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Countdown to The Cold War: J. Robert Oppenheimer April 22, 2015

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Trinity Explosion

Trinity Explosion

On this date in 1904, Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York. Forty years later, he became the head of the secret nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and, therefore, also became instrumental in the countdown to The Cold War.

We’ve written about Oppenheimer before, and we’ve visited Los Alamos a few times to walk in his footsteps. Here, we talk about a few areas of Oppenheimer’s work and life that we haven’t discussed much before.

Oppenheimer skipped the basic college physics classes and leaped into graduate work at Harvard University. It took him only three years to graduate summa cum laude.

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Robert is the Oppenheimer half of the Born-Oppenheimer approximation that, on the atomic level, the vibrational motion of nuclei can be separated from the rotational motion of electrons. Max Born is the other physicist in the discovery of this equation, and Born won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for his work in quantum mechanics.

Robert is also the Oppenheimer of the Oppenheimer-Phillips process that allows for a specific type of nuclear reaction to occur at lower energies than expected. Deuteron is a hydrogen isotope with one proton and one neutron. In the Oppenheimer-Phillips process, the neutron of this isotope fuses with a nucleus in a target to make a heavier target isotope with a discharged proton.

Melba Phillips, a native of Indiana, is the other half of the name of this process and was Oppenheimer’s student. Later, she refused to testify during the McCarthy-driven investigations of communists and lost her academic position. She did go back to teaching several years later, at Washington University in St. Louis and at the University of Chicago.

Oppenheimer took up with a married woman named Kitty Harrison. They married in 1940, after she got a quickie divorce in Reno, and they had two children within a few years.

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

It’s unclear whether he also continued or rekindled his affair with Jean Tatlock after he married Kitty, though there’s consensus that Oppenheimer and Tatlock spent the night together once. Tatlock committed suicide in January 1944. Oppenheimer’s association with her and her leftwing friends was brought up during his security hearing in front of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954, which stripped him of his government security clearance.

Most people assume that Oppenheimer, at the moment of the first successful nuclear weapons test, Trinity, quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” He did claim, later, that he’d thought of that quote at the time of the explosion and also of another from the same text: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” But it’s tough to find reliable evidence that he said either at the time.

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

To look at photos of Oppenheimer, anyone can see that he was extraordinarily thin. He stood roughly six feet tall and was often smoking. He likely never took very good care of his health. He first spent time in the New Mexico desert, in fact, not when he joined the Manhattan Project there but, rather, when he suffered a bout of colitis before college and went to New Mexico to recover. Oppenheimer’s adoration of the Southwest from that early experience influenced the Manhattan Project’s location later.

Oppenheimer was treated for throat cancer in 1965, but he never fully recovered. Undoubtedly, his smoking habit was a likely factor in the development of his cancer, and smoking plus exposure to radioactive materials couldn’t have done his health much good. He died on February 18, 1967, at the age of 62. His wife Kitty is said to have taken the ashes in an urn and dropped it into the ocean off the Virgin Islands, where they owned property and a small home.

A380 (Part Trois) April 15, 2015

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A few weeks ago, we anticipated our first travel aboard an A380. Last week, we included a few photos and some bonus information about the A380. Today, three videos because the A380 we flew has cameras on the nose, tail, and underside. Granted, we had a bit of difficulty holding our iPhones steady, but it was incredibly cool to get this exterior perspective from  our seats inside the cabin.

A380: TAKEOFF FROM LAX

A380: TAKEOFF FROM CDG

A380: LANDING AT LAX

A380 (Part Deux) April 8, 2015

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LAXCDGroute

A380 Route LAX to CDG

We’ve dedicated the last few posts to topics that came up as a part of our recent trip to Paris. A few weeks ago, we wrote about our anticipation associated with our first flight on an Airbus A380. There, we wrote:

Our trip on the A380 will be all the more interesting as a good friend from Doug’s college days did significant engineering work on the thrust reverser control system. It’s always interesting to thing about your friends having a hand in creating the things that play a role in our lives.

Since then, we put the following questions to Doug’s college friend.

  1. What did you specifically work on?

The A380 was the first commercial jet to use electrically actuated thrust reversers (all previous were hydraulic or pneumatic). The system used a high-power electric motor to drive the actuation system to open and close the thrust reverser. A power dense brushless DC (BLDC) motor was used. BLDC motors require controllers in order for them to operate. The company I worked for designed the BLDC motor and motor controller.

  1. What was your role on the project and how long did it last?

I was in charge of the motor controller development. It lasted approximately two years.

  1. Have you flown on an A380?

I have never flown on an A380, although I would like to.

AnnaSeats

Our seats on the A380 LAX to CGD

The LoftyDuo did fly a round-trip on the A380, and we can say that the experience was everything that we hoped for and more. As we pointed out in our first post, the A380 is a big plane. A very big plane. Actually, it’s huge, and that feeling of size is amplified when you walk on board. The Air France website provides seat maps for all of its aircraft, so anyone can get a sense of the aircraft’s size when booking the flight. The particular configuration of the A380 that Air France flies has seats for 516 passengers. That’s a lot of people, and the aircraft’s size and layout combine in a way that doesn’t feel nearly so cramped as most flights.

A380 Cruising Altitude

A380 Cruising Altitude

The flight was certainly enhanced by knowing that a friend of ours had contributed to the experience. Much like the opportunities that we’ve had to interview the astronauts and engineers that flew and worked on the space shuttle, it always adds an extra element to the story—the narrative—when you’ve had first-hand contact with people involved. All stories, even those that seem to be about technology are ultimately about people. And it’s pretty cool to think that the guy you sat next to in TAM 314—TAM being the University of Illinois’ department acronym for Theoretical and Applied Mechanics—went on to design a part of the airplane in which you’re sitting as you glide across the Atlantic Ocean.

A380France

Five French Scientists (Part Deux) April 1, 2015

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Last week, we posted about five French scientists who made important discoveries and adavances. EiffelLast week, we were standing under the Eiffel Tower, on which the names of 72 French scientists and engineers are engraved. These names are engraved around the first level, which makes them easy to read from ground level. Each side boasts 18 names. None are names of women. Yesterday marked the anniversary of the opening of the Eiffel Tower to the public in 1889 (you may have seen yesterday’s Google doodle). It remained the world’s tallest man-made structure until 1930, when the Chrysler Building in New York was completed. EiffelNamesInterestingly, when Anna last saw the Eiffel Tower, the names had been painted over. But now, they shine in gold in the Paris sunlight. Actually, there wasn’t all that much sunlight, but the names still shone. We walked down from the Trocadéro, so we first caught sight of the North West side of the Eiffel Tower: Seguin, Lalande, Tresca, Poncelet, Bresse, Lagrange, Bélanger, Cuvier, Laplace, Dulong, Chasles, Lavoisier, Ampere, Chevreul, Flachat, Navier, Legendre, Chaptal. EiffelUnderOne of the more well-known of these men is Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), a mathematician and astronomer. He formulated the partial differential equation that is named for him. The French like to think of him as their very own Newton, and, like Newton, Laplace investigated the mathematical underpinnings of our relatively, but not completely, stable Solar System. He also toyed with the idea of a black hole. Laplace also collaborated with Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), who was primarily a chemist. Lavoisier gets credit for understanding that combustion requires oxygen, and, in fact, he gave us the concepts and names of oxygen and hydrogen. He discovered that a given amount of matter will retain the same mass, even when it changes shape. This concept is now so well engrained in our understanding of the world around us that we take it for granted. During the French Revolution, Lavoisier was caught up in a host of accusations and was guillotined. We also want to mention Cuvier. The word refers to the building in a chateau where wine is made. The scientist’s first name was Georges (1769-1832), and he was a naturalist especially interested in anatomy. His work in anatomy, in fact, underpins the whole field of paleontology. He ascertained, for instance, that some large bones in the United States came from an extinct animal that he called a mastodon. Before Cuvier, extinction wasn’t considered a fact, but he made a good enough case that we take that idea for granted as well. As invested as he was in understanding the similarities and differences in anatomy across species, he was not keen on the theory of evolution.

View from the the Top

View from the the Top

Lagrange is also the name of a winery in France, and the red wine produced there is named for it in the official classification for French wines. Joseph-Louis Lagrange (1736-1813) was a mathematician. He worked with the calculus of variations and differential equations. He tackled the three-body problem. Lagrangian points are named for him and refer to the point between two bodies where a third body can sit in a stable position, based on the two bodies’ gravitational pull. Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson and others have suggested we can use these balance points to hangout in space and build things; Tyson called them “destinations” like the Moon and Mars. EiffelDougAnnaAs our fifth scientist in this post, we turn to Marie-Sophie Germain (1776-1831), a woman whose name doesn’t appear on the Eiffel Tower, though some have argued she belongs there because some of her work allowed such a structure to be built. Germain was a mathematician and a physicist, and she corresponded with some of the leading male scientists of her time. She struggled to piece together an education and become a working scientist because she was a woman. Despite this inadequate background and support, she dove into areas such as number theory, elasticity, and Fermat’s Last Theorem. She tried and tried again, eventually winning a prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences for her paper on elasticity. But she couldn’t attend the Academy’s meetings for several more years because wives of members were the only women allowed. She died of breast cancer. The Academy of Sciences in Paris now gives a prize in her name. CELEBRATE SOPHIE GERMAIN’S BIRTHDAY TODAY!

Five French Scientists March 25, 2015

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We’re in Paris for a week. See last week’s post for information about the A380 we flew.

Here are five French scientists we’d like to meet while we’re in France, if only they were still alive. These scientists represent the kind of thinking we appreciate, thinking outside the box and searching for novel connections.

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

MarieCurieAmHistOkay, she was a naturalized French citizen, but Marie Curie is at the top of our list of French scientists we’d like to meet. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and the only woman to win two Nobels, one in physics in 1903, shared with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and the other in chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of radium. Only she and Linus Pauling have won Nobels in two separate fields. To find out more about her, we recommend Marie Curie by Susan QuinnMarie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emlingand Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallouta graphic biography by Lauren Redniss. We’ve written about Curie several times before (here’s one post about Curie), and we’ll undoubtedly write about her again.

René Decartes (1596-1650)

Equal parts mathematician and philosopher, Decartes had just the sort of interdisciplinary approach to the world we appreciate. He made the crucial connections between algebra and geometry upon which much of mathematical thinking followed. He also studied refraction and gave the world a scientific understanding of rainbows. He’s the guy who uttered, Cogito ergo sum. Or, I think, therefore I am. He thought that doubt and mistakes were part of learning and innovation and that reading books was like having conversations across centuries. Because we like to have any excuse to celebrate, Decartes’s birthday is next Tuesday, March 31. In fact, the town where he was born remains so proud of Decartes that they renamed the locale for him.

Prosper Ménière (1799-1862)

alanshepard_1Prosper Ménière may have more adept and interested in the humanities than in science, but he became a physician. Initially, he planned to teach at a university, but then a cholera epidemic called, and he got hands-on experience. Eventually, he headed up an institute for deaf-mutes and studied hearing loss caused by lesions inside the ear. Prosper Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear was named for this physician and is what grounded astronaut Alan Shepard for several years after he became the first American in space. Shepard’s disorder was cured by surgery so that he did fly Apollo 14. Other sufferers include Marilyn Monroe and possibly Charles Darwin and Julius Caesar.

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

Louis Pasteur argued that microorganisms couldn’t appear out of nothing and asserted the idea of contamination that has guided thinking about the spread of disease ever since. We are especially impressed that some of his most important work can be traced back to his understanding of alcohol fermentation in the making of wine and beer; published his Studies on Wine in 1866 and his Studies of Beer ten years lateen. He was also an early investigator of immunization and developer of specific vaccines. For a more recent and beautifully written book about the subject of immunity, we recommend Eula Biss‘s On Immunity: An Inoculation. At his own request, Pasteur’s private notebooks were kept secret long after his death, but his request was breeched by a descendant, who donated them to France’s national library for use after the descendent’s death. Those notebooks have revealed that Pasteur may have been a less-than-amiable character generally and a problematic researcher.

Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)

An epigraph from Henri Poincaré opens the first poem of Anna’s collection Constituents of Matter:

Modern man has used cause-and-effect as ancient man used the gods to give order to the Universe. This is not because it was the truest system, but because it was the most convenient.

Poincaré, as demonstrated by this statement, was a philosopher, in addition to being a mathematician and physicist. His work underpinned what would emerge as chaos theory and also laid the groundwork for topology, the geometrical study of space that focuses on connections and transformations. Poincaré worked with a team to establish international time zones, and this work led him to think about the relative speed of clocks, which, in turn, pointed to what would become Albert Einstein‘s theory of special relativity.

Interesting to Anna especially, Poincaré was a good decision-maker if he made a decision quickly, but the more he dwelled on a choice, the more difficult he had making it. A psychologist named Édouard Toulouse wrote about Poincaré‘s personality and work habits, and we think Poincaré has something to offer us as writers in this respect. For one thing, Poincaré worked on mathematics for four hours every day, one two-hour stretch in the late morning and another in the early evening, which strikes us as an ideal schedule for focusing on a large project. He would read later in the evening, a practice we like as well.

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

A380 March 18, 2015

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We will board a plane this Friday: our first flight on an Airbus A380!

Even though we have to make our way up I-5 to LAX, we’re pretty excited about the upcoming flight. In fact, we’re very excited. Very. Very. Excited. We’re headed to Paris. It’s a return trip for Anna, but this will be Doug’s first voyage to the City of Lights. While the destination is the obvious reason for our excitement, we’re also pretty jazzed about the flight itself because it’ll be on an A380.

A380 (Photo by Julian Herzog, Creative Commons)

A380 (Photo by Julian Herzog, Creative Commons)

Doug specifically booked us on Air France so that we could fly the world’s largest passenger airliner. We saw our first airborne A380 several years ago while we were waiting for the space shuttle Endeavour to arrive at the California Science Center. We spent the afternoon in the park-like space just west of the science center and south of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The A380, which was obviously leaving LAX, appeared enormous, even at a distance.

Diagram by Clem Tillier (Creative Commons)

Diagram by Clem Tillier (Creative Commons)

And it is. We’ve stood beneath of wings of Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose in the Evergreen Aviation Museum, and we’ve flown on Boeing 747s a number of times. We’ve been awed by both aircraft as symbols of what humans are capable of doing with technology. We’re anticipating a similar experience with the A380, but the big Airbus has a wingspan 50 feet wider than that of the Boeing big jet and is also a lot heavier, two facts that make sense together when you think about how lift works.

We fly a fair amount for people whose jobs don’t explicitly require travel. In fact, it’s rare for us to go more than a month or two without one of us flying to a conference, to see family, or to attend an event. Most of our flight routes are within the United States, and we seem to catch rides mostly on Boeing 737s or Airbus 319/320s. Very occasionally, we’ll set foot on a Boeing 757. We’re both aviation nerds, and though we don’t keep records of all of our flights, it’s nice to mix things up from time to time. A couple of years ago we flew a cross-country red-eye on an MD80, and we both realized that it had been several years since we’d last flown on any McDonnell-Douglas product.

Our trip on the A380 will be all the more meaningful because a good friend from Doug’s college days did significant engineering work on the thrust reverser control system. It’s always interesting to think about a friend’s hand in creating something that play a role in our lives.

We’ve caught nearly everything that flies commercially except the A380 and the B787. They are our white whales, the A380 moreso because of its resemblance. So we conclude with this line from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick:

It is not down any map; true places never are.

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

Countdown to The Cold War: March 1945 March 11, 2015

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S-50 Plant

S-50 Plant

The Manhattan Project boiled down to two enormous manufacturing problems: explosive materials and explosive devices. Each of these problems was eventually resolved in its own binary fashion. The explosive material, or, more appropriately, fissile material, came in two flavors: uranium and plutonium. Owing to their different physical properties, it was necessary to create an individual explosive device, or bomb, for each of the two radioactive elements. The gun design, known as Little Boy, was designed for the uranium, and the implosion design, known as Fat Man, was designed for the plutonium weapon.

Although the creation of the bombs, particularly the implosion device, was a fiendishly complex exercise that required some of the greatest physics talent then in existence, the effort to create the processes for the separation of uranium 235 from uranium 238 was every bit the equal intellectual enterprise. As a manufacturing problem, the facilities devoted to the separation of uranium isotopes dwarfed the bomb-making project.

A 1951 AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) report entitled “Liquid Thermal Diffusion” reiterates what we describe:

The primary problem, other than finding circumstances under which a controlled chain reaction could be sustained, which faced scientists engaged in this country’s atomic energy program in early 1940 was the development of methods for separating uranium isotopes on a large scale. Time would not permit a gradual development of individual separation processes, followed by the full exploitation of the best method. Consequently it was necessary to launch a number of separation projects simultaneously.

One of those separation projects was Oak Ridge’s S-50 facility, and it went into full production seventy years ago this month on March 15, 1945. The S-50 uranium production plant used the separation technique known as liquid thermal diffusion.

A good overview of the liquid thermal diffusion technique can be found at the Atomic Archive:

Into the space between two concentric vertical pipes [Philip] Abelson placed pressurized liquid uranium hexafluoride. With the outer wall cooled by a circulating water jacket and the inner heated by high-pressure steam, the lighter isotope tended to concentrate near the hot wall and the heavier near the cold. Convection would in time carry the lighter isotope to the top of the column. Taller columns would produce more separation.

Phillip Abelson

Phillip Abelson

As a graduate student, Philip Abelson worked with Nobel Laureate Ernest Lawrence, himself the developer of another Oak Ridge-based uranium separation technique, electromagnetic separation. Abelson began his pioneering work on using liquid thermal diffusion to enrich uranium in July 1940, and he was one of the editors of the AEC report mentioned above. After several frustrating years of experimental work (part of the frustration resulted from Army vs. Navy squabbles over ownership of the technique), Abelson’s technique was sufficiently refined to build a production plant at Oak Ridge.

Liquid thermal diffusion had already been underway at a pilot plant at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, which was the site of what may have been the largest accidental release of radioactive materials during the Manhattan Project. That accident occurred in September 1944.

S-50 Columns

S-50 Columns

The S-50 plant, sited on the Clinch River in Tennessee, was essentially a copy of the Philadelphia Navy Yard pilot plant, which used 102 separation columns (the vertical pipes described in the quote above). S-50 replicated the Philadelphia plant 21 times. S-50 was built so that it could share the steam generated by the power plant that also fed the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant. It was to be completed in ninety days. The primary contractor, H. K. Ferguson Company, missed that deadline, but the plant started operation in October 1944 and, then, went into full production 70 years ago this month.

S-50 was the first step in the uranium enrichment process used during the Manhattan Project, and it took the uranium from 0.72% to 0.85% U-235.

March 1945 was an eventful month beyond the Manhattan Project, of course, with war raging on. Other wartime events that occurred then include a Japanese Fugo balloon that exploded at the Hanford Site for nuclear production, the B-29 firebombing of Japanese cities by the United States, and V-2 rocket attacks against London by the Germans. Though the end of the war was in sight, we shouldn’t forget that much of the world was still enmeshed in battle.

RIP Leonard Nimoy March 4, 2015

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Last Friday, actor Leonard Nimoy died. The New York Times reported, “the sonorous, gaunt-faced actor who won a worshipful global following as Mr. Spock, the resolutely logical human-alien first officer of the Starship Enterprise in the television and movie juggernaut ‘Star Trek,’ died on Friday morning at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. He was 83.”

As Anna drove around town that morning, KUSC played the Star Trek theme in Nimoy’s honor, for he was a long-time supporter of that classical music station and a musician himself. Long before Peter Jackson brought J. R. R. Tolkein’s hobbits to the screen, Nimoy performed “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” though that didn’t do justice to his talent. He was also a photographer, and The Independent has just pulled together and shared some of his striking work.

Four years ago this month, Lofty Ambitions wrote a happy-birthday post for Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. Read that tribute HERE.

Reportedly, Nimoy’s last tweet was “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.”

One of our favorite and nerdiest NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano spoke of Nimoy’s influence, as the character Spock, on space exploration, science, and their generation. And astronauts in space exchanged the Vulcan salute last week.

Rolling Stone gathered numerous tributes. President Obama wrote, “Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy. Leonard was a lifelong lover of the arts and humanities, a supporter of the sciences, generous with his talent and his time. And of course, Leonard was Spock. Cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed, the center of Star Trek‘s optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future.”

Zachary Quinto, the new Spock, wrote, “My heart is broken. I love you profoundly my dear friend.”

ShuttleStarTrek

Star Trek cast and crew with Enterprise Space Shuttle

George Takei remembered Nimoy at MSNBC. Takei called Nimoy “extraordinary” and explains why Nimoy deserves that adjective.

William Shatner kept his commitment to a Red Cross fundraiser in Florida instead of attending the funeral, according to CNN, but had good things to say about Nimoy.

In TIME, Martin Landau remembered Nimoy, writing, “Leonard Nimoy was a mensch! Mensch is a word which in Yiddish means ‘a particularly good person’ with the qualities one would hope for in a dear friend or trusted colleague.”

Canadians are Spocking their $5 bills. The Bank of Canada is not pleased. Fans will be fans, always.

As academics ourselves, we appreciate a good commencement speech. In his at Boston University in 2012, at the age of 81, Nimoy said, “I have three words for you. Persistence, persistence…persistence.” We write about that here at Lofty Ambitions, and Anna’s chapter in a forthcoming pedagogy book talks about the importance of perseverance. In that speech, Nimoy quotes President Kennedy, “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda. It is truth.” That’s sometimes difficult to remember these days, but it’s one of the principles that drives our own writing here and elsewhere. So we end with Nimoy’s wisdom and a video clip that may be familiar and newly meaningful:

You are the curators of your own lives.

You create your own life and work.

#Orion at JPL/Armstrong (Part 6) February 25, 2015

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JPL Building 180

Rover Model, JPL Building 180

The events of the December 2014 Orion/EFT-1 NASA Social were jointly sponsored or hosted by the NASA social media and outreach teams from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Armstrong Flight Research Center. To begin this final post about that event, the Lofty Duo would like to say a big Thank You to the wonderful folks who make these events happen.

Here’s are our live links to our previous posts about this day:

The afternoon session included a chance to tour the grounds and see some of the activities going on at JPL. We started our walk with a trip to Building 180, which serves as JPL’s primary administration building, or HQ. The purpose of the visit was two-fold: first, it allowed us to get out of the rain—it was a wet day that came at the end of the one of the wettest weeks we’d had in California in a long time—on our walk to the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF); and second, it was an excellent opportunity to see a life-size model of the Mars Size Laboratory, better known as Curiosity.

Although the descriptions of the Curiosity lander give a sense of the scale of the device—it’s often been described as landing a Mini Cooper on Mars—it isn’t until you’re standing next to a model of thing that you really appreciate the scope of the effort required to put this sizeable lander on Mars. The ChemCam (the laser-firing chemistry analytics instrument) and Mastcam (responsible for color images and video) devices sit on top of a telescoping mount at the front of the rover.

Curiosity-JPL-Morse-Code-WheelsIt was fascinating to get an up-close look at Curiosity’s wheels for the first time. The wheels, machined from solid blocks of aluminum, have been much in the space news lately. First, in late 2013, it was revealed that the wheels were suffering significant damage at the hands of the rocky Martian surface. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society has a couple of posts about the problem; click HERE for one. (http://www.planetary.org/blogs/emily-lakdawalla/2014/08190630-curiosity-wheel-damage.html). The JPL folks seem to have worked out ways to manage the damage. The rover’s wheels were also intentionally designed with some holes in them. In fact, there is a sequence of three sets of three holes each that spell out J P L in Morse code as Curiosity rolls across the Martian surface (see HERE for more info).

Near the model of Curiosity was a fascinating data visualization display, a delightful blend of art and science. Comprised of a couple of dozen tubes containing light strings, the visualization was demonstrates the communication streams that occur between JPL and the deep space missions it manages. Each light string represents a communication path between Earth and a single deep spacecraft. As communications come in from the spacecraft, the string lights up in a manner that conveys the length of the communication and the amount of information being sent down from the spacecraft. It was mesmerizing, and Doug could have spent the entire afternoon watching the showers of light that were trickles of information.

Satellite Communication Visualization

Satellite Communication Visualization

After Building 180, the tour group headed for the SFOF. Lofty Ambitions has already covered the SFOF in another post, and so we’ll move on here.

Jennifer Trosper, MSL Deputy Project Director, welcomed the group into the In-Situ Instrument Laboratory. Located in JPL’s Building 317, this lab serves as a proving ground for Mars-bound instrumentation. Earlier in Trosper’s career, she served as the Mission Manager for another Mars rover, Spirit. She recounted that the oft-cited ninety-day mission life for Spirit and Opportunity was derived from calculations based on the Mars surface dust accumulation rate on the solar panels of the earlier Sojourner Mars rover. Arriving at Mars on U.S. Independence Day in 1997, Sojourner also had a very conservative mission length estimate: a seven-day mission that could be extended to thirty days. In the end, like Spirit and Opportunity, this turned out to be wildly conservative. Sojourner lasted for eighty-three sols (Mars solar days), or about eighty-five Earth days.

Two-way communication with Spirit ended on Sol 2210 (March 22, 2010). Opportunity continues its mission on Mars. Recently, on Sol 3934 (Feb. 16, 2015), Opportunity’s solar panels received an extra bit of cleaning from Martian surface breezes, and the little rover experienced a twelve-percent increase in solar power production. Opportunity knocks onward!

After recounting the remarkable successes of Spirit and Opportunity, Trosper talked about upcoming Mars missions including Mars Insight. Befitting the lab’s use as a test-environment for instruments headed for Mars, Trosper also mentioned the MOXIE instrument. MOXIE will fly to Mars on the planned 2020 mission. Once there, MOXIE will be used to test the feasibility of creating oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. MOXIE is often described as a fuel cell run in reverse. It will take in CO2 from the Martian atmosphere, where the compound makes up 96% of the atmosphere, and will output oxygen and carbon monoxide.

We finished our tour of the JPL campus with a stop at Spacecraft Assembly Facility and a visit with researcher Ian Clark. Clark is the Low-Density Supersonic Demonstrators (LDSD) principal investigator. We’ve already covered the LDSD program during our write-up of JPL’s 2014 Open House, but it was wonderful to be able to see these test articles in the flesh. They are being refurbished and reengineered in preparation for more testing.

The tension and excitement of the Orion EFT-1 pre-launch activities were palpable during the December 3rd NASA Social at JPL. As ever, the Lofty Duo came away impressed by the amazing array of activities that NASA Armstrong and JPL are carrying out in service to our nation’s space exploration programs. We hope that our six-part write-up of the day conveyed our sense of wonder at NASA’s far-reaching programs.

Countdown to The Cold War: February 1945 February 18, 2015

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The Guard at the gate on The Hill, checking IDs

The Guard at the gate on The Hill, checking IDs

In February 1945, the end of war in the European theatre of operations was still a few months off in the future. Nonetheless, Allied leaders felt that the war’s end was close enough that they could begin to anticipate the post-war era. To that end, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin met in Yalta—a city on the Crimean peninsula overlooking the Black Sea—on February 4-11 to discuss the shape of post-war Europe. Because of the tense relations between the United States and Britain on one hand and the Soviet Union on the other, which were reinforced during the meetings, the Yalta Conference is the oft-cited start of the Cold War.

In our “Countdown to the Cold War: October 1944” post, we detailed the struggles associated with the Hanford nuclear reactors, then known as atomic piles. In the last months of 1944 and in January 1945, engineers and scientists working on Hanford’s problems ironed out the kinks of the plutonium production process. Sometime between February 2th and 7th—sources vary on the exact date—the first weapons grade plutonium began making its way from Hanford to Los Alamos.

In the book, Hanford and the Bomb: An Oral History of World War II, author S. L. Sanger has this to say about the event:

[T]he first Hanford-produced plutonium was handed over by Du Pont to the Army. The next morning, Col. F.T. Matthias took it to Portland by car with a military intelligence escort. From there, Matthias and an agent went by train to Los Angeles where the package was given to an officer from Los Alamos. Matthias described the container as a wooden box wrapped in brown paper about 14 inches on a side and 18 inches high. It had a carrying handle and the syrupy plutonium, weighing about 100 grams, was carried in a flask suspended between shock absorbers.

The next time you’re about to board an airplane and TSA agents in the security area shout reminders of the restriction to 3-ounce containers of liquids and gels, think about how times have changed. During World War II, one of the most hazardous substances ever present on the face of the earth was carried on a regular passenger train. In a wooden box. Wrapped in brown paper.

Hanford 1960

Hanford 1960

Sanger’s book describes the meeting between Matthias and the officer from Los Alamos in what was almost certainly Los Angeles’s Union Passenger Terminal. Apparently, Matthias discovered that the officer was traveling back to Los Alamos in an upper berth, a means of rail travel that had privacy by means of curtains, but no real security, not even a door. Matthias discovered that the officer didn’t know what exactly he was being entrusted to carry back to Los Alamos. Matthias told the officer that it cost $350 million to produce the item and suggested to the man that he get a compartment with a locking door. The man did as Matthias instructed.

As revealed in to Critical Assembly by Lillian Hoddesson, et al., the Los Alamos contingent was very pessimistic about the quality and amount of the plutonium that they expected to receive from Hanford: “Oppenheimer was not optimistic about the ease of interacting with Hanford.” Ultimately, the quality and quantity of the Hanford plutonium was deemed sufficient to carry out the metallurgical research necessary so that plutonium could be used in the Fat Man weapon.

While the arrival of the Hanford plutonium in February 1945 was a huge event in the run-up to the Trinity test of a Fat Man type of atomic weapon, other activities related to Fat Man were taking place at Los Alamos at the time as well.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves

In December 1944, several new advisory boards and standing committees were created at Los Alamos. Chaired by physicist Samuel K. Allison, the Technical and Scheduling Conference was responsible for oversight and coordination of the transition from research to implementation. On Saturday, February 17, the Technical and Scheduling Conference met for four hours to discuss competing designs for the Fat Man-type weapon.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s director, argued throughout the day for simpler, more conservative design decisions. As Bruce Cameron Reed describes it in his excellent book The History and Science of the Manhattan Project, the final outcome of that committee meeting wouldn’t be decided until an end-of-the-month visit by General Leslie Groves:

On February 28, just eleven days after the TSC meeting, Oppenheimer and Groves decided provisionally on the Christy-core design with explosive lenses made of Comp B and Baratol. Characteristic of so many decisions in the Manhattan Project, their choice was a gamble: few implosion lenses had by then been tested[…].

With this end-of-February meeting between Groves and Oppenheimer, the design for the Trinity test was effectively fixed, and the lab could then focus on fashioning the numerous technologies into the world’s first atomi

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