Category Archives: Science Bookshelf

Houston, We Have a Photo Album! Photographs from Apollo Astronauts

moonmanOne of my favorite books about space has very few words in it at all. “Full Moon” celebrates the photographs of the Apollo moon missions taken by the astronauts themselves. Their spacesuits had film cameras mounted on the front at chest level. As they moved around the surface of the moon, they carefully documented everything they could, mostly for scientific purposes.

That means that today, a lunar geologist studying a rock brought back from the moon can see exactly how the rock was situated on the surface there before it was picked up — extremely valuable information!

Of course, in addition to having scientific value, the pictures are also just incredibly cool and interesting to look at. “Full Moon” has about 130 pictures, organized by mission stage (the trip there, lunar orbit, the surface, splashdown). The photographer who put the book together, Michael Light, had plenty of material to work with — there are about 32,000 pictures from the Apollo missions. He used his artistic vision to choose photographs that are beautiful as well as informative.

full-moon-barA Fresh Look
While dozens of pictures from the U.S.A.’s famous race to the moon are as familiar as the nose on your face, thousands and thousands of pictures have hardly been seen by anyone. But even when it comes to pictures you’ve seen before, you’ve never seen them quite like this.

The 17 Apollo missions took place between 1967 and 1972, so of course the photographs were taken with film cameras. NASA had to keep such important film safe, so here’s what happened:

When astronauts got back and their film was developed, a number of the pictures were chosen as being the most news-worthy from that particular mission. The film negatives for those pictures were copied. Those copies were used to make pictures for newspapers, magazines, which then made their own copies. Publishers often ended up using copies of copies of the originals.

This process had two results. First, it caused the same pictures to be used over and over again. Second, it meant that publishers were often stuck using poor quality negatives.

By the 1990s, when Michael Light negotiated with NASA for access to the archive of original film negatives, technology had come a long way. Instead of taking photographs of the negatives he picked for the book, he scanned them using a high-resolution digital film scanner. This allowed the photographs in “Full Moon” to be reproduced with a sharpness and clarity that is stunning. All you can say, is “Wow.”

Nowadays, you can explore the Apollo archives yourself by going to one of the web sites that have databases of all the pictures (we provide some links below). You’ll see some interesting sights and gain a real appreciation for the amount of work the astronauts did simply to train for their trips to the moon. But for a gripping, one-stop ride from launchpad to splashdown, give “Full Moon” a look. You won’t be disappointed in this perfect artistic interpretation of one of the greatest technological achievements of all time.

Fun Phineas Fact
Getting to the moon took a lot of time and a lot of work. The archives of the Apollo missions show spectacular views of barren lunar surface and of the beautiful blue sphere of Earth hanging in an ink-black sky. But a look through more of the galleries below will give you insight into how much more there was to getting to the moon and back than simply starting a countdown.Selected images from NASA

The Project Apollo Gallery

Slideshow of the Image Scans Used in Full Moon

Two Enduring Star Books for Curious Readers by H.A. Rey

rey_ha_astronomy

Find the Constellations & The Stars: A New Way to See Them by H.A. Rey

It’s not surprising that two astronomy books written by H.A. Rey more than 50 years are still popular. After all, Rey is the same writer/illustrator who, along with his wife, Margret, invented Curious George. The adventures of that famous cartoon monkey have entertained kids by the millions.

H.A. Rey thought the old way of showing constellations made them hard to remember. He thought drawing lines between the stars worked better. He was certainly right when it comes the The Twins.
H.A. Rey thought the old way of showing constellations made them hard to remember. He thought drawing lines between the stars worked better. He was certainly right when it comes the The Twins.
In both his astronomy books, Rey used a new way to draw constellations (or star groups) that he believed made them easier to find in the sky. Instead of placing fancy pictures over the stars to help readers visualize the constellations, he connected the stars like giant dot-to-dots. It works much better in some cases, but not all.

Another thing Rey did in both books is use English names for constellations — for instance, saying “The Bull” rather than “Taurus.” This also works OK, but can be confusing if everyone else is using the old names. As a fan of language, I think part of the fun of new hobbies is learning new words.

Both books are about looking at the sky and learning to find your way around the constellations. Rey writes that the books are meant for people “who want to know just enough about the stars to find the major constellations.” As every backyard astronomer knows, that’s the right place to start.

H.A. Rey had fun making the drawings for Find the Constellations, which he wrote for younger beginners.
H.A. Rey had fun making the drawings for Find the Constellations, which he wrote for younger beginners.
Of the two books, Find the Constellations is intended for younger readers. At only 72 pages, it is thin and features funny cartoons that kids will enjoy. Don’t let the laughs fool you. There is a lot of good information in Find the Constellations and it includes my favorite feature introduced by Rey: star-finding practice exercises!

Looking at star maps with lines or images placed over the constellations is one thing, but it is easy to be bewildered by the actual sky when you look up and see hundred of points of light. So Rey lets you practice by placing identical maps of the sky side-by-side on the page. One version has lines and stars; the other only stars. You can start training your mind to recognize star patterns and to associate them with constellations. And you can do it from the comfort of your favorite chair!

Sometimes trying to make sense of the night sky can be hard. So H.A. Rey lets readers practice comparing the star shapes they have memorized to the points of light they'll see outside.
Sometimes trying to make sense of the night sky can be hard. So H.A. Rey lets readers practice comparing the star shapes they have memorized to the points of light they’ll see outside.
The Stars: A New Way to See Them is also listed as a beginners guide to the stars, but contains more in-depth information about the star and constellations. It has more history and detailed star maps. While the presentation of the material is intended for older beginners, there are still cartoons and humor throughout the book.

What The Stars has that is completely beyond the scope of Find the Constellations, however, is a Part 4 section titled “Some Hows and Whys.”

In Part Four of The Stars,  H.A. Rey walks fearless readers through the geometry behind the nightly show stargazers see in the skies.
In Part Four of The Stars, H.A. Rey walks fearless readers through the geometry behind the nightly show stargazers see in the skies.
This section provides an orderly explanation of how factors such as the tilt of the earth’s axis and the earth’s constant progression around the sun lead to an ever-changing sky. It touches on geometry and demonstrates — again in a straightforward, relaxed style — how everything from navigating the seas to the changing seasons relates to the same factors.

Some people worry that presenting information that is beyond students can be discouraging to them, but I don’t think that is an issue here. In fact, Rey includes a cartoon at the beginning of the section warning that the road is going to be getting a little rougher ahead and that readers “should proceed at their own risk.”

So even if some of the concepts are advanced, daring students will be exposed to the notion that events such as eclipses, seasonal changes, solstices aren’t things that just happen. They happen predictably, for a reason. And they can be understood.

And when you know that, you are already one step closer to grasping the big picture, a big picture that took humankind thousands of years to figure out.

You begin to see yourself standing on the surface of a huge body that is in motion through three dimensional space. You begin to see something amazing about yourself, simply by looking up.

‘Stars’: Still Shining After All These Years

This first astronomy book I ever bought is still hanging in there more than 40 years later. Inside the back cover, I updated the positions of Jupiter and Saturn for 1974-75 after the charts inside the book became outdated.
This first astronomy book I ever bought is still hanging in there more than 40 years later. Inside the back cover, I updated the positions of Jupiter and Saturn for 1974-75 after the charts inside the book became outdated.
When I was 7 or 8 years old, my parents took me to a planetarium. Planetariums are theaters that use large projectors to display stars and planets overhead on a darkened dome. The lights went down, I settled into my plush seat, and the show began.

I was amazed as diamond-like star projections of constellations moved across the dome, recreating the sky from sunset to sunrise in just 30 minutes. The lecturer pointed out star patterns (Ursa Major, Cygnus, Draco…) and projected over them images of the animals (a bear, a swan, a dragon…) they represented. It made them easy to remember. By the time the show ended, I was hooked.

In the gift shop outside the planetarium, I bought my first astronomy book — a Golden Nature Guide titled “Stars.” More than 40 years later, I still have it.

That book and $20 telescope from the local department store made up my entire astronomy kit until I got to college and had access to better telescopes. That was when I learned that trying to use a toy telescope on a shaky table underneath a street light had been an iffy plan. But the book was great. It still is.

“Stars: A Guide to the Constellations, Sun, Moon, Planets and Other Features of the Heavens” was originally published in 1951. Written by Herbert S. Zim and Robert H. Baker, it features 150 illustrations by James Gordon Irving. The book has exactly the information promised in its subtitle and provides plenty of text and information, more than enough to satisfy any budding astronomer who wants to curl up with a interesting book.

Think of this book as an overview to the topic of astronomy. Sure it has star maps, but there are better books for finding your way around the sky. But don’t hold that against it. The maps are small because this handy book is sized to fit into your pocket.

My copy cost me $1.50, which turned out to be a real bargain given how long I have used it. On the downside, the charts printed in it only go through 1970. But I was able to find the information and update some of the charts by hand for 1974-1976.

The highly successful Golden Guide series of books was out of business for awhile, but has come back, so this book is still available. It has been updated, but some reviewers still say it is no longer as accurate as it should be. Perhaps in a future post we’ll get a copy and see what has changed. But I know the stars haven’t changed (and we’ve only lost one planet!) so it is hard for me to imagine this not still being a handy introduction to the night skies.

You’ll add other great books to your astronomy bookshelf over time, but “Stars” is a great place to get started.