Discovery Departure (Part 4: MORE PHOTOS) April 19, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Space Exploration.
Tags: Discovery Departure, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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WORD OF THE DAY: AWESOME!
Guest Blog: Claire Robinson May April 16, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science.
Tags: Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
We just never know whom we’re going to find for our next guest post. Today, we’re featuring the granddaughter of Kenneth T. Bainbridge, the director of the Trinity nuclear test. This guest post is a great complement to our In the Footsteps series, which you can find HERE.
Claire Robinson May is a playwright in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) program. Her ten-minute performance piece, The Trinity Project, is being produced this month by the Oddy Theater Lab. Her full-length plays Mother/Tongue and Standardized ChildTM have been performed at Cleveland Public Theatre. She teaches Legal Writing at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and lives in Cleveland Heights with her husband, two sons, and a few other animals.
KENNETH BAINBRIDGE, IN HIS GRANDDAUGHTER’S WORDS
“Now we are all sons of bitches.” That’s what my grandfather, Kenneth T. Bainbridge, said after the successful Trinity test of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945. Not a grand soliloquy like J. Robert Oppenheimer’s—Ken cut right to the heart of the matter.
Ken Bainbridge directed the Trinity Test. He always said he was glad the test was a success because otherwise he would have had to climb the tower to investigate what had gone wrong.
Ken was forty at the time of the test and a married father of three. He was a Harvard University physics professor who had relocated his family to Los Alamos, New Mexico, so that he could work on the Manhattan Project, one of the most top-secret endeavors in history.
Ken and his nine-year-old son, Martin, drove from Cambridge to Los Alamos in early July 1943. In late August, after Ken had arranged for their housing, my grandmother, Margaret Bainbridge (Peg), brought daughters Margaret (Margi) and Joan out to Los Alamos on the train. Joan was six. My mother, Margi, was fourteen months old. She learned to walk on the train to New Mexico. They lived at Los Alamos for the next two years.
The Bainbridges moved into a two-family house on the coveted Bathtub Row (so named because the street had the only housing units with bathtubs). Physicist Norman Ramsey’s family lived on the other side of the house. (Ramsey would go on to share a Nobel Prize in 1989.) Joan and Martin explored the new landscape, distressing the patrol guards with their utter disregard of the security fence.
Oppenheimer managed the gasoline rations so that scientists and their families could take the occasional day trip. There were picnics, mineral collecting outings, and visits to the pueblo. Joan remembers weekend fishing trips and other adventures with her father, writing, “I have some childhood memories with Dad at Los Alamos—I still have the trout rod he made for me, hand wrapped with silk . . . but, thinking about it, there are not as many as I might have imagined. He was very absorbed and then gone much of the time in the spring of ’45.” The test blast would occur on July 16, 1945.
After the war, my grandfather joined the numerous physicists who spoke out against nuclear weapons. But he never wavered in the conviction that developing the bomb was necessary. He later wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that he had “a somewhat bloodthirsty viewpoint on the war” when he decided to join the Manhattan Project because he’d already heard first-hand accounts of Nazi atrocities from some of the European scientists he knew.
When I studied the history of science as an undergraduate at Harvard University in the early 1990s, I invited my grandfather to come to campus to hear a panel discussion that took place each year in one of the core science courses. Scientists such as Hans Bethe and Victor Weisskopf spoke to students about the development of the bomb and the decision to use it against Japan to end the war. Ken’s Los Alamos friends would wave from the stage, delighted to spot him in the Science Center auditorium. I was always proud to be with him. It was hardly a coincidence that my undergraduate studies focused on the history of twentieth-century physics.
Ken Bainbridge didn’t want to be remembered only for the bomb. He had many other achievements, both before and after the war, including his work on the Harvard cyclotron and the first experimental verification of E=MC2. When he chaired the Harvard University physics department in the early 1950s, Ken staunchly defended colleagues against the blacklisting attacks of Senator Joseph McCarthy. My grandfather was widely respected in his field as a careful and conscientious experimentalist and as a mentor to younger physicists. He was beloved by his family and many friends.
My grandfather died in 1996, shortly before his 92nd birthday. His wife, Peg, had died suddenly in 1967, several years before I was born. With both of them gone, I can’t help but wonder what transpired between my grandparents in the days after the test, when the families finally knew what really had been going on at Los Alamos. I wonder what role the experience may have played in Peg’s decision not long after the war to become a Quaker, a faith that wholly rejects violence. I now find myself drawn to the point where human history and family history intersect, in a blinding desert sky.
Guest Blog: Daniel Lewis March 19, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Museums & Archives
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At the end of last year, we wrote about the Huntington Library‘s “Beautiful Science” exhibit HERE. That exhibit was curated by Daniel Lewis, Chief Curator of Manuscripts (History of Science, Medicine, and Technology) and today’s guest blogger. If you can’t get to the Huntington Library yourself, you can watch a YouTube lecture about the exhibit by Lewis HERE.
Daniel Lewis is the author of the new book The Feathery Tribe and draws his guest post from his research into what it means to be an ornithologist. Whether or not you like birds, you’ll find that Lewis’s writing shows his enthusiasm for inquiry, his attention to detail, and his ability to make new, intriguing connections.
THE FEATHERY TRIBE: WHAT RESEARCH MEANS FOR WRITING
I mostly live to write. But more, I live to do original research, rooting around the sometimes-dusty (but often very clean) byways and side-roads of archives around the world, looking for correspondence that has often never been read by anyone other than the original recipient, and virtually none of which has ever been published. It’s a truism that it might take weeks of research to come up with a single sentence for a book. And it’s this kind of research that keeps the hamster wheel in my brain spinning and keeps me moving forward.
I’m an obsessive recorder and transcriber of archival information, storing correspondence I find in a database that records (among many other details) the correspondents, the date, the location written, the text of the letter itself, its call number and the collection it’s from, homegrown subject headings, a summary of the letter, and even where I transcribed the letter (dining room table, airport, hotel room, airplane, etc.). In the course of my most recent book The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds, just out from Yale University Press, I transcribed some 1,892 letters totaling 446,000 words, culled from archives around the world: the Natural History Museum in London; the Blacker-Wood Library in Montreal; the Smithsonian; the Bancroft Library in Berkeley; my own home institution, the Huntington Library; and others. I took all of this information, digested it, and tried to bend it into a particular notion.
I had an idea—after corresponding with the late great evolutionist Ernst Mayr, then in his nineties—that I should write a book about what it meant to be a professional in science, using the Smithsonian’s first Curator of Birds, Robert Ridgway, as the lens. What, after all, did it actually mean to be a professional then, and why did it matter? The answer can’t be reduced to a pat phrase, so I’ll resist doing so here, but it was the quest for the archival materials—correspondence, scribbled memos, postcards, marginalia—that fueled me.
Research turns up all kinds of things, some of which I was able to use in the book, but necessarily, much else that I couldn’t. Scientists are people too, as I’m fond of saying, but they also bring a wonky precision to their letters that can thrill.
People writing about birds for descriptive purposes took a variety of approaches to shorten, simplify, and clarify bird identities. One common practice was to refer exclusively to a number in a standard checklist as a shorthand reference in correspondence, assuming the recipient had the same guide in hand. Naturalists’ and collectors’ letters the world over were thus often filled with long strings of numbers, rather than bird names. Referring to a common checklist’s numbering system, a British birder writes in 1907 to his brother, “Before joining the main road, I saw a Reed Bunting; counting up, I found I had [seen eleven different birds]: 22.214.171.124.126.96.36.1999.277.278.453.”
Some inventive collectors went so far as to suggest new symbological languages to identify, with a single symbol, such things as a male bird in its first plumage, a male in mature plumage, a bird of unknown sex but of a determinate age, and so on, as noted in the image above.
Letters like these intrigue, and for me, they warrant going down a rabbit hole (almost always dusty) to find out more about scientists’ motivations, urges, and idiosyncratic passions. In the case of the people writing about birds, it was all that they wanted to do. “I am still in the medical profession (I see you took your degree too) but I don’t like it a bit. My life is ornithology,” one German physician wrote to a Smithsonian staffer in 1899, one who also happened to have earned a medical degree but then took a job working with birds.
Coming from diverse backgrounds, and often with great expertise in other areas, numerous people happily applied innovation to the discipline of ornithology. Passionate comments like this ornithologist’s motivated me to look at intersections of all kinds in trying to reach a meaningful set of descriptions of just what constituted a professional in science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Catching Up with Endeavour March 5, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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Usually, we have a guest blogger on the first Monday of the month, but we just had a busy week at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference where we shared the nuclear-focused part of Lofty Ambitions. Today, we’re catching up with the space-focused part of what we’re up to. This morning, NASA posted an overview of their plans to get Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis to their permanent museum homes within the next year. Read that HERE.
NASA Flow Director for Orbiter T&R Stephanie Stilson explains that Discovery will leave Kennedy Space Center in mid-April, which makes us consider a quick trip to the East coast to follow the orbiter from Florida to Washington, D.C. We’d welcome the chance to talk with Stephanie Stilson and have her show us Endeavour once again, after its OMS pods are reinstalled. Endeavour is scheduled to traipse across the country to Los Angeles in the fall. Atlantis doesn’t have far to travel, just down the road to the KSC Visitor Complex, but it will be the last delivered, and there’s sure to be a big party on the Space Coast for that event. “‘I continue to be impressed by the dedication and devotion of the team working to ensure Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour and Enterprise are delivered to their new homes in the best possible condition,’ Stilson says.” You can see our previous interview with Stilson HERE.
We know that many of the people we met over the last eighteen months are following this story, too. Kim Guodace, who was the Orbiter Element Vehicle Engineer, is one of those people tracking the orbiters’ progress. She wants to see each remaining space shuttle in its new museum home. You can read her guest post HERE.
Lofty Ambitions at AWP February 29, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Information, Writing.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity
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We’re really excited that both of us are presenting at The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference this year and that our presentations are directly related to what we do at Lofty Ambitions.
CLICK TO READ LOFTY POSTS HIGHLIGHTING AWP PRESENTERS:
Doug will talk about archives and the use of letters in fiction and creative nonfiction on a panel called “Purloining the Letter” on Thursday, March 1, at 10:30a.m. in the Lake Ontario Room of the Chicago Hilton. Our recent visit to the CalTech archives is also related his talk; read that post HERE.
Anna is the organizer for a panel called “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age,” which will be held on Friday, March 2, at 1:30p.m. in Continental B at the Chicago Hilton. It’s a great topic for this year in the Windy City because it’s the 70th anniversary of the first controlled nuclear reaction, which Enrico Fermi set off at the University of Chicago.
AWP actually begins today with set-up for the bookfair. For the first time, Chapman University, Tabula Poetica, and the Fowles Center for Creative Writing have a table at the AWP Bookfair—D-21. So Anna will be setting up posters and book displays this afternoon. You can find the list of the booksignings at the table on the Tabula Poetica homepage—click HERE.
We also want to give a nod to Tiffany Monroe, an MFA student at Chapman University, who is presenting on a panel called “MFA Students Speak Up” on Friday, March 2, at 9:00a.m. Tiffany will also help us with the bookfair table.
If you’re in Chicago this coming weekend, you can meet Chapman University authors in person on Saturday, when the bookfair is open to the public. Stop by Table D-21 any time 9a.m.-3p.m. that day. Look for the Lofty duo around town!
Guest Blog: Tom Zoellner February 20, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
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Today, we feature our colleague Tom Zoellner. He’s part of Anna’s panel called “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age. Check out the rest of the panelists in our other recent guest posts: KRISTEN IVERSEN, JEFF PORTER, and M. G. LORD. And if you’re at AWP, join us for the panel on Friday, March 2, at 1:30p.m.
Tom’s latest book is A Safeway in Arizona, part memoir, part history, part cultural commentary, all an exploration of Arizona as the context of the shooting rampage that injured Gabrielle Giffords, his friend. But we asked him to be a guest blogger at Lofty Ambitions because his previous book is Uranium, which won the Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics and garnered him a spot on The Daily Show.
IN THE PALM OF MY HAND
Here is an experience that will make you want to wash your hands immediately—holding a stick of pure uranium. It was about the size of a small mechanical pencil, pure ebony in color, and it left dusty smudges on my hands. I was standing among mill workers at the Ranger Mine, which is located in the midst of some spectacular outback jungle in Australia. The stick of uranium was used in the mill’s lab for assaying purposes. I wanted to look like a tough guy so I inspected it like any other rock and casually handed it back to the technician. But more than anything, I really wanted to wash my hands.
That uranium wasn’t dangerous by itself. The number of unstable U-235 atoms that create the famously explosive critical mass was present at a perfectly safe ratio of 1 to 140, and the stick was not about to catch fire in the way that uranium can spontaneously self-combust when sliced thinly (an interesting state called “pyrophoricity”). The dust on my hands was radioactive, but the signature was small and only hazardous if I put my fingers to my nose and inhaled deeply. From there, it would get caught in fragile lung tissue and emit alpha, beta, and gamma particles at a constant rate. This is what slowly killed so many miners in the dusty adits of the American Southwest and the East German mountains during the Cold War.
I had been writing about uranium for several months at that point, relearning matters of basic atomic physics that had been long forgotten from high school. I had traveled to old mines in Utah and the Czech Republic and interviewed UN diplomats in Vienna. I had visited the site of a deserted mine in Africa once described as a “freak of nature” by a Manhattan Project official because it held ore at a purity level of 62%, which had never been seen before and hasn’t been seen since. That mine, named Shinkolobwe for a particular kind of thorny fruit, gave up most of the material used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts and continues to leak unknown quantities of ore to local buyers.
But holding this stick of 99% pure concentrated uranium—far better than anything Shinkolobwe yielded in the raw—was my first up-close experience with the subject that I had been chasing for months. It was sort of like a biographer of an elusive subject who talks to multiple friends and acquaintances and then unexpectedly gets introduced to the person in the flesh.
I wanted the moment to be more special than just being passed a lab sample. But after all, this was just an inanimate object. It could not talk. It could only sit there in my palm and chuck off (I couldn’t help but envision it) little packages of protons and neutrons at a rate far faster than the speed of sound, fast enough to travel around the earth’s equator in about two seconds. These alpha particles could be blocked with a barrier as thin as a sheet of paper and my bare skin was adequate protection. But still. This little wand contained a power unlike anything else in nature. It had an instability about it which could be exploited with the proper application of massive industrial force—the immense cascading rows of centrifuges and gaseous diffusion chambers which we had built in secret cities during the war and which Iran was now hiding underneath mountains to shield from American and Israeli spies and bombers.
I felt as if I should have spent more time holding this stick, thinking about this weird little trick of the universe that it held inside. Here was a small sliver of the rock buried in the earth’s crust that had the power to end all life on the planet. One that posed an overwhelming moral test for humanity ever since World War II ended with a uranium-powered exclamation point. There is much we don’t know about uranium and much we don’t know about our future with this mineral after just under seventy years of coexistence with its concentrated form.
Has the scientific genius of mankind outstripped our abilities to take care of the planet, and each other? Have we learned enough not just to crack open an atom, but how to get along despite our racial and political differences? Will we be able to keep our species alive in a world where we have access to such awesome means of destruction?
These thoughts didn’t come in that moment. Other things were on my mind. I wanted to look like a tough guy in front of the miner and chemists, and I handed the uranium back, keeping my faintly dusted hands casually at my side. And when a safe amount of time had passed, I found a reason to excuse myself to the men’s room and there I washed my hands twice with soap.
Guest Blog: M. G. Lord February 6, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Books, Cognitive Science
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M. G. Lord is a cultural critic, journalist, and the author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, and The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. Since 1995, she has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the Arts & Leisure section. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New Yorker, Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Travel + Leisure, and Artforum. She teaches at the University of Southern California and will anchor the nonfiction division at the first annual Yale Writers Conference in New Haven this summer.
We became interested in M. G. Lord’s work after Doug saw her present on a panel about science writing at the Association of Writers and Writing Program Conference. You can read our post about that panel HERE. After that, Anna read Lord’s book Astro Turf (lots of good Jet Propulsion Laboratory stuff) and, when the opportunity arose, invited Lord to participate in the upcoming AWP panel on creative nonfiction in the nuclear age.
If you’ve been paying attention, you know that Lofty Ambitions is featuring each of the presenters on that creative nonfiction panel. Click HERE for the post by Kristen Iversen, author of the forthcoming Full Body Burden. Click HERE for the post by Jeff Porter, author of Oppenheimer is Watching Me. Tom Zoellner, author of Uranium and A Safeway in Arizona, will be our next guest blogger. And if you’re in Chicago on March 2, join us at 1:30p.m. in the Hilton, Continental B.
We’re especially interested in what she’s doing now, namely collaborating on her next book project, which has to do with neuroscience, and, in the process, exploring the technology of drawing.
DISTRACTING ONESELF INTO THE NEXT PROJECT
On February first, Bloomsbury USA published my new book, The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. As you may glean from the title, this is a departure from my previous book, Astro Turf, a family memoir of aerospace culture during the Cold War and an informal history of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Both books, however, have a common attribute—one that, I suspect has blighted books since Gutenberg invented moveable type: Publication is hell. Or, in any event, publication taxes an author’s nerves.
My strategy for dealing with such stress is to avoid anything written about my work, whether it’s positive or negative. Instead, I immerse myself in a fresh project, ideally one that has little in common with the book under scrutiny. This means not only a different subject but also a new medium. That brings me to my latest endeavor. In collaboration with Dr. Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist who also happens to be an opera singer, I am working on a graphic novel that has to do with the brain.
By working, I mean both writing and drawing, the latter of which today seems more like engineering than art. Two decades ago, when I retired from a 12-year run as a political cartoonist for Newsday, all a caricaturist needed to excel was hand-eye coordination and a mean spirit. I drew malicious pictures with a crow quill pen on Bristol board. But in 2012, the best graphic artists are also software virtuosos. They render some or all of their cartoons digitally, either scanning pen-and-ink drawings into the computer or executing an entire image in a program such as Adobe Illustrator.
To say I lack an aptitude for engineering would be a gross understatement. Never mind that I developed great admiration for engineers while writing Astro Turf. Initially, I was so intimidated by the drawing software that I hired a tutor to help me with it—or, more accurately, to help me decide whether mastery was a realistic possibility. Our first session—on my tutor’s equipment—was psychologically brutal. After two hours of scanning existing drawings and manipulating them in Adobe Photoshop, we moved to the true baptism of fire: drawing directly on a tablet connected to the computer.
All political cartoonists of my vintage—I was in college in the late 1970s—can draw Richard Nixon in their sleep. During Watergate, I taught myself to render the disgraced President on an Etch-a-Sketch, which back then was an eye-popping parlor trick. Compared with a tablet, however, the Etch-a-Sketch is an inexpensive, effortless drawing tool. Now, I faced a pricy, counterintuitive torture device. After another hour of tutoring, I managed to scratch out a digital approximation of Nixon’s flapping jowls and ski-jump beak. And I decided to commit both time and money to embracing the digital future.
Tablets come in two main styles: one on which you draw but your marks appear on a separate monitor; the other that is itself a monitor, so that you see what you have drawn beneath your stylus rather than feet away. As you can imagine, the latter iteration is pricier than the former. I was planning to go the cheap route until the universe sent me a message not to. Last month, a lifestyle magazine asked me to interview Rodolphe Guenoden, a DreamWorks animation supervisor. I expected we would talk about animated movies. But Guenoden’s great passion is graphic novels, and he showed me how he used hardware and software to render them digitally. He made drawing on a Wacom Cintiq—a tablet that also functions as a monitor—seem almost intuitive. I watched him change the way his lines appeared, simulating brushstrokes, pen lines, pencil marks. And I bought the Cintiq.
True, it took me three hours with a tutor to set it up. And another 45 minutes to figure out how to define the margins on a page. In the old days, with a T-square, I could pencil in margins while blindfolded. My hand still reaches for the pens and brushes on my desk. But I allow it to—even Guenoden does his initial storyboarding on paper.
A steep learning curve awaits. But that is exactly what I want. It is guaranteed to distract me from the vicissitudes of publication.
Remembering Challenger, Making Connections January 28, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Space Exploration.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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On this date in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded on ascent, only 73 seconds after lifting off the ground at 11:38a.m., after being hit by the biggest wind shear an orbiter had recorded. Two space shuttle astronauts celebrated birthdays that day.
John M. Fabian was born in 1939 and flew two shuttle missions, the first of which was Challenger’s second flight. He was in the 1978 astronaut class with Dick Scobee, Ellison Onuzuka, Judy Resnick, and Ronald McNair, who were aboard Challenger for the ill-fated flight STS-51-L. Scobee made the mission’s last transmission: “Roger, go at throttle up.”
David C. Hilmers was born in Clinton, Iowa, in 1950. His first flight was Atlantis’s first. His second flight was aboard Discovery on the return-to-flight mission following the Challenger accident. He flew a second time on each Atlantis and Discovery, then retired and went to medical school. Hilmers was in the 1980 astronaut class with Michael J. Smith, the pilot aboard Challenger’s last flight.
On January 28, 1986, seven astronauts lost their lives, their cabin plummeting intact into the ocean. Five are mentioned above; the others were two civilian payload specialists on their first flight, teacher Christa McAuliffe and engineer Greg Jarvis, both on their first flight. We, like many others, watched the event replayed on television that day.
Today marks the first anniversary of the Challenger accident since whistleblower Roger Boisjoly died at age 73. We met Roger when he visited campus to donate his papers and other workplace artifacts to Leatherby Libraries, a collection we wrote about for Air & Space Magazine last year. One of the artifacts that Roger often showed was an O-ring, cut to the length used in a shuttle’s solid rocket booster (SRB). Morton Thiokol, Roger’s employer, built solid rocket boosters, and the O-ring was the cause of the accident above Florida’s Coast that cold January morning.
Of course, it wasn’t merely the O-ring itself, for most catastrophes are the result of a series of small problems. In this case, the O-ring and the cold temperatures the night before and at the time of launch (rows of tiny icicles hung from the railings of the tower that morning) were the fatal combination. But even the fact that Challenger launched on that brisk, frosty Monday, when school children around the country watched the event in their classrooms, was the result of four separate delays, seemingly minor mishaps, a cascade of otherwise innocuous occurrences. The previous mission’s delays had pushed STS-51L from a launch date of January 22 to January 24, and then bad weather at a Transatlantic Abort Landing site moved the launch date to January 25. The launch was delayed another day because of a weather report that predicted unacceptable conditions that never materialized. Then, the launch was scrubbed on January 27, which was a warmer, beautiful day, when a screw in the hatch couldn’t be removed and a dead battery in the drill that could fix it was replaced with another dead battery and another and so on.
Engineer Roger Boisjoly (pronounced boh-zhoh-lay, like the wine) seemed to us a very private man (he didn’t even want us to use a picture of him for his guest post), someone who felt, for the rest of his life, great responsibility for what happened to Challenger’s crew as the space shuttle reached nine nautical miles into the sky and had traversed just seven nautical miles east of the launch pad, still in view of the crew’s family, the press adjacent on the lawn outside the News Center, and Florida school children watching the first launch with a school teacher aboard. Roger Boisjoly felt this burden of responsibility because, in July 1985, he had written a memo expressing concern that O-rings could fail on ascent.
Roger had seen that, on a shuttle flight roughly a year before Challenger’s last, one of the two O-rings in a seal in the SRB had completely burned through and the second had been damaged. The O-rings didn’t seal the joint the way they had been designed to do. Instead, as the pressure changed in the SRB joint, the O-rings moved around briefly before sealing. Exhaust seeped through during this brief time a gap occurred, and that’s what damaged the O-rings that Roger saw. When the O-rings were exposed to low temperatures, that made them less flexible, increasing the time before the rings sealed and the chances that hot exhaust would damage the rubber rings. He knew that if the second O-ring had also burned through, a catastrophic accident would have been just seconds away.
So Roger sent a memo up the chain at Morton Thiokol. Then he sent another memo and another, and he wasn’t the only one concerned. When Roger pressed the issue with his superiors, a task force was set up, but nothing was done. On the day before its scheduled liftoff, when Challenger was go-for-launch for its tenth flight, Roger and other engineers convinced Morton Thiokol managers to recommend delaying the flight, and the managers arranged for a conference call with NASA fifteen hours before the scheduled launch. The engineers agreed on a no-launch recommendation, and NASA wouldn’t launch if a contractor explicitly stated that it wasn’t safe.
During the call, NASA wanted to know the exact temperature required for a safe launch, and the engineers presented data based on what they could grab from their offices. Roger remembered one manager being told to take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat. After a break during the phone conference, four Morton Thiokol managers backed off their recommendation and told NASA that their information wasn’t conclusive. With explicit objections to launch abated, NASA proceeded as planned. Roger worried that failure of the SRBs would occur immediately after ignition, before the shuttle even cleared the launch tower. When he got home, he told his wife he’d just been in a meeting where they’d decided to launch the next day and kill the astronauts.
Even years later, Roger wondered what he might have done. He didn’t want to watch the launch, but a colleague convinced him. He remembered the moment of relief he felt when the shuttle didn’t blow up on the launch pad but actually began its flight, a moment in which he, in hindsight, had let his guard down and let himself believe that they had, in his words, “dodged a bullet.” He wondered whether he should have tried to call the president directly. Two other whistleblowers who have been guest bloggers for Lofty Ambitions remain convinced that none of them could have done more and that, surely, Roger couldn’t have delayed the launch with a phone call and probably couldn’t have even reached the president directly or in time.
By 1987, Roger Boisjoly was actively advocating for workplace ethics. That’s the context in which we met him in 2010. As we remember the Challenger accident today and Roger Boisjoly’s death on January 6 of this year, we remember, too, that life went on for Roger and for us and that it’s our responsibility to recognize opportunities to make the world a better place.
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Guest Blog: Jeff Porter January 16, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs.
Tags: Art & Science, Books, Nuclear Weapons
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On March 2, Anna will be joined by four other writers at “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age” at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Panelist Kristen Iversen, author of the forthcoming Full Body Burden, has already contributed a guest post to Lofty Ambitions (click HERE). Today, we a post by another panelist, Jeff Porter.
We’ve not yet met Jeff Porter, though Anna read Oppenheimer Is Watching Me, one of the books that inspired the panel. The book draws from Porter’s past: his father worked for a defense contractor, and young Jeff, like many of us, was born into the Cold War. His essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Antioch Review, Shenandoah, The Missouri Review, and Isotope (a journal of literary writing about nature and science that we are sad to say is no longer publishing). Jeff Porter teaches at the University of Iowa and focuses on media studies as well as creative nonfiction.
ON JOHN HERSEY, ATOMIC WRITER
I’m an atomic writer, though I wish I had a t-shirt to prove it. Any real evidence of what I am is kept secret in my mitochondria, and I’d rather not go there. A t-shirt would be much cooler.
The very first atomic writer, John Hersey, did not receive a t-shirt either. He did, however, get a personal issue of The New Yorker, the only time the entire magazine was turned over to one story. William Shawn had sent Hersey to Japan nine months after the bombing of Hiroshima, suggesting that he look into the lives of the survivors. In the countless words thus far printed about the bomb, rarely had the human side of the story been put before readers. That changed with the August 31, 1946, edition of The New Yorker. For 15¢, you could read the stunning documentary tale of six people who lived through the nightmare of Hiroshima.
In all, Hersey had met with over fifty Japanese survivors. He narrowed that group down to six—a Jesuit priest, a clerk, a seamstress, a physician, a Methodist minister, and a surgeon—each of whom he interviewed for six weeks before returning to New York. A month later, Hersey turned in a 150-page manuscript. Initially, the editors planned to run the piece in four consecutive installments of the magazine, as they would later do with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but at the last moment Shawn decided to take the unprecedented step of devoting an entire issue to Hersey’s story.
The magazine’s editor in chief, Harold Ross, wasn’t sold on the idea of turning the genteel The New Yorker into a house of tragedy. Banishing the magazine’s signature cartoons in favor of gloom and doom seemed a bad idea. Nevertheless he signed on, but not before requesting hundreds of changes to the text. At 31,000 words, Hersey’s story took up all 68 pages of magazine space. Everything else was stripped away except for the cover art, which featured a lively park scene teeming with people at play that gave little indication as to what lay inside the magazine. For readers, this would be no picnic.
Here’s Mr. Tanimoto, the Methodist minister educated in the U.S., fleeing in confusion after the flash of the bomb:
Mr. Tanimoto, fearful for his family and church, at first ran toward them by the shortest route, along Koi Highway. He was the only person making his way into the city ; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing.
Though grim, a description like this is a far cry from later narratives of atomic disaster, such as The Day After (1983), television’s sensationalized account of American survivors of an imaginary nuclear war. In fact, Hersey’s text repeatedly understates the catastrophe, focusing instead on mundane details delivered in a deadpan voice. Hersey’s style is so flat as to be ironic, but the irony mostly serves to dignify the subjects of the piece at the expense of the spectacle.
By many accounts “the most famous magazine article every published,” Hersey’s story of Hiroshima found a way around the nuclear sublime (and the enchantment of a new technology) that would cast a spell over American writers for decades to come. He opened the door of atomic discourse to literature, and for that he deserved his very own magazine.
Guest Blog: Brigid Leahy January 2, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Guest Blogs.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Music
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We know this week’s guest blogger exceptionally well. Brigid Leahy is Anna’s sister and a fellow alum of Knox College, where Doug met her lo those many years ago. By day, Brigid is Director of Legislation at Planned Parenthood of Illinois, but when she’s not at work, she’s an Elvis fan and fosters dogs for the Animal Protective League. Honestly, we thought, if Brigid wrote a guest post for us, it would be about airsicknesses, a topic about which she knows a great deal. But she found an even better, and more timely, topic as this week’s Lofty guest blogger.
This coming Sunday, January 8, marks Elvis Presley’s 77th birthday. We’ve written about music before at Lofty Ambitions (click HERE for a post on shuttle wake-up songs), but it’s not always easy to find the connection between music and the focuses of our blog. Brigid, however, found a great way to honor The King and write about aviation.
ELVIS PRESLEY, AIRPLANES, & ME
I have been an Elvis fan since I can remember. I love his music and his movies. I would rush home after school for our local Channel 3’s “Elvis Week,” which would air a different Elvis movie each day. I’ve seen Clambake nine times. For years I had been waiting to go to Graceland at a time when I could go by myself and spend as much time there as I wanted. This past summer, I was finally able to go to Graceland. I booked the full tour—the house, the special clothing exhibition, the automobile museum, AND the airplanes!
On January 8, 1935, Elvis Aaron Presley was born to Vernon Elvis and Gladys Presley in a two-room shotgun house built by his father in Tupelo, Mississippi. His father worked odd jobs and money was tight. In 1938, they lost their home. Thus, Elvis spent much of his childhood living in public housing or with relatives. His family was often dependent on government food assistance. In Tupelo, schoolmates teased Elvis for being a “trashy” kid who played hillbilly music and lived on the wrong side of town in a largely African-American neighborhood. Life after moving to Memphis was much the same, with the family living for a year in rooming houses until they were granted a two-bedroom apartment in a public housing complex. Elvis continued to be teased and was labeled a shy, mama’s boy.
We are often surprised, of course, by who grows up to do what. Elvis’ music career allowed him to reject his difficult childhood in many ways and to remake himself. During his junior year in high school, Elvis became more and more willing to perform for an audience. He began to dress with more flash, taking his fashion cues from the performers on Beale Street. His daughter Lisa Marie would later say that Elvis never owned a pair of blue jeans once he became a star because jeans were a staple of his poor childhood. Each day he would not emerge from the second floor of Graceland until he was fully dressed and accessorized with expensive jewelry. Elvis quickly became known for the opulence of his dress, jewelry, home, and transportation.
Elvis’s growing inclination toward extravagance is seen early in his career with his purchase of Graceland in 1957. The 18-room mansion reflects Elvis’s sense of luxury at the time. By today’s standards of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” however, the place may seem to some visitors small and rather tacky. But to the 22-year-old Elvis, Graceland was the fancy family home that he could provide for his mother. Once Elvis’s fame became so overwhelming that he could scarcely go anywhere without being recognized, this home became a refuge.
While Graceland was above the middle-class standards of the time, it wasn’t over the top. However, Elvis’s airplanes are definite signs of unrestrained opulence. Elvis leased and owned several aircraft (a Grumman Gulfstream G-1, a Fairchild F-27, an Aero Jet Commander, a Lockheed JetStar, a Dessault-Falcon), and it’s likely that the planes were purchased out of practicality because Elvis could not travel on commercial airlines. He was just too famous, and his schedule demanded a lot of travel. But these airplanes weren’t merely serviceable. They were remodeled lavishly to Elvis’s particular taste.
The most famous of Elvis’s aircraft is the Lisa Marie, which he called “The Pride of Elvis Presley Airways” and his “Flying Graceland.” On April 17, 1975, Elvis spent $250,000 on a Convair 880 Jet, which had been in service with Delta Airlines. (For another take on the Convair 880, check out an article HERE at Airliners.net.) The Convair 880 was in production for about three years, with 65 total aircraft manufactured. Elvis spent an additional $350,000 refurbishing it—that’s right, he spent more on redecorating and upgrading than on the initial purchase. He then christened it the “Lisa Marie” in honor of his daughter.
Elvis personally oversaw the transformation of the Lisa Marie by selecting the color scheme, choosing fabrics, and flying several times to see the plane’s progress at Meacham Field in Fort Worth. After its refurbishment, it had seating to 28, but usually only about ten people were on board. All seating was equipped with gold-plate seat belt buckles. The plane was lavishly outfitted with a seating area, a conference room, and a private bedroom. The Lisa Marie had two restrooms, both with 24-karat gold plate washbasins and fixtures. The videotape system was linked to four televisions, and the stereo system had 52 speakers. The conference room was finished in teak. The bar was always stocked with 15 kinds of soda pop, though Elvis preferred Dr. Pepper and Lime Gatorade and didn’t really care for alcohol. It also had a “penthouse bedroom” with a custom-made queen-sized bed. Because of federal regulations, the bed was furnished with a seat belt. It, too, had a gold-plate buckle. The plane’s tail displayed Elvis’ TCB logo.
On November 27, 1975, the Lisa Marie made its first official flight, fittingly traveling to Las Vegas. Its tower call name was 880 Echo Pappa, and its nickname was Hound Dog One. Elwood David was the captain and pilot. Also on staff were another pilot, Ron Strauss, and a flight engineer, Jim Manny. The Lisa Marie was used for more than business travel. One Christmas, Elvis took his family and friends on a joyride. Another year, Lisa Marie blew out her birthday candles in the conference room while in mid-flight. After Elvis’ death, the plane was used to pick up Elvis’ ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie, and the actor George Hamilton so that they could quickly come to Graceland. The operating cost for 1976 (the year before Elvis’s death) was $404,000, and it burned 1700 gallons of fuel an hour.
Vernon Presley sold the Lisa Marie in 1978. Its ownership changed hands a few times. Finally, in 1984, the Lisa Marie returned to Memphis and has been housed at Graceland as an exhibit ever since. The Lisa Marie is the only one of nine remaining Convair 880s that is properly preserved, and no Convair 880 remains airworthy.