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Countdown to The Cold War: Inside the B-17 (Photos!) May 27, 2015

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On May 10, Anna flew in a B-24, and Doug flew in a B-17. Both aircraft are part of the Collings Foundation’s tour and stopped at Lyon Air Museum. This week, we share the view from inside the B-17 Nine-O-Nine during a flight along the California coast.











Lands End Nerd T-Shirts May 22, 2015

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LENerdShirtLofty Ambitions rarely promotes specific items. Sure, we showed you the astronaut Barbie Doug’s mom sent us, and we lauded taco-flavored Doritos as a special treat during our writing residency. But we don’t do much product placement. This time, however, we couldn’t pass up the chance to let you know quite blatantly about Lands End t-shirts for nerds.

The sizes are for kids, so that’s a limitation. But here’s Anna in the boys Moon t-shirt that arrived the other day, and she’ll be donning the rocket t-shirt this weekend. There’s also a fantastic International Space Station t-shirt too (but they ran out of XL).

The best part is that these t-shirts are available for girls too! Supposedly, this addition occurred in response to a mother’s letter last year, which she posted on the Lands End Facebook page. The mother of a nine-year-old girl pointed out the problem in making “mighty” graphic t’s for boys and “adorable” t’s for girls. Lands End responded. Within a couple of months (though, in some ways, it was a long time coming), science-themed shirts were available in girls sizes. The International Space Station graphic t-shirt is available for girls, and, yes, it actually glows in the dark!

Or maybe the best part is that Lands End has great customer service, which we learned first hand when our original nerd t-shirt shipment (with the ISS shirt!) went missing. The experience talking with customer relations at Lands End was far better than a call last week with American Airlines (which involved a two-hour wait to speak to a person). Lands End will probably even help you figure out whether a kids size will work for an adult.

Or maybe the best part is that Lands End is having a 30% off sale right now, so Lofty Ambitions is going all in with product promotion. Here’s the link for the sale: https://link.landsend.com/YesConnect/HtmlMessagePreview?a=ZiFDq-c6Xxq8SxkNqmzweHcP.

Countdown to The Cold War: B-17 Flying Fortress (Videos) May 20, 2015

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On May 10, Anna flew on a B-24. Doug flew on the B-17 during its stop at the Lyon Air Museum. If you’re interested in seeing these aircraft, check the Collings Foundation SCHEDULE. If you can’t see them in person, here are videos from Doug’s B-17 ride.

Though the Collings Foundation’s B-17 was built in April 1945 and, therefore, didn’t see combat, it has been designated as Nine-O-Nine, an aircraft that flew 140 combat missions. In 1952, the aircraft that we saw at the Lyon Air Museum was part of three nuclear weapons effects tests. After it was deemed sufficiently cooled down thirteen years later, it was refurbished and was used to fight forest fires. In 1987, during an airshow, the B-17 was caught by a crosswind just after touching down and crashed, with no loss of life but significant damage to the aircraft. Once again, the plane was restored and has been touring the country.

The original Nine-O-Nine started flying missions in February 1944. The aircraft’s first bombing run was against Augsburg, Germany. In the end, it flew more than a thousand hours and dropped more than a half-million pounds of bombs. The aircraft flew back to the United States in June 1945 and was eventually scrapped with other leftover planes.

Next week, check back for some amazing photos we took of and from the B-24 and B-17!

Countdown to The Cold War: B-24 Liberator (Videos) May 13, 2015

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Last week, May 8 marked the 70th anniversary of V-E Day. In 1945, the war in Europe officially ended with the signing of the act of surrender on May 7 in France and May 8 in Germany. The war in the Pacific Theater waged on.

B-24 Takeoff

In August 1944, a Consolidated B-24 was built. By October, it had been delivered to the U.S. Air Force, which then transferred it to the Royal Air Force. The RAF flew this B-24 in the Pacific Theater until the war there ended and it, along with a slew of other aircraft, was abandoned in India. The Indian Air Force restored it in 1948, and flew these restored aircraft for twenty years. After that, it was abandoned again, until a British aircraft collector took it apart and transported it back to England in 1981, then sold it to Dr. Robert F. Collings a few years later. After more than five years of restoration work, the B-24 flew again. In 2005, it was repainted as Witchcraft, another B-24 that had flown 130 combat missions but had long ago been scrapped.

B-24 Cockpit in Flight

On Sunday, May 10, 2015, we drove over to our local aviation museum, the Lyon Air Museum. There, Anna crawled into this B-24, strapped herself down under the waist gun, and took a half-hour ride. In this post, we share the experience through videos so you can take the ride too.

B-24 Tail Gun in Flight

The flight couldn’t go on forever, but Anna could have stayed up another half-hour at least.

B-24 Approach & Landing

Happy First Flight, Endeavour! May 6, 2015

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EndeavourKissWe’ve come to think of Endeavour as “our” shuttle. We went to Edwards Air Force Base to see it land in 2008, we watched its last launch from Kennedy Space Center in 2011, and we saw it make its cross-country trip back home to California, where it is now displayed at the California Science Center. We spent time with Endeavour up close and personal after its last flight, when it was being decommissioned and we were at KSC to see Atlantis’s last launch. We know Endeavour best, and tomorrow is its anniversary of first flight.

Endeavour-sts-49-launchOn May 7, 1992, the space shuttle Endeavour launched for the first time. At the end of this post, we’ve included a video of the launch and landing from this first flight. STS-49 was commanded by Daniel C. Brandenstein and carried six other crew members on this mission to rescue Intelsat 603 and send it into its intended orbit.

We talked with one of those astronauts, Kathryn Thornton, in 2010. After earning a PhD in physics, she joined NASA when we were in college. Thornton flew on the space shuttle four times, and Endeavour’s first was her second spaceflight. During STS-49, she was one of four spacewalkers. Of course, in addition to the satellite tasks, the crew tested Endeavour out to make sure everything was in tip-top shape for the long haul of its service.

You can see our interview with Kathy Thornton HERE.

Endeavour_sts-49-crew-smEndeavour was the space shuttle built to replace Challenger, after the demise of that orbiter during launch in 1986. This new shuttle, then, was made from leftover parts from the process of making earlier shuttles. The British spelling was in honor of the sailing ship Captain James Cook used to track the path of Venus and was also used for the Command Module on Apollo 15. The name was chosen through a K-12 essay contest in which Endeavour was a favorite and met the NASA requirement of relatively easy pronunciation.

That first Endeavour mission was also the first shuttle mission with an EVA—a spacewalk—that included three astronauts. The Intelsat rescue was more difficult than anticipated, and the mission was the first to require three rendezvous with another orbiting spacecraft. The landing was the first during which the shuttle used a drag chute.

Later that year, Endeavour carried Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space. The following year, Endeavour flew the first Hubble Space Telescope service mission; Thornton performed two EVAs as part of the Hubble repairs.

To see the series of posts that include our cool launch photos, click HERE.

To see the series of posts about Endeavour’s journey home, click HERE.

Countdown to The Cold War: Aircraft of WWII April 29, 2015

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Doug’s Mom sent us a packet…


…filled with photographs of World War II aircraft:











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 (Part Deux) April 8, 2015

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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.


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.


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!


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