It Takes a Village To Build a Blog June 27, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Apollo, Art & Science, Museums & Archives, Serendipity, Space Shuttle, SpaceX
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Two years ago this coming Sunday, we launched Lofty Ambitions blog. This piece marks our 276th post. At this second anniversary of our work together as bloggers, we can’t help but reflect that it’s not just about us, that one thing led to another, and that Lofty Ambitions has become more than the sum of its parts.
Two years ago, not many people knew we were interested in the space program and thinking about trying to attend a space shuttle launch. But word traveled quickly, and now family, friends, and strangers refer to us as space nerds. Last fall, when we were checking in for Homecoming at Knox College, a woman behind us said something like, Look, it’s the space nerds. Although we had never met this woman before in person, she had contacted us by email during one of our trips to Space Coast for a shuttle launch. While we were momentarily taken aback by the sudden collapsing of our online world with our physical world, we were happy to be recognized for what we were trying to build and discuss. And she went so far as to suggest that her husband—a scientist, museum curator, and fellow traveler to the Space Coast—might want to write a guest blog. We can’t wait to see it (nudge, nudge).
Occasionally, in extremely thoughtful gestures, these people who’ve discerned our lofty interests give us gifts accordingly. These objects have become part of the blog and our way of thinking about who we are in the world. Even before we began this blogging adventure, our friends Lisa and Jim gave us a beautiful wooden aircraft propeller, a wedding gift and a symbol of our departure for California. Since then, Anna’s mother has passed along a wooden model of the space shuttle that she picked up at an auction. Doug’s boss brought us a rubber bathtub-worthy version of the shuttle that he picked up at an aviation museum. Most recently, Doug’s mom sent us Astro-Barbie and a Lego model of the space shuttle to build, two gifts we wrote about HERE.
Gifts work two ways, of course. One of the objects we purchased during a visit to Kennedy Space Center was a mission patch for STS-107, the last mission of the orbiter Columbia. We gave this memento to Marilyn Harran, the Director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University, the university where we work. That patch, really just a little something we picked up and thought she might appreciated personally, is now on display as part of a tribute to Ilan Ramon, one of the astronauts who perished in the Columbia accident.
We gave the patch to Marilyn because she recognized us as space nerds early on. In fact, she invited us to a screening of An Article of Hope hosted by the Rodgers Center, and one of the producers of that film about Ilan Ramon and the Columbia accident became our first guest blogger (read his post HERE). Astronaut Mike Massimino participated via Skype in the discussion after the film showed, and we interviewed Massimino months later (see that video HERE), when he and we were at Kennedy Space Center to watch a launch. Even more recently, Marilyn invited us to the naming celebration for the Ilan Ramon Day School, where we saw Ramon’s wife speak and met astronaut-turned-SpaceX-manager Garrett Reisman (read about that HERE).
Other mission patches from the mother of Sally Ride, the nation’s first woman in space, were donated to the Leatherby Libraries by a library board member, in large part because Doug has made it known we’re interested in space exploration and the shuttle program. Doug has also worked with NASA to add several original models of satellites and a thermal tile from a shuttle orbiter to the library’s archives (read more HERE and HERE).
The most extensive collection of shuttle-related materials in the archives is the Roger and Roberta Boisjoly NASA Challenger Disaster Collection. The collection consists of boxes of documents, photos, and pieces of o-rings that Roger donated to Chapman University as a result of his long-time friendship with our colleague Mark Maier, who studies workplace ethics. Recently, Doug has worked with archivist Rand Boyd to develop a lecture and traveling exhibit, which made its debut at the Columbia Memorial Space Center earlier this month (an event that deserves its own post in the weeks to come). Roger, who died early this year, wrote a guest post for us HERE.
The objects—the propeller, the toys, the patches—represent the people and events who have shaped, cheered on, and contributed to the blog. The people, events, and objects, along with our writing here, have become a self-reinforcing process. We rack up this dynamic to serendipity, knowing full well that these happy collisions aren’t really accidental. Shared intellectual space, whether physical (Doug works across the hall from Marilyn) or virtual, creates the opportunity for these interactions. Because the blog keeps us attuned to all things space, science, and writing, we notice and can take advantage of these interactions because they’re especially meaningful to us.
We know we’re not alone in this project we call Lofty Ambitions. One of the most wonderful examples of the village that builds this blog is the email we received from a father whose son was doing a history project about space exploration and the Cold War. The boy and his research partner wanted to talk with an Apollo astronaut because such a primary source would distinguish their project in the state competition. We pointed the father to a few contacts, with little expectation that he’d get through. Alan Bean, Apollo 16 veteran and now a painter, responded to the man’s email almost immediately and set up a ten-minute phone conversation with the fifth-grade historian. Inspired by that success, the man tracked down a couple of other astronauts. The boy and his research partner became champions in California’s National History Day state competition.
Lofty Ambitions is more than the sum of its parts. It’s more than what you see on the blog each week. The reach and rewards of our work are greater than the number of hits, re-posts, or tweets. As we mark our two years of traveling and writing together, we thank our readers for becoming part of the village that builds a blog.
On This Date: Ilan Ramon June 20, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Movies & TV, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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On this date in 1954, Ilan Ramon was born in Israel. Both his mother and his grandmother survived the concentration camp at Auschwitz, a family history that shaped Ramon’s outlook and goals in life.
In 1997, Ramon was chosen for astronaut training by NASA. Like many astronauts, his background was as a military pilot. He graduated from flight school in 1974, then flew for the Israeli Air Force and served in a variety of capacities before turning his attention to astronaut training in July 1998.
Ramon trained for several years, and he was ultimately named as the Payload Specialist on the crew to fly Columbia on STS-107. That mission launched on January 16, 2003.
Astronauts are allowed to carry with them onboard a few personal items. Ramon chose a drawing called “Moon Landscape,” which had been sketched by a boy who died in Auschwitz, the same concentration camp that Ramon’s mother and grandmother had survived. He also took with him a mezuzah from the 1939 Club, a miniature Torah, a copy of a Torah on microfilm, and a piece of money from a rabbi.
Ramon spent fifteen days in space with Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William C. McCool, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, and Mission Specialists David M. Brown, Kalpana Chalwa, and Laurel Clark. These astronauts did not return to Earth safely.
During launch, a piece of foam insulation broke off the external fuel tank and hit the orbiter. Almost light as air, foam was assumed to be relatively harmless, but at launch speed, it can and did punch a hole in the thermal tiles on the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing. Engineers who reviewed the video of the launch requested that the Department of Defense use its imaging abilities to examine the orbiter for damage, but NASA didn’t process those requests. Thermal tile damage from foam had occurred before, and everything had turned out okay.
On February 1, at about 8:15a.m. EST, Columbia began its de-orbit to return for a landing at Kennedy Space Center. At 8:48a.m., a sensor in the left wing indicated something was amiss. Though no one knew at the time what was happening, the hole in the thermal tile had already allowed heat as high as 2500º F to hit the wing’s aluminum surface. By the time Columbia was over California, just before 6a.m. on the West Coast, its wing exhibited a bright streak visible from the ground. Several sensors began reading “off-scale low”; the sensors weren’t functioning because the wing had been damaged internally.
Over the course of several minutes, the orbiter broke apart, succumbing to violent supersonic forces that pull an object in multiple directions at once. Through most of this breakup, the crew cabin remained intact, a testament to the shuttle’s design engineers. Eventually, though, even that component broke into pieces. The crew was dead by 9:01a.m. EST on February 1, 2003. President George W. Bush announced the accident that afternoon and assured the country that the shuttle program would continue, though he set its end date the following year for 2010.
While aboard Columbia, Ilan Ramon kept a diary, thirty-seven pages of which survived the accident. Ramon’s wife, Rona, put two pages of that diary on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Though we had watched the coverage of the Columbia accident in 2003, we became informed about Ramon at a screening of the film An Article of Hope at Chapman University. You can read the guest post by Christopher Cowen, one of the film’s producers, HERE. More recently, we attended a celebration of the naming of the Ilan Ramon Day School here in California, an event at which Rona Ramon spoke eloquently about her husband’s life. You can read our post about that HERE.
On this anniversary of Ilan Ramon’s birth, we remember that he died doing what he most wanted to accomplish in life and that the space shuttle program made it possible for a wider variety of people to reach space than ever before. Ramon was just 48 years old when he died, an age not very far off for this Lofty duo, offering us yet another reminder to appreciate the life we live every day.
Going Nuclear: From New Mexico to Colorado to Nevada June 13, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
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Today’s post is an extension of or at least directly related to our “In the Footsteps” series, in which we trace the nuclear history of the United States.
On this date in 1911, Luis W. Alvarez was born. He would go on to become a world-renowned physicist, eventually awarded the Nobel Prize in 1968 for his work in particle physics, resonance states, bubble chambers, and data analysis. Just before his work on nuclear weapons at Los Alamos, Alvarez, while based briefly at the University of Chicago, helped develop a plan for the first intelligence gathering and monitoring of nuclear development in other countries, at the time Germany.
Then, he became one among a host of scientists who worked at Los Alamos in New Mexico on the Manhattan Project. There, Alvarez worked on the first plutonium bomb, Fat Man, which was used on Nagasaki. In fact, he flew on The Great Artiste with the detection equipment he developed to measure the explosive power of the nuclear detonations over both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, he turned his attention to particle accelerators, the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, and the cause of dinosaur extinction.
Last Tuesday, Anna headed over to the local Barnes & Noble to pick up the new book by a recent Lofty Ambitions guest blogger. Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats made its debut on June 5, 2012, and as a Discover Great New Writers selection. The book has been chosen as a common reader for incoming students at Virginia Commonwealth University, and it’s getting great reviews. So Anna tucked it into her bag and headed off to Las Vegas to read it under the cabana.
What we like about Full Body Burden is the concept of science writing to which we keep returning here at Lofty Ambitions, namely that good science writing tells a story and is about the people as well as the science or technology. Kristen goes one step further, as we do here on our blog, by weaving her own story—memoir—into the larger cultural story. Or rather, Kristen recognizes that she too is part of the story of Rocky Flats in Colorado, where she spent her childhood and where plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons were produced until 1992. So we learn about Kristen’s horses—Tonka, Sassy, and the others—and family life in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as about the fires in 1957 and 1969 at the Rocky Flats facility operated then by Dow Chemical.
The story of Rocky Flats, including its two major fires and its day-to-day leakage, is one that most of us don’t know. To put its importance in perspective, here’s a tidbit from Full Body Burden: “In early December 1974, residents wake up to a socking headline in the Rocky Mountain News: cattle near rocky flats show high plutonium level. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study has found that cattle in a pasture just east of Rocky Flats have more plutonium in their lungs than cattle grazing on land at the Nevada Test Site, where the United States conducted hundreds of aboveground nuclear explosions in the 1950s and 1960s. Plutonium, uranium, americium, tritium, and strontium are found in measurable quantities in the cows’ bodies, and levels of plutonium in the lungs and tracheo-bronchial lymph nodes of the cows are especially high.”
Indeed, 928 nuclear tests (some with multiple detonations) were conducted both above and below ground at the Nevada Test Site (check this link to see warning to users) between 1951 and 1992, the year the United States agreed to a nuclear test ban and the year Rocky Flats stopped producing plutonium triggers. While the United States performed more than 200 atmospheric tests, some of those were done in the Pacific Ocean. The vast majority of nuclear tests in Nevada—more than eight hundred—were underground detonations. The last aboveground test at the Nevada Test Site occurred on July 17, 1962. Of course, underground tests raised dust too, and some, like Buster-Jangle Uncle in 1951 and Baneberry in 1970, had visible releases of fallout well above the Earth’s surface.
We know these facts about the Nevada Test Site in part because, while in Las Vegas, we usually visit the Atomic Testing Museum on Flamingo Road, just a few minutes drive off The Strip. Doug drove out to Las Vegas on Saturday to spend the night and retrieve Anna and some friends. So this trip provided another opportunity to visit the museum on Sunday, in the midst of reading about the nation’s nuclear history in Full Body Burden.
In the films at the museum, we were reminded of what the shift from aboveground testing to underground testing meant for the people involved in the program. One person pointed out that, though many scientists and engineers initially opposed the move, “The data was much better underground.” Another man, though, worries that, when we moved nuclear testing underground and out of sight, “We shielded ourselves and the public from what a nuclear test is really like.” The United States hasn’t conducted a critical nuclear explosion in twenty years.
The Nevada Test Site remains ready to resume nuclear testing, though. A test site engineer in one of the museum’s films went so far as to state, “As long as you have a nuclear stockpile, the day will come when you have to have a nuclear test.” A New York Times article this year notes that our current agreement with Russia limits us to 1550 deployed weapons and “thousands more warheads [that] can be kept in storage as a backup force” and additional short-range nuclear weapons. Given the order for a nuclear test, the Nevada Test Site could be ready again within two or three years.
Tags: Dryden Flight Research Center, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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In last week’s post (with links to the whole series), we covered the aircraft and other artifacts that are on display at Palmdale’s Joe Davies Heritage Airpark and Blackbird Airpark—the first two parts of our Palmdale Trifecta. This week, we’re returning attention to Blackbird Airpark because, in addition to the static aircraft on display, the facility also has a museum on the premises. More importantly, the museum was staffed by two docents, Lloyd Proffitt and Ray Vonier. As we often discuss at Lofty Ambitions, it’s the stories told by people about the technology they had a hand in creating that breathes life into machines, which would otherwise be merely static displays, immobile and inanimate.
When Doug spoke with Lloyd and Ray, each of the men was generous with his time and spoke freely about his lengthy aerospace career and his current involvement as a volunteer at the air park.
The history of the aviation industry, particularly in defense- and space-oriented Southern California, has been of cycles of boom and bust. Lloyd spent forty-seven years with Boeing, retiring in 2009. Layoffs and moving from one aerospace company to another, following whoever had just signed a large contract, has been commonplace for employees in the aviation industry. That Lloyd was only laid off once—for a brief two months—and spent his entire company with a single company is rather remarkable.
Lloyd started his career in aerospace as a Flight Test Engineer working on the Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM) program. Lloyd’s position involved base activations—essentially all the work required to introduce and deploy the missile from a new sight—at Air Force bases all around the country. Lloyd’s travels began in White Sands, New Mexico, and saw him pass through K.I. Sawyer AFB (now Sawyer Airport) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (a place where Doug and Anna once took a behind-the-scenes tour) and Griffis AFB in upstate New York. A highlight in Lloyd’s later career was working on Air Force One, the plane on which the President of the United States flies. Lloyd has been a volunteer at Blackbird Airpark’s museum and gift store for two years, and he says he did it because he wanted to “give back a little bit.”
While Lloyd’s aviation career covered an impressive timeframe, he has a way to go in terms of volunteering at the museum before he catches up with Ray Vonier. Ray has spent nearly a whole career as a volunteer at Blackbird Air Park: twenty-one years.
Ray’s contributions have touched upon nearly every aspect of the airpark and museum. He helped to restore both the A-12 and SR-71 aircraft there. One of his many tasks included replacing one thousand screws in the SR-71 during a year-long restoration. Another project that Ray took on was to build a number of SR-71s and A-12s as model airplanes. Each of the model aircraft he built is on display in a case behind the museum’s gift store counter. Each is a faithful replica of a specific aircraft, and most are signed by Blackbird pilots who flew the actual aircraft. Also in the model display case is a remarkable toy reconnaissance pilot in a pretty faithful-looking yellow pressure suit. When Doug asked Ray where he got it, he replied that they were long out of production but that they occasionally showed up on internet auction sites. Ray hastened to add that they weren’t cheap.
Ray spent his career as an electrician and one of the programs he worked on was shuttle. He specifically contributed to the building of two orbiters: Atlantis and Columbia. Ray insisted that it was a privilege to work on shuttle and that “they didn’t have to pay me.” He added with a very earnest smile that he had “a lot of memories on that program.” Intriguingly, Ray ended our conversation by mentioning that he’d worked at “The Area”—Area 51, the secret military base—for a year, but he couldn’t talk about that particular time in his career.
At Lofty Ambitions, it’s pretty clear at this point that we like airplanes. A lot. For various reasons, intellectual and aesthetic.
We also like people. Their stories are the meaningful context for the aircraft. These stories add a dimension to the aircraft, one that you couldn’t see even if they still flew. People poured their lives into creating these machines, and those stories are every bit as important as the flight characteristics and operational history.
Lofty Ambitions at The Huffington Post June 2, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Space Shuttle, SpaceX
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Yep, that’s right. We’re blogging at The Huffington Post, too.
Our co-written posts there are, of course, about the same sorts of things we discuss here. But the content is different, and we take a slightly different approach there. And if you read the comment threads over at HuffPost, you’ll see a lot of strong opinions about space exploration, the role of NASA, the future of SpaceX, and much more. We’d like our regular Lofty Ambitions readers to get involved in that HuffPost conversation too.
Here are the links to our pieces published at The Huffington Post thus far:
SpaceX: Giving Berth, Hatching, Making a Splash (June 1, 2012)
SpaceX: Future or Failure? (May 22, 2012)
In addition, Anna is posting at HuffPost on her own and also with a group of fellow creative writing teachers. Here are the links for those pieces:
The Itsy-Bitsy Book Club (May 17, 2012)
Setting the Record Straight on Creative Writing (April 12, 2012)
What Is Creative Writing Anyway? (February 27, 2012)
Creative Writing Can Be Taught (February 4, 2012)