Monday, December 5, 2011

Echoes Among the Stars Released as a Kindle eBook

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - Echoes Among the Stars, the classic history of the U.S. Space Program by Patrick J. Walsh, has been released in an eBook edition for the Kindle eBook reader from Amazon.

First published by M.E. Sharpe Inc. (Armonk, NY) in 2000, Echoes Among the Stars has previously had two hardcover printings and a paperback edition. It has been widely praised for the beauty of its accounts of pivotal moments in the development of the U.S. space program, and Apollo 11 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin has praised Echoes as “one of the best books on the space program.”

Patrick J. Walsh is an author and journalist from Peekskill, New York. His published work includes the three volume Spaceflight: A Historical Encyclopedia (2010, ABC-CLIO Inc.), and he is producer of the online video documentary series “Five Minutes in Space.” He has published hundreds of articles and authored multiple columns for a wide variety of publications since embarking on his full-time writing career in the mid-1990s, and has extensively covered the electronics industry, state and local government, and music and the arts.

M.E. Sharpe Inc. is an award-winning publisher of reference books, textbooks, general interest books, and journals.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Encounter in Autumn

by Patrick J. Walsh

A sliver of moon hung baldly in the sky, straining a weak fusillade of light through the moody blue and pale remnant of white that wrestled for the final moments of the fading day. He searched the trees along the water’s edge; darkness gathered, and marshaled itself for the approaching night.

... a mesh of tree branches made the bare moon appear
more lovely for the effort it took to see it clearly ...

Up a small slope, through a dense field of scrub, his mind wandered backward even as he progressed toward the road and the return to the car, and the drive home. In the gathering dark he fancied a shadowy image of Beowulf, and wondered at the thought of Grendel passing behind him in the shallow stream -- but it is a quite shallow stream, he argued; and it is quite quiet -- I can hear nothing roiling around in it -- as he moved onto the path’s final approach to the paved road.

But there was yet an odd feeling in the stillness of the woods. Quiet for a brief moment, he wondered what possibly could be disturbing the calm of the mild evening, with its weak moonlight and pleasant musk of fallen leaves... Then, chuckling inwardly at his own strangeness, he returned to his pace along the last of the path, with bits of branch and leaf crackling beneath the soles of his boots at each footfall.

And there she was: as if formed instantaneously out of the ether of the night, the precise epitome of nature’s finest grace. Still retaining the fine brown of her coat despite the lateness of the season -- perhaps because of the mild weather, he reasoned -- there stood a small deer. A doe.

She was tiny, for an animal of her kind, and yet still the size of a young horse. He often joked, when driving with friends along the back roads and coming upon a sudden gathering of deer: ‘look -- little horses’ -- and yet now, alone in the woods, with her frozen mutely on the narrow path, between him and the paved road homeward, he wondered anew at just how large a presence even a tiny deer can establish in the distinctive setting of her natural surroundings.

She stood, simply, staring. At first he thought to take another step toward her, perhaps leading her to turn aside; but he was brought up short by the gentle curve of the bones of her cheek and the dignified mien he thought he perceived in the way she studied him across the ten or so yards between them.

So he stood as well. And they each waited, quiet, the stillness of the night enveloping them.

He wondered: was there some way to move her along -- she had obviously been headed into the woods -- without frightening her, or causing her to feel threatened... but how exactly did one communicate any intention, good or ill, to a creature whose understanding of humans was even more limited than his knowledge of the inhabitants of the woods?

He looked up again at the thin crescent above the treeline, through a mesh of tree branches whose haphazard framing made the bare moon appear even more lovely for the effort it took to see it clearly -- and he was struck with an idea.

Taking care to step softly, he turned himself halfway around on the path. Facing entirely away from her, he listened; at first hearing no sound at all other than the suddenly apparent exhalation of breath through his own nostrils.

And then a slight rustle emanated from somewhere behind him on the trail, and a dainty but definite step, followed by another, and then several more...

When the fading sounds indicated a respectable distance between them, he again turned forward, and was relieved to see his way clear all the way to the opening onto the paved road.

He moved quickly, stopping only once, briefly, to see if there was any trace of her left to be gleaned from the darkness. Finding none, he moved on, to the road, and the car, homeward.

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Read the story, watch the video: FMS #10 - Owen & Richard Garriott

This month's episode of my web documentary series "Five Minutes in Space" details the experiences of Owen and Richard Garriott, a father and son who share the distinction of having each flown in space. The widely divergent paths they followed into the heavens epitomize the nature of space exploration in their respective eras, and the way in which the stars aligned for them to each make their way forward is truly thought-provoking.

Here's the text; the video is available at my YouTube channel,

Five Minutes in Space: Episode 10 (10/01/11) - Owen & Richard Garriott

by Patrick J. Walsh

Launched on a journey across time and space, tethered to the glories of the past by a link as strong as a family bond, and advancing a generation’s perspective on the possibilities of space travel, Richard Garriott left the Earth in Soyuz TMA-13 on October 12, 2008, to fly to the International Space Station.

Three and a half decades earlier, his father Owen Garriott -- a scientist astronaut assigned to NASA’s Skylab program -- made the same trip into the heavens, his adventure shaped so differently by the circumstances of that long ago time, so different in so many details from the world as it is today.

Emblematic of his generation, Richard Garriott drew upon his interests and skills from a young age to grow a brilliantly successful career as a video game designer, programmer and developer. It was his success as an entrepreneur that ultimately enabled him to purchase the right to fly in space, as a tourist in the earliest days of this new era of commercial spaceflight.

For his father Owen, the way into space was no less the result of brilliance, and no less subject to the restless sprawl of history.

Augmenting the skills he gained while earning his doctorate in engineering, Owen Garriott was trained as a jet pilot by the U.S. Air Force and served as an electronics officer in the U.S. Navy -- all of which led to his being chosen by NASA for training as a scientist astronaut.

Some measure of the breadth of the journey on which each of the Garriotts, father and son, embarked, can perhaps be best measured by a brief consideration of the world into which each was born -- Owen in 1930, Richard in 1961.

The dream of flying in space, let alone living at an orbital outpost like Skylab for two months, as Owen Garriott did in the summer of 1973, was still very much a dream at the start of the 1930s. And flying into space in a rocket ship shaped liked a plane, which would then return to Earth like a commuter shuttle flight on a short hop from city to city, was mere science fiction in 1930 -- even though it would be entirely real by November of 1983, when Owen Garriott launched aboard his second space mission, STS-9, on the space shuttle Columbia.

Similarly, when Richard Garriott began his life’s journey, on July 4, 1961, there had been only two human beings launched into space, and their flights were the essential expression of a world conflict, writ large in a titanic struggle of ideology and technocratic competition. At that moment, the thought of an individual citizen flying in space by virtue of his or her purchasing a ticket -- even at the highest price conceivable at the time -- was as remote as the idea of a gifted computerist building his fame and fortune by creating something known as a “computer game” -- let alone the sort of art and invention that are at the heart of the immersive, intense experience afforded by the best modern gaming titles.

In the course of brief decades, the world would change. The brilliant scientist elder Garriott would serve at Skylab when he was just 43 years old; his son, the wunderkind computer programmer and new age businessman, would find his way to the ISS at 47.

Launched on a journey across time and space, on a trip so few before them had known, Owen and Richard Garriott each pointed the way toward a day when those who wish it will find new opportunities to forge memories of their own five minutes in space.

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Five Minutes in Space recalls the STS-86/Mir "Leap of Faith"

In the Fall of 1997, NASA faced a difficult moment in its program of cooperative human spaceflight with the Russian Federal Space Agency. Following a series of troubling mishaps at the Mir Space Station, NASA officials prepared to send the STS-86 crew of the space shuttle Atlantis to Mir to pick up astronaut Michael Foale, and to deliver his replacement, David Wolf, for a long-term stay... The leap of faith involved in that decision is the focus of this month’s episode of my video documentary series, “Five Minutes in Space,” available now at:

Monday, August 15, 2011

A walk beneath the dripline

By Patrick J. Walsh

Today I made up my mind to take a walk in the park, since I've been out of the habit of doing so for a few days. Just as I got there, though, the skies opened, the thunder clashed, and the rain started to pour down on me and my sad little blue umbrella.

But I walked anyway, stubbornly refusing to let the windy rain push me aside, or to be deterred by the meandering tributaries of water sluicing down from the trees on the hill to my left. The streaming rainwater ran in a wide arc from the treeline on my left to the edge of the parking lot at my right, where it hopped the tarred curb to pool somewhere in the muddy depths of the oversloshed field below the lot.

The glare from the shiny wet pavement made me feel a little dizzy, and my shirt and jeans and socks and shoes were all heavily sodden with the rain that had pushed its way into my personal space, the perimeter of which was roughly outlined by the drifting dripline of the edges of the umbrella, which shifted continuously as I walked.

It struck me that work, and life, are like that sometimes. There are times when work is difficult enough to seem absurd in the amount of concentration and effort it requires, and at those times, life seems like an uphill trek on a wet road in a heavy rain.

But then, in the airy dry space where thoughts are clear and prayers are pure, there comes a familiar determined sense of forward motion. And at least for the duration of the journey, until calmer conditions prevail and warmth and rest again enter the equation, that determination to keep moving forward, against the wind and in spite of the rain, is enough.

Enough to finish an unexpectedly arduous walk, enough to return to work with an enthusiasm bordering on exhilaration, and enough to feel anew an abiding gratitude for every remarkable moment of a life of constant wonder and delicate revelation, in each unique day of breath and sweat and poetry.

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Hidden Costs of the Deficit Debate

In his comments in the Senate in opposition to the deal struck in the debt ceiling debate, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) argued eloquently that the debate about the deficit has forced the discussion about national priorities away from the most important issues -- including the creation of jobs, addressing the needs of healthcare and education (particularly early childhood healthcare and education), and the large disparity in net worth between white Americans, whose median net worth is in the $100,000+ range, and African Americans and Hispanic Americans, each of whose median net worth is less than $10,000.

Senator Harkin clearly and forcefully detailed the importance of each of these issues, saying in part that these are the priorities that Congress should be addressing, rather than continuing the shameful posturing in which individual members have indulged in recent days.

Warning that the deficit deal as it now stands, and as it will likely be adopted, is in reality an impediment to job creation -- and arguing that the spur of federal government spending is frequently the primary catalyst for private sector investment -- he asked that the deal be rejected in favor of a meaningful debate about the issues that most impact the lives of individual Americans, and that weigh most heavily on the well being of the nation as a whole.

This is a quixotic request, of course; for despite the long, acrimonious confrontation over the raising of the debt ceiling and the attendant demands for deficit reduction on the one hand and revenue increases on the other, it is exceedingly unlikely that a majority of elected officials on either side of the debate would be willing to endanger the credit rating and global economic standing of the nation by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. And it is even less likely that individual Senators or Representatives would be willing to do so for the express purpose of having a meaningful debate about issues as complex as the federal government’s role in job creation, healthcare and education, and the impact of wealth disparity on the fabric of American society.

Which is in the end the saddest part of the entire destructive debate that has preceded the current deal: while many elected officials are more than willing to strike a dramatic pose to debate the propriety of some esoteric mechanism of the nation’s ability to pay its debts, few are willing to address issues that relate directly to the everyday lives of the people who they represent.

At least occasionally, as in the comments by Senator Harkin, it is comforting to hear a voice emerge among those few reasonable officials, and to encounter those issues that are of such vital importance to so many Americans.

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

The French Space Program, in "Five Minutes"

Even the most disinterested student of the history of space exploration will likely know the names and exploits of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, or Yuri Gagarin; but how would you answer if asked to identify Jean-Loup Chrétien, or Claudie Haigneré? This month’s episode of my video series “Five Minutes in Space” focuses on the achievements of the French space program:

Friday, July 1, 2011

Remembering Gus Grissom and the flight of Liberty Bell 7

In July, 1961, pioneering astronaut Gus Grissom became the third person to fly in space. He completed his mission flawlessly from launch to splashdown, and then, while awaiting recovery in his tiny Liberty Bell 7 Mercury capsule, he was suddenly confronted with a life and death struggle to remain afloat in the choppy waves of the Atlantic Ocean...

See the whole story in this month's episode of my video series "Five Minutes in Space," at:

Splashdown: NASA, The Navy, & Space Flight Recovery  Apollo Moon Missions: The Unsung Heroes  Project Mercury: NASA's First Manned Space Programme (Springer Praxis Books / Space Exploration)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fred Gillen Jr.: Live in Peekskill and On Disc

by Patrick J. Walsh

Imagine a room -- a shop -- with business going on, customers ordering coffee, the kids at the counter taking food orders... and all the while, a capacity crowd enveloped in a joyful expectant hush, wrapped entirely in the music of a singular performer.

Arranged across the shiny wooden surface or cushioned upholstery of every available seat, the members of the audience listen for every familiar word of the songs they’ve heard scores of times, and raptly anticipate each new song, waiting on each new note and every new line of lyric like a long established congregation awaiting some previously unheard revelation.

That’s kind of what it’s like to see Fred Gillen Jr. in a coffee house setting.

The Peekskill Coffee House (101 S. Division St., Peekskill, New York; is a fine example of a classic coffee house environment, and a fitting venue for a performer capable of communicating with an audience as though he were addressing a close friend.

Located in a historic building a street-width away from Peekskill’s treasured Paramount Theater, the Peekskill Coffee House maintains the ambiance of its lineage while also establishing a legitimately stylish foothold in the hard-to-find nightlife of New York’s northern suburbs.

Burlap sacks long emptied of their coffee beans hang high on the wall, their colorful insignia testament to their journey from the countries and growers of their origin to the spot of honor they each now occupy along the smooth, clean surface overhead.

There is a casual warmth in the unrefinished wooden floor, a sandy beige in the more lightly worn spots alternating with gray in the most beaten down patches, and here and there, little irregular islands of the original brown finish shine through like the areas of calm on a meteorologist’s map of the weather.

And, in a tiny alcove near the second exit and the restrooms, there are three bulletin boards, each covered utterly with flyers and posters and business cards, together attesting to the signs of a secret life burgeoning beneath the quiet of the suburban streets beyond the window.

Hearing Fred play in that kind of environment -- in particular, at a recent show celebrating the release of his new CD, “Live in the Heartland of America,” ( I wondered anew at the adaptability of his voice and performing ability to the wide array of venues in which he has played over the years.

As a singer and performer, Fred is one of those rare individuals who can carry an entire performance with just his voice and guitar; and yet, his unique qualities as a performing artist are not overwhelmed by the augmentation of additional voices or instrumentalists.

In this particular instance, he was joined by the sweet-voiced Catherine Miles (the new live CD is a document of their recent tour together through the midwest), and by Eric Puente on drums and Jeff Eyrich on bass.

In the full band milieu -- augmented at one point by a dream chorus of other local musicians from the audience who joined with Fred at the mic for a song or two -- Fred’s singing voice is the definitive lead in a fashion not unlike that of the wind instrument in a small ensemble: it guides as much as leads.

It is not entirely easy to describe the particular qualities that make his voice such a remarkable, interesting instrument; there is the folk holla element, but that alone would make his style simply another echo in the spectrum of that particular stereotype; and there is the earnestness of the timbre -- the ideal vehicle for his thoughtful lyrics -- but that description is also too limited to capture the essence of what makes him special as a singer.

In that hushed crowd, listening carefully, it struck me that it is probably the command that characterizes his approach -- that elusive quality that so few performers possess organically and unaltered -- that distinguishes Fred’s vocal style, and that allows him to adapt so fluently to such a wide array of performing opportunities.

I have seen him carefully prepare for a show, and I have seen him adapt on the fly to a given acoustic setting and crowd; but most impressively, I have also seen him flip open his instrument case, slip the strap of his guitar over his shoulder, and simply start singing -- and still perform at a level equivalent to the most polished set of the most veteran artist.

I guess in the final analysis, it is that ability to sing with command, and to communicate with conviction, even at the most unexpected opportunity (or even, when the situation calls for it, at the most flagrant provocation), that makes Fred’s live shows special. It is an experience well worth seeking out, and the new live disc is a fitting document of its versatility and power.

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Match Against A New Moon  Coney Island GraceIntentions As Big As the Sky

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I've posted a new video...

This month's episode of my video series 'Five Minutes in Space' recalls the first spaceflight of Sally Ride - the first American woman to fly in space.

See Five Minutes in Space Episode 6 (06/01/11) - "Sally Ride: Making Real The Promise" at:

Friday, May 27, 2011

Say Something Nice About The Mets

by Patrick J. Walsh

Like so many other fans of the game, and particularly, fans of the team, I was disappointed to hear the recent comments that Fred Wilpon, the patriarch of one of the families that own the New York Mets, made recently about several of his team’s star players.

In perhaps his most revealing and most discouraging remark, Mr. Wilpon said of his long-time star outfielder Carlos Beltran:

“We had some schmuck in New York who paid him based on that one series. He’s 65 to 70 percent of what he was.”

He is referring to himself, of course, as the “schmuck” who proffered a seven year contract worth $119 million to Beltran after Beltran hit eight home runs and scored 21 runs in 12 post-season games while playing for the Houston Astros in 2004.

It is not entirely difficult to understand or even to sympathize with Mr. Wilpon’s frustration as an employer whose company has underperformed, or as a baseball fan who has a particularly acute desire to see his team win a championship.

But his dilemma in the first instance, as the ultimate authority responsible for the direction of a business enterprise worth hundreds of millions of dollars (a recent published estimate put the Mets current value at $747 million), pretty severely mitigates against any sympathy he might be due in the second.

And yet it is difficult not to feel some measure of sympathy for Mr. Wilpon, even if it is far easier to sympathize with the players about whom he had such “interesting” things to say.

To begin with, his comment about the foolhardiness of signing a player based on one particularly productive period undercuts the positive aspects of the particular signing he’s talking about, while at the same time revealing how huge, long-term contracts can result in frustration and disappointment even for those who are most responsible for making them a de facto part of the modern game.

It is of course ridiculous in a team sport to bemoan the fact that one good player cannot ensure a team’s success. Even a star player making an extraordinary salary can do little beyond working hard, playing honorably and doing the best he can to perform as well as possible -- regardless of how well the team performs as a whole.

In the particular case of Carlos Beltran, it is important to note that Beltran has played well during his time with the Mets despite several serious injuries, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that he has been injured because he has consistently tried to play at a level that honors the commitments implied by his contract.

He has also played with great courage, and his struggle to stay on the field has been one of the most inspiring -- and least recognized -- stories in the recent history of the team.

Beltran’s ability to perform well when injured has provided a fine example for anyone struggling to overcome infirmity or fear, and those in a position to view the larger context of his time in New York would do well to comment on that aspect of his performance as well as on his stats and his contributions to the team’s successes and failures.

Of course Mr. Wilpon’s fortunes are more intimately intertwined with his players’ well being and performance than those of anyone observing the results from a distance, so it is also not unreasonable to interpret his “buyer’s remorse” about Beltran’s contract as a comment on the state of the game as a whole.

I suppose it might even be charitable to interpret his opinion as implying some recognition that he, as an owner of one of the highest spending teams in the sport during the past few years, has been part of the problem inherent in the creation of contracts whose terms sometimes seem absurd, given the risks involved in any given player’s ability to avoid injury and to perform at a consistently high level over an extended period of time.

But it is finally in the second part of Mr. Wilpon’s remark -- the notion that Carlos Beltran is now “65 to 70 percent of what he was” -- that the real sadness of the owner’s odyssey intersects with that of his players and the team’s fan base.

Time does after all march on, and even the greatest player must face the eventual weathering of his skills by the passing seasons, hastened further by injuries large and small and by the successes and failures of his teammates and the management and support personnel whose work ultimately provides the context in which he asserts his own abilities.

Carlos Beltran -- like Jose Reyes, or David Wright -- or you or me, for that matter -- is after all seven years older than he was when he signed that very lucrative contract with Mr. Wilpon’s team seven years ago.

On the other hand -- and to the credit of all those who recognize the fact -- even if Beltran is indeed “65 to 70 percent” the player he was at that time, he is still far more skilled than a vast majority of other players who are now employed by major league clubs, or who have been so employed in the history of the game.

Both issues -- the big contract and the diminution of a player’s skills over time and as a result of injury -- really bespeak the absurdity of the business side of the sport.

If a team’s executive management is willing to concede the necessity of offering long-term contracts worth tens of millions of dollars in order to sign a given player, those individuals who make or approve those decisions must also take ownership of them.

If they are unhappy with the idea of paying players that much money in order to be competitive, they can invest instead in younger, less expensive prospects, or simply offer less money and accept the risk that they may as a result be less competitive. Or they can simply sell their interest and pursue some other business endeavor that has different requirements and different risks.

But it is shameful to blame players for the injuries they sustain while trying to play the game at a level that honors the terms of the contract they have been given, and it is unrealistic to assume that the skills of any player will not diminish to some degree with the passage of time. These are the obvious concerns of any scout and any front office personnel in any sport, and it is odd to think that anyone could misunderstand the risks that they represent, for the ownership as well as for the player.

It is also tiresome to hear fans blame players for signing astronomical contracts whose terms are ultimately decided by those owners who are willing to approve such arrangements in the first place, and it is troubling to hear that sort of thing from as prominent, well-respected and fundamentally decent an individual as Mr. Wilpon.

Consider this: for any employee to make “too much” salary, isn’t it a given that there must be an employer willing to pay that salary?

In the final analysis, it may well be that the best thing a fan might take away from this recent episode is simply the recognition that the frustration he or she feels about the club’s fortunes during the most recent arc in its history is shared in even the most unexpected quarters -- including the offices of the team’s owner.

Such realization leaves one saddened less by the harshness of Mr. Wilpon’s comments than by his unstated incredulousness that the team has not performed better, even with players as exceptional as Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes and David Wright -- about whom his disparaging remarks may well be interpreted as a comment on the abilities of the team’s executive management as well as on their own.

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets   New York Mets: The Complete Illustrated History

Monday, May 9, 2011

Remembering Apollo 14

by Patrick J. Walsh

Four decades have passed since the crew of Apollo 14 achieved the third successful lunar landing mission. And although their names and deeds are indelibly etched in American history, it is easy to forget just how difficult a trip the astronauts endured, and how complex the mission was for the engineers responsible for the success of the journey.

Commanding Apollo 14 was Alan Shepard, the iconic astronaut who had been the first American to fly in space during the landmark first mission of the Mercury program in 1961.

An inner ear condition had prevented Shepard from pursuing his astronaut career for nearly a decade, but after corrective surgery he was able to convince NASA health officials that he was fit to fly again, and with his assignment to the Apollo 14 mission, he set his sights on a walk on the Moon.

Joining Shepard on the Apollo 14 flight were two members of NASA’s fifth group of astronauts, who had joined the agency in April, 1966.

Edgar Mitchell was commander of the lunar module Antares. He and Shepard would spend more than 33 hours on the Moon, and make two long Moonwalks -- including one of the most arduous explorations of the entire Apollo program.

Assigned as pilot of the command module Kitty Hawk, Stuart Roosa would ultimately make 34 trips around the Moon and spend a total of 67 hours in lunar orbit -- including more than 30 hours alone in the tiny command module while Shepard and Mitchell were on the lunar surface.

Apollo 14 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:03 pm local time on January 31, 1971.

The initial stages of the flight went as planned, until the time came for transposition and docking -- a procedure in which command pilot Stuart Roosa would maneuver the Apollo 14 command module docking probe into position to extract the Antares lunar module from its storage space in an expended stage of the launch rocket.

Roosa nudged his spacecraft forward as planned, carefully moving its docking probe into the docking receptacle on the lunar module. He then waited a long moment for the appropriate display on the command module instrument panel to light up, indicating that a hard dock had been achieved.

The light, however, remained dim. The two spacecraft had failed to dock.

While engineers in Mission Control in Houston began simulations intended to diagnose the problem, Roosa made three more attempts during the initial effort, and a fifth try about an hour after the first attempt. Time passed, and concern grew that the grand journey to the Moon might be cut short even before the astronauts got out of orbit around the Earth.

Finally, as frustration grew, an unorthodox solution was proposed: reasoning that some small debris might be preventing the docking probe from achieving a snug fit, it was decided that the command module pilot would be given a go-ahead to continue his vehicle’s forward motion after the two spacecraft made contact, in the hope that the maneuver would dislodge any debris that might be preventing the latches on the docking equipment from engaging.

Despite the risks involved in the proposed maneuver, faith in Roosa’s piloting skills and in the resiliency of the vehicles -- which had been designed, manufactured and tested with extreme care by some of America’s best engineering talent -- led mission managers to okay a sixth attempt at docking.

The risky procedure proved to be the right solution. The crew breathed a collective sigh of relief as their spacecraft finally latched onto the lunar module, which was then drawn out of its protective cocoon within the spent rocket stage. Mission Control confirmed that all was well, and Apollo 14 was cleared to continue its journey to the Moon, and its rendezvous with destiny.

[Transcript, episode 1 of the video series “Five Minutes in Space;” see the video at my YouTube channel,]

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Apollo 14: The NASA Mission Reports: Apogee Books Space Series 14

Monday, May 2, 2011

Saving Skylab

by Patrick J. Walsh

At lift off on May 25, 1973, the first crew of the Skylab space station faced uncertainties unique in the history of space travel. While they had originally been given the honor of being the first crew of America’s first space station to carry out scientific and medical research, they were suddenly faced instead with the task of implementing major repairs to the station, which had been damaged during its launch on May 14.

Veteran astronaut Pete Conrad served as commander of the first Skylab crew. The third person to walk on the Moon -- a feat he achieved as commander of Apollo 12, in November, 1969, Conrad had also flown in space during Gemini 5, in 1965, and Gemini 11, in 1966. His enthusiasm, experience and leadership ability proved particularly well suited to the difficulties encountered by the inaugural Skylab crew.

Joining Conrad on the flight were Paul Weitz, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War who served as pilot, and Joseph Kerwin, a naval flight surgeon who served as the mission’s scientist astronaut.

Excessive vibration had caused Skylab’s meteoroid shield, which was designed to shade the station’s workshop area, to deploy prematurely during the vehicle’s launch. As the station was propelled into orbit, the shield broke away, which in turn also caused the loss of one of the station’s two main solar arrays.

As a result, Skylab had too little electrical power to sustain its intended operations, and the station’s primary work area was subject to heat from the Sun that was far too intense to allow for productive research.

Faced with the prospect of losing the station entirely, NASA officials spared no effort in devising plans to salvage Skylab and its ambitious program of scientific research. Teams of administrators, astronauts, engineers and scientists carefully constructed plans to counter every threat to the station’s survival -- and Conrad, Kerwin and Weitz spent the ten days following their originally scheduled launch immersed instead in the details of how they would fix the damage.

Taking the challenge of their revised mission to heart, the crew members established a habit of working long hours every day shortly after they arrived at the station. They carefully executed the procedures that had been worked out in the exhaustive simulations on Earth, installing a makeshift sunscreen over the work area, and, within several weeks, making a spacewalk to deploy Skylab’s one remaining main solar array.

To the untrained eye accustomed to the gleaming, high tech sheen of previous NASA triumphs, photos of the results of their efforts might have seemed inelegant, the single solar array jutting awkwardly from one side of the station, the sunscreen resembling a tarp tent over a backyard summer barbecue.

But the repairs that Conrad, Kerwin and Weitz were able to put in place at America’s first space station -- as well as their intense commitment to carrying out the research program that they had originally been assigned -- allowed them to conduct nearly 400 hours of experiments, and enabled Skylab to support the work of two subsequent crews. Together the three teams of Skylab astronauts would return a treasure trove of important scientific research, which would be studied on Earth even years after the end of the Skylab program.

[Transcript, episode 5 of the video series “Five Minutes in Space;” see the video at my YouTube channel,]

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Echoes Among the Stars: A Short History of the U.S. Space Program

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Yuri Gagarin: A Single Breathtaking Moment

by Patrick J. Walsh

For all the complexity of theory and science and engineering that it required, humanity’s first flight into space remains the story of a man, and a machine.

On April 12, 1961, at 9:07 a m local time, Yuri Gagarin lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Vostok 1, and became the first person in history to fly in space.

The flight was the culmination of years of planning by the Soviet Union, whose political leadership had sought a human spaceflight as proof of the nation’s perceived advantages over its superpower rival, the United States.

The chief figure of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, guided the drive toward the first human flight in a climate of intense political pressure, and in the context of the Soviets’ dangerous Cold War confrontation with the U.S.

Vostok 1 was launched by the multi-stage R-7 rocket, which had originally been designed as a weapon of war. Gagarin was a military man, trained with other exceptional recruits of the Soviet military apparatus to carry out a mission whose importance was viewed at the highest levels of the Soviet regime as being primarily military in nature.

But even in the foreboding context of global hostility, the courage Gagarin displayed as a pioneering space explorer was recognized by well-wishers around the world as the telling mark of a hero, at the dawn of a new era in humanity’s exploration of its place in the cosmos.

Gagarin was 27 when he made his historic flight; seven years later, at the age of 34, he would die in a plane crash during a training exercise. He would leave behind a legend far beyond anything he could have imagined as he made his way to the launch pad on that morning of April 12, 1961.

His place now fixed in the memory of history as the bright young man of courage and hope who represented humanity on its first vault into the heavens, Yuri Gagarin has become a part of many individual journeys into space.

The facility where cosmonauts and their fellow spacefarers train for future flights has been named in his honor; members of the Apollo lunar landing missions left mementos bearing his name on the surface of the Moon; and astronauts visiting his homeland have visited his quarters and signed his log before traveling into space with their Russian counterparts.

Perhaps most fitting, there is a famous photo of Yuri Gagarin -- smiling broadly, handsome and vibrant in his military uniform, and holding a dove -- the ultimate expression of his having attained a place far above the conflicts of his time -- that has found its way to a display on the inside of the International Space Station.

Just before his historic flight, Gagarin recorded a brief statement, in which he said, “My whole life is now before me as a single breathtaking moment. I feel I can muster up my strength for successfully carrying out what is expected of me.”

Decades later, the story of humanity’s first flight into space remains the story of a man...

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Spaceflight [3 volumes]: A Historical Encyclopedia      Echoes Among the Stars: A Short History of the U.S. Space Program

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Perfect Dive

This weekend I found it: THE dive. The perfect dive -- a venue so complete in its craptacularity that it is difficult to imagine any other place combining so many elements of awfulness and still being open for business.

There was chlamydia in the air, adrift in the looming aroma of sweat and stale chicken wings. Even the gay people were unattractive.

I should note, in all the years I’ve been going out to see live music, I have been to a LOT of different kinds of places. Bars, clubs, shops, storefronts; theaters, concert halls, arenas; backyards and living rooms and churches. And oddly enough, some of the great shows I’ve seen were at places hidden in the dust and shadows of some pretty scary looking neighborhoods. Some of those venues could, I guess, be legitimately called “dives” in the informal dictionary definition; but in each case, the combination of great performance and earnest welcome so outshone the seediness of the surroundings, it hardly mattered that the place was a mess.

But this weekend I came across a bar that truly puts the “less” in “miserableness.”

It’s not so much that it was intrinsically worse than any other similarly appointed hole in the wall; it’s more the way in which this particular place managed to concentrate so much unpleasantness in such a relatively small space, over such a short period of time.

The biggest problem was the phony atmosphere -- the faux pub nonsense that so many bars now employ as a means of plastering over the unrelentingly dismal fraudulence of their decor. Here’s a clue: a veneer finish is supposed to overlay a patina of quality on a piece that is constructed of inferior material -- not just spread the shiny, plasticky awfulness around the entire circumference of the room.

But of course, in this particular case, that wasn’t the only problem. There was also the surly waitstaff; the lousy service; the stale foul smell of the food; the somnambulant bartender; in fact, there were really only two great positives: they book live music, and they have ample parking. Sadly, the second of these great attributes is only due to the fact that most of the stores in the sorry little strip mall where this place is located are already vacant -- and as I pulled away, I thought I could hear the empty retail husks calling out to the bar: “Join us, join us...”

There was a stage, and there were amps; there was a bar, and a few booths. A long wooden barrier separated bar from booth, and was designed to accommodate those who wished to stand and lean while listening to the performance -- or more accurately, to accommodate those who were asked by the waitstaff to vacate the booths if they were not ordering food, or finished with whatever food they had ordered.

It was an interesting approach, to toss customers who have paid a cover charge out of a seat because you assume they’re not willing to order food, and to then fail to direct them elsewhere.

Which, as things turned out, was just as well, given the oddness of the odors surrounding the eating area. It is difficult to delicately describe that peculiar scent; but let me put it this way: when you go over your notes after a show and find that you’ve written the phrase “Smells like urinal cakes” -- twice -- to describe the place’s ambiance, there is definitely something that is just not working in the venue’s approach to customer care.

But the mere odor and unfriendliness were just a start, as those in charge worked hard to live up to the sort of behavior epitomized by the motto Curly Howard spouts in the Three Stooges short “Movie Maniacs” (which just happens to be on TV as I write this): “If at first you don’t succeed, keep on sucking until you do succeed.”

With no clear delineation between the musical performance and the regular melange of bar customers, the sounds of each frequently mixed together in a clot of pure, beautiful song and shouted inanities of introduction and puerile banter. This could have been easily avoided by providing a dedicated area for the music, segregated from the bar, rather than pointlessly segregating the bar from the eating area. As set up, it simply demonstrated how clueless the management is about how to properly present live music.

Meanwhile, the guy standing next to me -- more accurately, in front of me, where he partially obstructed my view of the stage -- was wearing a shirt that sported a logo that seemed to attest to his “toughness.” Except that it was actually a trademarked logo, which I guess actually attested to the toughness of the corporation that had trademarked it. And it was in yellow lettering. And the guy continually, mockingly “threatened” his friend with pretend punches and phony stabs of his pen.

I have seen legitimately tough guys at concerts. I remember the Motorhead show I went to a few years back; the only guys more badass than the ones drinking at the bar were the ones on the stage. And as near as I can remember, none of them were wearing a corporate logo, or pretending to punch anyone.

Of course none of this really mattered, because I got to see what I went there to see: the music that I love, by local artists whose work I admire and respect. In fact, that’s why I decided, as I drove home musing about what I might write, that I would not use the name of the venue. Any place that’s willing to pay local artists to perform deserves some benefit of the doubt, no matter how dubious its hygiene, or rude its personnel, or tacky its decor.

When I’m at a place like that, standing quietly, trying to remain focused on the performer, I take comfort in the thought that as a writer, I always get the last word. Long after the last tone sounds and the lights go dim and the key is turned in the door in the early hours of the following morning, I think back and recount all the dismal little distractions, only to find myself arriving finally, as always, at the sheer gorgeous poetry of having been there to experience the performance. For the way that poetry rings in my heart and my head long after even the longest evening, I am always willing to surmount whatever obstacles might be in my way...

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

So Long, Oliver

I will miss Oliver Perez now that he has been cut from the Mets.

I know his time in New York was marred by bad press, uneven performance, and way too much interest in the three year, $36 million contract he signed two seasons ago, but my lasting images of him will always reflect the endearing, likable side of this earnest young man who worked his way, for better or worse, into the small group of the best paid practitioners of his profession.

When I think of Ollie, I will remember the Mother’s Day performance of several years ago (2006, I’m pretty sure), when he pitched remarkably well and then talked about how glad he was to have done well to honor his Mom on that special day. It was a lovely moment, indicative of both the sweet nature of the individual and the genuine passion he has for the game. I remember thinking about how proud his family and friends must be of him, and having known him through all the years of his youth, how they must cherish his every appearance in the big leagues, win or lose.

On that day and in the years since, I am happy to say that I have shared that feeling. I’ve rooted for Ollie on every pitch; I’ve groaned along with him when he struggled, leapt off the couch when he’s struck someone out, and prayed for his speedy recovery when he was injured and underwent surgery.

I can also recall a fair number of post-game interviews when an exhausted Oliver would stand beside his locker, squinting into the television lights, listening intently to some reporter’s question, when he would nod carefully at each point and at every nuance, as though carefully considering how to reply. Then, when the guy would finally trail off and wait for a response, Ollie’s expression of deep interest would suddenly go blank, and he’d reply, “huh?”

I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen something really dumb on TV, or been approached by someone selling something, or had someone unfairly criticize me or badmouth someone who I admire, when I have simply stared and said “huh?”

I owe that to Ollie :)

As a Mets fan, of course, I am glad to see the team win, and feel bad for the players when they lose. In Ollie’s case, though, I always saw a larger dimension to the story that played out on the field whenever he pitched. The mere fact that his exceptional talent had led him from his small hometown in Mexico to the biggest stage in Major League Baseball was compelling; and the fact that his personal journey had led him through a long string of difficult seasons before he came to New York was testament to his passion and persistence in the face of adversity.

From the first time I saw him pitch, I have always thought of Oliver Perez as a sincere, hardworking young man trying to maintain his dignity in the face of difficult circumstances, as his ability is admittedly unreliable at times. Despite the unevenness of his performance, he always appeared to be competing to the very limit that his ability would allow, and I think that is to his great credit.

I hope it provides him some comfort to know that he gave his best during his time with the Mets, and even in those moments when his considerable talent betrayed him, he maintained his dignity and did nothing to betray the faith of those fans who care for him and wish him well, wherever his life next leads.

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh