Archive | October, 2011

EndeavourLA Launch Event

11 Oct

There was one minor problem with the tweetup this morning: no wifi. Like I said, a minor problem, and served mainly to make me feel guilty for not live-tweeting (which is one of your first-world-ier problems).

Other than that, everything went off without a hitch. The elementary school kids got to launch rockets after a countdown to introduce the crew of STS-134 (well, 4/6ths of the crew). It was kind of painfully adorable. More so when they got to ask questions (and especially when one girl prefaced her question by telling Mark Kelly that she was glad his wife was doing well).

From left: Mark Kelly, Gregory Johnson, Michael Fincke, and Andrew Feustel.

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11 Oct

I know I shouldn’t play favorites. And I also know I shouldn’t anthropomorphize spacecraft to the extent that I probably do. But despite all of that, before I got a chance to see Atlantis up close this summer, Endeavour was always my favorite of the orbiters.

I’m not sure why. It could be because it was the baby orbiter — only a little younger than me. It could be the fact that it uses the British spelling of the word. It could be the name itself — along with Discovery and Voyager, it’s one of the best purely descriptive names (that is, not named for a scientist or a character in mythology).

According to NASA’s lovely summary of Endeavour’s history,

Endeavour was named after a ship chartered to traverse the South Pacific in 1768 and captained by 18th century British explorer James Cook, an experienced seaman, navigator and amateur astronomer. He commanded a crew of 93 men, including 11 scientists and artists.
Cook’s main objective, tasked by the British Admiralty and the Royal Society, was to observe the Transit of Venus at Tahiti. This reading enabled astronomers to find the distance of the Sun from the Earth, which then could be used as a unit of measurement in calculating the parameters of the universe.
Cook’s achievements on Endeavour were numerous, including the accurate charting of New Zealand and Australia and successfully navigating the Great Barrier Reef. Thousands of new plant specimens and animal species were observed and illustrated on this maiden voyage. Cook also established the usefulness of including scientists on voyages of exploration.”

A painting of the HMS Endeavour -- which reminds me that there were painters at the STS-135 launch. I wonder how their work turned out? Would love to see the final products.

I think all of that’s kind of fantastic. Because of course scientists are useful. I am always a fan of stories dealing with the gradual discovery of things that seem painfully obvious now (like how doctors should wash their hands between patients?).

My recent habit of rooftop stargazing has also made me wonder about the earliest astronomers. What would I have concluded, without any of my modern knowledge, about the changes in the Moon from night to night? About the fact that planets don’t flicker? I mean, no wonder people in the past thought any crazy thing they thought about the stars. I am pretty consistently glad that modern society has figured this all out for me, so that I can focus on things like the brain.

(Feel free to picture, here, someone 300 years in the future thinking to herself, “I’ve been wondering about the earliest neuroscientists. What would I have concluded, without any of my modern knowledge, about the problem of consciousness? No wonder people in the past thought….”)

Every little bit helps, and it sounds like the earlier Endeavour did more than a little bit to shape our earliest true understanding of the universe. Here, though, is the Endeavour we’re gathering to commemorate today, in what is, for my money, one of the most beautiful images in all of history.

Just, wow. (Image from NASA)

Three Months

8 Oct

Am I going to do an “X Months Since STS-135” post every month for the rest of my life? Probably not. I suspect it will be something like measuring the age of a child in months until it reaches a year or so. But for now, it seems important.

I’m really good at marking milestones. In fact, it may be my one true talent in life. I recently fell in love with this website: Besides being the three-month anniversary of the final shuttle lunch, today marked the 8,000th day since my birth. I am nearing 12 Martian years. On the other hand, I won’t be 2 Jovian years until 2013.

Jupiter has been on my mind a lot lately, since it’s been so bright in the sky. It looks so stable from here — notwithstanding the actual state of its surface — as if it has always been there, and will always be, no matter what is happening here on Earth.

I went down to the beach today, and was reminded that when I was young and in love with the idea of moving out to the West Coast from the ocean-less middle of the country, I felt the same way about the ocean that I feel about space today. There are, of course, clear parallels between early explorers crossing the sea and modern explorers pushing against the edges of outer space.

The shores of the literal ocean.

“We embarked on our journey to the stars with a question first framed in the childhood of our species and in each generation asked anew with undiminished wonder: What are the stars? Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” — Carl Sagan, Cosmos

The shores of the cosmic ocean (in this case, Jupiter above Los Angeles).

In Praise of Museums, for EndeavourLA

7 Oct

This afternoon, I crafted a first draft of the last class schedule of my undergrad career. Needless to say, it made me look back on the last four years, mostly in disbelief. Here’s a picture I took with my digital camera (back when everyone I knew carried around digital camera, phone, and iPod as three separate entities, as a matter of course) at my first football game (not my first USC football game, my first football game ever.  I still don’t really know how football works.)

FOUR. YEARS. Let's not even try to pretend that makes sense. George Bush was president, the first iPads were still two years away, America had manned spaceflight capability, there were murmurs of trouble in the housing market, China had hosted the summer Olympics, the LHC was about to switch on, and I -- I was an English major.

See the California Science Center behind all the people and all the pretty trees? I didn’t, at the time. (My sense of direction is, as previously mentioned, dire. I was concentrating on making sure I could get back to my dorm by nightfall in case I lost the rest of the group from my floor. Hello, freshman year.)

But I love a museum. I grew up in Chicago; I took the Field Museum and the Museum of Science & Industry (and all the rest) completely for granted, the way you do when you’re a kid. Continue reading

Rooftop Stargazing and Temporal Dominoes

4 Oct

See that dot?

Clearly, I need a telescope. Is anyone watching the Hubble?

It’s tempting to go with Sagan here: “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.” (Yes, I have that memorized, mostly inadvertently.) But it’s not here/home/us. It is, according to every internet resource I can find combined with my common sense, Jupiter. It is by far the brightest object in the sky besides the Moon and various airplanes.

You see, my building has some very nice rooftop decks that no one seems to use on weeknights when it’s SoCal-cold outside. So I’ve started going out there most days to get some alone time with the stars and various Neal Stephenson tomes.

There are stars and constellations I think I have identified with some certainty — my problem, besides my lack of telescope, is possessing the sense of direction of a brick. Seriously, you can see a bit of highway near the bottom of that picture. My bedroom window faces it, too. I don’t know what highway it is.

A third and equally serious problem is the city itself. Between the light-pollution and the pollution-pollution, you can see only the brightest of stars on the clearest of nights. So while I think I can see a large percentage of Pegasus, or most of Cassiopeia, or three stars that must be part of Cygnus, they lose some of their status as constellations.

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