"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Monday, July 20, 2009

Stumping for Space: Three Vignettes from a Layman

Below are three recent experiences of trying to pass on my enthusiasm for space exploration. I offer them for perspective’s sake.

Vignette One: My Good Neighbor

As Judy took the magazine from my hands, she looked at the glossy photos and faltered a little. She found the images unsettling, verging on overwhelming. Judy sat down, took a breath while shaking her head, and then said, “Boy. This…” Her voice cut out. She wasn’t about to faint or cry; however, the photos I’d placed before her were having a disconcerting effect. What were these photos of? Stars, galaxies, and nebulae, all taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

For space enthusiasts, Hubble’s photos are generally inspiring. So I was taken aback to watch my neighbor regard them as upsetting, even a bit disturbing. In hindsight though, I wonder why I presupposed that a galaxy mosaic would surely produce an uplifting response.

For Judy, life has included steady doses of struggle, tragedy, and poor health, underscored by recently being laid off from a factory job. Why did I assume she would enjoy pictures of an impersonal universe where everything is frozen, burning, or subsisting perilously between these extremes? In case you are wondering, I never got around to plugging Mars Direct.

Vignette Two: My Astute Acquaintance

I’ve known Jim for roughly three years. He is a practical man of the earth. Though quite successful in his dual career as an actor and tree care specialist, Jim is neither rich nor famous. He is, however, well read, sharp-witted, and he has no tolerance for arguments that smack of bull crap or wishful thinking.

On July 4th, I found myself visiting with Jim at a cookout. After some enjoyable discussion of Ernest Hemmingway’s short stories, Jim asked what I’d been reading lately. At the time, I was halfway through Buzz Aldrin’s new memoir Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon.

Jim decided to quiz me on the merits of human space travel. Given the incredible expense involved, why did I think human space flight was a justified use of tax dollars? I opted to try selling Jim on the idea of building an observatory on the far side of the moon. This merited a slight nod, but I could tell I hadn’t won him over to pursuing human space settlements.

I retreated to the only program that has always made complete sense to me. “We need to develop and test spacecraft that can reach objects crossing Earth’s orbit. And we need to be capable of altering their orbits to avoid collision and disaster. Long term, a Moon or Mars base could be an excellent jumping off point for such missions.”

Jim began nodding in sincere affirmation. “Now that makes sense to me, Jake. I can see the benefits of doing that.” I’d gotten him onboard, but the conversation was a bummer for me. I hate relying on apocalyptic argument to make my point. Still, if it gets the door open…

Vignette Three: My Wonderful Nephew

Over Memorial Day weekend, I visited family in Kentucky. One of my relatives is an inquisitive four-year-old nephew: Hayden. Ever curious, Hayden’s favorite question is “Why?” Recently, Hayden and his mom enjoyed a picture book about space. Sensing a chance to foster some uncle/nephew bonding, my sister told Hayden that I like space. Thus prompted, Hayden asked me a question. “Uncle Jake, what’s your favorite planet?”

“My favorite planet is Saturn,” I replied. From his mom’s lap, Hayden sat sideways, furrowed his brow, and fired off his favorite question. “Why?” I had to think. What fact might interest a four-year old? Turning to my nephew, I asked, "Hayden, how many moons does Earth have?” He looked down at his little fingers for help, but fell quiet and uncertain. With a little help from his mom, Hayden answered. “One.”

“Well Hayden,” I continued, “Saturn has lots of moons. Some are icy. Some are rocky. Some are big and some are small. But they are all really neat!” Hayden’s young attention span soon left me behind, but for a moment I believe I had him. Hopefully, I nurtured a seed of curiosity that will keep him fascinated with space as he grows up.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ink in "The Planetary Report"

Below is a Hubble Space Telescope photo that I wrote a blurb about. To my delight, my paragraph accompanies this photo in a tribute to Hubble published in the current issue of The Planetary Report. This magazine is published by The Planetary Society. As a struggling writer, this was a sweet little victory for me.

In my caption, I briefly explain how this photo offers perspective through juxtaposing an asteroid with the vast universe. It also offers a bit of comedy. When I first viewed the photo, I literally chuckled at this little fellow crashing Hubble's attempt at a panorama. Anyhow, it was a thrill and an honor to see a bit of my writing make it into such a wonderful publication. To read my actual caption, you will need to peek at a society member's copy. Or better yet, join The Planetary Society!

July 20th approaches folks. Hope you will join all space enthusiasts in remembering and celebrating the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

One Small Fieldtrip for One Giant Space Enthusiast

As the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing approaches (July 20th), I took advantage of the July 4th weekend to visit the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Ohio. Below are some photos and thoughts from the enjoyable afternoon I spent at this small but well-conceived museum.

The two-story venue includes a domed theatre, star-field display, and exhibits. It is both a tribute to the first man to set foot on the moon, and a celebration of the many Ohioans who have contributed their talent and industry to space exploration.

Below is easily the coolest exhibit: the Gemini VIII capsule flown by Neil Armstrong and David Scott.

Gemini VIII saw the first successful docking of two orbital spacecraft. Standing 6’2”, I took the above picture at eye-level. That means I would have been two inches too tall to even be eligible for the 1960s astronaut program. Of course, they weren’t looking for chubby English Majors anyway.

Next is a snapshot of my foot and a B.F. Goodrich tire. It becomes a novel photo when you consider the tire was used on the shuttle Endeavor (STS-68).

Below you see me posing Right Stuff-style next to the only existing F5D Skylancer.

The Skylancer directs my bold, envelope-pushing gaze toward a nearby Waffle House. In a sense, the single-seat jet is a predecessor of the space shuttle. Armstrong flew it as part of the short-lived Project Dyna-Soar. (With a name that tacky, the program probably never had a chance.) Predating the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo flights, the Skylancer was used in early testing to develop a winged reentry vehicle.

The above plaque, a touching gesture by NASA, displays two flags and a mission patch belonging to deceased astronaut Judith Resnik. They were recovered from the ill-fated Challenger (STS-51-L). Above the patches are portraits of all seven brave astronauts who perished aboard Challenger.

The Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum suffers from a somewhat remote location. But it is right off a major freeway (I-75), and can be combined with visits to other Ohio attractions, including some aerospace ones. The meaningful sampling of significant artifacts makes for a worthwhile trip for any space enthusiast.