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July 15, 2012

Tranquility Base in Hazelwood, the Most Interesting Man in Pittsburgh, and the Astrobots

Although Pittsburgh's physical production has historically been heavy-metal materials rather than airframes, there are some flashes of aerospace history with a Pittsburgh pedigree, and we're making a few new developments even today.

For instance, (as Chris Briem reminds us) when Rockwell had their headquarters in Pittsburgh there was a space shuttle mockup hanging in their downtown building.

Last week I was riding on the new Hazelwood Bike Trail, which runs through the AlMonO property (think, ALlengheny MONongahela Ohio) along the Monongahela River, parallel to Second Avenue.

I see the best things while riding my bike, and my first day on the Hazelwood Trail brought me a view of an iconic image from my youth as I rode past this artifact, surrounded by young plants as Nature claws back into her space.

As soon as I saw it, I thought: "wow, that's an Apollo Lunar Lander". This claim seemed to immediately classify me as (1) old and (2) imaginative and while nobody told me explicitly that I was bonkers, there was a hint of it.

To me, the object along the train tracks looked just like the Apollo lander, shown below, which I remember from black-and-white television in the 1960's.

It was startling to me that this iconic structure was sitting out in a public space, exposed to the elements and passersby, remarkably untagged by the spray-can artists.

Most people are aware of President Kennedy's bold decision to put a man and the moon and to bring him home again. In 1969 Apollo 11's success meant "mission accomplished" (that phrase has since been deprecated). There's been a lot of new people made since 1969, and so not too many people are aware that there was once such a thing as a lunar lander.

When Apollo 11 landed, astronaut Neil Armstrong used the radio callsign "Tranquility Base" to refer to the landing zone.

Turns out that the old roundhouse on the adjacent property is now a CMU Robotics Institute facility, and along with Pittsburgh startup company Astrobotic Technology they were developing prototypes for the Google Lunar X Prize.

The Lunar X Prize includes an Apollo Heritage Bonus, which calls for an autonomous vehicle to land on the moon, navigate to a site used in a previous Apollo operation, and take pictures of the hardware left behind.

In order to develop that capability, CMU needed a lunar lander prototype so they built the structure on the bike trail and would position their vehicle at different places on the Almono property so that it could acquire the target and navigate to it.

The Heritage Bonus program has generated conversation about the Apollo sites' archeological significance. Although many space program veterans support the Heritage Bonus, NASA has requested that future visitors respect the scene and remain at least 75 meters away. (Imagine what we might know now if people had respected Mesa Verde.)

Interestingly, the United States cannot (will not) declare the sites as historically significant, because that would represent an extension of sovereignty over the moon and the US is a signatory to a treaty promised not to make claims on lunar territory.

And it may be that the Most Interesting Man in Pittsburgh is Red Whittaker, who was kind enough to take the time to respond to an inquiry from a bicyclist.

I would have never recognized the lunar lander driving by it, but it's quite easy by bicycle. To me, this demonstrates how the bike trails really make the city accessible in a new way, and it also demonstrates some of the cool things going on in nü-Pittsburgh: lunar robotic training (I guess you could say, astrobot training) on the bike trail.


Matthew R said...

One of my complaints about the movie Apollo 13 was that the grandmother mentioned landing a washing machine on the moon, but the filmmakers really didn't show an old washing machine to show the resemblance. My mom had her old machine next to a new one for years because she liked the wringer on top for handwashing.

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