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Five French Scientists March 25, 2015

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We’re in Paris for a week. See last week’s post for information about the A380 we flew.

Here are five French scientists we’d like to meet while we’re in France, if only they were still alive. These scientists represent the kind of thinking we appreciate, thinking outside the box and searching for novel connections.

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

MarieCurieAmHistOkay, she was a naturalized French citizen, but Marie Curie is at the top of our list of French scientists we’d like to meet. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and the only woman to win two Nobels, one in physics in 1903, shared with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and the other in chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of radium. Only she and Linus Pauling have won Nobels in two separate fields. To find out more about her, we recommend Marie Curie by Susan QuinnMarie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emlingand Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallouta graphic biography by Lauren Redniss. We’ve written about Curie several times before (here’s one post about Curie), and we’ll undoubtedly write about her again.

René Decartes (1596-1650)

Equal parts mathematician and philosopher, Decartes had just the sort of interdisciplinary approach to the world we appreciate. He made the crucial connections between algebra and geometry upon which much of mathematical thinking followed. He also studied refraction and gave the world a scientific understanding of rainbows. He’s the guy who uttered, Cogito ergo sum. Or, I think, therefore I am. He thought that doubt and mistakes were part of learning and innovation and that reading books was like having conversations across centuries. Because we like to have any excuse to celebrate, Decartes’s birthday is next Tuesday, March 31. In fact, the town where he was born remains so proud of Decartes that they renamed the locale for him.

Prosper Ménière (1799-1862)

alanshepard_1Prosper Ménière may have more adept and interested in the humanities than in science, but he became a physician. Initially, he planned to teach at a university, but then a cholera epidemic called, and he got hands-on experience. Eventually, he headed up an institute for deaf-mutes and studied hearing loss caused by lesions inside the ear. Prosper Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear was named for this physician and is what grounded astronaut Alan Shepard for several years after he became the first American in space. Shepard’s disorder was cured by surgery so that he did fly Apollo 14. Other sufferers include Marilyn Monroe and possibly Charles Darwin and Julius Caesar.

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

Louis Pasteur argued that microorganisms couldn’t appear out of nothing and asserted the idea of contamination that has guided thinking about the spread of disease ever since. We are especially impressed that some of his most important work can be traced back to his understanding of alcohol fermentation in the making of wine and beer; published his Studies on Wine in 1866 and his Studies of Beer ten years lateen. He was also an early investigator of immunization and developer of specific vaccines. For a more recent and beautifully written book about the subject of immunity, we recommend Eula Biss‘s On Immunity: An Inoculation. At his own request, Pasteur’s private notebooks were kept secret long after his death, but his request was breeched by a descendant, who donated them to France’s national library for use after the descendent’s death. Those notebooks have revealed that Pasteur may have been a less-than-amiable character generally and a problematic researcher.

Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)

An epigraph from Henri Poincaré opens the first poem of Anna’s collection Constituents of Matter:

Modern man has used cause-and-effect as ancient man used the gods to give order to the Universe. This is not because it was the truest system, but because it was the most convenient.

Poincaré, as demonstrated by this statement, was a philosopher, in addition to being a mathematician and physicist. His work underpinned what would emerge as chaos theory and also laid the groundwork for topology, the geometrical study of space that focuses on connections and transformations. Poincaré worked with a team to establish international time zones, and this work led him to think about the relative speed of clocks, which, in turn, pointed to what would become Albert Einstein‘s theory of special relativity.

Interesting to Anna especially, Poincaré was a good decision-maker if he made a decision quickly, but the more he dwelled on a choice, the more difficult he had making it. A psychologist named Édouard Toulouse wrote about Poincaré‘s personality and work habits, and we think Poincaré has something to offer us as writers in this respect. For one thing, Poincaré worked on mathematics for four hours every day, one two-hour stretch in the late morning and another in the early evening, which strikes us as an ideal schedule for focusing on a large project. He would read later in the evening, a practice we like as well.

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

On This (Holiday) Date: Celebrating Science & Space (Part 1) December 24, 2014

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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.

December 24


Doug in Polar Vortex

Doug in Polar Vortex

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.


Apollo8CrewLast 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.

December 25


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.

December 26


MarieCurieAmHistWe’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.

First Photo of Earth from Moon (NASA)

First Photo of Earth from Moon (NASA)

#Orion at JPL/Armstrong (Part 4) December 17, 2014

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If you want to start with Part 1 of this series, click HERE.

This week, we have a series of Fast Facts about the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF) located in Building 230 of the NASA JPL campus. As a part of the recent #Orion NASA Social at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (jointly sponsored with the good folks from NASA Armstrong), Doug was able to take a tour of the SFOF. This was Doug’s second SFOF visit in two months (HERE is the previous recent trip). The guide for the most recent tour was Jim McClure, NASA-JPL Space Flight Operations Facility Manager. Here are some of the things that McClure shared with us.

FACT 1: JPL is a direct consequence of President Kennedy’s moon speech to Congress.

DSN Mission Control

DSN Mission Control

On May 25, 1961, speaking before Congress, President Kennedy made the first of his famous speeches that laid out his goal of putting an American astronaut on the moon before the end of the decade. As our tour of the SFOF began, Jim McClure told the assembled NASA Social attendees that Building 203 was built as a direct outcome

Construction of Building 203 and the SFOF began in July 1961, and it was completed in October 1963. The fiftieth anniversary of its dedication was celebrated on May 14th of this past year.

The SFOF played a significant role in the Apollo program by controlling Surveyor program, a sequence of seven proof-of-concept missions meant to test methods of lunar landing.

Additionally, Building 203 was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1985. The structure is also a part of the National Register of Historic Places.

FACT 2: JPL has been continuously operating for 50 years.

One of the primary functions of the SFOF is serving as an operation control center for the Deep Space Network (DSN). The DSN is a communications network for controlling the behaviors of and collecting data from spacecraft. The most recognizable features of the DSN are the enormous antennas (or antennae) that operate at the three locations of the DSN: Canberra, Australia; Madrid, Spain; and Goldstone, California, USA. The antennas of the DSN range in size from 34 to 70 meters in diameter (roughly 100 to 200 feet).

A fantastic visualization of the DSN communications operations can be found HERE. Engineers have been operating the DSN from the SFOF continuously—24/7—for more than fifty years.

DSN-DougCurrently, the engineers of the SFOF are controlling and/or receiving data from twenty-two NASA space missions and the spacecraft of a number of other nations operating beyond-the-moon exploratory missions. Doug Ellison, seen in the picture of one of the DSN antennas, provided the following list of missions—22 missions, 27 spacecraft—that are being controlled from the SFOF.








Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Mars Odyssey


Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity


Mars Science Laboratory-Curiosity

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

New Horizons

SOHO (a joint European Space Agency (ESA)/NASA solar observatory)


Spitzer IR Telescope

THEMIS A, B, C, D, and E

Voyager 1

Voyager 2


And there’s more, with missions of Japan, Europe, and India:

Cluster 1, 2, 3, and 4 (an ESA heliophysics mission)

Hayabusa 2 (a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) asteroid mission)

Mars Orbiter Mission (an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Mars mission)

Mars Express (an ESA lead mission)

Akatsuki (a JAXA Venus mission)

Rosetta (an ESA cometary exploration mission)

Venus Express (an ESA Venus mission that was shutdown earlier this week)

That’s a total of thirty-seven spacecraft currently communicating with the DSN!

FACT 3: JPL is the Center of the Universe.

JPLplaqueMcClure related that Charles Elachi, Director of JPL, has long been fond of standing in the middle of the control room, pointing to a spot on the floor, and proclaiming that this is the Center of the Universe. Eventually, McClure decided that there ought to be something official that Elachi could point to that indicated that this was the Center of the Universe. So, McClure had a memorial plaque embedded in the floor.

Doug thoroughly enjoyed his most recent visit to JPL’s SFOF, but it was just one of the fantastic moments of the recent #Orion NASA Social. We may have a few more things to see about this recent adventure. We’d like to say a heartfelt Thank You to NASA’s Stephanie Smith (@stephist) and Doug Ellison (@doug_ellison) for their help with this week’s post.

Santa Fe Retreat: Judy Chicago July 23, 2014

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We spent eleven days in Santa Fe on our self-designed writing retreat. Take a look at PART 1 and PART 2.

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

Shortly after we arrived in Santa Fe, Anna leafed through a free tabloid and discovered that the visual artist Judy Chicago was giving a gallery talk at the opening of her new show at the David Richard Gallery. Anna had first come across Chicago’s work in a women’s studies class taught by Penny Gold at Knox College.

We don’t usually write about art at Lofty Ambitions, but we do when there’s a connection to science or to aviation and space exploration. The new work at the gallery demonstrates Chicago’s recent interests in the human body and especially the surface and underlying bones and muscles of the head and face. She became interested in the tradition of anatomical drawings, like those by Leonardo DaVinci. This focus rose earlier in Chicago’s work, when she made three-dimensional cast sculptures of a woman undergoing cancer treatment—that series is casually referred to as the Toby heads. The more recent work, including paintings on glass, explores the relationship of the anatomy and physiology of the face to the expression or emotion that is presented or feigned. As she put it, “I’m interested in what’s under the skin.”

Toby Head, 2010

Grand Toby Head with Copper Eye, 2010

The gallery talk between Chicago and art historian Kathy Battista can be viewed HERE–definitely worth the time!

This exhibit and event are part of the year-long celebration of Judy Chicago’s 75th birthday, which also includes exhibits around the country. So a few days after seeing Judy Chicago in the flesh, Anna visited the New Mexico Museum of Art to see the exhibit there and get an overview from docent Meriom Kastner. That exhibit included Grand Toby Head with Copper Eye, 2010 and also several pieces that addressed nuclear science and industry. One of the pieces in the Holocaust Project, which was part of a series that could be viewed from different angles to different effects, offered commentary on the Apollo Moon landings (see the end of this post for photographs of that piece).

So, if all you’ve seen of Judy Chicago’s work are photographs of The Dinner Party, we suggest you look again. Her range of subject matter and artistic media is amazing. When she needed to do watercolors for a project, she learned how to do watercolors. When she became interested in glass and translucency in painting–or when the watercolor medium and techniques couldn’t support her vision for a piece–she took a workshop in glasswork. She even worked with a foundry to figure out how to cast paper as a large three-dimensional sculpture.

Tasting the Mortal Coil (Watercolor, David Richard Gallery)

Tasting the Mortal Coil (Watercolor, David Richard Gallery)

Her new book, Institutional Time, is now on Anna’s reading list in hopes that Chicago’s critique of visual art education in universities might shed some light on creative writing education as well. In fact, Anna published a conversation essay with graphic designer Claudine Jaenichen and visual artist Lia Halloran in New Writing and is very interested in connections across different artistic fields.

Of course, we were in Santa Fe to write. And several of our recent posts have offered ways to turn our attention toward writing. Though Judy Chicago talked about visual art and her own artistic practices, much of what she said in her gallery talk applies to writing and to collaboration. Her attitude is one of adventure, of trying new things, of pushing yourself beyond what you can already do comfortably.

We share some of her words of wisdom here:

What isn’t imaged can’t become part of the cultural discourse.

New forms allow new content.

Every failure is an important success—a step in success.

I was interested in how a gesture could mean a variety of things.

I do like to play with details.

For me, art is about discovery. It’s about discovering what different techniques allow me to express.

Judy Chicago explained that Disappointed Head was inspired by a disappointed artist she knew who, in his fifties, thought getting into a particular gallery would change his life. He went into debt, got into that gallery, and nothing changed. 

Finally, Judy Chicago’s comment about tattoos (and her use of tattoo-like techniques on porcelain heads) because who doesn’t wonder: I’m not doing that on my ass, I can tell you that!

From Holocaust Project, with Donald Woodman, 1993

From Holocaust Project, with Donald Woodman, 1993


viewed from the right

viewed from the right


viewed from the left

Celebrating Skylab May 14, 2014

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On this date in 1973, when we were in elementary school, NASA launched a space station called Skylab from Kennedy Space Center.

If that sentence sounds familiar, it’s because one very much like it also began our post on this date two years ago. A lofty ambition from NASA, Skylab looms large in our memory of childhood, and we continue to celebrate it.

Skylab (Artist's Concept, NASA)

Skylab (Artist’s Concept, NASA)

Sure, Skylab needed some in-space repair to get it running properly after its meteoroid shield had ripped away and left the workshop in the sizzling heat of the sun’s rays. Sure, this space station came zipping and burning back to Earth, with a few chunks landing here and there. Sure, it’s an example of poor timing, with the space shuttle not yet flying and nothing else able to nudge Skylab back up to its orbit. NASA has a detailed history of Skylab posted online that doesn’t ignore the glitches.

Skylab was America’s first space station, our nation’s first foray into living in space for extended periods of time, so we celebrate today both the general concept that now includes the International Space Station and the specific accomplishments of the three Skylab missions.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that Skylab made to science was via the Apollo Telescope Mount, or ATM. This solar observatory maintained and operated by the Skylab crew reshaped the study of the Sun. The ATM pioneered the field of heliophysics by studying “coronal mass ejections and coronal holes as the source of solar wind.” Along with space probes Explorer I and Mariner 2, Skylab’s ATM observations “led to the understanding that stars interact with the universe not just through gravity and photon radiation but also through electromagnetic fields and particles.”

Pete Conrad undergoes dental exam by Joseph Kerwin aboard Skylab (NASA)

Pete Conrad undergoes dental exam by Joseph Kerwin aboard Skylab (NASA)

We’re thinking today about its more human accomplishments rather than, say, the contribution to understanding solar flares. Skylab, for instance, forced NASA to grapple with its policy of open communication. The world heard the conversations between Houston and astronauts in space, which was especially good public relations during Apollo and Skylab because it distinguished our space program from that of the Soviet Union, who, as the PR had it, kept secrets even from its own people. That said, NASA protects the doctor-patient privacy we have in the United States even when astronauts travel beyond the atmosphere. On Skylab, NASA allowed the astronauts to talk privately with the flight surgeon, and that information was merely summarized for the news media.

But when Pete Conrad, who didn’t like the open communications policy anyway, had trouble with the exercise bicycle, he requested the sort of private conversation about operations that was supposed to occur only in an emergency. After that non-emergency conversation that covered several topics and after the explaining NASA had to do to the press, private conversations were avoided. Conrad later claimed that he found out about a planned spacewalk in a phone call with his wife instead of from the folks running the mission on the ground because NASA didn’t want to reveal evolving mission plans to the press.

Owen Garriott EVA (NASA)

Owen Garriott EVA (NASA)

This working through of how to talk about what over open channels and over the long haul couldn’t be solved with technology alone. Real people had to work through the complexity of human communication. People had to learn from human behaviors, tendencies, and missteps. Though this space station involved all sorts of technological accomplishments, some of Skylab’s most interesting and important accomplishments involved human interactions, human thinking, and the human body.

How much should a person exercise in space? How should the crew’s fluctuating heart rates be factored into mission plans for tomorrow or next week? Would decreased ability to taste and smell food mean stocking more German potato salad on future missions?

"Homemade" Christmas Tree aboard Skylab-4

“Homemade” Christmas Tree aboard Skylab-4

If half the astronauts will suffer space sickness, but half won’t, what’s the best prevention and treatment? The first Skylab crew of three fared fine, but all three astronauts on the second crew were queasy within hours. Jack Lousma, Alan Bean, and Owen Garriott—all of whom are still alive and, we hope, celebrating today—couldn’t eat much and became slower in their work. Between space sickness and troubleshooting unexpected glitches, they fell a day behind schedule quickly. This turn of events was especially perplexing because Bean had flown on Apollo without suffering space sickness, and Lousma performed well in the tests designed to induce motion sickness during training. The physician recommended rapid head movement instead of bunk rest, which wasn’t what the crew wanted to hear. By the third day, each astronaut felt better, whether or not he’d done the head movements. Skylab made solving the space sickness problem a priority for NASA. If half or an entire space shuttle crew were to be sick for three days, the mission would be a mess.

Skylab Food Tray (NASA)

Skylab Food Tray (NASA)

Roughly halfway through the third manned Skylab mission, Gerald Carr sent an extra message—via the delayed but public-after-transcription B channel—indicating that the crew and the ground needed to talk about the pace and goals of the mission. The second crew had set the bar high, despite their initial queasiness. This third, all-rookie spaceflight crew felt pushed to get tasks checked off quickly rather than completed well, and they wanted more exercise and down time. On this twelve-week mission—what would be a world record for space endurance—the astronauts wanted a bit of time before sleep to clear their heads, whereas the ground had been scheduling every minute and wanted to maintain the crew at the ready for any scientific observation opportunity that might arise. Because all but emergency operations communications were public, neither the crew nor the ground had wanted to point out even each other’s minor shortcomings. They hadn’t made sure they were on the same page, day to day. The almost-hour-long, candid discussion that followed Carr’s request set a new precedent between crew and ground for missions to come.

The greatest accomplishment of Skylab is that it suggested more questions than it answered, questions about science, technology, and human beings. Skylab wasn’t designed as an end in itself but as part of the future into which we were growing up in the 1970s. Maybe we’re a bit sentimental about Skylab because, when we were kids, Skylab made living in space seem not only cool—maybe cooler than it actually was with space sickness and to-do lists—but also possible.

The Lunar Eclipse, Apollo 11, & Apollo 16 April 16, 2014

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On Monday evening, we stayed up a little late to catch the lunar eclipse. We popped outside, watched for a few minutes as it began. We went outside again twenty or thirty minutes later to watch it again. And then again, and so on.

Moon from Earth

Anna looked up the word umbra, which comes from a Latin word that means shadow or to be in the shade. Initially, to take umbrage was merely to go sit under a tree, in the shade and out of the sunshine, just as the Moon sits in the shade of the Earth during an eclipse. As we watched the shadow slip well past the midpoint of the Moon, Doug said, “No wonder people were afraid when they saw an eclipse.”

We have one Moon in our heads, the one we look up at. But we thought about the men who walked on the Moon’s surface, those who, as astronaut Michael Collins said in In the Shadow of the MoonI

have two moons in my head. […E] every once in a while, I do think of a second moon, you know, the one that I recall from up close. And yeah, it is kind of hard to believe that I was actually up there.

We thought of the men who walked on the Moon and those who circled it alone, especially of Collins, who remained in the Apollo 11 capsule while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked across the orb’s surface and who has spoken and written about his adventures incredibly eloquently. Of his experience, Collins wrote:

Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface. I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have. This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two. I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon, I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life.

Collins’s wife, Pat, died last Wednesday in Florida. They had married almost 57 years ago; their anniversary is April 28, Anna’s mother’s birthday. He is certainly alone in a new and unwelcome way, and we extend our sympathy to him and his children.

Today, we’re still thinking about the Moon, but we’re celebrating the anniversary of the beginning of the Apollo 16 mission that sent John Young and Charlie Duke to walk upon the lunar surface. Ken Mattingly was the third member of that crew, assigned to Apollo 16 only after being booted from the Apollo 13 crew when he was exposed to measles by one of Duke’s children.


Anna, Charlie, Doug in 2012

Young had flown on Gemini 3 and Gemini 10 and also on Apollo 10. He would also go on to fly the first space shuttle mission and also STS-9. Mattingly would also go on to fly two space shuttle missions, STS-4 and STS-51-C. For Duke, Apollo 16 was his only spaceflight, and he remains grateful for the sole experience beyond Earth’s atmosphere. This disparate experience probably explains why Duke recounts that his heart was beating twice as fast as Young’s, though, from what we know about Young, no calmer, more collected astronaut ever flew.

In the film In the Shadow of the Moon, Duke recounts the following about his adventure through space:

I was able to look out the window to see this incredible sight of the whole circle of the Earth. Oceans were crystal blue, the land was brown, and the clouds and the snow were pure white. And that jewel of Earth was just hung up in the blackness of space.

When Duke stepped out of the Lunar Module (LM) and onto the Moon, he was 36 years old, the youngest man to walk on another celestial body. He and Young gathered more than 200 pounds of lunar dust and rocks during their more than 20 hours outside the LM. The men returned to the capsule on April 24 and to Earth three days later.

We’ve talked with Charlie Duke twice. As we’ve said before, he’s smart and charming. We’ll end our words at this point and offer you Duke’s own words about his life, career, and hopes for our collective future.

Happy Birthday Copernicus & Kerwin! And Belated to Galileo! February 19, 2014

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Copernicus (Getty)

Copernicus (Getty)

On this date in 1473, Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Poland. Just before his death more than seventy years later, his book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (also called On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies) changed the trajectory of science. Copernicus asserted that Earth is not the center of our Solar System and, instead, that the planets orbit around the relatively stationary Sun.

As he began to think about how the Solar System worked, Copernicus also translated Greek poems into Latin and worked for his uncle, which gave him opportunities for travel and interactions with a variety of people. His initial version of his revolutionary model was a bit sketchy in terms of the mathematics and geometry, but he stuck with it and eventually made dozens of astronomical observations that helped him refine and support his ideas. One of his important discoveries based on these observations was that Earth moved in an eccentric, or elliptical, orbit, rather than in a perfect circle with the Sun in the dead center.

Copernicus's Heliocentric Model

Copernicus’s Heliocentric Model

The heliocentric—helio means Sun—model was further delineated by Johannes Kepler, who established the laws of planetary motion based on elliptical orbits around the Sun, and by Galileo Galilei, who made confirming observations with his telescope. (This past Saturday marked Galileo’s 450th birthday!) Almost two-hundred years after Copernicus presented the theory we now take for granted, Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Catholic Church for his heretical and correct view of Earth and the Sun. In 1992, more than five-hundred years after Copernicus presented his heliocentric model, Pope John Paul II finally acknowledged Galileo’s accomplishments and the Church’s errors and also admitted that the planets circle a “stationary” Sun and, thereby, agreed with Copernicus. The official apology to Galileo came in 2000.

Sixty years before the pope forgave Galileo and affirmed Copernicus’s heliocentric model, Joseph P. Kerwin was born on February 19, 1932, in Oak Park, Illinois. Oak Park is one of the oldest suburbs of Chicago, a place where we lived for a few years and a place where Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright lived long before we were there.

Joseph Kerwin (NASA)

Joseph Kerwin (NASA)

Eventually, Kerwin earned his medical degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, another of Chicago’s oldest suburbs and where Anna was born. The summer befor Anna’s birth, in the midst of the Gemini space program and as Apollo was ramping up to put men on the Moon, Kerwin became an astronaut. In fact, he served as a CAPCOM—capsule communicator—during the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission in 1970 and, later, was part of the broadcasting team for the first launch of the space shuttle.

Kerwin flew to space himself in 1973 as the science pilot on the Skylab 2 crew, which also included Charles Conrad, Jr., and Paul J. Weitz. The first Skylab mission was unmanned, so Kerwin’s mission was the first manned trip to Skylab and established, at the time, the new duration record for human spaceflight: 28 days. Their mission was crucial to the survival of Skylab, which had been damaged during launch. The repairs included deploying a sort of umbrella to shade the spacecraft from the Sun so that it didn’t overheat. The spacewalks were grueling, and repairs were not always accomplished on the first attempt. Their work gave Skylab a good six-year run, until its orbit decayed and it blazed through Earth’s atmosphere in a spectacle that attracted worldwide attention.

Today’s two birthdays—those of Copernicus and Kerwin—give us more than ample reason to ponder how we see our place and trajectory in the universe. We leave you with some words from the preface of his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies:

For I am not so enamoured of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them. […T]he scorn which I had reason to fear on account of the novelty and unconventionality of my opinion almost induced me to abandon completely the work which I had undertaken. […] Astronomy is written for astronomers. To them my work too will seem, unless I am mistaken, to make some contribution.

NASA’s Toughest Week January 29, 2014

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Every year, NASA has a Day of Remembrance during this—its toughest—week.




On January 27, 1967, during a ground test of Apollo 1, a fire broke out. All three astronauts inside the spacecraft died.

On January 28, 1986, just 73 seconds into its 25th flight, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart and fell in pieces to the ocean below. All seven astronauts inside the crew compartment died.

On February 1, 2003, during re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere toward the end of its 10th mission, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart and fell in pieces over the southern United States. All seven astronauts perished.

We wrote about this week last year HERE and in 2011 HERE.

We say, in those posts, the most disheartening thing about these accidents is that they were waiting to happen, that, particularly in the cases of the shuttle accidents, specific concerns had been raised about the problems that ended up causing the accidents.

We say there that the most horrific information to emerge about these accidents is that the astronauts’ deaths were not instantaneous.

We also talk about some of the good projects that emerged in the wake of these events, that commemorate the dedication of these astronauts and their belief in science and space exploration as important in this world and beyond it.

In those posts, we posted photographs of the crews and video. And we hope readers will go back to look at those posts this week. Here, we’ll turn to some of the words of the astronauts themselves.

Only days before his death inside the Apollo 1 spacecraft, Gus Grissom finished drafting his book Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space. There, he wrote:

The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.

Christa McAuliffe, the teacher aboard Challenger that cold day at the beginning of 1986 said of herself:

This ordinary person is contributing to history.

Of students that she hoped to reach during the mission, she said in that same interview:

If they can make that connection [that ordinary people make history], then they’re going to get excited about history, they’re going to get excited about the future, they’re going to get excited about space.

Judy Resnick, who was also on the ill-fated Challenger flight, said the following:

I want to do everything there is to be done.

Thirty-seven pages of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon’s personal diary survived the fall to the ground when Columbia broke apart. On the sixth day of that mission, Ramon wrote:

I turned out to be a man who lives and works in space, just like in the movies.

Kalpana Chawla said in an interview before that doomed mission:

It’s easy for me to be motivated and inspired by seeing somebody who just goes all out to do something.

Last year, on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, President Obama said the following:

Each year, on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, we honor the crew of that Columbia flight, as well as those of Challenger and Apollo 1, and all the members of the NASA family who gave their lives in the pursuit of expanding our Nation’s horizons in space-a cause worthy of their sacrifice and one we must never forget.

And then he said that we’ll “eventually put Americans on Mars.”

Apollo 8: The 45th Anniversary December 25, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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EarthriseForty-five years ago, a spacecraft with human beings in it was circling the Moon for the first time. In December 1968, for the first time, people on Earth saw a view their own planet in its entirety from space.

Forty-five years before that, sound barrier-breaking test pilot Chuck Yeager, Mercury-Gemini-Apollo astronaut Wally Schirra, and first American in space Alan Shepard were born. Just ten years before that–one hundred years ago–the United States had finished the first transcontinental roadway for automobiles that October, and Henry Ford was pioneering assembly-line production of cars. Stainless steel had been invented only that summer by Harry Brearly. That same year, Igor Sikorsky had built the first four-engine airplane, and Aldophe Pegoud had become the first person to bail out of an airplane safely. Powered, manned flight was still new but changing rapidly.

Apollo8PatchBy 1968, cross-country road trips were common, and the United States had plans to land men on the Moon before the end of the decade. 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered on April 2, and Planet of the Apes was released the next day. France hosted the Winter Olympics in February and exploded its first hydrogen bomb in August. The turbulent year was filled with news from Vietnam and protests on the homefront. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, and Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed in June. Apollo 8 became a crucial step in NASA’s plans for space exploration (and Cold War superiority) and the nation’s sense of hope.

Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968. Its crew included Frank Borman, the only astronaut who served on the accident investigation board after the Apollo 1 fire; Jim Lovell, who would go on to fly on the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission; and Bill Anders on his only spaceflight. They weren’t actually supposed to fly this mission until the lunar module was ready, and the lunar module wasn’t ready. But NASA boldly decided to test the flight without the lunar module aboard so as not to delay the whole Apollo program.

At first, Lovell had trouble sighting the stars for navigation. Borman had trouble sleeping, then became quite ill. The quick-thinking crew devised a round-about way to let Mission Control know about the astronaut’s intestinal distress. They used a back-channel—through a data storage system—instead of the usual communication channel, thereby avoiding letting the entire world in on the secret. In hindsight, it’s clear that Borman was probably suffering from space sickness, though at the time, it was thought to be the 24-hour flu and cleared up.

Apollo8CrewFifty-five hours into the mission, the crew broadcast images of Earth from space. Of those images, Anders remarked, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” Shortly after their broadcast, these three men became the first people to experience the gravitational pull of another celestial body, the Moon.

Lovell described the Moon in detail, noting that its surface looked “like plaster of Paris or sort of a grayish beach sand.” Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to circle around the Moon, and the crew, therefore, were the first people to see the backside, the unlit side, of the Moon. As the spacecraft orbited, Anders shot the amazing “Earthrise” photograph.

By the ninth orbit, it was Christmas Eve on Earth. After Borman described the Moon as “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing,” each of the three astronauts read an excerpt from Genesis in the Bible. Shortly after their moving broadcast and some unexpected manual alignment with the stars, they headed back toward their home planet.

Fellow astronaut Deke Slayton, who’d been grounded with a heart rhythm problem and who was in charge of astronaut selection, had left a solider-style turkey dinner in the food locker, which the crew ate happily. The brandy from Slayton supposedly remains unopened.

On December 27, the Apollo 8 mission ended. Re-entry and splashdown went smoothly, though Borman was again ill as the command module bobbed in the water. That module is now on display the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where we’ve seen it up close and where Apollo 8’s Jim Lovell reenacted his Christmas Eve reading from Genesis this Monday.

After returning to Earth, the Apollo 8 crew was lauded, with a Super Bowl appearance for the Pledge of Allegiance and a postage stamp featuring the Earthrise photograph. The crew’s television broadcasts garnered an Emmy Award. Perhaps no accolade sums up the mission’s success better, however, than one particular telegram to the crew: “Congratulations to the crew of Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”

Gus Grissom April 3, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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Today marks the anniversary of Gus Grissom’s birth. Grissom, born Virgil but known as Gus, was a veteran of three spaceflight missions across three space programs. The shortest of the original seven astronauts would have been 87 years old today.

Gemini 3 Primary and Backup Crews (NASA)

He flew the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft on the Mercury-Redstone 4 mission on July 21, 1961. Grissom was aloft for less than sixteen minutes and never reached orbit. He was the second American in space, Alan Shepard having been the first a couple of months earlier. Upon his return, as Liberty Bell 7 sloshed in the waves and Grissom finished some flip-switching while the recovery helicopter made its final moves, emergency explosives blew the hatch. Grissom scrambled out and nearly drowned, tangled in external lines and waving to helicopters to drop him a lifeline. Filling with water and the resulting weight, Liberty Bell 7 sank, unable to be lifted by the recovery helicopter and recovered decades later in 1999.

Grissom Just Prior to Launch (NASA)

Grissom’s next big foray to space was on Gemini 3, the first manned flight of that space program. He had been Shepard’s backup, and Shepard was grounded with an inner ear disorder, so Grissom became the first person to fly to space twice.

In a nod to Grissom’s previous mission, he and fellow Gemini 3 astronaut John Young named their spacecraft Molly Brown, as in the unsinkable. When NASA disapproved of the name, the crew is said to have suggested Titanic as an alternative. While this story emanates a whiff of apocrypha, we have come to think of astronauts as a somewhat cheeky bunch and are willing to believe that Young and Grissom were of that ilk at the time. After that, NASA took a break from naming the capsules, until Apollo 9.

For its time, Gemini 3 was a lengthy mission, at more than four hours and three complete orbits. This flight also involved Young sneaking a corned beef sandwich on board and presenting it to a surprised and hungry Grissom. Fellow Gemini and Apollo astronaut Michael Collins, in his book Carrying the Fire, notes that, during the parachute deployment, which can wrench the spacecraft violently at the mission’s conclusion, Grissom “whack[ed] his head into the instrument panel, cracking his helmet visor.”

Gus Grissom (NASA)

Grissom, seemingly beset by odd mishaps, was assigned to the first planned Apollo mission, designated AS-204 based on a complicated naming system. Sadly, he and his crewmates, Roger Chaffee and Ed White died in that spacecraft during a ground test on January 27, 1967. A fire had started near Grissom’s seat and had flourished in the 100% oxygen at the ground pressure of 16 psi.

Of that fateful day, Collins writes of getting the initial news in Houston:

After what seemed like a long time, Don [Gregory] finally hung up and said very quietly, ‘Fire in the spacecraft.’ That’s all he had to say. There was no doubt about which spacecraft (102) or who was in it (Grissom-White-Chaffee) or where (Pad 34, Cape Kennedy) or why (a final systems test) or what (death, the quicker the better). All I could think of was, My God, such an obvious thing and yet we hadn’t considered it. We worried about engines that wouldn’t start or wouldn’t stop; we worried about leaks; we even worried about how a flame front might propagate in weightlessness and how cabin pressure might be reduced to stop a fire in space. But right here on the ground, when we should have been most alert, we put three guys inside an untried spacecraft, strapped them into couches, locked two cumbersome hatches behind them, and left them no way of escaping a fire.

Apollo Spacecraft 012 after fire (NASA)

One of the Apollo 1 crew reported the fire, then White said clearly, “Fire in the cockpit.” Communication continued for seventeen seconds. The crew struggled to escape. In ideal circumstances, escape took 90 seconds, but even in practice, the crew had never been able to egress that quickly. Someone uttered, “Get us out.” The fire burned so hot and the hatches were so complicated that it took the rescuers five minutes to reach the bodies of Grissom, Chaffee, and White. Though they suffered serious burns, which may have contributed to their deaths, their suits had been surprisingly effective protection against the flames. The three astronauts had died of asphyxiation.

Apollo 1 Crew (NASA)

Grissom and Chaffee are buried at Arlington Cemetery, while White rests at West Point. Gus Grissom finished drafting his book Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space only days before his death. There, he had written. “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”


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