Category Archives: Science

Abandoned in the Flood

October 06, 2005

Timmy DeRusha is Loretta Lynn’s tour manager. With a week off the road from a current performance trek, DeRusha didn’t lounge around his Tennessee home resting up for the next round of concerts. Instead, he spent the time in flood-ravaged New Orleans rescuing dogs and cats left behind when their owners fled the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Katrina.

Along with his father-in-law and brother-in-law, DeRusha loaded a pickup truck and cargo van with medical supplies and food donated by Nashville-area veterinarians, then headed to New Orleans. “The smell of that city . . . You could smell it from miles away, driving in over the bridge,” DeRusha recalled in a recent telephone conversation. With signs reading “Disaster Response Animal Rescue” posted on their vehicles, DeRusha’s group was escorted by a local fisherman who had previously supplied boats to various animal rescuers as needed. Guards posted outside the city allowed the group in after recognizing the fisherman. “We were armed, because [the guards] said that we might run across someone who wasn’t supposed to be in [New Orleans],” said DeRusha.

At some homes, DeRusha’s crew brought out dogs and cats while National Guard troops removed dead humans from the house next door. “People that left had spray-painted ‘PETS INSIDE’ or ‘DOG NEEDS RESCUED’ on plywood-covered windows in hopes that somebody would be coming along to get them,” said DeRusha. “But some of the animals had gotten stuck on balconies or rooftops and weren’t able to get down.” He said most of the animals were not vicious. “Most were traumatized, because they hadn’t had food or fresh water for two weeks,” DeRusha explained. “After we gave them dog treats and water and they realized that we were there to help them, then it was no problem at all. A lot of them were just really, really scared because all of a sudden the person that had been there taking care of them, in their mind, had deserted them. Then all this stuff happened that they had never seen happen before, with all the water coming in. The animals were survivors. Unfortunately, there were a lot of animals that we were too late for.”

An animal rescue volunteer coaxes a dog to safety. (click for larger version)


DeRusha and his crew used poles with nooses to catch dogs. “If they were too vicious, we just left fresh food and water. I’d say that nearly half the animals that we rescued were pit bulls. We were working in the inner-city area, mostly. That’s obviously what they do there, they raise dogs to fight. Some of the dogs needed rescuing whether there was a hurricane or not. They weren’t being taken care of . . . One was a three-month old pit bull pup. He tried to act like the most vicious of all, but when we gave him some food he began acting like a typical puppy.” 

Other scenarios were simply horrifying. A pair of pit bulls were discovered in one abandoned home. The female was emaciated, though it was obvious she had delivered a litter days earlier. DeRusha could not locate the litter and surmised that the male, who appeared well-fed, had cannibalized it.

Rescued animals were crated, with the address of recovery marked on the crate so pets could possibly be reunited with owners. For five days straight, DeRusha hauled approximately 30 dogs and cats each day to Tylertown, Mississippi, where a temporary animal sanctuary had been erected on five acres of farmland. 

The Greater Birmingham Humane Society (GBHS) brought more than 300 rescued animals back to Birmingham from Tylertown, Hattiesburg, and Jackson, Mississippi, where animals had been sheltered prior to rescue groups such as GBHS arriving. GBHS director Jacque Meyer was impressed by the number of people who came from across the country to help in the animal rescue effort. “It’s been very, very sad, but I am amazed at the number of people in the United States that have made an effort, using vacation time and their own money, to rescue these animals.” Meyer said that an abandoned warehouse in the Gonzalez area of New Orleans sat on higher ground that had stayed relatively dry. Abandoned animals migrated to the warehouse area, though some people were observed dumping off animals at the site. Food and water were supplied to the homeless animals at the site by the few officials allowed into New Orleans until the animals could be taken away.

Approximately 75 percent of the animals that Jacque Meyer brought to Birmingham were dogs, the rest being cats, along with an occasional goat or pig. They were medically treated at GBHS until the North Shore Animal League, an organization that finds homes for more than 30,000 animals yearly, took them to its New York state headquarters where they will be housed until either the owners find their animals through the web site, or until the animals can be adopted.

“People that left had spray-painted ‘PETS INSIDE’ or ‘DOG NEEDS RESCUED’ on plywood-covered windows in hopes that somebody would be coming along to get them.” Meyer said the trauma endured by abandoned animals continued to affect many even weeks after being rescued. “Some wouldn’t sleep lying down because they were so used to standing up so they could survive,” she explained, adding that some rescued dogs kept trying to swim each time they were lifted up into the arms of shelter workers, even though they had been away from flood waters for days. &

Red Planet Redux


Red Planet Redux

A chat with Martian Summer author Andrew Kessler

June 23, 2011

Black & White: You really do come across as a regular guy with a passionate interest in space. Was being in Mission Control nerve-wracking at first?
Andrew Kessler: It was absolutely nerve-wracking. The more you kind of wade in, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Once things actually start happening there’s this “Oh shit!” moment, “This is so over my head.” And then you don’t feel bad about asking questions. You know, when you see scientists ask each other a question, then you realize, “Oh, even these guys [don't know things].” But there’s so many specialties (skill-wise) that are happening. There’s the guys that recalibrate the batteries. There are the guys who are monitoring the power. People monitor software. Even though those guys work closely and are experts in what they do, there’s a big gulf between each of the disciplines.

At what point did you start feeling more comfortable, like you were beginning to fit in and become accepted?
That was sort of a slow process. There was probably a day about a month in where I felt like I understood everything that had happened that day. That was kind of a big deal. And then probably after that, the first time someone asked me what was going on. I felt like I had a purpose, too, because I’m only human. Because even though I was there doing research and writing a book, you wonder if you’re in people’s way. And then I explained to someone why a particular dig (into Martian dirt) had failed. I just felt so proud of myself! I had this kind of silly moment where I really didn’t know all that much but just a little bit of insider info that I was able to provide to someone else who I looked up to. And one of these very smart scientists was like, “You’re part of the team . . .” I actually tried to write this book with more of a serious approach in the beginning because I felt this tremendous burden. I could tell these people’s story well and I felt their story was so important and they worked so hard. And then I found myself falling into that same trap where it was dehumanizing to think that I felt so connected with them. As a matter of fact, it was fun to be out at Mission Control. People are funny, they are quirky, and you relate to them in different ways, and you relate to the lander in different ways. And then I decided, “Oh, I have to tell the story in a more honest way,” which would be for me—which is how I write. I think it worked out for the better. I hope so anyway. I certainly get panned for it sometimes, by people expecting more hard science that are annoyed with my personality. That is the one flaw of the book—that you have to suffer through my personality in order to get excited about space. [laughs]


(click for larger version)





You were asked to step out of some meetings when things were deemed too sensitive for outside observers. Were you ever concerned that you would be asked to leave the premises permanently?
Yeah, I was very fearful in the beginning that someone would say that they didn’t want me there. That was kind of a constant fear and it took a while to build up my courage to talk to people. I would have to do this thing that I hated about myself where I would have to make snap judgments about people, about whether they would be friendly on the project or not. I kind of slowly made friends with people. I was very much a wallflower in the beginning, until I felt more secure. Then I had more of a story and I took more risks in asking questions and spending time with people, and really asking them to explain over and over again what it was that they were doing so that I really felt like I understood it.

How did you and Peter Smith meet?
Peter was looking for ways to publicize the mission. He found me through a contact of his. Basically, I went down to meet with him and to talk about different ways to approach the story. And he was interested in a book and he was interested in new voices telling that story. So I just went down and hung out with him for a weekend and we talked a lot. He had his reservations, and then over the course of the year something changed and he decided that since I had spent a lot of time there, I had worked pitching this Discovery documentary about the mission, and he decided it might be fun to write this [from an] outsider['s] perspective.

Did you become fascinated with outer space as a child?
Oh yeah. The first time I learned “Many Very Early Men Ate Juicy Steaks Using No Plates” to memorize the planets—Pluto was still a planet then. I was amazed that there were all these other worlds out there. I was generally curious of science anyway as a little kid. So that’s when this sort of fascination began. I’ve been kind of a casual fan ever since, and it’s kind of waxed and waned over time. But then my mind was blown and I remembered how awesome it was and how much I used to love it when I got into Mission Control. It seemed like, “This is the real deal.”

I think the most exciting stuff NASA does these days are the robotic missions, not the manned missions that the public supposedly craves.
Yeah, I agree. The problem is that we don’t really know our astronauts and we don’t really know what they’re doing. I think NASA could do a better [job] telling that story or connecting us with those astronauts. The people who operate these robots—these robots are doing crazy things; these telescopes are doing crazy, amazing things, taking beautiful pictures. And if we could kind of connect with these artists and these craftsmen who make it possible, I think we’d have this really rich, narrative space to play in. People want stars. I think scientists could be kind of these stars if [NASA] really knew what they were doing [from a public relations standpoint].

While reading the book, I kept thinking I was on Mars observing all this activity of both the robot and the scientists, and I kept forgetting that the scientists were still on Earth.
That’s the best part of Mission Control, when you lose yourself for those brief moments and you really think about what the lander is doing on Mars and you feel this connection to it—it’s more than just a robot. You find yourself rooting for these scoops [of Martian dirt] to happen.

Have any of the people you were hanging out with at Mission Control expressed irritation with you about the book?
There are a few people that were very candid in some of the things they said [during the mission] that maybe have some regrets about saying them. For the most part, it’s been really positive. Maybe people are just not telling me there’s negative feedback. That was the hardest part, right? You can’t write the book for the people in the mission. But they all became very important to me and I felt this real responsibility to them. A lot of them didn’t have time to enjoy it while they were there. That was one nice bit of feedback, that I was able to put them back in that moment and they were able to enjoy it without having the burden of work and long, crushing hours.

You spent a year training for the mission?
NASA requires you to have training sessions where basically you learn how to work together to operate your mission. I also spent a lot of time interviewing the scientists before the project. I did basic Mars research and instrument research just trying to learn so I would not sound like an idiot, which was my biggest fear, on day one when I got there.

Did the engineers in Mission Control frequently refer to signs of possible ice as the “white stuff?”
Yeah, they did. It was funny, kind of a cultural thing where very few people want to commit to new discoveries so they come up with all these euphemisms for things they believe to be true. But they don’t want anyone to say that they were the ones that said “This is ice.” They kind of talk around things in a funny way. They’re a little bit fearful of being the guy who misspeaks because then the press will jump on all these things. In some sense it’s funny. But then other times you see why they do it. There’s a moment where one of the scientists says, “It’s [Martian soil] acidic, you could grow asparagus in it.” Then the headline was “Grow Asparagus on Mars!” I think it’s great when that happens because then it makes people care, they can connect to this thing. But it makes the science team a little nervous when they become known as the guy who was going to grow asparagus on Mars. &

Dead Folks 2010: Innovators, Sportsmen, and Politics

Dead Folks 2010: Innovators, Sportsmen, and Politics


January 20, 2011

Inventors and Innovators

Fran Lee (99)
A fiery consumer advocate responsible for New York City’s adoption of pooper-scooper laws in 1978, Fran Lee initially opposed the ordinance, believing it to be too lenient as she denounced notions of dogs being allowed to desecrate the city. Though dog waste may be her claim to fame, Lee appeared on local and national radio and TV programming from the 1940s through the 1990s, playing characters such as Mrs. Fix-It, Mrs. Consumer, and Granny Fanny as she doled out consumer tips. She once appeared on “The Steve Allen Show,” and she taught Allen how to make a bikini from a tattered sweater. She acted in off-Broadway plays and had a small role as a Macy’s customer in Miracle on 34th Street.

After immersing herself in public health and safety issues, she went all out. Her son told the New York Times: “She had the elevator man in each of her buildings bring her all the medical journals that were being thrown out by the doctors in the building. So she had files on spider bites, ticks, all sorts of diseases.” He added that he could overhear his mother—a staunch atheist—talking to herself in her final years, when she would mutter, “God, when I get to see you, am I going to tell you a thing or two.”—ER

Fred Morrison (90)
Visit the beach in Santa Monica, California, on any given afternoon, and more than likely you will see Frisbees being tossed. That’s fitting, because the flying disc’s inventor was selling “Flyin’ Cake Pans” there before eventually creating a plastic version known as “Flyin-Saucer” with investor Warren Franscioni in the late 1940s. A former World War II fighter pilot, Morrison was determined to improve the disc’s aerodynamic qualities, which he did after parting ways with Franscioni. Specifically noted in Morrison’s U.S. patent is the outer third of the disc, known as the “Morrison Slope.” By the mid-1950s Morrison’s new and improved version, “The Pluto Platter,” caught the attention of entrepreneurs at Wham-O, the toy company responsible for the Hula Hoop, the Super Ball, and other iconic toys. Ed Headrick, (later owner of the Disc Golf Association), further improved the design by adding stabilizing concentric rings at the disc’s edge (known as the “Rings of Headrick”). The new name was coined when Wham-O reps learned that college kids in New England referred to the Pluto Platters as “Frisbies” after the Frisbie Pie Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. That company’s cake pans were already being used as makeshift toys. The Wham-O legal counsel naturally insisted on altering the spelling to “Frisbee.”

The whole process, instigated by Morrison’s idea to capitalize on the era’s flying saucer craze, made him a millionaire. He wasn’t the only one who got rich. Before selling the name and design for Frisbee to Mattell, Wham-O sold approximately 100 million discs.—DP

Elizabeth Post (click for larger version)




Elizabeth Post (89)
Is it proper to talk about the deceased while comforting a bereaved survivor? Are floral patterns appropriate to wear at a funeral? Is it okay to bring a date? You’ve missed your chance to ask Elizabeth Post, who succeeded her grandmother-in-law Emily Post as America’s leading expert on manners. She enjoyed a long career that included frequently revising the book Emily Post’s Etiquette. Elizabeth also kept a column under her own name that ran in Good Housekeeping for 25 years. Known as “Libby” to her pals, she had a notably relaxed notion about the etiquette industry. She mostly believed in respect and consideration as a way to bring people closer together. She was on the front lines of dealing with things like wedding showers for unwed mothers—so it’s pretty impressive she lived as long as she did.—JRT

Glenn Walters (85)
Many people can curse Glenn Walters as the inventor of cubicles. At the very least, he was a major figure behind the workplace innovation. Back in 1966, his vision was more about the concept of movable walls. Still, it was inevitable that his big idea would be turned into little boxes for office employees. Cubicles made a success of Walters, who started out as a salesman for the Herman Miller furniture company. He retired as the company’s president in 1982.

Walters might not have even noticed how his dehumanizing eight foot by eight foot enclosures (if you’re lucky) became a touchstone of Generation X revolt a decade later—and soon had hip corporations embracing an open office workplace as a fashionable option. You can still thank him for absurdist humor ranging from the “Dilbert” comic strip to the cult film Office Space. He should also get credit for that cute picture of a cubicle dolled up like a gingerbread house that someone emailed you last week.

This is also a good time to salute UAB employee David Gunnells, who was the winner of Wired magazine’s 2007 competition for America’s Saddest Cubicle. Revenge is yours, sir.—JRT

Morrie Yohai (click for larger version)

Morrie Yohai (89)
You might think of them as a trashy Southern tradition, but Cheez Doodles—marketed under the Wise Foods banner in the mid-1960s—originated in the Bronx under the eye of Morrie Yohai. His company was later absorbed by Borden, who promptly moved the product to their affiliate’s potato chip division. The cheese-flavored corn snack was a Cheetos knock-off, but the Cheez Doodles brand has continued to prosper. Yohai did pretty well for himself, going on to work with Borden’s snack food division on (the predominantly East Coast–preferred) Drake’s Cakes and (the universally beloved) Cracker Jack. Yohai always insisted that the invention of Cheez Doodles was a group effort, but he conceded that he invented the name. He certainly embraced his proud heritage—passing away in the New York home that his wife of over 50 years described as “the house that Cheez Doodles bought.”—JRT


Alexander Haig (85)
A veteran of the the Korean and Vietnam Wars, former U.S. Army General Alexander Haig was perhaps best known for wrongly declaring himself to be in charge of the country in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. It was the first of several controversial episodes that prompted Reagan to fire him after Haig was appointed Secretary of State. (He pronounced himself “the vicar of foreign policy” after accepting the post.) He took over H. R. Haldeman’s position as President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff as Watergate began to unravel and is widely credited with keeping the government functioning during Nixon’s final days.

Alexander Haig (click for larger version)

Noted for his staunch anticommunist posture, Haig readily admitted to feeling that way at a young age in a 2000 interview with Fox’s James Rosen: “I started out as a Cold Warrior, even my last years in grade school. I used to read everything I could get on communism. In fact, the first paper I wrote as a plebe at West Point caused a major upheaval in the faculty, because I predicted that our next enemy was the Soviet Union. . . . It was during the war [World War II], when we were allies. . . . I was viewed with some suspicion by the social sciences department.” Later in the interview, he knocked his old boss Reagan: “There ain’t anybody else in America that I know that has quit three presidents—but I have. And I quit Ronald Reagan for exactly that reason. He’s sitting there, not knowing what the hell was going on, and he had [Deputy Chief of Staff Mike] Deaver and [Chief of Staff James] Baker and Mrs. Reagan running the government!”—ER

James Kilpatrick (89)
Like many Southerners before him, political writer and pundit James Kilpatrick finally realized that the racial discrimination he once championed was simply wrong. As the editor of the Richmond News Leader in the 1950s and ’60s, Kilpatrick was a fervent segregationist who in editorials espoused states’ rights and separation of the races. In 1963, he submitted an article to the Saturday Evening Post titled “The Hell He Is Equal,” writing that the “Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race.” The Post pulled the article out of sensitivity to the deaths of four young black girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. By the late ’60s, Kilpatrick began to repent.

James Kilpatrick (click for larger version)

Kilpatrick became a conservative political TV star for his in-your-face debating prowess on the CBS “60 Minutes” segment “Point-Counterpoint.” He verbally jousted with liberal opponents, the most memorable instances being snide exchanges between him and liberal Shana Alexander. Kilpatrick and his colleagues called their debates “a political form of professional wrestling.” The pair was parodied by Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd on “Saturday Night Live” during Weekend Update sketches.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy was a neighbor and friend of Kilpatrick’s. “The man is not locked into a mold. He’s not just the curmudgeon you see on TV,” McCarthy told The Washington Post in 1973, adding that Kilpatrick had “kind of a country manor style.”

My favorite things that Kilpatrick wrote were his weekly syndicated columns on grammar and word usage in the Birmingham News each Sunday. He mercilessly scolded, scoffed at, and corrected writers who committed grammatical sins in print. I was once inspired to send him an email praising him after he relentlessly shamed a writer for misusing the word “shimmy” when the scribe wrote of someone who “shimmied up a pole.” Kilpatrick admonished, correcting the mistake with the pointed barbs and verbal skill of a master swordsman when he informed that “shinny” is the correct verb to represent such an action. “Shimmy” is more correctly used to define the intense shaking in the front end of an automobile. I shared with Kilpatrick that I first heard the word “shimmy” used by my father to describe the intense vibrations from the engine of our 1967 Chevelle. The next morning, Kilpatrick had already responded, writing:

Dear Mr. Reynolds,

Many thanks for your note. We have a good deal in common. I’m 84. I learned to drive under my father’s tutelage in a Studebaker sedan, and thus learned all about shimmy. This was in 1934 or thereabouts. Great car, but—

You could do me a favor if sometime, when you’re thinking about my column, you could drop a note to the News editor saying you enjoy my pearls of wisdom. Nothing helps a columnist quite so much as a few letters from readers, writ by hand.

James J. Kilpatrick

I remain forever amused that a writer of Kilpatrick’s prominence asked me to dash off a note to the editor of a newspaper that ran his column to tell them what a great job Kilpatrick was doing.—ER


Don Meredith (click for larger version)

“Dandy Don” Meredith (72)
For nine seasons “Dandy Don” Meredith was quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, later making a name for himself as part of the original Monday Night Football broadcasting team. Meredith was commentator Howard Cosell’s comic foil for 12 years. His ever-present smile, effervescent personality, and down-home humor made him popular with viewers. One of his favorite quips was the night he was working a game in Denver. “Welcome to Mile High Stadium—and I really am,” he said.—Ed Reynolds

George Steinbrenner (80)
Noted for his demanding, outspoken demeanor, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was the first professional sports franchise owner to pay outrageously large salaries to players. Building a baseball dynasty second to none, Steinbrenner was renowned for firing and rehiring managers, with hothead Billy Martin taking five turns managing the team. The revolving door of personnel changes earned the Yankees the nickname “the Bronx Zoo.” During his college years, Steinbrenner flirted with coaching football and was an assistant coach to Woody Hayes at Ohio State the year the Buckeyes were the undefeated national champions. Before acquiring the Yankees in 1973, he dabbled in producing Broadway plays.—ER

Bobby Thomson (86)
Born in Scotland, Bobby Thomson moved to the United States at age two. His game-winning home run—known as “the shot heard ’round the world”—lifted the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers in a 1951 playoff game to secure the National League pennant. It was later confirmed that the 1951 Giants employed telescopes to steal the pitching signals that opposing catchers gave to pitchers.—ER

John Wooden (click for larger version)

John Wooden (99)
Known as the “Wizard of Westwood,” John Wooden is considered the greatest basketball coach in college history; his UCLA Bruins won 10 national championships in 12 years, including 7 in a row. No collegiate team dominated a sport the way UCLA did basketball with Wooden at the helm, spawning two of the greatest names to play the game: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. His teams were noted for their merciless full-court press on defense. Wooden always described his job as teacher, not coach. Abdul-Jabbar wrote in the New York Times in 2000, “He broke basketball down to its basic elements. . . . He always told us basketball was a simple game, but his ability to make the game simple was part of his genius.”—ER

Out of This World

Out of This World

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“Grissom and Young” (1965), by Norman Rockwell. (click for larger version)




April 29, 2010

NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration
By James Dean and Bertram Ulrich
Abrams, 176 pages, $40.

Few spectacles are more spine-tingling than a rocket illuminated by floodlights at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) the night before a launch. The drama is gloriously captured in “T-Minus 3 Hours 30 Minutes and Counting,” Jamie Wyeth’s magnificent watercolor rendering of a Saturn V rocket bathed in searchlight beams hours before blasting the Apollo 11 astronauts to the Moon. Wyeth began his sketch of the 363-foot-tall Saturn V just before dawn, finishing the painting less than an hour before liftoff. The image is among more than 150 paintings, drawings, and an occasional odd sculpture in NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration.

In 1962, NASA administrator James Webb thought it wise to document the space agency’s history through a wider spectrum of art than simple portraits. Webb appointed NASA employee and artist James Dean to take charge of the project. A year later, the agency asked the National Gallery of Art to recruit eight artists to commemorate the final Mercury mission. Seven artists were assigned to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral; another was waiting on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean to depict the recovery of astronaut Gordon Cooper. Initially, the artists were confined to designated locations, but NASA soon allowed them unfettered access to the KSC grounds. Artists were given no guidelines; they were allowed to focus on any person or object. The only requirement was that every drawing sketched on site, regardless of how insignificant, be added to the NASA archive. NASA reasoned that “on-the-spot sketches often have an impact and immediacy which finished works of art lack.”

Norman Rockwell contributed the stirring “Behind Apollo 11,” which captured the Apollo 11 crew, the astronauts’ wives, Wernher von Braun, and other NASA personnel staring into the distance, their faces illuminated by what is presumably the Moon. James Dean captured a field of blossoms with a space shuttle on the launch pad in the distance. Others focused on the fiery explosions of liftoff. Depictions of space shuttles launched in daylight and at night offer fascinating contrast. The local tourism boom is reflected in sketches of the Satellite Motel and the Moon Hut Diner, where patrons chowed on Moon Burgers. (A replica of Earth in front of the motel features a pair of UFOs orbiting the planet.) William Wegman posed his famous Weimaraners in spacesuits. In Andy Warhol’s depiction of the first moon landing, Buzz Aldrin is wearing a neon pink spacesuit.

NASA | ART includes a brief history of America’s role in space exploration, including a foreword written by Apollo 11 pilot Michael Collins. Text accompanying each work often tells the story behind its creation. It is fitting that science fiction writer Ray Bradbury closes the book with a handful of thoughts pondering the universe: “Without us human beings, without NASA, the Universe would be unseen, unknown, untouched. A mindless abyss of stars ask to be discovered.”

Through June 27, a corresponding exhibition at The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Mississippi, features 72 works from “NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration” as part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The museum is located at 565 North 5th Avenue, Laurel, Mississippi. Details: (606) 649-6374;


“Gemini Launch Pad” (1964), by James Wyeth (click for larger version)










“Sunrise Suit-up” (1988), by Martin Hoffman (click for larger version)









“Titan” (2006), by Daniel Zeller (click for larger version)



Alabama’s Sight Savers America is on a mission to spread the gift of sight to the nation’s disadvantaged children.

April 15, 2010

No less an authority than Dr. Lanning B. Kline, chairman of the Eyesight Foundation of Alabama and a UAB Department of Ophthalmology professor, refers to Jeff Haddox as a “visionary.” Haddox, founder and CEO of Sight Savers America, is determined that every child in Alabama have access to affordable vision treatment. Haddox had told Kline of his dream to one day dispatch a mobile vision-testing lab throughout the poverty-plagued Black Belt region of central Alabama to conduct one-day eye examination clinics for underserved children who have little or no access to eyecare. Kline was initially skeptical, assuming that many families would not follow through on addressing a child’s poor eyesight due to financial constraints or a lack of vision specialists in the region. He soon learned that Haddox planned a more comprehensive solution. “Haddox was closing the loop by not only providing the eye exams but also free eyeglasses at the same time. His staff would then follow up every year to make sure the children were getting the care they need,” Kline wrote in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology newsletter Vision.

Sight Savers America founder Jeff Haddox delivers an assistive device to a young girl with vision problems whose family could not otherwise afford such a solution. “I realized that poor vision was adversely affecting tens of thousands of children in our state each year.” (click for larger version)


Originally established as Sight Savers of Alabama, the Pelham-based nonprofit organization served 11 children in 1997, their first year of operation. In 2008, the group branched into Mississippi, prompting the name change to Sight Savers America. In 2010, the organization will serve 30,000 children in Alabama as well as 5,000 in Mississippi, with a staff of 22 case workers. Their staff totals 30, with an additional 350 volunteers.

Before he started Sight Savers, Haddox studied eye diseases. “I had worked for over 20 years doing eye research through grants from the National Eye Institute,” Haddox says. “I realized that poor vision was adversely affecting tens of thousands of children in our state each year. This was largely the result of poor public awareness about the importance of eye care in young children and the inability of children to recognize and articulate their vision needs.”

According to Haddox, many parents are unaware that children should see an eye doctor by age four; some vision problems can be corrected if they are addressed at an early age. Sight Savers offers children from low-income families the opportunity for corrective eyecare. “If they’re low income, then those children are sent to doctors who are in our network, who will give free examinations and a free pair of glasses,” Haddox explains. “If we aren’t able to find a free eye exam or a free pair of glasses, then we pay for it. That happens about 15 percent of the time. We have over 400 optometrists and ophthalmologists in the state of Alabama on our network, and many of them give us a few free eye exams a month. We might have to send a doctor four patients one month, so we would pay for the fourth one.” (The organization is funded by the State of Alabama and private donations.)

Sight Savers began a partnership with the Alabama Department of Education in 2003, implementing the first program in the state dedicated to comprehensive follow-up of individual children with vision problems. Those in kindergarten, second, and fourth grades are vision-screened through the public schools. Each visually impaired student is assigned a Sight Savers case worker who schedules eyecare appointments, makes reminder phone calls, and arranges transportation, if needed. Each case is then added to a database, allowing Sight Savers America and the state to track students’ vision problems and accompanying treatment.

Haddox has also found that many parents of legally blind children are not aware of the current vision technology available. “Children who are legally blind can actually see, but their vision is very, very poor. They might be standing in a room and be looking at two or three people, and they can see that there are people there, but they can’t necessarily distinguish whether they’re male or female, or which person is which. We identify these children (whose families can’t afford expensive vision aids) and we purchase assistive technology for them. That can be anything from a hand-held magnifier to a closed-circuit magnifier called a CCTV. That machine is the gold standard for what we do.”

A CCTV is a device that includes a monitor with either a hand-held camera or camera mounted above a viewing area that allows an object, photo, or page from a book to be magnified up to 75 times. The machines cost as much as $2,500. “The CCTVs really change these children’s lives, from not being able to read any kind of print to being able to put any book or magazine under the camera,” Haddox says. “A girl putting her make-up on can point the camera at her face and she can apply her own make-up for the first time. Or to see a child who takes that device and points it at their mother and sees the details of their mother’s face that they usually can’t. One little girl put her puppy under there, she’d never seen his face.” &

For additional details, visit Donations are also accepted via links at the site.

Thinking Ahead

Thinking Ahead

The genius of Leonardo da Vinci springs to life at the McWane Science Center.

February 19, 2009

Currently on exhibit at the McWane Science Center is a collection of functional, full-scale machines born from the imagination of Italian Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci. Titled Machines in Motion, the display includes 40 inventions built to detailed specifications from the drawings and notes that filled da Vinci’s 600-year-old manuscripts (the Codices). Patrons are likely to be astonished at the ingenuity and creativity of the 15th-century inventor, painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer who is best remembered for his paintings the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

The exhibit is arranged into five sections. The first is “mechanisms,” which includes devices that showcase the basic operational principles of machines in the exhibit, specifically the transfer of motion to make seemingly impossible tasks appear effortless. The other categories represent the four elements found in nature: earth, water, fire, and air.

All machines in the exhibit are from a museum in Florence, Italy, dedicated to da Vinci’s complex inventions. The machinery is composed primarily of lime, fir, beech, and European oak woods (even the ball bearings and gearwheels are wooden) that have been processed to be as resilient as iron. The detailed craftmanship alone makes the exhibit worthwhile.

Ornithopter with Semi-Fixed Wing (Glider). Da Vinci’s ornithopter anticipated today’s hang gliders—except that here the pilot not only hangs in the middle, balancing the glider, he adjusts the angle of the outer portions of the wings through a system of ropes and pulleys. (click for larger version)



The basic mechanisms section of the exhibit is the most challenging to grasp. Familiarity with lantern pinions, rack-and-pinion devices, worm screws, and other mechanical gadgets is helpful, yet any observer will recognize a chain-drive transmission, car-lifting jack, and rope-and-pulley systems. The machines found in the categories represented by the four elements are more easily understood. The earth section includes da Vinci’s printing press design; an olive oil press; a revolving crane; an early odometer; an intricate machine for lifting large objects such as pillars; and da Vinci’s notion of a 15th-century automated robot in knight’s armor.

An ancient hydraulic saw is brought to life through the force of water onto a paddlewheel. Among the most ingenious devices is one of da Vinci’s simplest inventions—a hygrometer. The apparatus operates much like a set of scales. A chunk of wax is placed on one of two balanced trays and strands of cotton fill the other. Wax will not absorb water. However, as cotton takes on water from the atmosphere, it begins to outweigh the wax, forcing the scales into imbalance. A horizontal calibrated scale carved into the piece of wood joining the two balanced trays indicates the degree of humidity.

Da Vinci’s early parachute design resembles a pyramid, with cloth stretched across wooden beams from which a human is suspended while theoretically floating to the ground. His flying machines include a crude wooden version of a helicopter that is operated by the pilot’s arms, legs, and head. Da Vinci’s early designs for gliders are on display as well.

The weapons designed by da Vinci include an “armored” car whose odd shell is wooden, not metallic. The tank’s movement across terrain is powered by eight soldiers operating four large wheels that extend beneath the vehicle. A main turret with holes in its exterior allows a passenger to spot enemy troops; cannons protruding from the tank’s perimeter may be fired in the direction commanded. Another weapon displayed is da Vinci’s machine gun, which is a wheeled cart with 11 metal gun barrels fanning out like the prongs of a rake, designed to wipe out a larger swath of the enemy.

Unlike many McWane exhibits, Machines in Motion will probably be of greater interest to adults than children. Da Vinci never constructed any of his inventions, leaving the task to later generations. Most of the machines displayed are interactive and operational. The exhibit brings da Vinci’s sketches and words into the three-dimensional, functioning world, leaving viewers with a new appreciation for the world’s original renaissance man.

Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion will be exhibited at the McWane Science Center through April 26. For additional information, call 714-8300 or visit


Free Agent


Free Agent

Wernher von Braun’s journey from Nazi scientist to U.S. hero.

November 01, 2007

Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War

By Michael J. Neufeld

Dr. Wernher von Braun, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, points to a television screen in the Saturn blockhouse at Cape Kennedy on February 16, 1965. The screen showed the Saturn I vehicle carrying the Pegasus satellite into orbit. (click for larger version)


Knopf; 608 pages; $35.

The story of Wernher von Braun (pronounced “brown”) is the curious adventure of a German-turned-American hero who transformed fantasies of outer-space voyage into realities. However, that story is framed by the often blurred boundaries of good and evil. Despised by some as the Nazi engineer primarily responsible for the V-2 rockets that killed 7,000—mostly in London and Antwerp near the end of World War II—von Braun followed whatever route was available to fulfill his childhood aspirations of space flight. He had dreamed of men one day flying to the Moon and finally realized his ambitions with the development of the Saturn V rocket that launched astronauts into lunar orbit in 1968.

Searching for von Braun’s soul, which is embedded in a history haunted by the Third Reich, author Michael Neufeld has penned a brutally honest, in-depth biography. It chronicles the life of a pioneering rocketeer and one-time Nazi SS officer who became an icon by seducing the American public (thanks to Walt Disney) with notions of space exploration.

Von Braun’s harshest critics insist that he was guilty of war crimes, not only for his primary role in creating the V-2 ballistic missile that intimidated Europe but also because he used prisoners of war laboring in deplorable conditions to build the weapons. More than 20,000 POWs enslaved indirectly under von Braun died at the Mittelwerk rocket facility and its Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. The underground rocket factory where prisoners lived and worked was a maze of cold, damp, and poorly lit tunnels infested with excrement, lice, and fleas. Prisoners wore rags, and toilets were large metal oil drums cut in half and never cleaned. Disease and malnourishment were rampant, and POWs dropped dead at a rate of 20 per day.

To his defenders, von Braun is a victim of Adolf Hitler’s oppressive authority, a serf of sorts who had no options other than to bow to the Führer’s commands. According to Neufeld, von Braun’s own words in a 1950 New Yorker profile reveal the engineer’s mercenary nature. One afternoon, during a gathering of his amateur rocket club in the early 1930s, a black sedan drove up carrying three German military personnel who made von Braun’s group an offer they could not refuse. Von Braun recalls: “They were in mufti [civilian clothes], but mufti or not, it was the Army . . . That was the beginning. The Versailles Treaty [which disarmed Germany after World War I] hadn’t placed any restrictions on rockets, and the Army was desperate to get back on its feet. We didn’t care much about that, one way or the other, but we needed money, and the Army seemed willing to help us. In 1932, the idea of war seemed to us an absurdity. The Nazis weren’t yet in power. We felt no moral scruples about the possible future use of our brainchild. We were interested solely in exploring outer space. It was simply a question of how the golden cow could be milked most successfully.”

Von Braun claimed no knowledge of the Nazi extermination of Jews. In the 1960s, he told his good friend, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey), “I never knew what was happening in the concentration camps. But I suspected it, and in my position I could have found out. I didn’t and I despise myself for it.” Commenting on the confession to Clarke, Neufeld is skeptical about von Braun’s defense: “Knowing what we know now about his direct encounter with SS prisoners starting in mid-1943, the first sentence of his statement could be interpreted as a bald-faced lie.” Quoting historian Ian Kershaw, Neufeld adds, “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but was paved with indifference.”

In his sworn affidavit to the U.S. Army in 1947, von Braun said that he was forced to join the National Socialist Party in 1939. In actuality, he had joined the Nazi Party in 1937, though he was no doubt pressured to do so.

Later in life, von Braun often bolstered his claim that he was not a true Nazi by telling of his and a few associates’ arrest by the Gestapo in 1944. The rocket engineer was a “heavy social drinker.” One night he and his intoxicated comrades had talked loudly at a party about the war not going well, wishing that their rocket development could be used to build spaceships instead of weapons. They were arrested within days. Problems that delayed final production of the V-2 had prompted speculation that perhaps von Braun had actually been arrested for suspected sabotage. There was even some talk that he and the others might be executed. They were freed after a couple of weeks, because Hitler desperately needed them to finish the V-2. Von Braun knew he had to produce a successful rocket quickly or else, which forced him to place an order for more POW slave labor at the Mittelwerk. (Peenemünde had been the first principal rocket factory before it was bombed by the British in 1943.)

During his surrender to U.S. Allies in 1945, von Braun exhibited the same charisma, self-confidence, and luminary quality that would later charm the American public. He and his fellow engineers were hiding out in a ski resort in the mountains on the German-Austrian border at war’s end, trying to decide what to do. Two days after Hitler’s suicide, they drove to an Allied-occupied Austrian town to turn themselves in, where von Braun boasted to his captors that he was the “founder and guiding spirit” of the Peenemünde rocket facility, all the while acting like a dignitary.

“One member of the 44th [Infantry Division, to which von Braun surrendered] later said that ‘[von Braun] treated our soldiers with the affable condescension of a visiting congressman,’” writes Neufeld, adding that von Braun posed “for endless pictures with individual GIs, in which he beamed, shook hands, pointed inquiringly at [American soldiers’] medals and otherwise conducted himself as a celebrity rather than a prisoner.” Von Braun even bragged to a reporter for the Beachhead News “that if he had been given two more years, the V-2 bomb he invented could have won the war for Germany.”

• • •
In America, von Braun soon became frustrated that he could not interest the U.S. government in space travel. His purpose in being brought to the United States was to develop missiles as weapons. Von Braun decided he would have to personally get the American public excited about space flight, prompting him to write a novel called Mars Project that he tried to get published in 1950. The book was rejected by 18 publishing companies because it was too technical and featured little storyline. One publisher said that all the novel was good for was to “build a rocket ship.” Eventually, a publisher in West Germany became interested after it was rewritten as a drama by a former Nazi propaganda writer.

The publication of space exploration articles in the early 1950s by von Braun for Collier’s magazine (illustrated with futuristic renderings of rockets) caught the public’s attention. This led Walt Disney to ask von Braun in 1954 to appear on Disney’s ABC network television show “Man in Space.” The rocketeer’s narration of a segment in 1955 was the first time that America heard his voice. Von Braun and a couple of German rocket engineers were prominently featured in the series, but the show’s producers questioned if it was wise for the program to be dominated by German accents. “The Disney crew had in fact discussed whether it was a problem that all three experts were German. But their very accents fit an American cliché of scientific gravity, and as for the Nazi issue, Walt Disney was the quintessential conservative, Midwestern middle American and seems to have given it little thought.”

One month after the first broadcast of “Man in Space,” von Braun legally became an American citizen in Birmingham, along with a hundred of his German colleagues and their spouses. Von Braun told the press gathered for the occasion, “This is the happiest and most significant day of my life . . . Somehow we sensed that the secret of rocketry should only get into the hands of people who read the Bible.” However, to his parents he reported, “It was a terrible circus, with film crews, television, press people and the usual misquotations.”

Profiles in Time and the West German equivalent Der Spiegel did not mention von Braun’s Nazi party membership. Reporters did not have a clue. Instead, a film about his life that von Braun agreed to participate in began the unraveling of his past. I Aim at the Stars began filming in 1959. Von Braun was paid $24,000, and Columbia Pictures kicked in another $25,000 plus 7% of the net profits. With his newfound wealth, he traded in his American car for a Mercedes-Benz. The movie was initially predicated on the image of von Braun as “a space dreamer persecuted by the Nazis and given a second chance by the United States,” though the script was later changed to portray him more accurately as striking a Faustian bargain to go into space. Still, the film was considered a whitewash job. Ironically, the screenwriter was a 1933 refugee from the Nazis who introduced fiction into the script to make the story palatable for an American audience.

At the Munich premier of the film, three unarmed tactical nuclear missiles were on display in front of the theater. U.S. military brass attended in full uniform. Ban-the-bomb demonstrators were also on hand. At a press conference, von Braun answered British critics of his American success: “I have very deep and sincere regret for the victims of the V-2 rockets, but there were victims on both sides . . . A war is a war, and when my country is at war, my duty is to help win that war.” The film was panned and poorly attended. Antwerp, which suffered more V-2 rocket hits than London, banned the movie. Comic Mort Sahl coined the greatest putdown of von Braun’s career when he quipped that I Aim at the Stars should have been subtitled But Sometimes I Hit London.

A year after NASA was created, in 1958, von Braun was appointed chief of the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, and was no longer working for the army. Pressure was applied by NASA on von Braun to hire more black engineers and technicians, but many were reluctant to move to Alabama at that time. Von Braun did not appear eager to get involved when Governor George Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door to prevent a black student from registering at the University of Alabama, yet he publicly condemned segregation when a black MSFC employee enrolled without incident at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Not long afterward, Governor Wallace visited MSFC and witnessed a rocket test. Von Braun addressed an audience that included the governor, and stressed that it was imperative that Alabama move on from its segregationist past. After the speech, he chatted with Wallace and asked the governor if he wanted to be the first person on the Moon. Wallace replied, “Well, better not. You fellows might not bring me back.” &


Roving Mars

Roving Mars

May 03, 2007
The IMAX movie Roving Mars follows NASA’s design and launch of two probes sent to Mars in 2004 to search for signs of water. Computer-generated images transport the viewer alongside the “rovers” Spirit and Opportunity—each the size of a golf cart—as they navigate a rust-colored landscape of rocks, craters, hills, and ditches created from actual photographs of the topography of Mars. Onscreen, this remarkable feat of exploration in history takes on the aura of a sci-fi thriller.

(click for larger version)



The drama begins as the Mars Exploration Rovers team has three months to correct problems during Earth tests that include a parachute that refuses to deploy properly and airbags that shred after being designed to cushion the rover when it lands. NASA does not have a particularly good record for Mars missions, with two-thirds of the projects ending in disaster since the first Mars spacecraft, Mariner 4, flew past the planet in 1964. “Mars is a spacecraft graveyard,” notes Dr. Steve Squyres, the chief scientist on the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory team, who is the film’s primary narrator.

The filmmakers originally assumed that their script would include the death of the rovers, whose life expectancy had been three months. Three years later, the rovers are still roaming around Mars, sending back photographs and other information. Each robot has cameras and sensors enabling the machine to decide if it can drive over a rock or go around it. “We can program different levels of courage and cowardice into the rovers,” explains Squyres, who had decided early on that the on-board cameras would be of IMAX quality.

Spirit was originally designed to travel only 600 yards. Instead, it has logged miles. At one point in its journeys, Spirit became covered with martian dust, making it difficult for the solar panels to receive sunlight. If not for a wind storm that blew the dust away, the Rover would have finally died because its batteries could not be charged and the minus-100-degree nights would have eventually rendered the machine no longer functional.

Roving Mars was produced by Walt Disney Productions, directed by George Butler (Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure, the Arnold Schwarzenegger documentary Pumping Iron). Paul Newman narrates the introduction, Philip Glass composed the score. It’s an incredible opportunity to experience what it’s like to hike across the surface of Mars. &

Roving Mars is showing at the McWane Center through May 25. Call or visit the McWane web site for schedule: 714-8300 or


Boys and Their Toys

Boys and Their Toys

Birmingham’s model-rocket club.

November 16, 2006

>Gazing into a blue October sky, Ron Witherspoon couldn’t have been more pleased. “That’s what I’m talking about!” he shouted. “Did you see the flame on that thing? That’s bright enough to make the devil proud . . . Let’s go to the Moon!” Witherspoon is president of the Birmingham Rocket Boys club (BRB). Like another dozen or so local enthusiasts, there is nothing he’d rather do on a Saturday than launch model rockets. A chapter of the National Association of Rocketry (NAR), the BRB is comprised of local rocketeers from broad ends of the career spectrum, including a medical doctor, a postal worker, schoolteacher, and a retired local television station cameraman (who often attaches video cameras to rockets to record the onboard perspective). The group gathers once a month for launches at either the North Birmingham landfill or a cotton farm near Talladega.

On this particular day, Witherspoon’s ever-present enthusiasm was bolstered by the presence of novelist and former NASA engineer Homer Hickam, who is writing an article for Parade magazine that includes the BRB. Hickam’s best-seller Rocket Boys chronicled his boyhood fascination with backyard rocketry in West Virginia coal country, later serving as the inspiration for the film October Sky. As he autographed model rockets and copies of his books, Hickam told a reporter at the BRB gathering that although the rest of the United States probably found Russia’s launch of Sputnik “foreboding,” he and his childhood pals had been devouring so much science fiction that instead of being intimidated by the Soviets, they were excited. “We knew this would start a space race!”


Blake Driskill and his Patriot rocket. Photo by George Gassaway. (click for larger version)




In the 1960s, model rockets were only available through the mail or in hobby shops. By the 1970s, rockets could be found on the shelves of department stores. “One day I was in K-Mart, and suddenly: ‘Oh boy! Rockets!’” recalled BRB member George Gassaway, an award-winning model-rocket designer. “A few years before that I had thought, ‘what if I got a hundred bottle rockets and clustered them all together, and I could make one rocket that could fly!’”

BRB members are usually science geeks and craftsmen of sorts who lug around rockets, launch pads, pop-up awnings, and fishing tackle boxes filled with nylon string, X-acto blades, tape, glue, Vaseline, sandpaper, and plenty of extra rocket engines. During launching sessions, every 10 minutes there is an announcement via a small portable public address system: “On launch pad 3 we’ve got a red, white, and black Patriot with an H-165R motor blasting off at ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . .’” When the launch button is pushed, all eyes simultaneously look skyward amid cheers.

The propellant for these models includes aluminum perchlorate (APC), the same solid fuel used on the two booster rockets that launch the Space Shuttle. Amateur enthusiasts must be certified to use such fuel. APC-powered rockets often emit a loud pop at blastoff, followed by a brightly colored flame tail and impressive “whoosh” sound as the projectile climbs to more than half a mile. The more expensive rockets employ an altimeter to determine the height attained. Ready-to-fly models start at $15, and higher-powered rockets can cost anywhere from $100 to more than $1,000.

Model rockets are available in an impressively wide range of designs, including NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft; a two-foot missile called a Skywriter painted to resemble a pencil; flying saucer–style contraptions made from cardboard boxes; and even a miniature blue Porta-John that emits a two-foot yellow flame and features an unraveling roll of toilet paper.

BRB member Tony Williams began competing on rocket teams with Gassaway in 1975, but he began his hobby more than a decade earlier. “One change has been the higher power. Model rockets were pretty limited in the ’60s, but in the early ’70s engines got stronger,” recalled Williams. “As far as the look of the rockets, there are a lot more variations now. The basic rocket is the pretty much the same, except there was a lot more [hands-on] modeling back then. There’s a lot of pre-fab stuff now. I think it was probably more fun back then.”

For Kim Mitchell, a self-professed “space junkie,” launching rockets that he’s built with his own hands is the continuation of not only his infatuation with outer space as a kid but also his earliest childhood memories. “I can remember Neil Armstrong walking on the moon when I was three years old. I was at my grandparents’ house and can even remember the little TV set they had,” he laughed. Mitchell, a broadcast engineer at FOX 6 in Birmingham, added that the satellite technology he was enamored with as a child is integral to his current job.

Blake Driskill, a computer science specialist with an in-depth background in math, got involved with the BRB a couple of years ago. “I’m what they call a ‘BAR’— ‘born again rocketeer.’ I did it a little as a kid but didn’t have a lot of direction,” explained Driskill. “Then I saw October Sky and read the book. So when I turned 35 or 40 I decided I needed a hobby before I went out and got in trouble.” Driskill has seen some rockets reach altitudes of 13,000 feet at competitions.

Model rockets can be used repeatedly simply by installing more propellant, unless the rocket has crashed because its parachute failed to deploy. Cynics often wonder where the excitement lies in watching something fly skyward for five seconds before disappearing—sometimes for good. But rocket enthusiasts feel that half the fun is trying to locate the rockets as they parachute down, and then accomplishing recovery—which is easier said than done when your rocket lands in a forest or field of unpicked cotton. It’s not unusual for rocket owners to search a field for half an hour.

“I was enjoying myself because there wasn’t any wind,” said Driskill of a recent launch day. “And you could just shoot ’em up and they would come straight down, and they would glide just a little.” One afternoon Driskill lost his rocket. A curious farmer had been observing the launches, sometimes joining in the search parties. After combing the area for an hour, with no success, Driskill gave up and continued launching the rest of his arsenal until late afternoon. “We were leaving the site, and here comes this same farmer walking out of the woods with my lost rocket in his hands. He said, ‘I love hunting these things down!’” &

Rocket Man

Rocket Man

An eye-witness account of the space shuttle’s July 4 launch.

August 10, 2006 

Five minutes from liftoff, space shuttle Discovery stood with Jules Verne-mystique on the launch pad three miles away. Breezes blew through the meadow where the press congregated, the ticking down of seconds on the huge digital countdown-clock providing dramatic flair. The next few minutes were sheer agony. This wasn’t the first launch day that I’d spent staring across the lagoon at the launch pad, wondering if NASA’s seemingly endless contingencies for liftoff would finally come together. The repeated disappointments of scrubbed missions had worn me down. An eleven-hour ride back home with nothing to show or tell would be a long ride, indeed.

Six seconds from blastoff, Discovery fired its three orbiter engines, and a mass of vapor clouds obscured the launch pad. (It’s an engine test of sorts; NASA can call off a launch within one second of take-off.) At “zero,” the blinding white light from ignition of the two rockets attached to the shuttle’s orange fuel tank forced me to put my sunglasses back on. There’s no turning back once the solid-rocket boosters are lit. I stared in awe. Ten seconds into flight, Discovery soared like a toy missile, an 800-foot flame trailing the spacecraft and glowing as bright as a giant welding torch. Accustomed to the commentary that accompanied every launch I’d seen on television for four decades, I found the image of the spacecraft climbing in silence disconcerting; the spectacle didn’t seem real. Suddenly, the slow rumble of pops and crackles of rocket ignition that television never captures swept over the meadow. My legs and stomach reverberated to a staccato pounding for the next minute as the roar grew louder and scarier, like a million July 4 fireworks shot off at once.

Space shuttle Discovery roars away in NASA’s first-ever July 4 launch of a manned-spacecraft. (click for larger version)

• • •

I arrived at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at sunrise on July 1 for the scheduled liftoff of STS-121 (Space Transportation System) Discovery. This was my second drive to KSC from Birmingham within a year. I’d yet to witness a launch. Forecasters predicted a 40 to 60 percent chance that thunderstorms in the vicinity would delay not only the Saturday launch, but also any rescheduled attempts during the next week. With a gnawing fear of imminent regret, I drove 11 hours straight to Cape Canaveral, prepared to spend a week awaiting liftoff.

Launch day is an unpredictable drama of lightning clouds, perpetual technical glitches on board the shuttle, and vultures gliding around the silent spaceship. Birds have become a threat to the shuttle at launch, so vulture traps are set around the launch pad. A five-pound vulture could severely damage the rapidly accelerating spaceship, just as foam falling off the fuel tank doomed space shuttle Columbia in 2003 by knocking a hole in the shuttle’s left wing within the first minute of blastoff.

The July 1 edition of the Orlando Sentinel revealed that e-mails circulated within NASA in recent weeks had warned that launching another space shuttle without guaranteeing the elimination of falling foam hazards was too risky. (NASA had removed the two primary foam structures on the external tank where the largest pieces had come loose.) NASA officials opposed to the launch did concede that improved camera and sensor capabilities now allow for closer inspection of the spaceship for debris damage. Should the shuttle be deemed too dangerous to fly back to earth, the crew could seek refuge onboard the International Space Station (ISS) until a rescue ship could arrive. (Columbia had been launched into an orbital plane different from that of the ISS and did not have enough fuel to change orbits.) Regardless, the launch of STS-121 Discovery was the first space shuttle mission where both NASA’s top safety official and the chief engineer’s objections to launch had been overruled by NASA’s top brass.

Weather is the one contingency completely beyond NASA’s control. Cloud updates are the most anticipated news on launch day. After blastoff, the space shuttle can become a lightning rod during a storm, actually capable of creating lightning when passing too close to storm clouds. Apollo 12 was struck by lightning 36 seconds after liftoff. The astronauts threw circuit-breakers to reactivate power to the Apollo spacecraft after the strike. Since then, lightning has commanded NASA’s attention. NASA will not launch if storm clouds are within five miles of the launch pad or within 20 miles of the landing strip at liftoff (should the space shuttle make an emergency return immediately after blastoff, the gliding aircraft becomes as vulnerable to high winds as it is to lightning).

Lightning too close to the emergency landing strip canceled the Saturday launch. NASA has only a five-minute launch window, the time available to launch Discovery so that it correctly lines up for docking with the International Space Station two days later. Fifteen minutes after the launch was scrubbed, the threatening clouds blew clear of the area in the typically unpredictable manner of Florida’s July weather.


Astronaut Piers Sellers inspects space shuttle Discovery for debris damage two days after the spaceship docked with the International Space Station. (click for larger version)


A rescheduled Sunday launch opportunity looked hopeless. Tuesday was more promising. A reporter asked First Lieutenant Kaleb Nordgren of the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron if he would recommend changing airline reservations to wait for a possible July 4 launch. “I can just tell you the weather. Take that however you want,” Nordgren laughed, slightly irritated. “Summertime in Florida is a very dynamic atmosphere, so that’s why we’re constantly monitoring.”

• • •

Sunday’s launch was scrubbed immediately after the astronauts had been loaded into Discovery. At the Sunday press gathering, Assistant Deputy Flight Director John Shannon said, “A lot of people light rockets on July 4, and I told the team before we left the scrub turn-around meeting what a great gift NASA could give to the nation to return the shuttle to operation on Independence Day.” When questioned if NASA was perhaps overly cautious about weather impediments, Shannon responded defensively: “Nobody is going to remember that we scrubbed a day or two. But if we go launch, and we get struck by lightning, that would be very hard to forget . . . If we’ve taken this much time, we’re going make sure that the weather conditions are right.”

Requesting a vulture-trap update, a reporter asked, “Are you freeing them now, or you’re going to let them sit tight (at liftoff)?” After the laughter had subsided, Launch Director Mike Leinbach replied, “The good news is bad weather keeps birds away. The bad news is it keeps the shuttle on the ground. We will go and inspect the traps today . . . and we will release every vulture in that trap.”

NASA post-launch press briefings are rarely dull. The satisfaction and sheer thrill of a successful launch was apparent at the briefing two hours after liftoff on July 4. Officials smiled and pumped their fists as the blastoff was replayed on the room’s large screen. Despite the display of emotions by his colleagues, Dr. Michael Griffin, NASA’s top administrator, remained unmoved, his ever-present smirk ready for reporters’ queries. When asked if NASA was being forthcoming about shedding foam during launch, Griffin replied: “What you are having is a nearly unique opportunity to see engineers at work, solving a problem in the midst of the problem, and having an opportunity to watch how it is that we work . . . what we do and how we go about solving our problems in the face of unknown unknowns.” When asked if he felt vindicated by another successful launch. “I certainly don’t feel a certain sense of vindication,” said Griffin. “We keep coming back to feelings. I’ll have time for feelings when I’m dead. Right now, we’re too busy”

• • •

Two seconds into flight, Discovery was traveling at 100 miles per hour. Less than a minute later, it was moving faster than the speed of sound at 750 mph, five miles above the earth. At one minute and 47 seconds, the space shuttle was 22 miles in the sky, clipping upward at 2,600 mph. The white plume of smoke from the flying shuttle lingered all the way to the ground, as if the fleeting spaceship were somehow still connected to earth. Twenty-one seconds later, the twin solid-rocket boosters, which had put on a dazzling fireworks display since liftoff, jettisoned from Discovery while flying more than 3,000 mph. An astronaut who had once ridden a shuttle into orbit smiled as she gazed skyward: “There is just nothing like that first time. It’s unbelievable to leave the planet that fast and to go that far . . . and they’re not even there yet.” &