20: The View

 

Hightower We’ve talked a lot about architecture these last couple of years. But one of the things we haven’t talked about much is how expensive buildings can be.

 

Anyone who has ever built a house or bought one someone else built knows this to be true. Even the land a house sits on can be expensive. This is especially the case if the land happens to be located somewhere with a really nice view. I’m thinking of a place like Tuscany or the French Rivera or Hawaii.

 

Of course these aren’t the most expensive places you could live. They’re not even the most exclusive. No, the most expensive and exclusive place in the world you could live isn’t technically on the world at all. It’s orbiting 250 miles above it.

 

At a cost of over $150 billion dollars the International Space Station is arguably the most expensive piece of architecture ever constructed. I have never lived there myself but I was able to speak with someone who has.

 

Reid Wiseman was a Naval Aviator and a test pilot before he became an astronaut at NASA. He spent about five-and-a-half months aboard the International Space Station in 2014. I talked to him over the phone and he told me about how amazing it was when he first arrived at the space station.

 

Reid I felt like throwing up. I was exhausted. I didn't know if I would ever eat food again because I felt so full and I hadn't eaten in probably 10 hours at that point. And then at the same time, you're overwhelmed because you spent four plus years training to come through that hatch, and to be a productive member of the crew. And now you're floating, and you don't know how to do anything. You don't know how to really move, you don't know how to work, you don't know how to sleep, you don't know how to eat, so you feel very overwhelmed.

 

Hightower Despite how disoriented he was, there was one thing Reid wanted to do more than anything else.

 

Reid You’re just scrambling to get to a window and look back at the Earth and just see it. Whether it's day or night, it doesn't matter. Once you're on board you just got to look at that view. It's just so incredible.

 

Hightower A little over two hundred people have lived on board the International Space Station. That qualifies it as a pretty exclusive part of the built environment. That said, even it isn’t the most exclusive place a person could live. No, the most exclusive place you could live is on the surface of the moon.

 

That’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the twentieth episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.

 

I’m Brantley Hightower.

 

Before we go to the moon, let’s spend a little more time with Reid in the International Space Station. The orbiting laboratory consists of a series of modules that were built by different countries and assembled in orbit between 1998 and 2011. If you’ve ever seen photos of its interior it looks kind of messy with computers, cables and other equipment all over the place. I asked Reid if it feels at all cluttered when you’re living there.

 

Reid It definitely feels that way the first second you come through the hatch. We don't have any mock up on the ground that perfectly models all the wires, the experiments, the humans living in there. And so when you first go through the U.S. lab in particular, you're used to seeing it in the Earth-based trainer. And then when you see it in space you were just like, "Oh, my. I'm never going to understand what's going on in there, there's just stuff everywhere."

 

Brantley That feeling of being overwhelmed doesn’t last long, though.

 

Reid It takes about two weeks and then it feels like home.

 

Brantley Of course, this just happens to be a “home” flying at 17,500 miles per hour, 250 miles above the earth. But here’s the interesting thing. Even if you’re one of the few people who have been able to travel into space, it seems the main thing you want to do once you’re there is look back on the place you’ve left behind. You want to take in the view of the Earth.

 

Reid …and on my really free time I would look at – I would look at our ground track over the Earth and I would find a city or a town or something that interests me, and I would go down to the Russian segment. They have a little window that looks straight down and it’s optically pure, and I would take an 800 millimeter zoom lens and I would try to take photos of that place through that one window.

 

Hightower Of course that window wasn’t the only one on board. There was an even larger one called “the cupola”.

 

Reid But what the cupola is, it’s seven windows. Six of them go all around the edge, so you can see a 360 degree view of the Earth. And then the center window looks straight down on our planet, and it is probably, I’m guessing, three feet in diameter. And you can just look all around at our planet and it’s addictive. It is so addictive I wish I was in the cupola right now…

 

Hightower Watching the sun as it set behind the earth made for an especially breathtaking view. Sunsets on Earth can be impressive, of course. But in orbit they are always spectacular.

 

Reid Well, first of all they are really fast, because you're going 17,500 miles an hour. You get 16 of them a day, but they happen quick. The neat thing is the Earth, when the sun angle gets slow, the Earth gets really vivid, because the Earth is still casting shadows. Like the Grand Canyon, when the sun angle's low is just even more beautiful, because you see the shadowing. It gives a three dimensional effect when you're looking down…

 

But then as the sun goes into the horizon, that's when you start to see all these different color bands in the atmosphere. And it's these reds, oranges and then the dark blues, lighter blue, lighter blue, lighter blue all the way up into space and it's amazing, it's absolutely gorgeous.

 

Hightower The view from the International Space Station is something that has been seen by only a few hundred people. But the view from the surface of the moon is something only twelve people seen. One of them was a man by the name of Charlie Duke.

 

Charlie Sixty seconds...

 

Buzz Lights on.

 

Hightower Charlie Duke was one of the three crew members of Apollo 16. That was the fifth mission that landed on the moon making Charlie the tenth man to walk on it.

 

Charlie Thirty Seconds.

 

Neil Forward drift?

 

Buzz Yes.

 

Hightower You probably know the name of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. But few people bother to learn the name of the second man or anyone after him. Sorry Buzz. Still, if you’ve listened to the recording of that first lunar landing, you’ve heard Charlie Duke’s voice.

 

Charlie We copy you down, Eagle.

 

Neil Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.

 

Charlie Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot…

 

Hightower On July 20th, 1969 Charlie was at Mission Control in Houston. His job that day was to convey information from the ground to the two astronauts as they made their landing. Three years later it would be his turn to go to the moon.

 

Apollo 16 would be Charlie’s first and only spaceflight. He spent years training for it and has spent decades remembering it. When I asked him what was the most memorable part of his experience when he first arrived in space his answer was the same Reid’s. It was the view.

 

Charlie Our simulators were very high fidelity as far as replication of the switches and the systems. The view out the window was incredible – you don't get that in a simulator. So that certainly was awe-inspiring to look out and see the earth whizz down by you 100 miles away.

 

I can remember especially going over Houston, our first time around, and I sit down, I looked down and you could see the freeways and runways at Ellington, and NASA, and Clear Lake and all of that little geographic features. So that was pretty neat. You had to look fast because you're going pretty fast over there.  

 

Hightower The way these missions would work is that after arriving in orbit around the Earth the third stage of their rocket would reignite. This would send Charlie and the other two crewmembers – Ken Mattingly and John Young – on their journey to the moon.

 

Charlie After we left earth orbit, Mattingly separated the command service module from the third stage. And the lunar module on liftoff was behind you – underneath you – so you separate, then you had to pitch around and come back in and dock up. And that was his job, and John was monitoring the maneuver with the computer and I was on my side with electrical system, environmental control system, and that's about it. So I had a lot of free time. And so I was looking out my right window and into that window, floats this view of earth and it was breathtaking.
 
You could see the...it wasn't quite a full earth but it was almost a full earth out there and it was a beautiful jewel of blue… And it was just hanging in the blackness of space so it was really a moving sight… It was awesome.

Hightower Of course, the Earth wasn’t the only beautiful thing floating outside his window. There was also the pee.

 

The crew would collect urine and other liquids produced on board and from time to time they would dump it into the vacuum of space.

 

Charlie …And so when the tanks got full, you vented that over and that's the same crystal and structure that water hits the vacuum of space. It just flashes often to the little crystals that then evaporate real quickly. So it was that way. It was spectacular. The sun glistening through these crystals would break up the light into different wavelengths so you could see some different colors. And to me, it was pretty neat.

 

Hightower As they made their way towards the moon their velocity would decrease as the force of Earth’s gravity pulled them back. Then, several days later as they got closer to the Moon, their velocity increased as they started to “fall” towards the Moon and its gravity.

 

At any rate, after three days and over 225,000 miles, Charlie, Ken and John were in orbit around the Moon. And just like Reid talked about the view of the sunset behind the Earth, Charlie talked about the view of the sunset behind the Moon.

 

Charlie In Earth orbit, of course, you have atmosphere. So when you're going in the darkness, you can watch the sun. It sets, but then the glow of the light in the atmosphere, you can still see that glow similar to watching the sun go down here. When you have a good view, the sun sets, you can't see the orb anymore but you can see the color and the clouds and stuff like that. Well, that's what it is on Earth orbit, too. It goes about a lot quicker, of course, because you're whizzing away from the sunset.
 
But on the moon, there is no atmosphere so when the sun sets, it's not instant darkness because when the sun sets, we were still in earth shine. So the earth shines onto the moon and it gives sort of...the glow is very similar to what we see in a bright moon down here. You can still see, it's not pitched black. The moon that we had in relation to earth was a half moon, so half the backside was in sunlight and half the front side. So as we whizzed over our landing spot, 30, 40 seconds later, the sun just went down and there's no glow. It's just down because there's nothing, no atmosphere to give it that glow.

 

Hightower When it came time to actually land on the moon, Charlie and John floated into the Lunar Module that was designed specifically for the landing. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it wasn’t all that much to look at.

 

Charlie Well, it was horrible-looking but very efficient. I never did doubt its capability. It was designed for a landing on the moon. It wasn't designed for the beauty of it. It wasn't designed to have a reentry shape.

 

Still doesn't look like much of a flying machine…

 

Hightower To save as much weight as possible, the Lunar Module was made as small and as light as possible. It didn’t have beds for the two men to sleep in. Heck, it didn’t even have seats. They actually stood at the controls as they made their decent and landing on the Moon.

 

But its worth remembering that the gravity on the Moon is only one-sixth that of the earth. Despite being cramped, the reduced gravity made the Lunar Module a remarkably comfortable home for the three days they lived on the Moon.

 

Charlie The lesser gravity, one-sixth gravity, the moon has, made it working around in the spacecraft a lot easier than down here on earth.
 
When we got ready for rest period, we had two hammocks and they were... mine was right off the floor and it was from right to left, and it was about six inches off the floor. And John's was about two feet above me and his went from four and a half. And one-sixth gravity is really comfortable sleeping… The first night, we just landed and they told us to go to bed four or five hours after we landed. So you can imagine how excited we were and I had to take a sleeping pill to get to sleep that night. But the rest of the time, it was very comfortable sleeping.

 

Hightower The Lunar Module has three small windows. One pointed straight up and was used for docking. The other two looked forward and were the ones Charlie and John used during landing. They were triangular in shape and less than two feet wide. Charlie’s window worked fine for landing but it didn’t offer a particularly wide-angle view. But once he had put on his space suit, opened the hatch and climbed down the ladder, he was able to turn and see the full panorama of the moon.

 

That view, as you might imagine, was amazing.

 

Charlie When I climbed down the ladder and stepped on the footpad and then jumped off onto the lunar surface, the feeling was finally here. And it was… an awesome feeling of wonder. You can't feel through your moon boot and through your suit boot, you don't feel like walking. You don't feel like you experience something like walking barefoot on a sand dune at the beach. You can't feel that feeling but you can have this emotional event, that first steps, "Wow, that's great. I'm glad I'm here.”

 

Hightower Despite the fact he was standing on an alien world, some things reminded him of views he had seen before.

 

Charlie You're standing on the moon and when you let that thoughts sink in and its beautiful desert environment, it's one of the most beautiful spots I had ever seen, I thought. And I love the desert. And so the moon was just a big desert, gray instead of brown, like down here on earth.

Hightower Other things were like nothing he had seen before.

 
Charlie I still remember, though, looking out at the horizon and seeing that sharp contrast between the blackness of space. Probably one of the most amazing things about the lunar sky is the black, and yet it has a vividness to it. You felt like you could reach out and touch it.
 

Hightower Even though the moon rotates around the earth, the same side always faces it. That’s why we never see the backside of the Moon. What that also means is that from the lunar surface the Earth is always floating in the same place. Charlie and John had landed near the equator of the Moon and so the Earth was always directly overhead. Because of the way their spacesuits were designed, that made it hard to actually see their home planet.

 

Charlie So in an Apollo suit, it's like being in a fishbowl. You can move your head inside the helmet but the helmet doesn't move. So you look up and you're looking at the opaque top of your helmet. And since the earth was right overhead, we didn't see it often.

 

The only time I really saw it was when I fell over backwards towards the end of our stay and flat on my back on the moon, and there is the earth right out in front of me.

 

Hightower Charlie and John made a total of three moonwalks during their three days on the moon. Before he climbed back into the Lunar Module for the last time he left a photo behind on its surface. It was a photo that showed a very Earthly view – a view of his family.

 

Charlie I wanted to include our family in this adventure. And my boys were - Charles had just turned seven and Tom was gonna’ be five a couple of weeks after we lifted off. And so to get them feeling like they're a part of this adventure, I asked them if they'd like to go the moon with Dad. And they said, "Yeah." I said, "We'll take a picture and I'll take you all to the moon in this photograph." And I just thought that would be a good way to honor my family and to include them in this adventure.

 

On the back of the photo, I think we'd written, "This is the family of Astronaut Charlie Duke from planet earth who landed on the moon in April, 1972." And so we all signed it. And still there after 44 years, all shriveled up and faded now, of course…

 

Hightower Soon enough it was time to leave. They closed the hatch and then launched the top portion of the Lunar Module back up to meet the third member of their crew. After they docked and transferred all their samples it was time to jettison the Lunar Module. You see, their home on the Moon wouldn’t be traveling back to Earth with them. It weighed too much. Space travel is all about mass – the more of it a spacecraft has the more fuel it needs to go to the moon or to get back home. And so as was the case with other missions to the moon, their Lunar Module would be jettisoned and intentionally crashed back into the moon as part of a seismic experiment.

 

We think of the Apollo Moon landings as this amazing technological achievement. And it was, of course. But the technology it made use of is now a half-century old.

 

One of the reasons Ken Mattingly - the third crewmember, had to stay in orbit around the moon while his two crewmates landed on it was that computer automation wasn’t all that sophisticated back then. They still needed a human to stay onboard and maintain their ride back to Earth.

 

When he was orbiting the moon by himself Mattingly took a series of high-resolution photographs of the lunar surface using a special camera mounted outside his spacecraft. This being 1972, these photographs used film and so on the way back – somewhere in between the Earth and the Moon – Ken had to go on a spacewalk to physically retrieve the film.

 

While Ken was outside doing this Charlie stood in the open hatch to assist his crewmate. To be perfectly honest he didn’t have that much to do so he had a chance to take in the view.

 

Charlie There's the earth and it's about 180,000 miles away and it's just a little thin crescent of blue and white. And I said, "Wow. I wonder where the moon is." And I just spun around this way and the moon was up in my left, 180 degrees away up in my upper left. And it was enormous, almost full moon, and it was just huge, and it was 50,000 miles away. And you could see the major tranquility. You could see that the Descartes Highlands and all of the front side of the moon. It was a spectacular sight. And everywhere else you look was black.

 

Hightower The crew of Apollo 16 returned safely to the Earth on April 27th, 1972. At 36, Charlie Duke was the youngest man to have walked on the moon. Once he got back home he still had lots of life left to live.

 

One of the things Charlie became known for after his return to Earth was his strong Christian faith. Many people assume this faith was with him during his trip to the Moon but it actually developed many years later in response to the same sort of challenges all of us face here on Earth.

 

That said, his unique experience – the unique view he had been given of the Earth, the Moon and everything in between – gave certain passages of the Bible special meaning for him.

 

Charlie In Isaiah, it says that, "God sits in throne above the circle of the earth." I didn't see God, but I saw the circle of the earth. And so the scripture speaks the truth about the character of the earth and that immensity of the creation, "The Heavens declare the glory of God. The skies proclaim the works of His hands." And on the dark side of the earth and on the dark side of the moon, you can see the wonder of God's creation with all the planets and the galaxies and the stars.

 

Hightower Both Reid Wiseman and Charlie Duke experienced things that most of us never will. They both left behind the world they knew to live for a time in a very foreign place. They returned home with a different understanding of and appreciation for that home.

 

Travel serves many purposes. It exposes us to new and different ways of living and in doing so it helps us understand the place we left behind. This is true if we spend 11 days traveling to the moon and back or if we go to the beach for a long weekend.

 

Architecture, too, serves many purposes. It provides shelter to protect us form what’s outside. It provides us with a place to call home. But perhaps most importantly, architecture creates a frame from which we can see what is outside of us. The best architecture provides us with a view.

 

And that view can change everything.

 

Thanks today Blake Dumesnil (DOO-MEH-SNIL) and Nicole Cloutier (CLUE-TEE-AY) of NASA who helped set up my interview with Reid Wiseman. Thanks also to Charlie Duke for putting up with all my pleading emails and letters that finally culminated in the conversation we listened to today. Charlie and his wife Dotty wrote a book about their experiences. It’s called Moonwalker and I’ll put a link to it and Charlie’s website in the show notes.

 

The music today was by Chris Zabriskie. The Works, as always, is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at Hi dot Works.

 

This is the last episode of what may be the last season of the podcast. I’ve enjoyed sharing these stories with you and I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to them. There are certainly other stories I want to tell but there are also other ways of telling them.

 

And so until next time, whenever and wherever that might be, I’m Brantley Hightower.