Spaceflight In The Age Of Cute


Apollo-era astronaut Mike Collins was famously one of the most erudite and poetic humans to participate in the bold act of lunar exploration. His book, “Carrying the Fire,” ranks as the best personal account of the great adventure and was recently reissued in a 50th anniversary edition.

Having considered the thing thoughtfully for five decades, Collins was asked in an interview if he would do anything differently. Consistent with his always-surprising view of spaceflight, Collins’ answer related not to Apollo 11, but to Apollo 8, the first mission to depart Earth’s gravity and orbit the Moon. It was audacious, risky and inspiring, offering a glimmer of hope at the end of an awful year, 1968.

When PBS’s Miles O’Brien interviewed Collins for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the astronaut said this of 8, a mission on which he served as a Capcom at a critical moment: “So, I thought, when this moment comes in history, this is it, the pope will certainly send a message. The president will come. Sinatra will sing. There will be some acknowledgment of it. And in the meantime, of course, it’s up to Frank [Borman] and me. And we’re both right up there. We are going to handle this thing properly. So, I went first. I said: ‘Apollo 8, you are go for TLI. Over.’ And Frank rose to the occasion. And he said: ‘Roger. Understand. We are go for TLI.’”

Collins said later he wished he had said something more momentous unconstrained by NASA’s dry, acronym-festooned engineering speak. But that was OK then because we all knew that TLI meant trans-lunar injection. A half century later, space exploration has entered a more popular phase, or should I say “cute.”

In the dramatic video of the recent Perseverance landing on Mars, the narrator describes the “straighten up and fly right” maneuver to orient the vehicle for a better radar view of the surface. It’s actually called the SURF maneuver, apparently, according to NASA’s own explanation. NASA of yore would have called that VRO for vehicle radar orientation. Or something.

SpaceX has joined this trend—or maybe started it—with its own whimsical or even humorous descriptions of spaceflight terms. For example, the “belly flop” maneuver for its own Mars rocket and Elon Musk’s description of exploding rockets as RUDs for rapid unscheduled disassembly. The Saturn 5’s engines were F-1s; SpaceX’s are Merlins. A science fiction fan, Musk has honored author Ian Banks with whimsical names for the ships that recover SpaceX’s boosters at sea. There’s OCISLY for “Of Course I Still Love You,” and JRtI for “Just Read the Instructions.” Under construction is “A Shortfall of Gravitas.”

Secret code in Perseverance descent canopy.

NASA actually went SpaceX one better. If you look at the video of the parachute deployment, there’s a random pattern in the panel gores. (See the photo.) Except, it’s not random. It’s a binary code that, when parsed out, spells out the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s ethos: Dare Mighty Things. A second code around the edge of the canopy gives JPL’s GPS coordinates. Nerdy, but cool.

Just guessing, but I suspect Mike Collins would be pleased. And why not? Whimsy and humor have a place in everyday life and ought to have a place in modern-day descriptions of space flight. In my view, this makes the entire enterprise more accessible and engaging for the general public and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be, especially since the public is paying for most of it.

Given the demand for unending streamed coverage of everything, both NASA and SpaceX have offered live feeds of various missions. This is also a good thing, for it educates, informs and engages, something that’s always desirable. For this, I’m giving the Oscar to NASA for a more informed and concise narration, at least on the Perseverance video. The SpaceX versions have been a little strained at times with a little too many Bob and Dougs.

The NASA narrator mixed just the right amount of inside technical talk with explanations that a popular audience can understand. And let’s just pause and reflect for a moment on the technical achievement here. It’s stunning. There’s no way that skycrane lash-up ought to work, but it did and it has before. Once again, I salute all the smart kids who paid attention in physics class. The code writing alone matches the invention of the wheel. I do wish, however, that they would add some titling to convert metric velocity to miles per hour. The thought of a parachute deploying at 403 meters per second—901 MPH—gives me the willies. But only after I’ve done the math.

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  1. VERY cool to find these “insider” things. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and speak with several astronauts and talk with them in enough depth to see not only how focused they are, but several “insider” personal anecdotes.

    We lionize our heroes and ascribe superhuman attributes to them, but when they show their human side, they become even more believable and give us hope that we too might be capable of doing great things–but isn’t that an almost-universal attribute of all great people?

  2. Good subject for Engineer’s Week. Engineers aren’t the dry humorless nerds we’re usually depicted to be; forty years in the space business saw plenty of laughs. Earliest that comes to mind was an Air Force satellite in the ’70s that developed issues with its attitude control system. Lieutenant Knight came up with a workaround which saved the mission; it was dubbed “Fly By Knight.”

    One pair of satellites received in-house names in honor of one of the engineers who had developed breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. Her plastic surgeon had given her two options of “styles” for her breast reconstruction. “Perky,” “Sporty,” and the lady are all doing fine.

  3. The parachute deployment is one of the reasons why they send robots…
    It also is a reminder of how weird it is down there — very thin atmosphere means earth rules do not apply.
    I notice the one instrument which does not feature on the downloads is a thermometre reading. If people actually realised how cold it is on Mars, alot of the nonsense about it would stop. All this stuff about having people up there by 2030 or 2050 — we can barely keep people at the South Pole, on Earth, and the South Pole is a lot warmer than Mars…

    • It’s no different than being on the moon. Actually, slightly less difficult, since mars actually has an atmosphere (as tenuous as it is). Getting to mars and back, on the other hand, is the real challenge. And landing and then taking off again. But actually being on the surface isn’t the difficult part.

  4. What a great article – truly inspiring reading about these achievements and also the tone/sentiment in which it was conveyed – thanks Paul! The last couple of sentences and the timing on the math cracked me up.

  5. Competition is good. This competition specifically between SpaceX and NASA has been good from an engineering, purely technical standpoint as well as tongue in cheek humor. Now we have RUD/Rapid Unplanned Disassembly, DMT/Dare Mighty Things, OCISLY/Of Course I Still Love You, JRtI/Just Read the Instructions, aSoG/A Shortfall of Gravitas, SURF/straighten up and fly right, Merlins/F-1’s, and the long forgotten TLI/trans lunar injection.

    Of course I still love you. The rapid unplanned disassembly resulted from dare mighty things. I straightened up and fly right largely because I just read the instructions. I may have a shortfall of gravitas but still enjoy Merlin and F-1 during the trans lunar injection. Look up…you know where I am. Yeah, even engineers can be “cute”.

    Great article, nice diversion from the usual “controversies of the day”, and a reminder both the private sector of the USA and the American government are capable of doing great things AND having a sense of humor while pushing the boundaries of technology.

  6. Good Day, eh?
    How’s it goin’ eh?
    Hey… what if that giant SpaceX can was fulla beer, eh? >snicker snort<
    It won't be full for long with YOU around, hoser…

  7. While “Dare Mighty Things” may be JPL’s ethos, I think it is worth reminding the more modern audience that the person who first penned those words was referring of course to life in general, and to his conception as to how it should be lived.

    Considering his life as a rancher, hunter, explorer, author, soldier, and politician he certainly practiced what he preached….among other things he remains the only person to have been the recipient of the Medal of Honor [as was one of his sons] and the Nobel Peace Prize.

    I strongly suspect that Mr. [Theodore] Roosevelt would have been extremely impressed, but not surprised, by this latest achievement of American technology. Bully.

  8. Paul, I set a link to your [cute] article to Mike (Collins). Hopefully, he’ll deign to weigh in on exactly what he thinks!