Moon Dust, Rocket Engines, and NASA


At 12:31 a.m. central time August 6 NASA will bless us with its latest extravaganza, a multi-billion-dollar, decade-long effort to launch a six-wheel rover dubbed u2018Curiosity' on the red planet 154 million miles from home. Reading the newspaper one morning, I was amused to learn about the Rube Goldberg "braking" system invented to control landing on Mars. A huge parachute is supposed to slow the craft despite an atmosphere only one percent of the earth's, followed by freefall, then eight rocket engines ignite and lurch the craft out of the path of the trailing parachute somehow previously jettisoned, followed by a second freefall episode beginning at 66 feet altitude followed by a u2018sky crane' lowering the rover as it unfurls its wheels, capped off by pyrotechnic charges that send blades to cut the nylon tethers. Oh my.

The rationale for this dubious landing system? "In theory, the rockets could provide a gentle enough landing to finish the job. But in practice, they would kick up such a dust storm that it could ruin the rover." Ah yes, I agree the inevitable dust storm would be a big problem. Engineers must design around that. But why wasn't a dust storm a formidable problem on July 20, 1969, the occasion of man's "greatest technological achievement," landing a man on the moon and returning him safely via Apollo 11? The moon is plenty dusty too.

Dust, or lack of same, is one of many puzzles about the Apollo missions NASA showed us over four decades ago: how the heck could there be no surface disturbance below the lunar module (LM), no crater blown out by the LM's rocket engine? All six moon landings NASA "conducted" (Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17) showed the same u2018no hole' below the LM. No disturbance whatever (notice no stars in the background too?). If we trust the NASA-generated "real time" broadcast, Neil Armstrong called the surface "fine and powdery" and continued: "Okay. The descent engine did not leave a crater of any size. It has about one foot clearance on the ground. We're essentially on a very level place here."

Click on image to enlarge. Source: NASA

How fortunate. And impossible, well, impossible if the landing was real. There was no dust on the LM support legs or leg pads either and no sign the engine nacelle or ground below it was burned, singed or melted. How could that happen? A 10,000 lb. thrust engine, even if throttled back to 3,000 lb. must blow out a crater, down to bedrock for heaven's sake, making a landing treacherous because of virtually zero visibility and unknown terrain exposed. The motor would generate heat of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit and even if throttled back to, say, 3,000 d.F., only 1,300-2,400 d.F. is required to melt and fuse rock. None of what we expect happened.

Despite a rocket descent engine allegedly working hard a few feet below Armstrong and Aldrin, incredibly, and I do mean incredibly, Apollo 11's moon landing was remarkably quiet beneath the voices of astronauts and Houston control. It should have been loud as all-get-out, around 140 dB. The engine displayed admirable noise-vibration-harshness properties too, setting off no shake, rattle and roll aboard the flimsy craft, no heat problem, in fact, no problems of any kind. Oddly, Armstrong did not hover like a helicopter pilot does during landing, despite the difficulty of controlling an LM in a vacuum versus earth atmosphere. It was the first time anyone had landed a LM yet reverse thrust control went flawlessly, like everything else with Apollo. By contrast, Armstrong was nearly killed when he could not control the LM simulator on earth in May 1968 but for a timely ejection.

Abundant evidence proves NASA never pulled off the moon landings back in the slide-rule days of the 1960s. The biggest obstacle remains the lethal radiation unprotected astronauts must encounter above low earth orbit from three sources: the Van Allen radiation belts, galactic cosmic rays, and solar particle events, aka sun flares. Radiation makes manned deep space travel impossible to this day. Dr. James Van Allen, credited with discovery of the radiation belts, knew it full well and in 1970 courageously supported U.S. Senator William Proxmire (D, WI) and three other Senators in their attempt to eliminate NASA's manned space flight program.1