Apollo 13 almost killed three NASA astronauts.
How much safer will it be the next time that people head to the moon, more than 50 years later?
Will it indeed be safer?
“Safer, yes,” said Douglas O. Stanley, president and executive director of the National Institute of Aerospace, a nonprofit research institute in Hampton, Virginia. “We have more reliable systems now.”
Think of the half-century of advances in other modes of transportation. New cars are chock-full of anti-lock brakes, air bags, automatic emergency braking and backup cameras — innovations that were lacking in cars on the roads in 1970. Safety systems now automatically apply the brakes if a train is going too fast around a curve. Jetliner crashes are much rarer, even as the number of flights has multiplied.
Rockets and spacecraft are also becoming much more sophisticated. “The parts are more reliable,” Stanley said. “Rocket engines are more reliable than in the ’60s.”
That means the next trip to the moon, anticipated later in the 2020s, should be safer — but not safe.
“Spaceflight, you’re operating in a pretty difficult environment,” said Gene Kranz, the flight director who was in charge in mission control on the night of April 13, 1970, when Apollo 13 went awry.
The mission had launched two days earlier, and the three astronauts aboard — James A. Lovell Jr., Fred W. Haise Jr. and John L. Swigert Jr. — were already 200,000 miles from Earth, well on the way to being the fifth American crew to reach the moon. Just after 10 p.m., mission control asked Swigert, pilot of the command module that was to orbit the moon, to perform a “cryo stir,” a routine task to briefly whisk ultracold hydrogen and oxygen in the propellant tanks. That prevented the propellants from separating into layers, which causes misleading pressure readings.
He did. The spacecraft shook. Warning lights lit up. “I believe we’ve had a problem here,” Swigert reported.
It was not immediately clear how serious the problem was.
“For the first minutes, I thought, ‘This is a minor electrical problem,’ ” Kranz recalled. “We’ll put the crew to sleep and work it. Then another controller said the crew reported a pretty big bang.”
Unknown to anyone at the time, wires inside one of the oxygen tanks in the service module — the part of the spacecraft that provided propulsion and electrical power — were damaged. When Swigert flipped the switch, that generated a spark that ignited the wires’ insulation, and the tank ruptured, emptying its contents into space. The other oxygen tank, damaged, was also leaking. The oxygen was not just for the astronauts to breathe but also fed the fuel cells that powered the spacecraft.
The command module was dying, quickly. But the lunar lander, docked to the command module, was intact. Under the direction of Glynn Lunney, the flight director whose shift followed Kranz’s, the Apollo 13 astronauts scrambled into the lunar module, which served as their lifeboat.
Engineers on the ground were able to solve a series of critical problems, like how to jury rig filters from the command module to work in the lander’s carbon dioxide removal system to prevent the gas from building up to levels deadly to the astronauts. The engineers also calculated an engine burn by the lunar module to get Apollo 13 on a trajectory back to Earth and figured out how to restart the command module with the limited power available.
Eighty-seven hours after the explosion, the Apollo 13 astronauts safely splashed in the Pacific Ocean.
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“I had a lot of confidence,” Kranz said. “Every time I launched, I believed we would bring them home. It was a confidence.”
But luck also played a role. If the explosion had occurred later in the mission, after the lunar lander with Lovell and Haise had already headed to the moon, the separated command module with Swigert would have been stranded in lunar orbit. Lovell and Haise would have been stuck on the moon’s surface with no way home.
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That was not the only close call of the Apollo era. During Apollo 11, the lunar lander was nearly out of fuel before Neil Armstrong found a spot to set down. As the Apollo 12 mission got underway, lightning struck the Saturn 5 rocket during liftoff, scrambling electronic systems. Remarkably, the rocket stayed on course as an astute ground controller remembered a switch that rebooted the electronic systems.
What scientists have learned in the last 50 years has minimized many of those risks.
There are now much more detailed maps of the moon’s surface. Launch rules were tightened to avoid a recurrence of a lightning strike, and meteorological tools are now much more capable of detecting a buildup of electrical charge in the atmosphere before lightning discharges.
Under President Donald Trump, the top priority for NASA is to send astronauts back to the moon. Last year, his administration accelerated the timetable for the first crewed landing to 2024 from 2028 (although delays resulting from the coronavirus outbreak have raised fresh doubts about this schedule).
NASA named the new moon program Artemis, after the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.
Direct comparisons between the Artemis and Apollo missions are difficult to make because NASA has not yet decided all of the details of how it will land on the moon. Two pieces are set: the giant Space Launch System rocket — a modern-day equivalent of the Saturn 5 that lofted the Apollo crews — and the Orion crew capsule, which is like the Apollo command module but larger.
Orion can perform many tasks autonomously, but the astronauts will still be able to take over manual control if needed. Also, controllers on the ground will be able to control the spacecraft remotely, much like flying a drone aircraft.
But a key piece of the Artemis architecture — the lander — has not been chosen. NASA is taking a commercial approach, soliciting proposals from companies like Blue Origin, the rocket company started by Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon, as well as Boeing, which is building the first stage of the SLS rocket. The agency is looking to finance more than one of these lunar landing systems.
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Until recently, NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, had insisted that instead of the all-in-one direct approach used by Apollo, the lander would be sent separately to dock at a small space-stationlike outpost called Gateway orbiting the moon. Astronauts would then lift off toward the moon aboard an Orion capsule on top of the Space Launch System. They would also dock at Gateway, where they would transfer to the lander and head down to the moon.
With more pieces, more launches and multiple dockings, there would be more places where something could go wrong. If the lander were sent to lunar orbit separately, it could not serve as a lifeboat for Artemis astronauts in case of an Apollo 13-like emergency.
“That would increase probability of loss of crew,” said Stanley, who led a study that devised the architecture for an earlier return-to-the-moon program called Constellation that was started under President George W. Bush and canceled by President Barack Obama.
But last month, Douglas L. Loverro, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told the science committee of NASA’s advisory council that he was simplifying the plans so that the Gateway would not be needed for the first Artemis landing.
Stanley said the first Artemis mission could consist of two launches, with the Orion spacecraft docking with the lunar lander in Earth orbit before heading to the moon.
“It’s the most reliable, safe way to do that, period,” Stanley said.
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Two major technological advantages available today are better sensors — for instance, a small camera in the bowels of the spacecraft could reveal the extent of any damage immediately — and improved communications systems.
Apollo 13’s mission controllers and crew were hamstrung by an inability to send instructions quickly. The checklist for restarting the command module before reentry had to be read up to the astronauts line by line, and Swigert had to write everything down by hand.
“If you listen to the transcript, it’s a little bit agonizing,” said Gerry Griffin, one of the other Apollo 13 flight directors. “There is a lot of repeating. One of the problems was he couldn’t get enough paper to write on. It was a bit nerve-racking.”
Today, the instructions could be simply displayed on a computer screen or printed out.
But the much greater capability of modern computers comes with potential dangers.
“Our biggest advantage and my biggest worry are all centered around the same area,” said Joseph W. Dyer, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral who chaired NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel from 2003 to 2016.
Spacecraft can now perform many tasks autonomously, but in the complex software code, “Errors find their way in, and sometimes they’re catastrophic,” Dyer said. “The bottom line is, with great capability comes great complexity.”
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That pitfall popped up during December’s uncrewed test of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, designed to take NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Inadequate testing missed at least two serious software errors that led to the mission ending early and not accomplishing its main objective: docking at the space station.
One of the errors could have led to the catastrophic loss of the spacecraft if it had not been caught as the capsule orbited Earth. NASA and Boeing are now reviewing more than 1 million lines of code before a repeat of the Starliner uncrewed test flight later this year.
Dyer said NASA and space companies might learn from the software development processes used for high-performance military airplanes.
Space projects “tend to be one-offs,” said Dyer, who was the program manager of the F/A-18 jet in the 1990s. “I don’t have as much faith in one as the other.”
Even good software development processes and robust testing are not enough. Dyer recalled an upgrade to the computer software on the airplanes. “It worked perfectly in the northern hemisphere,” he said.
But the first time an aircraft carrier took the F/A-18s below the equator, it was discovered that there was a plus sign in the computer code that should have been a minus sign.
The error did not cause any accidents, but “it speaks to the challenge of finding every potential problem,” Dyer said.
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Artemis will also not have as many test flights as Apollo. Astronauts are to be on board during just the second flight of the Space Launch System, and the moon landing is to be part of the third flight.
But Kranz and Griffin both said that more important than the hardware was the people operating the hardware, who would be coming up with a multitude of contingency plans.
With the exhaustive training, the mission controllers were able to react quickly during Apollo 13. They opted against making an immediate U-turn, which would have required firing the engine in the damaged service module. By taking a path around the moon, the three astronauts had a longer voyage home but one the ground crew bet would be safer.
For the course changes, the controllers decided to use the lunar lander’s propulsion to perform maneuvers it was never designed to do.
After the initial dangers had passed and the Apollo 13 astronauts were on the path back to Earth, Haise dryly remarked from space that “this flight is probably a lot bigger test for the system on the ground than up here.”
When the service module was jettisoned just before reentry, the astronauts were finally able to see the damage caused by the explosion. The call not to rely on the damaged service module had been the right one.
“I had a team that was well-prepared when things went wrong,” Kranz said. “It’s easier to build a spacecraft or a space system than to build the team.”
Apple Loop: Shock iPhone 12 Details, Massive iOS 14 Problems, Macbook Pro Delay
Taking a look back at another week of news and headlines from Cupertino, this week’s Apple Loop includes surprising iPhone 12 benchmarks, big problems with iOS 14, two new iPads, Apple ignores MacOS, the “good/better/best” of the Apple Watch, the controversy around Apple One, and the Macs’ never changing system System Preferences.
Apple Loop is here to remind you of a few of the very many discussions that have happened around Apple over the last seven days (and you can read my weekly digest of Android news here on Forbes).
Just How Fast Is Your Next iPhone?
We might not have seen the iPhone 12 family as part of Apple’s virtual September launch event this week, but we have seen the benchmarks pop up on the AnTuTu website. That gives us a raw comparison of the numbers from last year’s iPhone to this year’s. Philip Michaels reports some pretty shocking numbers:
“Leaked benchmarks from Antutu, purportedly showing off an iPhone 12 Pro Max’s performance, may help fill in some of the blanks. MySmartPrice spotted the leaked numbers, which claim to show off a device with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage running iOS 14.1.
“According to the leaks, the iPhone 12 Pro Max tallied a score of 572,333 on Antutu’s test, which is a 9% gain over the iPhone 11 Pro Max’s 524,436 result on the same test. MySmartPrice says the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s reported tally would be the highest score ever posted by an iPhone, which you’d hope given that it’s a new model.
The Big Problem With iOS 14
Apple may not have announced a release date for the iPhone, but it did announce the release date of iOS 14. And that has caused problems. Normally Apple will provide a week’s worth of ‘heads up’ time to Developers so they can ensure their apps are ready for the jump up to the next major version of iOS. Not this year… developers had less than a days notice, and they are not happy. Matt Binder reports:
““Gone are the hopes of being on the store by the time users install the new iOS 14 and are looking for new apps. Gone is the chance to get some last-minute fixes into your existing apps to make sure they don’t stop working outright by the time users get to upgrade their OS,” explained Steve [Troughton-Smith from High Caffeine Content.”
““There are some developers who have spent all summer working on something new, using the latest technologies, hoping to be there on day one and participate in the excitement (and press coverage) of the new iOS,” he continued. “For many of them, they’ll be incredibly upset to have it end like this instead of a triumphant launch, and it can dramatically decrease the amount of coverage or sales they receive.””
Take Two Tablets And Call Your iPhone In The Morning
Taking the flagship spot away from the ‘missing presumed having a good time’ iPhone 12 was Apple’s new iPad Air. Beating the smartphone as the first device with Apple’s new A14 ARM-based processor. Samuel Axon and Jim Salter report for Ars Technica:
“The iPad Air gets the new A14 Bionic CPU, built on 5nm process technology. It’s a six-core CPU with two high-performance cores and four lower-power, more efficient cores for simpler background tasks. The A14 Bionic offers a 30 percent GPU performance boost compared to previous generations, and Apple says it puts up double the graphics performance of typical laptops.”
As well as the increased power, 2020’s iPad Air has a new design; USB-C has been added, the bezels have been trimmed away, the home button has been removed, and TouchID has been integrated into the power button. It;s not the only new iPad, as the entry-level iPad moves up rom the A10 to the A12 Bionic processor. Benjamin Mayo reports:
“The jump from A10 to A12 means Apple’s cheapest iPad will feature the Neural Engine for the first time. Apple says the A12 chip offers more than twice the performance of the top selling Windows laptop, 6x faster than the top-selling Android tablet and 6x faster than the best-selling Chromebook.
“The 8th-generation iPad keeps the same price as the 7th-gen: that’s $329 for general sale and $299 for education.”
Will Mac Owners Be Satisfied With Safari After macOS Delay?
If you were waiting for MmcOS Big Sur to drop for your Mac or MacBook, then you are out of luck. Apple’s event saw updates to iOS, iPadOS, tvOS, and watchOS… but macOS has been delayed. The ‘Big Sur’ release is still in the future, but a small crumb (perhaps from a cookie) has been handed to Mac fans in the form of Safari 14, presumably to offer cross-OS support with other devices. Juli Clover reports:
“Safari 14 brings improved performance, customizable start pages, a Privacy Report to see which cross-site trackers are being blocked, and a new tab bar design that provides tab previews so you can see what you have open at a glance. Today’s update also removes Adobe Flash.”
The Apple Watch Strikes Three
Two new Apple Watch models were launched, and as the Apple Watch Series 3 remains, there is now a low-, a mid-, and a high-level smartwatch in the classic triplet that Apple was once famous for. Todd Haselton looks over the Series 6 Apple Watch for CNBC, including the headline ‘wellness’ features:
“The Series 6 also has Apple’s most advanced sensors. You can run the ECG app for an electrocardiogram, for example, a feature that’s not on the Apple Watch SE or Series 3. It’s also the only model with the new blood-oxygen app. I tried that and it told me my blood oxygen was 96%, which seems good.
“…Apple is careful to explain that this isn’t a medical device. You can use it if you’re curious about your blood oxygen when you’re hiking at high altitudes, but Apple isn’t making any promises about detecting low oxygen should you fall ill with coronavirus.”
Meanwhile, Apple has brought the ‘SE’ brand to the Apple Watch, again with the promise of a cheaper ‘mid-range’ slice of hardware that still delivers the core Apple experience. Chris Velazco has spent some time with the wearable to try and work out where it fits into the portfolio:
“For one, the SE uses the same S5 system-in-package (or SIP) that we got in last year’s Series 5, which in turn contains the same dual-core processor as the Series 4. Meanwhile, Apple has confirmed that the SE has the same compass and always-on altimeter as the Series 6, along with a very similar screen.
“From what I can tell, it’s the same bigger display we got in the Series 5, just without the always-on functionality enabled. And while the Series 4 was the first Apple Watch to come with heart-sensing ECG support, you simply don’t get that here. Ditto for the Series 6’s new blood oxygen measurement features.”
Bouquets and Brickbats For Apple One
Also announced alongside Apple’s hardware, and perhaps an indication of where Apple wishes to focus on the future, were new options for the various subscription services offered by Cupertino. Apple One takes the popular options and bundles them together while offering a discount. Brian Heater reports:
“It’s not quite mix and match yet, but there are three pricing tiers. Individual offers Apple Music, TV+, Arcade and iCloud for $15 a month. The Family version will get you those four services for $20 a month. For the hardcore, there’s the $30 a month Premier tier, which bundles iCloud, Music, TV+, Arcade, News+ and [the new service] Fitness+.“
“For those who have been putting off a given Apple subscription, such a bundle could certainly sweeten the pot — and make it even harder for users to escape the pull of the Apple software ecosystem.”
More at TechCrunch. Given Apple’s market position, using one service to pptentiallybolster another through a bundle has drawn the eye of the competition. Spotify – which has already filed an anti-trust complaint with the European Commission against Apple – drew attention to the issue shortly ager the end of the event.
“Once again, Apple is using its dominant position and unfair practices to disadvantage competitors and deprive consumers by favoring its own services. We call on competition authorities to act urgently to restrict Apple’s anti-competitive behavior, which if left unchecked, will cause irreparable harm to the developer community and threaten our collective freedoms to listen, learn, create, and connect.”
The look of the MacOS user interface has evolved since OSX was announced in 2000. One area has stayed relatively contestant, but the small changes highlight the thinking behind the OS over the years.
“The interface started glassy and skeuomorphic, mimicking the materials used on Macs. Over the decades, it went through significant revisions. One thing that seems to have remained relatively unchanged over the years is the System Preferences screen.
“But, at a closer glance, we’ll see that this mundane part of the operating system has changed quite a bit and hides some fun easter eggs and surprises.”
Apple Loop brings you seven days worth of highlights every weekend here on Forbes. Don’t forget to follow me so you don’t miss any coverage in the future. Last week’s Apple Loop can be read here, or this week’s edition of Loop’s sister column, Android Circuit, is also available on Forbes.
Apple reportedly acquires VR startup ‘Spaces’
Apple has now acquired another startup, Spaces, which has a team specialized in virtual reality technologies (VR). The acquisition was announced today by a Protocol report citing its own sources.
Spaces was created in 2016 by DreamWorks Animation veterans, and the startup has been developing VR products since then, including a Zoom add-on that allowed users to hold virtual reality video conferencing using animated avatars.
The company discontinued all its services last week without further details. The official Spaces website just mentions that the startup is now “heading in a new direction.”
Thank you to our users and partners who participated in our awesome VR video conferencing product and the many people who enjoyed our VR location-based entertainment attractions found at theme parks, theaters, and more.
According to the Protocol report, both Apple and Spaces did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on the acquisition. The price paid by Apple on the Spaces startup is also unknown.
While it’s not certain that the team behind Spaces will join any VR related project at Apple, rumors suggest that Apple is working on AR and VR headsets for 2021 and 2022. Bloomberg says the headset will reportedly feature high-resolution displays and a “cinematic speaker system,” which should make it difficult for the user to notice the differences between real life and the virtual reality experiences the headset will provide.
As Apple continues to invest in its ARKit and new features such as the LiDAR scanner in the new 2020 iPad Pro, it’s plausible to expect that all of these technologies will be merged into a new product to offer advanced augmented and virtual reality capabilities.
Huawei Suddenly Strikes At Google With New ‘Fight’ To Beat Android
“The world has been suffering for a long time,” rotating Huawei chairman Guo Ping told employees during a pep talk this week, referring to the lock Google has on the Android ecosystem. And so ended the executive silence on President Trump’s latest salvo, cutting Huawei’s access to the chipsets powering its flagship smartphones. Guo admitted the new sanctions would “cause certain difficulties… especially for high-end mobile phones,” but assured employees that “I believe we can solve them.”
The focus of Guo’s remarks was Huawei’s answer to the loss of Google from those mobile phones. Its alternative has been in the works since last year—part HarmonyOS operating system that can run across phones and other smart devices, but mostly the HMS replacement for Google Mobile Services, the apps and underlying services that drive the Android ecosystem. Huawei now has 600 million users on its ecosystem. This is a change that impacts all of those who stay with the brand.
“The world is also looking forward to a new open system,” Guo said. “And since Huawei helped Android to succeed, why not make our own system successful?” The devil’s very much in the detail here. HMS may be bigger, brighter and bolder, as Huawei claims, but the timing of its full HarmonyOS deployment on a smartphone remains unclear. Reports that this would happen by the end of this calendar year, perhaps as soon as with the launch of the imminent Mate 40, have been denied.
“HMS must have a ‘Foolish Old Man Moving Mountain Spirit’,” Guo said to rally his audience, “no matter how high the mountain is, dig an inch or less, persist and fight for a long time, we will definitely succeed.”
There is nothing especially new in these bullish HMS remarks. What is new, though, is the idea that anything can still be on track despite the admission from the company that its stockpiled custom chipsets will only see it through the launch of the Mate 40, with analysis assuming depletion early-ish next year. And right now there is no Plan-B, given that Trump has cut access to third-party alternatives.
“Don’t waste an opportunity in a crisis,” Guo Ping said of the latest U.S. attack, telling his audience that Huawei will invest heavily in HiSilicon to overcome the impact of the U.S. ban, albeit that will take time. “HiSilicon will grow stronger in several years,” he said, suggesting that the U.S. had created a situation that would ultimately work in Huawei’s favour, as long as everyone seized upon it.
Guo described the company’s decision to launch HMS as “brave,” and that “it was not an easy decision for us, as a smartphone company, to develop our own Huawei Mobile Services ecosystem. It’s very difficult and very challenging. But we delivered a better-than-expected script for the first year.”
Huawei has maintained throughout its time on the U.S. blacklist that it wants nothing more than a return to normal—where normal is Google restored to its new devices. But the longer this situation continues, the more one can assume Huawei isn’t going to backtrack on HMS, not given that it secures a future for the company’s smartphones that’s not reliant on U.S. tech.
Until now, Huawei execs have been notably diplomatic over the loss of Google and their preference being to restore the relationship between the two organizations. That’s why these comments are so remarkable—it’s a surprisingly hard stance with surprisingly emotive language to take over Google and the competitive landscape that may now emerge.
As hard as replacing Google is—and many analysts suggest it is near impossible, the chipset issue is much worse. But Huawei looks intent on playing a long-game, with the balance sheet to do so. As reported by China’s state-controlled Global Times, Guo “compared cultivating HMS as a protracted war that Huawei is destined to win in the end,” telling his audience (and Google) that “it’s plausible to have two systems in a world. And Huawei will be able to survive and take the lead even in an extremely hostile environment.”
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