Tag Archives: Space Exploration

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]


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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. &

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; www.LRMA.org.


“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)

CIty Hall — The Deep End


The Deep End

He can’t say why or how, but Mayor Langford believes that an equestrian center and an Olympic-size swimming arena will revitalize the crime-ridden and economically depressed Five Points West area.

April 17, 2008
Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford’s mastery at communication often seems to hypnotize many members of the City Council. At the April 8 council meeting, even Councilor Joel Montgomery—who often resists freewheeling spending—was drinking Langford’s Kool-Aid. Montgomery and five other councilors supported allotting $48 million for the mayor’s proposed upgrade to Fair Park and the surrounding Five Points West district—which Langford says will cost a total of $90 million.(Councilor Roderick Royal voted against the proposal, Councilor Abbott abstained, Councilor Bell was absent.)Predictably, Councilor Valerie Abbott remained suspicious of Langford’s economic notions. “I’m in favor of this concept. However, you know me. I’m always waiting for those little details,” admitted Abbott. “And in this case, I just want to get to the bottom line. I would like to approve money to develop a plan today, but not necessarily to allocate all the money, because at this point I do not know exactly what the money will go for.” Langford’s redevelopment plan for Five Points West includes an Olympic-size swimming arena [natatorium], equestrian facilities, and an indoor track at Fair Park. Several businesses, including hotels and retailers, are scheduled to open in the immediate vicinity as part of the area’s economic revitalization. The bulk of the funds for this project will come, at least initially, from funds raised by the increase in business license fees approved by the council three months ago. Though at the time those funds were earmarked for construction of a domed stadium. According to Langford, monies would not be due until 18 months after construction on a domed stadium had begun. Until then, according to Langford’s plan, funds generated by the license fee increase will be the primary funding source for the Fair Park plan. Other funding for the revitalization project will come from a one-cent sales tax previously approved by the council for economic redevelopment, as well as money previously approved for Fair Park but never spent.

Regarding the development’s commercial versus its sports/athletic components, Abbott favors the latter, fearful that current Five Points West businesses might not be able to compete with new businesses. “I would like to see a redevelopment plan and a legal agreement, something we can sink our teeth into,” the councilor said as she also inquired about an ongoing operational funding source for Fair Park. Abbott also wants to know what the economic impact would be. That kind of information is often available whenever city economic development is proposed, but in this instance no economic impact study has been undertaken.

When Councilor Carol Duncan simply asked about the cost of the natatorium (or “swimming pool,” as Council President Carole Smitherman refers to the facility), Langford said the pool would cost about $12 million. “I’m not going to get emotional about any of this anymore. This is too long coming in this city,” said the mayor with obvious disgust. “Without the retail component out there, all we’ve done is build another stadium. You’re going to have to have the retail component in order to be sure that it is maintained. This area has so longly needed something out there. Let’s don’t piecemeal it. If you’re going to vote it, vote it . . . If the Council decides today that you don’t want to do it, that’s fine. I will not bring it back.”

Councilor Roderick Royal wanted to delay the item until after the council receives the 2009 budget in two months. “Since we are contemplating using business license fees—the money that we said to our taxpayers that we were going to use for the dome—the question is: how do you replace this money? And will that affect our ability whenever we do decide, or can build a large facility?”

“We must have about 17 different projects going on in this city,” Royal continued. “Now, I’m not a very smart guy but I will say this: we may need to stop and look at and evaluate how far we’re come. And whether or not any of those projects have really moved. Rather than just continuing to promise out and promise out. I don’t think that’s good fiscal management.” Royal proposed that the council “wait until we get the budget in hand so we can assess our fiscal health for next year and perhaps the following year. And so that we can also look at the evaluation of the 15 or 16 other projects that have been proposed and the Council, either tacitly or formally, has approved.”

Langford denied that money for the domed stadium is going to be used for Fair Park improvements. “The minute they let bids on this stadium, payments will become due 12 to 18 months later,” said Langford. “This city has the fortunate benefit today to be able to use those funds now to do these projects.”

Councilor Montgomery supports Langford’s Fair Park proposal because the money is available. “Councilor Hoyt, this is in your district, and I support you on this. And I don‘t care who likes it,” said Montgomery. “The bottom line is we need economic development in this city. There’s no question about it. That area has been neglected for the longest time. Now you can spin it any way you want to and try to make this look like we’re overspending up here. I don’t vote to overspend taxpayers’ money in this city!”

Council President Smitherman agreed that the council should seize the opportunity to redevelop the Five Points West area. “If we don’t take this money and put it over to the side, then we will never see a new Fair Park,” she said. “It won’t happen. We’ll just take that money and say, ‘Oh, we can go and repair some streets with that.’ Sure. We need it anyhow. Or we can go and we can do some other kind of economic development. And you look up and that money will be squandered all over the place.”

Smitherman believes that the Fair Park development will “spread development over in my area just like it will in everybody else’s area. It may be in Five Points West, but it’s going to have a ripple effect throughout the whole city of Birmingham . . .” She said that Fair Park will show critics that the council can do more than “bring a Wal-Mart.”

Councilor Royal later objected to Smitherman’s lack of adherence to proper parliamentary procedure. “And that means you are out of order again. And you just need to chill out. And that’s what I think,” Royal told the council president. Smitherman replied, “I think I need to use a gavel on you.” Royal again called for “point of order” once more, asking, “Madame President, is that a threat or some kind of assault?” To which Smitherman said, “Nah, I don’t go there, like you.”

• • •
Holy Rollers

At the April 8 Birmingham City Council meeting, Mayor Larry Langford announced that he had ordered 2,000 burlap sacks for use at a citywide prayer meeting to combat crime. Langford displayed one of the burlap bags and said he will ask area ministers to participate in a “sackcloth and ashes” ritual as the Bible commands. “When cities—in the early part of the world’s history—when they had gotten so far from God, begun idol worship and all kinds of crazy stuff that we’re doing even today, that community came to its senses,” explained the mayor. “And the Bible tells us that they [wore] sackcloth and [put] ashes on their faces and they prayed. And God heard their prayer . . . To get this community back on the right track, we need to understand the power of prayer.”

Langford has worn his religion on his sleeve during his first four months as mayor and has led a Bible study group each Friday morning in the city council chambers. “I got a call from someone saying that I need to quit mentioning God’s name so much,” said Langford. “And so I politely asked them what in hell did they want? Because there must be something in hell we want because a lot of us are working real hard to get there . . . If you’ve got a problem with God, take it up with Him.” &


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 www.mcwane.org.


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.” &

One Giant Leap


June 15, 2006

First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong

By James R. Hansen

Simon and Schuster, 784 pages, $30

For 35 years, astronaut Neil Armstrong shunned those seeking his thoughts about his adventures as the first man on the moon. While other astronauts wrote of their own harrowing moments in space exploration, Armstrong kept his story to himself, as if he could put the genie back into the bottle and elude history. One of only 30 astronauts chosen to fulfill President Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, Armstrong saw his role as more practical than iconic. He’s been quoted as saying that he hopes to be remembered as the first engineer on the moon, not the first “spaceman.”

(click for larger version)

Auburn University professor and former NASA historian James R. Hansen convinced Armstrong to tell his story in First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. Hansen’s attention to technical aspects—and his knack for making them accessible even to novices—reportedly convinced Armstrong to cooperate. Despite the inclusion of launch trajectories and a jumble of acronyms, Hansen tells a compelling, and often riveting, story that reads like Jules Verne recounting the history of NASA’s lunar reach.

When JFK initiated the moon-flight project, NASA had three different methods under serious consideration. The first was called “Direct Ascent,” an improbable plan which required that a rocket called the Nova, approximately the size of the Empire State Building, be launched to the moon. The remaining rocket stage that would be in lunar orbit before touching down would be as tall as the Washington Monument. If the sheer size of the spacecraft were not cumbersome enough, another problem was how to get the crew down to the surface of the moon from such heights. Direct Ascent was quickly dismissed.

Dr. Wernher von Braun advocated a second procedure called Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR). Astronauts would be launched in a rocket separately from the main missile. The spaceships would dock while orbiting Earth and then proceed to the moon. Being much smaller than the Nova, the EOR rocket made return launch more feasible. EOR also included construction of a space station for future lunar missions.



Deployment of the U.S. flag by Armstrong and Aldrin was caught by a sixteen-millimeter film camera in the lunar module. (click for larger version)



To the surprise of many, NASA chose a third option: Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR). Critics said it was too risky for rendezvous to occur in lunar orbit 240,000 miles away from Earth. A rescue would be impossible in the event of an accident. Hansen sums up the cold reality of such a disaster and how it affected the decision-making process: “The specter of dead astronauts sailing around the moon haunted those who were responsible for the Apollo program and made objective evaluation of its merits unusually difficult.” However, LOR required less fuel, and the necessary craft weighed half that of an EOR rocket. Besides, LOR was the only method that could meet JFK’s dream before 1970. “LOR saves two years and two billion dollars,” Armstrong wryly observed.

Armstrong’s close calls are legendary. During the Korean War, he lost eight feet from his wing when his jet clipped the ground on a mission. Armstrong climbed immediately back to 14,000 feet and bailed out. He wrestled control of Gemini VIII as the spaceship was tumbling and spinning in space. When Armstrong manually took control of the lunar module the Eagle upon descent to the moon and steered the craft to a less treacherous landing area with only seconds of fuel remaining, Buck Rogers had indeed become a reality. Armstrong’s unassuming, calm demeanor amazed his peers. Astronaut Alan Bean never forgot his first encounter with that nonchalance after one of Armstrong’s brushes with death. Armstrong was flying the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV), a high-risk, wingless contraption that used thruster rockets to propel the craft and was flown at a minimum altitude of 500 feet to ensure proper training procedures. The LLTV began to sway, slowly turning at an angle, out of control.

Hansen writes: “A ground controller radioed Neil to bail out. He activated the ejection seat with only a fractional second of margin. Neil’s parachute opened just before he hit the ground. He wasn’t hurt, but the LLTV was demolished in a fireball.”



Professor Armstrong teaching engineering at the University of Cincinnati in 1974. (click for larger version)



Armstrong immediately returned to the office that he shared with Bean after the mishap. Bean had overheard others discussing the incident, though Armstrong had failed to mention it. “I go back in the office,” Bean explains. “Neil looked up, and I said, ‘I just heard the funniest story!’ Neil said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I heard you bailed out of the LLTV an hour ago.’ He thought a second and said, ‘Yeah, I did.’ I said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘I lost control and had to bail out of the darn thing.’”

Amazingly, NASA never lost an astronaut in orbit in the pre-space shuttle years. First Man recounts the tragedy of the Apollo 1 launch-pad fire, which killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White. Oddly enough, White lived next door to Armstrong and had helped Neil save his house from a blaze only a year earlier. The Apollo 1 disaster forced NASA to rethink the Apollo space capsule at the insistence of the astronaut corps. The fiery explosion that killed Grissom and the others occurred during a routine ground test in a pure oxygen environment. A spark ignited the cabin instantly. NASA learned from the setback, and from then on, all ground-testing was done in an environment that was 60 percent oxygen and 40 percent nitrogen.

A disconcerting aspect of First Man is Buzz Aldrin’s drama and bitterness in his lobbying to be the first man to step onto the moon. Armstrong reveals for the first time that he had the option of replacing Aldrin as pilot with Jim Lovell, but Armstrong felt that Lovell deserved to command his own Apollo mission (Apollo 13). He stuck with Aldrin, though a soap opera soon developed. Aldrin’s argument had been that the commander always stayed with the spacecraft while the pilot performed spacewalks. Veteran astronaut Gene Cernan recalls:

Buzz had worked himself into a frenzy” about who would step onto the moon first. He came flapping into my office at the Manned Spacecraft Center one day like an angry stork, laden with charts and graphs and statistics, arguing what he considered to be obvious—that he, the lunar module pilot, and not Neil, should be the first down the ladder on Apollo 11 . . . How Neil put up with such nonsense for so long before ordering Buzz to stop making a fool of himself is beyond me.”



Armstrong says he didn’t give much thought to who would be first out of the lunar module. Flight Director Chris Kraft shed some light: “Look, we just knew damn well that the first guy on the moon was going to be a Lindbergh . . . It should be Neil Armstrong . . . Neil is Neil. Calm, quiet, and absolute confidence. We all knew he was the Lindbergh type. He had no ego.” Thus, NASA changed the normal procedure that the commander always stayed with the spacecraft. “[Neil] was the commander, and perhaps it should always have been the commander’s assignment to go first onto the moon,” said Kraft.

For his part, Armstrong took everything in stride without a hint of romanticism. Searching for a quote that would reveal Armstrong’s true thoughts, historian Douglas Brinkley once asked Neil, “As the day clock was ticking for takeoff, would you every night, or most nights, just go out quietly and look at the moon? I mean, did it become something like “‘my goodness?’” To which Neil responded, “No, I never did that.” &

Weight of the Wind

Weight of the Wind

One man’s experience floating more than half a mile above the earth in a “paper” airplane.

June 01, 2006

After climbing out of a dilapidated Oldsmobile ’98 Regency, sailplane pilot Tim Lockert surveys the sky for white cumulus clouds. “You know how to tell a glider pilot?” he asks. “They’re the ones with sunburned Adam’s apples.” The Regency is the official glider tow car. The car’s roof has been sawed off, the trunk lid is missing, and the words “Sylacauga Soaring Society” are painted in black on the green door. The front passenger seat has been realigned to face the rear. The battered Oldsmobile, referred to as The Rocket, is used to tow 700-pound gliders to a grass field that parallels the runway at Sylacauga Municipal Airport. The Sylacauga Soaring Society has been in existence for two years, and as many as a half-dozen members gather each weekend to be launched skyward aboard glider planes towed by cropdusters.

At 2,800 feet, the gliders are cut loose to sail like hawks in search of winds that provide enough lift to transport them as far as 60 miles east to Clanton. Sylacauga is an Indian word for “buzzards roost,” a term somewhat explained as the pilots scrutinize the sky for buzzards gliding in circles. This indicates an ideal spot for sailplanes to snag highly coveted thermal wind lifts. “Buzzards are lazy birds,” explains Lockert. “Where they glide is always a good spot.”

I swallow in fear when I first stand next to the tiny sailplane. On the ground, the silver glider leans at an angle, supported by the tip of one wing. The plane is only 10 inches off the ground. It’s a very sexy, sleek aircraft, though intimidating. The pilot’s compartment is smaller than the width of a canoe but flanked by a 55-foot wingspan. “I’m not trying to get friendly with you,” jokes Paul Golden as he connects a harness strapped across my crotch and shoulders. “How tight do you want it? We got two ways to fasten you in: open casket or closed casket.” With those words of reassurance, he lowers the plexiglass canopy.


“How tight do you want it? We got two ways to fasten you in: open casket or closed casket.” (click for larger version)

The Pawnee single-engine cropduster, to which the glider is tethered for takeoff, cranks to life while we sit silent except for vocal checks from pilot Lockert, seated behind me. “It’s nothing but a ski rope,” laughs Lockert as the yellow rope stretches taut, and we roll across the grass field at 40 mph balanced on a single 10-inch-diameter wheel under the center of the glider. Suddenly we’re airborne, and I really don’t want to be. My stomach tightens. At 100 feet, I start feeling queasy. My hands sweat profusely as I search for anything to hold onto.

There’s nothing to grip, so I venture from pressing on the inner walls of the cockpit to scribbling often unintelligible notes on a pad. One panicky note reads, “Hope I die on impact if we fall from the sky.” Carnival rides terrify me. I’m prone to panic attacks when strapped in, and the panic escalates once everything starts moving. This glider ride is a roller coaster without rails, and I want off immediately.

The sailplane, still attached to the cropduster, bobs in the wind. “You always worry about the tow rope breaking,” warns Lockert. And if it does break? “Say your prayers,” he laughs. “I don’t want to have to think at that point. Just react. If we’re at 200 feet and the rope snaps, I turn around.” Otherwise, he scouts for a place to land pretty quickly. “Straight ahead, straight ahead, straight ahead,” repeats Lockert, until he says, “Turn around.” He explains, “Even though I’ve been doing this for 25 years, whenever I launch, I verbally repeat, ‘Straight ahead.’ Then I say, ‘Turn around.’ The point is that I’m calling out to myself that in the event the tow rope breaks, I’m just going to go straight ahead and land it. And what you don’t want to do when the tow rope breaks is think. You want to react immediately. So it’s really part of the training to learn that every time you take off, call out: ‘Straight ahead, straight ahead, straight ahead.’ If the rope breaks you’ll know immediately what to do
. . . Once you get to 200 feet, you’re going to turn around, and you’ll just land right where you took off.”

At 2,800 feet, I’m a nervous wreck as I anticipate the inevitable loss of power. Suddenly, the glider jolts slightly. With a loud snapping noise, the tow rope disengages from the glider and flaps like a useless kite tail still attached to the disappearing cropduster. It’s a weird feeling. We’re on our own, yet the 900-pound aluminum plane (a single-seater plane weighs 700 pounds) with no engine immediately climbs to 3,200 feet. I am essentially floating more than half a mile above the earth in a paper airplane with a rudder. All that can be heard is the rushing of the wind around me.

When I ask Lockert to define “pitch,” he laughs and demonstrates it instead. “That’s the one that puts your heart in your throat.” The pilot applies pitch with a wicked cackle, and the plane dips and increases speed. My insides float for brief seconds somewhere above my head. “What pitch does, is it’s going to cause the nose of the airplane to point down or point up,” he says. “Because of the way the airfoil is shaped, if I point the nose of the airplane down, I’m going to go faster. If I point the nose up, I go slower.” The plane reaches speeds of 70 mph. “When you’re in control, the pitch is not as startling ‘cause you know what’s coming,” says Lockert.


Sylacauga Soaring Society president Tim Lockert straps himself into an LP-15 sailplane. (click for larger version)



He points to various ground landmarks of particular interest to a glider pilot. “When you’re down low, you don’t need to be looking for the clouds, you need to be looking at the sources for the hot air that is going to make a cloud. And typically that’s an area that is dry and dark, wherever the sun heats up the earth. Gliding is essentially solar-powered flight. The Wal-Mart parking lot is a great bet. Home Depot over there. The marble quarry is a good spot. Particularly in our area of the country you’ll find these areas of forests that have been harvested. What’s left has died, so it becomes this dark brown covering over the ground. So when the sun hits that, boy, it has great opportunity to heat the air. So cleared areas of forests are just great [for thermal lift].”

Unfortunately, excessive winds result in too much turbulence for an ideal flight afternoon, and we are aloft for only half an hour. “It’s a wrestling match out here today,” Lockert says. Turbulence prevents us from picking up good thermals. Lockert believes that under proper conditions, he could glide from Sylacauga to the Gulf Coast. The current gliding record is a flight from Chattanooga to Pennsylvania and back, continuing over the Smoky Mountains to a landing in South Carolina. The pilot used the Smoky Mountains as a thermal source, particularly in the afternoon when the sun heated the mountain range.

The small size of the plane immediately returns to mind as we approach the ground. “I’m going to put it in that grass strip down there,” says Lockert as we quickly approach earth at what seems a steep angle. I can’t stop thinking about how small the wheels are. Convinced that we’re doomed to crash nose-first into the earth, I brace myself for impact. Instead, the sailplane touches down with surprising ease at 40 mph, rolling to a stop in less than the length of a football field. I later watch Lockert take off and land the single-seat glider. Standing a couple of hundred feet away when he returns, I marvel at the graceful combination of physics and machinery. The sailplane is a mere 10 inches off the ground when its wheels touch down.

The Sylacauga Soaring Society currently offers a monthly membership for $99, including ground instruction and a half-hour flight. Call 205-807-0666 or visit www.sylacaugasoaring.com for more information.

Noah&’s Ark in Orbit

Noah&’s Ark in Orbit

Chimpanzees and dogs were space travel’s first guinea pigs.

May 18, 2006
More than a decade before Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts blasted into outer space aboard rockets, a squadron of chimpanzees, rhesus monkeys, mice, mongrel dogs, and French cats were sent into space to ensure that space travel was viable for humans. Their missions tested the effects of weightlessness on organisms, especially their behavior under the stress of blastoff and zero gravity. Leave it to the French to launch a feline. In 1963, French scientists sent a female named Felix into orbit on a Veronique AGI rocket. An abandoned street cat, Felix was one of 14 felines specially trained in centrifuges and compression chambers in preparation for space flight. Ten of the original 14 cats were eliminated from consideration due to their propensity for eating too much. Mercifully, the French arranged for Felix’s capsule to parachute onto land instead of in the ocean.

Nicknamed “Muttnick” by the U.S. Press, canine cosmonaut Laika survived 10 days in space. (click for larger version)

Animals began flying on spaceships immediately after World War II. Four monkeys, each named Albert (I, II, III, and IV, respectively), were launched aboard captured German V-2 rockets during American post-war tests. Each monkey’s parachute failed to open. Mice, on the other hand, often survived high-speed impacts on their return to Earth. In 1959, four black mice were launched on a Thor Agena A rocket that carried a spy satellite. The mice perished when the Agena upper stage fired downward instead of skyward, sending the vehicle into the Pacific Ocean. Official speculation was that the mice would have survived had their crash occurred on land. Adding to the mystery of possible spy sabotage, the dead mice were a backup crew that had been assigned to the mission after an earlier tragedy. The original rodent crew was found dead of chemical overdose after eating the krylon that had been sprayed on their cages to cover rough edges.

Space Hounds

In the early 1950s, the Russians strapped dogs, instead of monkeys, into rockets because dogs were assumed to be less fidgety in flight. Females were chosen due to the relative ease of controlling bodily waste. Soviet R-1 series rockets carried a total of nine dogs in hermetically sealed containers. Each was ejected from the spacecraft and parachuted to recovery at the end of the mission. Two dogs were onboard because more scientific evaluation allowed for more accurate test results. Dezik and Tsygan (“Gypsy”) were the first dogs launched in August 1951. Both were successfully retrieved. A month later, Dezik went back up, this time with a dog named Lisa. The pair did not survive. Smelaya (“Bold”) and Malyshka (“Little One”) were later scheduled for spaceflight, but the day before launch, Smelaya ran away. Two days later the dog wandered back to the launchpad and the test flight was successful.

Laika (“Barker”) was the first animal to orbit the earth. No plans had been made to bring Laika back alive from her ride on Sputnik 2 in 1957. She was a small, three-year-old, stray mongrel (mostly Siberian husky) rescued from the streets of Moscow. The U.S. press nicknamed her “Muttnik.” Flight controllers monitored Laika’s heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It was determined that she barked repeatedly and ate her food during her 10 days alive on the flight before her oxygen ran out. Sputnik 2 eventually burned up in the outer atmosphere in April 1958. A statue honoring Laika and cosmonauts killed in flight was erected in 1997 at Star City outside Moscow. The dog can be seen peeping out from behind the cosmonauts.


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A year before Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on Vostok I in 1961, the dogs Strelka (“Little Arrow”) and Belka (“Squirrel”) rode a Vostok prototype spacecraft into orbit. The dogs were the first animals to return alive after orbiting Earth. Strelka gave birth after returning to earth. One of the puppies was presented to Caroline Kennedy as a gift by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The bodies of Strelka and Belka remain preserved at the Memorial Museum of Astronautics in Moscow. Belka is confined behind a glass case in the museum, while Strelka is part of a traveling exhibit that tours the world.

Among the last canines to ride in space were Veterok (“Breeze”) and Ugoyok (“Little Piece of Coal”) aboard Kosmos 110 in 1966. The purpose of the flight was to determine the prolonged effects of radiation during space travel. The dogs established a record for canines of 21 sustained days in space, a mark that humans finally surpassed in June 1974 with the Skylab 2 mission.

Space Apes

The United States sent monkeys into space instead of dogs to determine if the stress of space travel and weightlessness would affect basic motor skills or the ability to think clearly. In 1952, a pair of Philippine monkeys named Patricia and Mike were the first primates to survive spaceflight. Joining the monkeys were mice named Mildred and Albert. The monkeys were strapped into their seats but Mildred and Albert were allowed to float freely in zero-gravity. In 1959, Gordo, a squirrel monkey, flew 600 miles in a Jupiter rocket one year after the Soviets launched Laika. Gordo died on splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean when a flotation device failed. Nevertheless, Navy doctors determined from monitoring his respiration and heartbeat that humans could withstand a similar trip.

Sam and Miss Sam were a pair of rhesus monkeys named for the acronym for the U.S. Air Force School of Aviation Medicine. Housed in a cylindrical capsule, Sam was launched on December 4, 1959 in a Mercury spacecraft atop a Little Joe rocket. His mission was to specifically test the launch escape system. One minute into the flight at a speed of 3,685 miles-per-hour, the Mercury capsule aborted from the Little Joe launch vehicle. The spacecraft landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean, and Sam was recovered a few hours later. Miss Sam also tested the escape system a few weeks afterward. Upon being reunited, the two monkeys reportedly embraced.


Ham was the first chimpanzee to fly in space. (click for larger version)

Riding a Mercury Redstone rocket, Ham was the first chimpanzee in space. Born in the French Camaroons, West Africa, Ham came to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in 1959. His flight was the precursor to Alan Shepard’s 1961 suborbital journey that made Shepard the first American in space. After leaving NASA, the chimp was placed on exhibit at the Washington Zoo in 1963 and later at the North Carolina Zoological Park where he lived alone until he died in 1980.

The best animal spaceflight story of all concerns the mission accomplished by a chimpanzee named Enos. His flight was a full dress rehearsal for the Mercury launch on February 20, 1962, which would make Lt. Colonel John Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth. Purchased from the Miami Rare Bird Farm in 1960, Enos completed more than 1,250 hours of training for his mission at the University of Kentucky and Holloman Air Force Base. His training regime was more intense than Ham’s because he would be exposed to weightlessness and high g-forces for longer periods of time. Three days before his November 1961 flight, Enos was chosen to fly on board a Mercury Atlas 5. The chimp was originally scheduled to complete three orbits but was brought back after the second because the spacecraft was not maintaining proper altitude. One of the stabilizing rockets on the Mercury capsule had malfunctioned, causing the ship to spin in circles as it orbited Earth.

Then another problem arose. Something went wrong with the wiring that controlled the shock and reward system. Enos had been trained through a reward-and-punishment, “electrical shock” system that included pulling designated levers as part of daily tasks. However, the system malfunctioned during the mission, and Enos received jolts of electricity when he should have received banana pellets. Scientists at mission control assumed that Enos would do whatever it took not to be shocked and therefore compromise the mission. Despite the 79 electrical shocks he received for doing his tasks correctly, the chimp performed his commands as he had been trained. After recovery from the Atlantic Ocean, Enos reportedly jumped for joy and ran around the deck of the aircraft carrier, gleefully shaking hands with his rescuers. &

The Scientific Deep End

The Scientific Deep End

By Ed Reynolds

November 03, 2005

The most fascinating lesson garnered from the Einstein exhibit currently at the McWane Center is Albert Einstein’s confession that his imagination played a major role in the “thought experiments” the famed scientist engaged in as he contemplated the mysteries of the universe. “Imagination is more important than knowledge” was his philosophy. Oddly, he never proved his own scientific notions. Einstein merely speculated about time and space, leaving others to prove that he was correct. The most famous of these was Arthur Eddington’s confirmation of Einstein’s speculation that light is bent by gravity. During a 1919 solar eclipse, stars hidden behind the sun were proven to exist because their rays were curved by the sun’s gravity. Only the blotting out of the sun allowed the starlight rays to be seen as they curved around the sun.

The exhibits on display explaining Einstein’s observations are interesting, though somewhat frustrating to the curious lay person when it comes to fully grasping the concepts of one of the greatest scientists in history. Don’t let this discourage you. Simply standing in the presence of handwritten pages by Einstein explaining his 1916 General Theory of Relativity is nothing less than mind-boggling. One wall is covered with a 72-page handwritten manuscript that is the earliest known description of relativity in Einstein’s handwriting, as he did not keep any of the drafts of his 1905 Special Theory of Relativity.

Also on exhibit are the FBI files that addressed Einstein as a security risk. Beginning in 1932, J. Edgar Hoover was determined to prove that Einstein was affiliated with traitors. The scientist had upset some with his support of civil rights. Renowned black opera soprano Marian Anderson was refused a room at a hotel in Princeton, New Jersey, after a concert. Einstein invited her to stay with him, forming a friendship that lasted his entire life. Einstein became an American citizen in 1940, one year after warning President Franklin Roosevelt that defecting German scientists told him the Nazis were working on an atomic bomb. Einstein urged Roosevelt to get America involved in the creation of nuclear weapons. The Manhattan Project began two years later. Interestingly, despite Hoover’s efforts to discredit him, Einstein supported the American war effort by penning a handwritten version of his 1905 Special Theory of Relativity, which was auctioned off to raise $6.5 million in war bonds.

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By the 1950s, however, Einstein had embraced pacifism, calling for the United States to share nuclear technology with the Soviet Union. His denunciation of McCarthyism prompted a letter from House Un-American Activities Committee member John Rankin, who wrote, “It’s about time the American people got wise to Einstein . . . He ought to be prosecuted.” Also on display are letters exchanged with Sigmund Freud regarding human nature and the urge to go to war.

Among the memorabilia is a Birmingham connection. A copy of a letter Einstein wrote to Dr. Robert S. Teague, a UAB professor, is on display. In the correspondence, Einstein sought $1 million to educate Americans on responsible use of atomic power, which Einstein refers to as “the most revolutionary force since prehistoric man’s discovery of fire.” In another letter Einstein refused to accept the presidency of the newly created state of Israel in 1945.

Then there are the letters from children. In 1954, a child wrote in a first-grader’s crude scrawl: “Dear Mr. Einstein, I am a little girl of six. I saw your picture in the paper. I think you ought to have your haircut [sic] so you can look better.”

“Einstein” will be on exhibit at the McWane Center through January 22. For more information, call 714-8300 or visit www.mcwane.org.