How A Meteorologist Saved Neil Armstrong’s Life

Earth, courtesy of NASA

So many amazing stories in the world. Here’s a beaut from astrophysicist Katie Mack (aka @AstroKatie on Twitter):

As a meteorologist, my grandfather’s job for Apollo 11 was to check for weather problems around the capsule’s splashdown site at the conclusion of the return trip. When the time came, he consulted all the data NASA had available and it looked okay. But he wanted to be sure. His previous assignment, in the Navy, had given him access to data from secret spy satellites, a product of the Cold War, and a project no one at NASA had clearance to know about. With just 72 hours to splashdown, he went to a nearby read-out station.

As soon as my grandfather arrived, Air Force Major Hank Brandli dragged him into his office and told him he’d seen “screaming eagle” thunderclouds forming in the satellite images. Brandli knew about NASA’s intended splashdown site, but was forbidden to let on that the satellites existed, much less share any information with other agencies. And now my grandfather was in the same position. The capsule had to be rerouted or Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins would die, but no one could be told the reason for the change.

It was then up to my grandfather, alone, to convince NASA that there was a storm building at the splashdown site, without providing any proof or corroborating data.

I also love this story because this bit about how gonzo the whole operation was reminds me of my own dad’s story about how Michael Debakey made the first really successful aortic stent out of women’s underwear:

The more I learn about the Apollo program, the more I appreciate how much of it was a seat-of-the-pants effort, built on untested technology, driven by human ingenuity and tinged with more than a little hubris. As Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell said, “We just decided to go.” The Moon landings weren’t miraculous, or fated. They weren’t convenient. They were incredibly dangerous and by no means guaranteed to end in success. But we did it.

Katie Mack’s splendid post about her grandpa and the beauty of crazy-ass gonzo science: Losing Neil Armstrong

See also:

They Blew Up A Building Where DeBakey Made Surgical History and I Was Almost Born

Restless Genes (at National Geographic) How genes, culture, and time made us explorers.

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