Comet West – 1976

C West 002

Comet West

The picture above was taken in May of 1976 using Kodachrome color film.  I have provided it here in black and white, obviously.  I took the picture with a 50 mm lens on a single lens reflex camera.  It was somewhere around four in the morning as I remember.  The picture, as most pictures of Comet West, does not do justice to what we saw — not even close.

The “we” I am referring to is an old friend from college, Mike Stupinski (Hi, Mike!) and I.  Mike also wound up working for Hamilton Standard, as I did.  We knew that the comet was supposed to be pretty spectacular, and Mike stayed over at my house the night before so we could observe it together.  At the time, Wendy and I, plus the children, lived in a modest house in the hills of East Hartland, CT.  To the east we had an expansive view of the Connecticut River valley, ideal for observing the eastern sky.

The view of Comet West that morning was indeed spectacular, much more so than either Mike or I had expected.  The sun was not yet up, but there was some light in the sky.  We should have gotten up earlier.  At the time, I owned an eight inch diameter telescope, but it couldn’t begin to show the expansive image as well as a simple camera could,and certainly not as well as seen by the naked eye.  Comet West literally filled the northeast sky.  The tail was much wider and longer when seen by our unaided eyes only — no camera, no binoculars, no telescope.

Unfortunately, Comet West broke apart during its passage.  So, it will probably never be the same again.

A Shark on the Moon

The spacesuit used for the Apollo missions was made by International Latex Corp. However, some of the earlier development of the suit for Apollo was done by my former employer, Hamilton Standard. Many design problems were very difficult to overcome. On the low end of the design spectrum, the Apollo spacesuit had a seemingly very small problem. It was difficult to grasp objects with the gloves of the suit. It was also reported that it was difficult to let things go once they are gripped.  The gripping problem needed a solution.

What the gloves were missing was fingerprints.  I don’t know who came up with the idea, but someone pointed out that real sharkskin had a knapp to it.  It would grip in one direction and not in the other. That would have been ideal for fingerprints, if only we could have found sharkskin in the Yellow Pages.

So one day, a Hamilton Standard purchasing agent called up two brothers who were shark hunters in Mobile, Alabama. I knew the purchasing agent, but have forgotten his name. So, we’ll call him Frank, and we’ll call the shark hunter who answers the phone, Bob. The phone call, as it was told to me, went something like the following, including the last line:

Frank: Hello, I’m a purchasing agent for the Hamilton Standard Division of United Aircraft Corporation in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. I would like to purchase some sharkskin.

On hearing this, Bob almost hung up, but instead he went along with it.

Bob: What do want sharkskin for?

Frank: We need it to use as fingerprints on the gloves of the astronauts that are going to the Moon.

The temptation to hang up became even stronger.

Bob: How much do you need?

Frank: Two square feet.

At this point there as a long pause. Finally, Bob replied.

Bob: You know, sharks don’t come square!


‘Tis true!  Sharkskin was used.  If you want some verification, go to:

I would like to include a picture, but so far, I have not found one to show you.

Age and Wrinkles

I should tell you about my dad. He was born in 1910 and grew up in Hammonton, NJ.  He was not an easy child.  He quit high school when he turned sixteen.  He told me that he didn’t think his teachers knew anything and later found out that he was right.  Whether that was his sense of humor that prompted him to say that or not, we’ll have to leave to conjecture.  He died in 2004.

Upon leaving school, his parents threw him out.  He worked at picking crops, selling refrigerators, and who knows what else, and when the Stock Market crashed during The Great Depression, he joined the Army.  He was always an avid reader, which is probably what shaped his ultimate career.  While in the Army, he studied blueprint reading.  And while I don’t have his complete work history, I know that he eventually wound up working at Hall Aluminum as a sheet metal worker after the Army.  Along the way, he picked up an airplane mechanics license.  After Hall Aluminum, he worked for Sikorsky Helicopters, and it was there that he got his biggest break.  He was laid off.

Now that sounds bad, but he had impressed an engineer with whom he interacted when there was a need for sheet metal work for a special job.  He ultimately wound up solving a difficult manufacturing problem for the engineer, and in turn, the engineer gave him a letter of recommendation that said that my dad worked as a draftsman, which he didn’t, although he was quite good at it.

That got my dad a job with Republic Aviation at the time of the start of WWII.  There he worked hard, and studied on his own.  He designed the belly fuel tank for the P-47, and eventually went on to design other fuel systems for Republic’s jet fighters.  His biggest job was being in charge of sixty engineers and draftsmen designing the engine installation and fuel system for the F-105.

So, for a high school drop out, he did pretty well.

Now for the wrinkles.  While working at Hamilton Standard, I had a small group of engineers designing various parts of the Shuttle ECS (Environmental Control System).  Here again, water was a major cooling medium.  The Shuttle had what was called a spray boiler.  It was a chamber open to the vacuum of space in which water was sprayed on the inside wall.  The water froze, or at least cooled, because of the low pressure.  The wall was then used as a heat sink for heat generated elsewhere in the Shuttle.  Well, that meant that we had to have a tank of water available.   This all made sense except for one thing.  The NASA specification said that the tank had to withstand temperatures all the way down to twenty five degrees Fahrenheit while the Shuttle was not flying.  That was because temperatures in Florida sometimes dip below freezing.

So, I was stuck with this problem, and no doubt you are already thinking of ways to get around it, use a heater, insulate it, drain it when temperatures drop, who knows what else.  What we needed however, was a simple, cost-effective, and light weight solution.  At that point, I didn’t have a clue, nor did I have much time to come up with an answer.  So, I did what any other red blooded American male would do, I called my parent for help.  At the time, my dad was still working for Republic.

When I got him on the phone and explained the problem, he started to talk about rain gutters and downspouts.  He asked me what shape the downspouts were.  I said they were rectangular with wrinkles in them.  So he asked me if I knew why.  To which I said no.  And he said that they were made that way so that when they froze in the winter, they could expand with the ice and not break…DUH!

And that is how the water tank in the Shuttle got its  wrinkles.

By the way, in case you are worried, the Shuttle did not launch with ice in that tank.  Ahhh, the warm Florida sun!

Water on the Moon?

One of the first things I learned about going to a waterless Moon, was that you had to know a lot about water to get there and back.  And here are some of the most important characteristics of water.

  1. It holds a lot of heat.  So, it makes a good medium for removing body heat from astronauts that are isolated inside a spacesuit.
  2. Like many other materials, it evaporates even when it is frozen.  That process is called “sublimation”.
  3. Gases dissolve in water.  That is a big problem, and I will soon tell you why.

Your body is always getting rid of heat.  If it didn’t, you would literally die.  On the earth, you can get rid of that heat by both conducting heat away to air that is colder than your body and by sweating, cooling by evaporation.  However, there is no air on the Moon, and no place in a spacesuit to collect sweat.  So, the first job of a spacesuit is to keep you cool, especially when you are working hard.

Inside the Apollo Back Pack worn by the astronauts on the Moon, there is a device called a heat exchanger that cools both the air that the astronaut breathes and water that has been running around the body in small tubes.  That heat exchanger is called the “Sublimator”.  It’s original name was the “Porous Plate Water Boiler.”  NASA thought that was too big for a name and not as catchy as they liked.  So, it was changed to “Sublimator”.  However, in fact the Sublimator is more a water boiler than a sublimator.  Yes, there is some amount of sublimation going on inside, but most of the heat is boiled off into the vacuum of space at a boiling temperature of around 32 degrees F.  Lest we get lost, I’ll stop the explanation here.

And then came the first problem.  I had not been out of the Air force and working for Hamilton Standard very long when I was asked to finish writing a specification for the Water Reservoir that provided the water boiled off by the Sublimator.  Well, you don’t want air in the Reservoir because it tends to mess up the action of the Sublimator.  In order to avoid that, the specification said that you had to evacuate the Reservoir before backfilling it with water.  In fact, the specification wanted you to evacuate it to the point of what is called a “hard” vacuum.  And I thought, as a joke really, that there was more air dissolved in the water than was left in the Reservoir after evacuating it.

So, off I went to the Hamilton library, and I looked up the amount of air dissolved in water at sea level conditions.  Much to my surprise, it was a lot of air.  And when you drop the pressure in the Reservoir as you do when using it on the surface of the Moon, it all comes out of solution, just like opening a hot bottle of soda.  That is bad, very bad — but it gets worse.

And in my next BLOG, I will tell you why.  You will learn about how things were done in space, and you will learn a little about office politics.

Water on the Moon? Part 2

There is a sarcastic explanation of the stages of a project which ends in the phrase, “Awards and accolades for the non-participants.” I don’t know its origins, but there is some truth to it.  Soon after discovering this problem of air being dissolved in the reservoir water, my boss told me to write a memo explaining the issue.  I did that, and several weeks later, an engineer from another group wrote an essentially identical memo, but made it thicker by adding copies of technical tables from my library source.  He had nothing to do with the discovery of the problem, but his boss wanted their group to get full credit for having done something they actually did not do.  You would think that someone above them would have the good sense to stop that sort of nonsense.  Unfortunately…

The problem with dissolved gas in the reservoir water was that it kept the water pressure at the Sublimator from dropping to an acceptable level, thus causing water to go through the Sublimator into space without actually boiling.  That prevented the Sublimator from doing its cooling job.

Anyway, it turned out that the water being used to fill the Back Pack Reservoir was indeed saturated with dissolved nitrogen at about three times the atmospheric pressure on the Earth at sea level.  This was done to solve a problem with the source of the water, the water tanks in the Lunar Excursion Module, or LEM as we called it.  No one had considered what it meant to the Back Pack.  And as problems go, it was a show stopper.  However, the problem was solved by placing an orifice in the tubing between the Reservoir and the Sublimator, a pretty simple change.  That lowered the pressure at the Sublimator to an acceptable level.  I am sorry to say that I don’t remember who thought of it.  It wasn’t me, and it certainly was not the guy who wrote the bogus memo. — END