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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.

A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain (Part 2) March 13, 2013

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Also see PART 1 of “A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain.”

AVRO Arrow (Creative Commons)

For the last 40 years, at least in the public’s eyes, Florida’s Space Coast and Houston have been the homes of American manned space flight. But in the earliest days of America’s space program, a select group of engineers calling themselves the Space Task Group (STG) made their home in rural Virginia at the Langley Research Center. Langley is NASA’s oldest research home, founded in 1917 by NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (just as you would think, NACA). The STG at Langley, inaugurated on November 5, 1958, came into existence little more than a month after NACA became NASA. These name changes and group birthings were all of a piece. Forty-five years ago, the nation was obsessed with space—and the nation remains intrigued.

In our February 20th post, we hinted that the February 20th, 1959, cancellation of AVRO’s CF-105 Arrow aircraft—less than six months after NASA was itself born—wound up being a boon for America’s fledgling space program. America’s first human spaceflight program, Project Mercury, was announced to the world six days after NASA was born, but that ambitious program was struggling to get its legs under it. The STG, with its single-minded view of putting an American in space, also had trouble finding its footing and was viewed with skepticism by the airplanes-only culture of Langley’s old guard.

Sputnik (NASA)

Aeronautics was becoming Aerospace, but not everyone was excited by the changes that this shift implied. In part, resistance was only logical. The American aviation industry had achieved remarkable successes since the end of World War II. The nascent American efforts in space didn’t have a record of success. Not only had the Russians beaten the Americans into space with Sputnik, but they had done it spectacularly. Sputnik had been followed less than a month later by Sputnik-2, and that second Sputnik had carried a living creature, a dog named Laika. America’s side of the space-race equation was also spectacular, but mostly spectacular failures. The nationally televised explosion of America’s first attempted satellite launch—the Vanguard mission on December 6, 1957—earned it the derisive nickname Kaputnik.

Into this environment came the opportunity for NASA’s STG to add significant engineering talent. Arguably, AVRO’s Arrow was the most advanced aircraft in active engineering and development at that time, and it was cancelled. The United States’ most advanced interceptor aircraft of that moment, the North American Aviation XF-108 Rapier—with delta wings and predicted Mach 3 performance, it was quite similar to the Arrow—was also cancelled in 1959. Both were victims of the coming age of ballistic missiles and pushbutton warfare. But whereas the American XF-108 project was limited to engineering drawings and a single wooden mock-up, the CF-105 Arrow knew the feel of air beneath its wings.

In all, AVRO designed, manufactured, and flight-tested six Arrow aircraft. This effort had given a talented young cadre of AVRO engineers experience at the leading edge of aeronautical engineering. The Arrow was the first aircraft designed to use a fly-by-wire system, a means of controlling the aircraft’s flight surfaces with electronic systems. The Arrow was designed in great part on computers. An IBM 704 mainframe computer at AVRO Canada’s headquarters in Malton, Ontario (near Toronto), was used not only for design purposes, but also for simulation and modeling. In fact, data collected during the Arrow flight test program was analyzed on the 704 and then fed back into the simulator. In sum, the young AVRO engineers had just the sort of experience that NASA’s STG needed for Project Mercury.


Ultimately, the AVRO engineers wound up in the STG because of the Arrow’s chief designer, Jim Chamberlin. Chamberlin was a known quantity to engineers at Langley from the collaborative work between AVRO and NACA on wind-tunnel testing for the Arrow and because of an earlier project, the AVRO VZ-9 Car (a saucer shaped jet).

As the layoffs took hold, Chamberlin and others jumped into action. Arrows to the Moon, a comprehensive look by author Chris Gainor of the contributions that AVRO engineers made to the American space program, indicates that the original idea was for a two-year exchange that would bring engineers from the cancelled Arrow project to the STG at Langley. NASA benefited by getting an immediate injection of talent for Project Mercury. AVRO hoped to get returns from sending its best-and-brightest off for two years for the equivalent of a graduate degree, a U.S.-funded, on-the-job school that was essentially the only program in space systems design and engineering in the free world.

When all was said and done, 32 AVRO engineers joined the STG. Another fantastic book that touches on this subject, Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox’s Apollo: The Race to the Moon, recounts a story in which Robert Gilruth, first head of the STG, told one of the AVRO engineers, Tec Roberts, “We thought about taking more of your crowd from AVRO…but we figured twenty-five percent aliens in the American space program was sufficient.”

Those aliens would make contributions to the American space program that are still being felt to this this day.

On This Date January 9, 2013

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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.

In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton (Part 14) December 26, 2012

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As frequent readers of Lofty Ambitions well know, we’re big believers in serendipity–that chance meeting with an idea, a place, or a person (or even better, a combination of those). Afterwards, your thoughts move in a new, unexpected direction. Last week’s post was about recent serendipity, and this week’s is about serendipity from our past.

Building Atomic Vegas, Atomic Testing Museum

Building Atomic Vegas, Atomic Testing Museum

In May 2003, while he was a graduate student at Oregon State University, Doug had just such a chance collosion while attending a lecture about the Cold War and nuclear weapons. Peter Galison, Pellegrino University Professor in History of Science and Physics at Harvard University, was speaking about a documentary that he had recently completed, The Ultimate Weapon: The H-bomb Dilemma. The title of Galison’s talk was “Filming and Writing History: The H-bomb Debate.” Doug had just started doing research for a historical novel set during the Manhattan Project, and the talk seemed to dovetail neatly with this new project.

One of the 20th century’s most controversial scientific figures, Edward Teller, is often referred to as the father of the hydrogen bomb (H-bomb). The H-bomb came into the world’s consciousness in 1952, less than ten years after the atomic bomb. Although much distinguishes the two types of weapons, not the least of which is that they operate on different physical principles; atomic bombs use fission, H-bombs use fusion, and the resulting difference between the two weapons is their destructive power. Atomic bombs have a practical upper limit in explosive yield based on the size of their uranium or plutonium core (see more HERE). Hydrogen bombs (more commonly called thermonuclear weapons in the latter stages of the Cold War) are nearly unlimited in their destructive potential. The primary requirement for increasing their power is adding more fuel (see more HERE).

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves

Galison’s documentary–which aired on the History Channel in August 2000–gave voice to a number of the people associated with the development and deployment of thermonuclear weapons. In his talk, Galison made it seem as if he had a particular fondness for, or at least was intrigued by, the nuclear weapons designer Theodore “Ted” Taylor. Taylor had a reputation for being a particularly innovative thinker, a producer of remarkably elegant designs, although perhaps elegant isn’t quite the right term when the context is nuclear weapons. In the late 1950s, Taylor worked with physicist Freeman Dyson on Project Orion, an extravagantly ambitious plan to create a spacecraft capable of deep-space travel. At a time when NASA had yet to place a man in orbit, the mavens behind Orion were proposing a ship that could scoot easily past Mars and make its way to the outer planets, Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus, and even Pluto (back in the days when Pluto was punching above its weight and still held planet status). Potential multi-generational missions involving dozens of scientists, their families, and a small menagerie of farm animals gallivanting off to Alpha Centauri were considered. The magical elixir that would power the enormous Orion? Not Star Trek’s dilithium crystals or ion drives. No, Orion was designed to ride a steady stream of H-bomb explosions. Megaton class (1) H-bombs would be ejected from the rear of Orion, detonated at a so-called safe distance, and the resulting stream of radiation and shock waves would push against a gigantic metal plate–logically enough called a pusher plate–fixed to Orion’s backside. Orion, of course, never went beyond the drawing board.

In his later years, Taylor became an ardent critic of the nation’s nuclear weapons program and its potential for nuclear proliferation. Not so with Edward Teller. Teller remained a passionate defender of nuclear weapons and his role in the creation of the H-bomb until the end of his life in 2003.

At the end of Galison’s talk, Doug went up to the speaker’s lectern to ask him a question about Ted Taylor. Doug was not the only person in the audience whose personal interests weren’t fully addressed in the short Q&A; there were a half-dozen people in line to speak with Galison. Standing quietly in front of Doug was a tiny, elderly woman. When it was her turn to speak with Galison, the woman stepped forward and began to tell her story. She had been a part of the Manhattan Project. There, she worked as a kind of assistant to Edward Teller. Though not a physicist, she’d studied biology at Cornell University, Teller valued her unorthodox problem solving strategies–what we’d today call outside-the-box thinking–and often gave her problems to work on, thorny, unusual problems that were stymieing the physicists.

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

The woman’s interaction with Galison was economical. She did the majority of the speaking, and after a brief moment of silence, she turned and left. Even after standing in line and while still wanting to ask Galison a question, Doug made a very easy decision: he followed the woman. As reached the lecture hall’s doorway, Doug tapped her gently on the shoulder. Introducing himself and explaining his interest in the Manhattan Project, Doug asked her if he might interview her about her experiences. With a look that suggested she was taken aback by this turn of events, she thought for a moment and ultimately said in a soft voice, “Yes.” Again she turned to leave, and again Doug tapped her lightly on the shoulder. “Your name. I need your name.” This time, the frown on her face indicated that she hadn’t anticipated this question as a part of the bargain. After a brief pause, she relented and said, “Jean Dayton.”

Doug’s graduate work intervened, and it was more than a year before he contacted her for an interview. For more on Jean Dayton, who was born on December 30, 1924, check out our next post HERE.

Columbia Memorial Space Center (and R.I.P. Neil Armstrong) August 29, 2012

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Of course, we acknowledge the death of Neil Armstrong this past weekend. Neil Armstrong is dead, and we’re the grown-ups now.

Neil Armstrong (NASA)

We are working on a piece that we will probably post at The Huffington Post later this week. Many have weighed in on the man’s accomplishments and the meaning of his death, and we have some thoughts to add. So we’ll join the conversation at The Huffington Post that includes Margaret Lazarus Dean, Seth Shostack, and others. With much being written and much of it incredibly eloquent, we are taking our time with this one. In some ways, that sentence above—Neil Armstrong is dead, and we’re the adults now—captures something about our larger sense of being the space generation.

So today, here, we look back a couple of months to share information about a science museum. In June, Doug and his colleague Rand Boyd had a chance to give a talk about the Roger and Roberta Boisjoly NASA Challenger Disaster Collection, which is housed in Chapman University’s Leatherby Libraries. The venue for Doug and Rand’s talk was the Columbia Memorial Space Center.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center is located just across the street from the historic North American Aviation (NAA) plant in Downey, California. The NAA plant played an integral role in the United State’s aerospace history. During its seventy-year run as an aircraft, missile, and spacecraft factory, historic aviation names such as Champion, Curtis, Vultee, Consolidated, Convair, North American, North American-Rockwell, and Boeing all passed through the site. At the beginning of World War II, fully one-seventh of the military’s aircraft were being manufactured at the Downey plant.

These days, the former aircraft factory is home to Downey Studios, a film production space where Iron Man (1 and 2), Space Cowboys, and Cloverfield (among dozens of others) were filmed, at least in part. But, in the 1960s and 1970s, the NAA plant was front and center in America’s manned space program. The Apollo Command and Service Modules were built at this facility, as were significant portions of the space shuttle orbiters. Even today, a remaining space shuttle—albeit a one-winged, engineering mock-up without a permanent home—is being housed at Downey Studios. There is a movement afoot to ensure that the Columbia Memorial Space Center becomes the permanent home to the shuttle mock-up, but for now, the center will have to settle for becoming the mock-up’s most recent temporary home.

Mural at Columbia Memorial Space Center

Obviously given Downey’s strong connection to aerospace history, it’s no accident that the city of Downey chose this location for the site of the Columbia Memorial Space Center. On the day that Doug visited the center, more than two hundred fifth-graders from a local school had also visited the center. That kind of activity fits neatly with the center’s educational mission, which is focused on serving as a hands-on activity center for space science. As would be expected, the center has a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program, one that has a core focus on flight, robotics, and engineering. Many NASA-affiliated programs are accelerating past STEM and heading for STEAM, so, given its location and history, it would be interesting to see if the Columbia Memorial Space Center is able to somehow forge a tie-in with film making and its current programs.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center was created as a national memorial to the crew of STS-107, seven astronauts who died when the orbiter Columbia broke apart during reentry. (Related Lofty Ambitions blog posts HERE and HERE.) One of the first images that grabs and holds your attention as you enter the center is a wall-sized mosaic of Columbia’s last mission. The seven thousand individual images that unite to form the mosaic are snapshots of Columbia, the seven-member crew, and their training and preparation. When taken in its entirety, the mosaic is a compelling image of the moment that the STS-107 crew left the Earth for the last time. Up close, the individual images are a hauntingly intimate and personal glimpse into the lives of seven professionals who died doing something they loved.

The facility also houses a Challenger Learning Center. In this learning space, kids become members of a space shuttle crew on a simulated mission to return to the Moon or go to Mars. This part of the center is designed for groups and requires reservations, so area teachers should check it out.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00a.m. to 5:00p.m, with shortened hours on Sunday from 11:00a.m. to 3:00p.m.

Doug and Rand had a great time at the Columbia Memorial Space Center, and Anna will undoubtedly make the trip next time there’s an opportunity. In the meantime, Doug and Rand are considering ways to bring the Boisjoly collection to more people. Feel free to contact us via email if you have ideas for that project.

Plutonium at Its Worst and Best August 6, 2012

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Hiroshima, after August 6, 1945

Hiroshima, before August 6, 1945


This week marks the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, respectively, in 1945. Tens of thousands died on those dates, and more people died, as a result of radiation sickness, in the weeks and years following. War reveals human beings at their worst. Nuclear weapons represent our largest, surest capability for self-destruction.

In commemoration for that time, we encourage you to read the poem “Hiroshima’s Secrets” at Lofty Ambitions and to seek out other ways to remember. We’ve written a lot more about nuclear weapons and the nuclear history of the United States—read some of it HERE.

The night before this anniversary—last night—our thoughts were elsewhere. We were following the story of Curiosity, the Mars rover that landed at 10:31pm Pacific Time. Or rather, the rover landed at 10:17pm, and the confirmation signal reached Earth fourteen minutes later. A few minutes after that, two thumbnail photos arrived from Curiosity’s Hazcams, cameras positioned on the front and rear of the rover, cameras with a fisheye lens and amazing focus from four inches to the horizon. Curiosity’s wheels were firmly planted on relatively smooth, even ground. We could see Curiosity’s shadow cast on the surface of Mars.

Curiosity Caught in the Act of Landing (NASA)

The two most recent rovers—Spirit and Opportunity—were powered by solar panels. Curiosity, though, is much larger and more complex than those predecessors, so it needed more oomph and a longer life. Besides, solar panels can be compromised by the dust whipping about the Martian landscape. Curiosity is powered, therefore, by what NASA calls “a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) supplied by the Department of Energy.” In other words, Curiosity runs on a nuclear battery containing more than ten pounds of plutonium-238.

In 1941, chemist Glenn Seaborg developed Pu-238 from uranium-238. As it decays and generates the heat that makes it useful as fuel in a robot’s battery, Pu-238 decays back into that uranium isotope. The half-life for Pu-238 is more than eighty-seven years. In comparison, the isotope plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons and in nuclear power plants has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. Pu-238 does not explode like a bomb and is made in a ceramic form in an attempt to reduce health hazards. Neither the United States nor Russia produce Pu-238 anymore, though Russia has a small stockpile from which NASA purchases the isotope. Because its primary use is as battery power for NASA’s robotic space missions, there is some discussion of restarting production in the United States to ensure that the sort of Mars and outer planet exploration NASA has in mind can continue beyond 2020, but funding has not been approved by Congress.

Curiosity Sees Its Own Shadow on Mars (NASA)

This week, we remember the destruction that nuclear weapons can unleash in a single instant. May we also look to the skies this week and know that Curiosity, powered by its nuclear battery, is readying itself to explore the geochemistry of another world. May we glimpse, in Bill Nye’s words last night, “Humans at their very best.”

The Cold War: Trinity & Apollo July 16, 2012

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On this date in 1945, the United States exploded the first nuclear weapon. A test to see whether the concept worked. It did.

Trinity Test (LANL)

Two years ago to commemorate this anniversary, only a couple of weeks after we started blogging together as Lofty Ambitions, we posted “A Day with Two Suns.” That’s a relatively brief post that we hope you’ll read along with this one. That post hinges on a statement in a physics textbook from 1942 that presages the eventual use of an atomic bomb and implies the inevitability of nuclear weapons, once radioactivity and isotopes of uranium and plutonium were discovered and studied by scientists.

Groves and Oppenheimer, September 11, 1945 (LANL)

“The Gadget” was perched at the top of a hundred-foot tower and exploded on July 16, 1945. It had a twenty-kiloton yield. A device of the same design was detonated over Nagasaki a few weeks later, killing 40,000 people instantly. The exact detonation site for the Trinity test in New Mexico is now marked with an obelisk and is open to visitors two days every year.

On this anniversary of the beginning of the nuclear age, we invite you to look at another link as well, not ours, but an artist’s rendering in video of the nuclear age through 1998. Click HERE for Isao Hasimoto’s powerful representation of the world’s nuclear detonations, beginning with the Trinity test. In the top banner, note the detonation count by country along with the months and years elapsing. Since 1998 and the timeframe Hashimoto represents, North Korea has tested two nuclear weapons. That brings the total to 2055 nuclear explosions.

Tomorrow, too, marks another anniversary, that of the last above-ground nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site (now called the Nevada National Security Site and worth the click for the security notice). In 1962, Little Feller I was a comparatively small weapon shot from a Davy Crockett launcher. All nuclear tests thereafter moved underground to prevent fallout sprinkling radioactive particles around the globe and to protect the atmosphere and those of us who would breathe it for decades to come. Plutonium occurs almost nowhere in the natural world, but in the nuclear era, we swim in a thin stream of the man-made element as a byproduct of atmospheric testing in addition to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Plutonium-239, the isotope used for nuclear weapons, has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. You may also want to take a few minutes to read “Fission & Half-Lives.”

With the nuclear age, of course, came the Cold War, our decades of standoff with the Soviet Union. Part of the story of the Cold War is the story of the space race. The Soviets won the race to space, putting the first man into space, then the first man into low-Earth orbit. The United States won the race to the Moon. That victory began on this date in 1969, when Apollo 11 launched from Kennedy Space Center, with throngs of viewers crowded in the J.C Penney parking lot across the Indian River. A few days later, on July 20, Neil Armstrong, then Buzz Aldrin, stepped onto the lunar surface while Michael Collins circled across the far side of the Moon. The three splashed down safely on July 24, 1969.

Apollo-Suyuz Handshake (NASA)

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of another space exploration milestone as well, a friendly gesture between Cold War enemies, the Apollo-Soyuz mission. In 1975, the Soviet Union launched a Soyuz capsule and the United States launched an Apollo capsule. The two capsules docked in orbit on this date, and Tom Stafford and Alexey Leonov gave rise to the first outer-space handshake between nations. (Watch the docking HERE.)

We are no longer surprised by this sort of serendipity, by the fact that important historical events in two different realms about which we write—nuclear history and space exploration—would occur on the same date, years apart in the twentieth century. We find that this sort of serendipity happens regularly, while other dates contain nothing of import for our work at Lofty Ambitions.

What continues to surprise us is a different type of serendipity, one in which we seem actively involved. As we draft this post and realize that tomorrow marks the anniversary of Apollo-Soyuz, we have just watched the film The Far Side of the Moon, about which we knew almost nothing when we added it to our Netflix queue. The title, for us, was enough. It turns out that Alexey Leonov, the Soviet hand in that interstellar, Cold War handshake, plays a prominent role in The Far Side of the Moon. We don’t want to give too much away—the film is not about Leonov but about a philosophy of science student and his weatherman brother, in the wake of their mother’s death. We would have enjoyed the film any time because it is quirky, tells a character-driven story, and tries interesting cinematic moves. But that we happened to watch this film when it would be especially meaningful to us because of this anniversary is one of the pleasures we keep finding in our work together here.

Going Nuclear: From New Mexico to Colorado to Nevada June 13, 2012

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Today’s post is an extension of or at least directly related to our “In the Footsteps” series, in which we trace the nuclear history of the United States.

On this date in 1911, Luis W. Alvarez was born. He would go on to become a world-renowned physicist, eventually awarded the Nobel Prize in 1968 for his work in particle physics, resonance states, bubble chambers, and data analysis. Just before his work on nuclear weapons at Los Alamos, Alvarez, while based briefly at the University of Chicago, helped develop a plan for the first intelligence gathering and monitoring of nuclear development in other countries, at the time Germany.

Then, he became one among a host of scientists who worked at Los Alamos in New Mexico on the Manhattan Project. There, Alvarez worked on the first plutonium bomb, Fat Man, which was used on Nagasaki. In fact, he flew on The Great Artiste with the detection equipment he developed to measure the explosive power of the nuclear detonations over both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, he turned his attention to particle accelerators, the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, and the cause of dinosaur extinction.

Last Tuesday, Anna headed over to the local Barnes & Noble to pick up the new book by a recent Lofty Ambitions guest blogger. Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats made its debut on June 5, 2012, and as a Discover Great New Writers selection. The book has been chosen as a common reader for incoming students at Virginia Commonwealth University, and it’s getting great reviews. So Anna tucked it into her bag and headed off to Las Vegas to read it under the cabana.

What we like about Full Body Burden is the concept of science writing to which we keep returning here at Lofty Ambitions, namely that good science writing tells a story and is about the people as well as the science or technology. Kristen goes one step further, as we do here on our blog, by weaving her own story—memoir—into the larger cultural story. Or rather, Kristen recognizes that she too is part of the story of Rocky Flats in Colorado, where she spent her childhood and where plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons were produced until 1992. So we learn about Kristen’s horses—Tonka, Sassy, and the others—and family life in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as about the fires in 1957 and 1969 at the Rocky Flats facility operated then by Dow Chemical.

The story of Rocky Flats, including its two major fires and its day-to-day leakage, is one that most of us don’t know. To put its importance in perspective, here’s a tidbit from Full Body Burden: “In early December 1974, residents wake up to a socking headline in the Rocky Mountain News: cattle near rocky flats show high plutonium level. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study has found that cattle in a pasture just east of Rocky Flats have more plutonium in their lungs than cattle grazing on land at the Nevada Test Site, where the United States conducted hundreds of aboveground nuclear explosions in the 1950s and 1960s. Plutonium, uranium, americium, tritium, and strontium are found in measurable quantities in the cows’ bodies, and levels of plutonium in the lungs and tracheo-bronchial lymph nodes of the cows are especially high.”

Indeed, 928 nuclear tests (some with multiple detonations) were conducted both above and below ground at the Nevada Test Site (check this link to see warning to users) between 1951 and 1992, the year the United States agreed to a nuclear test ban and the year Rocky Flats stopped producing plutonium triggers. While the United States performed more than 200 atmospheric tests, some of those were done in the Pacific Ocean. The vast majority of nuclear tests in Nevada—more than eight hundred—were underground detonations. The last aboveground test at the Nevada Test Site occurred on July 17, 1962. Of course, underground tests raised dust too, and some, like Buster-Jangle Uncle in 1951 and Baneberry in 1970, had visible releases of fallout well above the Earth’s surface.

We know these facts about the Nevada Test Site in part because, while in Las Vegas, we usually visit the Atomic Testing Museum on Flamingo Road, just a few minutes drive off The Strip. Doug drove out to Las Vegas on Saturday to spend the night and retrieve Anna and some friends. So this trip provided another opportunity to visit the museum on Sunday, in the midst of reading about the nation’s nuclear history in Full Body Burden.

Last Underground Nuclear Test (NNSA)

In the films at the museum, we were reminded of what the shift from aboveground testing to underground testing meant for the people involved in the program. One person pointed out that, though many scientists and engineers initially opposed the move, “The data was much better underground.” Another man, though, worries that, when we moved nuclear testing underground and out of sight, “We shielded ourselves and the public from what a nuclear test is really like.” The United States hasn’t conducted a critical nuclear explosion in twenty years.

The Nevada Test Site remains ready to resume nuclear testing, though. A test site engineer in one of the museum’s films went so far as to state, “As long as you have a nuclear stockpile, the day will come when you have to have a nuclear test.” A New York Times article this year notes that our current agreement with Russia limits us to 1550 deployed weapons and “thousands more warheads [that] can be kept in storage as a backup force” and additional short-range nuclear weapons. Given the order for a nuclear test, the Nevada Test Site could be ready again within two or three years.

A Day at NASA’s Dryden Research Center (#NASASocial) May 9, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
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For more than seventy years, a dry lakebed in Southern California’s interior has been a hotbed of aviation research, development, and testing. During that time, the nearly five hundred square miles of flattened high desert, situated in the Antelope Valley and bordered by the Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountain ranges, has been home to a series of military bases and government research centers. Presently, Edwards Air Force Base, home to the Air Force Flight Test Center, and NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) inhabit the lakebed, each having their own buildings and hangars, but sharing the runways.

Doug visited the Dryden/Edwards complex this past Friday. Doug and Anna had previously visited the area in November 2008, in order to watch the completion of STS-126, when space shuttle Endeavour landed in California. The occasion of Doug’s most recent visit to DFRC was a NASA Social event. A NASA Social—previously known as a NASA Tweetup but now extended to include other social media platforms—is by invitation only, and Doug was selected in a lottery.

NASA has made a big commitment to social media in an effort to tell its story, and #DrydenSocial was the thirty-seventh event that they have held since their first, a Tweetup at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in January 2009. This is the second such NASA event that Doug has attended; he was at Tweetup for the GRAIL launch in September.

The Dryden/Edwards area first became a home to military aircraft in the 1930s as a bombing range for pilots flying out of March Field in nearby Riverside.  During World War II, the bombing range became Muroc Army Air Base. The facility added test flight and engineering to its repertoire during the war; it was the place where America’s first jet fighter, the Bell XP-59A was tested. Those aeronautical engineering and development activities became a focus for the facility in the post-war years. This change in emphasis reached its logical conclusion when the Bell X-1, piloted by Chuck Yeager, ushered in the era of supersonic flight by breaking the sound barrier there on October 14, 1947. Muroc was renamed Edwards Air Force Base—honoring test pilot Glenn Edwards—in 1949.

HL-10 Lifting Body

NASA’s predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, first began flying from the lakebed just after the war’s end in 1946. Over time, DRFC has been known by a dizzying array of names. For a catalog of its previous names, consult the Introduction in Images of Aviation: Edwards Air Force Base by Ted Huetter and Christian Gelzer.

If you’ve read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff or seen the movie, as soon as you arrive at Edwards you expect to hear the air-shattering cracks associated with sonic booms or to catch a glimpse of a fast-moving, yet improbably shaped, aircraft. Instead, what you notice is the scale of the place, the distances involved. In order to reach DRFC’s front door, you have to drive nearly ten miles after you leave the Air Force guards and gates in your review mirror. The entire drive, save the last hundred yards, is spent on a single road, Rosamond Boulevard. On a map or from the air, Rosamond Boulevard arcs through the landscape, a bite mark carving out a quarter of the facility.

The road that leads from Rosamond to the DFRC parking lot is named for another test pilot, Howard Lilly. Lilly was NACA’s first test pilot assigned to Muroc, third to break the speed of sound, and first to be killed on the job. After a while, it becomes clear that having something bear your name at this site is a mixed-bag. Unless you’re lucky enough to see an aircraft in flight while driving in, the next thing you notice after parking your car is the wind. It comes at you from every direction, all the time.


Near Dryden’s parking lot is a display area of former NASA test aircraft. Prior to beginning the day’s event, DFRC Chief Historian Dr. Christian Gelzer (co-author of the book mentioned above) was in the display area describing the assemblage of test vehicles: the HL-10 lifting body, used to validate ideas that would later be used in the shuttle; an SR-71 Blackbird; the F-8 Crusader used to develop fly-by-wire, a technology that eliminated the mechanical connection between the pilot and an aircraft’s control surfaces; another F-8 Crusader, this one used for Super Critical Wing studies; the X-29, whose flight on forward-swept wings was made possible only by computer control; and one of the eleven F-104s that served as a chase planes at DFRC for almost forty years (1956-1994).

Among the topics that Gelzer discussed in his pre-event tour through static display aircraft was the concept of Armstrong’s Line, or sometimes called Armstrong’s Limit. As Gelzer described it, Armstrong’s Line, named for physician Harry Armstrong (not to be confused with Neil’s famous spoken line), is that height above the earth’s surface beyond which the air pressure is not sufficient to maintain your corporeal liquids. In other words, above approximately 62,000 feet, the air pressure is so low that your body’s own natural temperature is enough to boil the water in your blood, your tissues, and even your bones. Given the impulse of Dryden’s test pilots to fly ever higher over the years, it isn’t much of a surprise that Armstrong’s Line is common banter around and above the dry lakebed.

We’ll have more about DFRC and Doug’s Dryden Social-izing soon.

Guest Blog: Claire Robinson May April 16, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science.
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Claire Robinson May

We just never know whom we’re going to find for our next guest post. Today, we’re featuring the granddaughter of Kenneth T. Bainbridge, the director of the Trinity nuclear test. This guest post is a great complement to our In the Footsteps series, which you can find HERE.

Claire Robinson May is a playwright in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) program. Her ten-minute performance piece, The Trinity Project, is being produced this month by the Oddy Theater Lab. Her full-length plays Mother/Tongue and Standardized ChildTM have been performed at Cleveland Public Theatre. She teaches Legal Writing at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and lives in Cleveland Heights with her husband, two sons, and a few other animals.


“Now we are all sons of bitches.” That’s what my grandfather, Kenneth T. Bainbridge, said after the successful Trinity test of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945. Not a grand soliloquy like J. Robert Oppenheimer’s—Ken cut right to the heart of the matter.

Kenneth T. Bainbridge (LANL)

Ken Bainbridge directed the Trinity Test. He always said he was glad the test was a success because otherwise he would have had to climb the tower to investigate what had gone wrong.

Ken was forty at the time of the test and a married father of three. He was a Harvard University physics professor who had relocated his family to Los Alamos, New Mexico, so that he could work on the Manhattan Project, one of the most top-secret endeavors in history.

Ken and his nine-year-old son, Martin, drove from Cambridge to Los Alamos in early July 1943. In late August, after Ken had arranged for their housing, my grandmother, Margaret Bainbridge (Peg), brought daughters Margaret (Margi) and Joan out to Los Alamos on the train. Joan was six. My mother, Margi, was fourteen months old. She learned to walk on the train to New Mexico. They lived at Los Alamos for the next two years.

The Bainbridges moved into a two-family house on the coveted Bathtub Row (so named because the street had the only housing units with bathtubs). Physicist Norman Ramsey’s family lived on the other side of the house. (Ramsey would go on to share a Nobel Prize in 1989.) Joan and Martin explored the new landscape, distressing the patrol guards with their utter disregard of the security fence.

Bainbridge Family, 1944

Oppenheimer managed the gasoline rations so that scientists and their families could take the occasional day trip. There were picnics, mineral collecting outings, and visits to the pueblo. Joan remembers weekend fishing trips and other adventures with her father, writing, “I have some childhood memories with Dad at Los Alamos—I still have the trout rod he made for me, hand wrapped with silk . . . but, thinking about it, there are not as many as I might have imagined. He was very absorbed and then gone much of the time in the spring of ’45.” The test blast would occur on July 16, 1945.

After the war, my grandfather joined the numerous physicists who spoke out against nuclear weapons. But he never wavered in the conviction that developing the bomb was necessary. He later wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that he had “a somewhat bloodthirsty viewpoint on the war” when he decided to join the Manhattan Project because he’d already heard first-hand accounts of Nazi atrocities from some of the European scientists he knew.

Claire Robinson May, Ken Bainbridge's Granddaughter

When I studied the history of science as an undergraduate at Harvard University in the early 1990s, I invited my grandfather to come to campus to hear a panel discussion that took place each year in one of the core science courses. Scientists such as Hans Bethe and Victor Weisskopf spoke to students about the development of the bomb and the decision to use it against Japan to end the war. Ken’s Los Alamos friends would wave from the stage, delighted to spot him in the Science Center auditorium. I was always proud to be with him. It was hardly a coincidence that my undergraduate studies focused on the history of twentieth-century physics.

Ken Bainbridge didn’t want to be remembered only for the bomb. He had many other achievements, both before and after the war, including his work on the Harvard cyclotron and the first experimental verification of E=MC2. When he chaired the Harvard University physics department in the early 1950s, Ken staunchly defended colleagues against the blacklisting attacks of Senator Joseph McCarthy. My grandfather was widely respected in his field as a careful and conscientious experimentalist and as a mentor to younger physicists. He was beloved by his family and many friends.

My grandfather died in 1996, shortly before his 92nd  birthday. His wife, Peg, had died suddenly in 1967, several years before I was born. With both of them gone, I can’t help but wonder what transpired between my grandparents in the days after the test, when the families finally knew what really had been going on at Los Alamos. I wonder what role the experience may have played in Peg’s decision not long after the war to become a Quaker, a faith that wholly rejects violence. I now find myself drawn to the point where human history and family history intersect, in a blinding desert sky.


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