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A 'giant leap' revisited

Program explores past, future in space

Above, visitor to the library examines some of the items brought to the library by James Zebrowski. Gus Steeves. (click for larger version)
July 12, 2009


SOUTHBRIDGE — For James Zebrowski, space is an emblem of both the future and the past, and average Americans really need to know more about it.

Surprisingly enough, he finds the younger ones often know more than adults.

"There's a lot of good astronomical information coming out of the kids … and that's all we want to do — get kids involved," he said.

On Thursday, he got a chance to give that science spark to some local youths and their parents at Jacob Edwards Library, when he spoke about the Apollo landings. This month is the 40th anniversary of the first of them — Apollo 11, which touched down on the Moon July 20, 1969.

To Woodstock's Ben Gormley, 12, some of Zebrowski's material wasn't new; he said he already knew "quite a lot" about it. He said he believes we'll get back there within the next decade and have a colony on Mars within a century or so.

"We might want to because we could get more information about the Moon core and its surroundings," Gormley said. Regarding Mars, he added we need a colony because "if anything ever happened to Earth, we'd have a second chance."

In fact, going back to Luna is our second chance — after a few visits by the Apollo project, humanity has yet to return in person. Several nations have sent robot probes, including recent visits by us, India and Japan, but Zebrowski predicted the Chinese will actually send people back there before the U.S. does. When we return, however, the plan is to live there for four weeks, and the new Orion rocket and Ares lander are in design to replace the old Saturn V, which sent Apollo aloft.

"What I like about this is it's now international," he said. "It's better to be rivals in competing to do something important than to do the Cold War thing."

Zebrowski is president of the amateur Aldrich Astronomical Society, a physicist and professor at Anna Maria College. But he's been into astronomy far longer than that — he remembers watching the Apollo 11 launch live as a college student and being fascinated with some of its details. Although he's not a numbers guy, he knows some of that day's by heart —Saturn V was 365 feet tall and consumed 100 gallons of fuel per second to reach escape velocity, enabling the three astronauts to travel the 240,000 miles to the Moon. About 1.5 million people watched it in person, and countless millions more on TV.

While most people know pilot Neil Armstrong's famous "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind" statement as he set foot on the Moon's dusty surface, Zebrowski related a variety of lesser known facts about that and other Apollo missions. For example, the crew initially did not know they were in lunar orbit until they saw moon mountains silhouetted by the sun when coming around the dark side. To get there, NASA "built a computer that would fill a 40 by 50 room" to control the launch and gave the Eagle lander one with just 4K of memory — "You're typical $4.95 calculator at Wal-Mart's checkout line is more powerful," he added.

If something went wrong during launch, the crew did have an escape rocket — but they could never have used it because the G-forces and Saturn V's "giant whip-antenna swaying" necessary to stay on course made it impossible to reach the buttons. Fortunately nothing happened then, but the Moon landing itself required Armstrong to take control of the lander (which was intended to land by computer with at least 10 minutes of fuel) with just 2 minutes of fuel left because the target zone was too rocky. He maneuvered Eagle to a safer location and finally set her down with just 15 seconds' fuel to spare.

Ironically, Zebrowski later said, the fuel would not have been there were it not for an engineering oversight during the design phase — while planning for the craft's mass in space, NASA forgot about Earth's gravity, which caused it to expand enough to actually hold 30 percent more fuel.

Being the first of its kind, the crew found a variety of other things the engineers had never considered — including how useful cameras were, the need for window shades, how to jerry rig things with duct tape or a felt-tip pen, and even the need for a toilet. They also discovered how bright the Moon really is — and how dark it is. The former applied to the sunlight, which required gold visors to protect their eyes; the latter to the lunar surface, which absorbs 94 percent of all light, making it the darkest surface in the solar system.

Six later missions set foot on Luna — Apollo 12 and 14-17. The latter was the first to discover the Moon wasn't entirely grey; it discovered a patch of orange regolith that later proved to contain something crucial to any future colony — water. It was also the only one to get photos of the liftoff from Luna.

Although humans have yet to return there, a lot of the technology we use today grew in part from the Apollo space effort, often rooted in its need to have light, small tools, Zebrowski said. Among them are today's computers, some software, some medical treatment technology and, of course, global communications and mapping satellites. He predicted the next round of spacefaring will have similar "unforeseen" benefits and that some of today's children will participate in it.

To Wendy Benoit-Santiago, Thursday's talk was particularly notable for how the children behaved, including her own son, Jordan, 8.

"I was surprised these kids sat for an hour and a half. They were so attentive … because they're interested in Star Wars stuff," she said.

She admitted she "didn't know a lot" of Zebrowski's material, but said her family "look[s] at the moon all the time" because she's interested in astrology.

Afterward, Zebrowski said similar lack of knowledge among adults is pretty common. He polled the students in his Backyard Astronomy class at Anna Maria and "15 of 16 said this was the first science class they'd ever taken," even in high school. He noted he's working to counter "the current state of disrepair [in] and lack of knowledge of the sciences," and cited a national poll in which "the answers, nine times out of 10, were wrong." For example, some people said we have seasons because we get closer to the sun in summer, he said. (In fact, it's because our planet is slightly tilted on its axis, so we get more sunlight in summer than winter. Earth is actually closer to the sun during the Northern Hemisphere winter, although that changes over very long spans of time.)

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