Tough and Competent

On January 27th 1967, the Apollo 1 spacecraft suffered a catastrophic launchpad fire at Cape Canaveral, killing the three astronauts aboard. The following Monday, 44 years ago today, Gene Kranz gave this speech to his team:

Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work.

Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’ I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.

When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.

Kranz was one of the unsung heroes of the space race, and the Apollo 1 incident in particular marks a transition from a sloppy, hurried engineering culture into the well-oiled machine which managed to bring the Apollo 13 astronauts back alive.

Semi-Realtime Satellite Desktop Backgrounds

Snowy Great Britain

Snowy Great Britain

A few days ago, a beautiful satellite photo of snow-covered Great Britain got quite a lot of press coverage (and garnered me a couple of hundred retweets). The image was taken with the snappily-named MODIS camera which flies aboard two NASA Earth Observation System satellites: Terra and Aqua.

Turns out these are pretty neat pieces of kit — they actually record images in 36 frequency bands ranging from blue to thermal infra-red. The two satellites are in a sun-synchronous polar orbit which means they each record an image of the whole earth every day: Terra in the morning and Aqua in the afternoon.

All the image data is collated and released into the public domain by NASA on several sites, but the most interesting outlet for the data is the semi-realtime site here.

It struck me that it would be pretty cool to have the most recent image on your desktop, updated twice a day. So I wrote a slightly hacky little script to do it. NASA provide georectified true-colour images for a selection of regions, including most of Great Britain, so I’m just co-opting that. It does mean I don’t have a full image of GB, but my screens aren’t really the right aspect ratio for that anyway.

Here’s an example of the image it produces (for my dual 19″ monitor setup at home).

Here’s the script.

I’ve just learned that the MODIS satellites constantly downlink their imagery in the clear, so I think the next step is to build a receiver and grab the data directly ;).