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Guest Blog: Eric Wasserman August 1, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Writing.
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One of the topics to which we keep returning is writing as a couple. This topic isn’t easy for us to tackle, and we sometimes find other writing couples hesitant to write about it, too. Maybe it’s difficult to articulate the writing part of couple relationships in which much goes unspoken or taken for granted. It’s personal. We don’t want to jinx it. What works one month may change the next.

We are especially grateful, therefore, that Eric Wasserman and Thea Ledendecker are willing to share their take, or their give-and-take, as a writing couple. We’ll post Thea’s piece next time (click HERE for hers). This week, we feature Eric, who was raised in Portland, Oregon, but waxes nostalgic his time in Southern California. He teaches at the University of Akron and is on the faculty of the NEOMFA. His story collection, The Temporary Life, is already out, and his novel, Celluloid Strangers, will be published this year.

After you read Eric’s post, check out what his wife has to say about writing as a couple HERE.


I recently completed a new short story. My wife, also a writer, hates it.

Eric Wasserman in Santa Monica

I can live with this since we’re only talking about eighteen pages. However, I was not so live-and-let-live when it came to her critiquing the various drafts of my novel, Celluloid Strangers. Over the course of its six-year journey from drafting to publication, there were some pretty heated exchanges I had with my most important and trusted reader.

My wife and I own a house in Akron, Ohio, with separate offices where we can close our doors and each write in solitude. However, when I started working on my novel, we were living in a tiny apartment in Santa Monica, California, where my writing desk was literally part of the open kitchen (she typed on a laptop on the couch five-feet away). Cramped quarters would be an understatement; it was the only time in my life when my writing regimen resembled a contact sport. I’m not nostalgic for those bad old days. There’s zero romanticism in having no money as aspiring young writers. It sucks.

A lot has changed since then, but one thing about our writing life together has not. My wife forever remains the quintessential squeeze to my sponge.

Allow me to explain.

The strongest image I have from those days when I was deciding whether to have car insurance or health insurance, since I couldn’t afford both as an adjunct instructor who was freeway-flying between four different community colleges in the City of Angels, is that of my personal angel sitting cross-legged on the floor of that little apartment with the manuscript for my novel in her lap. I always had a working draft printed out and kept in a binder (if the apartment caught fire, I saved this after the cats were safe). My wife was opening and closing the binder to remove pages. And those not removed were covered in her purple-penned scribbles with uncountable demands for eliminating everything from phrasing to whole paragraphs.

“Movies — Canton Island,"Paul Sample (1943)

When a fiction writer plucks observations from life or modifies slightly autobiographical information into an imagined narrative, readers ideally release themselves to the world of make believe. For instance, from the few things I have learned about Jonathan Franzen’s life, I can guess that certain aspects of his novels The Correction or Freedom are possibly autobiographical, but it’s a passing thought. The problem with deciding to share the rest of my life with another writer is that nothing gets by her.

This is a good thing.

My wife knows what serves and does not serve my stories in ways others never will. She is my first line of defense, the one who says, “Good God, I know you heard that on NPR when we were in the car the other day, but you didn’t need to put it in the novel,” or “Come on, just because you’re fascinated with every aspect of Charlie Chaplin’s life doesn’t mean readers care. A few details capture the character’s personality just fine. Get rid of the rest.”

I am the type of writer who is cursed with soaking up everything around me like a sponge, especially when I am conducting research for a story. What my wife does is give a strong squeeze to that sponge to make sure the very few items remaining, which I have plucked from the life we share, really are relevant to the imagined worlds and characters I am presenting. Sometimes I accept her squeezes immediately. Most of the time, it takes her several drafts of coaxing. In the end, she’s usually right.

"Tear Gas and Water Hoses," Edward Biberman (1945)

We were recently in Washington, D.C., and had the chance to see the new exhibit on the 1940s  at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. My forthcoming novel is set in 1940s Los Angeles and has a film-themed component. We saw two paintings I had never known existed. The first was Edward Biberman’s “Tear Gas and Water Hoses” (1945), which depicts the studio trade union riots on the Warner Brothers lot. My wife, excited, said, “Look, it’s that scene from your novel!” I had just approved the final text of the book shortly before this trip. Then, we turned a corner and saw another painting I had never discovered before, Paul Sample’s “Movies — Canton Island” (1943), which depicts World War II G.I.s watching a Hollywood film in the desert. My wife’s instant reaction upon seeing this was, “Thank God you’ve already approved the final manuscript.”

She knew that she, as the squeeze to my sponge, would have had to rinse out the image of Sample’s painting from my novel, had I had the chance to incorporate it prior to approving the final text. Fair enough.

But now that I think about it, that new short story she hates might be beyond squeezing to her acceptability all together.

Last Chance to See (Appendix/TOC) July 29, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Information, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
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Lofty Ambitions with Atlantis before Last Launch

On Wednesday, we concluded our series “Last Chance to See.” Here is a Table of Contents of sorts, with links and brief descriptions, for this series. Most posts include several of our own photographs; we have noted posts that include video and/or more than the usual number of photos. We’ve also listed our July guest bloggers at the bottom because they, too, fit the topic and themes of “Last Chance to See.”

Part 1: Introduction: Last Chance to See the shuttle and Atlantis in particular (lots of photos)

Part 2: Atlantis rolls over to VAB (video)

Part 3: Arrival at Kennedy Space Center

Part 4: Visit to the launch pad (photos of Atlantis)

Part 5: Pre-launch activities (photos of astronaut walkout)



Part 8: Tidbits from Kennedy Space Center

Part 9: Journey of the last shuttle solid rocket booster (lots of photos)

Part 10: Decommissioning Endeavour (inside look & video interview)

Part 11: Space shuttle poetry

Part 12: Mission time & music

Part 13: STS-135 media coverage (lots of links to Lofty elsewhere)

Part 14: The future & SpaceX

Part 15: STS-135 crew (lots of photos)

Part 16: Landings past (Apollo 11) and future (STS-135)

Part 17: End of STS-135 mission & answering critiques

Part 18: Shuttle as concept

Part 19: Conclusion: nature & technology meet

Guest Blogger: Margaret Lazarus Dean: How To Be a Fiction-Writer Space-Geek in 20 Steps

Guest Blogger: Omar Izquierdo: End of Shuttle




Guest Blog: Omar Izquierdo July 18, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Space Exploration.

We met today’s guest blogger, Omar Izquierdo, only recently. A while back, he had contacted our most recent guest blogger, Margaret Lazarus Dean, because he’d read her (space shuttle) novel. Over time and a few launches, they’ve become friends. We met up with Margaret at the KSC News Center to witness the last shuttle launch. The next evening, the three of us met Omar at Roberto’s Little Havana, an amazing Cuban restaurant in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He was working on his guest post, grappling with how to capture the historical and personal moment in a few hundred words.

These July guest posts, then, are a part of our “Last Chance to See” series. Omar’s post captures particularly well the mixture of pride and frustration that those intimately connected with the space shuttle program feel now, as Atlantis, the last functioning orbiter, circles the earth for a few more days.


Photo by Omar Izquierdo

I freely admit. After six years working at Kennedy Space Center, there have been many times when I forgot I was coming to work at a spaceport and simply thought of it as coming to work. I’ve walked out to my car in the VAB (that’s the Vehicle Assembly Building) parking lot and looked nonchalantly at a space shuttle sitting on the launch pad barely three miles away, as if it were a normal occurrence. Having a mosaic of black tiles above my head as I walked underneath a spaceplane to get to the copy machine didn’t even raise my pulse. I used to be afraid that if this sort of complacency ever happened, it would mean that I was dead inside.

But I now believe that adopting this casual attitude was the only way my mind could ever protect me from the complete physical exhaustion that would result from geeking out every single day I came to do my job. You see, if you talked to most people who knew me growing up, they would probably tell you that I’m taking the idea of a last space shuttle launch pretty rough. They would be justified in believing that, judging by what they saw and heard of me as a youngster. I was known as the shuttle geek, or whatever word you choose for describing a ridiculously entrenched fixation with something.

So yeah, I’ll admit. There’s a little kid inside of me throwing a temper tantrum about this. And why shouldn’t there be? It’ll be quite an adjustment for people in my generation who have never known the idea of no future shuttle launches, and idea that became a reality ten days ago. For me, there’s always been a sense that the definition of life in this community is simply prep time between shuttle launches. Now that there’s no more launches. Umm. What do we do now? I’m not much of a beach person, and I’ve been to Disney so many times I could throw up thinking about that.

I think this is why our perspective as Space Coast residents is different than any other industry-centered area in the world. I’ll try to put it into words. Our area code is 3-2-1. When you hear the words scrub, tile, and pad, you naturally think of different things than I do. I have at least one elementary school in my area named for every space shuttle orbiter. I hear certain unfamiliar acronyms and immediately wonder if that’s also a part of the shuttle program. The McDonalds in my town has a giant shuttle on top of its playground. No joke, come visit.

July Guest Bloggers: Margaret and Omar

No matter whom you meet in town, there’s never more than three degrees of separation in terms of their association with NASA. And it’s an unspoken law that your entire town simply comes to a stop to when the clock winds down to T-minus-9-minutes and counting.

So it’s pretty frustrating how senselessly the end of shuttle has turned out. Jokes about lack of federal sense-making aside (I really want to tell one now), the idea of retiring one spacecraft without having another to replace it is pretty infuriating. On the Space Coast, the idea of relying on Russia to haul our astronauts into space is the centrally aggravating issue. When you combine that with our idea of community identity here locally, then the concept of a manned-spaceflight gap takes on a whole new dimension. It hits home. With the exception of the recent launches from China, our Florida Space Coast has been one of only two places on the whole planet from which men and women have been launched from this Earth. So when the prospect of the end of the shuttle, and of the end of manned spaceflight, even temporarily, are tossed around, these frustrations are not the things that commonly pop into mind outside of my geographic area.

I’ll never complain for myself about the end of the program, minor internal temper tantrum notwithstanding. The number of good times I’ve had working closely around the shuttles is simply ridiculous. I mean, I’ve sat in the commander’s seat of Discovery, on the launch pad, lying on my back pointing up! It’d be criminal for me to complain. Good things start and good things end, and the shuttle isn’t an exception.

I admit, though, I wasn’t capable of completely processing that thought the very last time I walked down the launch pad slope, away from Atlantis last a few days ago.

Alright…so when’s the next shuttle? Oops.

Damn these old habits.

Maybe a few more little tantrums before I adjust.

Guest Blog: Margaret Lazarus Dean July 4, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Space Exploration, Writing.
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It’s Independence Day today, and we’re packing our bags to head to the Space Coast once again. We thought ahead about who we wanted to be the guest blogger for this particular holiday and for the blog spot leading to our series “Last Chance to See.”

We saw Margaret Lazarus Dean talk about her novel The Time It Takes to Fall at a panel at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. Her novel is set in the early 1980s and centers on Dolores, a kid in Florida who wants to grow up to be an astronaut, like her idol Judith Resnik. But then, on January 28, 1986, Challenger breaks apart only a couple of minutes after liftoff, and Dolores’s view of the world shifts. (For those of you who remember your high school Latin, Dolores, after all, means sorrows.)

We contacted Margaret a few months ago and have been exchanging email messages since. We’ve not yet met her, though she, like us, was at the last launch of Endeavour earlier this year. We’ll all be there again for this Friday’s last launch of Atlantis, for the last launch the space shuttle will ever make. And we hope to meet our guest blogger then.


1. Go to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum as a kid. Observe the relics of Apollo. Everything seems extremely old, vaguely prehistoric. The aluminum foil body and spidery legs of the lunar module; the capsule that the crew of Apollo 11 splashed down in, now encased in Lucite. Observe the odd detritus of the moon missions: plastic packets of food, paper logs with algorithm tables printed on them, emergency supplies in case the capsule should be lost at sea after splashdown, including a packet of shark repellent. These things are boring. Stare at them for long periods of time anyway.

2. Your father studied physics and engineering and has an interest in spaceflight. When you and your brother have questions, he explains the answers clearly, as if you are adults and capable of understanding. You won’t know until much later how unusual this is.

3.  Grow up. In college, become totally entranced with entry-level astronomy. Briefly consider majoring in astronomy: the female astronomy professors seem like cool examples of possible female adulthood. Then realize how much math and physics this would entail. Become intimidated by this. (Many years later, learn that another freshman girl who took the same intro astronomy with the same professor stuck with it and went on to become the second woman to command the space shuttle, Pamela Melroy.)

Margaret Lazarus Dean at Kennedy Space Center (photo by Kara Tonolli)

4.  Decide to become a writer but don’t tell anyone. Major in anthropology, to throw people off the scent. Graduate, work at bookstores and coffee shops.

5.  Read An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. A scene about a classroom air-raid drill triggers a vague memory from your own childhood, a similar moment when public drama entered your classroom and your private life. What was it? Eighth grade. Challenger.

6.  Write a couple of pages about your own memories of the day Challenger exploded. You can’t really pull off Dillard’s dreamy, emotional calm. Scrap the pages.

7.  Get a typesetting job. It pays better than the coffee shops and gives you lots of paid down time when you are expected to sit at a computer and do nothing in particular. Congratulate yourself for finding a way to get paid to spend time on your writing.

8.  Remember randomly one day the scene you wrote about Challenger. You’ve been trying to be a writer for about five years now and have written maybe 1-½  stories. Type “Challenger” into a search engine. One of the first things that comes up is a Challenger Memory Forum, where people are invited to share where they were and what they were doing on January 28, 1986. There are over 10,000 posts already. Become completely fascinated by this forum for reasons you can’t quite understand.

9.  Come across a post from a woman who, like you, was thirteen at the time of the disaster. But unlike you, she watched it from the Space Coast in Florida. At odd moments, think of the strange image her post brought to mind: the children watching the launch on their TV just like everyone else, until the moment when something goes wrong, when they run outside to see it in the sky.

Astronaut Judith Resnik

10. Go to graduate school for creative writing. Write a short story about a thirteen-year-old girl who watches the space shuttle Challenger explode on the TV in her classroom and then runs outside to see it in the sky. Her father works for NASA, so the disaster may destroy her family as well as the space program. The story has no beginning, middle, or end. Rather than fixing it, write another story about the same characters. Buy a Florida guidebook so you can fake the Florida stuff more effectively. Write a third story about the same characters. A professor explains to you that maybe you aren’t writing multiple unfinished short stories; maybe you are writing a novel. Laugh nervously and then go have a number of drinks.

11. Write that novel about Challenger. The space knowledge that sunk into your mind as a child has been lurking there and bubbles up into the story in unexpected ways. Read hundreds of books about the space shuttle, Apollo, Gemini, Mercury, the Kennedy Space Center, the Space Coast. Visit Florida twice. See a space shuttle launch at dawn.

12. A first copy of the novel arrives in the mail. Open the envelope and see your own name on the cover of a real book, under a spectacular photo of the space shuttle. Cry tears of geeky happiness.

13. A few days after the publication date, receive your first real e-mail from a real reader. He is not a family member or a friend; he is an innocent stranger who walked into a bookstore and, of his own volition, paid real American money for a copy of your book. This hardly seems possible, but here is the evidence right in front of you.

The e-mail tells you that he bought the book by accident, thinking it was a nonfiction book about the space program, because it has a picture of the space shuttle on the cover. But he says that he liked it anyway. He also mentions that he grew up on the Space Coast himself, that his father worked for NASA throughout the eighties just as the father of your book’s main character did, and that he works at the Kennedy Space Center himself now. He politely points out some technical errors he found in the book.

Feel complete horror that this reader has caught your every mistake. Put off writing him back for a few months, then use the excuse that you had a baby in between (this happens to be true). He writes back and is friendly. Keep in touch. Become Facebook friends.

Buzz Aldrin & Margaret Lazarus Dean

14. Your reader-turned-Facebook-friend invites you to visit the Kennedy Space Center for NASA Family Day, a behind-the-scenes tour for friends and family of space workers. Invite your father along for Family Day, partly because he will get a kick out of it, partly because you have never actually met your NASA Facebook friend and there is still a slim chance that he is actually an ax-murderer.

15. On Family Day, walk into the Vehicle Assembly Building, which has been closed to the public since the late seventies. Scenes of your book take place in this building, you’ve had dreams set there, but you’d thought you would never be able to enter it. The experience is something akin to walking into Notre Dame for Catholics.

15. Through your blog, meet other space enthusiasts. Some of them are even fellow creative writers.

17. Come back to Florida for the last launch of Discovery, then for the last launch of Endeavour.

18. Come back to Florida to see Atlantis roll out of the Vehicle Assembly Building on its way to the launch pad on May 31, 2011. Write this blog post from a bookstore in Merritt Island, Florida, the very bookstore where your NASA friend first bought your book. You would not have guessed that you would still be learning more about American spaceflight even as the era of American spaceflight is ending.

19. Your creative writing students, when you tell them about your project, reveal that they know almost nothing about the space shuttle. When asked how far it can travel, they are much more likely to guess Mars or Jupiter than low-earth orbit. They had no idea, until you informed them, that the space shuttle era is about to end. Their shock and sadness gives you hope for the future. Tell them to write their members of Congress.

20. Pack your bags for your last trip to see a space shuttle launch. Atlantis is scheduled to lift off at 11:26a.m. on July 8, 2011.

Guest Blog: Debora Rindge June 20, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Space Exploration.
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Debora Rindge, Mirari Fine Art Consulting

A few weeks ago, we noticed a print called Trust Zone in a temporary exhibition of Chapman University art at Leatherby Libraries, where Doug works. The blue outline of a space suit caught our eye, and then we noticed the map of Kennedy Space Center, a place we had recently visited. The print was of a Robert Rauschenberg lithograph, so we contacted our art historian friend to see what she had to say about it.

Debora Rindge is an art historian specializing in American art in Las Cruces, New Mexico. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, College Park (where Anna earned her M.F.A., though they didn’t know each other at the time). After a career in academia, Debora founded the fine art consulting firm, Mirari.


Trust Zone, 1969. Lithograph in colors, on Rives Special, ed. 65.

One of the best-known artists in a remarkable NASA program created in 1962 to celebrate American art and space exploration was Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), who is considered one of the founders of American Pop Art. In July of 1969 he, Jamie Wyeth, and other artists were invited to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the launch of Apollo 11, the first to allow humans (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) to walk on the moon. Rauschenberg recalled the frosting of the Saturn rocket as it took on liquid nitrogen: “It turned into the most beautiful icicle. The incredibly bright lights, the moon coming up, seeing the rocket turn into pure ice, its stripes and U.S.A. markings disappearing…The whole project seemed one of the only things at that time that was not concerned with war and destruction. What really impressed me in that space shot was the attitude of the people involved, the trust, the teamwork.” (The quote is from Calvin Tomkins’s book Off the Wall:  A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg.) Rauschenberg was delighted with the free access NASA granted to photographic archives, charts, maps, and other data and to technicians and astronauts.

Immediately after the launch, Rauschenberg was inspired to create the Stoned Moon series of 34 lithographs. The series title puns the medium itself. Lithography is a printmaking process involving a fine-grained stone that is inked, then run through a press and printed on paper in a limited edition. Each color requires a separate stone. This series includes both hand lithography, where the mark of the artist is evident in brushstrokes, and photolithography, where selected images are transferred mechanically to the stone.

Rauschenberg traveled to Los Angeles to work in collaboration with the important print workshop, Gemini G.E.L., a team effort not unlike what he observed at the space launch. The result included some of the largest hand-printed lithographs made at the time, an astounding technical achievement that also echoed the scale of NASA’s Apollo 11 launch.

Trust Zone, close-up of launch pads

Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas. He discovered his interest in drawing while serving in the Marines, then studied art at the Kansas City Art Institute, the Academie Julian in Paris, and Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He worked in a variety of media, inventing the term combine for his pieces that combined painting with assemblages of found objects, and created early interdisciplinary performance work with composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. In the 1960s he began to make visionary silkscreen prints with images appropriated from media, referencing bits of ordinary life in collage-like compositions. His appropriation of random photographic material mimics the transparency and occasionally grainy quality of a flickering television screen. If you close your eyes at the end of the day and imagine all the visual information you’d absorbed, it might look something like a Rauschenberg print.

Robert Rauschenberg, Stoned Moon Series: Sky Garden, 1969. Lithograph, 89 x 42 inches. Collection Stephen Dull, Greensboro.

The Stoned Moon series features a rich range of imagery. Sky Garden, the largest in the series at nearly 7.5 feet high, is the most literal record of the launch, taking the viewer from rocket construction to take-off in one breathtaking multi-layered view.

A more abstract rendition of figure (a space suit) and ground (the Kennedy Space Center landscape) is presented in the diagrammatic Trust Zone, an image that seems at first technically impenetrable, until the large space suit rises to the surface from the web of technical documentation.

For more on the NASA Art Program, click HERE. And if you’ll be in Washington, D.C., be sure to visit the exhibit, “NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration,” on view from May 28 to October 9, 2011, at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Guest Blog: Ann Ronald June 6, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
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When we were doing research at the end of last year on the nuclear testing program in the American West, we came across a new book of short stories about the that subject. Having read through newspapers of 1953 ourselves at the Atomic Testing Museum and Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, we were interested in Ann Ronald’s use of historical fact and details as she created fictional accounts for her book Friendly Fallout 1953. Ann Ronald is a professor emerita at the University of Nevada, Reno, so we looked her up there. She has published nine books and countless articles about sense of place in fiction and literary nonfiction.   Beginning with The New West of Edward Abbey and continuing with Earthtones: A Nevada Album, GhostWest, Oh, Give Me a Home, and Reader of the Purple Sage, most of her work has focused on the American West.  We’re happy to welcome her to Lofty Ambitions and see the ways she connects our nuclear testing past to our nuclear power present.


Guest Blogger Ann Ronald

A few months ago, I published a book about above-ground atomic testing in Nevada in the 1950s. Friendly Fallout 1953 gives a factual account of what happened but shows the events through the eyes of imagined characters, composites of the men, women, and children actually affected by the government’s tests and the fallout that followed. A reporter eyeballing a detonation in person, a radiation specialist, a secretary, a bartender, a Las Vegas showgirl, a young Paiute boy, a Mormon housewife whose family is caught downwind, a meteorologist, an animal custodian, a curious teenage girl, a soldier watching from a nearby trench, a physicist—altogether they reveal the complexities that accompanied the Cold War urgencies of the mid-twentieth century.

As I was writing Friendly Fallout 1953, I was struck by the cyclical nature of history. The 1950s seemed to be repeating themselves. For example, Americans then feared a vaguely defined enemy called the “red menace”; we now are afraid of terrorists, an enemy equally abstract. Then, somewhat unclear about their objectives, other than to defeat the red tide, people fought on foreign soil in Korea. Just as obliquely, we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Senator McCarthy turned the early 1950s’ political scene upside down, so that a patriotic American dared not question anything about the fight against Communism. So, too, questions about the rationale for invading Iraq were deemed inappropriate. To protect its citizens from harm, first under Truman’s lead and then Eisenhower’s, the American government developed a massive atomic testing program. Its intricacies and inefficiencies and occasional ineptitudes remind me of Homeland Security. No cost spared.

Another common characteristic: the focus on New York City. “Collateral damage” was a term not commonly used in the 1950s, but Civil Defense authorities then were far more concerned about the large East Coast population than about the inconsequential few who happened to live downwind from the Nevada Proving Ground. Several quotes in Friendly Fallout 1953, taken directly from government documents, express a cavalier attitude toward denizens of the American West. As one commissioner firmly states, “Gentlemen, we must not let anything interfere with this series of tests—nothing.” Even when cancer ran rampant and ruined countless lives, the government acknowledged little culpability. In the patriotic urgency to protect everyone else, innocent people were irrevocably harmed.

Friendly Fallout 1953 Book Cover

Physicists and mathematicians and engineers at the test site meant well. Most of them were honestly patriotic, took their jobs seriously, and participated eagerly. In Friendly Fallout 1953, I look at above-ground atomic testing from multiple points of view. The gung-ho types get almost as many pages as the victims. I took great care, in fact, not to overlay a twenty-first century political sensibility on characters of a generation ago. Those times were complicated, and any modern value judgments are up to the reader. We might, however, enlarge the discussion and talk about today’s nuclear power industry and all those who would store nuclear waste in Nevada. No different than their predecessors, today’s advocates believe in the efficacy of nuclear power. They trust its efficiency, its cost-effectiveness, its safety.

Shortly after my book was published, an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, with tragic consequences. Listening to the news, I saw even more parallels between my research and current events. At first, the government downplayed problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. So, too, did government officials downplay complications that followed 1953 detonations like Nancy, Simon, and Harry. Updates then and now admitted that potential problems were developing, but no one seemed to be divulging the whole story. Innocent bystanders were left to guess whether they were safe or not, if they should—or could—take precautions. On the one hand, they were told that radioactive plumes were nothing to worry about; on the other, the fallout seemed to be increasing in size and scope. Stay inside; evacuate now. Food was safe; food was contaminated. The details, predictions, and predications changed day by day.

We’re told that with proper precautions nuclear power is safe. Simultaneously we learn that nuclear plants are not always regularly inspected and that certain safeguards are just too costly to implement. 1953:2011. Not to worry, not at all. As Yogi Berra would say, déjà vu all over again.

Guest Blog: Stewart Bailey May 16, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Guest Blogs.
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Because Lofty Ambitions never stops having fun and because we promise a guest blog every first and third Monday, we have an especially good one for you here. If you’re interested in today’s earlier posts in the series “A Launch to Remember,” CLICK HERE for the video of Endeavour’s launch and CLICK HERE for the photos and commentary on the STS-134 crew walkout.

H-4 in (Only) Flight

Today’s guest blogger is Stewart Bailey, curator of the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, one we have visited many times. The central piece in this museum’s collection is the one-of-a-kind so-called Spruce Goose, built by Howard Hughes. Before he became the curator at the aviation museum in MicMinnville, Oregon, Stewart Bailey was the education director at the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, Michigan, another great museum we’ve visited. We’ve written about the Spruce Goose before at Lofty Ambitions (CLICK HERE) and welcome the insider’s take on this aviation endeavor.


Howard Hughes inside the H-4 Hercules

This year, as the U.S. Navy celebrates the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation, it is interesting to reflect on how the aircraft, the ship, and the technologies they embody, have shaped our world.  When one looks at the centuries preceding the twentieth, the major powers that controlled the world were those that controlled the sea.  From the Phoenicians to the Dutch, the Spanish and the British, the growth of commerce, the spread of knowledge, and the fruits of empire belonged to those that controlled the world’s oceans.  But with the rise of the airplane, that all changed.

In World War II, the struggle between the ship and the aircraft was at its peak, and many of the world’s fiercest battles took place between these technological antagonists.  Even forty years after the Wrights took to the air, there was still a question of whether or not aircraft would replace the ship (or the sub-surface ship) as the dominant factor in controlling the seas.   Most notably in the Atlantic, German submarines had a stranglehold on the Allies’ ability to move men and supplies, making prospects of an American invasion of Europe somewhat dicey.

H-4, the building begins

It was at this point that industrialist Henry J. Kaiser came up with a game-changing proposal: if German U-Boats are sinking so many ships at sea, why not fly over them?  Kaiser proposed a fleet of “flying cargo ships,” moving vast quantities of men and material over the ocean, non-stop to Europe and Africa.  Also, being a shrewd businessman, he surely saw the impact that such an idea would have on world commerce after the war was over.  However, Kaiser was not an aircraft builder, so he turned to Howard Hughes to make this concept a reality.  Together, they received a government contract to build three aircraft within two years that could carry up to 750 troops or two Sherman tanks and would bring the might of America to the old world’s door.  But there was one caveat: these aircraft had to be made of non-strategic materials such as wood.

The result was the largest aircraft in the world.  It was to have a wingspan longer a football field and be powered by eight of the largest piston aircraft engines ever built.  At that size, there was no runway in the world that could handle it, so it had to be a seaplane so that it could use miles of water to take off and land.  It would push the limits of existing materials and aeronautical technology to leapfrog over the threats presented by the submarine.

But there were problems.  By 1944, as the two-year time frame closed in, Kaiser grew frustrated with Hughes’s perfectionist nature that delayed the aircraft; by then, it had only just begun construction.  He withdrew from the project in mid-1944, leaving Hughes to go it alone with his efforts to create a flying freighter.

Right Horizontal Stabilizer Assembly

The aircraft that Hughes shaped was both elegant and technologically advanced.  Hughes oversaw every aspect of design and was particularly concerned with the control systems, since he personally test-flew all of his designs.  He wanted it to be capable of being flown by one pilot, and he insisted on the control layout being to his personal taste.  An outcome of this was the hydraulically assisted controls that allowed the pilot to move ailerons, elevators, and a rudder that were the size of whole wings on some aircraft.  Additionally, Hughes beat the challenge of making the plane from wood, utilizing a process called Duramold in which thin layers of birch were bonded together with resin glue and shaped under extreme pressure and temperature.  The resulting material, for its weight, was stronger than wood.

Despite numerous setbacks and delays, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, (derisively called the Spruce Goose by the media), did take to the air on November 2, 1947. Its single flight became a culmination of Hughes’s vision for the flying cargo ship. But by that point, the very reason for which it existed had vanished.  The Second World War had unquestionably proven that the aircraft had replaced the sea-going vessels as the new measure of global power projection.

H-4 Hercules

So, was the so-called Spruce Goose a waste of time and money?  No, not at all.  By its very creation, it helped to pioneer technologies like the hydraulically assisted controls that make today’s transoceanic airline flights routine.  It helped ensure that the aircraft would make global commerce possible on a scale beyond the imagination of ancient sea-faring nations.  And it proved that, while not every technological effort is a success, there is no success without effort.

Today, the Hughes H-4 Hercules rests in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, a reminder of a time when the struggle for control of the seas—and of the world itself—hung in the balance.

Guest Blog: William Taber May 2, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Space Exploration.
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As we sit in the Press Center at Kennedy Space Center for the not-launch of Endeavour, we feel surprisingly positive. Our guest blogger today, Dr. William Taber, has a lot to say about the success of space exploration.

We met Bill at a Chapman University function, discovered he works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory not far away, and were especially impressed with his enthusiasm, curiosity, and appreciation of writing and poetry. Bill is the Technical Group Supervisor for the Mission Design and Navigation Software Group of the Mission Design and Navigational section. His group is responsible for the development and maintenance of JPL’s core navigation and trajectory design software.  This software is used to design, navigate and control the flight path of all of NASA’s interplanetary exploration projects. Bill is also a fellow Illinoisan, earning his Ph.D. and M.S. at the University of Illinois and his B.A. from Eastern Illinois University.

We’ve had a slew of fantastic bloggers, and we know that Bill’s words both will make you think seriously and will stir up emotions.


It was a long time ago in a place far, far away, but I still remember my introduction to the space age. On a dark, clear, moonless summer night in 1962, my dad told my brother and me to come with him to look at the night sky, black and filled with more stars than could be counted over our rural home in northwest Illinois.  At age 7, I was used to looking up at the stars on a clear night.  I knew that the stars didn’t move around.  But that night one star moved. A bright point of light moved silently overhead, moving in a straight line across the velvet blackness between the stars.  It was the communications satellite Telstar.

It would be poetic to say that evening launched me on the path to my career and my current position as the group supervisor of the Mission Design and Navigation Software group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.  It’s more accurate to say it perturbed my trajectory, the way the gravitational tug of a planet alters the path of a comet pulling it into the inner solar system.  The space race stirred my imagination and led me to study science and mathematics.  I read everything I could find on astronomy, starting close to home with the moon.  From there, I branched out to planets, to stars, to galaxies, and then to the cosmos.  At some point, I fell in love with mathematics, in particular geometry and its ability to say something “true” about the world and the structure of the universe.  All of this eventually led me to a Ph.D. in mathematics and a thesis in Riemannian geometry.

Voyager (Artist’s concept, NASA/JPL)

Through a series of improbable events, I ended up—in 1983—working at JPL, the world’s epicenter for planetary exploration. In 1985, I began working on the most extraordinary robotic exploration mission ever flown, Voyager.  Launched in 1977, the twin spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, visited all of the giant planets of the solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. From Voyager we learned about volcanoes on moons, discovered rings around the outer planets, discovered new satellites, and got the first—in some cases only—close-up views of the planets and satellites beyond Mars.  The Voyager spacecraft are still operating today, heading for interstellar space, sampling the tenuous flow of particles from the sun, looking for the boundary where our sun becomes just another star.

Yet even with all of their discoveries, the Voyager spacecraft are not entirely about science. They are also about who we are and where we have been.  On board each Voyager is a “golden record” of sounds and images from the diversity of life and the people of earth. To see and hear some of it on YouTube, see below.  Each record is a testament to the unbounded optimism of the scientists and engineers who built and flew the Voyager spacecraft.  These artifacts of humankind will endure long after our planet and solar system have passed from the galaxy. They are a message in a bottle, a postcard from earth to the rest of the universe, saying we were here.

These six narrow-angle color images were made from the first ever ‘portrait’ of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. (Photo NASA)

On Valentine’s Day, 1990, long after Voyager’s cameras could return any more science images, the mission controllers at JPL honored the request of the late Carl Sagan to command Voyager 1 to turn its camera back toward the inner solar system to take one last sequence of 60 pictures.  These images show the sun, Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune as seen from the edge of the solar system.  (Mars and Mercury were lost in the glare of the sun.) Collectively, Voyager’s last set of pictures has become known as the Voyager Family Portrait.  These pictures have no scientific value. There is no new science to be learned from them.  And yet, I learned as much from these images as I did from all of the scientific images returned by the Voyagers. Looking at these images displayed across the wall of JPL’s Von Karman auditorium, I was forever changed. The reality of how tiny we are in the universe and of the vast emptiness between the stars was seared into my mind.  And with this sense of smallness was sense that I was witness to a piece of humankind taking one last look in the rearview mirror, before heading out on a voyage to the stars, carrying postcards from earth into the cosmos.

Frequently, those of us in space exploration are asked why we do it. Is it worth the cost? We talk about the new science we will learn and how we will better understand our own planet.  Those are all good, rational reasons.  But when it comes down to it, those rational reasons don’t do it for me. They probably don’t do it for anyone else either. We explore space for the collective fun of humankind and to satisfy our curiosity. Space exploration challenges and excites the imagination. It changes what we are—for the better, I think.  And maybe, by sending our robotic emissaries out into the cosmos, we have a chance to look back at ourselves and discover something of our humanity here on earth.

Guest Blog: Ken Kremer April 18, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Space Exploration.
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Today, we feature a guest blogger who will catch us up with two of the space program’s greatest accomplishments, the Mars rovers. Anna met Ken Kremer as part of the press core for STS-133 back in November and was especially impressed by his range of knowledge about NASA and his enthusiasm.

Ken Kremer is a freelance science writer and scientist who regularly publishes writing and photography in online and print venues, including New Scientist, Science News, Aviation Weekand Spaceflight Now. For more of Ken Kremer’s work at Universe Today, click HEREHe does lectures around the country at museums, universities and schools, and clubs. He’s served as a Solar System Ambassador since 2005.

Photo credit for the three panoramic photographs here: NASA/JPL/Cornell, Marco Di Lorenzo, Kenneth Kremer.


Ken Kremer, STS-133 Discovery

NASA’s twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity surely rank as one of the greatest triumphs in the history of space exploration.

Seven years ago, the dynamic duo landed on opposite sides of the Red planet on January 3 and January 24, 2004. They were originally designed to operate for just 90 Martian days, or sols, with an outside possibility they might last a few months longer. In actuality—during the extended mission phase—they have endured light years beyond the mere three-month warranty proclaimed by NASA as the mission began with high hopes following the nail-biting so-called six minutes of terror as the twins plunged through the Martian atmosphere with no certainty as to the outcome of the landing.

Since 2004, the rovers’ longevity has far exceeded all expectations, and no one on the science and engineering teams that built and operate the twins can believe they lasted so long and produced so much.

Spirit and Opportunity have accomplished a remarkable series of scientific breakthroughs, far surpassing the wildest dreams of all the researchers and NASA officials. Indeed, both rovers are positioned at scientific goldmines on the red planet’s surface. Opportunity is still alive and trekking across the Martian plains, now 84 months into the three-month mission. By the time of her last dispatch from Gusev crater, Spirit had lasted for nearly six years of bonus mission time.

New images taken by the rovers appear at NASA’s Mars Rover websites on a continuing basis. The raw images have inspired myself and others to assemble panoramic mosaics from the individual snapshots to illustrate the broader context of what Spirit and Opportunity see. This blog post includes a few photomosaics created by Marco Di Lorenzo and myself to show the current environments explored by both rovers.

Spirit’s panoramic mosaic was taken on Sol 2175 in February 2010, a few weeks before entering hibernation mode in March 2010 just prior to the onset of her fourth winter on Mars. The Columbia Hills serve as a backdrop in this image.

Spirit last communicated with mission controllers back on Earth on March 22, 2010. The rover had entered hibernation mode as the autumn sunlight available to power her life giving solar arrays was diminishing. NASA hopes to reawaken Spirit from a long slumber and reignite her illustrious campaign of exploration and discovery. No one is giving up hope for Spirit, and NASA is stepping up operational efforts to contact the plucky rover since the amount of springtime Martian sunlight is now increasing over the next few months.

Although Spirit has been stalled at a place called Troy since April 2009, the rover made a significant science discovery at that exact spot. Spirit examined the soil in great detail and found key evidence that water, perhaps as snow melt, trickled into the subsurface fairly recently and on a continuing basis. While driving on the western edge of an eroded over volcanic feature named Home Plate, Spirit unknowingly broke through a hard surface crust (perhaps 1 cm thick) and sank into hidden soft sand beneath. At Troy, the rover discovered that the crust was comprised of water related sulfate materials and therefore found further evidence for the past flow of liquid water on the surface of Mars – a great science discovery! Our photomosaic shows the very last panoramic view taken by Spirit at Troy.

This collage of two maps and a new close up panorama of Santa Maria crater (bottom right) shows the route traversed by the Opportunity Mars rover during the seven-year overland expedition across the Meridiani Planum region of Mars.

Meanwhile, Opportunity is blazing a trail of discovery in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars. This rover completed exploration of the stadium-sized Santa Maria Crater which holds deposits of water bearing minerals that will further elucidate the potential for habitability on the red planet. The rover arrived at the western edge of the relatively fresh impact crater on December 16, 2010 (Sol 2451). This intermediate stop on the rover’s 19-kilometer journey from Victoria Crater to giant 14-kilometer-wide Endeavour Crater provides important ground truth observations to compare with the orbital detection of exposures of hydrated sulfate minerals.

Opportunity is driving to different vantage points around the steep walled crater and snapping a series of gorgeous Martian vistas. The rock-strewn crater is a Martian geologist’s dream. As our photomosaics show, the robot was imaged on New Year’s Eve in exquisite high resolution from Mars orbit while parked at the sharp edge as she was simultaneously snapping a multitude of awesome views peering inside the stunning and scientifically interesting crater.

Opportunity’s surface view of Santa Maria on New Years Eve Dec 31 while being photographed overhead from Mars Orbit. Opportunity took this panoramic mosaic just meters from the crater rim on Dec. 29, 2010 (Sol 2464). Note rover tracks near rim at left, relatively clean solar panel at right and numerous ejecta rocks.

Santa Maria is just six kilomters from the western rim of Endeavour which shows spectral signatures of phyllosilicates, or clay bearing minerals, which formed in water about four billion years ago and have never before been directly analyzed on the Martian surface.  Phyllosilicates form in neutral aqueous conditions that could have been more habitable and conducive to the formation of life than the later Martian episodes of more harshly acidic conditions in which the sulfates formed that Opportunity has already been exploring during her seven-year overland expedition. See the Astronomy Picture of the Day featuring Opportunity HERE.

Opportunity remains healthy and has abundant solar power for the final leg of the long eastward march to Endeavour, with arrival later in 2011. See the rover’s progress HERE. And click HERE for Google Mars.

Guest Blog: Leslie Adrienne Miller April 4, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
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April is National Poetry Month, so Lofty Ambitions welcomes poet Leslie Adrienne Miller to the Guest Blog spot today.

We met Leslie when she was on a panel about research and writing across the genres that Doug organized for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. Anna had read and appreciated The Resurrection Trade and, though she and Leslie had never met, encouraged Doug to contact her because there was clearly a lot of research behind the poems in that book. We were especially interested because the research blurred the distinction between science and art. The anatomical images were fascinating and the way Leslie talked about their role in her research and writing made for a good conference talk, which she’s adapted for our blog.

Leslie Adrienne Miller is the author of six poetry collections, including Y, which is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2012. She teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Many of the poems in my collection The Resurrection Trade are ekphrastic pieces on anatomical images of women gleaned from archival materials. Initially inspired by my reading of Natalie Angier’s Woman, An Intimate Geography, where I first encountered the history of medical constructions and images of the female body (for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical works and the Hippocratic corpus), I became interested in the way misunderstandings about female anatomy persist long after science has presumably corrected them. These misunderstandings offered paradoxes that poetry could reframe in interesting ways.

Angier’s book led me to other, more detailed histories of art, anatomy and midwifery in Europe from the medieval period through the 19th century, historical depictions of pregnancy and the female body in art and science of the periods, advancements (so to speak) in female anatomy, and fascinating works on “the Resurrection Trade,” the business of grave robbing and its impact on the lives of women and families in 18th century Europe. I also made use of online image collections at libraries of medical history: the Bibliothèque de L’Académie Nationale de Médecine in Paris (which allowed me to spend valuable time with an original edition of Gautier D’Agoty’s amazing Anatomie des parties de la generation, 1773, from which portions of my title poem are drawn); the Wellcome Library in London, the National Library of Medicine’s “Dream Anatomy” Exhibition (from which the cover image comes), the Clendening Library in Kansas City, the Anatomia Collection at Fisher Medical Library in Toronto, the Delmas-Orfila-Rouvière Museum at the Paris Institut d’Anatomie, and the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, to name a few.

Ludmilla Jordanova in her book Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries writes that “medicine bears an especially ambivalent relationship to the public/private dichotomy, in being rooted in the latter yet making claims in the former, a situation that explains the predisposition in medical writings and representations to the breaching of taboos” (52). When I read this passage, I understood clearly why this subject is so potent for poetry: poetry too has to navigate that odd dichotomy of public and private: forged in the intimacy of an individual’s mind, a poem, like an anatomical illustration, is a private act destined for a public audience, at once shockingly intimate and deliberately public.

Anatomie des parties de la génération de l’homme et de la femme by Jacques Fabien Gautier D’Agoty

The Resurrection Trade evolved with a focus in the 18th century where I found the real crux of the issues to reside in medical constructions of sexuality. It is the period of the enlightenment in Europe that brings anatomical studies completely into the same frame, historically, with issues of gender that interested me. It is also during the 18th century that the medical care of women passed largely from midwives, women themselves, into the hands (literally) of male doctors. Gross misunderstandings of female anatomy (comical and tragic) persisted well into the 20th century, and the seeds of these misunderstandings still reside in contemporary cultural constructions of women, as I hope the poems demonstrate via my juxtaposition of 20th century notions and ideas with those of earlier periods. I chose very specific stories and details to get at larger interdisciplinary issues: namely the intercourse, and/or lack thereof, between art and science, medical practice and science, and the history of gender construction as we find it written on the collective body of women.

In addition to Angier’s and Jordanova’s books, others that led very directly to poems in this collection included Elmer Belt’s Leonardo the Anatomist; Bynum and Porter’s William Hunter and the Eighteenth-Century Medical World; Robert Dickinson’s (delightfully odd) Human Sex Anatomy: A Topographical Hand Atlas; Barbara Duden’s The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany; and Nina Rattner Gelbart’s The King’s Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame du Coudray. The poems borrow freely from these sources and, I hope, serve as invitations to the reader to seek out these authors.

Antique medical drawings offer interest at so many levels: as the productions of working fine artists, they say something about art; as the tools of medical professionals, they say something about how we came to understand the physicality of the female body; as images which necessarily were almost always accompanied by text, they also have much to say about language[s]: hence my deliberate (mis)translations of notes in French accompanying the drawings, notes which seemed to say much more than the authors intended and, in combination with the images, allow us to look again at how science, art, and language itself have been co-conspirators in the construction of gender in the West. I’m certain there is more to learn and say and see in this area of study, but I intend the poems to offer a way in, to invite readers to indulge their own curiosity and collect their own idiosyncratic bodies of knowledge.

To view Dream Anatomy at the National Library of Medicine, click HERE.


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