Yuri & Young April 10, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Movies & TV, Space Shuttle
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On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin, at the age of 27, became the first person to travel to space. His single orbit, from launch to landing, took roughly 108 minutes. Gagarin had been told that he was the choice only three days before the Vostok 1 mission. He returned a Soviet hero and worldwide celebrity. He died in the crash of a training flight on March 27, 1968, at the age of 34 and before the world saw human beings reach the Moon.
On April 12, 1981, only and exactly twenty years after Gagarin’s flight, the first space shuttle mission launched. That the United States had developed a reusable space plane within two decades of the first human spaceflight is a testament to our ingenuity and commitment to space exploration. That NASA chose the same date for the first shuttle launch as the Soviets had chosen for Gagarin’s first-ever spaceflight reminds us that the Cold War lingered and still fueled one-upsmanship.
Though networks covered the STS-1 launch live and gave it the same sort of Cold War fanfare that Apollo had received, we didn’t see the first shuttle launch in real time. The bigger news story that spring, the one for which teachers at Anna’s high school had stopped class to pray, had been the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan less than two weeks earlier. Reagan watched the launch on television as he recuperated at the White House. Vice President George H.W. Bush was the one to call the crew during their mission.
We caught replays of the launch, complete with the word videotape at the top of the screen. Doug remembers himself in front of a television that Sunday afternoon in the most American of venues, the shopping mall after church. Wide-eyed, mouth agape, he watched the liftoff over and over in the J.C. Penney electronics area as if it were that J.C. Penney parking lot across the water from Kennedy Space Center.
Just after launch, CBS newscaster Dan Rather explained the accomplishment in halting syntax: “We’ve been saying all week long and as the time for the launch built Friday morning and again this morning built, everybody a little bit nervous, the tension a little heavier than even usual […] because this spacecraft had not been tested at a launch in unmanned fashion as all others had, spacecraft designed to carry men. […] It’s done now, done successfully.” Leo Krupp, a Rockwell test pilot in the booth with Rather for the “Wings in Space” special report that day, gushed, “That launch was the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen.” Rather composed himself and went on to describe what had just happened: “The ground literally shook, as the spacecraft Columbia started its own sun below itself, caused that great thunder, and lifted off the pad, headed toward that orbit.” After the commercial break, Rather read a more detailed and technical description, noting that the shuttle had cleared the launch tower within five seconds and exceeded the speed of sound within thirty. (See that broadcast HERE.)
Astronauts John Young, a veteran of the Gemini and Apollo programs, and Bob Crippen, a veteran test pilot but a rookie astronaut, circled the Earth 37 times at an altitude of 191 miles, making a complete circuit roughly every ninety minutes and inaugurating the first of the shuttle program’s eventual 135 missions.
Space shuttle Columbia (OV-102), the heaviest orbiter built, landed at Edwards Air Force Base on April 14, 1981. The STS-1 CAPCOM, the person, usually an astronaut, who communicates from the ground directly to the shuttle, announced the orbiter’s safe return, saying, “Welcome home, Columbia. Beautiful, beautiful.” The reusable space plane had succeeded.
Commander Young quipped, “Do I have to take it up to the hangar, Joe?” The CAPCOM replied, “We’re going to dust it off first.” Young added, “This is the world’s greatest flying machine, I’ll tell you that.” The space shuttle era had begun.
Now, of course, the space shuttle era is over. Last week, film critic Roger Ebert died at the age of 70. At the conclusion of his review of Apollo 13, he wrote, “This is a powerful story, one of the year’s best films, told with great clarity and remarkable technical detail, and acted without pumped-up histrionics. It’s about men trained to do a job, and doing a better one than anyone could have imagined. The buried message is: When we dialed down the space program, we lost something crucial to our vision.”
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.
I Remember California: Recap, Thus Far September 26, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Dryden Flight Research Center, I Remember California, Movies & TV, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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It’s been two years since we began following the end of the space shuttle program. On September 18, 2010, we published a piece about I Dream of Jeannie. We hadn’t yet visited Cocoa Beach, the Space Coast town where Jeannie and astronaut Anthony Nelson lived in that television series. We hadn’t yet been to Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) and seen the façade of the building used for Tony Nelson’s NASA office building.
By the end of October two years ago, we were on our way to Florida in hopes of seeing Discovery launch. We talked with Apollo astronauts and shuttle astronauts and saw the story of space exploration as it was told by Kennedy Space Center (KSC). We didn’t see a space shuttle launch that year. Discovery’s launch was delayed by months, and our work schedules prevented us from returning for that orbiter’s last mission. That trip changed our lives, reoriented us in our understanding of ourselves and our sense of our place in history.
We returned to the Space Coast to see Endeavour launch. That took two tries. We had seen Endeavour at Edwards Air Force Base two years before that, in 2008, just a few months after we’d relocated to California. Endeavour seemed like “our” orbiter. Witnessing that launch was like nothing we had ever experienced before. When we returned to KSC for the last launch of Atlantis—the last-ever shuttle launch—Stephanie Stilson gave us a tour of Endeavour in the Orbiter Processing Facility.
So we are following Endeavour all the way home to California. We attended the title transfer at the California Science Center, and we’ve spent the last couple of weeks with Endeavour, first for its takeoff from KSC and then for its landing at DFRC. We got up close to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft with the orbiter mated atop and walked around the odd configuration. Then, we saw Endeavour’s final takeoff.
Admittedly, we didn’t rush to LAX to see its last landing. Sure, the inevitable traffic put us off, and we didn’t have time to grab our press credentials before their early cutoff. We were exhausted from lack of sleep to get to the runway early. Days of adrenaline rushes take their toll. Mostly, though, when we saw the takeoff on September 21, 2012, we wanted to hold that memory a while. We wanted Endeavour to remain aloft in our minds for just a few weeks longer.
In October, we’ll follow Endeavour to its museum home. We’re not sure how, but we’ll be there for what’s being billed as quite a party. And we may well go back to the Space Coast to see Atlantis move over to the KSC Visitor Complex. But for now, we picture Endeavour, aloft and banking slightly, soaring westward.
Part 1: Title for Title
Part 2: I Remember Mike Moses
Part 3: Orbiter Transfer Plans
Part 5: Background of Endeavour
Part 6: Endeavour Mating (Photos)
Part 7: Endeavour Delay & KSC Tour
Part 12: The Family Photos
Part 14: Recap, Thus Far (this post!)
Video Interview: Jeffrey Rudolph, Head of the California Science Center
The Cold War: Trinity & Apollo July 16, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Apollo, Movies & TV, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Serendipity, WWII
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On this date in 1945, the United States exploded the first nuclear weapon. A test to see whether the concept worked. It did.
Two years ago to commemorate this anniversary, only a couple of weeks after we started blogging together as Lofty Ambitions, we posted “A Day with Two Suns.” That’s a relatively brief post that we hope you’ll read along with this one. That post hinges on a statement in a physics textbook from 1942 that presages the eventual use of an atomic bomb and implies the inevitability of nuclear weapons, once radioactivity and isotopes of uranium and plutonium were discovered and studied by scientists.
“The Gadget” was perched at the top of a hundred-foot tower and exploded on July 16, 1945. It had a twenty-kiloton yield. A device of the same design was detonated over Nagasaki a few weeks later, killing 40,000 people instantly. The exact detonation site for the Trinity test in New Mexico is now marked with an obelisk and is open to visitors two days every year.
On this anniversary of the beginning of the nuclear age, we invite you to look at another link as well, not ours, but an artist’s rendering in video of the nuclear age through 1998. Click HERE for Isao Hasimoto’s powerful representation of the world’s nuclear detonations, beginning with the Trinity test. In the top banner, note the detonation count by country along with the months and years elapsing. Since 1998 and the timeframe Hashimoto represents, North Korea has tested two nuclear weapons. That brings the total to 2055 nuclear explosions.
Tomorrow, too, marks another anniversary, that of the last above-ground nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site (now called the Nevada National Security Site and worth the click for the security notice). In 1962, Little Feller I was a comparatively small weapon shot from a Davy Crockett launcher. All nuclear tests thereafter moved underground to prevent fallout sprinkling radioactive particles around the globe and to protect the atmosphere and those of us who would breathe it for decades to come. Plutonium occurs almost nowhere in the natural world, but in the nuclear era, we swim in a thin stream of the man-made element as a byproduct of atmospheric testing in addition to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Plutonium-239, the isotope used for nuclear weapons, has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. You may also want to take a few minutes to read “Fission & Half-Lives.”
With the nuclear age, of course, came the Cold War, our decades of standoff with the Soviet Union. Part of the story of the Cold War is the story of the space race. The Soviets won the race to space, putting the first man into space, then the first man into low-Earth orbit. The United States won the race to the Moon. That victory began on this date in 1969, when Apollo 11 launched from Kennedy Space Center, with throngs of viewers crowded in the J.C Penney parking lot across the Indian River. A few days later, on July 20, Neil Armstrong, then Buzz Aldrin, stepped onto the lunar surface while Michael Collins circled across the far side of the Moon. The three splashed down safely on July 24, 1969.
Tomorrow marks the anniversary of another space exploration milestone as well, a friendly gesture between Cold War enemies, the Apollo-Soyuz mission. In 1975, the Soviet Union launched a Soyuz capsule and the United States launched an Apollo capsule. The two capsules docked in orbit on this date, and Tom Stafford and Alexey Leonov gave rise to the first outer-space handshake between nations. (Watch the docking HERE.)
We are no longer surprised by this sort of serendipity, by the fact that important historical events in two different realms about which we write—nuclear history and space exploration—would occur on the same date, years apart in the twentieth century. We find that this sort of serendipity happens regularly, while other dates contain nothing of import for our work at Lofty Ambitions.
What continues to surprise us is a different type of serendipity, one in which we seem actively involved. As we draft this post and realize that tomorrow marks the anniversary of Apollo-Soyuz, we have just watched the film The Far Side of the Moon, about which we knew almost nothing when we added it to our Netflix queue. The title, for us, was enough. It turns out that Alexey Leonov, the Soviet hand in that interstellar, Cold War handshake, plays a prominent role in The Far Side of the Moon. We don’t want to give too much away—the film is not about Leonov but about a philosophy of science student and his weatherman brother, in the wake of their mother’s death. We would have enjoyed the film any time because it is quirky, tells a character-driven story, and tries interesting cinematic moves. But that we happened to watch this film when it would be especially meaningful to us because of this anniversary is one of the pleasures we keep finding in our work together here.
Roswell: 65 Years of Alien Invasion July 8, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Movies & TV, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons
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Today is the sixty-fifth anniversary of the reported crash of an UFO at Roswell, New Mexico. As is often the case, your Lofty duo takes its inspiration from the events that surround us, from the larger world that our lives move with and through. Although we’ve largely ignored Roswell and UFOs—and the oft-related Area 51—when we heard about today’s anniversary (the purported crash didn’t take place today, it’s the anniversary of the Army’s press release acknowledging the event), we decided to acknowledge the event, if only for its influence on our lives through popular culture.
When talking about whether or not to write about Roswell and Area 51, we were forthright with each other about what this might mean for the blog. Over the years, we’ve received email offers to show us photos that “prove” the existence of aliens, we’ve spoken to aerospace industry veterans who worked at Area 51, and we’ve even visited Roswell. If all of that makes us seem like true believers, we’re not.
Roswell was the logical stopping place in our trek across the country for our move to California. All right, we’ll cop to that not being 100% accurate. We did go a bit out of our way to spend the night in Roswell, and we slowed our journey by a few hours to visit Roswell’s UFO Museum. So, why would we do that? Part of the answer lies in the undeniable effect that the Roswell crash has had on our popular culture. It’s been featured heavily in television, including having an entire show—the eponymous, teen angst drama Roswell—that relied on the event’s continuously unfolding lore. Countless Hollywood films, blockbusters and B-movies alike, have borrowed part of the Roswell crash narrative for their plots. And this summer, we have found ourselves watching the X-Files again, from soup to nuts.
We imagine that most bloggers who write about aviation and space get an email or two from former Area 51 workers who have seen something or know something. In the UFO community, Area 51 is linked to the Roswell incident as the ultimate destination of the crashed-then-recovered flying disk. Furthering the mythology, Area 51 is also home to a decades-long attempt to re-engineer the alien technology that allowed the craft and its occupants to travel the implausible (to humans) distances that separate the galaxies and planets that make up our universe.
Area 51 is not a mythological place; it’s real. Area 51 was founded in the mid-1950s as an airbase for the CIA to flight test the U-2 spyplane. The base is an enormous military and civilian installation that has required the services of thousands of aerospace workers in its fifty-year history. In alignment with other of our interests, Area 51 abuts the northeast corner of the Nevada Test Site (now the Nevada National Security Site), a square-shaped slice of desert real estate larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. The Nevada Test Site, which we’ve written about HERE, HERE, and HERE, was home to almost one thousand atomic and nuclear weapons tests during the Cold War.
We’ve visited and done research at the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas more than once. In fact, part of our nerd-cred rests on the fact that we spent the first day of what unexpectedly became our honeymoon working in the archives of the National Atomic Testing Museum. Our most recent visit to the museum less than a month ago coincided with a special exhibit on—you guessed it—Area 51. The exhibit, Area 51: Myth or Reality, is heavy on reinforcing the Roswell and Area 51 legend. Each visitor is given a special pass to enter, and a video featuring a “Man in Black” warns you about security. A significant portion of the exhibit, however, focuses on Area 51’s role as a spyplane flight test center.
In this respect, the exhibit resembled a recent book that Doug read, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by Los Angeles-based journalist Annie Jacobsen. While we’ll leave a review for another post, Jacobsen mentions that she too did research in the archives of the National Atomic Testing Museum, and some of her human sources for the book are affiliated with the museum. So even though we haven’t become true believers in the Roswell and Area 51 stories of aliens, as bloggers who write about space exploration and science, these stories lurk in the periphery.
That’s not to say that we have enough hubris to think that the only intelligent life exists here on Earth. Even the esteemed scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson explains, “At the moment, life on Earth is the only known life in the universe, but compelling arguments suggest we are not alone. Indeed, nearly all astrophysicists accept the high probability of life elsewhere.” After all, there’s an awfully big universe out there, so we can’t be sure we’re that special. Even here on Earth, there’s a lot of variety among living things. The way extraterrestrial visitors have been portrayed in popular culture and common lore doesn’t capture the possibilities that might exist out there.
On This Date: Ilan Ramon June 20, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Movies & TV, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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On this date in 1954, Ilan Ramon was born in Israel. Both his mother and his grandmother survived the concentration camp at Auschwitz, a family history that shaped Ramon’s outlook and goals in life.
In 1997, Ramon was chosen for astronaut training by NASA. Like many astronauts, his background was as a military pilot. He graduated from flight school in 1974, then flew for the Israeli Air Force and served in a variety of capacities before turning his attention to astronaut training in July 1998.
Ramon trained for several years, and he was ultimately named as the Payload Specialist on the crew to fly Columbia on STS-107. That mission launched on January 16, 2003.
Astronauts are allowed to carry with them onboard a few personal items. Ramon chose a drawing called “Moon Landscape,” which had been sketched by a boy who died in Auschwitz, the same concentration camp that Ramon’s mother and grandmother had survived. He also took with him a mezuzah from the 1939 Club, a miniature Torah, a copy of a Torah on microfilm, and a piece of money from a rabbi.
Ramon spent fifteen days in space with Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William C. McCool, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, and Mission Specialists David M. Brown, Kalpana Chalwa, and Laurel Clark. These astronauts did not return to Earth safely.
During launch, a piece of foam insulation broke off the external fuel tank and hit the orbiter. Almost light as air, foam was assumed to be relatively harmless, but at launch speed, it can and did punch a hole in the thermal tiles on the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing. Engineers who reviewed the video of the launch requested that the Department of Defense use its imaging abilities to examine the orbiter for damage, but NASA didn’t process those requests. Thermal tile damage from foam had occurred before, and everything had turned out okay.
On February 1, at about 8:15a.m. EST, Columbia began its de-orbit to return for a landing at Kennedy Space Center. At 8:48a.m., a sensor in the left wing indicated something was amiss. Though no one knew at the time what was happening, the hole in the thermal tile had already allowed heat as high as 2500º F to hit the wing’s aluminum surface. By the time Columbia was over California, just before 6a.m. on the West Coast, its wing exhibited a bright streak visible from the ground. Several sensors began reading “off-scale low”; the sensors weren’t functioning because the wing had been damaged internally.
Over the course of several minutes, the orbiter broke apart, succumbing to violent supersonic forces that pull an object in multiple directions at once. Through most of this breakup, the crew cabin remained intact, a testament to the shuttle’s design engineers. Eventually, though, even that component broke into pieces. The crew was dead by 9:01a.m. EST on February 1, 2003. President George W. Bush announced the accident that afternoon and assured the country that the shuttle program would continue, though he set its end date the following year for 2010.
While aboard Columbia, Ilan Ramon kept a diary, thirty-seven pages of which survived the accident. Ramon’s wife, Rona, put two pages of that diary on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Though we had watched the coverage of the Columbia accident in 2003, we became informed about Ramon at a screening of the film An Article of Hope at Chapman University. You can read the guest post by Christopher Cowen, one of the film’s producers, HERE. More recently, we attended a celebration of the naming of the Ilan Ramon Day School here in California, an event at which Rona Ramon spoke eloquently about her husband’s life. You can read our post about that HERE.
On this anniversary of Ilan Ramon’s birth, we remember that he died doing what he most wanted to accomplish in life and that the space shuttle program made it possible for a wider variety of people to reach space than ever before. Ramon was just 48 years old when he died, an age not very far off for this Lofty duo, offering us yet another reminder to appreciate the life we live every day.
Busy Week in Space! May 25, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Movies & TV, Space Shuttle, SpaceX
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This week marked a milestone in space exploration: the successful launch of a space capsule by a private company and its berth with the International Space Station this morning. We wrote about SpaceX’s Dragon mission at The Huffington Post; click HERE to read our piece and a pretty interesting conversation in the comment thread. We’re set to do a follow-up there tomorrow, after we see how the opening of the hatch goes.
Yesterday, too, marked an important anniversary: the second time an American orbited the Earth. As part of the first U.S. manned space program, Project Mercury, astronaut Scott Carpenter climbed into Aurora 7 atop an Atlas rocket and launched into outer space. Her spent almost five hours there. Carpenter flew this mission only after Deke Slayton was grounded with a heart problem. Carpenter was the back-up pilot for the mission John Glenn flew to become the first American to orbit the Earth, and Glenn and Carpenter remain the only living Mercury astronauts. Our personal connection to this event is that, for four years, Doug worked for a high-tech company based in Carpenter’s hometown, Boulder, Colorado. And of course, we recently chatted with Glenn during “Discovery Departure.”
Today, the day of Dragon’s first berth, is the anniversary of President Kennedy’s speech before Congress in 1961 that announced his goal for the United States to put a man on the Moon by the end of that decade. (View an excerpt HERE and the complete transcript HERE.) April had been a bad month for the Kennedy administration, with Yuri Gagarin orbiting the Earth (view the launch footage HERE) and, thereby, giving the Soviets the lead in the Space Race, not to mention the Bay of Pigs. Among the “numerous and varied” proposals designed to combat “the adversaries of freedom” was that “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Just one day shy of a year later, Scott Carpenter was orbiting the Earth, taking the early steps in the process of reaching the Moon.
Today is also the birthday of two cosmonauts, Georgy Grechko, born in 1931 before jet aircraft existed, let alone anyone was serious about going to space, and Ivan Bella, born three years after Kennedy’s speech. Between 1975 and 1985, Grechko flew several missions, including a repair mission that brought the freezing, inoperable Salyut 7 space station back to life. In 1999, Bella spent almost eight days aboard Mir, the Russian space station.
And of course, just a year ago, space shuttle Endeavour was in the midst of its last mission, the crew giving a variety of press interviews before some serious spacewalking the next day.
Perhaps, though, today’s most meaningful anniversary for us is the release of Star Wars in 1977. Thirty-five years ago this summer, we each saw Star Wars for the first of what would ultimately be dozens of times. Although Star Wars and Star Trek have been compared in innumerable ways, for this Lofty Duo, both franchises have been much in our minds and in the news lately. Star Trek has been a regular presence in our lives lately because of its association with the Space Shuttle Enterprise, so named because of a write-in campaign by fans of the original series bombarded NASA with cards and letters, and because the ashes of James Doohan, who played Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, were carried to and dispersed in low-Earth orbit this week. Serendipitously, Doohan’s ashes were lofted into orbit by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which is of course named after Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon.
Tomorrow will mark other anniversaries. Apollo 10, the last mission before someone set foot on the Moon, safely returned Tom Stafford, John Young, and Gene Cernan to Earth on May 26, 1969. This mission offered television viewers back on the ground the first color broadcast from space. And they tested the lunar module, though NASA did not give them enough fuel to land on the Moon and return to the capsule, probably because they knew a person that close to the Moon’s surface would be tempted to just go ahead and do it.
And Saturday is also Sally Ride’s 61st birthday. Ride joined NASA in 1978 and became the first American woman in space in 1983, on STS-7. She flew again on STS-41G in 1984. She served on the Challenger Accident Investigation Board, after which Roger Boisjoly, a whistleblower in that investigation and a Lofty Ambitions guest blogger, credited Ride as one of the few people who publicly supported his efforts. In 2003, years after she retired from NASA, she served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the only person to serve on both accident investigation boards.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
Tags: Apollo, Concorde, Dryden Flight Research Center, GRAILTweetup, Movies & TV, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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A clear and consistent message was delivered at both the #DrydenSocial and last fall’s GRAIL Tweetup: NASA wants to use social media to help spread the word of its achievements. To that end, NASA trots out its best and brightest to address event attendees and then mixes in the kind of moments that only NASA can deliver.
To that end, the morning session of the May 4th NASA Social event at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) offered a broad overview of Dryden’s historical and continuing role in aeronautics research. David McBride, Center Director for DFRC and Christian Gelzer, Chief Historian, provided a wealth of contextual information in the day’s first two talks.
The wonderful Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and whose book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, Anna has just finished reading, has been making some interesting comparisons regarding NASA’s budget of late. According to Tyson (watch the video HERE), the $850 billion spent on TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, is greater than NASA’s budget for the fifty-plus years that NASA has been in existence.
In no particular order, here are some the achievements that NASA’s budget has funded in that five-decade span:
• the Hubble Space Telescope and its associated increase in our understanding of the universe;
• a significant portion of the International Space Station (ISS);
• the Space Transportation System (the shuttle) that carried Hubble and the ISS’s pieces into orbit;
• deep space probes such as the Voyagers, planetary landers and rovers such as Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity;
• myriad Earth-orbiting satellites that have taught us much about our planet’s weather, composition, and history;
• and of course, the Apollo program and the astronauts who landed on the moon.
Note that all of these scientific and engineering achievements have something to do with space. Space is sexy, space gets people’s attention.
That said, the first A in NASA is for Aeronautics. In recent years, aeronautics has been a remarkably small piece of NASA’s little pie. In his introduction to the NASA Social #DrydenSocial attendees, David McBride, Dryden’s Director, pointed out that aeronautics research receives about 2.5% of NASA’s roughly $18 billion dollar budget in any given year. Those monies go towards funding the four dedicated NASA Aeronautics Research Centers: Langley, Glenn, Ames, and Dryden. At the end of that quickly narrowing financial funnel, Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) receives less than 1% of NASA’s budget.
It turns out, however, that the first A in NASA is a really important part of the United States’ overall economic picture. McBride indicated that the manufacture of aircraft and its associated industries were the single greatest positive contributor to the U.S. balance of trade. NASA’s own web pages put the scope of aviation’s influence in the U.S. economy as follows:
“Aviation generates more than $400 billion in direct economic activity, supports more than 650,000 jobs and accommodates more than 600 million passengers every year in the United States.”
At last fall’s GRAIL Tweetup, Charlie Bolden also addressed the importance of aeronautics, when he said that he would like a part of his legacy as NASA Administrator to include leaving funding for aeronautics research on a “upward trend” in order to return NASA to its traditional status as the “premier aeronautics research organization in the world.”
The technical talks at #DrydenSocial started with engineer Ed Haering, who is a superstar in the world of supersonic booms. Haering’s presentation covered work that has been done at DFRC to mitigate—sshhh!—supersonic booms. Because commercial aircraft are prohibited from flying over land at supersonic speeds (this was a huge problem for Concorde), this research is imperative if we’re ever to see another supersonic transport aircraft. The Lofty duo actually had the opportunity to see some of Ed’s work up close and personal when we visited Valiant Air Command in Titusville, Florida. Valiant is the home of the Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration (SSBD) aircraft, a test aircraft on which Haering worked at Dryden. As its name suggest, the SSBD successfully demonstrated that a sonic boom could be shaped to reduce its impact, and by impact, we mean noise.
On the heels of Haering’s talk was an opportunity head outside and experience a sonic boom firsthand. Shortly after the #DrydenSocial attendees were led outside for a photograph beneath the wings of the X-1E, an F-18 flew overhead accompanied by the telltale crack of a sonic boom. Moments after that, the same F-18 treated us to a loud-and-low flyby.
In a day of artifacts and factoids, one that would have made a great impression on Anna, had she been there too, concerned the front of Dryden’s administration building. As we gathered around the X-1E, one of the handlers assigned to our group related that the front of the administration building had stood in for the NASA’s offices in I Dream of Jeannie. (If you want to read more about I Dream of Jeannie, click HERE.)
For Doug, though, the artifact that made the greatest impression was the insect-like Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV, in the photo above) which was located in a nearby hangar. The M2-F2 lifting body, used to validate the design of the space shuttles and located in the same storage space as the LLRV was a close second.
PurpleStride Chicago 2012: Research on Pancreatic Cancer April 27, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Biology, Movies & TV
Tomorrow, we’re walking in PurpleStride Chicago 2012 to raise money for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Click HERE for our team page. That’s an opportunity for us to focus this post on a health sciences topic and consider some of the science related to our own bodies.
If you remember back to high school anatomy class, the pancreas, an organ about six inches long, sits horizontally behind the stomach. The head of the pancreas connects to the small intestine, where its secretions do their work on the food you eat. The job of the pancreas is to produce enzymes for the digestion process and hormones used for metabolism.
Pancreatic cancer has been in the news in recent years because Apple founder Steve Jobs, actor Patrick Swayze, and professor and author of The Last Lecture Randy Pausch died from this cancer. (Watch Jobs’s 2005 speech at the end of a previous post HERE. Watch Pausch’s CMU “Last Lecture” HERE.) Jobs was 56, Swayze was 57, and Pausch was just 48, which might lead a person to believe that successful white men in their late forties and fifties are particularly at risk. But one of the things we’ve learned from talking with nurses these past few weeks is that pancreatic cancer can strike at almost any age—one nurse knew a 30-year-old nurse and the 89-year-old grandfather of another friend who’d been diagnosed in the last couple of weeks—and that the risk factors are poorly understood. Smokers, diabetics, and those with chronic pancreatitis are at greater risk, and more women than men contract this cancer.
As cancers go, pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, with a lifetime risk of about 1.4%, meaning that fewer than 3 in 200 people are ever diagnosed with this type of cancer. Compare that with the commonly cited lifetime risk of breast cancer: 1 in 8 women, or 12.5%. Or consider the overall lifetime risk of being diagnosed with any cancer: 45% for men, 38% for women, according to the American Cancer Society (click HERE for more info). The overall risk of dying from cancer, though, is better: 23% (1 in 4) for men, and 19.5% (1 in 5) for women. Statistics are tricky, of course, and tell us nothing about a particular individual and only some things about everybody else. Those numbers indicate many things, including that we are living long enough to develop cancer, which is more likely as we age, and that we are, in many cases, surviving cancer long enough to die of something else.
What’s especially disconcerting about pancreatic cancer, though, is that more than half of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed after they’ve metastasized, when there exists no cure. The NIH reports even worse numbers than most resources, stating, “in more than 80% of patients the tumor has already spread and cannot be completely removed at the time of diagnosis.” Often, the first symptom is jaundice, which occurs after the cancer has spread to the liver. That late diagnosis contributes to a very discouraging survival rate, with roughly 6% of patients hitting that magical five-year goal, according to the American Cancer Society (click HERE for Cancer Facts & Figures 2011). Even if the tumor is localized and operable, the five-year surrvial rate is just 23%. In fact, just 26%—one in four—of patients are alive a mere one year after diagnosis. The numbers vary slightly from resource to resource, and these statistics capture information about the past (the 2011 report is based on numbers no later than 2007).
Statistically, several patients out of every hundred do stick around for years to come. If caught before the cancer spreads, the tumor is sometimes operable, which is the key to a potential cure. Research shows that surgery is much more successful if done at a hospital where the Whipple procedure—abdominal surgery almost as complicated as organ transplant—is performed regularly and if the surgeon is very experienced with the Whipple. Jobs, who had the slower-growing, more treatable of the two kinds of pancreatic cancer, waited nine months after diagnosis to have the Whipple surgery and still survived eight years. Even those who aren’t candidates for surgery can live several years; Swayze held out 20 months. For inoperable tumors, chemotherapy, radiation, and newer NanoKnife technology can sometimes shrink the tumor and, thereby, improve quality of life. In some cases, these treatments make the tumor operable and the cancer possibly curable.
Pancreatic cancer is relatively slow growing, with tumors taking years to develop and even longer to metastasize. That long timeframe—before deadly metastasis—during which pancreatic cancer could be diagnosed and cured is excellent reason for research because a screening test or even a better understanding of risk factors that leads to early detection could drastically improve survival rates. Immunotherapy treatment is another area of worthwhile investigation for pancreatic cancer and for cancers more generally. In other words, pancreatic cancer seems an especially good target for medical research because answers could make big differences in outcomes and possibly could be adapted for screening techniques and treatment options for other cancers.
In addition, the American Cancer Society reports, “Since 1998, incidence rates of pancreatic cancer have been increasing by 0.8% per year in men and by 1.0% per year in women.” Pancreatic cancer is on the rise, as are death rates from this disease, and research needs to catch up. So tomorrow, we’re walking in PurpleStride Chicago 2012 because scientific research matters can make big differences in our health and quality of life.
On This Date: Marlin Perkins March 28, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Biology, Movies & TV
When we were just little kids, Sunday night meant kids television: The Wonderful World of Disney and, before it, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. We’d rush through dinner in anticipation of flying over a herd of antelope or sneaking up on a tiger, all before discovering that Kurt Russell was the strongest man in the world and an absent-minded professor had invented flubber.
Today is the anniversary of the birth of Marlin Perkins, host of Wild Kingdom. He was born in Carthage, Missouri, in 1905, and his first zoo job was as a groundskeeper at the St. Louis Zoological Park, for which he was paid $3.75 per week in 1926. He ran Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago for eighteen years before returning as Director to the St. Louis Zoo.
While at the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Chicago area’s smaller, urban zoo, Perkins developed a television show called Zoo Parade. This show featured Perkins interacting with the zoo’s animals, just as Jim Fowler and Joan Embery later did on The Tonight Show. Chicago is no stranger to television production, from Kukla, Fran and Ollie to Oprah, and this locally based series made both the zoo and Perkins well known. We are no strangers to Chicago, and Lincoln Park Zoo, which has free admission and is open every day, was Anna’s childhood zoo. In fact, her poem “At the Sea Lion Pool” appears in the new anthology City of the Big Shoulders. All photos in this post were taken at Lincoln Park Zoo in 2010.
While many viewers of Wild Kingdom mistakenly remember Perkins being bitten by a poisonous snake on camera, the real story stems from Zoo Parade, when Perkins was bitten by a rattlesnake during rehearsal. But the event wasn’t mentioned in the episode. That said, Perkins didn’t mind non-venomous snakes taking a chomp, if only to prove to Wild Kingdom viewers how harmless most snakes are.
Jim Fowler, the zoo director who had monkeys hugging Johnny Carson, got his start as Marlin Perkins’ sidekick on Wild Kingdom. Jim, in fact, is remembered fondly for doing much of the hard work, while Perkins narrated calmly. Eventually, in 1985, Perkins retired, and Jim hosted the show himself. Perkins died of cancer a year later.
As kids, we didn’t realize that most of the episodes we saw were reruns, though new episodes were filmed through 1987. We wouldn’t have cared anyway. Mister Rogers, I Dream of Jeannie, and Star Trek were reruns too. It’s not as if we thought Perkins and Fowler were running away from a lumbering bull seal or that a mother elephant was charging Jim’s jeep at that very moment.
Wild Kingdom has been criticized, of course, for the way it created neat thirty-minute stories and for the human-centered way it talked about animals. Admittedly, the show was filmed and edited to provide viewers like us with some Sunday evening drama. But as opposed to much of today’s reality television, Wild Kingdom claimed that nothing was staged to tell a preconceived story and that they didn’t do things that would put animals in danger. That’s a slippery argument, of course, because driving a jeep toward a mother elephant or lassoing an alligator for relocation could be considered staging, and, to anthropomorphize for a second, that alligator might have defined harm differently. But for the 1970s, Wild Kingdom was relatively progressive in its portrayal of and interaction with animals in the their natural habitats.
Now, the show seems dated. In the episode “Lion Country” (see the video below), we may question the opening sequence that ends with a lion standing over a zebra carcass, a bloody chunk eaten from the prey’s buttocks. Was that really what parents wanted their little tykes to see before the magical stories of Disney? For its time, Wild Kingdom was pretty honest about the ups and downs of life as we—animals—know it.
We may question the next segment of “Lion Country” too, as we spend some time with Marlin Perkins in his office for a brief background lecture on lions. Perkins holds W. K., the well-dressed, affectionate chimp named after the show’s title. On Perkins’ desk, Lester, a young lion, is snacking on some ground meat. W. K. pats Lester on the head. It’s a cheesy, everyone-gets-along if we all play by the rules situation.
Perkins’ lecture, though, goes on to talk about how a young lion must learn to be king of the jungle, that he’s not born with the skills and behaviors he will need to survive as a lion. While an oversimplified explanation of the importance of nurture (but at least posed in addition to, not versus, nature), where else on television was an American kid in the the early 1970s going to see images of Africa or hear about how animals learn? Perkins goes on to talk about hunting as an art and about lions having their own culture, though he doesn’t use the word culture. (For a related post on animals and empathy, click HERE.) Is he anthropomorphizing, or presaging current investigation into animal intelligence?