Here’s a book of photographs of Houston emphasizing the connection to the Apollo program. The photos are as inevitable as astronauts, as exuberant as the space-themed murals and painted traffic signal control boxes around town, and as subtle as the Hermann Park statue of Sam Houston pointing east – toward a full moon in the night sky. In addition to the photos, author Ray Viator includes well-researched information about the inception of Johnson Space Center and its ties with area universities and research centers. But the images are why I leafed through the book again and again. Not sure which was my fave, but maybe the Hubble-telescope-inspired, meteor-fragment-containing window at Webster Presbyterian Church.
On the night of the blood wolf moon, I stayed up late enough to watch the total lunar eclipse.
It was a clear cold night, as close as we get in Houston to the crisp winter nights elsewhere in the country and the world.
I walked out and sat on a wrought iron bench close to my condo. It did my heart good to see how many neighbors had also come on out to watch the eclipse. I even noticed a telescope on a balcony.
It seems humankind still yearns for a connection with the heavens. The urge to look into the night sky and to wonder about the cosmos, and about our place in it, is well-nigh universal. I hope that urge never goes away.
Tonight’s was the second of five eclipses forecast for 2019. The first was a partial solar eclipse visible from China about two weeks ago. This was fitting; at almost the same time as that eclipse, the Chinese lander Chang’e 4 successfully touched down on the mysterious far side of the moon.
On board the lander was a science experiment that germinated a seed on the surface of the moon, albeit in a self-contained bubble. The seed sprouted, a tiny leaf dared poke its head toward the same Sun on which we all depend.
The sprout withered and died during the long lunar night, but even so, there was something achingly universal about the plant and its brief but pioneering life: the seed was a cotton seed.
What’s special and universal about cotton? According to the cotton growers’ trade group, on every single day, at some point every human being alive comes in contact with cotton.
And so, as I and my neighbors gazed at the blood-red moon, and as our more distant neighbors across the Americas did the same, most of us with cotton something against our skin, we were watching the only other body in the universe known to have cotton.
In what other unexpected ways are our lives woven together? How many other ways are we connected to each other, and to the physical world which clothes and nourishes not only our bodies, but also our spirits?
Realtors are fond of the mantra, “Location, location, location.” They mean the additional attractiveness and value a home can have due solely to its location.
Often this extraordinary value can be traced to the commanding views that can be admired from the windows of the home. Indeed.
Few homes can match the view from this window:
You’re looking at an autonomous Cygnus cargo ship parked on the driveway of the International Space Station and viewed through the kitchen window with the gemlike blue Earth in the background. Just in time for Thanksgiving, the Cygnus arrived bearing nearly three tons of groceries and other household necessities. It will remain docked to the ISS until February when it will depart on another errand: delivering a clutch of cubesats to their prescribed orbits.
Reflect on this: the earliest portions of the International Space Station has been in orbit now for twenty years. As Kamakshi Ayyar recently wrote in Time magazine,
” . . . we are now in an age where people who reached adulthood this month haven’t lived a single day without there being a human in space.”
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the International Space Station is the fact that it’s no longer remarkable.
Recently the short documentary Earthrise was posted on Youtube. It’s an exploration of the emotional impact on the first humans to ever see their—our—lovely world in the rear view mirror.
The crew of Apollo 8 journeyed to the far side of the moon and back. They became the first in human history to go far enough from the good Earth to see it dwindle into a blue marble. Curiously, there had been no advance recognition of the emotional impact of seeing what may be the most hospitable place in all of Creation from a distance,.
The Apollo 8 mission is today remembered for the iconic photo of a crescent Earth rising above the lunar horizon. In photographic terms, however, what was to be one of the most reproduced images in all of humankind’s history was a “grab shot”: William Anders had been recording lunar craters on black and white film when suddenly Earth rose above the bleak horizon. He asked for a roll of color film—tossed to him, in zero gee—and caught the image in the nick of time, because nobody who’d planned the mission had anticipated the wonder of this.
In Anders words, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
Mission Commander Frank Borman’s take was equally poignant: rather than astronauts, he said, we “should have sent poets.” Poets, as well as visual artists and writers can with capture how the wonder of the universe intersects the human spirit.
The wonder of Creation, the incomparable value of our home planet, and what it means to be human: these are some of the reasons I write science fiction. Maybe these are some of reasons you read science fiction, too.
At the Soaring Society of America Convention in Reno last March, the crown jewel of the dream machines in the exhibit hall was Perlan – a experimental glider built to the edge of space. I got a chance to see it, even look into the cockpit.
This summer Perlan returned to the Andes Mountains in southern Argentina – maybe the only place in the world where the atmospheric conditions are such that the highest of high altitudes can be reached. Perlan’s cockpit is pressurized. The ship takes stratospheric tows and then climbs even higher on mountain-generated waves in the atmosphere. On September 2, Perlan shattered every glider altitude record in existence, including its own record from the summer of 2017. It soared over 76,000′. That’s higher than the altitude record set by the U-2 spyplane. The Perlan pilots saw the sky start to turn black and Earth’s distant blue horizon start to look curved.
Read more about Perlan here. They have a fabulous Website!
On January 20, 2018, an amateur astronomer by the name of Scott Tilley detected a signal he correctly deduced to have originated from NASA’s IMAGE satellite. This satellite, launched in early 2000, had fallen silent almost six years later and given up for dead.
Interestingly, the mechanism for rebooting IMAGE involved passing through the shadow of a solar eclipse. While an eclipse in 2007 didn’t do the trick, speculation is that the eclipse I watched from Wyoming last summer may have done so. It’s nice to know the universe on occasion does make service calls!
IMAGE, the Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration, was intended to spend its two-year operational life imaging charged particles in the plasmasphere that surrounds the Earth, using several new techniques. As such, it’s a tool to help us investigate the aurorae. Thanks to IMAGE, you can watch a beautiful timelapse presentation of an aurora over the South Pole here .
While the science is important, our wonder at the exquisite and unexpected interactions between our planetary home and the rest of the universe is equally so. A sense of wonder about creation and the very human beings dwelling on – or near! – this Earth is why I write the stories I do.
A couple of days ago, PicSat rocketed into orbit on a mission that will last about a year, thus neatly spanning this new year 2018.
The mission will be to observe the transit of a gas giant exoplanet, Beta Pictoris b, as it passes between us and its sun. The planet is new in at least two senses: it was discovered in 2009, orbiting a star just 63 light-years from Earth, and it’s believed to have been formed quite recently. In fact, its orbit is actually inside the cloud of dust and debris left over from the birth of the planet.
What makes this satellite special is its minuscule size and mass: PicSat isn’t much larger than a baguette. This comparison is particularly apt, because PicSat was designed and assembled in Paris. Here it is leaving Paris via the Gare du Nord, the Parisian train station dedicated to generally northbound departures.
If you’re wondering where in the picture the satellite is, it’s in that picnic cooler-size container being carried by PicSat team members Sylvestre Lacour and Maturin Grénot.
PicSat’s train ride to Holland was powered by an electric locomotive, by the way; electric locomotives were first introduced about a hundred and ten years ago—a nice illustration of the old and the new coexisting side by side.
PicSat’s size, mass, and a few other properties were set by the CubeSat nanosatellite specifications which allow smaller packages to piggyback on launches of other, more complex and expensive payloads so long as they pose little or no risk of jeopardizing the host vehicle. As an example of this philosophy, once in orbit the host vehicle deploys CubeSat packages by means of a simple spring launcher—like a child’s toy. In a way, that’s precisely what they are: CubeSat specifications were originally developed to enable graduate students to design and build their own satellites.
In railroad terms, this corresponds to a less-than-carload (“LCL”) shipment; while most people don’t know it, it’s still possible to ship small parcels in the baggage car on Amtrak trains today.
Here’s PicSat, proudly posing in front of four of its creators:
From left to right, these experimenters are Vincent Lapeyrere, Antoine Crouzier, Mathias Nowak, and Lester David. Who says science can’t be fun? To learn more about the PicSat project, or help receive telemetered data from the satellite, visit picsat.obspm.fr Continue reading PicSat Takes a Train to Orbit→
It so happens that I titled my previous blog post. “Rendezvous with Routine.” Science fiction readers will catch the reference to Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal Rendezvous with Rama, a novel about an enormous, cylindrical alien habitat that happens to pass through our solar system in transit from some unknown-to-us location to another unfathomable location.
Now real-life astronomers are preparing to publish a paper about their discovery of an actual visitor passing through our solar system. It’s a strangely elongated asteroid evocative of the shape of Rama. Just weeks ago it passed closer to our Sun than we are here on Earth. Though not artificial, but it’s nonetheless historic: the first object known to humankind to have entered our solar system from outside and to become available for our study.
The interstellar asteroid’s new name, ‘Oumuamua, means “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian.
The detailed European Space Observatory press release can be found here.
This week another one of Orbital ATK’s unmanned (self-driving?) International Space Station resupply rockets lifted off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the launch is that it was so unremarked: it received a paucity of media attention that would have astounded anyone from the age of Gemini and Apollo.
The payload includes the Cygnus spacecraft and 7,400 pounds of spare parts, scientific equipment, and food. No word as to whether the menu includes Space Food Sticks, Tang, or Purina Astronaut Chow. (Maybe we’ll know that space travel is finally here to stay when someone publishes the first Orbital Cookbook. )
It seems to be in the nature of humankind’s most impressive achievements to drift down from the lofty perches they first occupy to end up, eventually, floating around in the back of the family station wagon—or space station.
“The total amount of energy from outside the solar system ever received by all the radio telescopes on the planet Earth is less than the energy of a single snowflake striking the ground.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Isn’t this the human condition: we all have our antennae out, listening for all we’re worth—literally—for a signal that will reassure us that we’re not alone in the infinite night.
Novels of science fiction with wonder, hope and love