A Big Day for Space July 31, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
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In 1964, Ranger 7 sent back close-up photos of the Moon, with clarity 1000 times clearer than we could see through our telescopes on Earth. In order to accomplish this, the spacecraft was loaded with a dozen cameras (both video and still) and intentionally crashed into the Moon’s surface, sending pictures back to Earth all the way to impact.
Crashing spacecraft into the Moon might sound like a one-time lark, but on this date in 1999, NASA crashed the Discovery Lunar Prospector into the Moon, again on purpose. The idea was that the impact would release water vapor from possible ice crystals, but alas, no vapor plume. Luckily, before the crash, the spacecraft spent months mapping the lunar surface and measuring gravitational and magnetic fields.
In 1971, the astronauts of Apollo 15 took the first vehicle ride on the lunar surface. Over three days on the Moon, astronauts David Scott and John Irwin spent more than 18 hours tootling around and gathering 170 pounds of moon dust and rocks.
On July 31, 1981, there was a total eclipse of the Sun. A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon is positioned between the Sun and the Earth, so that from our vantage, the Moon briefly covers the Sun. Our last total eclipse was on July 11 of this year; astronomer Glenn Schneider mapped an airplane route in order to observe the solar eclipse for more than nine minutes (but a Concorde holds the 74-minute record). Mark your calendar—the next total eclipse will be November 13, 2012.
It’s also the 110th anniversary of Antoine de Saint-Exupury’s death. The French pilot is the author of Wind, Sand and Stars and the children’s classic The Little Prince.
Lofty Leahy Interview at omoiyari July 30, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information.
Tags: Art & Science
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Poet Karen An-hwei Lee interviews Anna about Tabula Poetica and other writing issues at her blog omoiyari.
If you want to catch up on past goings-on, Anna’s conversation essay with Nicole Cooley, Kate Greenstreet, and Nancy Kuhl about the (re)emerging poet appeared at Bookslut, a monthly web magazine dedicated to those who love to read. Anna’s conversation essay with poet Larissa Szporluk about writing, teaching, and imagination is available in print in the latest issue of Mid-American Review.
By gosh, it’s time for Oshkosh! July 28, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Collaboration.
We came to our enjoyment of air shows by two different paths; one of us (Doug) was born into it, and the other (Anna) fell for someone who’d been born into it. Doug’s childhood memories are steeped with vividly colored Stearman biplanes, their yellows, blues, and reds flying in formation over his hometown at the end of each summer. The biplane’s humming radial engines predicted the return to western Illinois of fall leaves and winds. Anna’s first airshow was a scorching July day in the Quad Cities in the early 90s, when a Harrier shrieked in our ears—despite the orange earplugs handed out to the crowd—and a B-52 flew in from Offut Air Force Base, re-enacted carpet bombing Desert Storm-style, and then returned home without landing. The heat, the sounds, and the sights were overpowering.
Over our twenty-plus years together, dozens of days have been spent looking at gleaming aluminum and smelling—tasting—the mechanical tang of burnt AVGAS. Our early adventures in the Midwest and in College Park, Maryland, were warm-ups for our visits to the grand-daddy of the them all, the EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh. Starting on the last Monday of July, AirVenture (known as Oshkosh to its devotees) runs for one hot, bright, buzzing week. On average, Wittman Regional Airport, the site for AirVenture, becomes home to about 10,000 aircraft, 250,000 visitors, and 1,000 port-a-potties. (Our sage advice is to drink enough water that you don’t get dehydrated without drinking so much that you must use a port-a-potty late in the day.) For the hand-selected FAA air traffic controllers who manage the skies and runways of Oshkosh, this is the pinnacle of their profession.
The roots of AirVenture are in homebuilt and experimental aircraft, and the event continues to offer workshops for those who build and fly their own. Many happy days of Doug’s childhood were spent endlessly poring over the homebuilt aircraft issues of Popular Mechanics. Among his pre-teen favorites were the VariViggen and VariEze designs from Burt Rutan (of course), the equally sexy Prescott Pusher, and the jet-powered version of the BD-5 (best remembered from the opening sequence of the Bond film Octopussy). Even though Oshkosh is a celebration of the homebuilt and experimental, the thrill of our first Oshkosh together turned out to be spending the day with Glen Amundson.
Anna went to Oshkosh with friends in 2005. The following summer, we both went—with the same friends Lisa Long, Jim Amundson, and Jim’s father Glen. Doug worked with Jim at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for four years, and over that time, Jim recounted more than a few of his father’s aviation stories. Some were humorous in that uneasy way that encourages amazed laughter when you learn that everyone survived (lesson: always check both fuel tanks). But the stories weren’t adequate preparation for meeting the man. In the stifling heat and humidity of a late-July Saturday in the Midwest, Glen, a hale and hearty octogenarian, spent five hours leading our entourage across grassy acres covered with aircraft. The alchemy of shape, structure, and power that human beings have used to tame drag and thrust, weight and lift, was never more varied and immediate to us than on that day because Glen was our living guidebook.
Glen’s enthusiasm—a childlike fascination combined with deep understanding—for all things aviation was obvious every time we paused in front of something with wings (that occurs frequently at Oshkosh!). He had the most to say when we made our way to a row of World War II Corsairs, in particular to an extremely fine example of that breed, an FG-1 produced by Goodyear. Anna has always found the Corsair to be the most birdlike of airplanes. To her, the Corsair’s winged aspect suggests avian movement: flapping, soaring. Doug favors the second-generation Corsair (affectionately known as the SLUFF—look it up). Glen’s reaction was necessarily more personal, for the Corsair carried him through the Second World War as a young Marine Corps officer. From the air, he saw—for good or ill—things few of us ever will.
As he has every July for more than fifty years, Glen returns to Oshkosh this week, this time with his granddaughter Elin, who will experience the smell of AVGAS for the first time (she lurched in utero to the roar of the engines in 2006). Oshkosh is largely for the communities within aviation. There are scheduled mass arrivals of Cessnas and Mooneys, group photos for women pilots and veterans, and a sort of flea market of airplane parts. Our great pleasure has been as interlopers in the annual gathering. Our advice to Elin is to keep her eyes wide, wonder how we ever managed to build machines that fly, and ask Grandpa Glen to tell a story. In a few years, we hope that Elin will ask her parents to pay for a ride in the B-17. And when they say no, she’ll give them a pleading look and settle for a ride in the Ford Tri-Motor, a noisy box of a plane in which we had a great ride several years ago in Kalamazoo.
Air France Flight 4590 July 25, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
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Today is the tenth anniversary of the crash of Air France Flight 4590 just after take-off from Charles de Gaulle International Airport. The Concorde jet’s tire was ruptured by a small piece of titanium (Anna’s favorite metal) left on the runway after the previous plane took off. A chunk of the Concorde’s tire hit the wing, which led to a rupture in a fuel tank. The leaking fuel was ignited by electrical wiring. An article in the U.K.’s Guardian points to additional factors, such as weight, maintenance, and proximity to another aircraft carrying France’s president. One-hundred nine souls on board and five people on the ground perished on July 25, 2000.
In the wake of the accident, the supersonic jet was grounded. Almost a year later, flights were resumed, but the Concorde was retired on November 26, 2003, ending supersonic passenger service worldwide. In 1982, the price of a round-trip ticket was $3900, and by 2000, the price had more than doubled. United States astronauts outnumber Concorde pilots. It was a rare instance, this aircraft.
We’ll have more on the Concorde in future posts.
Duck, Duck, Goose July 21, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Collaboration.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Wright Brothers, WWII
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We pulled our Ford pick-up, the first vehicle we’d purchased as a couple, off to the side of the road and walked over to the chain-link fence. Through it, we peered as best we could into a large, temporary metal structure. Inside, the pieces of the Spruce Goose were vacuum-packed in white plastic, stashed like someone’s childhood toys in the garage.
In the fall of 1999, Doug had helped Anna move to Naperville, Illinois, for a full-time job at a small college, then he set out alone for Corvallis, Oregon, to start a PhD program in computer science. Once there, like most graduate students, he spent a great deal of his free time surfing the Internet. For him, this offered a way to acclimate and to find interesting things to do there. He came across a story about Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose—the H-4 Hercules—having been moved from its home in Long Beach, California, next to the Queen Mary, to take up residence in McMinnville, Oregon.
In October 1992, the Flying Boat had made a five-day voyage 928 nautical miles up the West Coast to Portland. Then, in Goldilocks fashion, the project had to wait until water levels in the Willamette River were neither too high for the plane to pass under bridges, nor too low for it not to hit bottom. It finally arrived in McMinnville on February 27, 1993. Considering the aircraft’s only flight covered a distance little more than a mile, this journey was monumental. What we saw that chilly, misting day on the side of the road was the aircraft’s temporary storage facility at Evergreen International Aviation, where the plane’s large parts were restored, removing all the paint and replacing aging fabric.
Across the road from the metal shed was an empty field, the planned site for the aviation museum that would house the Spruce Goose. McMinnville had voted to approve the building project two years earlier, but seeing the plane in its disassembled state and very little discernable construction made us wonder whether the museum was mere fancy. Evergreen’s headquarters housed a small museum, but that display also suggested that their ambitions were likely greater than their grasp. If you weren’t looking for the simple Evergreen sign, you’d just drive past this place.
In 1942 as well, people had grand plans for the HK-1 (as it was known when Henry J. Kaiser was involved in the project): it was to be the largest airplane yet, able to transport 750 troops or a couple of Sherman tanks across the Atlantic Ocean. The idea was for the War Department to give $18 million to Hughes and Kaiser, who would produce this cargo plane within two years to bolster the U.S. effort in World War II. As months, then years, went by (and Kaiser abandoned this flying ship), the project became known for the vast sums of money moving from the War Department to the Hughes Corporation. Hughes even added $7 million of his own money. In August 1947, Hughes was called before Congress to explain this colossal debacle. During his testimony, he stated, “I have my reputation all rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure I’ll probably leave this country and never come back.”
When the Spruce Goose finally took its maiden flight on Día de los Muertos, November 2, 1947, Howard Hughes manned the controls. (See video below.) The Wright brothers had flown for just 12 seconds, going 120 feet; 44 years later, Hughes flew five times longer and 42 times farther. He earned his right to stay in the country and go crazy in Las Vegas. (We’ve gone a little crazy in Las Vegas ourselves, and we’ll relate some of that in later feature posts.)
What fascinates us about the Spruce Goose is that it’s a story about creating success out of failure. Any large undertaking risks failure, sometimes feels as if it has become failure at given points. Flying just once, for only a mile, marks the H-4 as a failure. Yet, it’s a success too. It remains the tallest airplane, with the largest wingspan. It’s the largest seaplane and largest wooden plane. Its structure—beech not spruce (who can blame a reporter for a rhyming headline?)—with fabric-covered control surfaces, is gorgeous.
The innovations necessary for the Spruce Goose to fly mark the aircraft as a success, too. A special process—Duramold—was invented to build cross-grained laminate shapes for the fuselage; it is lighter than aluminum. The engineers devised an “artificial feel system” so the pilot, with the yoke in his hands, would feel as if he were flying a much smaller plane. Whatever force the pilot exerts is multiplied 200 times, so it is easier to fly than it should be. Such innovations have been used in future generations of aircraft, so the legacy of the Flying Boat lives on, not just in a relic and a single, short flight, but in present-day aviation. The building, design, and engineering processes added to our body of knowledge. That’s how we learn, after all—and how we write, too—by taking risks, making mistakes, and sticking with it.
To our great surprise, The Captain Michael King Smith Evergreen Aviation Educational Institute opened its doors on that Oregon roadside on July 6, 2001, with the fully restored Spruce Goose as its dominating centerpiece. Having seen the plane as its constituent pieces, the Spruce Goose proves that greatness exceeds the sum of the parts. Even though the museum houses dozens of other planes, the building stands as a cathedral—with sun streaming through the panes of its large window—devised to revere a singular aircraft.
The H-4’s most beautiful feature is that it’s formed out of wood, a simple, natural material. Wood was used because the original contract mandated Hughes not use material, like steel and aluminum, that was essential to the war effort. Beauty can emerge unexpectedly out of artificial constraints. Our moments together by the side of the road, as we peered at the disassembled plane, and then later in its omnipresence, emerged out of the constraints we faced, separated by more than 2000 miles for five years while we built the foundation for our future.
What Genetic Traits Run in Your Family? July 20, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Biology
Yesterday was the birthday of Anna’s Great-Aunt Katherine, with whom she shares the shape of nose. Anna’s father, who died on July 20, also had that nose shape. He had a bad back, too, once hospitalized after bending to pick up a shaving cream top. Ten years ago today, Anna’a sister was hospitalized when her back went out. How do we know why family members share traits?
On this date in 1822, the father of genetics, Gregor Mendel was born (some report July 22, likely his baptismal day). Motivated by a repetitive and isolated monastic life, Mendel spent much of his time studying and meticulously recording inherited traits in pea plants, and then in bees. During his lifetime, his biology work wasn’t much touted, but his peers liked what he had to say about meteorology so he founded a society for that.
Oh, and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in 1969. The televised images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking humankind’s first stroll there are Doug’s earliest memory. We’ll reminisce about this event in future posts!
Ways to Hide July 17, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Nuclear Weapons, Physics
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On July 17, 1962, the United States conducted its last atmospheric explosion of a nuclear weapon, Little Feller I in Operation Sunbeam. “It detonated perfectly, releasing its lethal radiation.” Robert F. Kennedy, then Attorney General, was in the bleachers to witness the nuclear detonation.
A concurrent military exercise, Operation Ivy Flats, brought troops to the site to execute the blast and study the effects of the weapon on equipment and personnel. That’s right, the military exploded the warhead, then “established the pattern of radiation intensities in the area of the operation,” and finally soldiers headed out over the desert to shoot artillery and mortar. “Immediately following the exercise, the battalion employed standard unit decontamination procedures to ensure that vehicles and men were freed of the main possible source of radioactive contamination. [...] No one needed further decontamination. Only two vehicles required a wash-down.”
One further above-ground operation, but with no explosive yield or nuclear reaction, was conducted to test the effects of accidental dispersal of radioactive material. But after that, our nuclear tests were hidden underground. We’ll have more on the nuclear testing program after our research trip to the Atomic Testing Museum later this year.
Shhh. In 1982, the B-2 Stealth Bomber made its flying debut, though the first operational B-2 wasn’t delivered for another 11 years. We saw one fly quietly over Columbus, Ohio, more than a year earlier. It exudes malevolence.
Today is also the anniversary of physicist Henri Poincaré’s death in 1912. Among other pursuits, he laid the foundation for chaos theory. “Modern man has used cause-and-effect as ancient man used the gods to give order to the Universe. This is not because it was the truest system, but because it was the most convenient.”
A Day with Two Suns July 16, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Physics
“The separation of the uranium isotopes in quantity lots is now being attempted in several places. If the reader wakes some morning to read in his newspaper that half the United States was blown into the sea overnight he can rest assured that someone, somewhere, succeeded.” That’s a nugget that two authors, in 1942, stuck into Applied Nuclear Physics toward the end of Chapter 10: Nuclear Fission.
In that book, Ernest Pollard of Yale University and William Davidson Jr. of the B. F. Goodrich Company (back in the day when most American industrial concerns did actual research instead of counting on universities and the government to do it for them) summarized the state of the art in nuclear physics at the time. Their tidy little tome comes in at just under 250 pages and is, even today, eminently readable. The writing is energetic and speculative, pointing to the fact that they were working to synthesize information in an emerging field where far more was unknown than known.
Although the outcome wasn’t as sensational as Pollard and Davidson predicted (and didn’t involve uranium), their prescience was proven exactly sixty-five years ago today in a remote part of New Mexico when the Manhattan Project’s Trinity Test took place. At 05:29:45 (some sources have the exact time as 05:30:00) Mountain War Time, scientists, engineers, and soldiers from the Manhattan Engineer District successfully tested the plutonium-based, implosion-type, atomic bomb, known to the members of the project as The Gadget. Very few moments in human history have had as great an effect on the events that followed. On July 16, 1945, three years after Pollard and Davidson made their cheeky remark, we entered the nuclear age.
O Blessed glorious Trinity,
Bones to Philosophy, but milke to faith,
Which, as wise serpents, diversly
Most slipperinesse, yet most entanglings hath,
As you distinguish’d undistinct
By power, love, knowledge bee,
Give mee a such selfe different instinct
Of these; let all mee elemented bee,
Of power, to love, to know, you unnumbred three.
A Ritual of Writing Together July 14, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
For the last four years, at least one night a week, sometimes twice, we’ve traipsed to a favorite local watering hole for dinner and drinks and to produce pages for our novels-in-progress. Most of our writing is done in isolation, but this night out is a chance to work side by side as well. By following this ritual, we each have completed a first draft of a novel and are well into revision. What at first seemed an excuse for a nerds’ date night has arguably turned into our most effective means for keeping our novels on track and ourselves on task as writers.
A happy concurrence is that the weekly outing has also embedded us in the lives of our communities in a particular way. We’re regulars. Instead of the cheery Hi, Norm, Hi, Cliff, our favorite server greets us every Sunday night with her friendly British hi, guys. Sit anywhere. Waitstaff in earlier days shared personal philosophy (every individual has an emotional gas tank), future plans, and insight on the news of the day (one was a student at Northern Illinois University when six people were shot there). After the waitstaff got to know us as writers (at first, we hesitated to tell anyone we were working on novels), they would let us stay until our last words were completed, sometimes closing up around us.
This writing ritual began at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, where we kick-started our novels in 2006. Kelly Dwyer had given Doug an assignment to listen to and write down real-life dialogue. He knew, from his bartending years, that a corner bar in a university town was a good place to do just that, so we planted ourselves at a sidewalk table, ordered a couple of beers, and Doug jotted down snippets of conversation uttered by people walking by and sitting around us. Surprisingly, some of this dialogue found its way into the first draft of Doug’s novel, The Chief and the Gadget. The actors changed from college students discussing politics to a priest and an old woman having the same conversation more than sixty years earlier, at the time the atomic bomb was being developed.
Upon returning to our suburban Illinois home, we sought out a place to recreate the success of that summer experience. We quickly rejected places with unsuitable acoustics and favorites of young colleagues and students. We chose instead Charlie’s Ale House, which had a dining area separate from the bar, a good menu, and a wide-ranging selection of beers. There, we honed our ritual. Anna would order the Greek salad, with blackened salmon substituted for chicken, and a pint of Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA. For Doug, it didn’t matter what he ate or drank, as long as he had a meal and a beer. In honing our writing-night ritual, the details were more important to one of us, but the experience worked for both of us.
Before and during the meal, we talked about our projects at work and other distractions of the day. This quickly became both a debriefing and warm-up to the writing, not directly part of the process, but important nonetheless. Sometimes, we discussed issues in our novels; bandying about titles led Anna to The Undone Years, drawn from a Wilfred Owen poem. Once the dishes were cleared and the table wiped down, we each began writing in our own Miquelrius notebook. We would write and write, stopping only briefly to sip from our beer and ponder a phrase. Usually, we wrote for more than an hour, until we felt for a natural stopping point, a pleasant form of exhaustion. Then, we each read to the other those pages that we had written, in part to hear it aloud and catch mistakes and opportunities, in part to have brief, immediate response. We depended so much on our weekly habit that when we had a visitor—Anna’s sister, a writer friend—we hauled that person along and hardly deviated from the process. This pattern, repeated hundreds of times, guided us all the way through our novel drafts.
And then we moved to California in August of 2008. We were unsettled and inundated with sunshine. We didn’t know where to go to recapture the previously engrained experience. We didn’t know how to adapt the process—eat, write, read aloud—to the revision process, when we were working from printed pages. We even discovered that, after we moved, our branch of Charlie’s closed its doors. The ritual as we had known it—as we had made it—ended. The ritual fell away completely.
But only for a short while. We had come to depend upon our ritual to produce pages and to think of ourselves and each other as practicing writers. We missed it when it disappeared. Our writing time felt more sporadic, less dependable. So we recreated a new version, this time at the Olde Ship in Santa Ana (a colleague recommended it) and Haven Gastropub in Orange, the latter of which is a short walk that became part of the new pattern. We share our meals now: a salad and a salmon appetizer or veggie burger (great fries!) at Olde Ship, a salad and flatbread or a spaghetti squash and ceviche at Haven. And that’s become part of the ritual, too. For now, we don’t read aloud, but we miss that part and will figure out how to make that useful again in the coming months.
We are busy people. At times, one or the other of us has been too busy to write at any other time during the week. We each used to be excellent at procrastination and could be tempted by its allure. It would be easy not to keep carving out this regular writing time together, especially when we’re tired or our schedules change. Sometimes, one of us travels, or after settling into Wednesday writing nights last fall, Anna was scheduled for a class that met on Wednesday night in the spring. In fact, part of the reason that we now have two nights and two places is because we sometimes have to skip a week, but having two nights makes it harder to skip the next time. Maybe a break from this recurring activity is refreshing and offers perspective on the work, but time away from this nerds’ date is time away from writing.
We’ve formed a habit, not an obligation so much as a commitment to each other, a writers’ allegiance. We’ve been surprised that environment almost always overrides exhaustion and renews focus. Without our ritual, each of us might have given up on the novel at some point in the last four years. A lot of novelists-in-the-making have great ideas and talent, but lose the struggle to keep the bum in the chair. Because of this ritual, we don’t give up on each other, so we can’t give up on our novels. If you want to find us tonight, we’ll be at Haven!
Finally, A Reason to Watch the Cubs Play This Season July 10, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
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Before we make our way to baseball, we note that Howard Hughes, who went on to build the Spruce Goose a few years later, made a record-breaking round-the-world airplane flight on July 10, 1938. It took him 91 hours to circle the globe.
Now, on to the reason to watch baseball this afternoon. In 1962, the first communications satellite, called Telstar, was launched by NASA for Ma Bell. It gave us our first live transatlantic television feed, and also transmitted telephone calls and fax messages. The first broadcast included President Kennedy’s remarks. But the signal came before Kennedy was ready, so some time was filled by broadcasting part of the baseball game in progress at Wrigley Field in Chicago before cutting away to the president. With each orbit the signal was available for just 20 minutes. Celebrate this technological leap by watching the Cubs game for 20 minutes!