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Discovery Departure (Part 8: Video Interview) April 30, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
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Lofty Ambitions traveled to Florida, then to the Washington, DC, area to see the space shuttle Discovery transferred to the Udvar-Hazy Center for permanent display. While there, we spoke with Charlie Bolden, the head of NASA and a former shuttle astronaut. We wrote about that HERE, and now we share the video that fellow writer, Lofty Ambitions guest blogger, and space nerd Margaret Lazarus Dean shot of Bolden answering a question or two.

PurpleStride Chicago 2012: Research on Pancreatic Cancer April 27, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
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Tomorrow, we’re walking in PurpleStride Chicago 2012 to raise money for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Click HERE for our team page. That’s an opportunity for us to focus this post on a health sciences topic and consider some of the science related to our own bodies.

Image from National Institutes of Health (NIH)

If you remember back to high school anatomy class, the pancreas, an organ about six inches long, sits horizontally behind the stomach. The head of the pancreas connects to the small intestine, where its secretions do their work on the food you eat. The job of the pancreas is to produce enzymes for the digestion process and hormones used for metabolism.

Pancreatic cancer has been in the news in recent years because Apple founder Steve Jobs, actor Patrick Swayze, and professor and author of The Last Lecture Randy Pausch died from this cancer. (Watch Jobs’s 2005 speech at the end of a previous post HERE. Watch Pausch’s CMU “Last Lecture” HERE.) Jobs was 56, Swayze was 57, and Pausch was just 48, which might lead a person to believe that successful white men in their late forties and fifties are particularly at risk. But one of the things we’ve learned from talking with nurses these past few weeks is that pancreatic cancer can strike at almost any age—one nurse knew a 30-year-old nurse and the 89-year-old grandfather of another friend who’d been diagnosed in the last couple of weeks—and that the risk factors are poorly understood. Smokers, diabetics, and those with chronic pancreatitis are at greater risk, and more women than men contract this cancer.

Image by Department of Health and Human Services

As cancers go, pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, with a lifetime risk of about 1.4%, meaning that fewer than 3 in 200 people are ever diagnosed with this type of cancer. Compare that with the commonly cited lifetime risk of breast cancer: 1 in 8 women, or 12.5%. Or consider the overall lifetime risk of being diagnosed with any cancer: 45% for men, 38% for women, according to the American Cancer Society (click HERE for more info). The overall risk of dying from cancer, though, is better: 23% (1 in 4) for men, and 19.5% (1 in 5) for women. Statistics are tricky, of course, and tell us nothing about a particular individual and only some things about everybody else. Those numbers indicate many things, including that we are living long enough to develop cancer, which is more likely as we age, and that we are, in many cases, surviving cancer long enough to die of something else.

What’s especially disconcerting about pancreatic cancer, though, is that more than half of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed after they’ve metastasized, when there exists no cure. The NIH reports even worse numbers than most resources, stating, “in more than 80% of patients the tumor has already spread and cannot be completely removed at the time of diagnosis.” Often, the first symptom is jaundice, which occurs after the cancer has spread to the liver. That late diagnosis contributes to a very discouraging survival rate, with roughly 6% of patients hitting that magical five-year goal, according to the American Cancer Society (click HERE for Cancer Facts & Figures 2011). Even if the tumor is localized and operable, the five-year surrvial rate is just 23%. In fact, just 26%—one in four—of patients are alive a mere one year after diagnosis. The numbers vary slightly from resource to resource, and these statistics capture information about the past (the 2011 report is based on numbers no later than 2007).

Mary Lee & Anna Leahy

Statistically, several patients out of every hundred do stick around for years to come. If caught before the cancer spreads, the tumor is sometimes operable, which is the key to a potential cure. Research shows that surgery is much more successful if done at a hospital where the Whipple procedure—abdominal surgery almost as complicated as organ transplant—is performed regularly and if the surgeon is very experienced with the Whipple. Jobs, who had the slower-growing, more treatable of the two kinds of pancreatic cancer, waited nine months after diagnosis to have the Whipple surgery and still survived eight years. Even those who aren’t candidates for surgery can live several years; Swayze held out 20 months. For inoperable tumors, chemotherapy, radiation, and newer NanoKnife technology can sometimes shrink the tumor and, thereby, improve quality of life. In some cases, these treatments make the tumor operable and the cancer possibly curable.

Pancreatic cancer is relatively slow growing, with tumors taking years to develop and even longer to metastasize. That long timeframe—before deadly metastasis—during which pancreatic cancer could be diagnosed and cured is excellent reason for research because a screening test or even a better understanding of risk factors that leads to early detection could drastically improve survival rates. Immunotherapy treatment is another area of worthwhile investigation for pancreatic cancer and for cancers more generally. In other words, pancreatic cancer seems an especially good target for medical research because answers could make big differences in outcomes and possibly could be adapted for screening techniques and treatment options for other cancers.

In addition, the American Cancer Society reports, “Since 1998, incidence rates of pancreatic cancer have been increasing by 0.8% per year in men and by 1.0% per year in women.” Pancreatic cancer is on the rise, as are death rates from this disease, and research needs to catch up. So tomorrow, we’re walking in PurpleStride Chicago 2012 because scientific research matters can make big differences in our health and quality of life.

Discovery Departure (Part 7: More Interviews) April 25, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
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NOTE: We have a piece called “Nostalgia for the Small Airport” up at Airplane Reading, a venue dedicated to “a kind of storytelling that can animate, reflect on, and rejuvenate the experience of flight.” After you read our post here, check out our story there too.

John Glenn, with Discovery commanders behind

On April 19, 2012, the space shuttle Discovery was installed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, and Lofty Ambitions was there. To see the whole series thus far, just click on the tag “Discovery Departure” in the tag cloud in the right sidebar.

Between the outdoor ceremony of speeches in front of the nose-to-nose orbiters and the actual placement of Discovery inside the James S. MacDonnell Hangar, several museum and NASA bigwigs wended their way down a press receiving line and gave Lofty Ambitions a chance to ask a few questions one on one.

Doug chats with John Glenn.

The oldest and most recognizable of the VIPs was, of course, 90-year-old John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth and a longtime senator of yesteryear. Doug asked Glenn about his remarks during the ceremony that NASA had stopped flying the shuttle too soon. Glenn’s response was immediate and forceful: it wasn’t NASA that made the decision to stop flying the shuttle. Of course, it wasn’t; in 2004, President George W. Bush set the termination date for the space shuttle program, though Glenn didn’t name names.

Glenn went on, obviously exuding great respect for NASA and the job the agency has done. He called the shuttle “the most intricate, complex machine people have ever made.” But he is also clearly frustrated that NASA had been given marching orders to go to Mars without receiving any budget increase to fund such an effort. The shuttle program had to end in order to free up resources that can now be used to work toward manned Mars exploration.

Glenn’s responses were earnest, whole-hearted, and unexpected in the context of the day’s scripted events and positive public relations. Very few of NASA’s anointed ambassadors have been willing to say that the United States should still be flying shuttle. The most vigorous defense of shuttle by NASA’s chosen few came when it was already too late. In September 2011, four months after the last space shuttle mission ended, 82-year-old Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the Moon, and 77-year-old Gene Cernan, the Moon’s last human visitor, testified before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to advocate that the shuttles be returned to flight status.

Doug chats with Charlie Bolden.

Wanting to see how NASA viewed Glenn’s frank remarks, Doug posed a variation of the same question to Charlie Bolden, the Administrator of NASA—NASA’s top guy and also a Discovery commander. Bolden flew twice in Discovery, in fact, on STS-31, which launched the Hubble Space Telescope, and STS-60, on which a Russian, Sergei Krikalev, flew as a mission specialist. In this respect, Bolden was an integral part of the space shuttle program’s  most admired accomplishments: Hubble and its scientific achievements as well as the International Space Station (ISS) and the global cooperation that made it happen.

Bolden was in a very delicate position with regard to his response to our question, with Glenn, who had also flown aboard Discovery in his return to space, just a few paces away and the nation’s capital just a few miles away, where Congress controls his agency’s purse-strings. Bolden needed to respect NASA’s past in the form of Glenn and also respect the agency’s current reality in these times of economic constraints—he has a difficult job.

Bolden indicated that he had no desire to “put words in Senator Glenn’s mouth,” but that he was certain that the former senator was fully supportive of NASA’s current program of exploration and research. Bolden then took the opportunity to reiterate some talking points that he often touches upon: namely, he’s passionate about manned space exploration and the work on the ISS. The only part of Bolden’s response that directly touched upon the shuttle’s former role was his reaffirmation of the belief that it is time for the private sector to handle low-Earth orbit.

One obvious point to make concerning Bolden’s remarks vis-à-vis those of Glenn is that the senator could easily be in complete accord with NASA’s program of exploration and research, yet still think that the shuttle fleet should not be museum artifacts. And that is, of course, exactly what the first American to orbit the earth said.

Eileen Collins ponders the question.

Aside from Charlie Bolden, Eileen Collins was one of the few Discovery commanders to make her way down the press receiving line. Several news outlets wanted her time, and it’s no wonder, since she was the first woman to pilot the shuttle and, later, the first woman to command the shuttle. After Collins finished telling one reporter that Hubble is Discovery’s greatest legacy and was waiting for a reporter to finish up with another VIP, Anna asked her favorite question once again: “Discovery—great shuttle, or the greatest shuttle?” Collins smiled, and her eyes revealed before her words did that she didn’t want to be caught playing favorites. She pointed out, “I flew Discovery for my first mission and my last mission.” Then, as we’ve heard from others, she added, “But I will say I have a special place in my heart for Columbia.” The older shuttle astronauts may remember Challenger in these terms. Many of those who weren’t in the astronaut corps before 1986, when Challenger broke apart on ascent, flew Columbia and tend to mention that lost orbiter fondly whenever they have a chance (as some did in their video interviews with Lofty Ambitions).

Charlie Bolden (lower left), Eileen Collins, and Other Discovery Commanders (with shuttle noses in background)

Our conversations at Kennedy Space Center with the last-ever Discovery crew and our Q&A with several VIPs at the Udvar-Hazy Center were great experiences and gave us a range of insider perspectives on the past and future of manned spaceflight.

Discovery Departure (Part 6: Interview with the Last Crew) April 23, 2012

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The STS-133 crew takes a first look at Discovery mated to the 747.

On Monday, we watched the coupled space shuttle and 747 back out of the mating structure at Kennedy Space Center and then spent some time talking with this orbiter’s last-ever crew. All but Commander Steve Lindsey were part of the astronaut class of 2000, and the bunch looked to have cohered over their final role together.

STS-133 Crew, all smiles in front of their orbiter

The original crew included Tim Kopra, who was injured in a bicycle accident after the original launch date but before the actual launch of STS-133. (Read our post on “Astronauts Are Human Too” HERE.) He was replaced by Steve Bowen. Mission Specialist Michael Barratt (whom we’ve interviewed before HERE) explained that most of the STS-133 crew wears two mission patches on the blue flightsuit shoulder, the new one with Bowen’s name sewn over, but just slightly askew of, the one with Kopra’s name. Barratt and Kopra had trained together closely because they had been assigned to operate the robotic arm, with Barratt maneuvering and Kopra to be on the arm itself. “It was quite an impact to our training,” Barratt said. “We understood each other.” Barratt quickly added, “Steve was very accommodating. He knew his stuff very well.”

Mission Specialist Michael Barratt

We followed up on our earlier conversation with Michael Barratt by asking again about radiation and its affects on the human body, particularly during spaceflight. Barratt was unexpectedly thrust into the role of Manager of Human Research for NASA and is a medical doctor, so he has lots to say on this topic. Zero gravity and radiation both pose significant problems, especially for longer journeys like that proposed to Mars, according to Barratt. “We can maintain bone and muscle quite nicely,” he said about progress made with shuttle astronauts. “Deep space radiation is a very different animal than we see in low-Earth orbit.” He added, “We’ve actually got a good modeling of radiation out there,” but he emphasized that we don’t understand how the human body responds to that radiation, especially give the time it would take to get to Mars. “What we want to do more than anything is fly faster.”

Mission Specialist Alvin Drew

In his current role, Barratt is out of the rotation for the International Space Station, so it sounds as if he may want to return to a role in the Astronaut Office at Johnson Space Center, where he spent a few months after STS-133 concluded. Fellow STS-133 Mission Specialist Alvin Drew is hoping for just that opportunity himself. As for going farther, he admits, “Probably not.” Drew remains proud of the space shuttle program even as the orbiters become artifacts, saying “I used to dream about doing this, and now my ship is in a museum.” And he’s also positive about the current position and future: “For us engineers and scientists, it’s really exciting” to be doing “the behind the scenes things” for deep space exploration.

Mission Specialist Nicole Stott, with Alvin Drew behind

Mission Specialist Nicole Stott also put a positive spin on Discovery’s move to Udvar-Hazy, asserting that this orbiter will touch “people who didn’t know they were interested.” We, too, have found that friends who hadn’t thought about space exploration or the shuttle program just need a nudge. She is also quick to point out, “There are exciting things going on.” Specifically, she doesn’t want anyone to forget, “We have a station up there with six crew members from all across the planet.” Interestingly, Stott also mentioned that she follows space geeks online and was happy to see Discovery’s departure well covered in the blogosphere and on Twitter.

Commander Steve Lindsey

The crew’s sentiments may have been best summed up by Commander Steve Lindsey, who said, “I already said goodbye to Discovery […] when we walked off the vehicle.” This departure was epilogue. Pilot Eric Boe elaborated and put the shuttle program into a larger perspective: “I like to call it the dream machine” and by that he means the dreams of the people who made it and kept it running for thirty years. As we’ve advocated before at Lofty Ambitions, the story is ultimately about the characters. “I think it will inspire people,” Boe said. Mission Specialist Steve Bowen pointed out specifically, “The workmanship and the expertise” will be impossible to capture in a museum exhibit. “That’s that part we’re losing,” he said. “People make it special. People make it work.” And though Bowen pointed out that the lockers were askew on that last flight and needed some nudging, he said, “On that last landing, […] she was pristine.” He added of STS-133, “It was harder walking away from it after it landed.”

Mission Specialist Steve Bowen

Much of the rest of the press spent their time easily eeking out variations of bittersweet from the crew, and it’s clear that this crew thinks shuttle could have had a longer run, perhaps at last until a replacement could take over seamlessly. This crew would be happy to take another flight. But we want to conclude with comments we didn’t expect when we interviewed the STS-133 crew.

Pilot Eric Boe

Eric Boe could have talked for hours about the T-38s that the astronauts flew from Houston and use in training. These aircraft are crucial to the program, and perhaps to any future manned spaceflight in the United States, according to Lindsey. He asserted that the T-38 “gives us a chance to maintain our skills [or] step up” and that “talking between the seats” is essential training for the interplay necessary for a space-traveling crew. When you talk between T-38s, Lindsey claimed, you have to be more particular, and many skills are transferable to the space shuttle. His enthusiasm for the jets reminded us of Apollo astronaut Charle Duke’s excitement when talking about his flying days.

Lindsey also pointed out, “By having all these different backgrounds […] it gives you a fresh look.” Solving problems, as we’ve pointed out before, requires breadth as well as depth.

Commander Steve Lindsey in front of mated Discovery

Michael Barratt seemed to cover the widest range of topics. He spoke of volcanoes (the shuttle can be the first to report an eruption) and thunderstorms, noting, “Some of the biggest thunderstorms I’ve ever seen on the planet were over Australia.” We’re wondering, then, what Oklahoma looks like from space lately.

Barrat seemed most enthusiastic, though, when another reporter asked him about Bones McCoy from Star Trek. An M.D. like DeForest Kelly’s character, Barratt said, “He was my hero. Now I get to do that. I did not get to meet him, […] but he was my hero.”

Mission Specialist Nicole Stott, with Alvin Drew in background; Note the reflection of the T-38s in Stott's sunglasses.

We don’t toss around the term hero easily, but we do see that people are in awe of astronauts, that they are excited to be in an astronaut’s presence without knowing that astronaut’s name or mission. We thoroughly enjoyed interviewing the crew of STS-133 this week, in part because they seemed to thoroughly enjoy talking with people about what they did as shuttle astronauts and what might be in store for NASA.

Discovery Departure (Part 5: Photos, People, Artifacts) April 20, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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First some links to photos and write-ups, then more photos (including proof we chatted with former Senator John Glenn) for your viewing pleasure.

See yesterday’s “Discovery Departure” PHOTO ESSAY HERE.

Read about the 747 that ferried Discovery from Florida to the Udvar-Hazy Center (with photos) HERE.

See our PHOTO ESSAY of the shuttle mating process, the last-ever Discovery crew, and the awesome final Discovery takeoff HERE. And the BBC picked up our photos HERE.

Take a look at Doug’s first day at the Space Coast for “Discovery Departure” HERE. It involves shuttle mating and Jim Lovell, Charlie Duke, and more.

Two Shuttles, Nose to Nose on April 19, 2012


Two Shuttles, Two Lofty Bloggers


Two Shuttles, Cheek to Cheek


Reserved for Astronauts


Two Shuttles, Three Discovery Commanders: Horowitz, Collins, Lindsey


Stephanie Stilson, Shuttle Transition & Retirement Flow Manager


Doug with Astronaut John Glenn, first American to orbit Earth


Doug with NASA Administrator and Former Shuttle Astronaut Charlie Bolden


Eileen Collins, first pilot (STS-63, Discovery) and first commander (STS-93, Columbia) of a space shuttle, answers Anna's pressing question: "Discovery, great shuttle or the greatest shuttle?" Check back at Lofty Ambitions for Collins's answer.


Johnson Space Center Director and Former Shuttle Astronaut Mike Coats (See his Lofty Ambitions video interview HERE.)


Lofty Ambitions Guest Blogger and Novelist Margaret Lazarus Dean


Lofty Ambitions at the nose of Discovery, now in place at the Udvar-Hazy Center


Discovery Departure (Part 4: MORE PHOTOS) April 19, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Space Exploration.
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Anna & Doug with Space Shuttle Enterprise

Guest Blogger Margaret Lazarus Dean with Enterprise

Space Shuttle Discovery on the move toward Udvar-Hazy home

Fifteen Discovery Mission Commanders escort their orbiter to its new home.

The Shuttle Kiss

Discovery Ready for Official Transfer of Title

Discovery VIPs, including astronauts Karol Bobko (far left) and Mike Coats (behind Purdue University President in white) whom Lofty Ambitions interviewed, John Glenn (front right), and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana (over Glenn's left shoulder and on Anna's flight yesterday)

More Discovery VIPs, including NASA Director Charlie Bolden (front, middle) and Last-Ever Discovery Commander Steve Lindsey (back, third from right)

John Glenn, first American to orbit the Earth and also a former senator

Transfer of Title for Discovery

Anna with Lofty Ambitions Guest Bloggers Ken Kremer and Omar Izquierdo

Discovery moves into the museum.

Tight Squeeze

Discovery Rolls to a Permanent Stop

Anna looks the orbiter over.

Anna and Margaret wave from the shuttle.


Discovery Departure (Part 3) April 18, 2012

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The BBC has picked up some of our photos of yesterday’s Discovery departure HERE. Our Flickr Photostream also garnered some attention on its own HERE. In this post, we’re using all NEW photos. And we’ve never Photoshopped anything we’ve posted at Lofty Ambitions.

Discovery mated to 747, April 16, 2012

While we were planning for our trip back to the Space Coast to see Discovery leave Kennedy Space Center (KSC)) on its final, one-way journey to the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, we, of course, spent a fair amount of time pondering Discovery. After all, this orbiter was the only orbiter in the inventory that we hadn’t seen take flight in person. When Doug arrived in Florida on Saturday (see his recap of that day HERE), his focus remained on Discovery, as he watched NASA engineers and technicians bolt the orbiter into the Mate-Demate Device, a prelude to hoisting Discovery off the tarmac of the Shuttle Landing Facility and securing it to the back of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA). Tomorrow—in just a few hours—we’ll head to Udvar-Hazy for Discovery’s unveiling as a museum artifact.

But having seen the Florida air rip over Discovery’s skin one last time yesterday morning (See Photo Essay HERE), we turn our attention to the other vehicle involved in yesterday’s shuttle transfer: the Boeing 747 that ferried the orbiter to Dulles Airport.

During the space shuttle program, there were actually two aircraft to be used as SCA, with tail numbers N905NA and N911NA. Both SCAs started life as 747-100s. N905NA, the plane that carried the orbiter yesterday, was added to NASA’s fleet in 1974, after flying commercially for American Airlines. It was, of course, prepared for use in the testing of the non-space-worthy orbiter Enterprise, which Discovery is replacing at Udvar-Hazy. N911NA joined NASA sixteen years later, in 1990, after flying for Japan Airline.

Forward Attachment

The 747s underwent heavy structural modifications to become SCAs. Each plane had a pair of enormous vertical stabilizers added to the existing horizontal stabilizers in order to augment the SCA’s directional stability in light of the additional aerodynamic forces at work with an orbiter attached to the top. Three attachment points—one in front and two aft, just behind the SCA’s wings—are now easily identified by the bracing struts. Significant internal structural supports that correspond to the external attachment points were also added.

Aft Attachments

Some NASA press materials cheekily refer to the oribiter–SCA combination as “the world’s largest bi-plane.” The extra drag created by mounting the shuttle on the SCA gives the combination jet-age bi-plane performance: top speed is limited to just over 450 mph (140 mph slower than a standard 747-100); maximum attitude is 15,000 feet (roughly 30,000 feet lower than for a standard 747-100); and its range is 1000 nautical miles (vastly shorter than the 5300 nautical mile range of a standard 747-100).

Yesterday’s flight from KSC to Dulles was well within its range. A mated SCA requires two pilots and two flight engineers for such a trip. Yesterday’s flight had six men aboard: pilot-in-command Jeff Moultrie, co-pilot Bill Rieke, flight engineer Henry Taylor, flight engineer Larry Larose, weather engineer Arthur “Ace” Beall, and FAA representative J. J. Johnston. We’ve not seen these men mentioned, and NASA didn’t trot them out to chat with the press, but they were as much a part of yesterday’s activities and successful Discovery departure as anyone else.

N911NA has been retired to the California desert. Lofty Ambitions guest blogger Omar Izquierdo toured that SCA, and you can see his photos HERE. Once N905NA ferries Endeavour to California, it will join its twin in providing spare parts for another NASA 747, the one that flies the SOFIA telescope. NASA goes on.

Discovery Departure (Part 2: PHOTOS) April 17, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
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Lofty Ambitions flew to the Space Coast to follow space shuttle Discovery on its final departure from Kennedy Space Center. Doug arrived early Saturday morning, and Anna arrived on Sunday evening. We’ll have several posts in our series “Discovery Departure” as we relay our adventures in Florida and then in the Washington, DC, area, where the orbiter will reside in the Udvar-Hazy Facility of the National Air & Space Museum. Today, we offer a photo essay of the final mating of Discovery to NASA’s 747 and the last-ever takeoff of the workhorse of the space shuttle fleet. More tomorrow!

Anna helps place orbiter on NASA's 747

Yes, Lofty Ambitions was THAT CLOSE to the Space Shuttle

Space Shuttle Discovery atop the 747 for transport to Udvar-Hazy

Discovery with her last-ever crew

Michael Barratt, STS-133 Mission Specialist. We had a long chat with Barratt yesterday, and he's in our series of video interviews.

Alvin Drew, STS-133 Mission Specialist . He's an enthusiastic astronaut who hopes to get back to the International Space Station soon.

Discovery's nose attached to the 747

This and the attachment at the nose is all that affixes the orbiter to the 747. Lucky it's all very aerodynamic.

T-38s flown from Johnson Space Center by STS-133 crew

Lofty Ambitions with the mated orbiter

Kennedy Space Center Control Tower with shuttle gazers waiting for takeoff

Discovery stops during taxi for a photo op.

Discovery nose to nose with 747

Final Taxi Before Departure

Mated, Discovery takes off north to south.

Takeoff! But wait--there's more!

Discovery returns for a flyover!

Close-up of Discovery on its final flight

Goodbye, Discovery! See you at the museum.

Guest Blog: Claire Robinson May April 16, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science.
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Claire Robinson May

We just never know whom we’re going to find for our next guest post. Today, we’re featuring the granddaughter of Kenneth T. Bainbridge, the director of the Trinity nuclear test. This guest post is a great complement to our In the Footsteps series, which you can find HERE.

Claire Robinson May is a playwright in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) program. Her ten-minute performance piece, The Trinity Project, is being produced this month by the Oddy Theater Lab. Her full-length plays Mother/Tongue and Standardized ChildTM have been performed at Cleveland Public Theatre. She teaches Legal Writing at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and lives in Cleveland Heights with her husband, two sons, and a few other animals.


“Now we are all sons of bitches.” That’s what my grandfather, Kenneth T. Bainbridge, said after the successful Trinity test of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945. Not a grand soliloquy like J. Robert Oppenheimer’s—Ken cut right to the heart of the matter.

Kenneth T. Bainbridge (LANL)

Ken Bainbridge directed the Trinity Test. He always said he was glad the test was a success because otherwise he would have had to climb the tower to investigate what had gone wrong.

Ken was forty at the time of the test and a married father of three. He was a Harvard University physics professor who had relocated his family to Los Alamos, New Mexico, so that he could work on the Manhattan Project, one of the most top-secret endeavors in history.

Ken and his nine-year-old son, Martin, drove from Cambridge to Los Alamos in early July 1943. In late August, after Ken had arranged for their housing, my grandmother, Margaret Bainbridge (Peg), brought daughters Margaret (Margi) and Joan out to Los Alamos on the train. Joan was six. My mother, Margi, was fourteen months old. She learned to walk on the train to New Mexico. They lived at Los Alamos for the next two years.

The Bainbridges moved into a two-family house on the coveted Bathtub Row (so named because the street had the only housing units with bathtubs). Physicist Norman Ramsey’s family lived on the other side of the house. (Ramsey would go on to share a Nobel Prize in 1989.) Joan and Martin explored the new landscape, distressing the patrol guards with their utter disregard of the security fence.

Bainbridge Family, 1944

Oppenheimer managed the gasoline rations so that scientists and their families could take the occasional day trip. There were picnics, mineral collecting outings, and visits to the pueblo. Joan remembers weekend fishing trips and other adventures with her father, writing, “I have some childhood memories with Dad at Los Alamos—I still have the trout rod he made for me, hand wrapped with silk . . . but, thinking about it, there are not as many as I might have imagined. He was very absorbed and then gone much of the time in the spring of ’45.” The test blast would occur on July 16, 1945.

After the war, my grandfather joined the numerous physicists who spoke out against nuclear weapons. But he never wavered in the conviction that developing the bomb was necessary. He later wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that he had “a somewhat bloodthirsty viewpoint on the war” when he decided to join the Manhattan Project because he’d already heard first-hand accounts of Nazi atrocities from some of the European scientists he knew.

Claire Robinson May, Ken Bainbridge's Granddaughter

When I studied the history of science as an undergraduate at Harvard University in the early 1990s, I invited my grandfather to come to campus to hear a panel discussion that took place each year in one of the core science courses. Scientists such as Hans Bethe and Victor Weisskopf spoke to students about the development of the bomb and the decision to use it against Japan to end the war. Ken’s Los Alamos friends would wave from the stage, delighted to spot him in the Science Center auditorium. I was always proud to be with him. It was hardly a coincidence that my undergraduate studies focused on the history of twentieth-century physics.

Ken Bainbridge didn’t want to be remembered only for the bomb. He had many other achievements, both before and after the war, including his work on the Harvard cyclotron and the first experimental verification of E=MC2. When he chaired the Harvard University physics department in the early 1950s, Ken staunchly defended colleagues against the blacklisting attacks of Senator Joseph McCarthy. My grandfather was widely respected in his field as a careful and conscientious experimentalist and as a mentor to younger physicists. He was beloved by his family and many friends.

My grandfather died in 1996, shortly before his 92nd  birthday. His wife, Peg, had died suddenly in 1967, several years before I was born. With both of them gone, I can’t help but wonder what transpired between my grandparents in the days after the test, when the families finally knew what really had been going on at Los Alamos. I wonder what role the experience may have played in Peg’s decision not long after the war to become a Quaker, a faith that wholly rejects violence. I now find myself drawn to the point where human history and family history intersect, in a blinding desert sky.

Discovery Departure (Part 1) April 15, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
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Doug arrived in Florida in the wee hours of Saturday morning after a red-eye flight from John Wayne airport by way of Phoenix. Anna is making her way to the Space Coast separately on Sunday evening. Sleep-deprived, but anxious to get started, Doug went on muscle memory established from our previous trips: rental car, tollway, badging station, and finally the NASA press site.

Saturday’s only schedule press event was watching the process of Discovery being attached to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), a heavily modified Boeing 747, in preparation for Discovery’s voyage to the Udvar-Hazy center. Attaching the shuttle orbiter to the SCA takes place at the Shuttle Landing Facility—or in traditional three-letter-acronym (TLA) NASAese—the SLF.


One of the things that always strikes us about shuttle operations is their likeness to manufacturing, to industrial processes. This particular operation takes place in a machine, the Mate-Demate Device (MDD). The KSC MDD (there are two more in California) is a gigantic hoisting device consisting of three fifty-five ton cranes, one for the orbiter’s nose and two at the rear. For all of our hi-tech notions of space travel, hoisting the shuttle so that it can be mounted on the back of the SCA is a low-tech, hands on process: there are bolts, gobs of dark steel in the supporting structure, and dozens of people involved. The wind was gusting, and some of the chains–workers wrestling with them for a tiny piece of the larger operation–clanked endlessly against the steel supporting structure.



Former Lofty Ambitions guest blogger and current KSC employee, Omar Izquierdo, was there and related to Doug that, as far as he knew, the process often took twelve to fifteen hours. Despite the obvious motion of the workers and their serious demeanor as they passed by, to the inexperienced eye, progress was measured in inches. While Doug was there, Discovery’s nose wheel was lifted three feet off of the ground. The veteran photographers and journalists that Doug shared the SLF media viewing area indicated that this was as a sign of progress being made.


NASA made various people associated with preparing the shuttles for the futures as museums pieces available for interviews. Stephanie Stilson, NASA Flow Director for Orbiter Transition and Retirement and a former subject of a Lofty Ambitions interview, was one of the people speaking with the press.


As the assembled media folks began to pack up and prepare to head back to the buses, a tiny, dart-like T-38 trainer zoomed over our heads. Astronauts train to maintaining flying proficiency in the T-38. A NASA employee leaving the SLF building, casually mentioned that two astronauts, Jack Fischer and Dr. Serena Auñón, would be landing the T-38 in just a few moments. They were flying in to appear at the KSC All-American Picnic.


One aspect of KSC that has consistently amazed us is the abundant wildlife that coexists with the NASA facility. It’s the dry season on the Space Coast, and the waterways that track and follow the KSC road system are much drier than in our previous visits. Perhaps because of the low water levels, the KSC animal life is moving about, seeking water. For whatever reason, there have been more roadkill on this trip than any other. In this part of Florida, roadkill brings vultures.


Doug spent the second half of the day taking a special public tour: the Apollo 16 Anniversary tour. Apollo 16 launched from KSC on April 16, 1972, forty years ago tomorrow. The crew consisted of John Young, Charlie Duke (another Lofty Ambitions video interview), and Thomas “Ken” Mattingly II. As a part of the events honoring this mission, KSC offered a special astronaut-led tour on Saturday. Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell was the tour guide for Doug’s bus.


Capt. Lovell, hale and hearty at eighty-four years of age, provided the tour group with engaging recollections of his time at NASA, and even brought up the reason that he was the only person dropped from the final group of thirty candidates (for the seven available Mercury project slots) for a failed medical exam: a high bilirubin count. This physical failure apparently wasn’t an issue for the medical board selecting for the Gemini program, both Lovell and his Gemini 12 crewmate Buzz Aldrin shared this medical issue. The caricature of fighter pilots is that they talk with their hands. Capt. Lovell must have been some kind of fighter pilot because his hands never stop moving and become particularly animated when he talks about something that he feels passionate about, like NASA’s responsibility to excite the imagination of the next generation of scientists and engineers. We recently wrote about having a writerly dinner at Lovell’s of Lake Forest.


The Apollo 16 Anniversary tour concluded with a panel discussion involving Charlie Duke, Apollo 14 moonwalker Edgar Mitchell, and Lovell’s Apollo 13 crewmate Fred “Fredo” Haise.  Haises’s participation in the event was one of those moments of serendipity that we love so much here at Lofty Ambitions. Haise was a test pilot on Enterprise, the shuttle test vehicle that is being moved out of Udvar-Hazy so that Discovery can take its place later this week.



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