Sunday, July 30, 2023

Monster Movies: Bird Box

 Monster movie day.  I just watched Bird Box. The critics were mixed, but I thought it very well done. The writing and acting were very good, and the direction and photography were outstanding. There were illustrations done for the possible creature appearances, and they were interesting: having different types of faces was a good touch.  But it did work better to keep them hidden. One scene I particularly liked was when Greg decided to risk his life to find out whether it was safe to view the creatures through cameras. (Three guesses how that went.)

The only thing that would have made it scarier is if the attack by a crazy human on the river was done entirely from Malorie's POV, seeing nothing but the shapes through the blindfold. But that's a quibble. I give this one four Godzillas out of five. 

 Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at Website:

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Resizing Dunkleosteus: Russell Engelman’s view

 New Dunk article


Resizing the Dunk: Russell Engelman’s view

Photo: me and Dunk specimen CMNH 5936, important in Engelman's paper, at Denver Museum of Nature and Science.


Russell Engelman’s paper revising the body proportions of Dunkleosteus terrelli, and thus its relatives in the gang called the arthrodires, made major waves in palaeoichthyology.  We’re used to seeing Dunkleosteus length estimates anywhere from 6 to 10 meters, 6-8 being most common. For comparison, the largest proven Great White shark (GWS) is slightly under 7 m. (Since someone will ask, I’m citing Ellis and McCosker.)

The paper involved is "A Devonian Fish Tale: A New Method of Body Length Estimation Suggests Much Smaller Sizes for Dunkleosteus terrelli" in the journal Diversity. 

It built on Engelman’s earlier paper, Giant, swimming mouths: oral dimensions of extant sharks do not accurately predict body size in Dunkleosteus terrelli (Placodermi: Arthrodira) [PeerJ] ) That one, critiquing a method of estimating Dunk size, was much less of a bombshell and sailed through peer review without major objections, See the “Review” section on the paper link just mentioned.   

Now to swipe a bit from the abstract of “A Devonian Fish Tale,” (footnotes removed, see original). For those of us outside scientific academia, it’s a long abstract with a lot of technical terminology. Some key sentences:

Dunkleosteus terrelli is a large arthrodire [placoderm] best known from the latest Devonian (late Famennian) Cleveland Shale of Ohio, USA…Arthrodires combine an ossified head and thoracic armor with a mostly cartilaginous post-thoracic skeleton (which includes the caudal region and major fins). Thus, the head and thoracic armor of arthrodires are frequently preserved in the fossil record but the rest of the body is typically lost during fossilization.

Post-thoracic remains are only known for a handful of arthrodire taxa. The best known of these is Coccosteus cuspidatus,… but estimating the size of Dunkleosteus using smaller arthrodires requires a significant degree of extrapolation. [Coccsosteus is barely 40 cm long.] The most recent attempt to estimate the size of Dunkleosteus [used] a proxy known to reliably predict size in large sharks (upper jaw perimeter) [but] these estimates …fail to control for anatomical differences between arthrodires and elasmobranchs (specifically, arthrodires having much larger mouths relative to body size).

Thus, it is clear a new method is needed to estimate size in Dunkleosteus and other arthrodires. Specifically, this method must accurately estimate length across fishes in general (e.g., lampreys, chondrichthyans, and bony fishes), be measurable in arthrodire fossils, and provide accurate length estimates for arthrodires known from complete remains. One such potential proxy is orbit-opercular length (hereafter OOL). This is the length from the anterior margin of the orbit to the posterior margin of the head. There are several biological reasons to believe OOL and total length would be highly correlated in fishes. …Here, I estimate body size (total length) and body mass (weight) in Dunkleosteus using a broad sample of extant fishes as well as arthrodires for which complete remains are known…

There are currently no individuals in the hypodigm of D. terrelli that could potentially pertain to an individual 4.7 m or greater in length, as would be necessary to produce the monstrous sizes reported for this species in previous studies. Indeed, larger (=likely adult) individuals of Dunkleosteus tend to be closer in size to CMNH 5768 than CMNH 5936. Therefore, although the maximal length of D. terrelli is likely ~4.1 m, 3.4 m is a more typical adult size for this species. (Those are specimen numbers for skull/armor fossils in Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which is basically Dunk Central.)

Naturally, this created quite a maelstrom. I contacted several experts, including Engelman. Russell was very generous with his time and answered all my questions in a series of emails in July 2023.  

This article covers that Q&A, condensed for space and to avoid repetition. This isn’t a point-by-point of clashing viewpoints. I haven’t read enough responses from other experts yet, and some are in journals I can’t access.  So this is based on an avocational Dunk lover’s questions.   

I began this very skeptical of the assertion that a specimen estimated to be 8.9 meters long was more likely 4.1 m, even if the weight didn’t shrink as much.  Engelman’s Dunk, rather resembling a tuna on steroids, didn’t look “right,” but more specifically it didn’t strike me as well-balanced or controllable enough.  It still doesn’t look right, but it’s not like the oarfish and the mola-mola look right, so I was willing to listen and ask questions.

Engelman’s silhouette Dunk image (copyright Russell Engelman)


First, some self-correction. In my writing to date, I’ve assumed the armor mass on a big Dunk added a hundred kilograms or more to the weight.  Engelman pointed me to a figure I’d never read – 30 kg. Even if that’s too conservative, it’s enough to make me revise my assumptions about what mass and length of post-armor body is needed to balance that body and how long a moment arm is needed for the tail to impart the necessary speed. I think his work also puts the final nail in the coffin of the old eel-like tail configuration. I doubted this for a long time, based on the tail surface area for the kind of push a Dunk would need. This was proven in a 2017 paper and is reinforced by Engelman’s animal, however much the latter may look like it chased a roadrunner fish into a painted tunnel on a reef. 

On to Mr. Engelman’s thinking.

MB: The paper says, “The model must accurately estimate body size in fishes regardless of phylogeny.” Why? Why should it not be specialized for something as strange as Dunkleosteus?


That is exactly the point. Because Dunkleosteus doesn't have any close living relatives, estimating its size requires a variable that near-universally correlates with body size among both living fishes (bony fishes and sharks) as well as extinct placoderms. Using only placoderms creates problems because all known species of complete arthrodires are only about 15-95 cm long, which is much smaller than even the smallest estimates for Dunkleosteus. Using placoderms only requires significant extrapolation of the data, and the further data is extrapolated beyond the range of values spanned by the dataset used to create it, the less accurate the result is.

Thus, in order to accurately estimate the length of Dunkleosteus, you need a single line that accurately predicts length in both living fishes as well as the few placoderms for which we have complete remains. If it worked on sharks + bony fish but didn't work on arthrodires, it was unlikely to work on Dunkleosteus. However, as mentioned in the paper, complete arthrodires like Millerosteus, Coccosteus, Watsonosteus, and Amazichthys all fall along the same regression line as other fishes.

The original point of the analysis was basically "statistically carpet bombing." It was very, very unlikely that Dunkleosteus would show head-body proportions outside the extreme diversity seen in extant fishes, especially when you have things like opah at one extreme and oarfish at the other. My original goal was to use this as a reality check to just rule out the most extreme estimates and give a more reasonable range of possible sizes. I had no idea beforehand head-body proportions correlated that strongly in fishes or that by themself they would be useful for approximating size.

This is also why I checked the method by scaling off of various armor plates or other measurements of Dunkleosteus. I got similar results no matter what I did. Indeed, if I run the same analysis using only arthrodires, I get lengths of only 3 m for CMNH 5768 (this is one reason why extrapolation can be an issue). Dunkleosteus just has an abnormally deep body compared to other arthrodires, and this is very evident if you scale their armors to the same size (Figure 11 in my Diversity paper).

MB: I’d always assumed the head looked like it was logically sized on a reconstruction like the full-size model at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History [the large model at CMNH] which appears a little shorter than the closest living cartilaginous comparison, the Great White shark. 

CMNH Dunk: see link for credit, license)


Because that model is only about 4 m (~13 feet) long. That model is relatively accurate for the time and place; it didn't take into account some details of arthrodire comparative anatomy. Specifically, the pelvic fins are located too far back, they need to be moved up slightly until they are near the end of the ventral armor. This, in turn, would result in a shorter caudal peduncle (i.e., distance to base of tail fin), because in basal fishes (including arthrodires) the pelvic fins are located about halfway along the total length of the body and are just behind the center of mass. These were things that weren't well known at the time that model was created… [The body anatomy in] my paper was helped a lot by the publications of Amazichthys by Jobbins et al. (2022) and Trinajstic et al. (2022)'s report of preserved arthrodire organs.

This is one of the big take home messages from the paper(s). Arthrodires are not sharks. They may show some broad-scale similarities to sharks, but arthrodires are a distinct group of animals and in fact seem to have evolved active swimming habits separately from either sharks or bony fishes. Thus, it probably should have been expected that arthrodires would differ in body shape and comparative anatomy from either sharks or bony fishes, because they are independently coming up with solutions to the same evolutionary problems. And this is kind of what we see: in some respects arthrodires are similar to sharks, in others they are more similar to bony fishes, and in some cases arthrodires seem to be doing something unlike almost any living fish. It's not possible to simply slap shark anatomy onto an arthrodire and call it a day, because arthrodire and shark body plans are very different.

MB: Asked follow-up questions about Dunk anatomy and the CMNH model, as it’s one of the most widespread popular images of the Dunk and inspired many others.


That model is about the longest Dunkleosteus could plausibly be based on the head length data; the head/trunk armor is about the size of CMNH 5768 but the model has a head-body proportion more similar to Amazichthys (so ~10-20% longer than predicted by head dimensions). However, in arthrodires, the pelvic girdle is always closely associated with the end of the ventral armor. In that model there is a significant gap of 1 to 2 feet, Amazichthys gets away with this because it has a very long ventral armor which allows the position of the pelvic fins to remain consistent despite the longer body. Dunkleosteus does not, and in fact has a very deep torso relative to the dimensions of its armor.

With the description of preserved organs from the Gogo arthrodires, it has become very apparent that the ventral armor of placoderms is sort of like the ribcage in tetrapods in that it protects the organ cavity. The ventral armor then ends very close to the pelvic girdle and anus. Specifically, think of something like a crocodile, where the rib cage/gastralia extend all the way to the vent of the animal. Both the anus and the pelvic fins have a very consistent location in arthrodires, sharks, and basal bony fishes in terms of their relative length from the tip of the snout in the animal measured from the snout (~45-55% total length). This would mean in order to keep the proportions more consistent with what we see in other arthrodires, the body in that model needs to be shortened a bit such that the pelvic fins are closer to the ventral armor. I would estimate the model is somewhere between½ to ¾ of a head too long.

The other thing is that the model …was more or less deliberately designed to look like a shark. The back half has proportions very similar to a carcharhinid or a lamnid, but because the torso of Dunkleosteus is so deep in order to maintain a shark-like shape the posterior body has to be scaled up to be a bit longer in order to maintain the same length-width ratio, rather than allowing the body to be deeper similar to a lamnid or a thunnin. Thus, because the reconstruction has a stereotypically shark-y shape, it looks intuitively “right” and visually appealing to us, even though once you get familiar with arthrodire body plans the shape looks a bit off…. keep in mind this "shark-like" depiction was not super popular at the time and well into the early 2000s most people still depicted Dunkleosteus as a copy-paste of Coccosteus.

MB: I’ve always thought people relied too much on Coccosteus.  I don’t know hydrodynamics. I do know something about aerodynamics, and you can’t blow up a small business jet and get a working airliner.


[A] big take home point from the study. We can no longer simply assume that all arthrodires had the same body shape where every taxon is a copy-paste of Coccosteus. Arthrodires spanned nearly sixty million years of geologic time and it stands to reason they would be at least as diverse in body shape as modern sharks. Even just comparing one to the other Dunkleosteus clearly has a much deeper trunk armor than Coccosteus, and it seems to be deeper in height rather than reduced in length.

Even Coccosteus doesn't really look like Coccosteus. More complete specimens have turned up since the publication of Miles and Westoll (1968) and they suggest that the reconstruction in Miles and Westoll might be a little too long in the post-thoracic and tail regions than what is seen in actual complete specimens.

MB: Is measuring the OOL, the head to the back edge of the operculum, always an incorrect practice if it does not line up with the gill chamber?


OOL is literally just "head length minus snout length." Head length has a very consistent definition in ichthyology, measured from the snout to the end of the braincase or gill chamber, whichever is more posterior. The posterior regions of the head (braincase and gill chamber) have some pretty severe restrictions on how big they can be relative to the body, which means they should have a relatively good correlation with body size. By contrast, the snout can vary a bit more based on ecological habits (think the long snout of a trumpetfish). The other issue is placoderms have systematically shorter snouts than other fishes. Thus, using total head length results in systematic underestimates of placoderm body length, whereas OOL produces values closer to the actual specimens.

Additionally, I hadn't been aware of this at the time of my publication but Carr et al. (2009) did some work that suggested the heads of arthrodires aren't constructed that differently from other fishes. Specifically, the anteroposterior locations of the vagus and glossopharyngeal nerves are the same between placoderms and other fishes, but in placoderms the cranial skeleton has expanded backwards such that the gill chamber is covered by the cranium and cheek plates from the top and sides. Thus, all the major organs are located in the same place between arthrodires and other fishes, it's just that the external covering has been rearranged, and placoderms show pretty much the same pattern as other fishes.

This is part of the reason I tested with several genera of coccosteomorphs and Amazichthys. If the method worked on all of these taxa, then the chances it would produce inaccurate lengths in Dunkleosteus are low. And that's pretty much what happened; the method based on extant fishes predicted length in these other taxa relatively accurately, and the error suggested arthrodires showed similar patterns of variation to living fishes.

The operculum not lining up with the gill chamber is an issue restricted to groupers and a few other fish, and that's mostly because they have a huge skin flap that extends its margins. Counting that would be like measuring the skull of a basset hound including the ears. It's not really an issue with placoderms.

MB: asked about some of the more interesting models on the market.

1.       The dual model on Etsy from HellbenderMuseum with a Dunk in both body plans. (No review by me yet: )


I think what the seller is calling the "conservative" model is probably more accurate. The smaller model seems to have a head-body ratio of 1:4.5, whereas the conservative one has a head-body ratio of 1:5.5, which are the proportions I had gotten with my model.  

2.       The PNSO model, which I praised highly except for dorsal fin placement, and the Paleozoo model, my all-time favorite. Matt's Sci/Tech Blog: Dunkleosteus Model: Gorgeous New One from PNSO (   Matt's Sci/Tech Blog: Review: A wonderful Dunkleosteus model from Paleozoo (


I think what's going on is that people are trying to fit the known dimensions of the Dunk specimens with previously cited lengths of 5-6 or more meters. The problem is if you try to fit the known dimensions of Dunkleosteus specimens to previously cited lengths you get this extremely elongated, eel-like animal, which looks very strange and doesn't have anatomical data to support the unusual body shape.

I actually noticed several laypeople had noticed something was odd with Dunkleosteus' proportions when I was reviewing previous size estimates of Dunkleosteus because they also produced these extremely eel-y reconstructions. However, all of them just kind of assumed their estimation had to be wrong because 5-6 m was the typically cited length for Dunkleosteus, or that the larger length estimates must have been based on some giant, unpublished specimens in the bowels of the CMNH that served as the basis for those suggested lengths of 8-10 m.

MB: asked about two interesting models, from PNSO and Paleozoo. The latter is my favorite for accuracy, but I praised PNSO highly except for placing the dorsal fin too far back.(PNSO credit Matt Bille, Paelozoo by the manufacturer)



The PNSO [model] likely used the length estimates from Ferron et al. for CMNH 5768 and used that to determine proportions. PNSO is usually pretty rigorous about anatomical inferences when they make models and Ferron et al. 2017 has been the only paper directly concerning Dunkleosteus' appearance since 1932. [Edit: he added, "There's one more, Carr et al., 2010."]

[MB: The Ferron paper is here: I have not seen these authors’ response to Engelman’s critique of their methods in his “Swimming Mouths” paper [] but following the branches of critiqued and cited papers knowledgably requires a very long article by a true expert; as for me, “Man’s got to know his limitations.” ]

MB: I wondered about placement of the dorsal in your graphic: I understand unpublished Moroccan fossils show the dorsal fin starts right behind the dorsal armor.


Define “right behind.” The dorsal fin in my reconstruction is as close to the trunk armor as physically possible, it just looks like it is further posterior than it actually is due to the shorter body. The dorsal fin in Dunkleosteus is limited in how far forward it can be placed by the huge carinal process sticking out of the back of the mediodorsal. If the fin is too far forward the basal (which are also a midline structure) conflict for space with the big, bony spike and associated submedian dorsal plate extending out of the trunk.

Also note that the dorsal fin position in my reconstruction is considerably further forward than it is in specimens of Coccosteus, Incisoscutum, etc. In most of the coccosteomorph arthrodires the dorsal fin begins behind the pelvis, whereas in this reconstruction of Dunkleosteus it begins before the pelvis, more similar to the aspinothoracidans we have dorsal fins for. So in a sense it is further forward than in other arthrodires.

MB: I sent him my article “Dunkleosteus: First King of the Oceans,” Prehistoric Times #126, Summer 2018.


There are a few things you might be interested in given the material in the Prehistoric Times article.

Article: There is an exceptional Dunk specimen in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History estimated to have been 8.9m long in life, making it the size of a large male orca.


That's CMNH 5936. That's the same specimen I re-evaluated in the length(s) papers and came up with an estimate of about 4.1 m. Depending on the error bars, something as high as 4.5ish meters might be possible.

Article: There is some dispute about the similar-sized Titanichthys being a filter feeder.


From what I am aware of, there is no dispute over the dietary habits of Titanichthys. Dunkle and Bungart (1942) suggested it could have eaten benthic invertebrates, but then Dunkle and Bungart (1942) also suggested it had a prehensile lip like an elephant (which no one seriously considers anymore). More specifically, it has been suggested on and off that Titanichthys was a filter-feeder since its discovery, but no one had actually tested this hypothesis until Coatham et al. (2020) ran finite element analyses on the lower jaw and found it was more similar to megaplanktonivores like basking sharks than predatory species. Exactly how Titanichthys fed is still a mystery, since there are multiple types of feeding strategies for megaplanktonivores.

Article: Dunkleosteus was larger than any of the extant sharks. Russell agreed but added interesting stuff.


There are some really frigging big sharks known from the later Paleozoic. Edestus probably got around 6-7 m in length (and this seems fairly reliable). Helicoprion and some Helicoprion-adjacent taxa have been suggested to reach lengths of 12 m, but then again these taxa were basically Paleozoic sperm whales. Some of the ctenacanths got fairly large, but exactly how large isn't clear. All of this kind of relates to a broader issue in that there are a lot of "Paleozoic fish stories," where fragmentary remains get extrapolated to colossal sizes and it's really hard to double-check them simply because there are so few complete specimens it is hard to tell what the actual proportions were. This is especially the case when claims of giant sizes are based on 50–100-year-old estimates on specimens (i.e., back when paleontology was less quantitative and people liked to exaggerate) that are now missing or lost and have never been revisited based on new data.

Article: Described Dunk as strictly marine.


There are some passing reports of dunkleosteids (probably not Dunkleosteus) from estuarine/freshwater sediments in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Some are clearly estuarine but I think at least one is in freshwater sediments. It's not entirely clear what the osmotic regulation of arthrodires was, but it's possible they cared a lot less about salinity than modern sharks do (more like bony fish) as we know Coccosteus was apparently able to colonize the Achanarras lakes from the ocean. The idea of "what is salt water in the Devonian, really" is actually very controversial for a number of reasons. Chondrichthyans are very picky with their salinity, they tend to stick with either freshwater (xenacanths, freshwater rays, freshwater hybodonts) or saltwater (everything else) and never leave due to their wacky biochemistry (i.e., changes in osmotic tolerance seem to be hard to evolve and difficult to reverse). Again, sharks are weird and it's not entirely clear if their physiology should be taken as standard for placoderms, especially given sharks do some wacky stuff with their biochemistry that circumstantial fossil evidence suggests arthrodires may not have. 

My comments:

Engelman has reopened, in a big way, the discussion of how large a very prominent species is and what it looked like. He got his entire community talking, (That’s a huge feat for any grad student: Colleen Canavaugh’s realization of the symbiosis in giant tube worms comes to mind.) I agree we should consider the Dunk as usually pictured is too long, but how much too long? I don’t think that’s certain yet.

The easiest way to explain my current thinking is to look once again at the models. The PNSO model, which I praised highly, is still the most lifelike model but now looks to me like it may have an extra meter of Dunk in there. I think the Paleozoo dunk, which places the dorsal fin further forward and doesn’t extend the body as much, is the most authentic Dunk model out there (even better than the CollectA model, which has the dorsal and tail off but is the best-looking, or the Mojo), and I still think so after talking to Engelman. I think there is still a bit of wiggle room, despite the way so many fish fit close to Engelman’s line, because we don’t have enough material from big arthodires, and other experts are having their say on the OOL measurement. But I could be wrong. Following further scientific debate here is going to be fascinating.

Interested in zoology? Read Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library.! 

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Sunday, July 23, 2023

Book Review: A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters 

by Dr. Henry Gee

‎St. Martin's Press 2021, 278 pp.

 This book is what an Englishman like Dr. Henry Gee would describe as “exactly what it says on the tin.”  It ss the most readable, yet authoritative, short history of the earth and its life going back over the last 4.6 billion years that I've ever some across. It is, as the cover says, pithy. You would expect an editor of NATURE to be technically accurate, and of course he is. His language here is only as formal as it needs to be. At times he is poetic, colloquial, humorous, and even silly. But it all works together very well in a book a middle schooler could read but which will fascinate an adult. 

Gee goes through, not only the development of the individual species or group or family, but the evolutionary inventions that made it possible for life to grow and flourish under even terrible conditions. For example, you will come to understand how the backbone was created. You will understand how the amniotic egg came into being and how revolutionary that was. You will learn the true thing that separated modern men, besides their brains, from their contemporaries, is that they could run. Gee goes through the major eras, extinction events, and continental drifts showing the drastic effects they had on plant and animal life. And he does it all in 200 pages of text plus an Epilogue. 

Did you know the mammals produced over 25 groups (his word) during the age of the dinosaurs, only four of which have survived? Did you know that human beings almost vanished 200,000 years ago—and easily could have? Did you know the dinosaurs were only one of several lineages fighting for the top spot on Earth in the Triassic era, and not the most impressive one by any means? You'll learn that there was an astonishing riot of fascinating and weird species during certain periods that stand out, like the early Triassic and most of the Age of Mammals? This book is your secret key to a one-shot one reading adventure exploring the basics of how life began, grew, evolved, and will eventually die. 

Its only fault is its lack of illustration, which I final very puzzling: it would be easy to add line drawings of the more important features and the animals which developed them. I had to stop and look up the appearance of some creatures.  

If I could, I would send a million of these out to schools all over America. Doctor Gee has made a wonderful contribution to popular knowledge of science. And it's fun.

Matt Bille is the author of four books and history and science and two novels. His latest, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library, skeptically but fairly reviews 400 books in cryptozoology, supporting sciences like mammalogy and evolution, and notable fiction. Visit his website at or say hello to MattWriter on Twitter.  

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Apollo: The Week We Became Spacefarers

Space History Tuesday (ShoT)

Apollo Week

This is the unforgettable week in space history.

54 years ago, I watched out the window of a small plane while, perhaps 12-15 miles away, a giant Saturn 5 ignited with a flame that captured the attention of the world. The plane was a rented Piper, flown by my dad who worked at the plant in Vero Beach. In the coolest thing in the history of dads, he flew my brother and I up to a vantage point outside the 10-mile radius of the exclusion zone (I’m sure today it’s several times bigger). I still remember the orange-red flame, brilliantly intense even from that distance, as it lifted the rocket from the pad. You could tune the old Automatic Direction Finder (ADF)) then used in Pipers to get some AM commercial stations, and I remember the radio voice saying, “And Apollo 11 is off for the Moon!” Four days later, I tried to stay awake while the first steps were televised from the Moon. I still can’t remember if I actually saw them or dozed off for that moment.

In the ensuing days, we watched as grainy black and white images, interspersed with network TV simulations, followed the progress of Armstrong and Aldrin. Moments I recall specifically included Buzz saluting the flag and an astronaut’s feet lifting from the surface as he forced a hand-powered drill down to get samples of the regolith. And then they were home.

We expected the program to keep going and do greater and greater things. It did, to a point. We were on the beach south of the Cape when Apollo 17 split the night sky in a display seen in the Carolinas. Then Skylab. Then…

Everything faded. I remember an article in Weekly Reader about 1970 with a couple of skeptics saying we didn’t go, but the topic was laughed off. But people wrote articles and even books pounding on this ridiculous theme, and of course used the internet as soon as it was invented to claim there had never been a lunar mission. I pointed out to one denier that, “I was there. I watched them leave.” His reply: “But you didn’t see them land.” Me: “I wanted to, but NASA wouldn’t take nine-year old astronauts…” My daughter brought home a high school text about ten years ago that gave one sentence for “an expensive race to Moon” without a single detail or name. Unbelievably, one of the authors was Paul Dickson, who wrote a popular book on Sputnik. I sent him a “what the hell” email but never heard back.

The flurry of remembrance events in 2019 brought a hint of the glory back and gave some impetus to Artemis, NASA’s third attempt at a program to return to the Moon. It looks like Artemis is going to make it, albeit much later and costlier than originally projected. I wish NASA every success. It’s about time we went back.

Favorite Apollo Books:

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, by Michael Collins

Shoot for the Moon, by James Donovan

First Man, by James R. Hansen 

A Man on the Moon, by Andrew Chaikin

NASA's main site

Follow the mission: Apollo in Real Time

Monday, July 03, 2023

Book Review: Making Space for Women

Making Space for Women: Stories from Trailblazing Women atNASA’s Johnson Space Center

Jennifer M. Ross-Nazzal, Editor

Texas A&M, 2022

The author of this unique book chose 21 women to tell their stories of working at Johnson Space Center, aka JSC. She set out to include an assorted group with diverse backgrounds, education, training, and life experiences, and she chose well.

This is one of the longest book reviews I've ever written, because it's all about these amazing women's autobiographical essays, and it was vital to touch on them all. 

These women joined NASA through various avenues and worked in a wide variety of jobs, some as early as the pre-NASA days at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA). The author writes that women were long excluded from many jobs in a heavily male organization (except of course for the secretaries, who also have stories to tell here). At the end of the Apollo era, women made up about 18 percent of NASA’s workforce. The government-wide average was 34 percent. Change began in the early 1970s thanks to both official programs and the efforts of individual leaders and managers.

The most visible change, of course, came in 1976 when the newest group of astronauts included the first women. Sally Ride, who became the first American woman in space in 1983, commented that the addition of six women astros immediately doubled JSC’s population of women in technical roles. Most of the astronauts don't report direct sexism or discrimination, but they and the women in pioneering roles like flight controller all felt that the spotlight was on them. They tried to be examples for other women who might want to get into NASA and examples to the male leadership of what women could do. One such woman remarks here their performance had to be mistake-free, which of course was not always possible.

The author starts with the stories told by the women who were always instrumental in the agency’s operations:  secretaries and administrative support people. By doing a book with such a broad selection of people, including everyone from these women to astronauts and top managers, the author does two things. The first is that she introduces us to these remarkable women, their experiences, and their achievements. The second is that it shows us an inside view of the agency and its programs, including the sorts of things that never make it into media focused mostly on astronauts.

Ross-Nazzal begins with Estella Hernandez Gillette, who became a NASA secretary in 1964. She increasingly took on more interesting tasks, like supporting the astronaut selection process in the early 1970s. She estimates they had 500 qualified applicants to work through, and the secretarial staff’s taskings were very strenuous. When the Challenger accident happened in 1986, she moved to helping the casualty assistance program. She stayed in flight-related positions until after the Return to Flight mission, Space Shuttle STS-26.

As the author works through the other 20 women involved here, she edits with a light touch, I suspect doing only enough to keep the reminiscences at a similar reading level.  This works very well. The reader learns, not only about the NASA organization and the individual jobs, but even some technical material explained here in very clear terms. I've been a reader on the space program for over 50 years and still learned new facts about interesting things like the challenges involved in getting a clean separation of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) from the shuttle. They also discuss unique assignments. Secretary Jamye Flowers Coplin found herself with the unusual task of trading in the astronauts’ Corvettes. Since they were provided by a dealer in Florida, she would drive an old Corvette to Houston and drive a new one back.

Ross-Nazzal offers examples of mathematicians and engineers, including mathematicians who joined as “computers.” Dottie Lee, who has become famous, became a computer a decade before NASA was created in 1958. As her technical expertise improved, she worked in the Apollo program and then was brought into the infant Shuttle project. She was part of the first group that saw Max Faget’s first tiny model of a straight-wing spaceplane. She joined the Shuttle design group, locked up in a windowless building for weeks. Some of the challenges Lee worked on in addition to the SRBs included the laminar flow over the Orbiter and the optimal balance of carbon-carbon and tiles in the shielding. “Dilbert” once said the life goal of every engineer was to retire without being blamed for a major catastrophe, and Lee says one of her first thoughts when Challenger was lost in 1986 was to hope her work was not to blame. It wasn’t, and she stayed with the agency a total of 40 years. Ivy F. Hooks worked on cost modeling and then aerodynamics, where she also worked on the first Space Shuttle designs. Her specialty became the separation system. Of one design she bluntly told her colleagues and boss, “You’re going to destroy the orbiter with that" by burning off the tiles with exhaust plumes. Changes were made.

Ginger Kerrick was the first non-astronaut to be a capsule communicator (CapCom), and then, in 2005, the first to become a Flight Director. With a lot of experience with Russians and their hardware, she saw before anyone else that an unretracted antenna on a Progress vehicle was going to impact and maybe damage the ISS. The Russians ignored her, and it took two EVAs to undo the tangle between the antenna and a handrail. Next we met Sarah L. Murray, the first Black woman flight controller, whose highlights included reorganizing Mission Operations and becoming the second head of the Columbia Recovery Office following that shuttle’s destruction on February 1, 2003.

Then to technicians, another forgotten group, with the first two female suit techs. From S. Jean Alexander and Sharon Caples McDougal we learn much about the testing, improvements, and fitting of the various Shuttle items, including tweaking equipment built for men. On the medical side, there is legendary nurse Dee O’Hara, medical support and confidante to astronauts from Mercury to the Shuttle. Vickie L. Kloeris, beginning in 1985, designed and ran the food service operation for spaceflight. It was simple for Shuttle: MREs plus commercial items. For ISS, it was infinitely more complicated, and she scratch-developed recipes for some foods to lower salt (it raises intracranial blood pressure in microgravity) and other needs. She participated in a long-term spaceflight simulation, carried food into Russia for Americans launching from there, and did pioneering work on the psychology of food for people spending a year with only occasional flights of fresh vegetables and favorite treats.

Kathryn Sullivan is a scientific triple-threat – oceanographer, geologist, and astronaut. She was picked in the first group of women, and she offers a humorous account of the first exposure to the media. One of the striking items in her account: she “would have loved” be the first American woman in space but thought it was unlikely because she did not consider herself telegenic. She writes about the way the women bonded as a group but wanted to avoid being separated as “the girl astronauts.”  In 1984, she performed the first spacewalk or Extravehicular Activity (EVA) by an American woman. She flew on STS-31 in 1990 to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope. After the period described in this book, she became Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Engineer Joan Higginbotham was picked in the largest-ever class of astronauts – the 1996 class, with 44 members. She spent time as CapCom when the ISS became operational. She credits that for improving her understanding of mission operations when she started training for STS-117. The Columbia accident postponed her first flight for three years. She describes the tense moments of maneuvering a gigantic truss out of the bay and into position on the ISS. Her career was not marred by racism or sexism, but she does describe some tension between old and new astros.

Eileen Collins is famous as the first woman to pilot a shuttle and the first to command a mission. She came to the program from the Air Force, as one of the pioneering woman pilots. The culture had not yet adjusted: she was told Air Force wives didn’t want her doing cross-country fights with their husbands. She had less trouble with sexism in NASA. She was the first pilot for a Shuttle-Mir mission. She had a less than fun time working with all the media attention, but persevered because she was convinced it was vital to promote the program and American leadership in space. She headed the Return to Flight mission and goes into some detail about the new rendezvous pitch maneuver to allow visual inspection of the Shuttle underbody by ISS astronauts. She closes with the need to admit mistakes and fix them, no matter your role.

Pam Melroy was another military pilot. She discusses management styles and how hers differs from the classic military tough-guy approach. She describes astronauts as competitive, smart, but more varied in leadership style than people might expect. She goes into detail about STS-120 in 2007. This complex multi-EVA station construction mission became harrowing when they needed to plan a complex, potentially dangerous spacewalk for Scott Parazynski to fix a damaged solar array. She closed, “I could not top that flight.”

The author drops the interesting tidbit that most senior managers at JSC are now women, a truly striking change. She introduces us to Debra L. Johnson, who joined at a low level and worked her way up to senior management, which the women termed “getting the key to the men’s room.”  As head of the Office of Procurement, she has interesting stories of how she pushed hard for flexibility beyond the standard “get three bids for everything including paper clips” mentality and made it happen. JSC, she writes, can even barter with other agencies, something exceedingly difficult under federal regulations. She’s very proud of JSC management practices, which she holds up as a model for NASA.

Natalie Saiz performed numerous Human Resources roles until she became Director. Some of her interesting stories include opening up JSC buildings to help the community after Hurricane Ike in September 2008 and dealing with the April 27, 2007, event when a contactor employee killed his supervisor and then himself. She also had to deal with the end of the Shuttle era in 2011 and led the effort to help all the people whose jobs vanished.

Peggy Whitson, who’d logged a record 675 days in space, became the first woman and first civilian to head the Astronaut Office. This is, she writes, an interesting organization in that it has to keep justifying everything from the length of crew training to the T-38 aircraft to its own continuing existence. She handled the emergency in January 2011 when astronaut Mark Kelly’s wife was shot. This included naming a backup commander if Mark could not do the mission, something management talked over a great deal.

Astronaut Ellen Ochoa, a veteran of four Shuttle flights beginning in 1993, was named head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate in 2007. There she pursued one of the most difficult management goals of the program: getting new astronauts flight time while best using the skills of the veteran astronauts on the ground and on flights, and doing it all fairly. The life of an astronaut revolves around flight opportunities, and these men and women (especially men) can get extremely competitive. She was close friends with Rick Husband, who died on Columbia in 2003. She spent long weeks coordinating the help of astronauts and others in the field, supporting the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), and at the same time rebuilding all her plans for budgets and flight crews because of the resulting stand-down. Then she had to replan again when the Shuttle retirement date was announced.

At the top of the management pyramid here is Carolyn L. Huntoon, who became JSC’s first female Center Director in 1994 and stayed until 1996. Dr. Huntoon was also unusual in being a life scientist, not an engineer. Her first step was a long one – reorganization of the entire Center, trying to clarify lines of responsibility and streamline processes. She created the Technology and Transfer Commercialization Office, improved partnerships with industry, and headed the effort to create the Space Biomedical Office and the Sonny Carter Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Her tenure might have been short, but JSC was literally not the same place by the time she left.

There are two essays by trainers, another group largely ignored. Anne L. Accola came in as mission planner in 1967, found her particular slot boring, and did graduate studies in information technology before coming back to be a trainer. She played a key role in preparing astronauts for Skylab. Lisa Reed was the only person in this book I’ve met beyond handshake greetings. She joined in 1987. She developed instructional technology, taught Shuttle and Station astronauts, and became part of the CAIB staff. She became fluent in Russian, and she tells interesting stories of the challenges and fun of working with cosmonauts. (For one thing, they learned English but arrived in Texas without knowing what “Howdy” meant, a critical deficiency.)  

Each of the women makes some mention of sexism. For most of them it was not overt “you can’t do this job” stuff, although that subject was whispered about. There were grumbles about “you’ll just get married or pregnant and leave.” (JSC, which employed thousands, had no childcare center until 1990.) There were improper wisecracks, an office papered with Playboy centerfolds, and assorted pranks. One woman had men hanging around her door because they had put a four-foot snake on the top of her drafting table and were waiting for her to freak out. They were disappointed: she just picked up the snake and handed it back to them.

There's an enormous amount of information here both about personal and professional lives and, as I mentioned above, even good information about the technology that I didn’t read in books written from a purely technical angle. This outstanding work is a major contribution to the history of human spaceflight. 

NOTE: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

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Sunday, July 02, 2023

Good News from the Galapagos

 This is great news for marine biology: a newly discovered, pristine Pacific reef teeming with life.

Of course now someone needs to guard it 24/7.

 Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at Website:

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!