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Discovery Launches! February 24, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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Discovery after Rollback of RSS

Moments ago, Space Shuttle Discovery launched  for its last mission. We were not there to witness the launch in person. We watched on NASA-TV. The shuttle has now traveled far enough that it cannot return to KSC, should something go awry. “All systems are continuing to operate as expected.” Good luck to Discovery‘s crew.

For a retrospective of Discovery, click here.

Blast Off: Discovery and Writing February 23, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
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Discovery, still ready to go

Tomorrow, space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to launch at 4:50 p.m. EST. We’ll be watching it remotely on our computers at 1:50 p.m. here in California. Tonight, the Rotating Service Structure will be rolled back, revealing the shuttle. Last time the RSS rolled back, Anna stood just outside the gate surrounding launch pad 39A. NASA will start filling the external fuel tank early tomorrow morning at 7:25 a.m. The crew will wake up at 7:00 a.m. and head to the launch pad at 1:00 p.m. Within two hours, they’ll be sealed in the space shuttle, ready to go to the International Space Station.

Unless the tanking leads to cracks. Or something else halts the countdown.

Over the past few weeks, knowing this launch is once again impending, we’ve been working on our article for Chapman Magazine. We felt a great responsibility to that writing project because the university’s magazine argued for Anna’s press badge for STS-133, Discovery’s last mission. We chronicled our adventure to the Cape in previous posts on October 27November 7, 2010. But we weren’t sure how to capture our thoughts and experiences for the magazine article. We didn’t want to leave anything out, but we knew that, ideally, we should end up with only 900 words.

In November, in the days before the launch was scrubbed, we had drafted a piece to send to the O.C. Register on launch day as a follow-up to Pat Brennan’s article about our trip. Together, we had mapped out an article, leaving room for our description of the actual launch. When the launch didn’t happen, the newspaper didn’t want a follow-up. Readers, the columnist feared, were barely interested in the space shuttle when it did launch.

But we felt as if we had things to say, not about the launch, but about NASA, its space program, and the end of the shuttle program with no definitive plans for the future of U.S. manned spaceflight. We revamped our follow-up piece as an Op Ed, asserting that the shuttle program was a national effort and making connections with the Southern California aviation industry. Here’s part of what we wrote:

“Space exploration currently depends on the nation—and on the world. All launches take place on the Space Coast of Florida. Astronauts train in and the missions run from Houston, Texas. Lockheed Martin builds the external fuel tank in Louisiana. The propellant for the solid rocket boosters is mixed and cast in Utah. Rocket launches will continue around the globe, including from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

“The space shuttle, however, is the last of its kind, and its home is right here in Southern California. Christopher Cowen, the producer of An Article of Hope, who visited Chapman University last fall called the shuttle humanity’s greatest, most complex technological accomplishment. It’s a technological and engineering feat intimately tied to our new home. Dozens of shuttle pilots earned their test pilot wings at Edwards AFB. The contract to build the Space Transportation System was awarded to North American Rockwell in 1972. Each orbiter was assembled in Building 42 in Palmdale, California. It was built, tested, and originally hauled into the sky in the Los Angeles area. Each shuttle was born here.”

But the Los Angeles Times wasn’t interested.

Grappling over the past few weeks with the Chapman Magazine assignment and the likelihood that Discovery will launch on February 24—without us watching its ascent in person—we revised our essay again. We drew in Leatherby Libraries (where Doug is the Science Librarian), their new acquisition of NASA artifacts (leftovers from already and soon-to-be defunct programs), and their archive of Challenger whistleblower Roger Boisjoly’s papers (read his Lofty blog post here). We were happy with the statement our piece made and sent it off to Dennis Arp, the editor.

Welcome to Kennedy Space Center!

Last Friday, Dennis told us it wasn’t quite what he was looking for. We’d lost the story, the immediacy, the reasons we’d wanted to see the shuttle launch in the first place. He was right. Part of the reason we’d lost the original excitement was that the draft had been revised too many times for too many different purposes. But we also knew that we were skirting the emotions because we knew that Discovery was going to launch without us, and we weren’t sure how we feel about that. We’ll probably know better tomorrow.

On Saturday, we rewrote the article from scratch, going back to our “Countdown to the Cape” blog posts and our handwritten notes from those days in Florida. We put our childhood interests in aviation and space exploration into words and depicted the day we first walked into the National Air and Space Museum. We wrote about the waitress in Titusville who shook her head last November, said she wasn’t convinced the shuttle was ready to go, and recounted tales of other tourists who hadn’t planned for delays, forced to leave only for the shuttle to launch the next day. We wrote about our conversations with Apollo astronauts Charlie Duke and Walt Cunningham.

The article is too long, but it’s the one that Chapman Magazine will publish. Dennis liked our new piece much better, so he’ll put the whole thing on the website and print an edited version in the print magazine. Last week, we wrote about a literary science-writing panel at the Association of Writers and Writing Program Conference. We were able to create a better article from scratch because we put to use some of the advice we’d talked about there, including that science writing is often as much about the people as it is about the science. What we had to discover through the article’s many iterations is that the article is as much about us as it is about Discovery and the space program.

Guest Blog: Brian Foster February 21, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Science.
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We welcome guest blogger and physicist Brian Foster this week. With Jack violinist Jack Liebeck, he does a program called “Einstein’s Universe.” Click here to find out more about the upcoming events.

Brian Foster is a professor of experimental physics at Oxford University. His CV is twelve pages chockfull of publications, awards, and grants. His books include Electron-Positron Annihilation Physics. Among other aspects of particle physics, he studies the structure of the charm quark. But Brian Foster is also an amateur violinist. And the intersections appreciates between science and art is the reason we invited him to share some thoughts here at Lofty Ambitions.


It’s a great thrill for Jack Liebeck and me to come to Los Angeles, following in the footsteps of our hero, Albert Einstein. Our lecture “Einstein’s Universe” tries to illustrate his life and work through its two most important elements: his science and his love of the violin.

These two elements weren’t separate watertight compartments in Einstein’s life; rather, each cross-fertilized the other. We have evidence from his wife Elsa of the way in which playing music briefly while he was engrossed in a problem could often trigger a new insight. He frequently said that he had had the most enjoyment in his life from his violin. We too share in that duality. Jack as a true artist on the violin and I as a humble amateur share a love of science that we hope is reflected in our performances.

Einstein's Princeton Home

It has been a journey of discovery for Jack and me to take “Einstein’s Universe” and its companion lecture “Superstrings” across the world, now in more than 170 performances. We have journeyed all across Europe, and as far afield as China and New Zealand, the home of my other hero in physics, Ernest, Lord Rutherford of Nelson, arguably the greatest experimental physicist who ever lived. We have followed in Einstein’s footsteps to Japan, where he allegedly played Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata when he should have been in Stockholm receiving his Nobel Prize. We have also performed the lectures across the United States from coast to coast, from Brown University to Stanford and stopping off, of course, at Einstein’s last home, his beloved Princeton, where we were privileged to visit his house on Mercer Street.

We have met hundreds of people who have drawn inspiration from Einstein’s life and who have expressed wonderment at his work in science. I treasure the letters from young people who have told us that our lecture has inspired them to study physics at school, university and beyond. Their parents and grandparents, too, are touched with wonder at the sheer breadth and daring of Einstein’s scientific achievements. Many of the people we have met on our travels have become friends.

It is therefore a very special feeling for us to bring our lecture to Los Angeles, where Albert Einstein came at a very difficult time in his life. He was in fear of the Nazis who threatened his whole concept of civilization and who were preparing the Holocaust to destroy the rich Jewish tradition of culture and music in Europe in which Einstein had been brought up. Here on the West Coast of the United States, he found a sanctuary and a joy in the climate and people that he always remembered fondly. It is also a pleasure to be able to join in the celebrations of the 150th Anniversary of Chapman University, making it incidentally older than any English University except Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham.

Brian Foster, Jack Lieback, and Students in Belfast

The tradition of liberal arts institutes of learning that Chapman University so ably represents is generally missing in Europe. As a Professor of Oxford University, I am proud to be able to lecture to physics students and Jack, about to become a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, is honored to work with its music students in a master class.

Our visit stems from a conversation last May in an Oxford pub between me and two Los Angeles residents, whom Jack and I met when they attended the first of our Oxford May Music festivals. These festivals take place in the Holywell Music Room, the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Europe, where Haydn rehearsed his “Oxford” symphony. Founded to emulate Einstein’s ethos of bringing together music and science, the Oxford May Music festival in now in its fourth year; one of our friends has traveled from Southern California to England for every festival.

As a regular visitor to Caltech, I know the hospitality of the Angelinos well. This time, though, Jack and I hope that we will be able to bring a flavor of both the science and the music that Einstein adored to a city of which he had only the fondest memories.

Literary Science Writing February 16, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
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Given that two-thirds of the mandate we set for ourselves here at Lofty Ambitions is Science and Writing (as a couple), it will come as little surprise that we hold science writing in particularly high esteem. In each of our lives, books about science have either confirmed that we were doing the right things with our lives—in our educations and our careers—or these books have spurred us on to investigate new or adjacent paths.

For Doug, reading Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb as an undergraduate proved to be a foundational experience. The first third of the book provided a compelling narrative of the development of early twentieth-century physics, a story that both confirmed his choice of physics as an undergraduate major and shifted his interest from artifacts to personalities so that he began to understand history as interwoven narratives. As Doug has worked on his novel about the Manhattan Project, Richard Rhodes’s book has been one of his go-to references.

Later, while Doug was employed at the NASA Center for AeroSpace Information, he read James Gleick’s Chaos and Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine. These texts played an important part in persuading him to examine computers and computer science. While he was in graduate school, reading Matt Ridley’s Genome nearly convinced Doug to switch to computational biology and genomics.

Steven Johnson

Anna, too, has latched onto several books about science, some of which have shifted her thinking about what she does as a poet and as a teacher. Recently, as we’ve written at Lofty Ambitions, Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From captured our imaginations—and offered some ways to explain how imagination and creative thinking work. That book made for interesting connections with other books that Anna had read on cognitive science, including Nancy Andreasen’s The Creating Brain, Alice Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease, and Lennard Davis’s Obsession.

Both of us also read Steven Johnson’s earlier book Emergence. It’s a fascinating exploration of collaboration, complexity, and the whole becoming more than the sum of its parts. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked gives a different take on the same subject; it offers more of the nitty-gritty explanation, but doesn’t get as swept up with the story. There exist a dozen other good books on this broad topic of networks. And Malcolm Gladwell tackles somewhat related subjects in Blink and Outliers, mixing science with its cultural context. We rather like those books that have the feel of storytelling, without sacrificing the science—and as writers ourselves, we admire such an achievement.

As we mentioned in last week’s post, at the most recent Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, Doug attended a panel on science writing, “Literary Science Writing: Don’t Be Scared,” moderated by David Everett (also a colleague of our novel-writing friend Leslie Pietrzyk) and featuring Nancy Shute, James Shreeve, and Christopher Joyce. Because of our own reading preferences, we latched onto one of the panel’s takeaway ideas: the best science writing isn’t as much about science as it is about people.

The first panelist to speak was James Shreeve, author of The Genome War, The Neandertal Enigma, and (with Donald Johanson, discoverer of the first Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy) Lucy’s Child. Shreeve’s experience in researching and writing Lucy’s Child and The Neandertal Enigma likely led to the panel’s best literature-themed one-liner: “In science, paleoanthropology is as close as you can get to FICTION [writing].” He followed up with a quip to amplify his point about how a detail becomes a story: “Look, a tooth! Must have been a tool-user.”

Creative Commons

James Watson, 2003

Shreeve talked of his own reading preferences and influences at the begging of his career as a science writer: James Watson’s Double Helix and Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation. Even now, he holds David Quammen’s “Strawberries under Ice” in particularly high regard. Along with reading, what jump-started Shreeve’s career was his willingness to knock on doors and say, “What are you doing?” The answers to that question led to much of his own writing over the years. No wonder that he emphasized that great science writing is focused on people and that, in his words, “Science writing’s great advantage over literary fiction: there’s always something to write about.”

Nancy Shute, president of the National Association of Science Writers and a blogger for U.S. News and World Report, spoke next. Shute thought enough of Jonathon Weiner’s Time, Love, Memory—which discusses the life of Seymour Benzer, a physicist who became a molecular biologist, and his work on Drosophila melanogaster (the common fruit fly)—to make special mention of it. Shute also offered the following perspective on writing about science: “Science gives us a way to grapple with how the world works—and how the world works on US.”

Charles Darwin

The final panelist was Christopher Joyce, a science correspondent for National Public Radio and author of Witnesses from the Grave. A touchstone for which people often reach when discussing the intersection of Literature (with a capital “L”) and science writing is Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Joyce indicated that, as an exemplar of literary writing, Darwin doesn’t make the cut, but that E. O. Wilson does a better job.  (Anna quibbles with Wilson’s overarching approach in Consilience, because it privileges science over the arts, but we do appreciate his style.) Joyce described that his own goal as a radio correspondent was to make “a little movie in your head.”

Writing and doing science, as distinct endeavors, have much in common; both activities seek to make sense of some aspect of the world: observed, experienced directly, or imagined. As the “Literary Science Writing: Don’t Be Scared” panel made clear (and as our own reading experiences have shown us), when the activities merge in the form of writing about doing science, the outcome spans the gamut from turgid recitations of facts and figures to narratives that speak deeply to the human condition. One of the happiest outcomes of attending the recent panel was coming away with a reinvigorated reading list. We always welcome suggestions of good science books to read.

Mark Kelly, Gabrielle Giffords, and Grit February 14, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Space Exploration.
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NASA STS-134 Mission Poster

Last Monday, astronaut Mark Kelly rejoined the crew of STS-134 for their final training for the April launch of space shuttle Endeavour. Mark Kelly has been on leave from NASA since January 8, when his wife, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was shot at a public event in Tuscon, Arizona. The next day, Scott Simon of NPR said, “Gabby Giffords has true grit. I don’t mean the kind you see in movies, but the grit to work hard, love your family and serve your country.”

By the end of last week, Gabrielle Giffords had spoken her first words since the shooting. She asked for toast. “The progress she has made has been nothing short of a miracle,” Mark Kelly said on ABC. Spokesperson C. J. Karamargin said of Giffords’s aggressive, six-hour-per-day rehabilitation and her progress, “Don’t discount the grit and determination of this particular patient.”

Psychology professor Angela Duckworth about the role of grit in high achievement (we’ve posted her TED talk below). Duckworth, drawing from William James’s “The Energies of Men,” argues there are qualities that unlock talent, so talent in itself is not a harbinger of success. She asks, what is it that enables a person to become a world-class teacher or performer—or perhaps a representative or astronaut? And she calls the quality she studies grit, after the film True Grit, starring John Wayne (and remade last year). She notes that Francis Galton, meteorologist, inventor, and (unfortunately) eugenicist, asserted that achievement depended upon talent, passion, and hard work, to which his half-cousin Charles Darwin, father of the theory of evolution and natural selection, replied that he was interested to hear that talent might have a role.

Duckworth’s ideas aren’t entirely new. Several articles in Scientific American Mindover the last few years, including a late 2007 article by psychologist Carol S. Dweck, have discussed an array of qualities that may be at least as or more important than talent. An overview article in The Boston Globe by Jonah Lerher (reprinted in The Best American Science Writing) suggests that smart people may be less likely to work hard and therefore, in the long run, may not take advantage of the talent they have. How many people do you know who are intelligent but can’t stay on task? If you get the right answer to a problem, do you attribute it to talent or to hard work? Lerher writes, “Interestingly, it also appears that praising children for their intelligence can make them less likely to persist in the face of challenges, a crucial element of grit. […] A big part of our success, Dweck says, stems from our beliefs about what leads to success.”

Two weeks ago, no one knew whether Mark Kelly would finish his training for what may be the last space shuttle launch ever (funding is up in the air for STS-135). NASA claims that the decision remained in Mark Kelly’s hands, though they put some checks in place. Kelly returned first on a trial basis for some intensive mission simulations. He claims that he put aside his personal feelings, including wanting to be the last shuttle commander, instead considering what was right for NASA and what was right for his family. Both NASA and Kelly are confident that his years of experience as a military pilot and as an astronaut will help him compartmentalize and stay focused on the mission. As he said during a recent press conference, “I have been practicing for twenty-four years.” Several friends of Gabrielle Giffords have said, too, that it’s what she would want, because she married an astronaut and knew the risks and because her recovery is going well.

Mark Kelly Marries Gabrielle Giffords

A month ago, Representative Giffords was probably meeting with staff about the week’s schedule, including a town hall gathering outside a grocery store the next day. Today, she is likely repeating small tasks for hours on end during physical and speech therapy, while Mark Kelly is likely repeating tasks to command what is the most complex flying machine ever built. Endeavour, under Mark Kelly’s command, is scheduled to launch April 19 for a fourteen-day mission to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and other parts to the International Space Station. Mark Kelly hopes that Gabrielle Giffords will be present for the countdown. This couple didn’t develop grit on January 8, but that day offers a lens through which the rest of us can bear witness to persistence in the face of challenges.

For more coverage of Mark Kelly’s return to service at NASA, click on the following for Politico, Space.com, MSNBC, Huffington Post, and NASA’s official press release. Click here to follow Mark Kelly on Twitter.

Crab Cakes with the Wright Brothers February 9, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
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Doug Dechow and Wilbur Wright

This past week, we attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Washington, DC. As we usually do, we applied a divide-and-conquer method to deciding which panels and presentations we would attend individually. Doug attended an especially intriguing panel on science writing, featuring David Everett, Nancy Shute, James Shreeve, and Christopher Joyce. We’ll have more to say about the science writing panels at this and last year’s AWP in future posts, but for this week, we’ve latched onto one of the panel’s takeaway ideas: the best science writing isn’t as much about science as it is about people.

We extended our AWP travel by a day to traipse up to Baltimore, where we had solidified our relationship a decade earlier during weekends walking the cobblestone and eating crab cakes at John Steven. (The people—especially our two bartenders last weekend—were as important to our great experience as the food and beer.). On the way back to National Airport, we stopped at the College Park Aviation Museum, a facility that recognizes that the best aviation museums aren’t as much about the planes as they are about the people.

Sure, the aircraft are important and impressive focal points as artifacts both of technology and history, but aviation museums aren’t simply storage spaces for engines, wings, and instrument panels. No, the best aviation museums collapse the distance between the viewer and the lives of the people who built, flew, and maintained the aircraft. These spaces use the buffed, shiny aluminum fuselage panels of a P-51 or a DC-3 as a mirror, allowing us to see ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder with the men and women who made the last century aviation’s century.

College Park Aviation Museum

Perhaps no aviation museum does this better than the one in College Park, as it brings aviation’s pioneers into focus. In fact, because the museum focuses on the early days of controlled flight, the aircraft on display could easily feel more distant and less dazzling than the jets and rockets just a few miles way at the two National Air and Space Museum buildings. Instead, the mannequins, voice recordings, and written narratives invite visitors into the story, all of it tied directly to the College Park Airport where the museum resides. Located a stone’s throw from the expanding campus of the University of Maryland, the College Park Airport is home to a hundred years of tentative takeoffs and greased landings. With its birth in 1909, this small airfield is the oldest continuously operating airport in the world.

We’ve written about this museum before in scholarship and at Lofty Ambitions (click here), and we were frequent visitors in the early 1990s, when the artifacts—no planes—were housed in a doublewide trailer. Now, the artifacts—including numerous aircraft—are housed in an airy, inviting building. But the focus remains on the story of the College Park Airport.

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. as airmail package

Wilbur Wright began giving flight instruction on this site on October 8, 1909. The first Airmail Postal Service began at the College Park Airport on August 12, 1918. In a publicity stunt and Liberty Bonds promotion, actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., sent himself as an airmail package that year. In 1921, College Park lost its role in the airmail system, and five years later, airmail was turned over to private businesses. On September 5, 1931, the first flight to use radio navigation to fly “blind” occurred at the College Park Airport. The airport remained a venue for air shows throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and we attended air shows there in the 1990s. In fact, Anna wrote a poem called “Fascination: The College Park Airshow, 1992” to capture the sense of history—the hints of story—that the museum now portrays.

The museum’s western wall is an open vista of windows overlooking the active runways. The day we visited, first one, then two, and eventually a half-dozen hawks whirled and gyred over those runways and nearby stand of trees. Their unhurried arcs were a stark reminder that, while human ventures into the air surpass nature’s in quantifiable measures of speed, height, and distance, our efforts remain hollow echoes in beauty, grace, and the appearance of effortlessness.


Guest Blog: Peter and Kirsten Stoltz February 8, 2011

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We’ve had this guest blog piece ready to go for several weeks, having asked Peter and Kirsten Stoltz to write about being a scientist-artist couple like ourselves. Doug worked with Peter at Tech-X for several years; Doug was based at Fermilab in Illinois and made regular trips to the parent company so that we got to know both Peter and Kirsten. We were especially interested in how Peter and Kirsten talked across the subject matter of their careers, in part because we’ve negotiated that scientist-artist interaction ourselves.

Between travel and power outage this week, though, this blog post is the first time we haven’t met our stated schedule, but we’re happy to get back on track with this guest blog feature.

Kirsten is an art curator and an active member of the M12 collaborative. Her latest project is The Big Feed. Peter is a staff scientist at Tech-X Corporation, a private company specializing in computational physics.  He previously worked at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories. They live in Denver, Colorado, where they have been known to attend baseball games.





In some ways, the roles we follow as a couple living and working together as a scientist and artist decompose along entirely expected lines.  If we need to upgrade the computer at home, the scientist—Peter—handles that.  If we need to pick a new color of paint for the hallway, the artist—Kirsten—handles that.  In some ways, we dislike being so predictable, but the truth is we are both doing what we do well.  Our computers run great, and our home decor looks fantastic.

Even while we are good at different tasks or have different areas of expertise to offer, we are both successful in our day-to-day work because of our surprisingly similar skills.  A typical day for both of us consists of participating in Skype teleconferences with collaborators, dealing with logistics of upcoming events, and entering budget information into Excel spreadsheets.  In the end, we are both project managers as much as we are an artist and a scientist.  We both are successful at what we do largely because of our aptitude for and willingness to do this organizational work.

Another important thing we have in common is a tendency for simplicity in our work.  Both physics and art can be complicated.  For instance, an example of complication in physics is the detectors used in high-energy physics experiments. Peter avoids the kinds of physics that involve this kind of complication, opting instead for computer models, where the physics is only as complicated as the programmer wants or needs to make it.  Similarly, Kirsten also finds herself drawn to simple art with clean lines and colors (click here for an example, an album cover featuring a photograph by William Eggleston). This commonality in how we approach our work also reaches into our home, where we both enjoy the simple, clean design of mid-century architecture and furniture.

To learn more about The Big Feed, an annual forum that connects artists and the community in Colorado, click here.

The Space Shuttle as Artifact February 2, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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Discovery on Launch Pad 39A in November

In November, we traveled to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to see Space Shuttle Discovery’s final launch. That mission is now scheduled for the end of this month. After Discovery lands back at KSC, or perhaps at Edwards Air Force Base in California, that shuttle will make its way to the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum. The pieces of the Space Transportation System will become historical artifacts.

All three surviving orbiters will find their final permanent homes in museums across the country after their retirement. NASA has not made the final decision as to where Atlantis and Endeavour will end up. The San Diego Air & Space Museum is vying for one to be permanently back home in Southern California.

The shuttle is not the only piece of Southern California history in need of preservation. A few months ago, at North American Aviation Day in Torrance, we spoke with a former engineer. He described the demise of the Trisonic wind tunnel. The area that the Trisonic occupied is now a parking lot. We were reminded that not all of California’s aviation and aerospace history comes in museum-sized pieces. Yes, the Space Shuttle Enterprise (now at the National Air & Space Museum), the Spruce Goose (now at Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in Oregon), and countless other artifacts are housed in museums and in library archives. In fact, Leatherby Libraries at Chapman University, where we work, has begun a program of collecting NASA material, focused pieces that astronauts and engineers may have used on a daily basis, including Shuttle computers, training models, book tethers, and so on. But these projects and others that don’t fit inside a building live in the memories of the men and women who made these endeavors real.

NASA is currently in a period of transition, hoping for the Constellation project that would take us once again to the Moon and beyond to Mars. Guest blogger Allan McDonald advocates travel to an asteroid and figuring out how to destroy it, for he sees an asteroid impact as an even more serious threat to Earth’s population than climate change. The concern at Kennedy Space Center is that the lack of funding for any new project will lead not only to immediate job losses in an economically hard-hit area of Florida, but to the longer-term loss of technological know-how built up over decades.

Director of Johnson Space Center Michael Coats, who grew up in Riverside, California, remembers vividly when the first seven astronauts were selected. He was thirteen years old. “The space program for the last fifty years has inspired. It inspired me,” Coats told us in a one-on-one interview. He feels “very privileged to have participated in it in one form or another.” He sees math, science, and engineering as vital if the United States is to remain competitive in the future.

Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham sees the situation differently. “I do not see NASA currently doing much that’s inspiring,” he said. “It has to do with pushing the boundaries, and having people out doing things that have never been done before, not even dreamed of.” Cunningham fears that we have become risk averse as a nation and are unable or unwilling to envision next big thing.

Space Shuttle Endeavor STS-113

Once the space shuttle is retired next year, it isn’t clear when—or whether—the United States will next launch astronauts on American-made spacecraft. Despite efforts by two private corporations to build and launch reusable spacecraft, Endeavour’s launch in April could well be the last manned blastoff for a very long time. That mission will mark a moment in which the present forever becomes the past.


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