Countdown to the Cape…3 again! October 31, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Space Shuttle
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We left California yesterday right on time, only to find out, once we arrived at our motel, that the Shuttle launch was delayed once again. With a little extra time to spare before Discovery takes flight, we headed over to Kennedy Space Center to get Anna’s mission media badge. But the launch slip–that’s what the KSC natives call it–seems to have left the badging facility closed on Sunday. Luckily, the KSC Visitor’s Center is right there, too. This happy accident of scheduling allowed us to see Discovery on the launch pad in person. She looks ready to go on Wednesday!
In the meantime, here is a sampling of photos, including one of the actual Shuttle on the actual launch pad, as well as photos of the actual barge that brought the external fuel tank from Louisiana and the actual crawler that moved the Shuttle to Pad 39A. This trip is now fully actualized for Lofty Ambitions!
Countdown to the Cape…3! October 30, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Movies & TV, Physics, Space Shuttle
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Next up in our countdown viewing is a set of DVDs called the Physics of Space Flight Series, from educational resource provider Physics Curriculum & Instruction. It’s accessible nerd stuff through and through. The three DVDs in the series include: Part I. Acceleration Machines: Launching a Space Vehicle (31:18 min), Part II. Physics in Space: Orbital Motion & Re-entry (28:05 min), and Part III. Gravity: A Broadened View (25:52 min). A print Teacher’s Guide is included with the three volumes.
The physics covered in the films is standard fare for a first-semester undergraduate mechanics course. In fact, the mathematics demonstrated in the films and the supporting Teacher’s Guide is basic plug-and-chug algebra (no calculus required!) and could easily be used in a high school course or by a motivated self-paced learner who remembers high school algebra.
The hook for the physics is that each of the illustrated physical principles (force, acceleration, gravity, etc.) and physical laws (Newton’s and Kepler’s) is motivated by describing the principle or law in the context of a NASA spacecraft. Most of the examples come from the Space Shuttle—such as how to calculate the thrust, or upward force, produced by the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) and Solid Rocket Booster (SRB)—but machines from the Apollo program and some satellites also appear.
These videos are fascinating even if your interest is only in the spacecraft themselves and not learning any new physics. The facts and figures used in the calculations keep our eyes glued. One of our favorite examples, which comes up several times, is the temperature extremes inherent in operating the Space Shuttle. The propellant for the SSME is liquid hydrogen. At -253 degrees Celsius, it is the second coldest liquid on earth! When liquid hydrogen is combined with liquid oxygen in the SSME, the temperature in the combustion chamber reaches 3300 degrees Celsius. Hot-hot-hot! At points in the Space Shuttle’s flight profile, the skin of the external fuel tank reaches 1000 degrees Celsius. This gives a temperature differential of more than 1200 degrees Celsius between the tank’s skin and the liquid hydrogen stored inside.
The Teacher’s Guide also contains a hidden gem for numbers nerds: a table of Space Shuttle Launch/Ascent Data. This table gives values for Event (such as Launch Tower Cleared), Total Engine Thrust, Total Shuttle Mass, Altitude, Acceleration, and Velocity against shuttle mission timestamps. The timestamps begin at T-6.5 seconds, Ignition of Main Engines, and run through 45 minutes, Final Circular Orbit Attained.
All in all, this DVD set has been an unexpectedly valuable tool as we’ve prepared for our visit to Cape Canaveral and the final launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. If you’re interested in any of the books and films that we’ve mentioned these last few days, don’t be shy—ask your local librarian to add them to your library’s collection, or borrow them through interlibrary loan. Also, check out an 8th-grader’s take on the physics of flight and Newton’s laws here.
Okay, we’re off to Cape Canaveral now! We’ll get acclimated tomorrow and give you an update right here at Lofty Ambitions. In the meantime, take a minute to read the piece in our local newspaper here.
Countdown to the Cape…holding at 4… October 29, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Space Shuttle
Last night, we worked our way through today’s blog post. But that’s on hold for now.
This morning, we woke to the news that we are featured at The Orange County Register. There, Doug recalls his earliest memories, as a toddler watching black-and-white images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on television. Anna points out, “there is something incredibly awesome to think that we staple human beings to a fuel tank and light it on fire, and it circles the Earth and everybody comes back almost all of the time.” By “awe,” we mean that strangely heightened combination of amazement, respect, and fear. Read the whole story here.
We also woke to the news that Disovery’s launch has been delayed until at least Tuesday, in order to repair helium and nitrogen leaks. Luckily, we had planned for this possibility. We had decided to stay in Florida several extra days because there are launch windows every afternoon next week. If STS-133 is repaired and ready to go, Tuesday is expected to be partly cloudy with a high temperature of 80 degrees. The forecast for Wednesday, on the other hand, includes isolated thunderstorms.
We’ve written about weather before at Lofty Ambitions, but now we’re thinking about how it affects a Shuttle launch. Of course, Challenger taught everyone that temperature matters. Next week, though, precipitation and lightning will be the greater concern. The Shuttle doesn’t launch when it’s raining anywhere along the flight path. If there’s more than a 20% chance of lightning within five nautical miles of the launch pad, tanking usually can’t begin. If lightning is observed within ten nautical miles, launch doesn’t occur until thirty minutes has passed, or the offending cloud has moved farther away. Sometimes, clouds alone delay a launch. And a delay of more than about ten minutes is a delay to the next day.
We’re off to the Cape tomorrow! On Sunday, Anna will pick up her media badge, and Doug will scope out viewing spots near Titusville. The launch delay might free up Monday for a tour of Kennedy Space Center, including the Rocket Garden and the Astronaut Memorial. Whatever we’re up to, we’ll continue our daily posts here as we make our way. And we’ll send our update on launch day to The O.C. Register too.
Countdown to the Cape…4… October 28, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Space Shuttle
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As yesterday’s post mentioned, we’re taking a divide and conquer approach to the preparation for our visit to Cape Canaveral. Where Anna is going to benefit from the full fourth-estate treatment, Doug will be taking the man-in-the-street approach. Actually, we’ve begun to refer to his role in this adventure as the man-on-the-beach role.
As any habitué of the Space Coast beaches knows, these sandy meeting places are awash in heated discussions of technical arcana of the NASA space program in general, and of the Shuttle in particular. For the past few weeks, Doug has been brushing up on Shuttle facts and figures so that he can get his geek on. He also wants to avoid being the proverbial 98-pound technical weakling getting the primary constituent of the Shuttle’s TPS—that’s the silicon-based Thermal Protection System—kicked in his face.
First up in Doug’s reading list was Dennis Jenkins’s Space Shuttle: The History of the National Transportation Systems—The First 100 Missions. Jenkins traces the history of an idea: reusable spacecraft. The book’s opening sentence starts with this: “Reusable space vehicles have been discussed for almost eighty years….” He may as well have gone on to finish that sentence by saying, “and I’m going to take you on a tour of that idea with the most comprehensive set of photographs and engineering diagrams of reusable space vehicles that have ever been assembled.” Instead, he demonstrates that idea for more than 500 pages. This book should be on the shelf of every space fan.
At the beginning, you’ll see the provocative designs that issued from the fevered imaginations of Wernher von Braun, Eugen Sänger, and the builders of America’s X-planes. Of particular interest is von Braun’s 1951 design study for a ferry rocket; it would look at home in a 50’s B-movie. Jenkins’ book also provides a substantial treatment of the Space Shuttle’s direct antecedents: Dyna-Soar and the Lifting-Bodies (fans of The Six Million Dollar Man and its opening sequence will be particularly pleased with the footnote on page 38). Other remarkable oddities covered along the way include the Saunders Kramer Astrocommuter, a design from 1960 that will look strikingly similar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the progress of SpaceShipTwo.
Designs that bear a resemblance to the current Space Shuttle begin to appear in Chapter V, Grand Ambitions. Dozens—perhaps hundreds—of design iterations are captured and illustrated by all manner of technical drawings: cutaways, three-views, illustrations, exploded views, and so on. The images could stand alone in picture book, but fortunately, the text is as technically rich and engaging as the images.
The second half of the book details the equipment and function of every major system of the Space Shuttle, including the two 747’s used to ferry the shuttle fleet between the landing and launching sites. Photographs outnumber drawings in this part of the book, and that’s to be expected, because most spacecraft represented by drawings in the first half of the book never made it off of the drawing board.
The photographs present the Shuttle in the kind of detail you would have experienced if you’d helped to build it. While the photos do give the reader a greater sense of the engineering masterpiece that is the Shuttle fleet, those drawings that appear are used to great effect. In particular, several drawings depicting the placement of that Thermal Protection System—those confounding tiles, engineered from grains of sand, able to reject the 2000-degree Fahrenheit fires that flicker on the Shuttle’s underside during reentry, the selfsame tiles that fall off and crack—are shown in a series of drawings that convey what a remarkable undertaking it is to check and repair them, one-by-one, after each flight.
Sometimes Doug has enjoyed the Jenkins book by flipping through a few pages, and other times by reading entire chapters. Either way, it’s rewarding each time he opens it.
Over the next few days, we’ll reveal more about our reading and viewing. We’re also busy catching up with laundry so that we can pack our bags for the expected low 80s at the Cape next week.
Countdown to the Cape: 10-9-8-7-6-5… October 27, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Movies & TV, Space Shuttle
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The final launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery—and the penultimate mission for the Space Shuttle program—is scheduled for Monday, November 1, 2010. Lofty Ambitions will be there! Anna will be at Kennedy Space Center with the press, and Doug will be watching with the crowds on the coast of Florida.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been catching up on the facts and lore of U.S. manned spaceflight. In our years together, there have been books we have both read, but often we purposefully divide our reading in order to cover more ground. That’s what we’ve done during our countdown to next week’s Shuttle launch. We are reading individually while working as a team. We’re discussing books and articles along the way, and watching videos together over lunch and dinner.
Anna just finished reading Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program. The book’s author is Pat Duggins, a news analyst for National Public Radio who’s covered almost a hundred Shuttle missions, including the fatal Challenger and Columbia missions. Published in 2007, the book holds out hope for the follow-on Project Constellation and its Orion capsule and Ares rocket. Since then, though, future manned space exploration has been cancelled or remains unfunded. After February’s final launch of Endeavour, it’s not clear that a NASA program of manned spaceflight will ever resume.
Pat Duggins points out, “The lifetime of the shuttle has been marked by a lack of focus and a series of compromises.” Whereas the Apollo program had a mission—land on the moon within the decade and beat the Soviets—before it had a spacecraft, the Shuttle was a vehicle without a well-defined mission or destination. Its course is limited to low-Earth orbit, mostly doing science in low gravity and launching satellites. These tasks led to compromises in design so that the new orbiter could serve scientific, commercial, and military needs. That said, the Shuttle was the only way we had to give the Hubble’s misshapen mirror eyeglasses to correct its vision. The first Hubble Space Telescope repair mission was the most complex mission in those early years, and required five spacewalks. Until the International Space Station (ISS) welcomed human beings in 2000, though, the destination for the Shuttle and the need for people to be launched into orbit wasn’t clearly defined. (To view the ISS in your night sky, go here for dates and times.)
In addition to the lack of focus and abundance of compromise, the program has lost two of its vehicles—Challenger and Columbia—in catastrophic failures, blamed in large part on NASA’s institutional culture. In addition to Enterprise, which was not built for orbital use and now resides at the Udvar-Hazy facility of the National Air and Space Museum (see NASM blog here), only five orbiters were built. On the surface 40 percent loss rate is not good. Yet, for a program that is on the critical edge of technological and organizational complexity, this loss rate isn’t unprecedented. The SR-71 Blackbird, the Mach 3+ spy plane, also lost 40 percent of its number (20 out of 50) in its thirty-plus-year program. And herein lies the trap in which the Shuttle was caught: the promise of airline-like reliability, but in an environment that is much less hospitable than the friendly skies.
One of the videos we watched last week was Space Race: Era of the Space Shuttle, which included a recap of the Challenger investigation (view the report here). We’d heard a lot of it before: O-ring, freezing ambient temperature, engineers warning of danger, higher-ups not listening. In a cultural gaffe, NASA managers ignored problems because, instead of understanding that a statistical problem remained the same flight after flight, they mistakenly assumed that successful flights lessened risk.
What struck us in this video, though, were tapes of Challenger’s launch in 1986, slowed down so that we could see the tiny flame pop through the joint of the solid rocket booster. The flame grew, joining the booster’s main flame, which thrust the Shuttle contraption into the atmosphere. When the Shuttle broke apart—disintegrating, not exploding, as it had seemed while we watched it on television in college—the pieces were identified on the video. The nearly intact crew cabin—the seven astronauts likely securely strapped inside—arced out and down into the ocean, where it was later recovered. Evidence exists—switches thrown by pilot Mike Smith, evacuation air supplies activated by three astronauts—that the crew was conscious for a few seconds, perhaps almost three minutes after the orbiter broke up.
The NOVA video Columbia: Space Shuttle Disaster was another look at Columbia’s demise in 2003. (Watch this NOVA here.) After Challenger, Columbia was the only remaining orbiter not equipped to dock with the International Space Station, so its mission was microgravity science research. Because the heavy robotic arm wouldn’t be needed for those experiments, it was left on the ground. When engineers saw that foam had struck the Shuttle during launch, there was no robotic-arm camera available to look around outside before returning home. Had the hole in the leading edge of the left wing been discovered, the Shuttle couldn’t have docked with the Space Station to wait indefinitely for help. What was new to us was the vivid experiment that investigators used to prove to doubting engineers that a handful of light foam could, when hit by an accelerating Shuttle or shot from an equivalent gun, rupture a large hole in the wing (view the report here).
Earlier this fall, we attended a screening of An Article of Hope, which looked at the Columbia accident through a focus on Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. (See Guest Blog by the film’s producer here.) In both these films, what remains most striking is how much survived, including video shot inside the crew cabin shortly before it broke apart. Searchers recovered 70,000 pieces of Columbia, representing 37 percent of the spacecraft by weight. This debris is stored by Kennedy Space Center for future study, where the debris from Challenger—55% percent of the orbiter—is buried in a missile silo. (To view debris photos, click here.)
Discovery was the “return to space” orbiter after both Challenger and Columbia. It takes flight for the last time next week. Despite the troubled history of the Space Transportation System (STS), we’re looking forward to being there for STS-133. Next year marks thirty years of Shuttle service, which has achieved what few national efforts have ever managed to do.
We’ll count down to the Cape every day, cover launch day on Tuesday, and write as the mission unfolds next week. If you don’t want to miss any of the Lofty Ambitions countdown, subscribe to posts via email in the right sidebar (below the search).
October 23: Sing, Sing a Song October 23, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Other Stuff, Space Exploration.
Tags: Movies & TV, Music
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On October 23, 2001, Apple released the iPod into the world. The snazzy little device cornered the market within three years, and 220 million iPods had been sold by fall of 2009. Sales of the iPod dropped earlier this year, perhaps because folks with iPods already in one hand want a new gadget like the iPad in the other. The Center for Disease Control warns, however, that long-term exposure to high volume on MP3 devices can cause damage. For instance, if you listen to your MP3 while you mow your lawn, you could damage your hearing within 15 minutes, according to some reports. Despite declining sales and possible hearing loss for the most enthusiastic users, the iPod hasn’t dropped into mere memory. In fact, now on its ninth birthday, there’s Nano, Touch, and Shuffle in addition to the Classic iPod.
The man who wrote “Thanks for the Memory” died on this date in 1942. Ralph Rainger and 11 other passengers and crew on an American Airlines DC-3 were killed in a collision with an Air Force bomber in the skies over California. The DC-3 lost its rudder at an altitude of 9000 feet. The B-34 landed safely, and the pilot was later acquitted on manslaughter charges in a court martial. Ralph Rainger’s song was originally talked-sung by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross in the film The Big Broadcast of 1938 and became the theme song of Bob Hope, for whom Burbank renamed the airport in 2003. For a discussion of this and other film songs, see THIS Fresh Air piece.
Another Ralph Rainger song: “I Wished on the Moon”
Pieces of NASA in Our Hands October 20, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Museums & Archives
In less than two weeks, the space shuttle, the first reusable Space Transportation System (STS), will undertake the program’s penultimate mission: STS-133. The scheduled date: November 1. The scheduled time: 4:40 p.m. EDT. Launch window: 10 minutes. The place: Pad 39A of the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex. It’s already there getting ready!
When the countdown hits zero, a fundament-shaking roar, releasing enough sonic energy to light a good-sized town, will wash over the Cape. OV-103 Discovery will slowly rise toward orbit and the International Space Station on its 39th and final mission. Within a couple of minutes, Discovery’s velocity will reach a staggering 7700 meters per second and begin orbiting the Earth at 122 nautical miles, as velocity, gravity, and distance become locked in a delicate embrace that leaves the shuttle’s crew falling weightless for eleven days.
On October 30, Lofty Ambitions begins our countdown, too, so that we can be in Cape Canaveral to witness Discovery’s final voyage with an expected crowd of 500,000 fellow NASA nerds, lookie loos, and well-wishers. Anna will be going to the Cape as an officially recognized member of our nation’s fourth estate. We’ll be working on an article for a forthcoming issue of Chapman Magazine. In advocating our request for press credentials to NASA, Public Relations Editor Dennis Arp mentioned Chapman University’s ongoing program to collect NASA-related materials for the archives at Leatherby Libraries. As luck would have it, the first set of NASA artifacts arrived from Houston’s Johnson Space Center just yesterday.
Two large boxes and a smaller, flat box arrived in all their cardboard shipping brown glory and made their way to the library’s fourth-floor conference room. There, Doug—along with the able and enthusiastic support of Dean Charlene Baldwin, Associate Dean Kevin Ross, Special Collection Head Claudia Horn, Archivist Rand Boyd, and Library Systems Technician Amanda Bowers—opened the boxes, dug through snowy-white shipping peanuts, and revealed three display models: a 1/100th scale Space Shuttle, an Orbiting Geophysical Observatory (OGO), and a Nimbus weather satellite.
Rand Boyd and Doug were immediately taken with the original shipping/display cases in which the OGO and Nimbus were sent. Wooden, sheathed in a textured green veneer, and nearly fifty years old, each case contained assembly instructions and torn, yellowed photographs of the models in their demonstration and teaching roles. As Doug opened the boxes, dust, tiny splinters of aging wood, and the aroma of long-term storage wafted out of the cases. If these items were offered on Ebay, the cheeky seller would describe these items as “well loved.” The OGO and Nimbus models will likely need complete restorations. We can’t help but imagine whose—and how many—hands held each of these three replicas. The thought occurred to Doug that the last group of people who used these items on the job are more than likely no longer on the job themselves. It was a momentary reminder of the fragility of our creations, made more relevant by another recent discussion.
Two weeks ago at the North American Aviation Day at Torrance Airport, a former North American wind tunnel engineer relayed to us the unhappy end to the Trisonic wind tunnel. After being gifted to UCLA, the Trisonic was deemed an environmental hazard and torn down in 2009 to make room for a parking lot (as if no environmental irony existed in encouraging more driving here in the home of our nation’s worst traffic). This conversation about the wind tunnel was a reminder that enormous swaths of Southern California’s aviation and aerospace legacy are disappearing. (We’ll have more posts in the future about these historic places.)
Guest Blogger Joe Bonomo October 18, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Art & Science
Today, we feature Joe Bonomo, a fellow Ohio University alum and blogger. His essays and prose poems appear recently in The Normal School, Fourth Genre, Brevity, New Ohio Review, Hotel Amerika, and Center. He’s the author of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Installations (National Poetry Series), and Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band. He teaches at Northern Illinois University. Visit him at No Such Thing As Was.
ABSTRACTING MY DAD
There are two worlds: the world we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imagination. To be sensible of the truth of only one of these, is to know truth but by halves. ~ James Henry Leigh Hunt
He was 11 or 12, the son of a day laborer, a little Italian kid browsing an oversized book about mathematics in his neighborhood public library in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He paused at a page devoted to the Integral, and something about the curve of the classical form, the inscrutable but familiar nature of it, grabbed him. Fascinated, and in a kind of pre-teen bravado, he determined that one day he’d master the meaning of this math symbol. Fast forward: graduate school at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and he’s befuddled at the Wonder Bread placed on the table at the local Italian restaurant, but he’ll find his studies engrossing, especially the math courses involving integral calculus. He’ll soon get a job at IBM, and for decades will make wide use of integral calculus while working on NASA’s unmanned scientific spacecraft program, with navigation, meteorology, astronomical, and earth-survey satellites, ballistic missile defense systems, telecommunication systems, highly classified military intelligence systems, launch vehicle payload weight analysis and allocation, geosynchronous orbit analysis, system reliability analysis, and Global Positioning Satellites. He’d raise a family. Among his brood one son became a mathematics professor, one an engineer, one a telecommunications lawyer. And one who can’t shake loose from his memory an abstract painting called Broken Integral.
I have five siblings. The moment my oldest brother was able to look after my youngest, my parents vaulted to a neighborhood restaurant, the first time they’d been out, alone, in years, and this became a weekly ritual that has lasted for decades. Sometimes while my parents were away, my older brothers and sister converted the basement into “Magic Night.” Lowered fluorescent lights. A dramatically thrown flashlight beam. Some eerie music playing from a scratchy LP. Home from the restaurant, my parents would be our audience, and ooh and ahh and clap with parental largess. A paint easel stood in a corner of the basement, and for one of the illusions, one of us would untie a coat hanger and secure one end around a paint brush while another would grip the other end and lurk behind the white-vinyl curtain that separated the basement from my dad’s work space (One year, in what seemed to me like creating fire, he built a television set from a kit, the conjuring of a soldering iron, an oscilloscope, and some circuit boards.) Our invisible painter moved his brush back and forth across a propped canvas. We dubbed him “Vincent Van Gone.” My parents duly applauded. I had to go to bed soon after.
More than a comic prop, this easel became a locus. Resting on it for many years was an odd, intense painting created by my dad, a lifetime mathematician, a man seduced and charmed by the ways of numbers, the hard, cruel circuit of spaceflight, and the objections of infinity. I’ve always been struck by the surreal sadness of the piece, originating as it did in a burst of inspiration. At IBM one afternoon, talking with my uncle about painting, my dad suddenly had the desire to paint. He rushed home — the image fully formed already — and put the composition together quickly. The lurid colors, the broiling, setting-sun vanishing point (I always see the sun setting, not rising), the tumbling Infinity symbol, the unmoored and wandering “O” at the bottom corner, the fractured Integral symbol itself: the mood is forcefully disturbed, and unhappy. My dad is not an unhappy man. For many years, the contrasts between his temperamental conservatism and the bleakness of the painting, his love of numbers and systems, and the curious content of this image led to an unknown: my dad’s shadowy, emotional life. An integral completes, forms a unit; his commingling of rational mathematics and irrational art-making, the rigidity of numerals, and the wandering of the imagination surprised and moved me.
Recently I asked my dad about the painting, and he confessed to me that he later decided that Disenchantment would have made for a more fitting title. I guess the beauty, mystery, and intrigue of the integral faded over the years, he said. Recently when I was in Williamsburg I looked for that book that he loved as a kid, but the library at Leonard and Devoe Streets had long been remodeled, re-shelved, re-catalogued. The book is gone.
10:17 Birthdays & More October 16, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Einstein, Space Shuttle
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Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s remember Evel Knievel, dressed in his red, white, and blue garb. He attempted to jump this, that, and the other thing, including the Snake River Canyon on a motorcycle—or rather, on a Skycycle with a steam-powered rocket engine. (See the video here.) For twenty years, he held the record for jumping 19 cars. Unlike Fonzie’s jumping of a shark in 1977, however, Knievel’s shark jump in Chicago in 1976 was thwarted by an unsuccessful rehearsal; he broke both arms, and a camera operator lost an eye. Evel Knievel died in 2007.
Mae Jemison was the physician aboard the Space Shuttle’s 47th mission in 1992 and the first African-American woman in space. Born in Alabama, her family moved to Chicago when she was three years old. After graduating from Morgan Park High School, she started college at Stanford University when she was sixteen. In 1977, she earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and also fulfilled the requirements for a B.A. in African-American Studies. Then, she became a physician, served two years in the Peace Corps, and was accepted to the astronaut program in 1987. She appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993, the year she retired from NASA. See her TED talk here.
On October 17, 1933, Albert Einstein moved to the United States. He became a U.S. citizen seven years later. Einstein died in 1955, after stating, “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share; it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.” But death didn’t stop his migration. Thomas Stolz Harvey removed and preserved Einstein’s brain within hours of the scientist’s death, and then kept it for decades. After a trip chronicled in Driving Mr. Albert, Einstein’s brain—or most of it—now resides once again at Princeton University. (Visit his digital archive here.)
On Innovation, or Finding the Proper Pen October 13, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Apollo, Cognitive Science, Physics, Serendipity
Apollo 7 launched on October 11, 1968, for its eleven-day mission to orbit the Earth. Walter Schirra, Donn Eisele, and R. Walter Cunningham—Apollo 7’s crew—had been a back-up crew for an earlier planned manned mission. But what became known as Apollo 1 never launched; its crew perished in a cabin fire during a test on the launch pad. Apollo 1’s 1967 back-up crew was reassigned as Apollo 7’s crew. Schirra became the only astronaut to fly Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. On the Apollo 7 mission, he, then Eisele, developed a head cold, and space colds are especially bad because mucous doesn’t drain in zero gravity. That, along with motion sickness, dissatisfaction with the meals, inconvenient solid waste collection, and some fogged windows, made for enough grumpiness that these three astronauts were never again chosen for mission crews.
The space pen, however, made its orbital debut in the hands of Apollo 7’s crew and has been writing itself into history ever since. Fisher, the pen’s manufacturer, finished development of its zero-gravity pen in 1965, NASA tested it for two years, and the Apollo 7 crew finally put the ballpoint—with its pressurized ink cartridge—to use in space. Pencils had been dangerous and costly; 34 mechanical pencils for Gemini were reported to cost $128 each. Like pencils, the space pen can write at any angle, in extreme temperatures, and even underwater. Moreover, pens don’t break off into free-floating, bit-sized projectiles. Anyone who’s tried to use an Energel, which is otherwise fantastic, on an airplane can surmise what might go wrong with a pen in space. But Fisher solved every writing problem with their new pen. And media reports at the time made it a bargain by comparison to the pricey Gemini pencils, at just $6 per item. NASA ordered 400, and Fisher forever cornered the market in both the United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia.
The space pen was a great idea! While pondering this graphological innovation on Saturday, we wandered around Southern California. We ended up at Vroman’s Bookstore to hear Steven Johnson explain Where Good Ideas Come From. We’d read his earlier book Emergence years ago, and we’d been looking for an excuse to visit Pasadena’s independent bookshop. Johnson’s latest book discusses various “patterns of innovation,” just the sort of thing to fuel our Lofty Ambitions.
One of Johnson’s most interesting anecdotes in the book—and in his talk at Vroman’s—stems from the launch of Sputnik on Friday, October 4, 1957. Physicists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory were buzzing about the news by the following Monday. Somebody suggested trying to pick up Sputnik’s signals, George Weiffenbach had a receiver right there in his office, and the Soviets broadcast on an accessible signal so that nobody would claim the satellite was a hoax. Ta-dah, listening to the satellite was easy, once someone decided to try to do it.
Then, someone suggested recording the signals, and, of course, there were tape recorders right there at the lab. Once they started recording, William Guier and George Weiffenbach wondered whether they could, if they listened to the tapes, use the Doppler effect to figure out the satellite’s movement based on changes in the waveform of the signals. It turned out that, in a few hours, two guys could calculate both Sputnik’s speed and trajectory. Now that’s ingenuity—that’s quite an accomplishment.
Then, some bigwig asked these two guys another question: If you can calculate a satellite’s position from a stationary receiver on the ground, can you figure out the location of a receiver if you know the satellite’s exact orbit? Yes, the two guys said, that problem “was eminently solvable.” Within three years, we had “five U.S. satellites in orbit, providing navigational data to the military,” most importantly to submarines whose location wasn’t fixed.
In other words, two guys spent a few hours in 1957 giving birth to a Global Positioning System (GPS). In 1983, after Korean Air 007 was shot down as a result of faulty ground-based navigation, satellite-based navigation was opened to civilian use. Now, our cars tell us when to make a right turn, and our phones tell us where the nearest coffee shop is located. Once the platform—platform is the pattern Steven Johnson sees in this example of innovation—is established, emergent or “generative power” leads to more and more innovation. Eventually, automobile drivers don’t need to know how satellites work, nor do they even need their own maps, in order to get where we want to go.
We haven’t yet finished reading Where Good Ideas Come From, but we already know that “Serendipity” is our favorite chapter. We’ve long held that serendipity is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. Here’s how Steven Johnson defines it:
[S]erendipity is not just about embracing random encounters for the sheer exhilaration of it. Serendipity is built out of happy accidents, to be sure, but what makes them happy is the fact that the discovery you’ve made is meaningful to you. It completes a hunch, or opens up a door in the adjacent possible that you had overlooked. […] Serendipity needs unlikely collisions and discoveries, but it also needs something to anchor those discoveries.
We purchased our first space pens at the National Air and Space Museum in 1991, probably in October. At that time, we had no plans to write about those pens roughly twenty years later. But Sputnik launched on an October Friday in 1957, Apollo 7 launched in October 1968, and Steven Johnson talked with us about serendipity this past October Saturday. How could we not write about space pens this month?