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5 Free Things to Do in Las Vegas October 28, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in 5 Things, Other Stuff.
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We were in Sin City this past weekend. There’s so much to do in Las Vegas that we’ll focus here only on those that are FREE and also in the proximity of the intersection of The Strip and Flamingo Road. That means you could do all 5 Free Things in one day!


Bellagio Fountains

Walk past the Bellagio Hotel on The Strip, and the fountains are hard to miss. In fact, from 8pm-midnight, there’s a show every 15 minutes, and it takes that long to walk the block.


Bellagio Conservatory

As long as you’re walking past the Bellagio to see the fountains, pop inside to see the botanical display, which changes according to the seasons. Autumn Harvest is up through November 27, and then Winter Holiday will run December 3 – January 2.


Mirage Volcano

The Mirage isn’t right that on the corner, but it’s only a short walk past Caesars from the Bellagio. You don’t even have to go inside to see, hear, and feel the erupting volcano. Time your walk so that you catch a show at 8pm or 9pm, with an additional 10pm show on Friday and Saturday.


Caesars Fall of Atlantis

Go to the Forum Shoppes for the shopping, of course, which is not free. While you’re there, swing by the atrium for the animatronics show that recounts the myth of Atlantis. If you enter the shopping area from Caesars casino, you’ll also walk by the replica of Trevi fountain (at Trevi restaurant) to get to the Atlantis show.


Paris Dueling Pianos

Napoleon’s Lounge is situated in the cobblestone streets of France, and it hosts a dueling piano show every evening at 9:30pm-1:30am. If you go in, you’ll likely want to order food or beverage, but you can hear the music just walking around the area of shops and restaurants or on your way from Paris to Bally’s or the parking garage.



Walk The Strip. It’s free and it burns calories. Plus, the people watching is excellent. Here’s a MAP.


RIP Leonard Nimoy March 4, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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Last Friday, actor Leonard Nimoy died. The New York Times reported, “the sonorous, gaunt-faced actor who won a worshipful global following as Mr. Spock, the resolutely logical human-alien first officer of the Starship Enterprise in the television and movie juggernaut ‘Star Trek,’ died on Friday morning at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. He was 83.”

As Anna drove around town that morning, KUSC played the Star Trek theme in Nimoy’s honor, for he was a long-time supporter of that classical music station and a musician himself. Long before Peter Jackson brought J. R. R. Tolkein’s hobbits to the screen, Nimoy performed “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” though that didn’t do justice to his talent. He was also a photographer, and The Independent has just pulled together and shared some of his striking work.

Four years ago this month, Lofty Ambitions wrote a happy-birthday post for Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. Read that tribute HERE.

Reportedly, Nimoy’s last tweet was “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.”

One of our favorite and nerdiest NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano spoke of Nimoy’s influence, as the character Spock, on space exploration, science, and their generation. And astronauts in space exchanged the Vulcan salute last week.

Rolling Stone gathered numerous tributes. President Obama wrote, “Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy. Leonard was a lifelong lover of the arts and humanities, a supporter of the sciences, generous with his talent and his time. And of course, Leonard was Spock. Cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed, the center of Star Trek‘s optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future.”

Zachary Quinto, the new Spock, wrote, “My heart is broken. I love you profoundly my dear friend.”


Star Trek cast and crew with Enterprise Space Shuttle

George Takei remembered Nimoy at MSNBC. Takei called Nimoy “extraordinary” and explains why Nimoy deserves that adjective.

William Shatner kept his commitment to a Red Cross fundraiser in Florida instead of attending the funeral, according to CNN, but had good things to say about Nimoy.

In TIME, Martin Landau remembered Nimoy, writing, “Leonard Nimoy was a mensch! Mensch is a word which in Yiddish means ‘a particularly good person’ with the qualities one would hope for in a dear friend or trusted colleague.”

Canadians are Spocking their $5 bills. The Bank of Canada is not pleased. Fans will be fans, always.

As academics ourselves, we appreciate a good commencement speech. In his at Boston University in 2012, at the age of 81, Nimoy said, “I have three words for you. Persistence, persistence…persistence.” We write about that here at Lofty Ambitions, and Anna’s chapter in a forthcoming pedagogy book talks about the importance of perseverance. In that speech, Nimoy quotes President Kennedy, “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda. It is truth.” That’s sometimes difficult to remember these days, but it’s one of the principles that drives our own writing here and elsewhere. So we end with Nimoy’s wisdom and a video clip that may be familiar and newly meaningful:

You are the curators of your own lives.

You create your own life and work.

Lofty Ambitions at The Huffington Post February 25, 2013

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Roughly ten days ago, The Huffington Post asked us to write an article for their next TED Weekends feature. They chose a popular Ted Talk–Honor Harger’s “A History of the Universe in Sound”–and asked some of their bloggers to write responses and riffs that would be posted over several days. We are pleased that HuffPost noticed our work and happy to contribute to a section that gets front-page coverage.

The Golden Record (NASA)

The Golden Record (NASA)

Our post is called Voices Carry,” after the ‘Til Tuesday song (see video below). Among the voices to which that title refers is the Golden Record, now carried toward the edge of our universe by two Voyager spacecraft. We also discuss poet Robert Frost, President John F. Kennedy, and sferics. Read (and then “like” or maybe share) the whole post by clicking HERE.

Today, Honor Harger responded to the group os posts. You can find the amazing collection of TED Weekends HERE and find Harger’s responses to this particular TED Weekend HERE.

This year’s TED Conference begins on Tuesday–’til Tuesday, then. It runs through Friday in Long Beach, California, but the $7500 tickets are sold out. The conference moves to Vancouver next year.

“Voices Carry” is not our first article at The Huffington Post. Anna’s recently published post there is “5 Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Chemo.” We’ve also published the following articles together there:

“Want to Be an Author? 5 Insider Tips”

“Neil Armstrong and the Space Generation”

“5 Things Every First-Semester College Student Should Do” & “5 More Things Every First-Semester College Student Should Do”

“Space Shuttle: On the Anniversary of the Last-Ever Mission” (PHOTOS)

“SpaceX: Giving Berth, Hatching, Making a Splash”

“Endeavour Slideshow: On the First Anniversary of Its Last Flight” (PHOTOS)

“SpaceX: Future or Failure?”

The Eurythmics, Apollo, the International Space Station, and Landsat February 13, 2013

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Thirty years ago—on January 21, 1983—The Eurythmics released a single called “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These).” In that song’s video (see the end of this post), Annie Lennox stands at the end of a long conference table surrounded by empty chairs. On the table sits a globe. Behind her, a screen shows the Apollo 11 launch and then an image of the Earth from space. She looks directly at the camera—at us—while pointing behind her at that image, clouds swirling over land masses and ocean, and asserts, Sweet dreams are made of these. As she goes on—singing, Who am I to disagree?—we see astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in their white flight suits inside their capsule on the screen behind her.

Aldrin with flag (NASA)

These were the days in which MTV played a full schedule of videos and used, as their station identification image, an enhanced photograph of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, with an MTV flag planted on the lunar surface. MTV used Aldrin as the inspiration for the statuette of their Moonman award, sometimes referred to as the Buzzy, which honors the year’s best work in music videos. The first MTV awards were held in 1984, when The Cars won best video and a year during which the space shuttle flew five missions. The Hubble Telescope hadn’t yet been launched; that occurred in 1990, with repairs and upgrades beginning in 1993. The International Space Station (ISS) was still only a dream, with the first assembly mission in 1998.

Space exploration is indeed that out of which sweet dreams are made. Going to the Moon was the result of dreaming big as a nation, and the Moon landing is now a vivid memory in our collective dreams. A space station shared by nations had long been the stuff of science fiction, but that dream became a reality that has been continuously occupied for more than a dozen years now.

Roman Romanenko, Expedition 34, 28 January 2013 (NASA)

This past week, we saw the ISS fly over our heads twice. Though we’ve seen it before, probably first in April 2001 with its second long-duration crew, the sight amazes us every time. This past week’s passes were especially bright, brighter than the stars in the sky. If not for its speed across the night sky’s dark expanse, the ISS might be mistaken, at first, for an aircraft. But inside what looks tiny from our vantage are astronauts living life more than two hundred miles above the Earth, circling the globe once every ninety minutes. (Click HERE to find flybys for different U.S. locations.)

How is this not a dream, in the sense of having a vision or an aspiration? The etymology of the word dream is actually under contention, with some suggestions that it stems from a word meaning joy, merriment, noise, or, yes, music. Sweet dreams really are made of these.

Dream might stem from words related to deception, which leads us to consider that the ISS offers two very different perceptions, one of us looking up at the swift, bright dot in the sky and the other of the six crew—Chris Hadfield recently chatted with William Shatner and sang with Barenaked Ladies from the ISS (see the end of this post)—looking out at the Earth’s surface, clouds swirling over the California coast. Our vantage deceives us, in that we forget or cannot fully imagine other perspectives.

That other perspective—the one from Earth’s orbit—is important. On Monday, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, or Landsat 8, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base. NASA’s Landsat program began in 1972, with a satellite that circled the globe for almost six years. Landsat’s satellites continue to provide data about the Earth’s surface to scientists and many others. The information from Landsat helps aircraft avoid bird strikes and helps wine growers and farmers manage their crops for maximum yield and deliciousness.

Twin Cities, MN (NASA)

The images and data from Landsat are available to anyone who wants to use it. That’s right, we fund NASA collectively through the federal budget, so the information from these satellites belongs to all of us. As the website for Education and Public Outreach puts it, “Our goal is to enable you to access and use the entire Landsat Program’s data, imagery, and associated science content for your own purposes.”

One of the most recent discoveries by Landsat 7—a satellite launched in 1999, the immediate predecessor for the new Landsat 8 launched on Monday—is of Antarctic penguins. Sure, scientists knew there were penguins in the Antarctic. And no, Landsat 7 doesn’t have resolution good enough for scientists to see and count actual penguins on the Earth’s surface. But researchers at the British Antarctic Survey used Landsat images to measure the extent of penguin poop that stained ice brown when the creatures gathered during mating season. Decades-old research was finally updated in 2009, with researchers locating ten new colonies of emperor penguins and determining that six previously existing colonies had moved.

In other words, we have penguins running around right here on Earth, but we couldn’t really see them until we looked at them from space. As the song goes, Everybody’s looking for something. British researchers are looking for penguins, European Union leaders are looking for the wine-growing potential of each member nation, and leaders here in the western United States want to see where all our water is going. To see these things, we need the perspective that we can only get from stepping away and looking down from space.

Consider the images from the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968: the first time we really saw the whole Earth, and the Earthrise photograph in which our planet peeks above the lunar surface, instead of the other way around.

Perspective comes from the Latin: to clearly perceive, to look closely. Oddly, space exploration has taught us that, sometimes, we perceive most clearly and look most closely when we gain some distance.

Guest Blog: Brigid Leahy January 2, 2012

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We know this week’s guest blogger exceptionally well. Brigid Leahy is Anna’s sister and a fellow alum of Knox College, where Doug met her lo those many years ago. By day, Brigid is Director of Legislation at Planned Parenthood of Illinois, but when she’s not at work, she’s an Elvis fan and fosters dogs for the Animal Protective League. Honestly, we thought, if Brigid wrote a guest post for us, it would be about airsicknesses, a topic about which she knows a great deal. But she found an even better, and more timely, topic as this week’s Lofty guest blogger.

This coming Sunday, January 8, marks Elvis Presley’s 77th birthday. We’ve written about music before at Lofty Ambitions (click HERE for a post on shuttle wake-up songs), but it’s not always easy to find the connection between music and the focuses of our blog. Brigid, however, found a great way to honor The King and write about aviation.


I have been an Elvis fan since I can remember. I love his music and his movies. I would rush home after school for our local Channel 3’s “Elvis Week,” which would air a different Elvis movie each day. I’ve seen Clambake nine times. For years I had been waiting to go to Graceland at a time when I could go by myself and spend as much time there as I wanted. This past summer, I was finally able to go to Graceland. I booked the full tour—the house, the special clothing exhibition, the automobile museum, AND the airplanes!

On January 8, 1935, Elvis Aaron Presley was born to Vernon Elvis and Gladys Presley in a two-room shotgun house built by his father in Tupelo, Mississippi. His father worked odd jobs and money was tight. In 1938, they lost their home. Thus, Elvis spent much of his childhood living in public housing or with relatives. His family was often dependent on government food assistance. In Tupelo, schoolmates teased Elvis for being a “trashy” kid who played hillbilly music and lived on the wrong side of town in a largely African-American neighborhood. Life after moving to Memphis was much the same, with the family living for a year in rooming houses until they were granted a two-bedroom apartment in a public housing complex. Elvis continued to be teased and was labeled a shy, mama’s boy.

We are often surprised, of course, by who grows up to do what. Elvis’ music career allowed him to reject his difficult childhood in many ways and to remake himself. During his junior year in high school, Elvis became more and more willing to perform for an audience. He began to dress with more flash, taking his fashion cues from the performers on Beale Street. His daughter Lisa Marie would later say that Elvis never owned a pair of blue jeans once he became a star because jeans were a staple of his poor childhood. Each day he would not emerge from the second floor of Graceland until he was fully dressed and accessorized with expensive jewelry. Elvis quickly became known for the opulence of his dress, jewelry, home, and transportation.

Elvis’s growing inclination toward extravagance is seen early in his career with his purchase of Graceland in 1957. The 18-room mansion reflects Elvis’s sense of luxury at the time. By today’s standards of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” however, the place may seem to some visitors small and rather tacky. But to the 22-year-old Elvis, Graceland was the fancy family home that he could provide for his mother. Once Elvis’s fame became so overwhelming that he could scarcely go anywhere without being recognized, this home became a refuge.

Elvis Presley's Convair 880

While Graceland was above the middle-class standards of the time, it wasn’t over the top. However, Elvis’s airplanes are definite signs of unrestrained opulence. Elvis leased and owned several aircraft (a Grumman Gulfstream G-1, a Fairchild F-27, an Aero Jet Commander, a Lockheed JetStar, a Dessault-Falcon), and it’s likely that the planes were purchased out of practicality because Elvis could not travel on commercial airlines. He was just too famous, and his schedule demanded a lot of travel. But these airplanes weren’t merely serviceable. They were remodeled lavishly to Elvis’s particular taste.

Gold-Plated Seat Buckle on the Lisa Marie

The most famous of Elvis’s aircraft is the Lisa Marie, which he called “The Pride of Elvis Presley Airways” and his “Flying Graceland.” On April 17, 1975, Elvis spent $250,000 on a Convair 880 Jet, which had been in service with Delta Airlines. (For another take on the Convair 880, check out an article HERE at Airliners.net.) The Convair 880 was in production for about three years, with 65 total aircraft manufactured. Elvis spent an additional $350,000 refurbishing it—that’s right, he spent more on redecorating and upgrading than on the initial purchase. He then christened it the “Lisa Marie” in honor of his daughter.

The Restroom, with gold-plated sink

Elvis personally oversaw the transformation of the Lisa Marie by selecting the color scheme, choosing fabrics, and flying several times to see the plane’s progress at Meacham Field in Fort Worth. After its refurbishment, it had seating to 28, but usually only about ten people were on board. All seating was equipped with gold-plate seat belt buckles. The plane was lavishly outfitted with a seating area, a conference room, and a private bedroom. The Lisa Marie had two restrooms, both with 24-karat gold plate washbasins and fixtures. The videotape system was linked to four televisions, and the stereo system had 52 speakers.  The conference room was finished in teak. The bar was always stocked with 15 kinds of soda pop, though Elvis preferred Dr. Pepper and Lime Gatorade and didn’t really care for alcohol. It also had a “penthouse bedroom” with a custom-made queen-sized bed. Because of federal regulations, the bed was furnished with a seat belt. It, too, had a gold-plate buckle. The plane’s tail displayed Elvis’ TCB logo.

On November 27, 1975, the Lisa Marie made its first official flight, fittingly traveling to Las Vegas. Its tower call name was 880 Echo Pappa, and its nickname was Hound Dog One. Elwood David was the captain and pilot. Also on staff were another pilot, Ron Strauss, and a flight engineer, Jim Manny. The Lisa Marie was used for more than business travel. One Christmas, Elvis took his family and friends on a joyride. Another year, Lisa Marie blew out her birthday candles in the conference room while in mid-flight. After Elvis’ death, the plane was used to pick up Elvis’ ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie, and the actor George Hamilton so that they could quickly come to Graceland. The operating cost for 1976 (the year before Elvis’s death) was $404,000, and it burned 1700 gallons of fuel an hour.

Vernon Presley sold the Lisa Marie in 1978. Its ownership changed hands a few times. Finally, in 1984, the Lisa Marie returned to Memphis and has been housed at Graceland as an exhibit ever since. The Lisa Marie is the only one of nine remaining Convair 880s that is properly preserved, and no Convair 880 remains airworthy.

Cockpit of the Lisa Marie

Graceland, Summer 2011

In the Footsteps (Part 10) December 7, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Other Stuff, Science.
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Thanksgiving Dinner in France

Late on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we overpacked our suitcases and headed out on the highway. Five hours later, we had checked into our Las Vegas hotel and were in search of the food you can find at the wee hours in the city that really does never sleep. On Monday, we made our now-annual visit to the Atomic Testing Museum on Flamingo Road.

The Bellagio’s Dancing Fountains

We’ve written about this museum before HERE. This time, the museum boasted a special exhibit called “Building Atomic Vegas” that fits perfectly with our ongoing series “In the Footsteps.” This week, we’ll walk you through some of the highlights of that exhibit by sharing some of our photos.

Building Atomic Vegas, Atomic Testing Museum

Casino Owner Benny Binion (1904-1989) greets visitors.

Here’s a Las Vegas postcard featuring the Desert Inn, with a nuclear test blast rising in the background.

The museum’s permanent exhibit displays an array of pop culture memorabilia. Here’s that Atomic Fireball you may know from childhood and a book called Our Friend the Atom, which was also the name a Disney film.

Perhaps the most striking item in the “Building Atomic Vegas” exhibit is this mannequin. She was used in civil defense tests at Yucca Flats in 1953.

The mannequin’s injuries, the scrapes and the dislocated arm, were sustained in a nuclear test blast.

Las Vegas High Schoolers of the 1950s and early 1960s had nuclear blast drills and cheered their teams with atomic pom-poms.

Many Las Vegas residents were issued dog tags for identification, in the event of an atomic bomb attack.

Soldiers sent into ground zero after a nuclear test blast were issued masks. Films we’ve seen also show soldiers being brushed off with brooms after being exposed to radioactive fallout at ground zero.

Far from the Nevada Test Site, which was renamed the Nevada National Security Site last year, the name “atomic” was popular in the 1950s. Here’s a snapshot of New York phone book listings from 1950.

In 1957, a beauty contest led to the naming of Miss Atomic Bomb.

The Stardust Casino opened on July 2, 1958. What is a nuclear blast but a harnessing of the star’s energy? The Stardust closed on November 1, 2006, and was demolished the following March.

This Apollo spacesuit is part of the “Building Atomic Vegas” exhibit because Apollo 11 astronauts trained in their spacesuits at the Nevada Test Site in 1965, a prelude to walking on the Moon.

Read the notes in pencil on this atomic blast preparation pamphlet. It was at the Nevada Proving Ground (the name changed to NTS at the end of 1954) for Shot Simon on April 25, 1953.

President John F. Kennedy visited the Nevada Test Site on December 8, 1962. Here’s a rare photo of him with half of Lofty Ambitions.

Liberace played Las Vegas during its atomic era. At Wisconsinite, Mr/ Showmanship died in 1987. His Las Vegas museum closed permanently on October 17 of last year.

Yes, this suit is the one Evel Knievel wore in his ill-fated attempt to jump the Caesar’s Palace fountains on his motorcycle on New Year’s Eve 1967. He suffered multiple fractures and remained in a coma for 29 days after the accident.

Near the end of the exhibit, after Evel Knievel and Liberace, is this Mk/B53 Gravity Bomb casing, on loan from the United States Air Force. This shell for a bunker-buster thermonuclear weapon is a reminder of the foundation of “Building Atomic Vegas.”

The exhibit “Building Atomic Vegas” runs through January 5, 2012. For the video of the press preview for this exhibit, click HERE. If you’re in Las Vegas this Friday, December 9, check out the lecture on “Salvador Dali and Nuclear Art.”

On This Date: Five Notable Events October 30, 2011

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On October 30, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a secret document mandating that the United States maintain and develop its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Just four years later, on this same date, the Soviet Union detonated the largest explosive device ever, Tsar Bomba. The estimated yield was 50 megatons, which is almost one-and-a-half times the power of the combined yield of the two bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For one brief moment, Tsar Bomba was 1.4% as energetic as the Sun. Yet Tsar Bomba was one of the cleanest—least fallout relative to yield—nuclear weapons tests. We wrote more about this nuclear test in “Measuring the Unthinkable” and included a video of the detonation there.

Today is also the anniversary of the launch of space shuttle Challenger’s last successful mission, STS-61A. The 1985 Spacelab mission was astronaut Guion Bluford’s second. His first mission two years earlier was the first time an African-American had been to space. The only woman on Challenger’s last successful crew, the first crew of eight, was Bonnie Dunbar. STS-61A was her first of five shuttle missions. In addition to performing science experiments, the crew launched the Global Low Orbiting Messaging Relay satellite, a proof-of-concept for military communications. Challenger’s last landing was at Edwards Air Force Base on November 6, 1985.

We have several other posts that talk about Challenger, including “Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia” and “25th Anniversary of the Challenger Accident.” In addition, we have guest posts by Roger Boisjoly, Allan McDonald, and Richard Cook, three engineers involved in the launch that day.

Today is also the fourth anniversary of the death of Washoe, a chimpanzee and the first non-human to communicate with American Sign Language. She was originally captured for use in the space program but ended up in Nevada, then the University of Oklahoma, and later Central Washington University She died at the age of 42. The New York Times obituary notes that not all scientists agree that Washoe and others like her were really communicating, not without signals and prompts from her trainers. But Washoe opened up a lot of questions and led to a great deal of additional research into learning and communication across species. See our birthday post for Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity HERE.

On a cheerier note and with a linguistic, if not exactly topical connection, to the usual subject matter of Lofty Ambitions, today is Grace Slick’s 72nd birthday. Born Grace Barnett Wing in Evanston, Illinois, where Anna’s mother grew up, Grace Slick joined Jefferson Airplane in 1966. After that band split up, Grace and some bandmates formed Jefferson Starship. In 2006, Virgin America Airlines named its first aircraft Jefferson Airplane.

Virgin Galactic, another entity in the Virgin conglomerate, is now booking seats. If you want to go to space, all you need is a $20,000 deposit and the full $200,000 when they’re ready to launch. Click HERE to reserve a spot. We wrote about one of their most recent hires, Mike Moses, the shuttle program’s Launch Integration Manager in “I Remember California: I Remember Mike Moses.”





Last Chance to See (Part 12) July 15, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
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“Jet lag,” muttered one of his friends, “long trip from California. Really mucks you up for a couple of days.”

“I don’t think he’s been there at all,” muttered another. “I wonder where he has been. And what’s happened to him.”

~Douglas Adams, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

Countdown to Atlantis

In our blog anniversary post (click HERE for that one), we tried to make a sort of sense of what we’ve been doing over the past year. That was on July 1, before we headed off to the Space Coast for the last-ever space shuttle launch. This past week has been an intense physical and emotional experience in which we’ve lost track of time. We’re settling back into our regular routines; Anna went to the dry cleaner and the grocery store; Doug returned to his daily job at the library. But our attention remains on STS-135 too.

Atlantis and the International Space Station are now orbiting our planet at roughly 17,500 miles an hour. That means the astronauts experience a sunrise and sunset every hour-and-a-half or so, making for more than 15 shuttle space days for every Earth day, if we define a day by sunrise. But shuttle astronauts in space don’t mark time that way. Instead, their clock (and that big countdown clock you saw on NASA-TV and CNN last Friday) ticks off mission elapsed time (MET). At twenty-four hours MET, Flight Day 2 begins.

At the beginning of each flight day, the astronauts are awakened with a song from Earth. Music marks time for them in a less precise, more culturally inflected way than MET. On Flight Day 2, that wake-up song was “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay, picked by Pilot Doug Hurley. Coldplay has awakened shuttle astronauts three times before.

For Flight Day 3, Commander Chris Ferguson chose “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra. It’s the fourth time E.L.O. has awakened a shuttle crew.

Countdown to Endeavour

And what did Mission Specialist and native Illinoisan Sandy Magnus choose for Flight Day 4? “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba. I get knocked down. But I get up again. You’re never going to keep me down. Not a bad message for NASA right now.

Flight Day 5 started with “More” by Matthew West, chosen by Mission Specialist Rex Walheim.

On Flight Day 6, Elton John offered a special message for the STS-135 crew. “Rocket Man” woke up this crew and the crews of four previous shuttle crews.

As part of his message to STS-135 on Flight Day 7, Michael Stipe said, “I recorded ‘Man on The Moon’ for NASA in Venice, Italy, where Galileo first presented to the Venetian government his eight-power telescope, and in 1610 wrote ‘The Starry Messenger’ (Sidereus Nuncius), an account of his early astronomical discoveries that altered forever our view of our place in the universe.” R.E.M.’s “Happy Shiny People” has awakened two previous shuttle crews.

“Good Day Sunshine” by Paul McCartney, with a cheery message from the former Beatle, roused the crew on Flight Day 8 at 12:59a.m. EDT today, on Friday, July 15. They had a bit of a computer problem at the beginning of their sleep shift, so NASA let the astronauts sleep a half-hour later than the planned schedule. They are in the midst of transferring the payload to the ISS, and they talked with President Obama and reporters today.

Countdown to Endeavour (not-launch)

These last few days back home in California, we wish that our time was as organized as that of astronauts in orbit. The odd hours we’ve kept this last week in Florida and the day of travel on Tuesday, with the three-hour time change, have left our heads spinning. We’re coming off that odd mix of exhaustion and adrenaline, feeling sleepy and alert simultaneously, but starting to get back on track with things we’d put aside and shored up.

What might it mean to measure time according to our missions, with a version of MET? The mission clock would begin at zero and elapse as we (presumably) made progress on the project over time. Blog elapsed time: +379 days. Novel elapsed time: +5 years, if we include research and breaks for moving and other writing projects. Or perhaps, the clock should stop when we are working on another project, like a hold in the countdown clock before launch. Though they have a multitude of tasks, the astronauts are focused on a single mission; they can’t stop the MET clock while they draft a short story because they can’t interrupt the mission tasks for other ideas that come to mind. If something is scheduled for +4 days, it must occur on the fourth day of the mission whether the shuttle’s mission begins on its originally scheduled launch date or, after a delay, two days or two months later.

Countdown to Discovery (not-launch)

On the Earth’s surface, we move among several projects at a time. We write a blog while holding down day jobs. We write articles together and separately and have larger writing projects too. Just as it would quickly become silly for orbiting astronauts to count days by each sunrise they view, those of us under the great influence of gravity cannot keep accurate track using mission elapsed time. The way a person measures time must fit the circumstances, while also making sense with the way the larger world works.

It turns out that the shuttle astronauts are not beholden only to MET. They are moving between MET and the coordinated universal time (UTC) of the International Space Station (ISS). UTC is a carefully devised standard time, a more precise replacement for Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), with even leap seconds added to sync up UTC with the Earth’s rotation. The second (and millisecond) are constant, but larger units can vary in order to keep universal time accurate. Computers also use UTC. Because the ISS is an ongoing project, a destination for many individual shuttle missions over the years, using an MET clock would run up days into meaningless numbers. Elapsed time isn’t that important to know on the ISS. The unload the shuttle payload when it gets there, not according to some schedule the ISS itself has. So that the STS-135 crew can move between the shuttle and ISS time zones without getting too confused, the space shuttle has a UTC clock too.

Final Shuttle Countdown EVER

Music provides yet another way to mark time, both as a daily wake-up demarcation and in a larger sense. Songs stick with us. Admit it, you thumped to Chumbawamba in the fall of 1997. How old were you when E.L.O. was churning out the hits in the 1970s? Ah, “Rocket Man” and 1972: the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, The Price is Right begins and Bewitched ends. Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 conclude U.S. manned spaceflight (or so it seemed at the time).

As Daniel Levitin puts it in This Is Your Brain on Music, “The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives.”

He goes on to explain why you may have a particular affinity for “Rocket Man” or “Tubthumping.” “Researchers point to the teen years as the turning point for musical preferences. It is around the age of ten or eleven that most children take on music as a real interest, even those children who didn’t express such an interest in music earlier. As adults, the music we tend to be nostalgic for, the music that feels like it is ‘our’ music, corresponds to the music we heard during these years. […] Part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because those years were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged; in general, we tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert [hah, a pun!] to ‘tag’ the memories as something important.”

+ means Mission Elapsed Time

Chris Ferguson was 16 years old, that emotionally charged time of self-discovery, when “Mr. Blue Sky” was released in 1978. In 1997, when Chumbawamba hit the charts, Sandy Magnus had recently been selected for astronaut training and began her work at Johnson Space Center that led to her first shuttle mission in 2002. Nothing in Rex Walheim’s official NASA biography indicates why 2004, when “More” was released, might have been a particularly emotionally charged time for him, but that song was the most-played song on Christian radio that year. In 2008, when Coldplay released “Viva la Vida,” Doug Hurley was training for his first space shuttle mission.

At breakfast at the Village Inn in Titusville, this past week, we heard “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb, a song we hadn’t heard in years, a song that was on the K-tel record that Anna received at her boy–girl birthday party in eighth grade.

On one of our previous trips to the Space Coast, the radio in our rental car had been left set to FM 96.5 when we picked it up. This station plays a mix of classic rock that we don’t listen to much anymore, but it replicates the playlist of 97X, the radio station from Moline, Illinois, of Doug’s teen years. (As a curious aside, Doug’s high school locker number was 97. Each fall for the four years that Doug attended AHS, an “X” mysteriously appeared next to the locker number, making his locker 97X.) The Orlando station’s signal is strong, the songs familiar fodder for our NASA-visit mode.

Great White’s “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” the 1989 cover of a 1975 Ian Hunter song (Ian was a founding member of Mott the Hoople, a name that has the feel of a Douglas Adams novel), was in heavy rotation this past week. After not hearing that song for more than two decades, we probably heard the ode to groupies and casual sex every day last week. For Doug, “Once Bitten Twice Shy” calls to mind the summer of 1989, when he studied Russian at Beloit College. The song and that moment in time that it recalls link together several of the themes that we’ve been exploring. Who’d have predicted from the vantage of that late-1980s summer, still several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and more than two years before the end of the Soviet Union, that today Russian would be an official language on the space station (all U.S. astronauts who serve extended periods on the ISS speak Russian) and that the United States will require Soyuz rockets to carry astronauts into low-earth orbit?

Astronaut Mark Kelly, our thoughts are with you January 10, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Other Stuff, Space Exploration.
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Today, our thoughts are with the families of the twenty people killed and injured in Saturday’s shooting in Tucson. We extend our condolences to those who lost a family member or friend, and we are pulling for those whose family member or friend is facing difficult recovery.

Astronaut Mark Kelly is the husband of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head and remains in critical condition as we write this post. They were married in November 2007, and met four years before that, when they were both in China. (Click here to read the New York Times article about their nuptials.) Mark Kelly is scheduled to command the last space shuttle mission, STS-134 in April on Endeavour.

Mark Kelly’s twin brother, Scott, is an astronaut in the midst of a six-month stint on the International Space Station. Today, he participated in a national observance for the victims, saying, “As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not.” (Click here to read the Washington Post story.)

In 2008, Gabrielle Giffords chose the wake-up song for the crew on her husband’s flight on Discovery. To listen to a story about Giffords, Kelly, and the band Calexico, click here.

Mark Kelly has expressed gratitude for support and suggested that those who would like to help can make a donation to the Community Food Bank in Tuscon or to the Southern Arizona Chapter of the American Red Cross. Read his full statement here.

The couple appeared together at Space Vision 2009, organized by Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. This gathering is the largest, student-run space conference. Giffords introduced her husband’s talk, which we repost below.

October 23: Sing, Sing a Song October 23, 2010

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Other Stuff, Space Exploration.
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On October 23, 2001, Apple released the iPod into the world. The snazzy little device cornered the market within three years, and 220 million iPods had been sold by fall of 2009. Sales of the iPod dropped earlier this year, perhaps because folks with iPods already in one hand want a new gadget like the iPad in the other. The Center for Disease Control warns, however, that long-term exposure to high volume on MP3 devices can cause damage. For instance, if you listen to your MP3 while you mow your lawn, you could damage your hearing within 15 minutes, according to some reports. Despite declining sales and possible hearing loss for the most enthusiastic users, the iPod hasn’t dropped into mere memory. In fact, now on its ninth birthday, there’s Nano, Touch, and Shuffle in addition to the Classic iPod.

The man who wrote “Thanks for the Memory” died on this date in 1942. Ralph Rainger and 11 other passengers and crew on an American Airlines DC-3 were killed in a collision with an Air Force bomber in the skies over California. The DC-3 lost its rudder at an altitude of 9000 feet. The B-34 landed safely, and the pilot was later acquitted on manslaughter charges in a court martial. Ralph Rainger’s song was originally talked-sung by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross in the film The Big Broadcast of 1938 and became the theme song of Bob Hope, for whom Burbank renamed the airport in 2003. For a discussion of this and other film songs, see THIS Fresh Air piece.

Speaking of songs, don’t forget to vote HERE for the Space Shuttle’s wake-up songs for the astronauts on STS-133, which launches next week. Lofty Ambitions will be there!

Another Ralph Rainger song: “I Wished on the Moon”


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