The Last Glorious Launch

It was shortly after midnight on a Thursday morning. My parents had dragged my brother and I out of bed, into their clunky Dodge station wagon, and down to the shore of the Indian River. There was a light breeze blowing through the palm trees. The air bore the scent of rain, but the actual showers had stopped a few hours earlier. The four of us were in a crowd of people, some of them friends of my parents. It was a huge crowd and spread for miles up and down the river.

The Indian River isn’t what it seems. It’s actually a lagoon. Part of a series of coastal waterways along Florida’s Atlantic coast. Across the river from where we stood was Merritt Island. Almost exactly twelve miles away, we could see an enormous structure, bathed in light. It was known as Launch Complex 39A. On top of it was a 363 foot high vehicle, a Saturn V rocket capped off by the Apollo 17 Command and Service module. We, and about half-a-million other spectators, were waiting for the final launch of the Apollo program. The last flight to the moon. The end of an era.

I had been born in Titusville in the spring of 1964, and had grown up listening to the sound of rockets tearing through the sky after launch. From our modest little home in Titusville, rocket launches would reverberate and rattle windows, leaving a stark contrail in the wake of the exhaust. But as I grew up, the size of the rockets being launched also grew. The greatest of them all was the massive Saturn V. 

I don’t remember the first time I saw a Saturn V launch. But I do have hazy memories surrounding the launch of Apollo 11. A dozen members of my parent’s families made their way to Titusville for the historic launch. What I remember from that was a golden, sunny day and enormous crows. I remember six months later standing in the rain as Apollo 12 was launched, and hit by lightning as it ascended into orbit. We attended all of the Apollo moon mission launches. And what I remember the most was the astounding sound created by the Saturn V’s five Rocketdyne F-1 engines. The engine bell of each F-1 was twelve feet in diameter, big enough to house my family. 

At launch, the first stage of the Saturn V created one of the loudest sounds ever recorded. Some 220 decibels, which would have killed anyone standing near the engine bells. The astronauts, some 350 feet above, were protected by distance, sealed in an air-tight capsule, wearing earphones. And during launch, NASA poured thousands of gallons of seawater on the launch pad to dampen the sound.

By the time it reached us on the banks of the Indian River, the sound had been significantly diminished, but it still was a physical force, like a hundred bass drums being hammered right in front of you. You could feel it slamming into your body repeatedly, a phenomenon that lasted a couple of minutes.

The final flight, Apollo 17, had been scheduled to launch at 9:53pm on the 6th. With thirty seconds left one the countdown clock, a mechanical issue forced a delay. We had no idea why or how long the delay would last. My brother and I fell asleep while my mother fidgeted and my father finished the last of his six-pack.Then a half hour after midnight, the countdown resumed. My parents woke us up. Bleary-eyed, we watched as the seconds ticked down to zero. At that moment, as the F-1 engines ignited, and seconds before the sound hit us, light filled the sky as if the sun had risen. It was glorious. And I’ll never forget watching the spacecraft rocket into orbit. 

Mixtapes for Moon Missions

The following is an excerpt from my newly finished book “Before This Decade is Out.”

In 1965, NASA began waking up astronauts in orbit with music. The Gemini 6 flight was the first, with a recording of Jack Jones singing “Hello Wally”, a specially recorded parody of “Hello Dolly” from the 1964 Broadway musical. The music was selected by Houston, and the practice continued through the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. The crew of Apollo 16 was awoken every day by “Also Sprach Zarathustra“, while Apollo 17 awoke to “Ride of the Valkyries“.

The astronauts themselves were finally given the chance to choose the soundtrack of their flights on the flight of Apollo 9 in March of 1969. NASA had begun supplying astronauts with early prototypes of the Sony Walkman to record voice notes. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any definitive list of all the songs brought along by the astronauts, but here are at least some notes on their choices.


 For Apollo 9, Lunar Module Pilot Rusty Schwieckart brought along a tape of classical music, which wasn’t able to find until the ninth day of the ten day mission.


Apollo 10 had flown to the Moon accompanied by Frank Sinatra and his hit “Fly Me to the Moon” on a tape put together by Lunar Module Pilot Gene Cernan and his friend Al Bishop. 


For Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong asked for bandleader Les Baxter’s Theremin-infused  1947 album “Music Out of the Moon.” Buzz Aldrin suggested “People” by Barbra Streisand and “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat & Tears. Michael Collins requested “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” by Jonathan King. 


As seen and heard in the 7th episode the excellent HBO miniseries “From Earth to the Moon“,  the Apollo 12 crew brought along a tape that included “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies, which hit the top of the Billboard charts just six weeks before the mission’s launch. The tape also included Dusty Springfield’s groovy “Son of a Preacher Man.” 


Commander Jim Lovell recalled listening to the soundtrack from the movie “2001,” the aforementioned “Also sprach Zarathustra”. Given the intense focus on the accident and the desperate effort to save the crew, little seems to have been written about their musical choices.

Apollo 14

The Apollo 14 crew’s tapes included songs by Marvin Gaye, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Beatles. It also included the classic Buck Owens hit “Act Naturally“, complete with a customized introduction from Buck himself.


The Apollo 15 tapes included songs like “My Girl” by the Temptations, The Animal’s cover of “The House of the Rising Sun“, and  “Jesus Christ Superstar” soundtrack.


Apollo 16’s Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly played Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique as he orbited along while the rest of the crew was romping on the lunar surface. 


As for live performances, the NASA archives includes Cernan breaking out in an impromptu adaptation of the song “While Strolling Through the Park One Day” from a 1941 Disney Mickey Mouse cartoon. Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmidt joined in, before they stopped abruptly, unable to remember the rest of the lyrics! 


Everything You Need to Know about the Space Race

It’s been a couple of years, but I’ve finally completed the second draft of my book about the Space Race. I’ve got a few copies out to first readers for  feedback. And I’m starting a search for a literary agent. If you know one that handles non-fiction history or space books, please let me know!



Unity Game Design and the Question of the Asset Store

Akonus is the name of the project I’m building. When finished, it will be a role-playing game set in the Eclipse Phase universe, a near-future science-fiction horror story about humanity on the edge of extinction and the desperate fight to prevent that eventuality.

Aknous Character Selection

The idea came to me while playing Elder Scrolls Online, a game I’ve come to really enjoy for it’s both it’s size and gameplay. I realized that while I like ESO, I’d really love to be playing an Eclipse Phase game. Which doesn’t exist. So, why not build it myself, I thought.

A Huge Undertaking

I was well aware that it would be a huge undertaking. I had used Unity a great deal during a previous attempt to create a game in 2015 and 2016. But there had been quite an interval, and Unity had undergone a number of changes. One of those involved dropping support for scripting in Javascript, a language I know. Unity now only supports C#, which isn’t a language I’d had any real experience using.

The truth is that most commercially released games are completely coded by the team building the game. This often means developing the underlying game engine from scratch. Plans for these games are meticulous and all of the various systems that will be needed are coded from these plans.

Asset Store to the Rescue

Unity Asset Store

That’s great for professionals, people with experience and skill in game design and development. I am not that person, so the natural conclusion was to go shopping at the Unity Asset store. Unity is free for developers who make under a specific threshold from their work. $100,000 or less, I believe. It has a number of built-in system to achieve your goals. But independent developers can offer code, artwork, 3d models, and audio for anyone to buy on the Asset Store and use in their projects. As of June 2, 2020, there are 60,412  assets on the store. Some of these assets (6,007) are actually free and their are Youtube tutorials* that show how you can build a working game without paying a dime.

Many of the best assets are not free. Almost 96% of the assets on the store cost $50 or less. The most expensive is a video playback package that lists for $3,500.  Some of them are painful overpriced, while others are amazing bargains. There is a review system to help guide shoppers, but many of the actual reports aren’t terribly reliable. And it’s possible to get a refund under some circumstances.

Some of these assets are just ready to use. Audio, whether it’s music, sound effects, or voices can be dropped into a game and used right away. 3d models might have to be tweaked before being usable. But the most important assets, in my opinion, are game C# code for major systems.

One example would be a character controller. Players may not realize how much work goes into moving their character around in a game world. Controllers aren’t difficult to create, but to make one that fits the design requirements of a specific game takes time, experience, coding skill, as well as patience. And if you’re new to the whole process, they can be a bit overwhelming. The simple solution seems to be finding and buying a package that handles controlling a character.

There are more than a hundred character controllers available on the Asset store. Some focus on First Person Shooters. Others on a variety of third-person type games, over the shoulder views, or perhaps a top down perspective. And this is where reality intrudes. Even the best of the available controllers are not going to work without some level of customization.

Maybe Not so Fast

I quickly discovered that getting the game I want would require a lot more work than I originally thought. I could adapt my design to fit the code, or I could figure out how to adapt the code to fit my vision. I’m going with the second option, which means I rely on the asset creators to support their product with good documentation, tutorials, and an active presence in their support forums. And this can be hit or miss.

So, I’ve learned not to buy a package on the asset store without thoroughly investigating several key questions. What do the reviewers who actually provide details saying about the asset? What does the support forum look like? Is the developer actively answering questions and providing guidance? Is there complete documentation? Are their tutorials, written and/or video?

Keep in mind that in almost all cases, you’ll have access to the actual scripts used in an asset. Even if you don’t use the asset itself, you can learn an enormous amount from reading through this code. And that, in and of itself, may be well worth the cost.

[*]If you’re looking for video tutorials, I highly recommend these specific Youtube channels:


Growing Past the Plateaus

I’m fascinated by the process of learning. Since the end of my college days in the Eighties, I’ve taught myself a number of things, and I’ve learned a bit about the process. I’m especially intrigued by the process of plateau followed by progress, slowly climbing a ladder of comprehension as I dive deeper into a subject.

It was easy to see that process as I was learning to play the bass guitar over the last six years. When I first bought a bass, I already understood music theory. I knew how the notes I was playing (or trying to play) fit into a song’s overall harmony and I understood the function of rhythm. But that knowledge was a far cry from playing a favorite bass line without missing a beat or a note. I’ve come a long way from those first painful-sounding notes. I’m no virtuoso today, but I can hold my own. And I love it.

The process hasn’t been quick. Over the years, I’ve hit many plateaus. These are times when I would continue to practice, but not seem to improve. Frustrating. And sometimes I’d give up for a couple of days. Then, when I picked up the bass again, I discovered that I’d been able to move on. I could nail the passages that were too difficult to master only a few days earlier. Progress after the plateau. 

And it’s always the same. I’m working now to master my coding skills with Javascript. I’ve been coding as a hobby for nearly forty years, starting with BASIC when I first got a Timex-Sinclair 1000 in 1982. Since then, I’ve learned a number of languages to some degree or another, including Pascal, Visual Basic, Java, C#, and Javascript. My current focus is Javascript, and once again, I’m seeing the plateaus and the progress.

My most recent plateau involved incorporating modules into the code for my Eclipse Phase website. I had been creating a new script file for each system I wanted to incorporate. It’s a practice I’d learned with other languages, and I find it a lot easier to manage multiple, shorter script files than one enormous file. One function, creating random names from a database of hundreds of possibilities in more than twenty languages resulted in a very large script file. Including the random name function, and everything else, into one script file, just felt overwhelming. Even with bookmarks, finding the code I wanted to work on was a daunting thought. But, Javascript doesn’t necessarily work well with so many script files. 

What to do? My solution seemed to lie in using modules. In Javascript, modules are script files that can share their functions and variables with other scripts. Okay, I thought, that’s what I want. I can separate out my random names code simply share the randomName() function with the other scripts that need it. What I didn’t know was that modules impose ‘strict mode’ on the code. 

Javascript CodeIt’s important to note that learning on your own means you can’t just raise your hand to get an answer to a question. I’m relying on a few books and a lot of google-foo to get the answers I want. It’s often a pain. I can ask Google anything I want, but Google only responds with what it thinks the answer to my actual question might be. So when I modularized my code, it took me a couple of days to figure out that ‘strict mode’ didn’t like some of the ways I was doing things. And after all the work I’d done to get the site working, I felt deeply frustrated. Functions that had worked before now showed up as ‘undefined’ and buttons necessary for the site no longer worked. 

So, I had to learn another way to achieve my goals. When I couldn’t find an answer, I posted a question on Stack Overflow. Within a few hours, I had my answer. I had no idea that using onclick in HTML was considered bad form! But now, instead of onclick’s, I started using .addEventListener. Hurdle overcome,  I’m moving ahead with my project and anticipating the next challenge. Bring it on, Javascript, bring it on.

Learning Feeds the Mind

I love learning new things because learning feeds the mind.

Growing up, my brother played the trumpet and after college, he learned to play the guitar. I was always intimidated by musical instruments. I was never musically inclined, but inspired by my musician friends,  I wanted to learn. I discovered MIDI, bought a keyboard and plugged it into a computer. All I could do was plink the keys, but once it was hooked up to a software sequencer, I learned enough musical theory that I could create music. Some of my work is right here on this site.  In 2014, I started learning to play the bass guitar. Over the years, my little Hofner has been a joy.

The Glory of Rome

The Glory of Rome

In the Nineties, I became fascinated by ancient Roman history. I spent long hours reading everything I could find about the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. I learned about the history and intricate nature of that brutal society, its odd quirky traditions, its hardcore military, and the particularly vicious political system that makes modern American politics pale in comparison. That inspired me to create an online game, The Glory of Rome, which gave players an opportunity to lead a Roman noble house during the last century of the Republic.

The Glory of Rome

The Glory of Rome

I was an early adopter of the internet. I originally was an AOL subscriber, and when they started allowing users to create web pages, I was all in. Building a page back then was a clunky, ugly affair. But I learned what I needed to know to do what I wanted to do. Over the last 25 years, I’ve built quite a few sites, always learning what I didn’t know to do it passably well. I picked up bits and pieces of the developing HTML spec and the newer technologies of CSS, Javascript, and various extensions like JQuery.

Now, I’m taking that to a new level. And it’s a good thing that I like to learn. The first thing I recognized as I approached this new endeavor is that the field has exploded with new technologies and options. It’s overwhelming, and the more I dig into it, the more there is to know. I’m focusing on improving my skills with the three core technologies: HTML, CSS, and Javascript. Every day brings new opportunities to learn. And my understanding of what I’m doing with the code is growing.


JavaScript Code Snippet

I learn best by doing, and with that in mind, I’m building a new web app. The goal of the site is to provide inspiration to players of a science-fiction roleplaying game. The exterior challenge is to create a dynamic and interesting narrative tidbits to prompt users’ imaginations. The interior challenge is to figure out how to deliver that to the users. The HTML must be well structured, the CSS must create a modern visual ambiance that supports the theme, and the Javascript must be crisp and efficient.

I love learning new things because learning feeds the mind. I want to be a professional coder. I don’t know why lies ahead, only that I’ve got work to do to reach that goal. Bring it on.

Wading through the Technobabble

So last night, as I was trying to fall asleep, my mind awoke and began presenting me with ideas for the project I’m currently working on. Despite my decided preference for sleep, I finally gave up and went to my desk to get some thoughts down in code.


That’s when I ran into a roadblock. I’m using VSCode to create a web app. And the extension that allows you to see your changes instantly had decided, without my approval, not to work. Instead of showing my site, it through up an error I’d never seen before. Instead of letting the creativity flow, I had to stop and try to figure out how to fix the problem.
In these situations, I always jump immediately into a google search. Errors and problems like this are rarely unique. But, in this case, the suggested answers were in a language I don’t speak well: gibberish.

I’m not bad at deciphering technobabble, but this was over my head. None of it made sense to me. The error code, as is usually the base, offered little direction, referring to components and actions I don’t comprehend. After struggling to make sense of it, I finally gave up, left a bug report in a hopefully appropriate Github location, and went back to bed.

This morning, I went through the rather drastic steps of uninstalling and reinstalling VSCode. That didn’t solve the problem. I had to google “completely uninstall VSCode” to figure out how to get VSCode entirely off my system. I followed the steps provided by Google, reinstalled, and now everything works as it should. I still have no idea what I might have done to cause the problem, which means I’ll have a hard time avoiding it in the future.

This type of frustration is quite common, especially for people like me who are learning it as I go along. But the key is to solve the problem and move forward — any way you can.

P.S. Just to irritate me, my keyboard suddenly began lagging this afternoon. Apparently Microsoft decided I need to have the “Filter Keys” setting turned on. I only figured that out after an hour of searching Google for answers. Suck it hard, Microsoft.

The Mercury 13

In 1960, Dr. William Lovelace invited female aviator Jerrie Cobb to undergo the same series of tests he had designed for the screening of the NASA’s Mercury astronauts. She first flew at the age of 12. By the time she was 29, Cobb was a highly experienced pilot, with more than seven thousand hours in the air and held three aviation world records. She readily accepted Lovelace’s offer.

Jerrie Cobb

Nineteen other women were recruited to also undergo the testing. Eventually thirteen, including Cobb, passed the first phase of physical testing. They were called the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, but were better known as the Mercury 13. Cobb and two others went through Phase II, which consisted of psychological evaluations and an isolation tank test. Phase III involved medical testing using Navy jets and equipment. Cobb passed, but the tests were shut down. The Navy refused to allow the unofficial and unsanctioned tests to continue.  But Cobb has passed all three phases with flying colors, ranking among the top two percent of all the men and women who underwent the tests.[1]

Cobb didn’t give up, going to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the continuation of the testing program. In May 1961, NASA Administrator James Webb appointed her as a special consultant. A year later, in July of 1962, she testified before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronauts on the qualifications of astronauts. In her opening remarks, she said, “We hope that you ladies and gentlemen will, after these hearings and due consideration, help implement the inclusion of qualified women in the U.S. manned space program.”[2]

NASA stood its ground. Chief of Manned Space Flight George Low, along with John Glenn and Scott Carpenter defended NASA’s selection criteria. They explained that NASAQ had no bias against women, but the no women were qualified. Glenn told the subcommittee: “The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design an build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”

The hearings ended and so did the official discussion of women as astronauts. Meanwhile, the first woman to fly in space was already in training. She just wasn’t an American.

The first American woman in space was Sally Ride, aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, twenty-two years after Alan Shepard’s first flight.  Ride was selected as part of NASA’s Astronaut Group 8 in 1978. Group 8 was the first new astronaut class since 1969. The thirty-five selected included the first six women, three African-Americans[3] and Asian-American to become astronauts.



[3] Major Robert Lawrence, an African-American, was selected by the Air Force in 1967 to become an astronaut in their Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, but he was died after ejecting from an F-104 jet at Edwards Air Force Base in December of 1967. The MOL program was cancelled in 1969, and seven of the astronauts in the program transferred to NASA and flew during the Space Shuttle program. Lawrence could easily have been one of them.

The In-Flight Menu: Food in the Space Race

An excerpt from Before This Decade is Out

Yuri Gagarin was the first man in orbit, and the first man to attempt eating and drinking in space. Soviet and American doctors weren’t sure if it could even be done, so it was a priority to find out as soon as possible. During his flight, Gagarin sampled from a toothpaste-style tube containing meat paste and one containing chocolate sauce. Other foods used in the early Soviet missions included soups, cottage cheese and coffee, all of which were stored in the tube containers.

John Glenn became the first American to eat in space. He, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper were treated to an unappetizing diet consisting of pureed foods sucked with a straw out of aluminum tubes. They proved that humans could chew and swallow, as well as drink, while in orbit. The menu included things like apple sauce and pureed beef and vegetables.  There were also cubes of dehydrated foods packed in plastic. These would be rehydrated as they were chewed.

For the longer duration Gemini missions, NASA introduced freeze-dried, pre-cooked foods. These were usually coated with oil or gelatin to prevent crumbling and packed in a thick plastic bag with a valve for water at one end. Cold water from the spacecraft was used to rehydrate the food for consumption and the bag would be cut open with scissors. The menu included shrimp cocktail, beef stew, chicken and rice, and turkey with gravy. Fruit flavored drinks and cocoa were available Three meals were provided per day and the menu was repeated every four days. One example breakfast meal included peaches, bacon squares, cinnamon toast bread cubes, grape drink, and orange drink.[1] Each day, the diet provided for 2,500 calories.

Things improved on Apollo. The meal plan provided the astronauts with 2,800 calories per day. The variety of freeze-dried foods increased. The Command Module provided hot water as well as cold. The packaging was easier to open and the food could be eaten with a spoon. In addition, food could also be stored in Wet Packs that didn’t need to be rehydrated. The selection of drinks expanded to include coffee, tea and lemonade. Over the course of the program, the astronauts were given more freedom to choose their own meals. New items were added to the menus, including hot dogs and ham. Free flowing salt and pepper would have created a terrible mess, so liquid alternatives were provided. If the Command Module was depressurized for any reason, the astronauts would be able to eat liquid foods through a port built into their helmets.

For the cosmonauts, the tubes remained in use but were bolstered can canned foods and foods contained in plastic pouches. Bread was baked in one-bite rolls to prevent crumbs. Meat, including veal, ham, and steak was prepared just before launch. The Soviets didn’t begin experimenting with dehydrated foods until 1974 aboard Salyut 3.[2] The Soviets also allowed cosmonauts small rations of vodka and brandy.

Oh, before I forget. Two notes about famous space foods.

John Glenn did drink Tang on his orbital mission. It was also carried aboard some Gemini flights. It was not, however, created by or for NASA. William Mitchell created it for General Foods, who began marketing it in 1957. Mitchell is the same clever guy who gave us Cool Whip and Pop Rocks candy.

And that freeze-dried Astronaut Ice Cream people loved to buy at souvenir stores? NASA had mistakenly included it on a list of foods aboard the Apollo 7 mission, but it didn’t actually make the cut. Because of its crumbly nature, it would have created too much of a mess in microgravity.


[2] Comparison Of Soviet And U.S. Space Food And Nutrition Programs, Page 1-8,

Writing Space History – Part I

I am wrapping up my first week of working full time on a book I’m called “Before This Decade Is Out.” It’s a history of the Space Race, of the American Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs; the Soviet Vostok, Voshkod and Soyuz missions; and the memories of the people who worked on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center. As I prepared to publish my father’s memoirs, I realized that there were thousands of other people with their own perspective of life at the Cape. I’ve read the books about and by the astronauts and other key figures, but I wanted to know more about what the grunts doing the work on the ground to make the programs a success.

John Glenn boarding Friendship 7 before becoming the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962.

Hence, the new book. I’m seeking out those eyewitnesses who are still with us to find out what their experiences were from the time. I’ve had to figure out how best to record telephone or video chats (OBS Studio is my friend), and how to efficiently transcribe them. While I’m searching for more interviews, I’ve created the basic structure of the book. It’s organized chronologically, with a series of entries about the missions, the astronauts and the key events that took place from 1958 to 1973.

Apollo 12 Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon orbiting the moon aboard the Yankee Clipper.

Writing history requires accurate sources, and here I’m eternally grateful to the work of the early NASA historians, whose comprehensive works are available online. Other sources were written by historians or the participants themselves. Notable among them so far is flight controller Gene Kranz’s autobiography Failure Is Not an Option, Andrew Chaikan’s A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, and Moon Shot, which includes memories from astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. The writing requires a measure of precision. Not all of the sources agree on the details, which becomes a distraction and requires additional research. Finding just the right words to explain concepts, like orbital maneuvering, takes time and requires frequent rewrites.

The ascent stage of a Lunar Module being prepared for flight.

The first draft is going to take at least several more weeks, but this is a passion project for me. And when all is said and done, I hope you’ll enjoy the amazing story I’m trying to tell!