NASA Day of Remembrance February 1, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Books, Space Shuttle
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Today is the anniversary of the Columbia accident in which seven astronauts perished when the space shuttle ripped apart during reentry. The cause of the accident was a piece of foam insulation that had come loose from the external fuel tank as the shuttle accelerated during launch. That debris gouged a hole in the thermal tiles of the leading edge of a wing. NASA did not ask the Department of Defense for in-space images of the damage. Unprotected in one small spot, the shuttle’s skin was breached by extreme heat as it descended into the atmosphere on February 1, 2003. A prior flight in 1988 had involved similar damage, and its commander, Hoot Gibson, had expressed grave concerns about catastrophic failure during reentry.
A few days ago, the nation commemorated the Challenger accident, which occurred on January 28, 1986. The crew of seven perished during launch, just seventy-three seconds into the flight. The cause of that accident was an O-ring failure in a joint of a solid rocket booster. The rubber ring failed to seal the joint during liftoff because the overnight ambient temperature had been too cold, below the manufacturer’s recommended minimum launch temperature. Engineers like Roger Boisjoly had expressed grave concerns in the day before launch.
Less than twenty years before that, on January 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 died during a test on the ground. A fire broke out and swept swiftly—in less than twenty seconds—through the sealed, pure-oxygen-infused capsule. The capsule burst, and flames spread. It took several minutes to reach the three astronauts, far too late to save them. An exact cause was never determined, though the fire started with an electrical arc in the lower part of the capsule. A later investigation indicated that, in addition to possible sources in the capsule’s equipment, an electrical arc could have been created by friction when the astronauts adjusted their positions. Experiments also determined that the seemingly miraculous Velcro that the astronauts had used by the yard to affix items to the module walls burned like holiday wrapping paper, hot and fast in the oxygen. Earlier warnings about the dangers of using a pure-oxygen environment had gone unheeded.
What seems most disheartening to us about these three accidents is that specific concerns had been raised before each catastrophe. Hindsight may be 20/20, but foresight was in no way blind to the risks—to the specific risks that caused these fatal accidents in manned spaceflight.
What seems most horrific about these three accidents is that the astronauts died quickly but not instantly. Challenger pilot Michael Smith uttered, “Uh-oh.” A couple of minutes later, the crew cabin of Challenger plunged into the ocean intact, with three of the crew having activated their emergency air packs. Because cabin pressure was lost early in the break-up, none were likely to have been conscious when they hit the water. Likewise, the crew of Columbia likely lost consciousness quickly—“within seconds,” according to NASA’s report—when the orbiter broke apart. Lethal trauma occurred when the astronauts, their lower bodies strapped into their seats, were subjected to what NASA calls “cyclical rotation motion.” The crew of Apollo 1 reported the fire, and one astronaut tried to open the hatch. The final plea from the crew of Apollo 1: “Get us out!
Today at Lofty Ambitions, we honor the three lost crews of the U.S. manned space program.
APOLLO 1: Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee
CHALLENGER, STS-51L: Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnick, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, and teacher Christa McAuliffe
COLUMBIA, STS-107: Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Mike Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla, Dave Brown, Laurel Clark
In 2003, astronaut Rick Hauck pointed out that space exploration is dangerous; 18 of the 430 people who had gone to space by that time had died. The shuttle had had two fatal accidents, as had the Soyuz capsule. While some of these spacefarers flew multiple missions, more than four percent had died on the job. The risk of death for astronauts cannot be eliminated.
Out of each of these accidents, however, came changes to equipment, astronaut training, and NASA processes. Time was taken to understand the flaws in the system, whether they lay in an O-ring or the ways in which engineers’ concerns were overridden by managers. Sending human beings beyond Earth’s atmosphere is a fraught and mighty accomplishment. In Of a Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer—the 90th anniversary of his birth was yesterday—wrote, “[I]t was that he hardly knew whether the Space Program was the noblest expression of the Twentieth Century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity.”
As the British poet Robert Browning wrote in 1855, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?”
NASA Airborne Science Program: Flight Suit (Part 3 / #NASASocial) January 30, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Books, Dryden Flight Research Center, GRAILTweetup, Space Shuttle
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Today, we focus on the pilot flight suit worn by those who fly high-altitude aircraft like the venerable ER-2. The ER-2 is the civilian version of the military’s U-2 spy plane, a sixty-year-old aircraft design that has a reputation for being a handful to fly. NASA, of course, doesn’t spy. Instead, the ER-2 flies at the edge of space, roughly 70,000 feet above the Earth, to, according to NASA’s website, “scan shorelines, measure water levels, help fight forest fires, profile the atmosphere, assess flood damage, and sample the stratosphere.” But just because it’s being used for science doesn’t make the ER-2 any easier to fly. Last year while visiting Dryden, Doug heard test pilot Nils Larson say of the aircraft, “If you’re having a bad day and the U-2’s having a bad day, it can be a BAD DAY.”
At that altitude and with a partially pressurized cockpit, the pilot needs to wear a suit that is, according to NASA’s Josh Graham, 80% the same as the orange launch-and-reentry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts. The differences between these flight suits and spacesuits lie mainly in the neck area and oxygen system. If the ER-2 pilot didn’t have such a suit, the lack of pressure at 65,000 feet would cause his blood to boil. Looking at the flight suit he brought for demonstration, Graham said, “This is somebody’s father. They need to come home.”
Each pilot is issued two of these suits, at a cost of $300,000 apiece, along with one helmet, which adds another $100,000 to the price of the outfit. The suit itself weighs thirty-five pounds and comes in thirteen standard sizes, though Graham pointed to a pilot standing behind us and said that he gets a special suit because he’s especially tall.
All the current suits—NASA’s flight suits and spacesuits—are handmade by the David Clark Company in Massachusetts. Each suit takes six to eight months to complete. The suit works in layers. The layer we see is yellow, but Graham unhitched the helmet and peeled back the outer layer so that we could view the layer of mesh, hand-woven hundred-pound fishing line. These outfits are designed to hold up with a tear as long as three inches or with a quarter-sized hole.
The David Clark Company also made the Gemini spacesuits, which were used for extravehicular activity in which, according to Michael Collins in Carrying the Fire, “oxygen came from the spacecraft via an umbilical, and then went through a chest pack.” Apollo spacesuits were made by the International Latex Corporation, or ILC, and had an “oxygen supply from a back pack.” Of ILC’s work, which applies to David Clark’s work as well, the book Spacesuit says the following: “similar to sewing a bra or girdle,” “unprecedented precision,” “highly regulated,” “elaborate process,” and “the delicate art of their collective synthesis.”
Collins played a crucial role with the Apollo suits: “My job was to monitor the development of all this equipment, to make sure that it was coming along all right, that it was going to be safe and practical to use, and that it would please the other guys in the astronaut office.” Though NASA’s ER-2 flight suits are already well developed, Joshua Graham does this sort of overseeing for aircraft operations, making sure each suit is ready to go.
One of the facets of NASA’s social media program that we enjoy is the opportunity to rub shoulders with other aviation and space nerds. While visiting the Space Coast to participate in a Tweetup and watch the GRAIL twins launch in 2011, Doug met the granddaughter of a woman who had worked as part of the team that assembled the Apollo spacesuits.
As we were examining the flight suit up close last week, Graham pointed out the small whiffle ball attached to a tether on the front of the get-up. When the flight suit initially inflates, it poofs up. This raises the helmet so that the pilot can’t see. He feels around the front of his suit to find the plastic ball, which he pulls down. This simple action readjusts the neck of the suit and helmet, and he’s ready to zoom.
Some of the flights are long, and no one wants a hungry, woozy pilot. But the pilot can’t take off his helmet to grab a bite to eat. Instead, his helmet has a feeding hole, and food—the sample we saw was caffeinated chocolate pudding (which sounds very useful)—is packed in tubes with stiff straws attached. The pilot can jab the straw into the hole in his helmet and suck the snack down.
Other human needs are also likely to occur on long flights, so the suit is also designed with a device like a condom connected to a tube, which the pilot wears so that he can relieve himself at any time. Graham didn’t discuss what the women pilots do, and earlier in the day, a NASA representative indicated that NASA currently had no women test pilots. What we didn’t know was that pilots must carefully control what Graham referred to as “number two.” If a pilot feels the need to defecate during a mission, he must declare an inflight emergency and return home as fast as he safely can. NASA doesn’t want to encourage a poop that costs $300,000.
Toward the end of our time in this section of the tour of the hangar at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF, or day off), Doug asked Graham about the clunky spurs on the back of the suit’s boots. Graham responded that this aircraft is the only one that still uses hooks and cables in its ejection seat. The spurs hook to cables to pull his feet to the seat and keep his limbs from flailing during ejection. Then, at 14,000-16,000 feet, the pilot can cut the cable and parachute down safely.
The planes are cool. The ER-2 is fascinating because it flies incredibly high. The science is important. The ER-2 and its predecessor have been collecting data since the early 1970s, sampling the stratosphere and mapping large forest fires. Last week’s flight suit demonstration reminded us that the people are crucial to NASA’s Airborne Science Program.
The Next Big Thing (blog hop) January 28, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Books, Space Shuttle
Poet Kristin LaTour tagged us for The Next Big Thing that’s going around the blogosphere. Here, we take on the ten questions that series poses.
What is your working title of your book?
We were born into the Apollo era, and Doug’s earliest memory is of watching the Moon landing. We came of age in the shadow of the space shuttle. As we followed the end of the shuttle program over the last couple of years, we realized that there’s a big swath—those born between the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the first shuttle launch in 1981—that is Generation Space. When Neil Armstrong died last year, this space generation became the adults of this world.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
We started writing together in 2004, when we presented a paper about how aviation museums represented World War II. We sent in an abstract because we wanted to visit Amsterdam together, but after the conference, we published an essay version of our paper in an edited collection and kept writing together.
In 2008, we moved to Southern California for new jobs. As we packed our belongings, we started talking about how this move might be an opportunity for us because this area has a long tradition in aviation. We started Lofty Ambitions blog in 2010, in part to write about the aviation and spaceflight history that surrounded us. Generation Space is a natural outcome of our years together.
What genre does your book fall under?
Generation Space is part science writing, part cultural commentary, part memoir. Some might call it literary journalism.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
When we started following the end of the space shuttle program in the fall of 2010, we didn’t expect to meet actors. But it turns out that a lot of Americans from all walks of life are interested in space exploration. Seth Green of The Family Guy was at a #NASAtweetup for a shuttle launch, and we met Luke Wilson last time we were at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). We sat behind June Lockhart of Lost in Space at the title transfer of Endeavour here in California and saw Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek there too. And we’ve seen celebs of other sorts at KSC, like Anderson Cooper, John Oliver, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
As for who would play us, that’s hard to imagine. Maybe Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion, who currently star together in Castle. The two characters have different styles but work well together, collaborating on crime solving and, to a certain extent, novel writing. Katic has dark hair and pale skin like Anna, and we have a friend who’s met Katic’s brother. Of course, Fillion knows how to do space from Firefly and Serenity, and we’ve been watching him since Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. Maybe our book could even be adapted for an episode of Castle, with someone attacked by one of the alligators that lives in the ditch near the launch pad at KSC—only, Richard Castle knows it’s murder.
Mostly, if we somehow get a movie deal for Generation Space, we probably won’t care who plays us, though Doug would veto Michael Chiklis.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Star Trek‘s Enterprise set out on a five-year mission to boldly go where no man has gone before, but NASA has gone boldly for fifty years and counting—Generation Space figures out what that means for us as a spacefaring nation and for our future.
Okay, we used a dash to get two sentences.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
We’re represented by Alice Tasman at Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. We wrote about landing an agent here at Lofty Ambitions. Since then, with Alice’s suggestions in mind, we’ve revised our book proposal.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
We’ll let you know when we’re finished. We started drafting in earnest about a year ago at a two-week residency at Ragdale, and we have roughly half the book in really good shape and the rest mapped out.
Of course, we researched and wrote blog posts over two years, before we started drafting as a book. While we can’t merely cut and paste blog posts, a blog-to-book project means that we generated a lot of ideas and material that we can now use as we draft chapters. We’ve reorganized our thinking to form a table of contents that makes sense for Generation Space, and we’re distilling and expanding from blog posts to form chapter outlines. We end up re-drafting, then we revise and revise and revise.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
In some ways, our book works like Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden. She tackles nuclear weapons manufacturing, so the topic is different. But, like Iverson, we’re covering a blend of science and history and including personal experience. Another book with that sort of balance is Sandra Beasley’s Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl!, which is a personal and scientific investigation of allergies, or Tom Zoellner’s Uranium, which investigates all things—discovery, mining, uses, misuses—uranium. In all these science books, the author becomes part of the story, a vehicle for understanding the topic. And all three of these authors have contributed guest posts to Lofty Ambitions.
In other ways, our book is immersion journalism, a project book like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport, or Tracy Kidder‘s The Soul of a New Machine. We immerse ourselves in a place we’ve never been before, and we learn—through failure and success—how to be insiders in a particular time and place to understand an aspect of our culture and ourselves. There’s an arc to our story and to the story of U.S. space exploration that we couldn’t convey solely through blog posts.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The trigger for following the end of the space shuttle and, ultimately, for writing Generation Space was driving out to the desert—to Edwards Air Force Base—on Thanksgiving weekend in 2008 to see Endeavour land.
By that point, the shuttle program as set to end within a few years, so we started wondering what that meant for us as individuals who grew up with American manned spaceflight as a given and for the country. Within two years, we went to KSC to see a launch. And we kept going and going.
Serendipity played a huge role in keeping us focused on this project. Through one colleague, we met Roger Boisjoly, a whistleblower in the Challenger accident (today—January 28—is the anniversary), and his papers are now archived at our university. Through another colleague, we attended an event celebrating the Ilan Ramon Day School; Ramon died in the Columbia accident, and we saw his wife speak and met astronaut Garrett Reisman, who is now at SpaceX. During our residency at Ragdale, we discovered that Lovell’s Restaurant—as in Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell—was nearby so we ate a delicious meal in the midst of space artifacts. Our friend Leslie Pietrzyk recently sent Albert Goldbarth’s poetry chapbook The End of Space to Anna. Hardly a week goes by when we don’t stumble across something connected to Generation Space. Serendipity is ongoing inspiration.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Most books about the space shuttle are really technical and demand a lot of the lay reader or are heavily photographic, without much information or narrative into which you can sink your reading teeth. We’re writing for for strollers as well as for studiers. A reader will learn a lot but find the story accessible. We have a story to tell.
Also, we’re writing in the voice that we developed for Lofty Ambitions. We write as a couple, though it’s clear when a particular experience is Anna’s or something happened specifically to Doug. We don’t know of any other book co-written by a poet and a science librarian; we have fun writing together, and the collaborative voice comes naturally to us now.
So that’s our take on The Next Big Thing. Keep reading—we’ve tagged the following writers for next week’s round of The Next Big Thing. Click on each name to continue reading The Next Big Thing next week!
NASA Airborne Science Program (PHOTOS / #NASASocial) January 26, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Beer, Dryden Flight Research Center
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We spent all day yesterday at Dryden Flight Research Center for an insider’s look at NASA’s Airborne Science Program. We drove to Palmdale on Thursday and had dinner, yes, at Yard House. The next morning, we arrived at the designated parking lot in Palmdale shortly after 7:00 a.m. That’s pretty early for us to be fully functioning, but we boarded the bus with the rest of the social media crowd and were off to Edwards Air Force Base. After lunch, the bus returned us to the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF, pronounced day off) for a full afternoon of talks and up-close time with aircraft.
We’re already drafting posts about different aspects of the program–specific aircraft, pilot flight suits, what scientists learn from aircraft-based data collection–but we start here with a photo overview.
Read the next installment about NASA’s Airborne Science Program HERE.
NASA Airborne Science Program (Part 1) January 23, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Beer, Dryden Flight Research Center, Space Shuttle
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We admit it; we’re hooked. We like being insiders. We’re curious about what NASA is up to, even though they’re no longer up to the space shuttle program.
We also like Palmdale, California, though we haven’t seen all that much of it. We drove out that way for the first time on Thanksgiving weekend of 2008, shortly after we moved to California, to see the space shuttle Endeavour land at Edwards Air Force Base. That trip—just a couple of hours drive each way—set the stage for our two-year adventure following the end of the space shuttle program two years later.
Palmdale is a place with lodging close to Dryden Flight Research Center, so that’s where we stayed when we followed Endeavour home to California last year. On that trip, we stayed an extra night, exhausted from our cross-country travel between California and Florida and back and, suddenly, not wanting to rush to LAX to see Endeavour’s last landing, instead preferring the image of the shuttle aloft to linger in our minds as long as possible.
During that last jaunt into the desert, we dined at the Yard House in Palmdale. We’re creatures of habit, dining there three nights in a row, just as we had found favorite restaurants on the Space Coast and stuck with them, though one went out of business and then went out of business again between our visits. So we imagine that, in the next couple of days, we’ll sit ourselves down at Yard House to enjoy an ahi poke bowl, Gardein buffalo wings, and, depending on their monthly special drafts, a Lagunitas IPA or a Half Acre Daisy Cutter, the new beer we discovered in Chicago earlier this month
Tomorrow, we’re off to Palmdale not so much for a familiar meal, of course, but to spend a day learning about NASA’s Airborne Science Program. As NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden once reminded us, the first A in NASA stands for aeronautics. In addition to studying space, NASA studies the Earth’s atmosphere and surface, using satellites and aircraft. We’re part of a group of social media nerds who will get a “behind-the-scenes” look at airborne science projects on Friday.
According to NASA, the program’s primary objectives are as follows:
- Conduct in-situ atmospheric measurements with varying vertical and horizontal resolutions
- Collect high-resolution imagery for focused process studies and sub-pixel resolution for spaceborne calibration.
- Implement “sensor web” observational strategies for conducting earth science missions including intelligent mission management, and sensor networking.
- Demonstrate and exploit the capabilities of uninhabited and autonomous aircraft for science investigations
- Test new sensor technologies in space-like environments
- Calibrate/validate space-based measurements and retrieval algorithms
What does that mean? We’re not sure yet, but we’ll definitely share what we find out. We’re thinking ice caps and forest canopy and pollution. In the afternoon, we’ll be “in the hangar,” so we’re hoping to see several different airplanes, including the unmanned Global Hawk originally designed for military surveillance and the ER-2, and maybe peek at the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft that’s sitting out there in the desert somewhere with nothing much to do. You’ll just have to check back at Lofty Ambitions to find out what airborne science means (Part 2: PHOTOS and Part 3: Flight Suit).
Airplane Crashes, Airline Safety, & Risk January 16, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Movies & TV, Serendipity
On this date in 1942, TWA Flight 3 crashed with twenty-two souls aboard. The aircraft was a DC-3, flying from New York to Burbank. Roughly fifteen minutes after takeoff from Las Vegas, one of several stops on the cross-country trip, the plane slammed into a cliff. The nineteen passengers and three crew were killed.
The investigation posited that the pilots mistakenly used the compass heading they more often used flying between Boulder and Burbank. In addition, the pilots seemed to have not used radio navigation to aid their decisions, and most of the lighting was off because of World War II security measures. The compass heading took the plane in the direction of Potosi Mountain, and the aircraft’s altitude was not above one of the mountain cliff tops. The cliff’s top was roughly eighty feet above where the plane crashed.
On board was actress Carole Lombard, who had made her mark in screwball comedies and who was returning home to see her husband, Clark Gable (who would later own a DC-3), as well as her mother and her press agent. The group boarded in Indianapolis, and TWA actually requested that they give up their seats to military personnel. Lombard declined, the airline accommodated her, and others, including a renowned violinist, were left in Albuquerque and survived the night.
The DC-3 was a sleek, propeller-driven, art-deco masterpiece introduced into passenger service in 1936. American Airlines pushed its production and wanted an aircraft with sleeper berths as in Pullman train cars of the day. With fewer refueling stops than earlier planes, it could make the cross-country trip in less than eighteen hours. The military had a version as well, the C-47. Some are still flying cargo routes.
So the DC-3 has proved to be a rugged aircraft. But on January 16, 1942, one of them crashed. Accidents happen, and, in that case, the root cause was pilot error.
Pilots make mistakes, and those mistakes can be deadly for others. Less than two weeks ago, a pilot was arrested when a security agent smelled alcohol on the man’s breath. In that case, the system worked and prevented an impaired pilot from flying a commercial aircraft full of passengers.
It’s easy to think that an airplane crash is the result of a single cause, one mistake. That’s rarely, if ever, the case. In the TWA Flight 3 crash, the pilots flew the wrong course, a course that would have worked fine out of Boulder but led them into the side of a mountain out of Las Vegas. But had they seen far enough ahead, surely they could have climbed the eighty feet necessary to clear the cliff. Other factors contributed.
Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, makes this point well, especially in relation to accidents attributed to pilot error: “The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication. […] A tricky situation needs to be resolved through a complex series of steps—and somehow the pilots fail to coordinate and miss one of them.” Part of airline safety is training for teamwork and communication.
Another part of airline safety is preventing little things from going wrong—delaying a flight to do some maintenance, for instance. As Gladwell points out, “Plane crashes are much more likely to be the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions.” Whether it’s an aircraft, a space shuttle, or a nuclear power plant, little things go wrong, and no one of them is terribly problematic, but when they start to stack up, catastrophe occurs. So airlines tend to fix the little things as soon as they can.
Even when things do go awry, that’s not necessarily a death sentence. Certainly, it doesn’t work the way it’s portrayed in the recent film Flight, but aircraft are incredibly well designed and give well-trained pilots leeway when something unexpected occurs, especially if the aircraft isn’t already very close to the ground. Four years ago yesterday, on January 15, 2009, Captain Chelsey Sullinberger’s U.S. Airways Flight 1549 flew through a flock of geese shortly after takeoff and lost power in both of the Airbus 320 engines. He ditched the plane in the Hudson River, and everyone on board survived.
Twenty years earlier, in the summer, the pilots of United Airlines 232 made a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa. Part of an engine fan had broken off in flight and struck the hydraulic system, knocking out the pilots’ ability to steer and control the aircraft’s speed. The pilots used all their strength to make looping circles toward the Sioux City airport. Many passengers died that day, but even more survived.
What’s really amazing, though, about air safety is that the number of flights in the United States is probably almost 90,000 per day. If only one percent of them had accidents—if there were a 99% success rate, considered an A+ in other contexts—900 planes would crash every day in the United States alone. That doesn’t happen. Worldwide in 2011, among flights with more than six people aboard, there were 117 accidents in which the aircraft was damaged enough that it couldn’t be fixed and used again, and fewer than 1,000 people perished in those accidents.
Even if incidents—smaller events that don’t cause much damage or injury—are counted, the safety record of American carriers is awe-inspiring. Southwest runs at about 0.0000203 incidents per year, and American takes the bottom spot, not much further behind, at 0.0000701 incidents per flight (see ABC article for MORE info). That means that for every 10,000 flights, Southwest has a couple of small things go wrong. Think about the tasks you’ve performed many times—say, cooking a meal or typing. Can you claim you make a noticeable error or something beyond your control goes wrong only twice every 10,000 times you do that task?
So, next time you’re sitting at the gate, just belted into your middle seat, vying for an arm rest and trying to situate your feet comfortably next your messenger bag under the seat in front of you, don’t get too frustrated when the pilot announces that the plane will stay at the gate to reattach something to the windshield or replace a brake valve. Realize that, when the pilot says it’ll take fifteen minutes, it’ll take longer because he has to get the signed paperwork. Documentation is part of the larger safety process.
We’re not making light of airplane crashes here, but we’re grappling with an understanding of risk (which we’ve done before with radioactivity HERE and HERE and with cancer HERE). Statistically, air travel results in almost no deaths or injuries for every million miles traveled. Driving, on the other hand, results in more than one hundred deaths for every million miles traveled. USA Today reported that the lifetime risk of dying in a car accident is 1 in 98, whereas the lifetime risk of death in a plane crash is 1 in 7,178. And the risk of dying from cancer is far greater than either of these—1 in 4 for men, and 1 in 5 for women. Perhaps, these numbers tell us to take care of ourselves and not worry too much about how we get ourselves from one place to another.
On This Date January 9, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Art & Science, Dryden Flight Research Center, Museums & Archives, Wright Brothers, WWII
Today is the birthday—first flight day—of two aircraft that share some background but also differ significantly. A good portion of the world was at war in the 1940s, and that gave rise to these two aircraft in different places. The AVRO Lancaster first took to the war-torn skies of England seventy-two years ago, in 1941, when test pilot Bill Thorn coaxed prototype BT308 to off of the tarmac and into the air at Manchester’s Ringway Airport. Two years later, in 1943, the prototype L-049 Constellation made its first flight, a short hop really, from Burbank, CA, to Muroc Air Force Base (later to become Edwards Air Force Base and also current home to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center).
Large, four-engined, and born during World War II are among the very limited set of characteristics that the Lancaster and the Constellation had in common. That said, both aircraft followed architect’s Louis Sullivan’s “form ever follows function” dictum to a tee and turned out very differently.
The Lancaster was designed as a bomber. Utilitarian, slab sided, and broad winged, the Lancaster is not easily mistaken for anything but a military aircraft. The Lancaster began military service in February 1942, and more than 7,000 would be built before the last “Lanc” was retired in 1963. During WWII, Lancaster’s flew nearly 160,000 missions. The Lancaster gained particular fame during the war for its use of bouncing bombs in mission against dams.
While the Lanc was decidedly of its time, the Lockheed Constellation—affectionately known as the “Connie”—had an art deco design, a blend of organic shapes and machine grace, that was ahead of its time. Much larger than the Lanc—early Connies had a takeoff weight of 137,500 lb versus the Lanc’s 68,000 lb—the Lockheed design was curved and sinous. Many mid-twentieth-century trains, planes, and automobiles were shaped to cheat the wind, and a designer’s eyeball of that era served as a wind-tunnel test. The Connie looks like it’s going fast even when it is sitting still.
Much is often made of Howard Hughes’s involvement in the design of the Connie. In reality, Hughes’ TWA simply issued the specification for the Connie, and Lockheed engineered an aircraft to satisfy that spec. Once the Connie was flying though, Hughes, ever the promoter and master showman, made headlines with the aircraft. Because of his close relationship to Lockheed, Hughes managed to finagle the use of an early Constellation. Once he had it, he repainted it in TWA colors and promptly set a speed record while flying it across the country. Passengers on that trip included Hughes’s gal-pal Ava Gardner and Lockheed engineer (and Upper Peninsula native) Kelly Johnson. On his return trip, Hughes garnered more press by giving Orville Wright what would be the aviation pioneer’s last flight.
Despite its obvious style and speed—the Connie was faster than a number of WWII fighter aircraft—the Connie had a short and somewhat difficult career. Its Wright 3350 engines had a reputation for inflight fires, leading to uncomfortable jokes about the Connie, which had four engines, being the world’s faster trimotor. On top of that, the first generation of jet airliners arrived just as the Connie began to hit its stride. Although Connies survived for a number of years in the military and in passenger service outside of the United States, this aircraft made its final domestic revenue flight in 1967.
As we’ve written elsewhere, we have a fondness for visiting small airports just to see what’s sitting on the ramp. We developed this ritual while we were both professors at our alma mater, Knox College, in the late-1990s. Years later, on a return trip to Galesburg, we visited the local airport—call sign KGBG—for old-time’s sake. Sitting there in all of its shapely, aluminum glory was a Constellation.
The first Constellation that we saw in the metal was the so-called MATS Connie, one of the handful still flying and once owned by John Travolta. We’ve also seen the military variant at Chanute-Rantoul, just outside of Champaign, IL, where our colleague Richard Bausch once served. President Eisenhower flew on a Constellation; he had two in service at the time.
Only two Lancasters remain airworthy, one in the United Kingdom and one at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. There’s a Lanc near us, though, in Chico, CA, that folks are planning to restore to flying condition. A reminder that we haven’t yet thoroughly investigated the aviation history that’s right in our own back yard here in Southern California.
In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton (Part 15) January 2, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Books, In the Footsteps, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons
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Last Wednesday, Lofty Ambitions introduced Jean Dayton and our serendipitous meeting with that woman of the Manhattan Project and nuclear history. You can start with that post by clicking HERE.
Jean Klein Dayton would have been 88 years old this past Sunday. In continuing with our theme of chance, of serendipity, we hadn’t thought about Jean in quite a while, but recently, when tidying up the Manhattan Project area of Doug’s writing space, something in the stack of books, notes, photos, and maps brought Jean into a moment’s focus. Later, fingertips on laptop keyboard, Doug did a quick search for Jean (“jean klein dayton manhattan project”). Almost at the top of the search results was Jean’s obituary in the Corvallis Gazette-Times newspaper. She had died more than three years earlier in March 2009.
Also in that first page of results were links to information about Jean in Manhattan Project related websites and books. In particular, Doug was drawn to the passages about Jean in the book, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project. It was a more-than-appropriate reminder of how we came to interview Jean in the summer of 2004. That summer was a furious maelstrom of activity. Doug was focused on writing up the results of his PhD research, Anna copyedited, and together we planned the moves necessary to reunite our household after five years of maintaining one residence in Oregon and another in the Midwest.
Doug hadn’t so much forgotten about his encounter with Jean Dayton and her association with the Manhattan Project as he had boxed them up and put them away like holiday decorations in the attic of his mind. Doug’s novel project, set in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, could easily consume weeks of time. Time that took him away from his dissertation. Time that he couldn’t afford if he were to finish his degree. Eventually, after some lengthy self-bargaining, working on the novel became a reward. It was a present Doug would give to himself for finishing his dissertation. But toward the end of that summer, running out of time if he were to finish before the move back to Illinois, Doug found himself fingering the spines of books about the Manhattan Project in Oregon State’s Valley Library. What had started out as a simple errand to return a stack of books about software engineering and qualitative research methods—two topics not often seen together at the time—had become a mini-break away from the drudgery of academic writing.
When Doug came across Their Day in the Sun, he instantly remembered the woman that he’d run into after the Cold War lecture more than a year earlier. He quickly skimmed the book’s index for her entry. Upon finding and reading Jean’s pages in the book, Doug was once again fascinated by this person and wondered if there would be time to interview her before leaving Corvallis for good. We quickly discussed the situation and decided that we would just have to make time for the interview. The phone call to set up the interview was very much like the last time that Doug and Jean spoke: quiet, full of pauses, and somewhat awkward. We agreed to a meeting in the cafeteria at a hospital in Corvallis. Jean or her husband was undergoing treatment at the time.
The interview began with lots of background about Jean’s life. She’d gone to Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project as the wife of a physicist, Henry Hurwitz. After the war, Hurwitz would be a leading thinker in the area of the nuclear power plants and made significant contributions to the design and development of nuclear submarines. Jean and Henry would ultimately divorce, but during the war, like many of the smart, capable scientists’ wives at the Manhattan Project, she pitched in.
Doug reminded her of their meeting after the Galison talk where she’d indicated that she worked for Edward Teller. She nodded, but said nothing. Even after further prompting, Jean was unwilling to provide specifics about the nature of her own work. In fact, before agreeing to the interview she required that we provide her with any notes that we took so that she could forward them to the security office at Los Alamos. We kept our word, and we can only assume that she did too. Jean exuded a calm competence that suggested when she said she would do something, she did. About her work during the Manhattan Project, Their Day in the Sun has this to say:
“Dayton started in the Electronics Division, making Geiger counters and other equipment and installing an interoffice phone system. She transferred to weapons testing in order to get outdoors, and she later helped to design the detonation system for the hydrogen bomb. John von Neumann selected her for the job because he felt that a mathematician would take to long to figure out the system. A person working intuitively, he hoped, would be more efficient.”
Although the book’s description doesn’t precisely coincide with Jean’s recollection—she indicated that she worked for Teller (von Neumann’s countrymen and friend)—it does pinpoint her thinking as to the reason that she was chosen. Also, given Teller’s role in the creation of the hydrogen bomb, it’s likely that she was collaborating with both men.
During the interview, Jean was much more open about day-to-day life on The Hill (one of the many monikers that Los Alamos went by during the Manhattan Project). Jean was reluctant to mention the names of many of the personages that she encountered during her time on The Hill. After mentioning a dinner party that she held where three of the attendees would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize, we developed a habit of guessing whom she was talking about. If we guessed correctly, she’d confirm our guess with a quick nod. One of the attendees at her dinner party was a young Richard Feynman. After we made that connection, Jean fondly recalled broadcasting an advice-for-the-lovelorn radio show with Feynman. She also related that Feynman had developed a bit of a crush on her. Still married at the time, Jean introduced Feynman to her sister, and the two dated for a time.
It’s been more than eight years since we interviewed Jean. Jean arrived at Los Alamos in 1943. She was nineteen years old, younger than many of our students. Jean Dayton was our first interview as a team. We feel like we did a pretty good job, but now that we’ve done more research and visited Los Alamos ourselves, there are many things that we wish we could ask.
In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton (Part 14) December 26, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Nuclear Weapons, Serendipity, WWII
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As frequent readers of Lofty Ambitions well know, we’re big believers in serendipity–that chance meeting with an idea, a place, or a person (or even better, a combination of those). Afterwards, your thoughts move in a new, unexpected direction. Last week’s post was about recent serendipity, and this week’s is about serendipity from our past.
In May 2003, while he was a graduate student at Oregon State University, Doug had just such a chance collosion while attending a lecture about the Cold War and nuclear weapons. Peter Galison, Pellegrino University Professor in History of Science and Physics at Harvard University, was speaking about a documentary that he had recently completed, The Ultimate Weapon: The H-bomb Dilemma. The title of Galison’s talk was “Filming and Writing History: The H-bomb Debate.” Doug had just started doing research for a historical novel set during the Manhattan Project, and the talk seemed to dovetail neatly with this new project.
One of the 20th century’s most controversial scientific figures, Edward Teller, is often referred to as the father of the hydrogen bomb (H-bomb). The H-bomb came into the world’s consciousness in 1952, less than ten years after the atomic bomb. Although much distinguishes the two types of weapons, not the least of which is that they operate on different physical principles; atomic bombs use fission, H-bombs use fusion, and the resulting difference between the two weapons is their destructive power. Atomic bombs have a practical upper limit in explosive yield based on the size of their uranium or plutonium core (see more HERE). Hydrogen bombs (more commonly called thermonuclear weapons in the latter stages of the Cold War) are nearly unlimited in their destructive potential. The primary requirement for increasing their power is adding more fuel (see more HERE).
Galison’s documentary–which aired on the History Channel in August 2000–gave voice to a number of the people associated with the development and deployment of thermonuclear weapons. In his talk, Galison made it seem as if he had a particular fondness for, or at least was intrigued by, the nuclear weapons designer Theodore “Ted” Taylor. Taylor had a reputation for being a particularly innovative thinker, a producer of remarkably elegant designs, although perhaps elegant isn’t quite the right term when the context is nuclear weapons. In the late 1950s, Taylor worked with physicist Freeman Dyson on Project Orion, an extravagantly ambitious plan to create a spacecraft capable of deep-space travel. At a time when NASA had yet to place a man in orbit, the mavens behind Orion were proposing a ship that could scoot easily past Mars and make its way to the outer planets, Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus, and even Pluto (back in the days when Pluto was punching above its weight and still held planet status). Potential multi-generational missions involving dozens of scientists, their families, and a small menagerie of farm animals gallivanting off to Alpha Centauri were considered. The magical elixir that would power the enormous Orion? Not Star Trek’s dilithium crystals or ion drives. No, Orion was designed to ride a steady stream of H-bomb explosions. Megaton class (1) H-bombs would be ejected from the rear of Orion, detonated at a so-called safe distance, and the resulting stream of radiation and shock waves would push against a gigantic metal plate–logically enough called a pusher plate–fixed to Orion’s backside. Orion, of course, never went beyond the drawing board.
In his later years, Taylor became an ardent critic of the nation’s nuclear weapons program and its potential for nuclear proliferation. Not so with Edward Teller. Teller remained a passionate defender of nuclear weapons and his role in the creation of the H-bomb until the end of his life in 2003.
At the end of Galison’s talk, Doug went up to the speaker’s lectern to ask him a question about Ted Taylor. Doug was not the only person in the audience whose personal interests weren’t fully addressed in the short Q&A; there were a half-dozen people in line to speak with Galison. Standing quietly in front of Doug was a tiny, elderly woman. When it was her turn to speak with Galison, the woman stepped forward and began to tell her story. She had been a part of the Manhattan Project. There, she worked as a kind of assistant to Edward Teller. Though not a physicist, she’d studied biology at Cornell University, Teller valued her unorthodox problem solving strategies–what we’d today call outside-the-box thinking–and often gave her problems to work on, thorny, unusual problems that were stymieing the physicists.
The woman’s interaction with Galison was economical. She did the majority of the speaking, and after a brief moment of silence, she turned and left. Even after standing in line and while still wanting to ask Galison a question, Doug made a very easy decision: he followed the woman. As reached the lecture hall’s doorway, Doug tapped her gently on the shoulder. Introducing himself and explaining his interest in the Manhattan Project, Doug asked her if he might interview her about her experiences. With a look that suggested she was taken aback by this turn of events, she thought for a moment and ultimately said in a soft voice, “Yes.” Again she turned to leave, and again Doug tapped her lightly on the shoulder. “Your name. I need your name.” This time, the frown on her face indicated that she hadn’t anticipated this question as a part of the bargain. After a brief pause, she relented and said, “Jean Dayton.”
Serendipity and Generation Space December 19, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Apollo, Serendipity, Space Shuttle
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There are a lot of us who are part of Generation Space: every American born from the end of the 1950s, when Sputnik was launched by the Russians and NASA was founded in the United States, to the early 1980s, when the space shuttle program got off the ground. But we aren’t always aware of how broadly and deeply growing up with Apollo and Shuttle has influenced our lives.
Sometimes, though, we are reminded unexpectedly. That’s serendipity:
“[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.” –Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From
When Anna started reading Carole Radziwill’s book What Remains, she had no reason to think the space shuttle would be mentioned. The book is a memoir about falling in love with her husband, Anthony, who was John Kennedy’s cousin. Three weeks after Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette, who was Radziwill’s close friend, died in a plane crash, Anthony died from cancer. The book is about love and loss, not about technology and history. But Radziwill is roughly our age; she’s part of Generation Space.
So, on page 61, Radziwill explains why she became a journalist:
“Before I was a wife or a widow, I was a journalist, and that started in Annette Kriener’s office at ABC, on Sixty-Seventh and Columbus. Really it started ten months before on an ordinary January morning, watching TV in my parents’ kitchen. The space shuttle Challenger exploded, and an entire life occurred to me. From a thirteen-inch black-and-white television I saw a completely different world develop, beyond Suffern [where I’d grown up]. I watched the coverage and became absorbed with the network news anchors, and I made up my mind. As far-fetched as it seemed, I wanted to be there. I wanted to tell the story, not watch it.”
Radziwill, like us, was a college student on January 28, 1986. The space shuttle program changed the trajectory of her life.
As Anna was reading What Remains, we were also catching up with Season 5 of The Big Bang Theory. The male main characters in this series are the nerdiest of nerds and work at CalTech, though arguably, Howard Wolowitz—the engineer of the bunch—works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which counts among its successes Curiosity, the rover now perusing the surface of Mars. So The Big Bang Theory has an awareness of Generation Space, even though that’s a term we’ve coined.
Three of the main characters are played by Generation Space actors. Johnny Galecki, who plays Leonard Hofstadter, who was born in Belgium in 1975, but grew up in Chicago in the 70s and 80s, meaning we were all Illinoisans then and making him six years old when the space shuttle began and ten years old when Challenger exploded in 1986. Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper, was born in 1973, making him eight years old when the space shuttle first launched in 1981. Simon Helberg, who plays Howard Wolowitz, was born the year before STS-1.
Still, when the series began in 2007, there existed no reason to expect Howard Wolowitz to fly as a payload specialist on a mission to the International Space Station. But there was Howard, strapped into the roomiest Soyuz capsule we’ve ever seen, in an episode that first aired on May 12, 2012, almost a year after the space shuttle program ended. What really surprised us, though, was that the other American astronaut on the mission was Mike Massimino, someone we’ve met and interviewed. (Massimino was born in 1962, so he’s Generation Space, too.) As the rocket launches, Massimino yells, “I love this part!”
At the end of the episode, Sheldon, who is watching the launch on television back home in Pasadena with rest of the gang, says, “Boldy go, Howard Wolowitz.” Sheldon’s wish is the wish of Generation Space, who grew up with Star Trek’s Enterprise and its five-year mission “to boldy go where no man has gone before.”
In these moments of exhilaration, happy accidents become anchored.