Space exploration

Book Review: Deke!

Deke! U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle
by Donald K. “Deke” Slayton with Michael Cassut
New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1994.

“America’s Chief Astronaut Speaks Out at Last!” The publisher isn’t exaggerating with that tagline. This autobiography reads like it came straight from Deke Slayton’s mouth, complete with copious usage of his favorite expletive “goddamned.” I’m sure some of it has been smoothed over by the cowriter, but it still reads like practically a transcript of the taped conversations. The language is short and punchy, just like the way Deke spoke.

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Michael Cassut made a risky decision to leave Deke’s words largely unpolished and intact. It works. Deke’s voice really comes through in the book, and we appreciate his accomplishments all the more for it.

Explorations: Landing on the Moon

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Microsoft Flight Simulator virtually buckles you in the pilot seat without having to shell out $100 an hour to rent a Cessna.  Orbiter has taken the trail blazed by the long-since discontinued Microsoft Space Simulator (1994), and paved it into a multi-lane expressway.  With Orbiter and its add-ons, you can (virtually) strap yourself into the astronaut's couch for $20 million less than it costs to fly along on a Soyuz mission to the International Space Station.  In some ways, it's better.  You can get a flying license and actually control a plane, but even the billionaire space tourists are mostly just sightseeing.  This is truly a geeky thrill that will not be available for decades to come.

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Such is the power of Moore's Law.  In Apollo 13, Tom Hanks proudly describes a computer that fits in a single room and has a megabyte of memory.  Film critic Roger Ebert remarked that he was typing his review on a more powerful computer than the one that guided a spacecraft to the moon.  Well, now, we have so much computer power that we can calculate trajectories, render realistic 1280x1024 images of the spacecraft at over 25 fps, and emulate every hardware function of the Apollo Guidance Computer, fast enough for the original software to run in real time.  That's progress.

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Film Review: Woman in the Moon (1929)

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Frau im Mond (1929)
(Woman in the Moon)

directed by Fritz Lang

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Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond) is one of Fritz Lang’s forgotten films. Never finding the critical acclaim that other Lang pictures did, this film has mostly been relegated to the annals of historical rocketry films, sandwiched between Georges Méliès' whimsical A Trip to the Moon and the post-V2, pre-Sputnik Destination Moonalt, penned by science-fiction great Robert Heinlein. Woman in the Moon is perhaps best-known for having popularized the 3-2-1-liftoff countdown.

[...] The viewer runs through the whole sequence of emotions that accompanied the Apollo moonshots of the 1960s and 1970s: thrill in anticipation of the launch, wonder at weightlessness, and wistfulness as the pioneers watch the earth grow smaller.

Watching Woman in the Moon is likely to send shivers up the spine of the space enthusiast. The science depicted in the film has an impressive pedigree — the technical sections are attributed to Dr. Hermann Oberth, the father of German rocketry and mentor of Dr. Werner von Braun, creator of the V-2 ballistic missile and later head of the Saturn rocket program.

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