Tuesday, 1 June 2021

John D. Hodge, NASA Flight Director, 1929-2021

March 16, 1966, was one of the most eventful and dramatic days for America’s human space program as it geared up to put astronauts on the Moon. That day an Atlas launch vehicle lifted off from Cape Kennedy and carried an Agena rocket into orbit. From a nearby launch pad 100 minutes later, Gemini 8 launched atop a Titan II rocket to begin chasing the Agena.

Aboard Gemini 8 were two first-time astronauts who would go on to legendary careers, Neil Armstrong and David Scott. At the Mission Control Center in Houston, that mission marked the first time that someone other than Chris Kraft was lead flight director. A soft-spoken Englishman named John Hodge was on console.

Six hours and four orbits after Gemini's launch, Gemini 8 and the Agena became the first spacecraft to dock in space, reaching an important milestone for the upcoming Apollo missions to the Moon. But a half hour later, the docked spacecraft banked without explanation and then began to spin nearly out of control while out of contact with the Earth.

When communications were re-established, Armstrong reported: “We’ve got serious problems here. We’re tumbling end over end up here. We’re disengaged from the Agena.”

Flight Director Hodge tried to make out the garbled transmission from Gemini. “Did he say he could not turn the Agena off?”

“No, he says he has separated from the Agena and he’s in a roll and he can’t stop it,” CAPCOM Jim Fucci replied.

Hodge was faced with the first life-and-death emergency situation in the U.S. space program. It was quickly established that the dangerous spin was caused by a stuck thruster on Gemini, not the Agena. But because Armstrong used re-entry thrusters to bring Gemini under control, the mission rules said Gemini had to return to Earth as soon as possible.

Hodge ordered Gemini 8 back home, and so Armstrong and Scott splashed down safely in the western Pacific Ocean after less than 11 hours in space rather than three days later in the Atlantic as planned.

The dramatic events of that day were the climax of Hodge’s career as a flight director, but he went on to prepare Apollo for the lunar landings that followed the first landing on Apollo 11, and he later played a key role in the early days of the program that led to the International Space Station. Hodge passed away on May 19, 2021, at his home in Virginia at age 92.

At the time of Gemini 8, John Dennis Hodge, then 37, stood out from most NASA flight controllers with his English accent, his graying hair, his pipe and his tweed jackets. Born in Leigh-on-Sea, England, on February 10, 1929, grew up in London and he studied aeronautical engineering at the Northampton Engineering College, now City, University of London, graduating in 1949. His original plan to study biochemistry had been frustrated when veterans of World War II got first choices for university positions.

He went to Vickers-Armstrong for a 12-month apprenticeship, followed by another two years in the aerodynamics department. His interest was in supersonic flight, but the British government, nearly bankrupted by the war, was cutting back.

His new wife, the former Audrey Cox, wanted to travel before settling down, and opportunity beckoned at just outside of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where Avro Canada, an offshoot of the Britain’s Hawker Siddeley Group, was about to start work on a Mach 2 supersonic jet interceptor known as the CF-105 Avro Arrow.

So Hodge began work in 1952 at Avro Canada, where almost from the beginning he worked on the Arrow. “I did the [jet engine] intake and the ram, all the inlets. Then they needed a guy to take over the airloads group. I was put in that job.” Later on he moved to flight testing on the Arrow.

The soaring cost of the Arrow program had always concerned the Canadian government, and on the day in 1957 the first Arrow was rolled out of the hangar, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, sending an unequivocal signal that nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles were becoming the major threat to North America in place of the bombers that the Arrow were designed to defend against.

The Canadian government abruptly cancelled the Arrow program on February 20, 1959, throwing 2,000 engineers and thousands of others out of work. This was just months after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had been established in the United States and charged with launching humans into space in Project Mercury.

“Most Americans thought that Mercury was going to be a fly-by-night reaction to Sputnik that wouldn’t last that long,” Hodge said. “That was the general expectation. Most serious engineers in the States weren’t the least bit interested in the Mercury program. So that left it wide open for the younger people.”

In March, leading officials from NASA flew to Toronto and hired 25 British and Canadian engineers from Avro Canada to work on Mercury as part of the Space Task Group in Hampton, Virginia. Another six were hired soon after, and in 1961 NASA announced that STG would move to Houston, Texas, in the Manned Spacecraft Center that a decade later was renamed the Johnson Space Center.

Hodge was hired for his variety of experience, especially in flight test, and was one of the most senior members of the group from Avro. Because of the urgency of NASA’s mandate, the immigration procedures for the new hires were completed in record time, and the Avro engineers reported for work at STG in April, 1959.

Assigned as the assistant to Chuck Mathews, the head of the operations division, Hodge quickly became involved in drawing up the mission rules for Mercury. These rules would, among other things, cover decisions on whether to continue a mission or abort it when a problem cropped up. Along with others from Avro, Hodge was heavily involved in setting up Mercury’s round the world tracking network.

As Mercury geared up in 1961 and 1962, he became Kraft’s deputy as chief of the flight control division. For the first three Mercury orbital flights in 1962, Hodge was assigned to the tracking station in Bermuda, ready to take over as flight director if the Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral experienced a serious problem. Moments before John Glenn was launched on his historic orbital flight on February 20. 1962, Hodge had to call a short hold in the countdown while he dealt with a problem with the computer in Bermuda.

The final Mercury mission was Gordon Cooper’s Faith 7 flight in May 1963 that was due to last 34 hours. NASA decided to implement 12-hour shifts with two teams of flight controllers. Chris Kraft, who had been flight director for every previous Mercury flight, became flight director on the day shift and Hodge was designated flight director on the night shift. Hodge became the only person other than Kraft to take the reins of Mercury control.

“I can’t remember anything spectacular during that period,” Hodge said of his first shift as flight director. “Most of the time I was on, we were planning for the next phase and [Cooper] was asleep. Our job was really a planning function. Which is a job I sort of took over in later missions, when we started going to Gemini and Apollo. My reputation was for planning for future events, which was a job I liked doing anyway.” One lesson learned during this flight was that two shifts of flight controllers probably wouldn’t be enough for longer duration flights, so flights in Gemini and afterward had three daily shifts of flight directors.

Early in 1965, the Gemini program began in earnest with the new Mission Contol Center in Houston nearing completion. The robotic Gemini 2 mission, and the first crewed Gemini flight, the three-orbit Gemini 3, were controlled from the Mercury Control Center at the Cape under Kraft, while Hodge served as flight director in the backup center at Houston.

The four-day mission of Gemini 4 in June 1965 was the first flight to be controlled from the new control center in Houston, and the first to be controlled using three shifts of flight controllers, rotating each day. In April, NASA announced four flight directors for the upcoming Gemini missions in 1965: Kraft as mission director and flight director on the first shift, The second shift worked under a 31-year-old newcomer to the ranks of flight directors, Eugene Kranz. Hodge was put in charge of the third shift, also known as the planning shift. Glynn Lunney was named as backup flight director.

Each flight director took a colour that would be used to designate their team. Hodge chose blue, making him blue flight, in charge of the blue team. Kraft chose red, Kranz white, and Lunney black under a tradition that long endured.

By the time of Gemini, Hodge was head of the MSC’s flight control division, supervising a large group of engineers. He had the responsibility of building up the group of flight controllers for Gemini and Apollo, and so he was hiring people “left, right and center.” Between flights, his flight controllers were busy planning missions; drawing up documentation, flight plans and mission rules; and closely reviewing results from previous flights. As well, they worked on simulations of flights, mainly possible flight emergencies, with the astronauts in spacecraft simulators hooked up to the flight control rooms.

The flight control setup continued through the missions of Geminis 5, 6 and 7. Hodge was involved in helping Gemini 5 overcome fuel cell problems to that nearly curtailed its mission, and then with the dramatic rendezvous in space involving Geminis 6 and 7. When Kraft moved to preparations for Apollo in 1966, Hodge became lead flight director for Gemini 8, and after that flight, he too moved on to Apollo.

When Gemini wound up at the end of 1966, Hodge was given a NASA Exceptional Service Medal for “planning and directing the flight control aspects of manned space flight missions and in developing highly proficient flight control teams necessary for the conduct of the missions.” Shortly before that, Hodge flew to his ancestral home to receive an honorary doctor of sciences degree from the University of London.

Kraft, Hodge and Kranz were set to return to their original rotation for the first crewed Apollo flight in February 1967, and Kraft and Hodge were on console in Houston on January 27 when a fire consumed the pure oxygen atmosphere inside the spacecraft, killing astronauts Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger Chaffee.

Hodge was involved in the work of investigating the fire’s causes and making needed changes to the spacecraft. On January 22, 1968, Hodge worked his final shift as a flight director during the robotic flight of the first lunar module in Apollo 5.

While both Kraft and Kranz rated Hodge highly for his intellect and ability as a planner, and Hodge’s actions in Gemini 8 won universal praise, his two colleagues said he was not known as an effective manager. Kranz described Hodge in his memoirs as someone who sought more consensus and was more philosophical and thoughtful than his peers.

Hodge had become a U.S. citizen in November 1964, and he and his wife had two sons and two daughters, who all survive him. In 1961, he and other British engineers who worked for the space agency formed a NASA cricket team that played a game against William and Mary University in Virginia.

From July 1968 to his departure from NASA in June 1970, Hodge was manager of Advanced Mission Programs at the Manned Spacecraft Center. By then, he was already working on the Apollo missions that would follow the first lunar landing. “I was beginning to worry that no one was looking at the second lunar landing. The whole organization was concentrating on the first, and it seemed to me that if you have 10 or 12 sets of hardware, you have to start worrying about the rest of the program,” he said.

By February 1969, Hodge’s group had written specifications for a Lunar Module that could stay longer on the Moon, carry more equipment such as a lunar roving vehicle down to the Moon, and bring more lunar samples home. That spring, his group also drew up changes to be made to Apollo's Service Module to allow the placement of scientific instruments to photograph and measure the Moon. Hodge’s office was also charged with looking beyond Apollo to programs such as a permanent space station, a reusable spacecraft, and trips to Mars.

After leaving NASA in June 1970, he spent most of the next 12 years working on advanced transportation concepts in various positions at the Department of Transportation, first in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and later in Washington, D.C. From 1974 to 1976, he did similar work for the Urban Transportation Development Corporation in Toronto, Ontario, a corporation owned by the Government of Ontario that is remembered for developing elevated transit systems in Scarborough, Ontario, Greater Vancouver B.C., and Detroit.

“I had the job of sort of looking to the future,” Hodge said of his work for the Department of Transportation. “What directions technically and politically and all that kind of thing could we take the department to be useful in the field of transportation? It was a tremendously broad subject and I had a wonderful time. We did a lot of studies on the future of the air traffic control system. We did a lot of stuff on high-speed railroads, looking at passenger situations, and came to the conclusion that there was nowhere in the United States where railroad passenger traffic made any sense at all. It would never be profitable.”

While he worked on advanced planning at NASA, he befriended another engineer named James Beggs, and they met again working at the Department of Transportation. When Ronald Reagan became president of the United States in 1981, he selected Beggs to be Administrator of NASA, and Beggs’ call for NASA to develop a permanent space station got Hodge’s attention.

In May 1982, Beggs announced the formation of a space station task force headed by Hodge, who controversially refused to consider designs advanced by the Johnson Space Center and the Marshall Space Flight Centers, and refused to even suggest what the station might look like in order to protect the station from critics who would look for deficiencies. The Task Force instead focused on canvassing potential users for a space station on what they would want out of a station, and also put out study contracts to major aerospace companies for station concepts.

The U.S. military wanted nothing to do with the station, and others in the administration opposed it because of the cost, but Beggs, his deputy Hans Mark and Hodge and his team eventually won over the president, who announced his support for a space station in his 1984 State of the Union Address, followed by Congress.

In April 1984, Beggs announced the formation of an interim office of space station at NASA headquarters, headed by Phil Culbertson, with Hodge as his deputy. The office was made permanent on August 1, and Hodge became deputy associate administrator for space station.

The space station team also began work on defining what the station would look like and, more importantly, who in NASA would do what. Hodge envisioned a station operating in a standard equatorial orbit from Cape Canaveral supported by two robot platforms where experimental work could go on without concern for human contamination. Hodge stressed “operational autonomy” in his design concepts for a station that could operate independent of ground control. The former flight director realized that the cost of maintaining the ground control infrastructure would drive the station’s costs to a prohibitive level.

NASA began to undergo a series of changes triggered in part by the departure of Beggs as administrator in late 1985. Soon NASA was reeling from the impact of the Challenger disaster, and later in 1986, Hodge was given a reduced role as infighting grew between NASA centers for their shares of station work. Hodge explained: “I made the bureaucratic mistake of trying too many things at the same time. New ideas in management, technical management. By this time, NASA had become stodgy, very bureaucratic.”

He left NASA for the last time in 1987 and became a consultant based at his home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where he said he enjoyed “picking and choosing who I’ll work for.” At the time of Apollo 11, NASA had given Hodge another NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and he won a NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal in 1985 for his work on the space station.

Hodge’s passing came two months after that of fellow flight director Glynn Lunney and nearly two years after the death of Chris Kraft, leaving Gene Kranz as the only surviving member of the original generation of NASA’s flight directors. The space station he helped bring to reality underwent many design and management changes after Hodge left NASA, becoming the International Space Station prior to its long-delayed start of construction on orbit in 1998.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

NASA Looks at the History of Commercial Space

A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket at Pad 39A (SpaceX photo)

With the commercial space industry finally moving to a central role in spaceflight with the first flights of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, the NASA History Program Office appropriately chose this time to look back at the history of Commercial Space.

This recognition took the form of a symposium held virtually on Webex, NASA and the Rise of Commercial Space: A Symposium to Examine the Meaning(s) and Context(s) of Commercial Space, which took place March 17, 18, 19 and 25, 2021. The sessions will be made available for review online, and later on in the form of a publication.

Speakers included historians and other academics, entrepreneurs, scientists, promoters, regulators, journalists, and officials from NASA and the military, all of whom joined the meeting from various locations around the world, most memorably Astrosat CEO Steve Lee’s Final Session keynote from inside a sailboat off the coast of Scotland.

The symposium began with journalist Eric Berger’s account of SpaceX’s difficult early days, and then the first full day of discussions on March 18 focused on what constitutes Commercial Space, and the legal and entrepreneurial frameworks that surround it.

The symposium featured the relationship between private enterprise and government in its various guises such as customer, regulator, and supporter. Eminent historian Roger Launius discussed possible models for commercialization on the Moon such as the Antarctic legal regime for future scientific research and the National Park model for tourism there. Launius and Wendy Whitman-Cobb of the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies also recalled how the U.S. Government’s relationships with railroads and the commercial air industry offer lessons for Commercial Space.

Rick Sturdevant of the U.S. Space Force, Deganic Paikowsky of Hebrew University and others discussed how the dual military and peaceful uses of space technologies affect how they are regulated. And as Sturdevant and other speakers pointed out, U.S. military and other government procurement has shifted away from buying launch vehicles to procuring launch services.

To me, the most interesting presentation of the day also opened the discussion that was the topic of the following morning – the efforts to encourage space commercialization in the 1980s, the early days of the Space Shuttle program. Harvard historian Matthew Hersch outlined what he saw as the hard-won lessons of the shuttle years for those who expected the shuttle to open space to commercialization.

Shuttle supporters and commercial spaceflight advocates in the 1980s were disappointed when their assumption that the shuttle’s promise of low-cost space access would open markets to Commercial Space did not come to fruition. Hersch also argued that another mistaken belief was that winged space vehicles such as the shuttle were the inevitable form of future spacecraft. Efforts in the past to commercialize new technologies had often failed until the government offered subsidies and incentives – and that applied to the shuttle as well.

Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, opened the March 19 panel on the shuttle era by providing some of the flavor of the time. He recounted meeting physicist and space colonization advocate Gerald K. O’Neill and then joining other libertarian space advocates to fight the “socialistic” Moon Treaty of 1979 that was seen as a threat to private enterprise in space and therefore was never ratified by the United States.

John Logsdon, Pace’s predecessor at the Space Policy Institute, addressed the space policy of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, including the beginnings of policies explicitly aimed at commercializing space activities and ending NASA’s monopoly on many space activities. That period was also known for the beginnings of the private provision of launch vehicles, hopes for microgravity research, and rivalries between U.S. government agencies to regulate private space efforts. Many of the Reagan space policies were driven more by ideology than facts, Logsdon said.

Going beyond the outsized hopes for the Space Shuttle and the ideological fervor of the Reagan Administration, Texas A&M historian Jonathan Coopersmith spoke about the entrepreneurial energy of the time, stoked by the idea that space was “the next big thing.” But space was not different than other technologies that emerged in a boom that was followed by a bust, he said. The 1980s and 1990s saw many false dawns for Commercial Space. One of the most studied failures of the era was the U.S. government’s attempt to commercialize civil remote sensing, explained at this event by Brian Jirout of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Pace concluded that we are now at last entering the commercial era in space. Looking back on the last 40 years, Logsdon said, “the market worked.” At more than one point, I got the impression that the Space Shuttle was in fact an impediment to the commercialization of space, contrary to the intentions of its creators.

The present day was represented by speakers from NASA who are facilitating commercial applications available on board the ISS and other NASA spacecraft and facilities, and from some customers, including Adidas researcher Henry Hanson, who is doing microgravity research to make better balls, running shoes and foam.

Steve Lee, whose Astrosat firm provides remote sensing and other space services, told the symposium that he doesn’t go to space conferences to do business. Instead he looks elsewhere for potential customers who need space products or space solutions. Lee has found that Earth observation and other space products are often overpriced, and many space firms try to do too much – they may be good at launching, building and operating spacecraft, but maybe they aren’t so adept at analysing the data they obtain.

I came out of the conference with some ideas about why space commerce is flourishing now relative to a generation ago, but no conclusions. Some of today’s successes may be the result of a shift from traditional space contractors to a new generation of firms like SpaceX and entrepreneurs like Steve Lee. Some of it may come from continued encouragement from NASA and the military. Or it may be the shift from the U.S. government designing, buying and operating rockets and spacecraft to simply purchasing the services, supporting the builders and freeing them to sell their services to other customers. Another possibility is that Commercial Space has simply gone beyond its first boom and bust cycle, and now is gaining a firm footing.

One omission that stood out for me was the lack of profile given to the original Commercial Space activity, communications satellites. While the NASA History Office, as it was then, hosted a conference on communications satellites in 1995 and published papers from that event, the field of communications satellites has continued to evolve since that time, as symbolized by the launch of 60 SpaceX Starlink satellites from the Kennedy Space Center on the eve of the symposium’s final session.

The symposium could have benefitted from more content on the evolution of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which played a major role in the rise of space firms and is reshaping the U.S. space program. Nevertheless, the talks and panels, many of which aren’t reported here, provided much food for thought on the history and future of Commercial Space.

NASA Acting Chief Historian Brian Odom reports that attendance at the meeting neared 700 people at one point and generally stood at about 300 people throughout the event. This attendance and the ability to bring in speakers and participants from around the world who might otherwise not be available may point to future virtual symposia once we move into the post-COVID-19 world. Virtual meetings do not provide much opportunity for offline conversations between participants, so perhaps in the future NASA might consider livestreamed symposia conducted on site augmented with virtual speakers.

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

A Century of Radio Broadcasting

Canada Post's 2020 Radio Stamps.

The tumult of 2020 has naturally overshadowed many anniversaries that took place during the year. As a historian of technology, I believe that a major overlooked anniversary for 2020 was the centennial of radio broadcasting in Canada, the United States and elsewhere. One of the few acknowledgements of this anniversary was a pair of postage stamps from Canada Post that went on sale in May during the depths of the coronavirus lockdown.

The arrival of radio broadcasting in the 1920s marked a revolutionary change to mass media, quickly bringing with it radio newscasts, broadcasts of live events such as sporting and news events, and all manner of entertainment shows. 

In the case of Canada, a live performance by soprano Dorothy Lutton was broadcast on May 20, 1920, from an experimental radio station in Montreal that later became known as CFCF. Since there were very few radio receivers at the time, a crowd gathered 200 km away at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa to hear Lutton sing over the radio. Similar events were taking place in other countries. As radio receivers went into mass production and became affordable for more people as the 1920s went on, radios became an integral part of daily life around the world. 

What we call radio had been created in the late 19th century, but it had been used mainly to transmit morse code signals between individual transmitters and receivers. Further advances in technologies related to radio, notably vacuum tubes, were needed to make possible broadcasting of the human voice and other sounds. These advances also made possible sound amplification for public address systems and talking motion pictures. 

While newspapers were already well established as a mass medium and were capable of quickly communicating the latest news, radios gave people the ability to listen to events as they happened, offering a new degree of immediacy for listeners. By the 1930s, the voices of popular entertainers and controversial leaders became familiar to everyone, which allowed people to experience events far from home in ways that couldn’t be done with newspapers. 

In the past century radio has undergone many technical transformations, including the arrival of frequency modulation (FM) to supplement amplitude modulation (AM), and more recently, the spread of digital radio. And radio has changed in reaction to the arrival of television and online communications in all their various forms. While radio is no longer the dominant medium it once was, it remains an important way of staying in touch. I usually get my first news of the day from a radio, and I enjoy music on radios in my house and in my car. Many other people enjoy talk radio.

Because Canada has a relatively small population spread over a great deal of territory, broadcast communication has always been a matter of great importance to the Canadian government. Starting after World War II, Canadian scientists became world leaders in determining how radio waves interact with charged particles high in the atmosphere in a layer known as the ionosphere. This research led to the birth of Canada’s space program 60 years ago when Canada built its first satellites, Alouette and ISIS, to learn about the ionosphere.

When communications satellites were created to carry telephone, radio and television signals around the world, the Canadian government and Canadian space contractors established Canadian leadership in this field. Canada was the first country to create its own domestic communications satellites with the first Anik satellite in 1972.

Canada has also regulated radio and television in a very different manner from the United States. While the U.S. broadcast system is based on private providers, Canada has always had a strong national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as an alternative to private broadcasters. Many people believe that the CBC and stronger government regulation of private broadcasters in Canada have formed one of the foundations of Canada’s distinct cultural identity relative to the United States.

Friday, 18 December 2020

My December with Terry Fox - 40 Years Later


Terry Fox's van at the Terry Fox monument at Mile Zero in Victoria, B.C., 2011.  Chris Gainor photo.

Forty years ago this past summer, Canadians were transfixed by the sight of a 22-year-old man who had lost a leg to cancer running across Canada from one end to the other with the help of an artificial leg. 

Terry Fox set off on his Marathon of Hope with a step in the Atlantic Ocean at St. John’s, Newfoundland, on April 12, 1980, with the goals of raising funds and awareness for cancer research. During much of the early weeks of his run, few people were interested, and he faced challenges of weather and geography.

Fox was accompanied by a friend, Doug Alward, and later his younger brother Darrell, who travelled in a camper van during Fox's daily marathons of 26 miles. In late June, Fox took the Marathon of Hope into Ontario, where he was suddenly taken seriously, and crowds of supporters greeted him wherever he went. Fox quickly found out that fame complicated his efforts to run across Canada even more than being below the media radar did in the earlier days.

Fox continued to run across Ontario through July and August despite his awkward gait, the physical problems resulting from his demanding daily regimen, the crowds and the glare of publicity. Like many other Canadians, I followed his progress with growing interest from my home in Vancouver, where I was a newspaper reporter for The Vancouver Sun.  I had just been handed the medical beat and worked that summer under the wing of the Sun's talented and experienced science reporter, Tim Padmore.

The medical beat involves many things, including the politics of health care, controversies such as access to abortion, and the latest on medical research, including cancer. I had written little about that latter topic before I came to work on September 2, 1980. That day a desk near mine became a beehive of activity as Jack Brooks, a former city editor and veteran of British tabloids who was a master of deadline journalism, assembled a major breaking story for the final edition of the day. The stunning story was that Terry Fox was ending his run near Thunder Bay, Ontario, after having run 3,339 miles over 143 days because the cancer that had cost him a leg had reappeared in his lungs.

Fox was flown home to the Lower Mainland of B.C., where he went into treatment. A shocked nation reacted by contributing millions of dollars to a telethon quickly organized in support of Fox and the Canadian Cancer Society. I wound up writing a lot about cancer research that fall. During those days in September, Tim Padmore told me that the Sun’s managing editor, Bruce Larsen, wanted our newspaper to carry a major feature on Terry Fox’s cancer and how it related to research on the disease, and assigned us to research and write it. Tim took the idea to Blair MacKenzie of the Canadian Cancer Society and to one of Fox’s doctors. The idea required agreement of Terry Fox and his family, and since Fox was undergoing difficult treatment at the time, the initial response was no. We hoped that response might change at a later time.

Weeks later on December 1, Tim made one of his periodic checks with the Cancer Society, and the next day MacKenzie put the idea to Fox himself, who by then was feeling reasonably well during a pause in his chemotherapy. On December 3 my phone rang and I was talking to Terry Fox. The next morning Tim and I went to the Fox family home in Port Coquitlam in the suburbs of Vancouver, where we conducted a long interview with Fox. We also had Fox sign letters that would go to the people who treated his cancer, helped with his rehabilitation and even created the artificial legs he used in his marathon, authorizing them to speak to us.

In common with others, we were struck by the ordinary qualities of Fox’s home. His father worked on the railroad, and his mother raised Terry and his siblings. Dressed in a plaid shirt and well worn jeans, the soft spoken Fox did not seem exceptional. But what shone through our talk with him and the whole story of his Marathon of Hope was his quality of determination. When we spoke of the faint hope of resuming and completing his marathon and completing it with a step into the Pacific Ocean in Victoria, his face lit up. It was clear that there was nothing he would rather do.

The next day Fox spoke at a press conference at the B.C. Cancer Research Centre near Vancouver General Hospital to introduce researchers would work work in the brand new Terry Fox Laboratory. It would be his last appearance before the media.

The deadline for our feature about Terry Fox’s cancer was Christmas, so Tim and I divided the work of interviewing the care providers who had worked with Fox. Armed with our permission letters, we were able to get interviews with most but not all of the people who we wanted to speak with.

As the publication dates approached, Tim put a final set of questions to Fox over the phone and then crafted our work into three pieces. I went to Edmonton for Christmas as usual, and my first stop on this visit was University Hospital, where I completed one final interview with a cancer specialist and phoned in the quotes to Tim. The series appeared in The Vancouver Sun on Saturday December 20 and the following Monday and Tuesday, December 22 and 23, 1980.

Although the word cancer suggests a single disease, cancer is in fact a group of more than 100 different diseases, as we said in the introduction to our series. Each type of cancer has its own causes, courses and available treatments. Nurses and physicians told us about their challenging work treating treating Fox and other cancer patients.

The story we told about Terry Fox himself was one of determination. Always interested in sports, Fox picked up golf, wheelchair basketball and running as soon as he could after the initial cancer was found and his left leg amputated in 1977. The idea of running a marathon across Canada had come to him early in his course of treatment, but months before he formally proposed the idea to the Cancer Society in the fall of 1979, he had begun a rigorous training regimen of regular marathon-distance runs to prove to himself that his idea was feasible.

Even so, his idea was not an easy sell, and he had to gather proof that his health was up to such an audacious undertaking. But finally his cross Canada run began. Fox had convinced himself that he had beaten his cancer once and for all, but he reached that conclusion after skipping an x-ray at the time his run began that might have shown otherwise. 

Reporters such as Leslie Scrivener who followed his run had already written about how Fox’s determination to complete every part of his cross-Canada run occasionally caused disagreements with the people who worked with him. When he spoke to Tim and I, Fox noted that the halfway point of his planned run was reached as he approached Sudbury on August 3. By the time he was forced to end his run near Thunder Bay nearly a month later, he had completed two-thirds of the distance from St. John’s to Victoria. Persistent statements that he had run only half-way to his goal still rankled him. 

Three months of difficult cancer treatment after he left Thunder Bay, Fox told us that he would do everything he could to keep fighting the disease, including calling on the power of prayer. “I know the percentages don’t look very good, but when you look at everything, I think I’ve got a lot going for me.”

Nearly seven months later, Terry Fox passed away as Canadians stood vigil. Soon the first of what has become an annual run in his honour continued his effort to raise funds for cancer research. Even this year, when the coronavirus pandemic has hit the bottom lines of many charities, including the Cancer Society, the 2020 Terry Fox Run went virtual and raised more money than ever. Today Terry Fox remains as big a hero to Canadians as he was four decades ago, and his fame has spread beyond Canada’s borders.

Our feature on Terry Fox’s cancer has proved to be a valuable resource for people wanting to learn more about his life. 

Today survival rates for osteosarcoma, the rare type of tumour that afflicted Fox, are higher than they were in his time, probably due in part to the research that his life inspired. Indeed, scientists and physicians have made progress in the fight against many forms of cancer, but there remains a long way to go in this quest. 

Several monuments around Canada honour Terry Fox and his Marathon of Hope. My favourite is the relatively modest statue at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria where the Trans Canada Highway ends (or begins, depending on one’s viewpoint) at the Pacific Ocean, and where Terry Fox wanted more than anywhere else to be the spot where his Marathon of Hope would conclude.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Nuclear Weapons Were A Driving Force For Space Exploration

Chris Gainor in Hiroshima in 1985.

August 6 and 9 mark the 75th anniversaries of the two times that nuclear weapons have been used in anger, when the United States military dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, killing more than 100,000 people and injuring as many others.

The decision to use those bombs and their role in bringing an end to World War II and starting the Cold War remain matters of great controversy today. What is beyond debate is that the world has had to live ever since under the threat of nuclear weapons.

For many years, that threat centred on the Cold War confrontation between the U.S. and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies. For the last 30 years that threat has shifted to other countries that possess nuclear weapons, including countries in the Middle East, longtime adversaries India and Pakistan, and countries like Iran and North Korea. Today tensions are rising again between the U.S. and its former Cold War adversaries in Russia and China.

It is also important to note that the events of 75 years ago had a major impact humanity’s reach into space.

World War II led to advances in many military technologies. Fears during that war that German scientists had the means to develop nuclear weapons led the U.S. government, with cooperation from Great Britain and Canada, to build the first atomic bombs under a shroud of secrecy. Although Nazi Germany did not build its own nuclear weapons, it developed the first long-range rocket missile, the V-2, which it used in the final year of the war against targets in England, Belgium and France. 

The first nuclear explosion took place on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert, and it was kept secret for another three weeks until 16 hours after a single bomb levelled Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. The White House announced the bombing and revealed the basic facts about nuclear weapons, saying: “We have spent two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history - and won.” 

The news of such a powerful new class of explosive immediately caused many people to think about marrying nuclear weapons to long-range rockets. The New York Times on August 8 contained an article speculating on this idea. At the same moment, both the U.S. and Soviet militaries were rounding up German rocket experts and collecting the remaining V-2 rockets and components in Germany. 

The work on long-range missiles and nuclear weapons in the U.S. and the Soviet Union that followed the end of World War II took more than a dozen years to mature to the point where both Cold War adversaries began testing powerful new rockets known as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that were capable of lofting thermonuclear weapons to any point on Earth. The Soviet Union gave the world notice that it had that capability by launching the first artificial satellite of the Earth, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957, atop its R-7 ICBM. 

Derivatives of that missile launched the first spacecraft to the Moon and beyond, and the first humans into space, and they are still in use today. The U.S. space program in the 20th century also depended on ICBMs and technologies advanced by ICBMs. 

Without the nuclear weapons that first appeared 75 years ago, it is hard to imagine space exploration as we know it. Given the many calls on government resources, the large amounts of money required to build the first space launch vehicles could only be justified on the grounds of national defence. Even the highly expensive Apollo program that put the first humans on the Moon 51 years ago was motivated mainly by Cold War considerations rather than a desire for scientific discovery. 

While the exploration of space represents one of the most sublime achievements of humanity, it arose from rockets built first in the service of the odious Nazi regime in Germany, and further advanced by the creation of nuclear weapons of a scale that can wipe out most life on Earth. 

I have explored these paradoxes in my book, The Bomb and America’s Missile Age, which came out two years ago. That book is part of a reassessment of the history of space exploration that has been undertaken by many historians in recent years.

For many years, it was widely believed that our first steps into space resulted from widespread public support for space exploration, along with humanity’s love of exploration in general. The truth is that public support for space exploration has been limited by the great cost of exploration and the call of other priorities on Earth.

When the gigantic rockets needed to loft space vehicles away from Earth were being built as part of nuclear forces, and space achievements were seen as a measure of the political, economic and intellectual strength of the contending superpowers in the Cold War, the result was the space race that climaxed in the flights of Apollo. At that time and since, astronauts and scientists have made many unexpected and important discoveries about our universe, including the planet we live on. 

One of them was a set of discoveries about how the atmospheres of planets work. That has led to the finding that humanity’s over-reliance on carbon fuels is leading to climate change, which now stands alongside nuclear weapons as a threat to the future of our species.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Comet NEOWISE Salvages 2020 For Astronomers

Comet NEOWISE as seen from Tsehum Harbour in Sidney, B.C. at 11:15 p.m. July 19, 2020. Chris Gainor photo.
Like everyone else, amateur astronomers have spent the last four months suffering under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic. I wrapped up my two-year term as President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) in June at a Zoom meeting instead of our annual General Assembly, which was supposed to take place in Vancouver.

My final three months in office involved working with our staff to shift our activities from in-person to online formats, or cancelling them. The RASC's public outreach events, which often involve members of the public putting their eyes to telescope eyepieces, are a definite no-no in the era of COVID-19. The RASC’s 29 Centres across Canada have quickly adapted to the restraints the coronavirus has put on our hobby.

With some suddenness and little warning, however, a new comet has appeared in our skies and made 2020 notable for astronomers for a happy reason. We will remember 2020 as the year of Comet NEOWISE.

While comets routinely fly into the inner reaches of our solar system, most are difficult to find, even with telescopes. The last major naked eye comet to light up our northern skies was Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997.

Astronomers and many people with only the most casual interest in astronomy love comets, and we have lived through many false alarms over the last 18 years. For example, Sky and Telescope magazine featured comets on the cover of its July issue in the hope that Comet ATLAS, discovered late last year, would break the long draught of naked eye comets. Just as the issue was going to press, Comet ATLAS fell apart as it neared the Sun, as many comets do.

The NEOWISE space telescope, which has been used to discover many comets, most of them of little interest to most observers, was used to discover Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE on March 27, too late for a mention in the July Sky and Telescope. This time, the comet lit up as it approached its rendezvous with the Sun on July 3, and it held together as it swung past the Sun into northern skies. Although Comet NEOWISE is fading slightly as it moves away from the Sun, it is moving closer to Earth until July 22, when it will be about 103 million km away from us. It will fade at a faster rate as it moves away from Earth after that date.

Comet NEOWISE first became visible in Canada last week shortly before sunrise low in the northeast sky. I first saw it last Saturday shortly before 4 a.m. Soon it was visible after sunset in the northwest. This weekend it will be visible all night in Canada as it heads toward the Big Dipper and gets higher in the sky.

Already astronomy-related social media are full of comet photos. NEOWISE is not only the first major naked eye comet in 18 years, it is the first one to appear since most amateur astronomers made the switch from photographic film to digital photography. The result is a large number of amazing photos of this comet, even at this early date, from legions of skilled amateur astrophotographers. Even newcomers to astrophotography like me have been able to obtain photos of this elusive visitor.

In the next few days, Comet NEOWISE will be relatively easy to pick out in the northern part of the night sky below and to the right of the Big Dipper. Keep an eye out for jaw-dropping comet photos in astronomy-related social media and publications. Very soon NEOWISE will fade from sight as it moves out of the inner solar system. It won’t be back for 6,800 years.

We won’t see this comet again, but it will leave behind memories that will give us astronomers something to smile about whenever the topic of 2020 comes up.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Five Years Since Victoria's Pluto Party

Ivar Arroway updates Pluto flyby celebrants in Victoria about New Horizons' latest findings, 14 July 2015. Chris Gainor photo.
Today marks five years since the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto and its moons. It took New Horizons nine years to get there, so the rendezvous was widely anticipated.

In my case, I had lived in Victoria B.C. for nearly two decades before we finally got a look at the ninth planet in our solar system, or depending on your viewpoint, the king of the dwarf planets.

Most of those years I lived near Pluto’s Restaurant, which serves Tex-Mex food in a converted service station on the edge of downtown Victoria. It has always been decorated with photos of the (other) eight planets of our solar system. When, I wondered, would a photo of its namesake object join them?

During the time New Horizons flew from Earth, swung by Jupiter, and finally gave us earthlings our first real glimpse of Pluto, I came up with a plan. I decided to throw a party the evening of July 14, 2015, at Pluto’s.

New Horizons made its closest passage to Pluto early that day, about the same time as its controllers at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. released a close-up photo of Pluto. Word from the spacecraft that it had safely passed by Pluto was due to be received around dinner time.

That morning I got up and ran to my computer, got word that all appeared well, and then drank in the dramatic image showing the face of Pluto. I downloaded it and arranged for a high-quality printout at a photo lab near the restaurant.

With help from my friends in the Victoria Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, I arranged for a screen and a projector at the restaurant so we could follow the news from the APL control centre in Maryland. Astronomers Ivar Arroway and Michele Bannister, who were working at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on solar system objects, helped update the crowd of people who came for dinner at Pluto’s on what New Horizons had found.

Pluto's Restaurant, Victoria B.C. Chris Gainor photo.

In addition to the usual great food from Pluto’s (“The Hottest Food From the Coolest Planet”) we enjoyed special cupcakes from Happy Ditty Bakery.

Finally, I was able to present a framed copy of the close-up photo of Pluto to the restaurant’s owner. The photo still hangs there today, along with the other planets.

Last year there was word that the block where Pluto’s is located is due to be redeveloped, which portends changes for Pluto’s. But in the meantime, the restaurant has returned to operation after being closed for a few weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As for New Horizons, it is still going strong after upending scientists’ suppositions about Pluto, and in 2019, imaging Arrokoth, a Kuiper Belt object that orbits beyond Pluto.

This photo of Pluto as seen by New Horizons now hangs in Pluto's Restaurant. NASA photo.