a result we encountered no traffic jams.

The hours and days that followed seemed to be a giant debrief on this event. Who got a good view of the eclipse? Who got skunked by the weather? Those were the major topics of conversation with everyone I met. The evening of April 8 I attended a meeting of the Victoria Centre of the RASC on Zoom, and a few days later I attended a meeting of the RASC Mississauga Centre in person, both full of eclipse talk.

To sum things up, those in or near Mazatlan, some on cruise ships, enjoyed clear views, and the weather in Texas was not great but allowed brief glimpses of the Moon blocking the Sun. Most people who saw the eclipse from both the north and south sides of Lake Erie got a good view of the eclipse through thin clouds. Those who viewed the eclipse from Niagara Falls and eastern Ontario had to deal with thicker clouds, which meant fleeting views of totality or no view at all. The weather was better in Montreal, and those in Sherbrooke and the surrounding area enjoyed clear skies. I heard reports of good weather in New Brunswick and not so good weather in Newfoundland. Alan Dyer got his photos. Only a few people I know missed all of totality.

So the viewing conditions for the 2024 total solar eclipse turned out to be less than perfect but better than most of us could hope for. My friends who had never seen a total solar eclipse were most impressed by the sight. Many found that the eclipse stirred their emotions.

Many astronomical events don’t impress non-astronomers, and that is even truer today when some events such as “Supermoons” are overhyped by people in the media or on the internet. But total solar eclipses never fail to impress, as they should, since they are so rare and so amazing.

Now the question arises - when is the next one? August 12, 2026, in Greenland, Iceland and Spain. In North America, the wait will go on until August 23, 2044. How long will my wait go on? That's a decision for another time.

Friday 10 November 2023

Asteroid (20041) Gainor

A representation of the orbit of (20041) Gainor, with its position on November 9, 2023 (NASA JPL)

This week the Working Group on Small Bodies Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) published its latest list of about 40 new names it had approved for minor planets. Twenty of them were named after Canadians, including a number of people I know from my involvement in astronomy. One was named (20041) Gainor, after me.

(20041) Gainor had been discovered on December 18, 1992, by Japanese astronomers A. Natori and T. Urata, and it was known as 1992YH before this week. Over time after the original discovery, additional observations had shown that it is in the Main Belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, about three times as far away from the Sun as the Earth. It takes 1523 days or more than four years, to make one orbit of the Sun. The asteroid is 5.167 km in diameter and rotates every 2.62 hours, and it is tilted nearly 14 degrees to the ecliptic.

The biography issued with ‘my’ asteroid, which can also be called 20041 Gainor, notes that I am "a Canadian journalist, historian and amateur astronomer with a PhD in the history of technology from the University of Alberta. He has written six books about aerospace, including Not Yet Imagined, the operational history of the Hubble Space Telescope, published by NASA in 2021. Gainor was President of the RASC in 2018–2020.”

The first asteroid, Ceres, was discovered in 1801, and today roughly half a million minor planets have been assigned a number. So far, only about 20,000 have been named. Discoverers have 10 years to suggest a name, after which the naming goes to the IAU’s Minor Planet Center. Names must be 16 characters or less, one word (although first and last names are often combined), pronounceable, non-offensive, non-commercial, and not too similar to an existing name.

Today many astronomers, usually armed with cameras, along with automated telescopes and even satellites, are involved in the search for asteroids, particularly those that might collide with the Earth. Multiple observations are required to establish the path of each asteroid. Canadians are involved in the search for asteroids, including some who use the Plaskett Telescope at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich, B.C., a few miles away from my home. Others are consulted on good names for asteroids, and I thank those people for their role in this honour.

This week’s list of minor planets from the IAU includes the names of several friends from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, including my Victoria Centre colleague Lauri Roche, and prominent science journalists like Ivan Semeniuk, Dan Falk and Nicole Mortillaro, along with environmentalist David Suzuki, the best known Canadian in this list. The others on the list come from a variety of countries and occupations, the best known being the namesake of (332884) Arianagrande.

Right now (20041) Gainor is more difficult than usual to see because it is on the other side of the Sun from the Earth. Even when the asteroid and the Earth are on the same side of the Sun some months from now, it will be very dim - around 13th magnitude. But I hope to get a chance to see it some time.

Wednesday 2 August 2023

Canada World Youth, 50 years later

The author and friends in Fiji, 1974

Fifty years this week I boarded an Air Canada flight that took me from my home in Edmonton to Toronto, which I had never visited before. I was just a few weeks out of high school, and like many other people at that point in their lives, I was unsure about what direction my life would take in the years ahead, aside from a general intention to go to university.

I was joining a youth exchange program then in its second year of operation called Canada World Youth (CWY) or Jeunesse Canada Monde (JCM). From my arrival in Toronto through the next nine months into May 1974, I would travel with other young people, most of them like me just out of high school, around Canada and then to an exchange country, in our case, Fiji in the South Pacific.

In its first year, 1972-1973, CWY had youth exchanges with Cameroon, Mexico, Malaysia, Tunisia, and Yugoslavia involving 240 youth from Canada and another 300 from the exchange countries. As I applied and went through CWY’s selection process in June and July 1973, there was no mention that Fiji was amongst the possible exchange countries in the coming year. I had no idea about going to Fiji until I received a letter in mid-July announcing my selection for the program.

CWY was the brainchild of Jacques Hébert (1923-2007), a Montréal journalist, author and publisher who was a close friend of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, then the prime minister of Canada. Later on, Hébert founded a similar organization for youth, Katimavik, and was named to the Senate by Trudeau. Although CWY was a private organization, most of its funding in its early years came from the federal government.

In its original form, CWY was seen to be an educational experience stressing group living and immersion in cultures differing in religion, language, ethnic origin and form of government from our own. Our Fiji team in year two (1973-1974) started with three groups of 10 Canadians, plus three group leaders and two coordinators. Since many of the Canadian participants came from Québec, the cross cultural aspect of our program began immediately, and a few weeks later, when each Canadian group was enlarged by a similar number of Fijian participants and staff, there was much more cross cultural exposure for everyone.

Fiji had been a British colony for nearly 100 years until it gained its independence in 1970. During Fiji’s colonial period, the British authorities introduced indentured labour from India, and by the time of independence, the populations of indigenous Fijians and those with roots in India were nearly equal. As subsequent history that includes military coups would prove, the two groups have had an uneasy relationship.

The 1970s also was a time when support for separatism was growing in Québec, especially in our age group. Since a Québec election took place during our sojourn in that province, our time in CWY was also something of a crash course in Canadian political differences.

Much of what we learned in CWY showed that our home country was far from perfect, especially from the viewpoint of distant countries that were subject to the attentions of Canadian-based corporations.

Our four-and-a-half months in Fiji, which began just before New Year’s 1974, immersed us in the realities of people who lived in what was then called the Third World. This meant a much different standard of living and many features of the colonial experience, including residential schools for many indigenous Fijians. Up to that time I had lived my life in a province where multiculturalism lay in the future. In Fiji I had the edifying experience of living in places where I was the visible minority.

For me CWY was a most thorough educational experience that taught me much about the world, my country, and also myself. One of the paradoxical strengths of that experience was that it was so poorly organized. Many of us had grown up in situations where we had become accustomed to having our lives looked after. In CWY we had to pick up the pieces of what had been planned for us, which involved living in isolated communities and helping out with various community projects.

Some participants in our team had difficulty coping with the challenges presented by CWY, and many including me had issues readapting to home after our CWY exchange was over. Later on I learned that Canadian participants in exchanges with other countries had far worse problems than we did in Fiji.

We also learned that the Fijian participants were not happy with their time in CWY, since they wanted more practical educational experiences that would help them build up their homes and their country. As a result, Fiji remained in the program only for one more year.

Canada World Youth changed and evolved over the years. In our year we had three month-long projects in various parts of Canada and then three or four projects in Fiji. Soon CWY changed its format so that participants took part in fewer but longer community projects that benefited host communities more and provided more practical benefit to the participants. CWY became better with time.

Over time, government funding for CWY fell away, and CWY came to rely on private sources of funding, including funds raised by participants.

Canada World Youth was often compared with the U.S. Peace Corps. But the Peace Corps involved sending skilled workers to developing countries, unlike CWY, which was built around two-way exchanges not necessarily involving skilled people.

In later years, CWY got involved in projects in Canada promoting reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples. But the lengthy COVID-19 pandemic forced CWY to suspend operations, and the disruption the pandemic caused made it difficult for the organization to resume activity. So last fall, just as CWY passed its 50th anniversary, it closed down.

Over the decades since my own CWY experience ended, I have run into many former CWY participants and staff who became activists and community leaders, and this legacy continues.

Today we are living in a time when we are facing global problems such as pandemics and climate change, problems that are being met too often by forms of ignorance such as nationalism, nativism, and wilful denial of reality. To combat these forms of ignorance, more than ever we need more educational opportunities like Canada World Youth for up-and-coming generations.

Tuesday 18 July 2023

Peter Armitage, NASA Engineer worked at Avro Canada 1929-2023

Peter Armitage (left) with Astronaut Virgil I. Grissom during Mercury recovery testing exercise in 1961.

Peter Armitage, one of the last of the British and Canadian engineers who helped form the nucleus of NASA’s early human space programs, died on July 10 at age 94 in Houston, Texas. During his career at NASA, Armitage helped develop recovery systems for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, and later managed the Lunar Receiving Laboratory and the Space and Life Sciences Directorate at the Johnson Space Center.

He was one of 32 engineers hired by the newly formed NASA in 1959 after the Canadian government cancelled the CF-105 Avro Arrow jet interceptor program. Most of those engineers had come to Avro Canada from the United Kingdom.

Peter John Armitage was born on March 5, 1929, in Leeds, Yorkshire, the son of a tool and die maker and a seamstress. As a youth, Armitage learned from an uncle how to machine metal parts, and his family moved to the south of England after his father lost his job. As World War II broke out, his family lived in Hamble, a small village just outside of Southampton, and the young Armitage was selected to be an “aircraft spotter” for his school. When they saw approaching German aircraft, Armitage and his fellow spotters rang bells, and the students entered the air raid shelter, and throughout his life, Armitage maintained his love for the Supermarine Spitfire and other aircraft of that era.

When the war ended, Armitage got work as a trainee draughtsman in the aircraft industry and undertook studies at Southampton University. In 1948 he got work at the Cierva Autogiro Company, working on the Skeeter light observation helicopter that was used by the British Army. In 1950, Armitage was drafted into the Royal Air Force (RAF), and after flight training, Armitage was posted to the RAF 617 squadron, which had won fame in the war as the ‘Dam Busters.’ His decision to leave the RAF after two years may have saved his life because his RAF crewmates were killed on a mission shortly after he left.

Armitage got work at Folland Aircraft, where he worked on the wing structure of a lightweight fighter called the Midge, the forerunner to the aircraft known in the RAF as the Gnat. Persuaded by a colleague to apply for a job at Avro Canada in Toronto, Armitage was chosen and he sailed for Canada in November 1952. His stay in Canada was interrupted in 1955 and 1956 when Avro gave him a scholarship to study at the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield, where he earned his master’s degree.

While serving at RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire, Armitage met his future wife June Blackett, and they were married in Toronto in 1954. They had four sons.

At Avro Canada, Armitage worked on flight testing of the CF-100 Canuck subsonic jet interceptor, which Avro produced in large numbers for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and for the Avro Arrow, which the Canadian government controversially cancelled on February 20, 1959, during early flight testing, throwing hundreds of engineers and thousands of others out of work.

A few days after it began operations in October 1958, NASA started its first human space program, Project Mercury, at the Space Task Group (STG) at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Because STG badly needed skilled engineers, STG leaders including Robert Gilruth flew to Toronto to interview Avro engineers after the Arrow was cancelled. In April STG hired 25 Avro Canada engineers, and another seven joined NASA later. The immigration process for the new recruits was accelerated, and when Armitage and some of his former Avro colleagues reported for work on April 27, 1959, they went through their employment induction process at the same time as the seven new Mercury astronauts.

Armitage was soon assigned to the recovery branch, and for much of the next decade at STG and the Manned Spacecraft Center (later renamed after Lyndon B. Johnson), which succeeded STG in 1962, Armitage was involved in testing recovery systems for Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. These systems included parachutes, the landing bag on the base of the Mercury capsule that absorbed forces at splashdown and kept the spacecraft upright in the water, Gemini’s paraglider which was cancelled before flights began, much to Armitage’s relief, and on Apollo the plans to protect Earth from possible contamination from possible biological agents from the Moon.

In 1961 Armitage joined his British colleagues from STG on an informal NASA cricket team that played a game against a cricket team from nearby William and Mary University, which the university team won. The NASA cricket team reformed in 1964 but a planned game against visiting Royal Navy sailors never took place because of an approaching hurricane. Along with many other engineers who had worked at Avro, Armitage became a citizen of the United States in 1964.

Gilruth gave Armitage an “out of the blue” assignment when a Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) crashed in 1968, nearly killing astronaut Neil Armstrong. Armitage directed a flight certification program for the remaining LLTV before training with the vehicle was allowed to resume. With Apollo recovery systems set in 1969, Armitage attended management school at Stanford University in California on a Sloan Fellowship.

When he returned to Houston, Armitage served as manager of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory when astronauts brought lunar samples back from the Apollo 14 and 15 missions in 1971. At the time, many scientists were discontented with their place at the laboratory, and Armitage was able to make changes that eased the scientists’ concerns. Fresh from that success, Armitage moved to the Science Directorate, later the Space and Life Sciences Directorate, where he helped manage scientific work on Skylab and early shuttle flights.

Armitage retired from NASA in 1986 as the last of the former Avro Canada engineers still at NASA. Soon his friend former astronaut Donald K. “Deke” Slayton hired him for a pioneering effort in private space flight, Space Services, Inc., where Slayton and Armitage worked on developing the Conestoga rocket. Armitage retired shortly after the company was sold in 1990 when contracts for rockets proved to be scarce.

In retirement Armitage pursued his hobby of restoring classic British cars at his home near the Johnson Space Center.

Thursday 6 April 2023

Artemis II Is Far From NASA's First Lunar Flight With Canadian Content

Tom Kelly (left) and Owen Maynard (centre) at the NASA Mission Control Center in Houston during the flight of Apollo 11 in 1969 (NASA).

Officially, Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen is part of the crew of the upcoming Artemis II flight around the Moon thanks to an agreement between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency which will see Canada build Canadarm 3 for the Lunar Gateway space station that is part of the Artemis program.

I also like to think of Hansen’s participation in Artemis II as being a belated recognition of Canada’s role in helping NASA get the Apollo astronauts to the Moon more than half a century ago.

While Canada did not play a formal part in Apollo, the Canadian government’s decision in 1959 to cancel the CF-105 Avro Arrow jet interceptor program led to NASA hiring 31 of Avro’s top engineers to join Project Mercury, which put the first U.S. astronauts into space in the early 1960s. The Avro engineers also played prominent roles in the Gemini spaceflights that followed Mercury, and Apollo itself. Some of the former Avro engineers went on to work in the Space Shuttle program and one worked on the International Space Station. Seventeen of the engineers had come to Avro Canada from the United Kingdom, one was from Poland, and 13 were Canadian.

Two of the most important members of the Avro group came from Canada. James A. Chamberlin had been born in Kamloops B.C. and raised in Toronto. When the Arrow was cancelled in 1959, he was the 43-year-old chief of technical design at Avro Canada, and once at NASA, he was named head of engineering for the Mercury spacecraft. Not long after President John F. Kennedy challenged NASA to send astronauts to the Moon, Chamberlin began designing a new two-man spacecraft called Gemini that would prepare astronauts and flight controllers for the challenges of Apollo’s flights to the Moon.

By the time Gemini got its official start in late 1961, NASA officials were engaged in a heated debate about how Apollo would get to the Moon. There were three concepts, starting with a direct flight in a single spacecraft to the lunar surface and back to Earth. A second proposal involved launching the spacecraft in parts using two or more Saturn V rockets, assembling the parts in Earth orbit, and then heading for the Moon. A third concept, called lunar orbit rendezvous, involved launching two spacecraft atop a single Saturn V rocket. The crew would spend most of the trip in a mother ship, and a second smaller craft would descend from the first craft in lunar orbit to the Moon’s surface, and then return the astronauts to the mother ship for the return trip home.

At first, most NASA officials charged with the lunar flight favoured a direct flight, in part because it would avoid the complexities of rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit or of assembling a spacecraft in Earth orbit. An engineer from another part of NASA named John C. Houbolt, campaigned within the agency for lunar orbit rendezvous, which he had concluded would save a massive amount of weight, fuel and cost because most of the spacecraft, such as the Earth landing system, would not have to be lowered to the lunar surface and then launched back to Earth. One of the first people to agree with Houbolt was Chamberlin, who quickly drew up a daring plan to fly a Gemini spacecraft to lunar orbit, along with what he called a “bug” that would carry a single astronaut to the surface and back to the Gemini. While NASA rejected Chamberlin’s idea of flying Gemini to the Moon, his proposal helped change minds at the space agency to favour flying Apollo to the Moon with lunar orbit rendezvous.

Another Canadian from Avro, Owen E. Maynard, a native of Sarnia, Ontario, had been involved in the Apollo program from its beginning in 1960. Maynard quickly began designing a two-man craft that became known as the lunar module or LM. Along with his drawings, Maynard travelled with other Apollo experts to NASA installations to sell lunar orbit rendezvous to the whole agency. NASA officially opted for lunar orbit rendezvous in July 1962, and in November, Grumman Aircraft won the contract to build the lunar module.

Maynard worked with Grumman’s engineering team under Tom Kelly on the LM, and in 1964 he was promoted to head the systems engineering division, where he was responsible for making sure that all of the components of the Apollo spacecraft worked in concert with the Saturn V rocket and the systems on the ground. Two years later, Maynard was moved to the top job in Apollo mission operations. There he was responsible for designing missions and for setting the sequence of Apollo test flights that led to the first lunar landing attempt on Apollo 11.

The fire that killed Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee during a launch pad test in 1967 led to many changes in Apollo, including a management shakeup that saw Maynard returned to his previous job as head of systems engineering. He played a key role in the missions that led to the lunar landing, notably Apollo 8, which orbited the Moon 10 times in December 1968 with three astronauts on board. During the flight of Apollo 11, Maynard was one of the managers working in the Mission Control Center in Houston. In the time leading up to Apollo 11, Chamberlin served as a trouble shooter for NASA management.

Several other engineers from Avro Canada also made their mark on Apollo. Bryan Erb, an Albertan, helped develop the Apollo command module’s heat shield and then managed the laboratory that handled the returned lunar samples. When the Apollo 11 crew returned to Earth, the first person who greeted them on board the recovery helicopter was a Canadian physician, Dr. William Carpentier, who joined NASA after an upbringing in Alberta and B.C. Two natives of Saskatchewan worked on spacecraft systems – Leonard Packham on communications, and Richard Carley on guidance and navigation. Robert Vale of Toronto helped develop the experiment packages that the Apollo astronauts deployed on the lunar surface. British engineers who worked at Avro Canada had leading roles in Apollo, including John Hodge, Rod Rose, Peter Armitage, Morris Jenkins and Dennis Fielder.

Apollo 11 and five other Apollo missions took astronauts to the surface of the Moon. Each lunar module descent stage and its landing gear included four legs and struts that extended and supported the legs. Most of the landing gear, except for the bottom parts of the legs and the landing pads, were precision made at Héroux Machine Parts Limited (now Héroux-Devtek) in Longueuil, Quebec.

I had the privilege of meeting most of the Avro engineers who worked for NASA while writing my book, Arrows to the Moon: Avro’s Engineers and the Space Race (Apogee Books: 2001).

By the time Apollo was wrapping up in 1972, NASA was negotiating with the Canadian government to make Canada a formal partner in the Space Shuttle program by contributing the Space Shuttle Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm to the shuttle. In 1983, at NASA’s invitation, Canada selected its first astronauts and Marc Garneau became the first Canadian to fly in space in 1984.

Now Jeremy Hansen stands to be the first Canadian to fly around the Moon, following in the footsteps of other Canadians who worked in the design suites, meeting rooms and control centres of Apollo, and his Canadian astronaut colleagues who flew on board the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Canadian Astronaut Jeremy Hansen (NASA).

Monday 8 August 2022

Book Review: Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space

By Bruce McCandless III

ISBN: 978-1-62634-865-3

Pages: 247

Price: $24.95, hardcover

As we enter the seventh decade of human space flight, there is a wealth of astronaut biographies available to interested readers. Most autobiographies and biographies of astronauts from the Moon race era have been written, and today we are seeing many biographies from many who flew aboard the Space Shuttle.

The career of Bruce McCandless II – a Group 5 astronaut who had to wait nearly eighteen years for his first ride into space after watching many others from his group fly to the Moon – is not unique, since other astronauts selected in his group and the two groups that followed had to wait nearly as long or even longer to go into space.

Nor is the new biography of McCandless, Wonders All Around, written by his son Bruce McCandless III, the only book written by an astronaut offspring.

But this book, written four years after the elder McCandless’ death, is an engaging read that tells the stories of the author and the subject in an honest fashion.

Bruce McCandless II was a member of the “Original Nineteen” group of astronauts selected in 1966 to fill out crews for Apollo and Skylab. Two of those 19 never flew, and three had to wait until the shuttle began flying in the 1980s to get into space.

McCandless will always be associated with NASA’s greatest moment, since he was the spacecraft communicator in mission control who conversed with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during their moonwalk on Apollo 11. His son argues that McCandless’ career suffered from that point onward because he apparently failed to transmit an order to Armstrong and Aldrin to cut their lunar excursion short, a claim this reviewer finds questionable.

When he did get to fly on board the shuttle, McCandless got two memorable and important flights. After having spent years working to develop astronaut maneuvering units for spacewalking astronauts, McCandless became the first person to make an untethered spacewalk when he tested a maneuvering unit on board the STS-41B mission in February 1984. The photos of his feat are amongst the most iconic images of the space shuttle era.

Six years later, McCandless was on the STS-31 mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. In preparing for that mission, he and astronaut Kathy Sullivan developed tools and techniques that proved to be crucial in the work of repairing and maintaining Hubble during the five servicing missions that followed their deployment mission. Even as he retired as an astronaut following STS-31, McCandless played a key role in helping scientists decide how to restore Hubble after it was found that its main mirror had been ground to the wrong shape. The fact that Hubble still functions into its fourth decade owes much to the work of McCandless and Sullivan.

The younger McCandless gives an honest account of how his father’s personality, which could be described as so driven that it even stood out amongst his fellow astronauts, affected his career and his family life. The book also describes how the author’s mother, Bernice McCandless, coped with living with an astronaut and two spirited children who grew up in the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s.

In discussing his own life, the author provides fascinating details about growing up in the shadow of the Johnson Space Center, which wasn’t too far away from other less glamorous industries in the Houston area that polluted the air and provided teenagers from relatively hardscrabble backgrounds to the high school young McCandless attended.

For anyone interested in the astronauts of McCandless’ time and their families, this book is worthwhile reading.

Wednesday 13 July 2022

The First Images From the James Webb Space Telescope

This week NASA released the long-awaited first images and scientific data from the James Webb Space Telescope. JWST's dramatically detailed images of a stellar nursery, a dying star, a cluster of galaxies, and JWST’s first ‘deep field’ follow on similar images from the Hubble Space Telescope over its 32-year run as the Earth’s premier space telescope. While this new release doesn’t represent a major leap in knowledge beyond what we have from HST and other telescopes, it promises that JWST will soon provide dramatic new findings about the history of our universe.

Starting in 1995, HST began a series of lengthy exposures into seemingly empty corners of the universe that revealed large numbers of galaxies billions of light years away. These images, known as Hubble Deep Fields, have taken us to within a billion years of the Big Bang that marked the beginnings of our universe about 13.8 billion years ago. Hubble’s cameras took exposures of roughly a week in length to obtain these revolutionary images, and more recent Deep Fields have exploited gravitational lensing, where galaxies bend light from objects that are behind them and farther away.

JWST is designed to look farther out in distance and farther back in time than HST by observing in infrared wavelengths. Objects that are moving away from us at high speeds, such as distant galaxies and other objects, are found at infrared wavelengths because of their movement away from us. (HST observes mainly in optical wavelengths familiar to humans.)

The JWST Deep Field image released this week is similar to Hubble Deep Field images, but it required only a few hours of exposure because of its much larger light gathering capability compared to Hubble. That means we will soon be contemplating JWST Deep Fields that go well beyond the Hubble Deep Fields and this week’s JWST Deep Field. We will see how our universe evolved very early in our history, learning about the processes that amongst other things led to our own creation.

Along with four dramatic images, the scientists running JWST released a chart that shows evidence of water in the atmosphere of a planet known as WASP-96 orbiting a star 1,150 light years away. While WASP-96 is too hot and located too close to its star to host any form of life, the precision and wealth of information JWST gathered about its atmosphere shows that JWST will be able to advance the search for habitable planets by observing smaller planets in locations more friendly for life.

The instrument used to find this data is JWST's Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) which was built by Canadian scientists and engineers with the support of the Canadian Space Agency. This week’s first release of data from NIRISS marks a major step forward for Canadian astronomy.

While Canadian astronomers have made observations with HST and other space telescopes, Canada was not a formal partner in HST, which was built by NASA and the European Space Agency. With its contribution of NIRISS and JWST’s Fine Guidance Sensors, which aim the telescope and also provide scientific data of their own, Canada has taken a central role in the most ambitious space astronomy program of this century.

Most astronomers do not rely on images to explore the cosmos. Spectrographs such as NIRISS take the 'fingerprints' of stars, planets, nebulae and other objects, providing information about their chemical makeup, temperature, mass and distance, amongst other things. JWST’s gigantic segmented mirror will allow JWST to provide more precise information about more objects in space than any other instrument. While there are larger telescopes on Earth, our atmosphere blocks many wavelengths of light, which is why astronomers get more information from space telescopes.

While writing my book about Hubble, Not Yet Imagined, I often traveled to the HST control centre at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington D.C. There I was also able to follow the construction of JWST before it was moved to the launch pad.

Although Hubble is nearing the end of its lifetime, it is far from being replaced by JWST. In fact in the coming months, JWST and HST will work in tandem with each other to produce coordinated sets of observations that will cover wide ranges of wavelengths.

Planning for JWST began more than 30 years ago, even before Hubble was launched. It took 20 years to build, and cost more than US $10 billion. Along the way, JWST encountered many problems that nearly led to its cancellation. But it was finally launched into space last Christmas Day, and in the weeks that followed, it successfully unfolded and aligned its 18 mirror segments and its tennis-court-sized sunshield that helps chill JWST’s instruments to operate at the low temperatures required to find infrared light. This week JWST's scientific payoff began.

HST and other telescopes of its time turned humanity’s understanding of our universe on its head, and raised as many questions as they answered. This week we learned that JWST has the technological chops to further revolutionize astronomy. Stay tuned for some major scientific surprises.