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Remembering Challenger, Making Connections January 28, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Space Exploration.
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STS-6, Challenger's First Launch (NASA)

On this date in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded on ascent, only 73 seconds after lifting off the ground at 11:38a.m., after being hit by the biggest wind shear an orbiter had recorded. Two space shuttle astronauts celebrated birthdays that day.

John M. Fabian (NASA)

John M. Fabian was born in 1939 and flew two shuttle missions, the first of which was Challenger’s second flight. He was in the 1978 astronaut class with Dick Scobee, Ellison Onuzuka, Judy Resnick, and Ronald McNair, who were aboard Challenger for the ill-fated flight STS-51-L. Scobee made the mission’s last transmission: “Roger, go at throttle up.”

David C. Hilmers was born in Clinton, Iowa, in 1950. His first flight was Atlantis’s first. His second flight was aboard Discovery on the return-to-flight mission following the Challenger accident. He flew a second time on each Atlantis and Discovery, then retired and went to medical school. Hilmers was in the 1980 astronaut class with Michael J. Smith, the pilot aboard Challenger’s last flight.

STS-51L Crew (NASA)

On January 28, 1986, seven astronauts lost their lives, their cabin plummeting intact into the ocean. Five are mentioned above; the others were two civilian payload specialists on their first flight, teacher Christa McAuliffe and engineer Greg Jarvis, both on their first flight. We, like many others, watched the event replayed on television that day.

Today marks the first anniversary of the Challenger accident since whistleblower Roger Boisjoly died at age 73. We met Roger when he visited campus to donate his papers and other workplace artifacts to Leatherby Libraries, a collection we wrote about for Air & Space Magazine last year. One of the artifacts that Roger often showed was an O-ring, cut to the length used in a shuttle’s solid rocket booster (SRB). Morton Thiokol, Roger’s employer, built solid rocket boosters, and the O-ring was the cause of the accident above Florida’s Coast that cold January morning.

Mission Control after announcement that "launch was not proceeding nominally" (NASA)

Of course, it wasn’t merely the O-ring itself, for most catastrophes are the result of a series of small problems. In this case, the O-ring and the cold temperatures the night before and at the time of launch (rows of tiny icicles hung from the railings of the tower that morning) were the fatal combination. But even the fact that Challenger launched on that brisk, frosty Monday, when school children around the country watched the event in their classrooms, was the result of four separate delays, seemingly minor mishaps, a cascade of otherwise innocuous occurrences. The previous mission’s delays had pushed STS-51L from a launch date of January 22 to January 24, and then bad weather at a Transatlantic Abort Landing site moved the launch date to January 25. The launch was delayed another day because of a weather report that predicted unacceptable conditions that never materialized. Then, the launch was scrubbed on January 27, which was a warmer, beautiful day, when a screw in the hatch couldn’t be removed and a dead battery in the drill that could fix it was replaced with another dead battery and another and so on.

Engineer Roger Boisjoly (pronounced boh-zhoh-lay, like the wine) seemed to us a very private man (he didn’t even want us to use a picture of him for his guest post), someone who felt, for the rest of his life, great responsibility for what happened to Challenger’s crew as the space shuttle reached nine nautical miles into the sky and had traversed just seven nautical miles east of the launch pad, still in view of the crew’s family, the press adjacent on the lawn outside the News Center, and Florida school children watching the first launch with a school teacher aboard. Roger Boisjoly felt this burden of responsibility because, in July 1985, he had written a memo expressing concern that O-rings could fail on ascent.

Wreckage of STS-51L pulled from the Atlantic (NASA)

Roger had seen that, on a shuttle flight roughly a year before Challenger’s last, one of the two O-rings in a seal in the SRB had completely burned through and the second had been damaged. The O-rings didn’t seal the joint the way they had been designed to do. Instead, as the pressure changed in the SRB joint, the O-rings moved around briefly before sealing. Exhaust seeped through during this brief time a gap occurred, and that’s what damaged the O-rings that Roger saw. When the O-rings were exposed to low temperatures, that made them less flexible, increasing the time before the rings sealed and the chances that hot exhaust would damage the rubber rings. He knew that if the second O-ring had also burned through, a catastrophic accident would have been just seconds away.

So Roger sent a memo up the chain at Morton Thiokol. Then he sent another memo and another, and he wasn’t the only one concerned. When Roger pressed the issue with his superiors, a task force was set up, but nothing was done. On the day before its scheduled liftoff, when Challenger was go-for-launch for its tenth flight, Roger and other engineers convinced Morton Thiokol managers to recommend delaying the flight, and the managers arranged for a conference call with NASA fifteen hours before the scheduled launch. The engineers agreed on a no-launch recommendation, and NASA wouldn’t launch if a contractor explicitly stated that it wasn’t safe.

During the call, NASA wanted to know the exact temperature required for a safe launch, and the engineers presented data based on what they could grab from their offices. Roger remembered one manager being told to take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat. After a break during the phone conference, four Morton Thiokol managers backed off their recommendation and told NASA that their information wasn’t conclusive. With explicit objections to launch abated, NASA proceeded as planned. Roger worried that failure of the SRBs would occur immediately after ignition, before the shuttle even cleared the launch tower. When he got home, he told his wife he’d just been in a meeting where they’d decided to launch the next day and kill the astronauts.

Section of Challenger's Right Wing (NASA)

Even years later, Roger wondered what he might have done. He didn’t want to watch the launch, but a colleague convinced him. He remembered the moment of relief he felt when the shuttle didn’t blow up on the launch pad but actually began its flight, a moment in which he, in hindsight, had let his guard down and let himself believe that they had, in his words, “dodged a bullet.” He wondered whether he should have tried to call the president directly. Two other whistleblowers who have been guest bloggers for Lofty Ambitions remain convinced that none of them could have done more and that, surely, Roger couldn’t have delayed the launch with a phone call and probably couldn’t have even reached the president directly or in time.

By 1987, Roger Boisjoly was actively advocating for workplace ethics. That’s the context in which we met him in 2010. As we remember the Challenger accident today and Roger Boisjoly’s death on January 6 of this year, we remember, too, that life went on for Roger and for us and that it’s our responsibility to recognize opportunities to make the world a better place.


Guest Blogger Roger Boisjoly

Guest Blogger Richard C. Cook

Guest Blogger Allan J. McDonald

25th Anniversary of the Challenger Accident (includes investigation video)

Day of Remembrance (last year)

NASA Engineer Kim Goudace, who was inspired by the accident

Opportunity Knocks January 25, 2012

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Opportunity’s View January 24, 2012 (NASA)

On January 25, 2004, a robotic rover called Opportunity landed on the surface of Mars, our closest neighbor planet. Opportunity’s life story is a good model for thinking about our own human goals. It took more than five months and more than 34 million miles to get there, but that day marked the beginning of the rover’s real work. The next 21-plus miles has been the exciting part of the journey for scientists. The six-wheeled, solar-powered rover was designed to last 90 Martian days, which are just over 39 minutes longer than Earth days.

By its second day on Mars, Opportunity had a joint problem with a robotic arm that is supposed to be stowed when it moves. But the rover—and NASA—made do and eventually developed a way to move safely without stowing the arm. For months in 2005, Opportunity was stuck in the sand. Again, the rover—and NASA—patiently inched around and eventually started roving again.

NASA Watches Opportunity Land

All this time, Opportunity has been collecting soil samples, monitoring the climate, and sending back amazing photographs of the Martian landscape. The rover is basically a moving science mini-laboratory. It x-rays and performs microscopic imaging of rock and soil samples, then sends analyses of constituent elements back to Earth. Its Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer examines rocks and soil to figure out how they were formed. Scientists are especially interested to know whether and when water may have existed on Mars. In December, NASA announced that Opportunity had examined what seemed to be gypsum deposited in veins by water.

As of this month, seven years after its landing, Opportunity sits on the north end of Cape York, which is on the rim of Endeavour Crater. The rover is still looking around and conducting measurements, including Doppler tracking. The robotic arm is still working; it positioned the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer on January 12.

Opportunity’s Path as of December 2011

Opportunity’s twin, called Spirit, landed three weeks before Opportunity on January 4, 2004. Before the end of the month, Spirit faced a flash memory problem. NASA spent ten days reformatting, patching, and testing in order to fix the problem. Luckily, the fix worked and was applied to Opportunity as well. Even after Spirit got stuck in 2009, the rover continued to send back information. NASA’s final contact with Spirit was on March 10, 2010, more than six years after its landing. A little bit of failure goes a long way to success.

Curiosity launched on November 26, 2011. It is currently cruising (it’s in the cruise phase of the mission) and will arrive on Mars after 193 more days, in August. This rover is much bigger than its twin predecessors and will check out the Red Planet in ways that will help us plan a mission to put human beings on the surface of Mars. Of course, Curiosity will live up to its name by studying the planet’s geological evolution, radiation levels, and chemical makeup.

Rock Abrasion Tool (at the end of the robotic arm)

Few people are as enthusiastic about the Mars rovers as Ken Kremer. He does a lot of work processing the images that Mars rovers send back. Read his Lofty Ambitions guest post HERE. See his work at Universe Today HERE and HERE.

To read Anna’s very different take on the Mars rovers and how they can inspire a writing life, read her guest post “Curiouser and Curiouser” at Chandra Hoffman’s blog HERE.

As we celebrate today’s anniversary of Opportunity’s landing, consider the meaning of that word. John F. Kennedy once pointed out that the Chinese ideogram for the word crisis is composed of two characters, one meaning danger but the other meaning opportunity. We’re not sure we should learn Chinese from Kennedy, but the notion points to the relationship between failure and success about which we’ve written before here at Lofty Ambitions. What is the set of circumstances or conditions that will make it possible to accomplish something? How will we create our next opportunity, perhaps inch our way out of a metaphorical sand dune or take care of that all too real bum shoulder joint? Sometimes, it takes 34 million miles to get where you need to be, only to find out that the fun is in the next 21 miles of meandering. Is there an opportunity knocking—or knocking you over?

Dark Ambitions January 18, 2012

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On Wednesday, we usually have a new post. In fact, we’ve never missed a regular Wednesday post in 565 days. This week, we had something planned about failure as part of the process in some big accomplishments. Instead, we’re participating in the blackout to oppose SOPA and support a free and open Internet.

We want to make it clear that our decision is not a stance in support of Internet piracy nor is it a statement against the rights of content creators like ourselves. Lofty Ambitions blog abides by copyright law. All our posts are original work by the two of us or by the guest bloggers invited to submit their original work. We retain the rights to what we write, and a guest blogger reacquires all rights to his or her work once we post it so that he or she can, say, include that write-up in a future book (with, we hope, acknowledgement). In addition, the images we use are either photographs we’ve taken, images in the public domain (thank you, NASA), or photos we’ve been granted permission to use. We conducted and filmed our video interviews. On a couple of occasions, mostly in the spirit of fun, we have re-posted videos from YouTube as WordPress.com allows.

If you want to know more about SOPA and the blackout, check Wikipedia’s explanation HERE or Google’s explanation HERE.

We’ll be back. For now, we go black.

Guest Blog: Jeff Porter January 16, 2012

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On March 2, Anna will be joined by four other writers at “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age” at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Panelist Kristen Iversen, author of the forthcoming Full Body Burden, has already contributed a guest post to Lofty Ambitions (click HERE). Today, we a post by another panelist, Jeff Porter.

We’ve not yet met Jeff Porter, though Anna read Oppenheimer Is Watching Me, one of the books that inspired the panel. The book draws from Porter’s past: his father worked for a defense contractor, and young Jeff, like many of us, was born into the Cold War. His essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Antioch Review, Shenandoah, The Missouri Review, and Isotope (a journal of literary writing about nature and science that we are sad to say is no longer publishing). Jeff Porter teaches at the University of Iowa and focuses on media studies as well as creative nonfiction.


Jeff Porter

I’m an atomic writer, though I wish I had a t-shirt to prove it. Any real evidence of what I am is kept secret in my mitochondria, and I’d rather not go there. A t-shirt would be much cooler.

The very first atomic writer, John Hersey, did not receive a t-shirt either. He did, however, get a personal issue of The New Yorker, the only time the entire magazine was turned over to one story. William Shawn had sent Hersey to Japan nine months after the bombing of Hiroshima, suggesting that he look into the lives of the survivors. In the countless words thus far printed about the bomb, rarely had the human side of the story been put before readers. That changed with the August 31, 1946, edition of The New Yorker. For 15¢, you could read the stunning documentary tale of six people who lived through the nightmare of Hiroshima.

In all, Hersey had met with over fifty Japanese survivors. He narrowed that group down to six—a Jesuit priest, a clerk, a seamstress, a physician, a Methodist minister, and a surgeon—each of whom he interviewed for six weeks before returning to New York. A month later, Hersey turned in a 150-page manuscript. Initially, the editors planned to run the piece in four consecutive installments of the magazine, as they would later do with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but at the last moment Shawn decided to take the unprecedented step of devoting an entire issue to Hersey’s story.

The magazine’s editor in chief, Harold Ross, wasn’t sold on the idea of turning the genteel The New Yorker into a house of tragedy. Banishing the magazine’s signature cartoons in favor of gloom and doom seemed a bad idea. Nevertheless he signed on, but not before requesting hundreds of changes to the text. At 31,000 words, Hersey’s story took up all 68 pages of magazine space. Everything else was stripped away except for the cover art, which featured a lively park scene teeming with people at play that gave little indication as to what lay inside the magazine. For readers, this would be no picnic.

Here’s Mr. Tanimoto, the Methodist minister educated in the U.S., fleeing in confusion after the flash of the bomb:

Mr. Tanimoto, fearful for his family and church, at first ran toward them by the shortest route, along Koi Highway. He was the only person making his way into the city ; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing.

Though grim, a description like this is a far cry from later narratives of atomic disaster, such as The Day After (1983), television’s sensationalized account of American survivors of an imaginary nuclear war. In fact, Hersey’s text repeatedly understates the catastrophe, focusing instead on mundane details delivered in a deadpan voice. Hersey’s style is so flat as to be ironic, but the irony mostly serves to dignify the subjects of the piece at the expense of the spectacle.

By many accounts “the most famous magazine article every published,” Hersey’s story of Hiroshima found a way around the nuclear sublime (and the enchantment of a new technology) that would cast a spell over American writers for decades to come. He opened the door of atomic discourse to literature, and for that he deserved his very own magazine.

In the Footsteps (Part 11) January 11, 2012

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We spent yesterday in Pasadena—at CalTech and Vroman’s Bookstore—because that’s how we chose to spend one of Doug’s vacation days. We had been planning to visit the CalTech archives for a while, but we chose yesterday because our colleague Tom Zoellner was reading at Vroman’s from his new book A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us about the Grand Canyon State and Life in America. (His op-ed appears in today’s L.A. Times HERE, and we hope to have a guest post from Tom in the weeks to come.)

Tom’s reading was great, and he answered a lot of questions from the audience, creating a real discussion. Lest you think Tom Zoellner has nothing to do with our “In the Footsteps” series, his last book is Uranium, a well-written investigation of this radioactive element and our relationship with it over time. Zoellner recounts some of what we’ve covered in this series—the train station in Lamy, New Mexico, and Dorothy McKibben in Santa Fe—when he writes of the Manhattan Project, “An office on the plaza in Santa Fe was a discreet welcome center for the professors who stepped off the Super Chief streamliner, blinking in the bright sunshine at the foot of the Sangre de Christo Mountains.”

Before the reading, we spent the afternoon in the archives located in the subbasement of the Beckman Institute at CalTech. It’s a small operation with a few staff and one main research room. We had requested to see the papers of Richard Chase Tolman and Robert F. Bacher. Loma Kilkins wheeled out a cart of familiar storage boxes, and we started with the Tolman papers because there were just two. In fact, we didn’t get through all six boxes of the Bacher papers and will have to return for more research. After all, 39 linear feet (more than six times that of Tolman’s collection) of Nobel Prize recipient Richard Feyman’s papers still await.

Richard C. Tolman and Albert Einstein

What we like about archival research is that we never know exactly what we are going to find. A lot of the materials in these two collections were official documents, but even those reveal the signatures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Harry S. Truman. In these collections, it’s also possible to start tracing connections to people with whom the public might be more familiar, such as Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr, Richard Feyman, or Linus Pauling. (All these men were Nobel Laureates, in fact, with Pauling awarded two prizes. CalTech alums, including our university’s economics professor Vernon Smith, have been awarded 17 Nobel Prizes, and CalTech’s non-alum faculty have been warded 14.)

Tolman, a physicist, was General Leslie Groves’s scientific advisor during the Manhattan Project. He had been a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an independent policy research center still working on the world’s complex problems. Some of Tolman’s papers reside in the CalTech archives because he joined the faculty there in 1922. Linus Pauling, who studied at Oregon State University (where Doug earned his PhD), shows up in the Tolman papers because he came to CalTech in 1927 and later declined an invitation to join the Manhattan Project.

J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves at Trinity Test Site

There are also wonderfully personalized parts of letters that are otherwise largely about scientific notions or career moves: hello to a wife, a mention of a recent visit. Tolman seems to have sent his talk and article “A Survey of the Sciences” to almost everyone he knew, and many of them responded, all positively but often with a quibble over this or that statement. In the less formal comments, we can glean an individual voice, a relationship, and the idiom of the time.

And there are little surprises, mysteries, too. Who is Helen Evereth? And why did Richard Tolman send her flowers on several occasions? She mentions her advancing age, along with expressing socialist political stances. Was she a great aunt or a former teacher or, perhaps, a sweetheart before he met his wife? Is she the Helen Evereth that the U.S. Census lists as having been born in 1874 in Maine? Helen’s are the most personal correspondence in the folders, but it’s impossible to piece together from these documents the story of Helen Evereth and Richard Tolman.

Perhaps our favorite piece of paper was a response to Albert Einstein (another Nobel laureate), instigated but not written by Tolman. The translation reveals that Einstein had submitted an idea to solve a problem with flight dynamics. The response, to put it simply, tells Einstein that they’d already thought of his idea and it doesn’t work. It’s heartening somehow to see plainly that even Einstein came up with notions that didn’t pan out and that even he faced rejection.

When you read a book like Uranium, you get what feels like the whole story. The narrative is figured out, and you find pleasure in its arc and cohesiveness. When you thumb through archives, you get tidbits, some of which state the obvious and expected and some of which don’t seem to fit. You find bits and pieces that could fit together in any one of a variety of ways but that also stand on their own for what they are (and were).

Interview: Hank Hartsfield January 9, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
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Before we get to today’s video interview, Lofty Ambitions extends condolences to the family and friends of Roger Boisjoly, who died last Friday. Boisjoly was a whistleblower in the Challenger accident investigation and an advocate for ethics in the workplace. You can read his guest post for Lofty Ambitions HERE.


Henry W. Hartsfield, Jr. (NASA)

Henry W. Hartsfield, Jr., became a NASA astronaut in 1969. But even before that, he was part of the U.S. Air Force’s MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory) program. Once part of NASA, he served in support roles for Apollo 16 and Skylab, as well as back-up pilot for STS-2 and STS-3 on the space shuttle.

Eventually, Hank Hartsfield got to space, first as pilot on STS-4 in 1982. He flew on two other space shuttle missions, STS-41D as commander and STS-61A. His crew for STS-41D on Discovery‘s maiden voyage included Mike Coats (see our interview with him HERE), Charles Walker (the first-ever payload specialist whom we mention HERE), and Judy Resnick (who later perished in the Challenger accident) as well as Steve Hawley and Mike Mullane. They launched three satellites and conducted science experiments. His last shuttle mission was the first with eight crew and was dedicated to the German contribution to Spacelab.

We interviewed the soft-spoken and earnest Hartsfield at Kennedy Space Center in 2010. Watch part of our fascinating conversation here.

International Geophysical Year and the Cold War (Part 2) January 4, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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You may want to start with Part 1 of our piece about the International Geophysical Year (IGY) and the Cold War. To do that, click HERE.

In last week’s post, we gave an overview of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a globally organized and implement scientific program, which took place from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958.  As we have learned more about the IGY, it’s become obvious that, despite the stated goals of looking at the Earth, the Moon, and the Sun with the best available scientific minds and tools, IGY’s research program was not unrelated to the increasing of Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.


As early as 1955, the United States made public its intentions to launch an orbiting satellite as a part of the IGY. President Dwight D. Eisenhower unveiled Project Vanguard to the world in July of that year. Shortly afterward, the Soviet Union announced they too would launch a satellite. Although the design and development of Project Vanguard was overseen by the Naval Research Laboratory, it was crafted as a tool of civilian science. President Eisenhower was particularly uncomfortable with the notion of military hardware orbiting (or flying) over the heads of the Russian people. (This same fear led to the development of the U-2 spy plane by the CIA, a “civilian” agency). In the end, the Soviet Union managed to reach Earth orbit first, in October 1957 with the successful launching of Sputnik.

Quaintly called “new moons” and “artificial planets” in the era of the first launches, the terminology almost leads one to believe that scientists of the time believed that they would need a only few to meet the science needs these satellites could serve. (That assumption strikes us as reminiscent of the 1943 quote from Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”) Instead, satellites have proven to be manifestly useful, with nearly 7,000 launched since October 4, 1957.

Explorer I, first United States satellite, was launched by ABMA on 31 January 1958. (NASA)

The Soviet Union launched three Sputnik satellites during the IGY, but very little IGY data was collected explicitly by the satellites themselves. However, lots of useful information about the mass and shape of the Earth was inferred from the orbits of the satellites. Both the United States and the Soviet Union lobbied international scientific bodies for the continuation of the IGY for another year. This resulted in the Year of International Geophysical Cooperation in 1959, which was the year that the Soviet Union launched its second series of satellites, the Luniks. As we follow the current GRAIL mission (see recent posts HERE and HERE on that), Luniks were intended to observed the Moon. In fact, the October 1959 mission of Lunik III captured the first images of the dark side of the Moon.

Principals at White House press conference, 28 July 1955, announcing United States participation in the IGY satellite program. (NASA)

Having watched the Soviet Union successfully launch the first satellite with the use of military (yes, military, not civilian) hardware, the R-7 ICBM, the Eisenhower administration backtracked to reignite the previously cancelled Explorer Program, which used the Army’s Redstone surface-to-surface missile, restarted. Less than three months after the program was restarted, it launched the Explorer I satellite on February 1, 1958. That success couldn’t have come at a better time, as the Soviet Union had already launched two Sputniks by this point, and Project Vanguard had suffered a dramatic failure—an explosion—on national television in December 1957. If one of the pleasures of old age is having the last laugh, Vanguard I has clearly won in this respect. It is still orbiting the earth long after the fiery demise of the Sputniks and the Explorers. In fact, with its present orbital decay, Vanguard I should continue to circle the globe for almost two hundred more years.

The Explorer series of satellites did produce one of, if not the most, dramatic discovery of the IGY program: the Van Allen radiation belts. (We mentioned Iowan Dr. James Van Allen in last Wednesday’s post; see the link at the start of this post for that.) As Van Allen and his team analyzed the data from Explorer I, they noticed that radiation counts were varying with the satellite’s height. Data collected by Explorer III (launched March 26, 1958) confirmed that our planet is encircled by two distinct bands of charged particles.

Courtesy of amanico, moderator of Jaeger-Lecoultre forum at PuristsPro (http://jlc.watchprosite.com/)

Not all of the IGY/Cold War drama was played out in outer space. One particularly noteworthy event took place in the ocean, in Santa’s backyard under the ice of the North Pole. During the summer of 1958, the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, took part in Operation Sunshine, a mission to navigate to the North Pole underneath the Arctic Ocean ice. Nautilus reached 90 North on August 3, 1958. Her contribution to the IGY program was the first continuous bathymetric survey (depth measurement) of the Arctic Ocean. The USS Skate, the third nuclear submarine, also participated in the mission, reaching the North Pole on August 11th and surfacing through the ice.

amanico, moderator of Jaeger-Lecoultre forum at PuristsPro

Interest in the IGY transcended the political and scientific realm and made its way into the public consciousness. The Swiss watch company Jaeger-LeCoultre produced a special model—the Geophysic—to celebrate the IGY. In an unusual event that ties this week’s post into a neat little bow, Jaeger-LeCoultre presented the captains of the USS Nautilus, Commander William R. Anderson, and the USS Skate, Commander James F. Calvert, each with a Geophysic. What made the gift slightly unusual were the presentation cases, replicas of Sputnik. One wonders how the Navy officers felt about the reminder that the Soviet Union beat the United States to launching the world’s first manmade satellite.

Guest Blog: Brigid Leahy January 2, 2012

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We know this week’s guest blogger exceptionally well. Brigid Leahy is Anna’s sister and a fellow alum of Knox College, where Doug met her lo those many years ago. By day, Brigid is Director of Legislation at Planned Parenthood of Illinois, but when she’s not at work, she’s an Elvis fan and fosters dogs for the Animal Protective League. Honestly, we thought, if Brigid wrote a guest post for us, it would be about airsicknesses, a topic about which she knows a great deal. But she found an even better, and more timely, topic as this week’s Lofty guest blogger.

This coming Sunday, January 8, marks Elvis Presley’s 77th birthday. We’ve written about music before at Lofty Ambitions (click HERE for a post on shuttle wake-up songs), but it’s not always easy to find the connection between music and the focuses of our blog. Brigid, however, found a great way to honor The King and write about aviation.


I have been an Elvis fan since I can remember. I love his music and his movies. I would rush home after school for our local Channel 3’s “Elvis Week,” which would air a different Elvis movie each day. I’ve seen Clambake nine times. For years I had been waiting to go to Graceland at a time when I could go by myself and spend as much time there as I wanted. This past summer, I was finally able to go to Graceland. I booked the full tour—the house, the special clothing exhibition, the automobile museum, AND the airplanes!

On January 8, 1935, Elvis Aaron Presley was born to Vernon Elvis and Gladys Presley in a two-room shotgun house built by his father in Tupelo, Mississippi. His father worked odd jobs and money was tight. In 1938, they lost their home. Thus, Elvis spent much of his childhood living in public housing or with relatives. His family was often dependent on government food assistance. In Tupelo, schoolmates teased Elvis for being a “trashy” kid who played hillbilly music and lived on the wrong side of town in a largely African-American neighborhood. Life after moving to Memphis was much the same, with the family living for a year in rooming houses until they were granted a two-bedroom apartment in a public housing complex. Elvis continued to be teased and was labeled a shy, mama’s boy.

We are often surprised, of course, by who grows up to do what. Elvis’ music career allowed him to reject his difficult childhood in many ways and to remake himself. During his junior year in high school, Elvis became more and more willing to perform for an audience. He began to dress with more flash, taking his fashion cues from the performers on Beale Street. His daughter Lisa Marie would later say that Elvis never owned a pair of blue jeans once he became a star because jeans were a staple of his poor childhood. Each day he would not emerge from the second floor of Graceland until he was fully dressed and accessorized with expensive jewelry. Elvis quickly became known for the opulence of his dress, jewelry, home, and transportation.

Elvis’s growing inclination toward extravagance is seen early in his career with his purchase of Graceland in 1957. The 18-room mansion reflects Elvis’s sense of luxury at the time. By today’s standards of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” however, the place may seem to some visitors small and rather tacky. But to the 22-year-old Elvis, Graceland was the fancy family home that he could provide for his mother. Once Elvis’s fame became so overwhelming that he could scarcely go anywhere without being recognized, this home became a refuge.

Elvis Presley's Convair 880

While Graceland was above the middle-class standards of the time, it wasn’t over the top. However, Elvis’s airplanes are definite signs of unrestrained opulence. Elvis leased and owned several aircraft (a Grumman Gulfstream G-1, a Fairchild F-27, an Aero Jet Commander, a Lockheed JetStar, a Dessault-Falcon), and it’s likely that the planes were purchased out of practicality because Elvis could not travel on commercial airlines. He was just too famous, and his schedule demanded a lot of travel. But these airplanes weren’t merely serviceable. They were remodeled lavishly to Elvis’s particular taste.

Gold-Plated Seat Buckle on the Lisa Marie

The most famous of Elvis’s aircraft is the Lisa Marie, which he called “The Pride of Elvis Presley Airways” and his “Flying Graceland.” On April 17, 1975, Elvis spent $250,000 on a Convair 880 Jet, which had been in service with Delta Airlines. (For another take on the Convair 880, check out an article HERE at Airliners.net.) The Convair 880 was in production for about three years, with 65 total aircraft manufactured. Elvis spent an additional $350,000 refurbishing it—that’s right, he spent more on redecorating and upgrading than on the initial purchase. He then christened it the “Lisa Marie” in honor of his daughter.

The Restroom, with gold-plated sink

Elvis personally oversaw the transformation of the Lisa Marie by selecting the color scheme, choosing fabrics, and flying several times to see the plane’s progress at Meacham Field in Fort Worth. After its refurbishment, it had seating to 28, but usually only about ten people were on board. All seating was equipped with gold-plate seat belt buckles. The plane was lavishly outfitted with a seating area, a conference room, and a private bedroom. The Lisa Marie had two restrooms, both with 24-karat gold plate washbasins and fixtures. The videotape system was linked to four televisions, and the stereo system had 52 speakers.  The conference room was finished in teak. The bar was always stocked with 15 kinds of soda pop, though Elvis preferred Dr. Pepper and Lime Gatorade and didn’t really care for alcohol. It also had a “penthouse bedroom” with a custom-made queen-sized bed. Because of federal regulations, the bed was furnished with a seat belt. It, too, had a gold-plate buckle. The plane’s tail displayed Elvis’ TCB logo.

On November 27, 1975, the Lisa Marie made its first official flight, fittingly traveling to Las Vegas. Its tower call name was 880 Echo Pappa, and its nickname was Hound Dog One. Elwood David was the captain and pilot. Also on staff were another pilot, Ron Strauss, and a flight engineer, Jim Manny. The Lisa Marie was used for more than business travel. One Christmas, Elvis took his family and friends on a joyride. Another year, Lisa Marie blew out her birthday candles in the conference room while in mid-flight. After Elvis’ death, the plane was used to pick up Elvis’ ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie, and the actor George Hamilton so that they could quickly come to Graceland. The operating cost for 1976 (the year before Elvis’s death) was $404,000, and it burned 1700 gallons of fuel an hour.

Vernon Presley sold the Lisa Marie in 1978. Its ownership changed hands a few times. Finally, in 1984, the Lisa Marie returned to Memphis and has been housed at Graceland as an exhibit ever since. The Lisa Marie is the only one of nine remaining Convair 880s that is properly preserved, and no Convair 880 remains airworthy.

Cockpit of the Lisa Marie

Graceland, Summer 2011


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