50-Years After Apollo: One of Al Nagler’s Designs is Scheduled for Launch! – P.U.N.C.H.

Apollo 11 made a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean 50-years ago today after an 8-day mission.  Thus ended the mission that made the historic first manned landing on the Moon with the Lunar Module named Eagle
The iconic image of the Earth rising over the Moon was made 1968 when Apollo 8 became the first manned craft to orbit the Moon. The mission’s impact is explained in this New York Times article.
Over the past 8-days, we’ve been reminded of the audacious journey, made 50-years ago, to set foot on Earth’s nearest neighbor: the Moon. A constant in our sky, this orb has been gazed upon by countless generations of people who thought it beyond reach. The Apollo moon landings changed all that and left a mark on our human psych. The phrase “Moonshot project,” for a large-scale, ground-breaking endeavor has been in the public lexicon ever since. Images looking back at Earth from the Apollo missions put our planet in a new perspective and prompted American poet Archibald MacLeish to write: “To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”

For Tele Vue, the space program is more personal: it has to do with the founding of our company. As we explained in our Tele Vue’s Secret Launch blog post (April 10, 2019):
While the Lunar landing of Apollo 11 inspired generations of people in countless ways, a unique experience in the development phase of the Apollo program inspired one man on a journey which would eventually change amateur astronomers’ views of the heavens. As an optical designer at Farrand Optical Company, Tele Vue founder Al Nagler was tasked to design an optical system for a simulator which the Apollo astronauts would use to practice landing on the Moon. When he finally stepped into the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) trainer to see how his optical system performed, the view out of the craft’s iconic triangular window of the simulated Moon below and stars above was breath-taking. Little did he realize at the time, but that was the moment of inspiration that ultimately resulted in the “Nagler” eyepiece.
This is also cited in NASA’s yearly Spinoff magazine: “Nagler’s experience in these and other space technologies provided the technical basis for the Renaissance Telescope, his patented wide angle eyepieces and other optical systems,” they wrote back in 1988.
Just a month before liftoff, Neil A. Armstrong, commander for the Apollo 11 moon-landing mission, practices for the historic event in a lunar module simulator in the Flight Crew Training Building at Kennedy. Image credit: NASA

“just like the simulator”

This golden anniversary year of the Moon Landing has focused renewed interest on the simulators. Teasel Muir-Harmony, Ph.D. is curator of the National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo spacecraft collection. She wrote about the simulators in her book: Apollo to the Moon: A History in Fifty Objects (National Geographic, 2018). “Apollo astronauts spent hundreds of hours training in these simulators in the months leading up to their missions. During each of the lunar missions, the astronauts inevitably compared the real experience of flying to the moon to the virtual experience that they had encountered during training. The phrase ‘just like the simulator’ can be found in the transcripts from every Apollo mission.”

A surviving Lunar Module “star ball” at Tech Works! technology museum in Binghamton, NY. Al says it has all stars to about 5th magnitude.

“They were just incredible, gorgeous stars”

A major component of the Lunar Module simulator was the “Celestial Sphere” or “star ball.” It simulated the star fields as the astronauts would see them in the sky. This was handled by embedding more than 1,000 ball bearings on a black sphere — each bearing was sized to match the magnitude of an actual star. In a little improvisational move, Al had some of the ball bearings gold-plated to match the hue of Betelgeuse, Antares, and Aldebaran.  Illuminated by a small light source and controlled by motors, the image of this sphere was projected into the simulator “window.” How good was the simulation? One person familiar with NASA simulators considers the Celestial Sphere to have been the best representation of the heavens. The following is from the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project interview of Francis E. “Frank” Hughes in March 2013.  He started work at Kennedy Space Center “the same day that the first box of the Apollo simulator was arriving in this big empty building” and stayed at NASA through the Space Shuttle era. In this excerpt he talks about the “Celestial Sphere.”

Going back on the simulator, that was the best star simulator we had ever had. They had a two and a half foot diameter ball, a black sphere, and they had mounted steel balls on it. They had actually half drilled so you could take a steel ball and set it, and glue it into the ball. They did about 1,900 stars. It’s used what is called a specular reflection. If you look at this mouse, it’s not round, but this round object, you can see how you’re seeing the reflection here. If you have one that’s very, very solid that’s white, then you’ll only see one point. The Sun is shining on it, you have one point. Looking at a distance, it looks like a star. It doesn’t show like a ball anymore; it’s called a specular reflection.

Al reunites with a Lunar Module “star ball” at Tech Works! technology museum in Binghamton, NY.

They were just incredible, gorgeous stars. They even colored it a little bit; some of the stars are kind of like orangey, so they put on little gold-covered ball on there, and you had some image of color as well. It was just something else, so much better than anything we’ve done, even till today. The digital simulations, if it’s a real faint star it’s one pixel, and if it’s a little bit brighter, it’s two pixels. Whoa! Two pixels, so it’s a little line there, if you put three of them, or four, and so on. It’s never the same, and you’re getting more brightness behind more pixels, but that’s not the way the world works. We survived, and trained all these guys over the years, but those first ones were the best. In fact, I want to get a star ball and put it over in Space Center Houston sometime, just to let people see what it makes. You could turn on a light and look at that, so you could see what the night sky would look like up there.

NASA has selected Southwest Research Institute to lead a microsatellite mission to image the Sun’s outer corona. PUNCH proposes a constellation of four suitcase-sized satellites that will orbit the Earth, studying how the Sun’s corona connects with the interplanetary medium, to better understand how coronal structures infuse the solar wind with mass and energy.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Southwest Research Institute
Coincident with the golden anniversary of the Moon landing is Al Nagler’s involvement with space technologies coming full circle. On June 20, 2019, it was announced that NASA had selected Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to lead a Small Explorers Program (SMEX) mission to study the Sun’s outer corona. The goal is to understand how the Sun’s atmosphere interacts with the planetary medium. Known as the PUNCH mission (Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere) it consists of four microsats that will survey the inner solar system in polarized light using optics designed and manufactured by Tele Vue. The Principal Investigator of the mission is Dr. Craig DeForest, a scientist and program director in the Space Science and Engineering Division of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, CO.  All four satellites are expected to launch together into polar orbit from Vandenberg Air Force base in 2022.
Apollo 11mm eyepiece with included 2″ adapter.
Tele Vue will be commemorating the 50th anniversary Apollo 11 Moon landing with the release of the limited edition Tele Vue Apollo 11 eyepiece later this year. It pays tribute to the simulator program that was invaluable to astronaut training and to the direct influence it had on the eyepieces we enjoy today.
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