It’s been a while since we wrote an “on this date” post to share a few reasons to celebrate science or space, right here, right now. The holidays seems a great time to toast to some perhaps hidden historical gems for nerds.
NORAD—the North American Aerospace Defense Command, made famous to us 40-somethings in the film War Games—began to track Santa’s annual flight from the North Pole to deliver gifts to children around the world. As recapped last week by NPR, Sears ran an ad encouraging kids to call Santa but printed the wrong phone number. NORAD was then called the Continental Air Defense Command (Alaska and Hawii weren’t yet states), and that’s the super-secret phone number the kids called. Guys working to keep the United States safe from Soviet attack on Christmas Eve started joking around, and Col. Harry Shroup dialed the local radio station to report that they were tracking Santa’s sleigh. Radio stations began calling for hourly updates. The NORAD Santa tracking tradition had begun. And you can now watch it in real time HERE.
Last year was the 45th anniversary of Apollo 8, and reminiscing about its holiday adventure was the focus of our post last December 25. Apollo 8 launched on December 21, so by Christmas Eve, the spacecraft had started orbiting the Moon. Human beings had never traveled that far before and had never before looked back at Earth from the other side of the Moon. For the fuller story, take a look HERE.
Rod Serling was born on Christmas Day. Like the Lofty Duo, he attended a Midwestern liberal arts college, in his case, Antioch College in Ohio, which boasts a motto coined by Horace Mann, the college’s first president: Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity. He began his career as an actor and writer for radio, then moved to television. In 1959, his series The Twilight Zone premiered. The series played with science fiction and also tackled controversial cultural topics like race and gender. He also wrote a remake of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol called Carol for Another Christmas, which aired without commercials in 1964 and featured stars such as Peter Sellers, Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, and Robert Shaw and music by Harry Mancini. Turner Classic Movies began to rebroadcast the film in 2012, after 48 years.
The Cassini spacecraft, designed to orbit Saturn, had been launched on October 25, 1997, and had arrived to orbit the ringed planet seven years later, on June 30, 2004. Cassini carried the Huygens probe, named after Christiaan Huygens, who’d discovered Titan, one of Saturn’s moon, in 1655. On December 25, 2004, Cassini released Huygens, and, on January 14, the probe became the first spacecraft to land on Titan’s surface. Cassini’s primary mission took four years, but it’s still circling Saturn and sending back intriguing information. Earlier this year, data indicated that Encalades, another of Saturn’s moons, might have an underground ocean. NASA hopes that Cassini keeps on going into 2017.
We’re fans of the scientist couple named Curie, so we extend our holiday post to include the announcement that they’d isolated radium, a then-new chemical element with the atomic number 88. Radium is radioactive, with a half-life of 1600 years. It had been used to make luminescent paint, but, in the 1920s, it became clear that the women who painted watch dials were suffering from radiation sickness, and radioactive paint was finally discontinued in the 1960s. When it decays, radium produces radon gas, which is emitted from Earth’s all the time. Radium is now used mainly in nuclear medicine. The Curies had been separately out components of pitchblende for a while and actually discovered radium five days earlier, but, in the age of the internet and social media, we’re happy to acknowledge the official announcement to the French Academy of Sciences as well as the discovery itself.