Apollo I

Today is the anniversary of one of the darker days in the history of space exploration. On this day in 1967, three astronauts boarded an Apollo command module to conduct a series of launch and training drills, in anticipation of a February 27th launch. Tragically, the module suffered an internal fire that killed all three astronauts and destroyed the spacecraft.

Their names were Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee.

The name “Apollo I” was the unofficial name of the mission, chosen by the crew. In commemoration, the name was made official by NASA historians in April.

A cause for the fire was never conclusively identified, but an analysis of the command module did discover a large number of design flaws. The consensus was that the fire was the cumulative result of several small problems. Development of the Apollo program was delayed for twenty months while the flaws in the command module design were examined and corrected. The first successfully manned flight of an Apollo spacecraft was in October of 1968, by Apollo VII.

This tragedy almost ended the Apollo program. During the follow-up investigation, there was evidence of political corruption and poor project management by both NASA and it’s relevant contractors. These issues were eventually deemed to be separate from the engineering problems that doomed Apollo I, and the Apollo program was allowed to continue. However, stricter quality review protocols were put in place. The Senate oversight committee had concluded that NASA had become over-confident, and by extension, careless. This has proven to be a pattern that NASA periodically falls into.

The Apollo program would later carry humans to the moon, and became the backbone of the Skylab program. The Orion program, currently in development, is in many ways an update of Apollo.

Space Station Manager revisited


In this article, I want to look back on one of my favorite computer games. Space Station Manager is (or was) an award-winning space station construction and simulation game. In many ways it is like the old Piranah game SkyBase, but it offers much more flexibility, and more engaging game play. It’s also possible to customize existing modules, or even create new ones if you have the necessary software.

Space Station Manager isn’t loaded with action. It is more of a puzzle game, where you try to find the optimum arrangement of space station components while keeping your station’s resources moving smoothly. It’s a game where it’s necessary to think ahead, and consider what will happen if you add “just one more module” to a station. Sometimes that one module can throw off the power grid, or create a thermal bottleneck that causes problems elsewhere. Or worst of all, it may require an additional crew member to function correctly! And adding an additional crew member may require expanding the life support grid, which may in turn require additional power and thermal regulation, and so on. And sometimes you need to consider the cost of modules as well. Problem solving skills and forethought are a must.

The first version of Space Station Manager, or SSM as it’s often called, was written by Kai Peter Backman in 2003 (I think), and was a finalist in the Independent Games Festival of 2004. It was distributed as a shareware program, and generally received good reviews and acclaim. For a time, the forums for the game saw a lot of activity. By 2006, the game had gone through several versions, and had adapted the Orge rendering engine. However, also in 2006, the primary programmer (Backman) had taken on a new job that took up most of his time. Unable to devote much time to this project (now renamed ShortHike), he made the game open source in September of 2006. Something went amiss after that. Apparently there were problems with the instillation scripts, and ShortHike would never correctly install. So far, this problem has not been solved, and I honestly don’t know if anyone is working on it.

Development of ShortHike was supposed to resume in October of 2007, but that never happened. For a long time the official web site gave 2007 as a date for new updates, and it was still saying that as late as 2010. Now the official web site is no more. Sadly, in the world of open source programming, this kind of thing happens. So, officially the fate of ShortHike is unknown, but realistically it’s done for. Neither the instillation program nor the source code are available, so new users need to keep using an existing version of ShortHike, or like me, use the last stable release of Space Station Manager.

Given that this program has fallen off the radar, getting support for it can be quite difficult. I didn’t discover this program until August of 2008, and I think I discovered it a bit too late. Most of the web sites that supported it have succumbed to web rot, or have been deliberately taken down. I’ve done what I felt was a fairly comprehensive search for resources on this program, and ultimately found only three functioning sites:

  • SSM Mods site
    This site is maintained by Mark Conn, who was a regular in the SSM and ShortHike forums, and should be your first stop. In addition to having a link to the base program itself, it contains several user created mods.
  • Lionex’s SSM page
    Lionex has some custom texture sets for folks who want to base their stations around different planets, or alternate Earths. One of his texture sets turns the Earth into a Borg world from Star Trek. It actually looks pretty neat.
  • A PostMortum essay about what went right and wrong with this project.

At one time, there were more sites, and there were forums and discussions about this program, but I can’t find any evidence of their current whereabouts. Or if they are even still extant.

The final version of SSM can be run in Windows XP, and can probably run in Vista or Windows 7. I haven’t tried to run it other operating systems via emulator, but it can probably be done.

I’ve managed to run Space Station Manager in Windows 8, from desktop mode. I seriously doubt it can be run from the Metro dock, but I could be wrong. Sometimes I have to run it as administrator, especially if I had been running other heavyweight programs earlier in the day.

Over on DeviantArt, I’ve put up images of three stations that I created using this program. They represent structures from the science-fiction setting I write in.

The station at the top of this page is also one of my creations. I nicknamed it the “Big Bat.”

Finally, I am trying to gather some of full technical information for developing modules for SSM. So, if anyone reading can provide me with any of the following:

  • The program used to generate and edit the various meshes for the modules,
  • The recommended graphics manipulation programs needed for skinning the modules,
  • Any websites or static documents that discuss the creation and editing of original modules.

…please contact me at:

RJPugh at cyberbard dot net

I will either update this article, or create a new one, relaying this information.

Thank you.


Moving to the stars?




It’s flashback time! This editorial was originally posted on DeviantArt.Com, on December 8, 2006. Keep that in mind when reading this, because a lot of this may sound dated.


hawkingLast week, Dr. Stephen Hawking, one of the most intelligent men on Earth, announced that humanity needs to start expanding to other planets in order to preserve the species and secure our future. A single asteroid, freak disease, or extreme natural disaster could erase humanity from creation. He’s ultimately right, but I think he’s jumping the gun.

Before I continue I want to make it clear that I am a strong supporter of the space program. One of my earliest memories is the Apollo 11 landing. The future of humanity does involve outer space, on some level. I honestly believe that, and I would love to see humans building new lives on Mars, the Moon, or some other place. But with all due respect to Dr. Hawking, it’s not likely to happen soon.

The technology to travel to other planets has been around since the 1980’s. Dr. Robert Zubrin, is his book The Case for Mars, outlines how humans could – in fact must – colonize the red planet. The trip wouldn’t be as difficult as many people think. It would be time consuming, and uncomfortable, but it can be done. Such an operation would also be very expensive, but given enough time and proper management of the project, the money can be pulled together. So why haven’t we followed Zubrin’s and Hawking’s advice?

Robert Zubrin, while brilliant, has blinders the size of Jupiter. Because the technology to travel to the other planets exists, he can’t understand why we (as a species) aren’t doing it. Zubrin, like many “Spacers” – Hawking included – doesn’t take the human element into consideration when making proclamations. We haven’t built moon bases or colonized Mars for a very simple and very human reason: We don’t want to.

The idea of migrating off-planet is a concept that most humans can’t (or won’t) psychologically accept. For many, the concept of life without Mother Earth is too alien to even consider, while others see it as an ultimately pointless exercise (“There’s nothing worth while out there, so why the hell would I want to go?”). Not everyone feels this way, but indications are that the majority of us do. It’s not hard to understand why. This world is rife with starvation, war, plagues, injustice, and various other ills that are probably going to keep us occupied for some time to come. Space development – on any scale – is seen as a complete waste of time and a diversion from far more pressing issues. However, if space can be used to directly address everyday concerns that effect the average Joe and Jane, it might start gaining greater acceptance.

My own suggestion, for what it’s worth, is to send out more Voyager-style probes to further examine the Solar System, and have them concentrate on specific types of resources. One popular Spacer mantra is the idea of mining the asteroid belt for its mineral wealth. “OK,” says the skeptic, “what mineral wealth?” I suggest we send a group of probes – robotic prospectors – to the belt and find out what those rocks have to offer. If they have useable ores, then we can talk about mining. Remember, the California gold rush happened after gold was discovered.

Another example is Lunar Helium-3 for use in fusion reactors. That’s a great idea, but we don’t have fusion reactors yet, let alone ones that need He3! That idea isn’t likely to get widespread support until a prototype is taken off the drawing board and demonstrated, or at least built and given base tests. Now, if some folks were to put together some prototype reactors, and then convince NASA (or whoever) to let them go to the moon, load up with He3, and test-drive the things, public interest is likely to follow. Especially if one of them works!

[Sidebar: Does anyone want to send a ship to the moon and fill a hopper with Helium-3 rich regolith, then bring it back to Earth for use in fusion research? That is a good idea, and it is something we can do!]

I could come up with other examples, but you probably get my drift. If space resources can help the problems of the here and now, then by all means let’s go for it! But let’s concentrate on short term, tangible results to real, current problems, before we start embarking on a grand scheme like trans-planetary migration or interstellar travel.

Dr. Hawking is a brilliant man, and I agree with him that we need to move out into other planets. But not today.


The opinions expressed in this essay are mine, and mine alone. Dr. Hawking and Dr. Zubrin would probably take umbrage at what I’ve said, and they would be entitled. But, this is the opinion of a librarian from North-central Virginia, so I’m probably not worth their time.

Also, things have changed. With the Orion program starting up, the possibility of moving into space appears more likely now than it did when I originally wrote this. But even so, I still think it’s a bit early to start planning a mass, species-encompassing trans-planetary migration.

Shadow of Orion


Orion is arising, you can see his stars a’ blazing.
Way out here in the middle of a deep blue country sky.

– lyrics by James Zimmerman

In an earlier article , I relayed my jaded, disillusioned view of the space program, and at the prospects of future space exploration. That article was originally written ten years ago. This article reflects how I see things today and now. Things don’t look as dark as they did in 2004.

It looks like the United States will soon be back in the manned space exploration business. On December 5, NASA’s new manned spacecraft, Orion, was launched, made two orbits of the earth (that included two flights through the Van Allen belt), and splashed down in the Pacific, about 600 miles southwest of San Diego. Analysts are saying the ship exceeded performance expectations, and called the overall mission “picture perfect.” OK, so this new thing works. When can we go to Mars?

I’m just kidding. Mars is on the itinerary, but it’s not the first stop. I think the first stop will be the International Space Station, followed by some points in high orbit, and a return to the moon.

Some are saying that this will be a new beginning for space exploration, that this time we’re going to do it right. But a lot of people are also saying that this is just another false start that will lead to just another dead end. Both of those sentiments have been stated before, and at different points in recent history, both have proven to be true (for a time). Statistically, this could go either way.

Personally, I’m cautiously optimistic.

For a long time the space program has been regarded as an overpriced luxury program that was all glitz and publicity, so a lot of people were opposed to it. That attitude seems to have faded. People have become more aware of the how much tax money that NASA and her contractors really consume, and it’s not that high when compared to many other programs. And, people have become more aware of how the space program helped stimulate other facets of the economy.

I’ve also long maintained that the biggest obstacle to space exploration has been a psychological one. As a species, we simply haven’t been very interested in outer space. One of the biggest arguments against space exploration has been the plethora of problems here on Earth, and that we should solve those problems first. Some of the problems here on Earth have been around since antiquity, and we haven’t solved them yet. I don’t think that’s going to change no matter what we do, so we shouldn’t let the chronic pains of civilization hold us back.

Ironically, the solutions to some of the world’s problems may actually be in outer space. Energy collection and production, for example, might be assisted by space based technology. Many advances in the applied sciences can be traced back to space exploration and development. Even food production (hydroponics) may be helped or improved with the use of space based (or derived) technology. My point is that solving the problems of the world and space exploration are not mutually exclusive tasks. In fact, they may be two sides of the same coin. The solutions to a lot of our problems “down here,” may turn out to be “out there.” If that’s the case, then why not find what we need “out there,” and bring it “back here?”

On a more pragmatic level, the space game has changed in the last few years. For a long time it was strictly a big-government operation. After the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, a lot of long standing policies and practices were re-examined, and the government monopoly began to loosen up. As proof, the Space-X Dragon shuttle has run four logistical missions to the International Space Station (a fifth is scheduled for December 16th of 2014), and has delivered several payloads for commercial and academic clients. NASA and the other national space agencies aren’t the only active players in the outer space arena any more.

You may be wondering why we need to have national space agencies at all, now that corporate and private entities have found their way into the game. I suspect the answer in scale. Some endeavors, like a moon base or a manned mission to Mars, require a lot of logistical co-ordination and resources to have any hope of succeeding. If you want to do something like go to one of the Lagrange points, Moon, or Mars, you’re going to need the backing of someone who can call on a huge variety of resources at a time. At this point in history, the only entity with that kind of reach is a government agency. That will almost certainly change with time. For a long time, even a trip to low-earth orbit required government backing, but that is no longer the case. But for right here and right now, NASA and the other national agencies are the only ones with a real chance of trailblazing beyond low Earth orbit.

Orion is supposed to be part of such plans. Some people may remember the Constellation program from the late 2000’s. That program was largely gutted by President Obama. I think his exact words were “it lacked innovation.” He took a lot of flak for ending it. I wasn’t very happy about it myself, but after looking it over, it made sense. A lot of the technology in Constellation already existed, and was being expanded and developed by the private sector. Again, look at the Dragon. Originally, Constellation had a component that essentially did the same sort of thing, but it was going to require a few years of research and development to deploy. Naturally, the question arose: why develop a new vehicle, when this private sector vehicle, which is close to ready, can do the same things? In the end, Space-X was given a contract, by NASA, to provide logistical support vehicles for the International Space Station.

As for Constellation, that program was broken into pieces. President Obama wanted NASA to concentrate on projects that the private sector wasn’t exploring. Empirically speaking, why duplicate efforts? So, those facets of Constellation that were already being covered were dropped, and energy shifted to those facets that remained. One of these was a long range, manned crew vehicle, nicknamed Orion, that was designed along the lines of the earlier Apollo program. A prototype of this new manned vehicle was successfully test flown on December 5th. Some people have scoffed at Orion, saying that it’s nothing more than a re-hash of Apollo. To that I must ask: is being a re-hash, or update, of the vehicle that took humanity to the moon a bad thing?

Another thing that NASA was tasked with was developing a heavy lifting rocket stack on par with the mighty Saturn-V. Some of the technology for this new heavy lifter was used to loft Orion, and while there were some problems with the fuel valves, it ultimately worked the way it was supposed to. It still needs fine tuning, but this really is rocket science, so we shouldn’t be all that surprised.

So, in a few years we will once again have a crew vehicle that is designed to explore far beyond Earth orbit. And, if all continues as it has been, we will soon have a super booster capable of carrying that vehicle to such heights. From where I’m sitting, it looks like we’ll soon be capable of some heavy duty space development. When it comes to space development, we haven’t been in this good a position since the early 1970’s.

I remember when I was little more than a toddler, watching the first manned landing on the moon. In the years since, I’ve been listening to grandiose plans and ideas for space development, most of which went absolutely nowhere. But this time we actually saw a prototype vehicle launch, fly, and land. And for the first time in many years, I figure I may actually live to see another manned moon landing. Luck permitting, I may even see a landing on Mars. Even if I don’t, my children almost certainly will, and that’s good enough for me.

I’m cautiously optimistic, because the future no longer seems quite so dark.

  • The artistic rendering of the completed Orion launch stack came from Spaceref.com.
  • The photograph of Orion’s test launch came from a NASA press release.