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The Lunar Eclipse, Apollo 11, & Apollo 16 April 16, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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On Monday evening, we stayed up a little late to catch the lunar eclipse. We popped outside, watched for a few minutes as it began. We went outside again twenty or thirty minutes later to watch it again. And then again, and so on.

Moon from Earth

Anna looked up the word umbra, which comes from a Latin word that means shadow or to be in the shade. Initially, to take umbrage was merely to go sit under a tree, in the shade and out of the sunshine, just as the Moon sits in the shade of the Earth during an eclipse. As we watched the shadow slip well past the midpoint of the Moon, Doug said, “No wonder people were afraid when they saw an eclipse.”

We have one Moon in our heads, the one we look up at. But we thought about the men who walked on the Moon’s surface, those who, as astronaut Michael Collins said in In the Shadow of the MoonI

have two moons in my head. […E] every once in a while, I do think of a second moon, you know, the one that I recall from up close. And yeah, it is kind of hard to believe that I was actually up there.

We thought of the men who walked on the Moon and those who circled it alone, especially of Collins, who remained in the Apollo 11 capsule while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked across the orb’s surface and who has spoken and written about his adventures incredibly eloquently. Of his experience, Collins wrote:

Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface. I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have. This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two. I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon, I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life.

Collins’s wife, Pat, died last Wednesday in Florida. They had married almost 57 years ago; their anniversary is April 28, Anna’s mother’s birthday. He is certainly alone in a new and unwelcome way, and we extend our sympathy to him and his children.

Today, we’re still thinking about the Moon, but we’re celebrating the anniversary of the beginning of the Apollo 16 mission that sent John Young and Charlie Duke to walk upon the lunar surface. Ken Mattingly was the third member of that crew, assigned to Apollo 16 only after being booted from the Apollo 13 crew when he was exposed to measles by one of Duke’s children.


Anna, Charlie, Doug in 2012

Young had flown on Gemini 3 and Gemini 10 and also on Apollo 10. He would also go on to fly the first space shuttle mission and also STS-9. Mattingly would also go on to fly two space shuttle missions, STS-4 and STS-51-C. For Duke, Apollo 16 was his only spaceflight, and he remains grateful for the sole experience beyond Earth’s atmosphere. This disparate experience probably explains why Duke recounts that his heart was beating twice as fast as Young’s, though, from what we know about Young, no calmer, more collected astronaut ever flew.

In the film In the Shadow of the Moon, Duke recounts the following about his adventure through space:

I was able to look out the window to see this incredible sight of the whole circle of the Earth. Oceans were crystal blue, the land was brown, and the clouds and the snow were pure white. And that jewel of Earth was just hung up in the blackness of space.

When Duke stepped out of the Lunar Module (LM) and onto the Moon, he was 36 years old, the youngest man to walk on another celestial body. He and Young gathered more than 200 pounds of lunar dust and rocks during their more than 20 hours outside the LM. The men returned to the capsule on April 24 and to Earth three days later.

We’ve talked with Charlie Duke twice. As we’ve said before, he’s smart and charming. We’ll end our words at this point and offer you Duke’s own words about his life, career, and hopes for our collective future.

Elie Wiesel on Stories & Memories April 9, 2014

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Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel is visiting Chapman University this week as part of his role as Presidential Fellow and teacher and work with the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education. In fact, Wiesel, who is 85 years old, told Chancellor Daniele Struppa, a mathematician who deeply appreciates literature, to never give up teaching because students are the world’s “future teachers, guides, healers.” Yesterday’s Q&A between Struppa and Wiesel, however, focused on stories, memory, and writing, so we share our recap here at Lofty Ambitions.

“There are so many sources and resources for more stories and more stories.” Wiesel’s energy is incredible, and he has written 60 books, the first of which was published in 1958. For him, writer’s block or the lack of subject matter or ideas falls completely beside the point of the writing life. That said, he didn’t start writing La Nuit until a decade after that events had taken place. “I needed ten years of silence,” he says, “to think about those lives.”

“The quest for more knowledge, more knowledge always—” This statement explains Wiesel’s attraction to books as a reader and as a writer. The point of writing, for him, is to bring knowledge into the world, to share knowledge among humanity. That’s a grand and wonderful goal for any writing life because it sets the bar high and gets the writer out of her own head, her own needs.

“How to bring matter to life—” That’s the big question for Wiesel as a writer. Pages speak to him, and words come alive. He goes so far as to say, with a sly smile, “Words that don’t come alive shouldn’t be uttered.”

“I write for four hours a day. Every day. Except Sabbath.” Wiesel takes this daily habit seriously and credits it for his productivity. He is a writer, and a writer must do the writing, do a lot of writing and revising.

“The mystery of the beginning and the mystery of the end” are Wiesel’s greatest challenges as a writer. Even if he has a story to tell, even with the many sources and resources for more stories, where a story begins and ends—the first and last pages—remains a mystery until the writer figures it out.

“When you write, you are a conductor.” Wiesel thinks of himself as a conductor of character, setting, words. Conduct means to bring together, and, indeed, that’s what a writer does as he writes, weaving together words, sentences, story elements as a complete whole.

“If I want to write, I have to go deep down in my memory.” For Wiesel, the individual memory is connected to the collective memory. His writing represents his individual perspective and story and also becomes part of the collective perspective and story. Memory is Wiesel’s greatest source, though he also speaks of imagination—what if?—as his greatest resource.

“I look into the mirror only to brush my teeth.” And he brushes his teeth as quickly as possible so as not to stand long in front of the mirror. Wiesel proclaims a purposeful lack of self-awareness of his physical image, noting that he will walk out the door not knowing whether he is wearing a tie or not. Preening is not writing, and writing is not merely performance.

“The birth of something that didn’t exist before—” Though Wiesel talked of personal relationships in these terms, this notion captures the goal of writing. In fact, this notion may be a profound explanation for any human life, any lived life. “Think higher,” he advises. What is it that each of us can create that did not exist before?

To read our post about Elie Wiesel’s Q&A about writing last year, click HERE.

PurpleStride Chicago 2014 & Cancer April 2, 2014

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Anna&MLLWe’ve been wavering as to whether we’d fly back to Chicago for this year’s PurpleStride to raise awareness and money for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network—PanCAN. Anna’s mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2012, so we first walked in PurpleStride when Mary Lee was in the hospital. By last year’s walk, Anna’s mother was dead, and we walked again to commemorate her life, with family and friends gathering for a party afterward. PurpleStride happens on the last weekend of April—Mary Lee’s birthday weekend. So we want to repeat our efforts, but we have a jam-packed April and an especially busy day that Thursday, with the Intertwingled conference that Doug has coordinated and writer Pico Iyer visiting Anna’s class.

In the last couple of weeks, a friend has been diagnosed with breast cancer and another’s father has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Over the past several months, two friends have faced follow-up cancer treatment after lesions on their brains appeared.

We’ve booked our airline tickets for PurpleStride Chicago 2014. We’re going, and here’s our team page for Mary Lee’s Merry Ladies (and gents), in case you’d like to walk with us or donate.

National Cancer Institute

National Cancer Institute

Anna has also contributed to a poetry anthology for which all proceeds will go to the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance. Tanya Chernov, whose father died from colon cancer, put the anthology together. If you purchase The Burden of Light, you set your own price because it’s really a donation. In return, you get poems that celebrate life and commemorate loss because we wanted to do something important with our words.

When we think about how our cells replicate perfectly over and over again for decade after decade, it’s amazing that things don’t go awry all the time. On the other hand, if our cells are so good at replicating perfectly over the long haul and our bodies are so good at compensating for tiny anomalies, why do cells ever get carried away and wind up as cancer? Cancer is one of life’s toughest conundrums.

These last few years, we’ve been thinking a lot about cancer—more than we expected or would have chosen. But maybe that’s inevitable: 1 of 3 women and 1 of 2 men are diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. As we age, our risk of cancer increases. As we’ve written before, however, numbers are tricky things, and cancer statistics are about the large group not about the individual.

For a 40-year-old woman, the chance of developing breast cancer before she’s 50 is 1 in 68. That’s a small risk—not even 1.47%–but we know personally at least three women of roughly our generation who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50. In real numbers—think of all the women in their forties right now—that statistic means a lot of women who will get a diagnosis at a rare, young age. For a woman who’s 50, the risk for the next ten years is 1 in 42, still just 2.38%, still a small risk. But that’s a better than 60% increase in risk over the previous decade, which sounds like a huge percentage increase. Indeed, we know more women who were diagnosed with breast cancer not long after menopause, including Anna’s mother. Luckily, most of the women we know were diagnosed early, and Stage I breast cancer has a near-100% five-year survival rate. That’s good news, and that’s also a result of the research and funding devoted to understanding breast cancer in the last several decades.

PurpleStride Team 2013

PurpleStride Team 2013

Pancreatic cancer is rarer (a lifetime risk of just 1.5% as opposed to colon cancer’s 4.8% or breast cancer’s 12.3% for women) and less well understood than breast cancer. That’s a big part of why we’re walking to support research. At Lofty Ambitions, we’ve written about pancreatic cancer, other cancers our friends have faced, and cancer more generally, especially in terms of how we perceive risk.

We hope you’ll take a look at some of our pieces:

PurpleStride Chicago

PurpleStride Chicago 2012: Research on Pancreatic Cancer

Cancer, Risk, & the Language of Loss

Cancer, Risk, & Otherwise

In addition, Anna has an opportunity to become a co-author of a book about cancer and communication. She is just beginning to sort through the project but will dive into it more fully this summer. Inevitably, sadly, cancer is a topic to which Lofty Ambitions will return.

Palomar Observatory: Hale (Part 9) March 26, 2014

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To start with this “Palomar Observatory” series at the beginning, click HERE.

George Ellery Hale

George Ellery Hale

We’ve expended a fair amount of words describing George Ellery Hale’s penchant for building the world’s largest telescope; after all, he did it on four separate occasions. If his legacy were to rest solely on his efforts to build these technical masterpieces—each device gave humanity the ability to peer deeper and more perceptively into the cosmos—Hale would be considered a giant of science in general and astronomy in particular. He’d arguably be remembered as the originating force behind Big Science, the twentieth-century narrative that has given the world remarkable insight into nature, the universe, and reality.

But building telescopes wasn’t the only thing Hale was doing; he was also using them. The singular achievement of Hale’s scientific career was coming about just as he was finishing the 60-inch telescope and beginning work on the 100-inch. In 1908, Hale published a paper entitled “On the Probable Existence of a Magnetic Field in Sun-spots.” Like any good scientist, Hale built his case for the presence of magnetic fields on the Sun on the work of others: J. J. Thompson’s work on electrons emitted by hot bodies and the Zeeman effect, which describes the splitting of emission spectra in the presence of a magnetic field. In a 1999 article reviewing Hale’s discovery, astronomer John Harvey wrote, “Only a handful of scientists have shown that a fundamental force of nature exists beyond Earth. George Ellery Hale, an unquestioned giant of twentieth-century astrophysics, is one of those few people, by virtue of his discovery of magnetic fields in sunspots.”

Of course, all the while he was carrying out groundbreaking research, Hale continued to make plans for building for the next world’s largest telescope: 100-inches in diameter. Its patron was Los Angeles businessman John D. Hooker, a nineteenth-century industrialist who eventually became president of the Western Union Oil Company. Hooker had long been interested in science-oriented philanthropy; he was one of the founders the California Academy of Science. Funding the research and development of the 100-inch mirror for Hale’s next telescope was a logical outcome for Hooker’s interests and efforts.

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome

The heart of a reflecting telescope is the glass that is used in the mirror blank. Once again, Hale turned to the house of Saint-Gobain, master glass workers located in Paris, France, for his new mirror. Saint-Gobain had never created an optical instrument of this size. No one had. There were industrial limits—based on the size of the buckets that were used to carry the molten glass—on the amount of glass that the wizards of Saint-Gobain could pour into the mold. These limits meant that the mirror had to be poured in three distinct layers, one on top of another. Pouring this much glass posed an enormous risk, not just for the final product, but also to the men handling the ladles of superheated, liquid glass. Injuries resulted, including lost limbs, and in the end, the results would, at first glance, appear to be a deeply flawed piece of glass.

After more than a year of cooling, the mirror blank—more than eight feet across and ensconced in a fourteen-foot-diameter, purpose-built metal cradle—made its way across the ocean and to the United States. In her biography of Hale, Explorer of the Universe, author Helen Wright said, “Hale received news of the successful casting of a 100-inch disk. Less than three months later, the great disk, the size of a small room, arrived in Hoboken aboard the steamer St. Andrew. The New York Press called it the single most valuable piece of merchandise ever to cross the Atlantic.”

When it arrived in Pasadena, George W. Ritchey, Hale’s master optician, despaired. Removed from its cradle, the mirror blank looked like nothing more than a three-layer glass cake. The mirror blank was in disastrous shape. Riddled with bubbles and voids, Ritchey pronounced that the glass was unusable. Ritchey believed that he’d never be able to grind it into an astronomical instrument. The arrival of the mirror signaled the start of a very dark period in Hale’s personal and professional life.

We’ll take up with a look at that dark time in Hale’s life in a future post, as we wrap up this series on one of the most ambitious, accomplished, quirky men of science.

The Six Million Dollar Man and NASA in the 1970s (Part 2) March 19, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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To start with Part one of our series on The Six Million Dollar Man, click HERE.

A few weeks ago we wrote about our recent opportunity to relive our childhood memories of all that is The Six Million Dollar Man (TSMDM). Our chance reminiscence was enforced by the brutality of the Polar Vortex and the vagaries of any travel that involves Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Wintertime travel through O’Hare is particularly dicey, with O’Hare recently finishing dead last among the nation’s twenty-nine largest airports in on-time percentage (nearby Midway airport finished next-to-last at twenty-eighth, which should tell you how bad the weather has been in Chicago this year). Winter, though, may not be the most crucial of the Chicago-Aviation-Winter interaction, for Midwestern weather seems to snarl Chicago air traffic pretty much year-round.

Our extended holiday stay in Chicago allowed us to watch a two-part episode of TSMDM, and that stimulated our desire to throw a few more episodes into our trusty Netflix queue. The first one that we watched was “Athena 1,” and we couldn’t have been more pleased.

While “Athena 1” didn’t have the space age verisimilitude that shooting scenes at Kennedy Space Center provided for “Deadly Countdown,”  “Athena 1” is notable for being the first television appearance together as newlyweds of Lee Majors and Farah Fawcett-Majors. Their union was recent enough that she’s still credited as Farah Fawcett.

This also brings us to the moment of Jenny Agutter-related serendipity with our previous post on the bionic man’s exploits. Astute observers of 1970’s sci-fi culture will realize that Farah Fawcett-Majors of “Athena 1” and Jenny Agutter of “Deadly Countdown” both appeared in Logan’s Run. Full disclosure: After seeing both blonds in TSMDM, one of us recently watched Logan’s Run again—probably for the first time in thirty-years (while the other of us was helping her sister move).

“Athena 1” has a very similar plot to “Deadly Countdown” in that both episodes were thin exercises in getting Col. Steve Austin back into space via rescue missions. In “Athena 1,” Steve saves the day by leading a rescue mission—Athena Rescue—but does so at great personal peril for our hero.

Bionic Ear (NIH)

Bionic Ear (NIH)


This episode came mid-way through the first year of TSMDM, and it was an opportunity for some reflection (momentary though it was) on Steve’s plight as half-man, half-better-than-man making his way through weak plots. Ironically, its that half that’s better-than-man that breaks down in outer space. The cause of his physical breakdown, space radiation, is as implausible as the solution, a new radiation-resistant layer of skin for his bionics. We point out that the premise that space radiation would do Steve in is implausible—yes, the entire show is implausible, but we always hope for consistency in the world they created—because Steve’s bionics are nuclear powered. One would hope that Rudy Wells had figured out the utility of radiation shielding before inserting nuclear-powered bionics into this astronaut. As Steve often points out, he still has a fair amount of his “original equipment.” Without shielding in his new parts, Steve’s original equipment would have cooked.

Through the years it ran, TSMDM had a fair number of connections to Star Trek via actors, writers, and production staff. “Athena 1” was written by DC Fontana, an extremely successful woman in the then man’s world of television, and it feels as if some of those gendered experiences shaped the dialog that Farah Fawcett’s character spoke as a rookie female astronaut in the male realm of American space exploration. Fontana’s Star Trek roots show when she actually has Steve close out the episode by saying, “Space. It really is the final frontier.”

We’re cherry-picking TSMDM episodes about space as we re-watch. We have fond memories of William Shatner as an astronaut who came back with a little extra. Doug was particularly fond of the episodes about the Russian Venus probes that somehow missed Venus and came back to Earth quite upset about it. Also high on the list to watch again is “Danny’s Inferno,” an episode featuring a teenage space prodigy who inadvertently invents a powerful new chemical fuel source while playing with model rockets. Of course, in any relationship there’s negotiation to be done, and Doug’s aware that a deep dive in TSMDM is an invitation for Anna to put episodes of The Bionic Woman in the queue. Of course, Jaime Sommers is a teacher, not an astronaut—as are we.

For more on Lee Majors as Steve Austin, click HERE.

Fukushima Daiichi, Three Years Later March 12, 2014

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Three years ago yesterday, on March 11, 2011, the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi was hit by a tsunami that followed an earthquake less than an hour before. The tsunami waves exceeded the height of the seawall protecting the power plant by as much as thirty feet. The facility flooded, and, over three days, explosions at the reactors occurred.



The accident is categorized as a Level 7, the same category as the Chernobyl accident of 1986, though Chernobyl released much more radioactive material. Leaks at Fukushima Daiichi have been discovered since the initial accident. Cleanup and full decommissioning of all six reactors there could take several decades.

Tepco, the Tokyo Electric Power Company that runs the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, has been criticized for not releasing accurate, timely information from the get-go. Only a few weeks ago, Reuters reported that Tepco measured increased levels of strontium-90 in a groundwell near the ocean. The measurement was taken last fall but not released to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority taskforce for five months.

With water coming down from the mountains, seeping into the reactor buildings, then seeping out as groundwater that moves at about four inches every day, something needs to be done, and efforts by Tepco thus far haven’t stopped contamination downstream of the reactors. The most recent issue of National Geographic reports of the leak discovered last August, “Now an underground ice wall is being proposed to contain [the seeps of groundwater].” Ice walls have been used in mining and construction for decades, and one was put into place at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to contain radioactive groundwater.

526px-Japan_Nuclear_power_plants_mapIn addition to new leaks, the world is watching for signs of the accident’s effects on human beings exposed to the immediate dangers three years ago. This spring, a group of U.S. veterans filed a class action lawsuit against Tepco. According to The Huffington Post, the USS Ronald Reagan “was as close as a mile offshore as the stricken reactors poured deadly clouds of radiation into the air and ocean beginning the day after the earthquake and tsunami.” The lawsuit alleges that Tepco did not provide enough information about the accident and the risks and that those who brought the lawsuit have suffered a variety of ailments from blindness to cancer to children with birth defects.

Roughly a week before this news, in early February of this year, Business Week and other media outlets reported that the radioactive water from Japan is expected to wash up on the West Coast of the United States this year. Many scientists suggest that the danger is minimal because the radioactivity has become so dispersed in the Pacific Ocean and that, even nearer to Japan, the danger has been minimal because of strong currents. In fact, “Under normal operations, Diablo Canyon [a nuclear power plant in California] discharges more radiation into the sea, albeit of a less dangerous isotope, than the Fukushima station, which suffered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.” In other words, this discharge happens all the time around the world, which might allay fears but should also raise concerns about whether any exposure is safe and how exposure and risk is measured.

Japan's Electricity Generation (EIA)

Japan’s Electricity Generation (EIA)

We’ve written about these issues several times before at Lofty Ambitions, and the anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi accident is probably a good time to poke around at our other posts about radioactivity.

While trepidation in the wake of the accident three years ago initially halted the expansion of nuclear power plants, Reuters reported last month that the United Arab Emirates and Belarus have started construction on nuclear power plants in the last two years. Four more countries are expected to start construction of nuclear power plants in the next five years. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “There are currently 65 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 104 nuclear reactors in 31 states around the country.” According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, “As of January 2014, 30 countries worldwide are operating 436 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 72 new nuclear plants are under construction in 15 countries.” While nuclear is the primary power source for France, Belgium, and Slovakia, the United States has more nuclear power plants than any other country.

Closer to home for us are the Diablo Canyon Power Plant and the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The former is located near four faults and has been upgraded to withstand an earthquake of 7.5 magnitude. The latter was shut down in 2012, after a steam generator leaked radioactive material into a containment tank, with a small amount released into the environment. Unexpected wear was discovered in some parts, and the reason for the wear and the leak have not been determined. Now, the units there are being decommissioned.

For our readers in the United States, check HERE to find your closest nuclear power plant on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission map.

Space Probes March 5, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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While the word probe is used conversationally to mean to examine physically or refers to an instrument designed for that sort of physical examination, the word probe comes from a Latin word meaning to test or the result of such a test, proof. Today, we celebrate both senses of this word and the spacecraft that embody both meanings, that carry out our examination and testing of the universe that surrounds us.

Landsat 3 in Clean Room (NASA/JPL)

Landsat 3 in Clean Room (NASA/JPL)

On this date in 1978, NASA launched a satellite called Landsat 3, part of the ongoing Landsat program. Rather than studying the far reaches of space, Landsat is designed to study Earth, to give us a comprehensive view of our own planet. Technically, because Landsat orbits Earth, maybe it’s not a space probe, but the dates align, and the mission echoes the term’s underlying meaning. And NASA doesn’t make that distinction by location in the universe; it calls Sputnik 1 the first space probe and defines a space probe as an unmanned spacecraft designed for scientific research.

The Landsat 3 spacecraft gave a thorrough study of Earth—a variety of images covering the planet’s entire surface—in 18 days. It was designed to orbit and send back data for about a year; more than five years after launch, Landsat 3 was finally decommissioned.

Landsat 8 launched just over a year ago, and we wrote about the amazing program then. Landsat satellites continue to provide data about the Earth’s surface to scientists and many others. The information from Landsat helps aircraft avoid bird strikes and helps wine growers and farmers manage their crops for maximum yield and deliciousness. Landsat 7 allowed scientists to count and track penguins in the Antarctic. The images and data from Landsat are available to anyone who wants to use it.

The Golden Record (NASA)

The Golden Record (NASA)

On this date in 1979, Voyager 1 made its closest pass of Jupiter, sending back information about the planet’s climate, surface, and moons. The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft were launched in 1977 and continue to travel farther and farther from Earth. In fact, Voyager 1 left our Solar System and entered interstellar space in 2012, with Voyager 2 set to follow its twin in a few years.

Not only is Voyager 1 giving us information from the farther than any manmade object has ever travelled, but it is also carrying information from Earth. We wrote about this Golden Record in an article called “Voices Carry” for The Huffington Post, as part of their TED Weekends series. There, we explained:

In 1977, NASA, with a committee headed by astrophysicist Carl Sagan, designed two phonograph records, then put each aboard a Voyager spacecraft. The record contains greetings in 56 languages, natural sounds like thunder and crickets chirping, and music from around the world, all of which are in audio. The disc also includes, in analog form, 115 images, from planets to fetuses.

Perhaps the most interesting information to be included in our official, communal voice is an hour-long recording of the brainwaves and heartbeats of Ann Druyan. Hooked up to machines, she was given a list of things to ponder, starting with the history of the Earth. This woman went on to marry Sagan, with whom she would work on the television series Cosmos. When we saw Druyan at PlanetFest in 2012, she described her contribution to the Golden Record as the heartbeat of a young woman in love.

On this date in 1982, the Soviet spacecraft Venera 14 landed on Venus. The identical Venera 13 and Venera 14 spacecraft—each flying a combination mission that included flyby-and-landers—launched five days apart and landed within six-hundred miles of each other. The temperature was well about 800ºF. After travelling for three months to get to the planet between Earth and Mercury, each probe was designed to take photographs and perform soil tests for 32 minutes; Venera 14 held up for almost an hour, and its twin lasted more than two hours. Venera 13 sent back to Earth the first color images of Venus.

Odyssey (NASA/JPL)

Odyssey (NASA/JPL)

Landsat 8 continues to orbit Earth, and the two Voyagers continue to travel ever farther from Earth. Less than a month ago, NASA began an adjustment of the orbit of Odyssey around Mars, in hopes of getting a better look at that planet’s morning fog by the end of next year. In January, Rosetta, the European Space Agency’s comet-chasing spacecraft, started sending back signals to Earth, after a planned 31-month nap. A host of space probes are out there doing what space probes do. Today, we take a few minutes to ponder what that might mean about who we are and how we know our universe.

The Six Million Dollar Man and NASA in the 1970s February 26, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Uncategorized.

In early January, after a whirlwind holiday trip to see our families in Illinois, the Lofty duo found ourselves trapped in Chicago. An untimely illness put the kibosh on a planned trip to Paris, and the year’s first visit from the Polar Vortex blanketed the city in snow and sub-zero air. The snow snarled and stopped air travel, preventing an early return to California, and the temperatures—it was -16°F on one day—prevented us from leaving the apartment for more than a few minutes at a time. Our Midwestern roots and instincts were no match for our blood, thinned by five years in Southern California.

Chicago of Today

Chicago in Summer

Absent books, a reliable internet connection, or the ability to get out and walk around in the Windy City that we love, we did the next best thing: we turned on the TV. We stumbled upon a cable channel that consists primarily of television shows from our childhood. One of the first shows that we watched was a two-part episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. We each agreed that it had been decades since we indulged the cheesy-goodness that is TSMDM (Google it, we dare you).

The episode showing that evening was “Deadly Countdown,” and, as so often happens here at Lofty, we recognized that we were in for a bit of serendipity from the opening credits. Listed among the players were Jenny Agutter and Martin Caidin. Agutter has starred in dozens of movies and television series, but she is probably best known to science and science fiction nerds for her roles in Logan’s Run (1976) and An American Werewolf in London (1981). True fans of TSMDM know that Caidin is the science fiction author who created the character of Steve Austin in his novel Cyborg. Caidin’s vision for his own Col. Steve Austin was much darker and more casually violent, and it didn’t translate well to 1970s TV. The TSMDM version of Col. Steve Austin that we watched as children was a sanitized version of Caidin’s cyborg, but there was the author right there in the episode we watched.

To the Lofty Duo, Caidin is also known for his aviation enthusiasm. In addition to being a great popularizer of aviation through his writing, Caidin also owned, restored, and piloted the oldest known Junkers Ju-52. An ungainly tri-motor with corrugated aluminum skin, the Ju-52 served as both a German military and civilian transport in the years around World War II. Caidin sold his Ju-52 to Lufthansa in 1984, and the German national airline still regularly flies that aircraft.  Caidin was also involved with the founding of Valiant Air Command (VAC), an aviation museum dedicated to warbirds located in Titusville, Florida, near Kennedy Space Center (KSC). In fact, we’ve written about VAC on a number of occasions.

Pete Conrad's Spacesuit--does it look like Jenny Agutter's wardrobe?

Pete Conrad’s Spacesuit–does it look like Jenny Agutter’s wardrobe?

The plot for “Deadly Countdown” loosely centered on a space rescue mission to restore a failing missile warning satellite. Jenny Agutter’s character, Dr. Leah Russell, was the designer of the satellite’s so-called brain. In order to repair the satellite, Dr. Russell would have to be taken to it. Naturally, given Col. Steve Austin’s pre-bionic career as an astronaut, he had to lead the rescue mission. Caidin’s character appears as one of the heavies—named G. H. Beck—intent on stopping Col. Austin’s repair mission.

We were fortunate that both episodes of the two-part “Deadly Countdown” ran that evening so that we weren’t left hanging. It wasn’t nostalgic childhood memories of the bionic sound playing over fights—slow-motion affairs in which the villains often do more harm to themselves than the bionic man does—that kept us watching TSMDM that night. It was nostalgia of a different kind that kept us entranced: as opposed to the TSMDM episodes that are very obviously filmed on sound stages, this one appeared to be filmed at KSC, where the rocket would have launched in real life. In fact, scene after scene of “Deadly Countdown” reminded us of our time spent at the Cape and made us think about a way to get back for another visit.

Saturn V moving from VAB to Launch Pad

Saturn V moving from VAB to Launch Pad

Although the episode contained stock footage of Saturn Vs moving slowly on the huge crawler, there were also scenes in the Vehicle Assembly Building from the top of the Launch Control Center and of Agutter and Majors in very realistic-looking Apollo-era spacesuits. It seemed very likely to us that this particular episode was, in fact, filmed at the Cape with a great deal of assistance from NASA. The internet suggestion that Agutter wore one of Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad’s spacesuits during the episode hasn’t been verified, but it makes for a great story.

One moment of “Deadly Countdown” that had a very inside-access feel to it involved an emergency during the rescue mission’s launch countdown. After stopping the countdown, Col. Austin and Dr. Russell have to make a hurried escape from the Saturn rocket’s command module.  The fleeing astronauts go for a ride on a slide that leads them to a blast-proof room beneath the launch pad. In reality, just such a room, sometimes called the rubber room, exists beneath Launch Complex 39. Though we’ve never seen it in person, it’s turned up online in a number of blog posts and videos recently.

Eventually, our childhood memories of TSMDM did kick-in, and Anna ordered a single DVD containing four episodes via Netflix.  This one includes another space-themed episode, “Athena 1.” To read more about The Six Million Dollar Man in our next TSMDM post, click HERE.

Happy Birthday Copernicus & Kerwin! And Belated to Galileo! February 19, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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Copernicus (Getty)

Copernicus (Getty)

On this date in 1473, Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Poland. Just before his death more than seventy years later, his book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (also called On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies) changed the trajectory of science. Copernicus asserted that Earth is not the center of our Solar System and, instead, that the planets orbit around the relatively stationary Sun.

As he began to think about how the Solar System worked, Copernicus also translated Greek poems into Latin and worked for his uncle, which gave him opportunities for travel and interactions with a variety of people. His initial version of his revolutionary model was a bit sketchy in terms of the mathematics and geometry, but he stuck with it and eventually made dozens of astronomical observations that helped him refine and support his ideas. One of his important discoveries based on these observations was that Earth moved in an eccentric, or elliptical, orbit, rather than in a perfect circle with the Sun in the dead center.

Copernicus's Heliocentric Model

Copernicus’s Heliocentric Model

The heliocentric—helio means Sun—model was further delineated by Johannes Kepler, who established the laws of planetary motion based on elliptical orbits around the Sun, and by Galileo Galilei, who made confirming observations with his telescope. (This past Saturday marked Galileo’s 450th birthday!) Almost two-hundred years after Copernicus presented the theory we now take for granted, Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Catholic Church for his heretical and correct view of Earth and the Sun. In 1992, more than five-hundred years after Copernicus presented his heliocentric model, Pope John Paul II finally acknowledged Galileo’s accomplishments and the Church’s errors and also admitted that the planets circle a “stationary” Sun and, thereby, agreed with Copernicus. The official apology to Galileo came in 2000.

Sixty years before the pope forgave Galileo and affirmed Copernicus’s heliocentric model, Joseph P. Kerwin was born on February 19, 1932, in Oak Park, Illinois. Oak Park is one of the oldest suburbs of Chicago, a place where we lived for a few years and a place where Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright lived long before we were there.

Joseph Kerwin (NASA)

Joseph Kerwin (NASA)

Eventually, Kerwin earned his medical degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, another of Chicago’s oldest suburbs and where Anna was born. The summer befor Anna’s birth, in the midst of the Gemini space program and as Apollo was ramping up to put men on the Moon, Kerwin became an astronaut. In fact, he served as a CAPCOM—capsule communicator—during the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission in 1970 and, later, was part of the broadcasting team for the first launch of the space shuttle.

Kerwin flew to space himself in 1973 as the science pilot on the Skylab 2 crew, which also included Charles Conrad, Jr., and Paul J. Weitz. The first Skylab mission was unmanned, so Kerwin’s mission was the first manned trip to Skylab and established, at the time, the new duration record for human spaceflight: 28 days. Their mission was crucial to the survival of Skylab, which had been damaged during launch. The repairs included deploying a sort of umbrella to shade the spacecraft from the Sun so that it didn’t overheat. The spacewalks were grueling, and repairs were not always accomplished on the first attempt. Their work gave Skylab a good six-year run, until its orbit decayed and it blazed through Earth’s atmosphere in a spectacle that attracted worldwide attention.

Today’s two birthdays—those of Copernicus and Kerwin—give us more than ample reason to ponder how we see our place and trajectory in the universe. We leave you with some words from the preface of his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies:

For I am not so enamoured of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them. […T]he scorn which I had reason to fear on account of the novelty and unconventionality of my opinion almost induced me to abandon completely the work which I had undertaken. […] Astronomy is written for astronomers. To them my work too will seem, unless I am mistaken, to make some contribution.

Duck! It’s an Asteroid! February 12, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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lincolnIf you’re celebrating today, you’re probably celebrating Lincoln’s birthday, a welcome mid-winter holiday for us as children growing up in Illinois. Or maybe you’re celebrating the natal day of Charles Darwin, the renowned naturalist and geologist who was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln in 1809. By mapping out his theory of natural selection, Darwin changed the way we think about ourselves, our history, and the natural world of which we are part.

Lofty Ambitions is also celebrating an asteroid landing. On this date in 2001, a robotic space probe named NEAR Shoemaker landed on 433 Eros, the second largest near-Earth asteroid. NEAR, in fact, stands for Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous. It wasn’t exactly Armageddonno Razzie Awards for this accomplishment. A spacecraft had never before orbited and landed on an asteroid.

NEAR Shoemaker (NASA)

NEAR Shoemaker (NASA)

How near an asteroid to Earth is 433 Eros? Less than a year after NEAR Shoemaker landed there, the asteroid passed within 17 million miles of Earth, which was still more than seventy times farther from Earth than the Moon. In fact, NEAR Shoemaker launched on February 17, 1997 (a year before Armageddon was released), and finally began orbiting 433 Eros almost three years later, on February 14, 2000. The probe spent a year orbiting and relaying back data about the asteroid’s physical characteristics and motion before landing on February 12, 2001.

How big an asteroid is 433 Eros? 433 Eros has an elongated shape, estimated to be more than 20 x 8 x 8 miles in size. 1036 Ganymed is larger, with a diameter of roughly 20 miles. Asteroids are small in relation to the size of Earth, but 433 Eros travels at 15 miles per second, so a collision with Earth would be devastating. Consider how small and light the piece of foam was when it hit Space Shuttle Columbia during launch—velocity matters in the damage a collision causes.

Image of 433 Eros from 250 meters (NASA)

Image of 433 Eros from 250 meters (NASA)

How many of these NEAs are there? According to NASA, as of this month, “10,693 Near-Earth objects have been discovered. Some 868 of these NEOs are asteroids with a diameter of approximately 1 kilometer or larger. Also, 1,454 of these NEOs have been classified as Potentially Hazardous Asteroids.”

We’ve written about risk and scale before, and thinking about asteroids today brings up these same issues again. Almost a year ago, on February 15, 2013, a meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, and reminded us that objects from space aren’t just statistics. In fact, Space.com reported that studies of that meteor and where it originated led some scientists to conclude that the risk of impact by an object from space is ten times higher than we’d previously thought.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory keeps track of NEOs and shares a chart of potential risks. Even so, NASA’s website on NEO risk points out, “Whenever a newly discovered NEA is posted on the Sentry Impact Risk Page, by far the most likely outcome is that the object will eventually be removed as new observations become available, the object’s orbit is improved, and its future motion is more tightly constrained.” The more we know about each object and its motion, the more accurately we can determine whether it’s likely to come close enough to Earth to pose a problem.

Using our Earth-bound sense of distance, those two large, near asteroids are not that close. But if we think about these objects in relation to the vast universe, proximity means something different. It’s mid-boggling to try to imagine millions and billions of miles of space and to think of 17 million miles as nearby.

We’ve been reading novelist and physicist Alan Lightman’s recent essay collection, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. There, he talks of scale in “The Gargantuan Universe”:

Of all these aspects of things, none seems more immediate and vital than size. Large versus small. Consciously and unconsciously, we routinely measure our physical size against dimensions of other people, animals, trees, oceans, mountains. As brainy as we think ourselves, our bodily size, our bigness, our simple volume and bulk are the first carrying cards we present to the world. I would hazard a guess that somewhere in our fathoming of the cosmos, we must keep a mental inventory of plan size and scale, going from atoms to micobes to us humans to oceans to planets to stars. And some of the most impressive additions to that inventory have occurred at the high end. Simply put, the cosmos has gotten larger and larger. At each new level of scale, we have to contend with a different conception of the world that we live in.


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