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Palomar Observatory: Hale (Part 8) January 8, 2014

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Our previous post in this series can be found HERE.

Our university’s library, where Doug is the Science Librarian, contains an excellent DVD about Hale and the Palomar Observatory: The Journey to Palomar: America’s First Journey Into Space. The italics are the filmmakers and are an emphatic reference to the ability of Hale’s telescopes to present humankind with a revelatory view into the cosmos. This film became mandatory viewing for us after our own journey to the observatory during our writing residency last summer.

George Ellery Hale

George Ellery Hale

We mentioned in last week’s post that George Ellery Hale was a man of many interests. He was also unusual in his ability to transform his interests into talents. In The Journey to Palomar, California historian (and former California State Librarian) Kevin Starr says of Hale, “I think that we have to consider George Ellery Hale, if not the founder of Pasadena, certainly the re-founder.” As an example of the kind of transformation that Hale sought for Pasadena, taking it from a sleepy little town to “a great center of scientific and humanistic research,” Starr goes on to talk about Hale’s role in convincing Henry Huntington to use his vast personal collection of art, books, and manuscripts as the foundation for The Huntington Library. Hale’s efforts to remake Pasadena didn’t stop there. He had a fundamental role in the creation and development of what is arguably the world’s finest university, the California Institute of Technology.

How does a man interested in building telescopes end up instigating the emergence of Cal Tech? In 1891, Amos G. Throop, yet another Chicagoan who ultimately made his way to Pasadena, founded Throop Polytechnic Institute.  The school operated under a number of names, including Throop University, and it included primary and secondary schools in its educational program. In the early 1900s, Hale became close friends with a Throop trustee, Charles Frederick Holder. Hale became interested in the institution, and he advanced a plan for remaking the school via Holder.

Like all Hale plans, it was bold and expansive. Hale saw the possibility of creating a first-rate research institution for the Western United States, a place whose graduates would vie with the scientists and engineers produced by German research universities. But Hale wasn’t interested only in turning out engineering automatons. He had a deep affinity for the humanities as well. He wanted to develop creative, imaginative men. In her biography of Hale, Explorer of the Universe, author Helen Wright quotes Hale as saying:

Happy is the boy whose career is plainly foreshadowed. […] But this very interest, in direct proportion to its intensity, is almost certain to lead to a neglect of other opportunities. The absorbing beauties of machine construction and design so completely occupy the boy’s mind that they hinder a view of the greater world. […] He does not yet know that to become a great engineer, he should cultivate not merely his acquaintance with the details of construction, but in no less degree his breadth of view and the highest powers of his imagination.

Throop’s board embraced Hale’s plan and charged him with finding a president who could steer the institution towards the future and some great Nobel successes. Hale undertook the board’s charge with his typical gusto (see our earlier posts in this series for other examples of his gusto). Ironically, at the very same moment, Hale’s alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was trying to woo him into becoming their new president.  Ultimately, after a chance meeting on a transatlantic voyage, Hale enticed James A. B. Scherer, a professor of literature and president of South Carolina’s Newberry College, to become Throop Institute’s president. Over the years, the capable duo of Scherer and Hale succeeded in luring notable academics such as Robert A. Millikan, Thomas Hunt Morgan and Arthur Noyes to Pasadena. In addition, the Hale and Scherer families become so close that Hale’s daughter and Scherer’s son married. Throop became the California Institute of Technology in 1921.

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome at Palomar Observatory

Hale’s life is marked by periods of boundless, almost manic, energies and accomplishments. All the while that Hale was working on a reimagined Pasadena and Throop Institutite, he was also writing popular books and carrying out his own research, primarily solar astronomy. Indeed, Hale’s solar research from this time period culminated in his 1908 discovery of the Sun’s magnetic field.

While this work was going on, Hale was also finishing Mt. Wilson’s 60-inch telescope. Hale being Hale, he also started work on an even larger telescope, the story of which will provide a culmination for this blog post series.

View the next post in this series HERE.

Apollo 8: The 45th Anniversary December 25, 2013

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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.”

Palomar Observatory: Bigger Is Better (Part 6) October 30, 2013

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George Ellery Hale

George Ellery Hale

The tag cloud for our blog is a litany for aviation, science, and space exploration. Air Shows, Nobel Prize, Radioactivity, and Space Shuttle are among the keywords that are featured prominently. Only one abstract concept appears in the list: Serendipity. The first page of Google results will tell anyone who bothers to look that Serendipity is “a happy accident” or a “fortunate mistake.” The road George Ellery Hale took to Palomar Observatory was paved with fortunate mistakes and quirky ambitions.

Almost immediately after taking on his new role as an Associate Professor of Astral Physics at the University of Chicago, George Ellery Hale traveled to Rochester, New York to speak at the annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. While there, Hale learned that two 40-inch lens blanks were sitting unused in the shop of optics maker Alvan G. Clark. The lenses, originally ordered by the University of Southern California (USC), were available for $16,000. USC had been gifted some land to put towards the purchase of the lenses, but, in a ridiculous cycle that continues to this day, one of Southern California’s earliest land bubbles burst. The land was worthless, and USC could no longer afford the lenses.

USC’s misfortune became Hales happy accident, his first opportunity to build what would become the world’s largest telescope. At 40-inches, the lenses would provide 25 percent more light than the 36-inch Lick Observatory telescope. The Lick telescope, which—as we mentioned last week—Hale had seen on his honeymoon, was then the world’s largest. To bring this “fortunate mistake” to fruition, Hale needed to find a fortune: $300,000.

Hale and the University of Chicago’s president, William Rainey Harper, had gotten off to a rocky start. In her biography of Hale, Explorer of the Universe, Helen Wright points out that Hale and Harper mended fences after Hale was impressed with the faculty that Harper was attracting to the university. Hale was most impressed by the hiring of Albert Michelson, who would win the nation’s and the university’s first Nobel Prize in 1907.

Distant Planets (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory )

Distant Planets (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory )

Hale was truly a bee-in-your-bonnet kind of guy. Immediately after finding out about the availability of the USC lenses, Hale returned to Chicago to begin soliciting the funds to obtaining the lenses and to build an observatory to house the resulting telescope. Hale and Harper eventually focused in on Chicago Robber Baron Charles Tyson Yerkes. Yerkes was a latecomer to Chicago’s burgeoning business scene, having started his career in Philadelphia. A jail sentence for financial shenanigans convinced Yerkes to head west, and he amassed a considerable fortune and great political influence (often through bribery) by building Chicago’s public transportation—streetcars and trains—system. (Interestingly, after leaving Chicago in 1899, Yerkes would follow his own Chicago model—financial maneuverings to takeover struggling transportation lines—in an early 1900’s attempt to remake the London underground. Some of London’s most famous tube sections—Bakerloo, Hampstead, and Piccadilly—were the result of Yerkes’ work.)

Before Yerkes left Chicago, Hale and Harper convinced him to donate $1M to put his name on the observatory. Hale and Harper started their push for Yerkes’ bankroll in the fall of 1892. Ultimately, their appeal was simple and direct. The brilliant young astronomer and the driven young university president told the financier that the resulting telescope would be the biggest in the world. Then, they stepped back, and let Yerkes’ own vanity do the rest. On October 17, 1892, Hale published a short piece in the Astronomical Society of the Pacific announcing “The Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago.” Thus began a five-year whirlwind of design, engineering, and construction.

Throughout 1893, a site for the observatory was sought. Locations near the university were ruled out because of Chicago’s notorious factories and the soot and smoke that filled the city’s sky and obscured a good view of the heavens. Ultimately, a site near Williams Bay, Wisconsin, was selected to be the home for the telescope and its supporting observatory and research labs.

The Big Telescope at the Columbian Exposition

The Big Telescope at the Columbian Exposition

Early on in the process, Hale decided that he wanted to display the telescope’s tube and mounting at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The resulting engineering marvel—the mount is 43 feet tall and weighs 50 tons; the tube is 60 feet long and weight 20 tons, and the gearing is another 5 tons of machinery—was displayed in the Manufacturers’ Building, a decision that nearly led to disaster before the project really got started. In July 1894, a fire at the Columbian Exposition came close to destroying the Manufacturers’ Building and the telescope. Wright’s book quotes President Harper’s thoughts on the event: “I left the building still burning at 11:30, but I think that we have saved the telescope.” This was not the only disaster to beset the project.

On May 21, 1897, with the observatory nearing completion, the now installed World’s Largest Telescope collected its first light, that reverential, almost mystical moment when a new astronomical machine takes its first images of the universe. Eight days later, an explosion of sound escaped from the dome enclosing the telescope. The mechanical floor—used to raise and lower observers—that surrounded the telescope and its mounting had failed. Engineers and workers were brought in to redesign and repair the contraption. Eventually, the observatory was dedicated on October 21, 1897—almost five years to the day from Hale’s first announcement—in an event that made for an odd juxtaposition of high-ceremony (the world’s largest telescope! a modern marvel!) and high-comedy (as many of the university’s and Chicago’s leading citizens made the final part of their journey to the dedication on farm carts).

Yerkes Observatory would go on to be one of the leading centers for astronomical research. Yerkes scientists such as Edward Emerson Barnard (Barnard’s Star bears his name) would go on to photograph and catalog the heavens. The observatory’s website claims it as “The birthplace of modern astrophysics.”



Palomar Observatory (Part 3) September 18, 2013

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You may want to start with the earlier posts on our trip to Palomar Observatory: Part 1 and Part 2.

Longtime readers of Lofty Ambitions know that we’ve devoted a number of blog posts to the Manhattan Project and its legacy. We’ve made several treks to Los Alamos. We visited and wrote about the Nevada Test Site, that enormous expanse of the American west where the government tested, both above- and below-ground, several generations of the nuclear weapons designed at Los Alamos National Lab. We each have writing projects—Doug a novel and Anna a memoir—that involve the Manhattan

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Project and America’s legacy of atomic energy, nuclear weapons, and our irradiated environment. That was a project often labeled Big Science.

Defining Big Science has long been a loose, intuitive, “I know it when I see it” endeavor. Roughly, it denotes a project so large in scope and aims that it requires collaboration between universities, government, and industry. The Manhattan Project is the prototypical Big Science project, and it is sometimes referenced as the tipping point between the era when science was an individual or small-team practice and the more large-scale, industrialized practice that exists today. In the book, The Manhattan Project: Big Science and the Atom Bomb, author Jeff Hughes devotes a chapter (Chapter 2: “Long Before the Bomb”) to the origins of Big Science. In his explanation, he mentions the role of astronomy and observatories in the creation of this phenomenon. Palomar Observatory, then, and particularly its the 200-inch Hale Telescope fit squarely into the tradition of Big Science.

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome

The initial idea for what would become the Hale Telescope was put forward in a Harper’s magazine article by George Ellery Hale in 1928. Later that year, the Rockefeller Foundation gave Hale a $6M grant—the largest scientific grant that had ever been awarded at that time—to begin construction of the telescope. It would be twenty years before the project was completed—twice as long as the construction phase of an earlier Hale telescope, the 100-inch at Mount Wilson Observatory—and Hale wouldn’t live to see the project through, dying at the halfway point in 1938. His colossal masterpiece would, however, be named in his honor.

In earlier posts, we recounted some of the outsized numbers associated with this project. The one that matters most, however, is 200—the 200-inch mirror. In doubling the mirror’s diameter over the previous largest telescope, Hale’s new telescope had four (4x) times the surface area, and in telescopes, surface area determines how much light you can gather. The more light, the farther the telescope can see and the smaller the objects that it can resolve.

Constructing the telescope’s primary mirror was a gargantuan project of its own. Hale first worked with General Electric in an attempt to build the mirror out of fused quartz. As our docent on the Palomar tour pointed out, “The only thing Hale learned was GE didn’t know how to do it.” Reports vary, but Hale spent at least $600K—10% of his grant—on this failed effort.

Hale Telescope

Hale Telescope

The backup plan involved working with Corning Glass and their newly developed Pyrex glass (developed in 1915), a low thermal expansion glass. For telescopes, it’s extremely important that flexing and expansion due to temperature change is minimized so that the mirror maintains its shape. Corning’s first attempt at pouring the 200-inch mirror ended in failure when some of the mounting brackets melted in the heat. Despite the fact that that mirror would never be usable, it was used to develop engineering models of cooling. In a testament to the dictum “there’s a sucker born every minute” (oft attribued to PT Barnum, but likely said by someone else), Corning Glass put the failed mirror on display and charged to see it. In now resides in the Corning Museum of Glass, and the company has a lovely website dedicated to the mirror’s development.

The engineering and development of a useable mirror required pouring several test “blanks” for working out the process. It’s interesting to note that one test mirror, itself a not-insignificant 120 inches in diameter, would later become the primary mirror for the Lick Observatory’s C. Donald Shane telescope. When it began operation in 1959—astronomer’s call such an event First Light—the Shane 120-inch telescope was the second largest in the world, behind the Hale Telescope.

Distant Planets (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory )

Distant Planets (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory)

The supporting structure and mount developed for the big Hale mirror are also enormous. Engineered by Westinghouse and manufactured in its South Philadelphia factory, the steel beams, tubes, and gearing required to support and aim the telescope weigh in at 530 tons.

Since its First Light in 1949, Hale has been in operation roughly 300 nights every year. Over the history of those long nights, the Hale Telescope has dramatically increased our understanding of the universe. An important part of this work was the discovery of  “quasi-stellar objects,” more popularly known as quasars. Initially discovered through radio astronomy, the light spectra of quasars defied characterization until astronomers Alan Sandage and Maarten Schmidt used the Hale Telescope to identify 3C 273, an astronomical object that had previously been described only as a radio source.

The funding, constructing, and operation of Palomar Observatory’s Hale Telescope tracks the evolution through the 20th century of astronomy into Big Science. For a large portion of the 20th century (1948-1976), the Hale Telescope was the largest optical telescope in the world. It remains the largest one we’ve seen in person.

Keep reading with PART 4.

Palomar Observatory (Part 2) September 11, 2013

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Last week, we began to chronicle our adventure to the Palomar Observatory. If you didn’t read that post, you may want to start THERE.

Palomar3In that post, we mentioned the twisty, curvy road up the side of the mountain. We didn’t mention the motorcyclists with death wishes, but several of the members of our tour group recounted hair-raising moments dodging two-wheelers on their way up to the observatory. We encountered the daredevils on our way down, as we took the slightly more direct path on the return home.

During our tour, one of the docent’s referred to highway S6, the twisty road that we just mentioned, used to be known as the “Highway to the Stars.” That moniker has also been applied to the big telescope at Palomar. One of our instructors at this summer’s LaunchPad workshop, astronomer Christian Ready, tweeted about our post, and in doing so, referred to Palomar as “The Cathedral of Astronomy.” Cathedrals, stars, the heavens. We are always searching for just the right language to capture and convey experience.

Machine to Refinish Small Mirrors

Machine to Refinish Small Mirrors

As soon as we entered the observatory itself, we were struck by how much the facility resembled a factory floor. In fact, we both thought of Doug’s father’s screen factory in Galesburg, Illinois. Inside Palomar Observatory, there on the ground level, gigantic steel girders hung overhead and ran floor to ceiling. The air was tinged with the smell of oil, and the floor was littered with machine parts. The industrial aura of the space was only more enhanced when our docent mentioned that the foundation for the big telescope’s mount goes down twenty-two feet into the mountaintop bedrock.

Attached to the walls—or rather, the one wall that completely encircled us—were two enormous wheels. Our docent explained that these were spare gears for the telescope’s positioning system. They’d been there from the get-go. By this point, the telescope’s operators have given up on ever needing these replacement parts. In fact, a laboratory has been constructed in front of them and would have to be demolished to get the gears off the wall. We rather like that blatant display of confidence in the big machine.


Schmidt in Pieces

Telescope mirrors are often covered with a thin coating of aluminum. This coating needs to be replaced periodically. Just outside of the laboratory—the one blocking access to the replacement gears—is a vacuum chamber oven. Electrical coils vaporize the aluminum and deposit it more or less evenly on the mirror (there is also extensive polishing involved). This oven is used for the mirrors in the smaller telescopes at Palomar.

On the floor in front of us lay the three disassembled pieces of an 18-inch Schmidt camera that had been put into operation even before the big Hale Telescope that still operates inside the dome. This particular Schmidt allowed Caltech astronomer Fritz Zwicky to collect data that led him to put forth the concept of dark matter, as well as discover more than one hundred supernovae. This telescope was still finding new and unusual supernovae in 2011, more than 70 years after it started looking at the heavens.

Shoemaker-Levy 9 (Hubble Telescope)

Shoemaker-Levy 9 Impacts Jupiter (Hubble Telescope)

In 1993, this Schmidt saw Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. If someone hadn’t caught sight of it right about then, scientists wouldn’t have known to watch it bombard Jupiter the following May. For our readers who are also fans of the early 1990’s television show The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Anna is fond of saying that Shoemaker-Levy 9 is everyone’s favorite comet after Comet, The Wonder Horse. Twenty years after the celestial comet discovery, this Schmidt camera was taken apart. It will be reassembled as an artifact in the observatory’s visitor center.

When we entered the observatory’s main floor, the enormous open space that contains the 200-inch Hale Telescope, our docent ushered us to one side. After the stragglers joined the rest of the group, the docent swept his hand in a wide arc and pointed towards a tiny scale model of the Hale Telescope. He related that the model had been on loan to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago for a number of years, and that it had recently been returned to them.

Palomar Working Model

Palomar Working Model

They were thrilled to have it back, as it’s a motorized model that can be used to demonstrate the telescopes movement—a feat not easily seen by the public with the real telescope. After selecting a young volunteer, Sheila, from the audience, our docent informed us that Sheila would be playing the part of the night assistant. Contrary to intuition, it isn’t the astronomers who are responsible for moving and pointing the telescope; it’s the night assistant. Sheila did an admirable job of following the docent’s gentle instructions, and her efforts paid off by helping us each to understand how the telescope moves in its mount to track the night sky.

After watching the night assistant move the model telescope, we were prepped and ready for the docent to describe the Hale Telescope. Until next week, in the inimitable words of Jack Horkheimer, the late, beloved director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium, “Keep Looking Up!” And to read the next installment on Palomar Observatory, go HERE.

Palomar Observatory September 4, 2013

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Palomar1Serendipity: A few weeks ago, we were at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, and Doug looked at Google Maps to get a sense of exactly where we were in this world. While dragging the map around on the screen of the iPad, he noticed that Dorland was located on the side of Palomar Mountain. Palomar, we soon learned, means pigeon house, though we noticed no pigeons among the rabbits, lizards, deer, and tarantulas. What Doug already knew was that Palomar means observatory.

As Anna’s aunt is fond of saying, what are the odds? How did two space nerd writers happen to end up at a writing residency on the same mountain as an observatory only a few weeks after attending Launch Pad, an astronomy workshop for writers?

Palomar3On the map, Palomar Observatory looked to be very close to our mountainside cabin. We are still not used to mountains and did not fully understand that the proximity was as the pigeon flies. So we decided to reallocate some of our residency time to visit one of the world’s greatest astronomical observatories. It turned out that the very next Saturday and Sunday coincided with the very last days of public access before some maintenance. When serendipity knocks, we answer. Timing matters.

We agreed on Sunday for our field trip, since that would space our breaks three days apart. When we pinned down driving directions, we understood the actual distance by road around the mountain. Public tours were at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. so we set our alarm, the only time we did that during our two-week residency.

Doug drove, and Anna navigated, a division of labor upon which we’d relied for going new places since our days of living in Maryland and negotiating the crazy DC spoke system of streets. When we arrived at in the Palomar Observatory parking lot, Doug wasn’t the only woozy traveler emerging from a car. We’d inadvertently taken the less curvy, less twisty road up the mountain, but it was plenty winding for our sensibility.

Palomar2We bought our tickets. The ticket office, which is also a gift shop, has posted instructions on what to do if you’re bitten by a rattlesnake. We headed to the dome. On the sides of the path, rattlesnake warning signs are posted roughly every 25 yards. Happily, we saw no slithering creatures.

The tour began outside the dome. Our guide directed our attention to an enormous concrete disc near the employee parking lot. Our docents assured us that, despite common lore, the 21-ton disc was not a mooring spot for alien spacecraft. The circular concrete slab had stood in for the telescope’s primary mirror—replicating its shape, size, and weight—to test the telescope during its construction, before the actual mirror had been completed.

Palomar4Before entering the dome, our docent told us about Russell Porter, a Renaissance man who had sailed with arctic explorers, first as an artist and then as an astronomical observer. This architect and engineer designed the Palomar Observatory building as well as the Hale Telescope and Schmidt camera telescope that are housed inside. Porter loathed the architectural design of the Mt. Wilson Observatory near Pasadena and chose, instead, a gleaming white, art deco structure.

The dome went up in 1935-1936. It rises 135 feet into the air, and its diameter spans 137 feet. The rotating top of the dome weighs 1000 tons. Each of two shutters, which pull back so that the telescope can view the night sky, weighs 125 tons. Big. Beautiful.

Then, we went inside.

Continue reading about the rest of our field trip to Palomar Observatory HERE.

A Writing Residency (Part 2) August 14, 2013

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LOFTY: AUGUST 14: A Writing Residency (Part 2)

DorlandFeetWe arrived at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony on Saturday, August 3, and now we’re heading into the last days of our two-week residency. To read about how we found Dorland and got settled, click HERE.

The days have been going very well since last Wednesday. Without the usual day-to-day obligations and goings-on of life—an alarm clock, meetings set for specific times, checking email multiple times a day, conversations with other people—we’ve fallen into a rhythm, not a routine but a steady pace. Sitting on the porch to ponder and to talk through possibilities shouldn’t be a luxury, but, at home, even when we do that sort of important, casual-looking intellectual-creative work, it’s an undertaking that we usually have to schedule ahead and from which it’s all too easy to become distracted. The uninterrupted hours of writing also shouldn’t be a luxury for writers, but, of course, they sometimes seem that way for many of us—or to those who look at our lives.

Fiction writer (and our colleague) Richard Bausch, in his “Letter to a Young Writer,” advocates developing regular habits and training oneself to write anywhere. Ideally, of course, a writer would have no need for a residency in a cabin on a mountain because he or she would write every day, make steady progress, and not let other demands of daily life take priority over the writing. Writers must not consider writing time an indulgence.

Bausch also suggests, “Never ask yourself anything beyond ‘Did I work today?’ If the answer to that question is ‘yes,’ then no other question is allowed.” For the last ten days, the answer for us has been, Yes! Yes! Here’s how that happened.


DorlandDougLast Thursday, we met up with two friends—Margaret Zamos-Monteith and her husband Matt Monteith—at Rosa’s Cantina for lunch. Anna had met Margaret at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference a couple of years ago, and we all happened to be in Temecula at the same time. We rationalized an interruption from our writing time, welcoming the opportunity to talk with another writer and a photographer and also take in Old Town, with its shops and restaurants. We also checked email and stocked up on groceries. Our meager adventure served as reward for what we’ve accomplished thus far and a deep breath before what we wanted to be a long weekend of focused writing.

Admittedly, the break slowed us down a little, and email and grocery shopping felt like annoyances, not what we were supposed to be doing. Nevertheless, we resumed writing that afternoon, and maybe regular breaks are a necessary part of the process. That evening, we went over new pages together, reading aloud and honing details.


We wrote. We exercised, too, and we had lunch together, chatting about memories of the last space shuttle launch and the first orbiter transfer to a museum. Mostly, though, we wrote.

At 8:00 p.m., we opened a bottle of Chaos Theory, a wine on which we had splurged a while back because of its name. IN VINO, VERITAS – IN CHAOS, ORDER, the bottle says. Tonight marked a week at Dorland, and we had new pages drafted, something intentional and tangible to celebrate.

At 8:22 p.m., we watched the International Space Station for a couple of minutes in the Northwestern sky. It wouldn’t be visible again while we are at the cabin. It has everything to do with what we’re writing.


We wrote.

That’s why we’re here. That’s mostly what we’ve been doing. Most of the time, we’re cooped up together, isolated from the world, in this cabin. Even when we’re sharing a meal, we’re in writing mode. Walking down and up the hill serves as a conduit for the thinking that is part of the writing. A symbolic stride we’ve hit after more than a week in this place.


Palomar ObservatoryToday was the first time we set the alarm on our cell phones. We wanted to get to the Palomar Observatory in plenty of time to get tickets for the morning tour. Though the distance from our cabin to CalTech’s mountaintop telescope is short by way of the crow’s flight, it takes about ninety minutes of looping around and then twisting up. So, our break from writing took the better part of this Sunday day.

We’re space nerds, though, so this break fit into our work. Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks adults should take field trips. We couldn’t not go to the place that played a significant role in our understanding of distances in the universe and the discovery of quasars. In 1993, comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, the first comet found to be orbiting a planet, was first photographed by the Palomar Observatory. We saw the Schmidt telescope that captured that image, now in parts before it is put on display at the visitors’ center. Just over a year after that comet was discovered, astronomers watched it collide with the southern hemisphere of Jupiter, the first time we’d watched two significant objects in space crash into each other.


We started the day with breakfast—to each, his or her own today—and a long talk on the porch. The hummingbird stopped by to poke its beak into the tiny magenta flowers. Then, we got to work. Now is the challenge to stay deeply in the project without hitting the edge of our particular temperaments’ stamina.

We ate an especially delicious dinner of veggie burgers topped with cheese, avocado, tomato, and vegetarian chili. Cooking has become fun and collaborative again. Afterward, once it was really dark outside, we walked out to see the stars and the Milky Way. A few Perseid Meteors streaked across the sky.


Today’s breakfast was shared oatmeal with a banana and a big handful blueberries cooked into it and Greek yogurt added once it was in our bowls. Our morning talk on the porch was shorter, in part because we decided to go into town late this afternoon—instead of waiting until tomorrow—for internet work and want to make sure we get plenty of writing accomplished beforehand.

Then, of course, we wrote.


DorlandFlowersThis afternoon, after some writing, we plan to take a break to tour one of the local wineries. Several have bistros, too, so maybe we’ll stop at one for lunch before we do any tasting. There are a lot of wineries on this side of Temecula. Since we’re here for our writing residency and not somewhere else, we want to spend a few hours experiencing some of the here that’s surrounding Dorland.

Discovery: On the Anniversary of Retirement April 17, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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One year ago, on April 17, 2012, the space shuttle Discovery left Kennedy Space Center for the last time. The orbiter was mated to the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and installed at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Ait and Space Museum.

Our series following Discovery on its last mission is Countdown to the Cape.” 

At Udvar-Hazy on installation day, we spoke with Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, about the new acquisition:

Lofty Ambitions maintains a Flickr photostream, so we share here some photos of Discovery‘s retirement, which are among our most popular photos there.

Anna helps NASA mate Discovery to SCA.


Discovery’s Last Crew with Discovery Retired


Discovery’s Final Taxi at Kennedy Space Center


Discovery’s Final Takeoff


Lofty Ambitions at YouTube March 4, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
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We have a Lofty Ambitions YouTube channel where you can find an an array of videos we’ve posted over more than two years. Those videos include space shuttle launches and chats with astronauts. Here are five among our favorites:

The Last Launch of a Space Shuttle (July 2011)

Dee O’Hara: First Nurse to the Astronauts

Michael Barratt: STS-133 Astronaut & Physician Studying Radiation

Space Shuttle Endeavour’s Last Takeoff from Kennedy Space Center

Fireworks Over Space Shuttle Atlantis: The End of the Shuttle Program

On This Date January 9, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
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Today is the birthday—first flight day—of two aircraft that share some background but also differ significantly. A good portion of the world was at war in the 1940s, and that gave rise to these two aircraft in different places. The AVRO Lancaster first took to the war-torn skies of England seventy-two years ago, in 1941, when test pilot Bill Thorn coaxed prototype BT308 to off of the tarmac and into the air at Manchester’s Ringway Airport. Two years later, in 1943, the prototype L-049 Constellation made its first flight, a short hop really, from Burbank, CA, to Muroc Air Force Base (later to become Edwards Air Force Base and also current home to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center).

Constellation, Galesburg, IL (photo by White Aero Restorations)

Large, four-engined, and born during World War II are among the very limited set of characteristics that the Lancaster and the Constellation had in common. That said, both aircraft followed architect’s Louis Sullivan’s “form ever follows function” dictum to a tee and turned out very differently.

The Lancaster was designed as a bomber. Utilitarian, slab sided, and broad winged, the Lancaster is not easily mistaken for anything but a military aircraft. The Lancaster began military service in February 1942, and more than 7,000 would be built before the last “Lanc” was retired in 1963. During WWII, Lancaster’s flew nearly 160,000 missions. The Lancaster gained particular fame during the war for its use of bouncing bombs in mission against dams.

While the Lanc was decidedly of its time, the Lockheed Constellation—affectionately known as the “Connie”—had an art deco design, a blend of organic shapes and machine grace, that was ahead of its time. Much larger than the Lanc—early Connies had a takeoff weight of 137,500 lb versus the Lanc’s 68,000 lb—the Lockheed design was curved and sinous. Many mid-twentieth-century trains, planes, and automobiles were shaped to cheat the wind, and a designer’s eyeball of that era served as a wind-tunnel test. The Connie looks like it’s going fast even when it is sitting still.

Constellation (photo USAF)

Much is often made of Howard Hughes’s involvement in the design of the Connie. In reality, Hughes’ TWA simply issued the specification for the Connie, and Lockheed engineered an aircraft to satisfy that spec. Once the Connie was flying though, Hughes, ever the promoter and master showman, made headlines with the aircraft. Because of his close relationship to Lockheed, Hughes managed to finagle the use of an early Constellation. Once he had it, he repainted it in TWA colors and promptly set a speed record while flying it across the country. Passengers on that trip included Hughes’s gal-pal Ava Gardner and Lockheed engineer (and Upper Peninsula native) Kelly Johnson. On his return trip, Hughes garnered more press by giving Orville Wright what would be the aviation pioneer’s last flight.

Despite its obvious style and speed—the Connie was faster than a number of WWII fighter aircraft—the Connie had a short and somewhat difficult career. Its Wright 3350 engines had a reputation for inflight fires, leading to uncomfortable jokes about the Connie, which had four engines, being the world’s faster trimotor. On top of that, the first generation of jet airliners arrived just as the Connie began to hit its stride. Although Connies survived for a number of years in the military and in passenger service outside of the United States, this aircraft made its final domestic revenue flight in 1967.


Lancasters, RAF, 1942 (photo U.K. Govt)

As we’ve written elsewhere, we have a fondness for visiting small airports just to see what’s sitting on the ramp. We developed this ritual while we were both professors at our alma mater, Knox College, in the late-1990s. Years later, on a return trip to Galesburg, we visited the local airport—call sign KGBG—for old-time’s sake. Sitting there in all of its shapely, aluminum glory was a Constellation.

The first Constellation that we saw in the metal was the so-called MATS Connie, one of the handful still flying and once owned by John Travolta. We’ve also seen the military variant at Chanute-Rantoul, just outside of Champaign, IL, where our colleague Richard Bausch once served. President Eisenhower flew on a Constellation; he had two in service at the time.

Only two Lancasters remain airworthy, one in the United Kingdom and one at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. There’s a Lanc near us, though, in Chico, CA, that folks are planning to restore to flying condition. A reminder that we haven’t yet thoroughly investigated the aviation history that’s right in our own back yard here in Southern California.


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