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A380 March 18, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
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We will board a plane this Friday: our first flight on an Airbus A380!

Even though we have to make our way up I-5 to LAX, we’re pretty excited about the upcoming flight. In fact, we’re very excited. Very. Very. Excited. We’re headed to Paris. It’s a return trip for Anna, but this will be Doug’s first voyage to the City of Lights. While the destination is the obvious reason for our excitement, we’re also pretty jazzed about the flight itself because it’ll be on an A380.

A380 (Photo by Julian Herzog, Creative Commons)

A380 (Photo by Julian Herzog, Creative Commons)

Doug specifically booked us on Air France so that we could fly the world’s largest passenger airliner. We saw our first airborne A380 several years ago while we were waiting for the space shuttle Endeavour to arrive at the California Science Center. We spent the afternoon in the park-like space just west of the science center and south of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The A380, which was obviously leaving LAX, appeared enormous, even at a distance.

Diagram by Clem Tillier (Creative Commons)

Diagram by Clem Tillier (Creative Commons)

And it is. We’ve stood beneath of wings of Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose in the Evergreen Aviation Museum, and we’ve flown on Boeing 747s a number of times. We’ve been awed by both aircraft as symbols of what humans are capable of doing with technology. We’re anticipating a similar experience with the A380, but the big Airbus has a wingspan 50 feet wider than that of the Boeing big jet and is also a lot heavier, two facts that make sense together when you think about how lift works.

We fly a fair amount for people whose jobs don’t explicitly require travel. In fact, it’s rare for us to go more than a month or two without one of us flying to a conference, to see family, or to attend an event. Most of our flight routes are within the United States, and we seem to catch rides mostly on Boeing 737s or Airbus 319/320s. Very occasionally, we’ll set foot on a Boeing 757. We’re both aviation nerds, and though we don’t keep records of all of our flights, it’s nice to mix things up from time to time. A couple of years ago we flew a cross-country red-eye on an MD80, and we both realized that it had been several years since we’d last flown on any McDonnell-Douglas product.

Our trip on the A380 will be all the more meaningful because a good friend from Doug’s college days did significant engineering work on the thrust reverser control system. It’s always interesting to think about a friend’s hand in creating something that play a role in our lives.

We’ve caught nearly everything that flies commercially except the A380 and the B787. They are our white whales, the A380 moreso because of its resemblance. So we conclude with this line from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick:

It is not down any map; true places never are.

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

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

Lyon Air Museum (Photos!) February 11, 2015

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Lyon Air Museum, founded by Major General William Lyon and opened in 2009, is our local aviation museum. It’s located just across the runways from the terminals at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, and it’s open 10am-4pm every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. On March 9, at 10am, the museum will open the cockpit of their Douglas DC-3 flagship. On March 21, at 10:30am, Tuskegee Airmen will share their stories.

We finally made our first visit this past weekend. We’re sure to go back, and here’s why.

What’s there?

  • 7 aircraft
  • 8 automobiles (General Lyon is a long-time collector!)
  • lots of motorcycles

It’s small, incredibly well kept, and filled with surprising treasures. And planes are taking off and landing just outside the windows. Here’s a sampling of what we saw.

This C-47 saw D-Day. It was redone as a DC-3 after General Lyon sold his regional airline, AirCal, to American.

This C-47 saw D-Day. It was redone as a DC-3 after General Lyon sold his regional airline, AirCal, to American. That’s a yellow Buick next to it.

Here's the C-47.

Here’s the C-47.

B17

B-17 with motorcycle in foreground. Note the three chairs and screen for viewing two short features, one on flying the B-17 and the other about the Memphis Belle.

A-26B

A-26B

B-25J

B-25J

Norden Bombsight

Norden Bombsight

Hot the red video "start" button, then look into the Norden bombsight to be the bombardier on a mission.

Hit the red video “start” button, then look into the Norden bombsight to be the bombardier on a mission.

One of actor Steve McQueen's former motorcycles.

One of actor Steve McQueen’s former motorcycles.

From a balcony, visitors can overlook the exhibit hall. Note the museum's proximity to the runway, with a Southwest Airlines flight taking off just outside. The noise of the active runway brings the static displays to life in the mind.

From a balcony, visitors can overlook the exhibit hall. Note the museum’s proximity to the runway, with a Southwest Airlines flight taking off just outside. The noise of the active runway brings the static displays to life in the mind.

On Traveling: NASM & Other Serendipity August 13, 2014

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Last week, we were back at the University of Maryland. We lived in College Park, Maryland, in the early 1990s while Anna was earning her MFA and working at the Entomological Society of America and Doug was working for NASA at the Center for AeroSpace Information as an abstractor and indexer. The University of Maryland and the surrounding communities have changed in twenty years, with lots more housing and restaurants (we went to Ledo first).

This time around, Doug was participating in a workshop hosted by HILT, or Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching. As part of that program, we had the opportunity to choose among several Wednesday field trips. Of course, you know which one we chose: National Air and Space Museum!

NASM Curator Margaret W

NASM Curator Margaret Weitekamp at “My Shuttle Memories” Slideshow

The special event focused on a behind-the-scenes look at the new NASM crowdsourcing project called “My Space Shuttle Memories.” Margaret Weitekamp, the Curator of the Social and Cultural Dimensions of Spaceflight Collection at NASM, wanted something engaging for the new “Moving Beyond Earth” exhibit, and she wanted to reflect the ways in which real people interacted with and reacted to the space shuttle program. She worked with Sarah Banks, NASM’s Social Media Manager, to develop a photo crowdsourcing project that culminates in a slideshow display now in the exhibit.

Model of International Space Station in Current Configuration

Model of International Space Station in Current Configuration

We were disappointed that we hadn’t known about the initial call for photographs, but the museum plans to update the slideshow periodically. So, of course, we uploaded five of our own space shuttle photographs to the “My Space Shuttle Memories” Flickr group as soon as we returned home. We encourage others to do the same!

Based on our discussions with Weitekamp and Banks, we encourage you to follow the guidelines so that your photograph is seriously considered. Even if your photograph doesn’t become part of the slideshow in the museum, it’ll remain part of the collection of “My Shuttle Memories” at Flickr. Here are some things to consider before you upload any Shuttle photos to the Flickr page:

  • The photograph MUST include people. Photographs of the space shuttle or of the plume won’t be considered for inclusion in the museum slideshow.
  • The photograph must NOT anyone under the age of 18, unless you can provide permission from a parent or legal guardian for all children in the photograph.
  • Photographs should focus on space shuttle launches and landings. Generally, very insider photographs won’t be seriously considered for inclusion in the slideshow.
  • Photographs of space shuttle launches in the 1980s and 1990s are especially welcome. Many of us went to the last three launches with digital cameras, so those photographs dominate submissions. If you take the time to scan and submit an older photograph, you may have better odds.
  • You MUST hold copyright on the photograph and be willing to give NASM permission to use the photograph. If they’re interested in including your photograph in the slideshow, they’ll contact you about that process. (In fact, after you submit photos, you should check the email account associated with your Flickr registration at least every ten days.) Copyright holders of selected photographs may also contribute those images to the NASM Archives, but that’s a different, follow-on process.

NASM is open until 7:30pm over the summer, so we also had plenty of time to traipse about one of our favorites spaces in the world. In addition to the new “Moving Beyond Earth” exhibit, we took a look at “Sprit and Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars,” which runs through September 15, and the new-to-us “Time and Navigation.” We couldn’t leave without breezing through “Apollo to the Moon.”

Doug & Anna on Mars!

Doug & Anna on Mars!

Sated with our visit to NASM, we headed home from our cross-country jaunt on Saturday. We returned our rental car, boarded the shuttle bus back to the airport, and heard the doors whoosh shut on our journey. But wait! As we peered out the bus’s window, we saw a spry, white-haired man exit the rental car facility and head behind to the next bus.

We had missed meeting Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon! Or did we?

We never use curbside check-in, but there was no one in line, and that vantage allowed us to watch for the next bus from the rental car facility. We didn’t see Gene Cernan get off the bus, but Doug headed one way and I headed the other to check the adjacent terminal stops.

There he was!

Apollo 17 Astronaut Gene Cernan, waiting in line to check in for his flight just like everybody else. 

We approached. Doug said, “Mr. Cernan.” His daughter nudged him in our direction. “Could we take your photograph?” Doug asked. We thought he might be bothered, feel interrupted

Anna & Gene Cernan!

Anna & Gene Cernan!

Instead, he came right over to the rope, grabbed Anna’s hand, and said, “How about two?” Cernan and Anna chatted briefly about their flying plans that day, and Anna thanked him for going to the Moon for all of us. When he showed up in the security area, Anna wished him a good flight just before he entered the body scanner.

We’ve written about serendipity before here at Lofty Ambitions. Meeting Gene Cernan was indeed a happy accident. But it happened because we recognized someone who matters to us and were willing to take a little risk to seek out his company for a couple of minutes. As we continue to focus on The Cold War, cancer, and space exploration over this next year, we know we have to look for the unanticipated. Gene Cernan reminded us of that need both for immersion in our interests and for openness to what we can’t possibly predict will happen.

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

Chicago3

viewed from the left

Hale, Palomar, and (the End of) the Story (Part 11) May 28, 2014

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We’ve spent a lot time and posts thinking about George Ellery Hale and his observatories over the last nine months or so, and it’s come time to say good-bye to this topic. We visited Hale’s crowning achievement: the 200-inch telescope at the Palomar Observatory that bears his name. That’s where we started this journey nine months ago, and that’s where we’ll end it.

Hale Telescope

Hale Telescope

As was Hale’s way, he was never content to work on just one project at a time. At the same time that Hale was finalizing the financing, design, and construction of the Mount Wilson 100-inch telescope, America was deciding what to do about the war in Europe. Like many in the United States, Hale’s opinion of the war was galvanized by the May 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. Helen Wright’s book about Hale describes one early American response to the war when she says that Secretary Josephus Daniels had selected Thomas Alva Edison to head a Naval Consulting Board to “aid in developing war devices to assist in perfecting the Navy as a fighting machine.”

When Hale saw the suggested list of board members—names such as Henry Ford, Orville Wright, Simon Lake, and Alexander Graham Bell—he is disturbed to see that the list only contains inventors, not scientists. He began a process of lobbying through his friends in Washington, D.C., that resulted in the June 1916 formation of the National Science Council. Hale became the first chairman of the committee. During the war, the National Science Council organized American scientific endeavors at the behest of policy needs in response to the demands of World War I. The National Science Council, an arm of the National Academies (National Academy of Sciences), exists to this day. In fact, this is likely the beginning of Big Science in the United States, and Helen Wright has the following to say about Hale’s time on the National Science Council:

It was an important step. Previously, organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science [ …] held meetings once or twice a year. But there had been little concerted planning for the general advancement of science and the national welfare. Now, under Hale’s leadership, American scientists would have the chance to develop cooperative research on an unparalleled scale […]. From this time science was to become an increasingly powerful force in American life.

At the conclusion of the war, Hale returned to the scientific endeavors he loved best: solar physics and building the world’s largest telescopes.

George Ellery Hale

George Ellery Hale

When he wrote a number of articles about astronomy for popular audiences in the mid-1920s, Hale began the process of creating of the Palomar 200-inch telescope. The most influential one, “The Possibilities of Large Telescopes,” appeared in 1926 in Harper’s Magazine. Hale arranges for an early version of the article to be sent to Wickliffe Rose of the Rockefeller Foundation, even though the telescopes of Mount Wilson had largely been funded and administered by the Carnegie Institution. Just as there had been competition between the men themselves, Rockefeller and Carnegie, the two philanthropic institutions had no established history of working together. Personalities and conflicts nearly derailed Hale’s vision for the grandest astronomical observatory in history. After much negotiation, largely undertaken by Hale, the two foundations came to an agreement: Rockefeller would provide the then unheard of sum of $6 million dollars to build the facility to be gifted to CalTech, and the Carnegie Institute would provide the scientists and administrators to run the observatory. Hale had triumphed again.

Hale’s health declined over the years. Hale didn’t live to see the eponymous telescope gather its first light in 1949. He died in 1938, shortly after construction began on Palomar Observatory.

In writing this series about George Ellery Hale, we relied heavily on Helen Wright’s biography, Explorer of the Stars, and the PBS Home Video documentary The Journey to Palomar. In some happy serendipity, this copy of the Helen Wright biography is now a part of Chapman University’s Huell Howser California’s Gold collection. This copy of Explorer of the Stars was originally in the Mount Wilson Observatory library, and it is inscribed, “For the Monastery Library.” The monastery was, of course, Hale’s affectionate nickname for Mount Wilson Observatory in the early days, and it stuck. How Huell wound up with the book is a story we don’t know, but he did host an episode of California’s Gold about Mount Wilson.

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome

Even though this post ends our series, one of the Hale-related things that we’ve been planning to do for that same nine-months still hasn’t happened. Though it’s only about seventy miles from our home, we still haven’t been there to see Hale’s mid-career achievements in person. (We haven’t been to Yerkes Observatory yet either, but that’s a different proposition.) When Midwestern friends and family ask how far away we live from Los Angeles, we often tell them: Only thirty-five miles, but that’s probably two hours of driving—each way. We’ll make it to Mount Wilson eventually, but it will take some planning.

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.”

TO START WITH PART 1 OF THIS SERIES, CLICK HERE.

TO CONTINUE READING WITH PART 7 OF THIS SERIES, CLICK HERE.

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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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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.

SchmidtPieces

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.

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