This week’s Geek Trivia includes a special shoutout to
TechRepublic member Tundraroamer,
who pointed the Trivia Geek toward the morsel of minutia that inspired this
edition. Hope you’re keeping warm up in Alaska, pal, and hope this Q&A
meets with your approval.

Last month, NASA unveiled the broad strokes of its plans to
return astronauts to the moon by the year 2018. The plan’s central component is
the as-yet-built and largely undefined Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV)—the
successor to the aging and increasingly unreliable space shuttle.

While NASA hasn’t yet settled on a contractor to construct
the CEV, one thing is clear: The CEV will clearly be a step back to the future.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin described Project
Constellation, the name for the agency’s return-to-the-moon efforts, as
“Apollo on steroids.” By that, Griffin was highlighting the
abandonment of shuttle-style space planes for old-school Apollo-style capsules,
with controlled runway landings exchanged for passive parachute descents.

Moreover, existing rocket technology—some of it from the
shuttle program—would enhance the old Apollo philosophy, allowing bigger,
better capsules to reach low earth orbit and beyond. And so you have it: Apollo
on steroids.

Apollo certainly enjoyed specific logistical advantages over
the space shuttle—not the least of which was placement of the crew vehicle
(capsules) directly atop the launch vehicle (rockets), thereby avoiding the
falling debris problems that doomed the shuttle Columbia.

Insulating foam could never fall from the fuel tanks of a
Saturn V rocket and damage an Apollo capsule because the capsule was above the
rocket. This also made emergency launch pad escapes feasible, as top-mounted
capsules could jettison from their host rockets while still on the launch pad.

That said, Apollo also had its fair share of logistical
hurdles that NASA insists will not plague the new Constellation CEV. While moon
launch fans are giddy over NASA’s promise that the new CEV will allow four
astronauts to journey to the moon rather than Apollo’s three—and that all four
will be able to descend to the lunar surface, rather than leaving behind a
crewman in an orbital command module as with Apollo—many are overlooking
perhaps the most stifling Apollo limitation that Constellation promises to

Apollo capsules could only land on lunar latitudes within
five degrees of the moon’s equator, essentially guaranteeing that many of the
most scientifically appealing landing sites were off-limits.


Why were the original Apollo lunar missions required to use
landing sites within a tight range of latitudes near the moon’s equator,
effectively eliminating many of the most scientifically intriguing areas on the
lunar surface?

Despite NASA’s recently sullied safety record, mission
safety was the single reason why only near-equatorial landing sites were
eligible for Apollo missions. Specifically, only equatorial landing sites could
accommodate a so-called “free-return” trajectory for the Apollo

If the service module’s main engine failed, Apollo could take
advantage of the spacecraft’s inertia and lunar gravity to slingshot around the
moon and still return safely to Earth. The only trajectories that made this
safety-redundant flight path possible were those that placed Apollo craft in
lunar orbit around or near the moon’s equator.

(It’s also worth noting that the landing sites also had specific
longitudinal restrictions—not the least of which was entirely ruling out the
dark side of the moon—so that astronauts could maintain radio contact with
earth. In addition, known geographic and astronomical markers were necessary in
order to fix an exact position for the lunar lander after touchdown.)

Ironically, NASA mildly deviated from this safety rule for
the failed Apollo 13 mission, using a “hybrid” trajectory that
accommodated the mission’s Fra Mauro landing site. The Apollo 13 crew had to
take unusual measures to resume a free-return course after their infamous
equipment failures. Had their course been a full-scale deviation from the
free-return mission rule—rather than a mere hybrid course—it’s quite possible
the crew of Apollo 13 might not have had found its way safely home.

NASA promises that the free-return restriction will not
confine Constellation CEVs. But exactly how and why they will be exempt is
still somewhat uncertain.

Given that the CEV is still a conceptual spacecraft still in
the design phase, one could perhaps safely assume that nonequatorial landing
capabilities will be part of the craft and mission specifications this time
around. However the CEV meets the nonequatorial landing challenge, it’s sure to
make for intrepid discoveries—and fascinating Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

Rather than a quibble, we have a request this week, which
came in response to the September 14 edition of Geek Trivia, “Name of the
TechRepublic member Sauna
took advantage of the opportunity to stroll down memory lane.

“Back in the day, I wasted many a quarter in the local
mall arcade playing my favorite game: Donkey Kong. It’s funny how
technology has improved 100 times over since the early ’80s, yet there is still
nothing like the days of arcades and video games. . . The nostalgia is fun to
remember. What [were] your favorite arcade games of the ’80s?”

TechRepublic members have posted 20 or so arcade candidates
so far. Throw your favorite into the mix in this discussion.

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The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.