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1967 – The Year of Sacrifices for Space   Leave a comment

 

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Apollo 1 Crew – Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee – via NASA

Space is an unforgiving place. It shows no mercy to those who venture to its infinite realm. It is a vacuum, cold and dark, punctuated by points of lights from stars and planets. Exposure to radiation from the sun and galactic cosmic sources causes significant risk of contracting cancer. Your body reacts differently to an environment without gravity. Fluids move towards the head. Mineral loss to the bones occurs. Medicines work differently. And you’d better get along with your crewmates, because you’re going to be together in a cramped space with little privacy. And the further one travels from the Earth, the longer it takes for a signal to reach the spacecraft. Connecting with loved ones becomes more challenging.

There’s also a very real chance of becoming marooned or worse, die.

Yet the prospect of traveling to worlds unknown seems a risk worth taking. The ultimate dare. It’s how discoveries are made. For all of humankind’s history, people have ventured beyond their horizons to discover new ones. If there’s money to be made, so the better. Since most of the Earth’s been explored, it’s natural to want to see what else is out there.

Sometimes, though, the whole point is to do what no one else has done. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we chose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

Anyone who ventures outside of our Earth’s atmosphere subjects themselves to violent forces to escape the Earth’s gravity. Take, for example, the Saturn V rocket. To get there, one has to sit atop a rocket with 7.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

The Saturn V was the rocket used to send Apollo 1 on its mission to test the capabilities the Apollo command and service module, necessary to send man to the moon.

On January 27, 1967, during a launch rehearsal test, its crew – Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – experienced difficulties communicating with the Operations and Checkout Building and the Complex 34 Blockhouse control room. Grissom’s microphone was stuck open, causing him to say, “How are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?”

Shortly thereafter, as the astronauts were going through their checklist, one of the astronauts, thought to be Grissom, discovered a fire in the cabin. Within moments, it consumed the cabin. The men had been unable to unlatch its door, although it seems they attempted to. Five minutes passed before pad workers were able to open the hatch. Grissom and White were found out of their seats, while Chaffee remained strapped to his seat, as procedure dictated. Nylon had melted from their spacesuits. It took ninety minutes to free them from the capsule.

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The Charred Remains of the Apollo 1 Capsule – NASA image, Public Domain, 1967

Because of this disaster, changes were made to the entry hatch, enabling those inside to easily exit the vehicle, instead of relying on those outside to free the crew.

Over in the Soviet Union, Colonel Vladimir Komorov prepared for Soyuz 1. He, along with Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and Alexei Leonov, the first man who accomplished extravehicular activity (EVA), made up the Soyuz team. On this particular mission, Gagarin was Komorov’s backup.

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Colonel Vladimir Komorov and Soyuz 1 (Image – NASA)

It has been said that there were issues with the construction of the spacecraft Komorov was to fly, and that a memo had been sent by Gagarin to Leonid Brezhnev detailing numerous engineering and technical deficiencies. But given the secrecy of the time, reliable information is difficult to come by, and it’s not certain such a memo was either sent or exists. It has also been said that on the day Komorov prepared to command the inaugural flight of the Soyuz program, Gagarin showed up at the launch site, insisting on taking Komorov’s place. The two were very close friends, and he worried about Komorov’s flight into space. But Gagarin was a national treasure. He would’ve never been given permission to substitute for his friend.

So on April 23, 1967, Komorov launched into space from Baikonor Cosmodrome to orbit the Earth. Once in orbit, one of the solar panels failed to fully open, thereby compromising the ability to generate the electricity needed in the cabin. The automatic stabilization system failed as well as the orientation detectors. By orbit 13, it was decided to abort the mission.

It wasn’t until the 19th orbit that Komorov gained the ability to properly orient his space vehicle towards the sun and managed to fire the retrorockets. He entered the Earth’s atmosphere safely and deployed the drogue parachute (a smaller parachute designed to slow the rapid pace of reentry), followed by the main chute. For some reason, the main chute failed to deploy. Komorov then manually activated the reserve main chute, only for it to become tangled with the drogue chute. He plummeted towards the Earth at 40 miles/second, until he crashed in Orenburg Oblast, in southeastern Russia.

His descent module immediately burst into flames and so hot was the fire, its metal shell melted. Rescuers threw dirt on it to extinguish the flames. Afterwards, there was little left of the entry vehicle. After the rescuers extinguished the fire, Komorov was discovered strapped inside, his burned body reduced to a horrible mass of blackened remains. It was determined he died of blunt force injuries.

NASA released the following statement:

“We are very saddened by the loss of Col. Komarov. We feel comradeship for this test pilot because we have met several of his fellow cosmonauts and we know that we are all involved in a pioneering flight effort that is not without hazard. We particularly want to express our deep sense of sympathy to Mrs. Komarov, their children and his fellow cosmonauts.”

Colonel Vladimir Komarov died on April 24, 1967. He was mourned as a national hero. And because of his death, critical technical changes were made to future Soyuz missions to ensure the safety of their crews.

 

 

 

 

 

Moonstruck   Leave a comment

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The Moon, as photographed by Louis Daguerre, 1839

I’m not kidding when I say I’ve been moonstruck since childhood. That’s when my parents dragged me out of bed on one sultry July evening. Mom opened the bedroom door, shook me and said, “Wake up! You have to see this!” Grumpily, I dragged my sleepy self down the hall and into the living room, where my parents, grandparents, sister and brother sat, glued to the TV. My seven-year-old self stared at the screen, impatient. After a few moments, Neil Armstrong hopped out of the LM and into history, followed shortly thereafter by Buzz Aldrin.

The whole concept seemed so wild to me. That giant Saturn rocket shooting them into space. Three men jammed into what seemed not much larger than a Volkswagen Beetle. Being able to see and hear them from an ever increasing distance. And then, the landing. Walter Cronkite’s gushing on air wasn’t much different from everyone in my house. Or the world, for that matter.

I didn’t really think about all the technology, or the training, or the money, or even the space race that evening. Other NASA missions came and went, and my family followed them all. But somehow, this one stood out from the rest. Three guys achieved something no one else has ever done then and since (although that will change shortly).

All I knew was that I wanted to be an astronaut. Desperately.

As the years went by, I shifted my interests to astronomy and learning the constellations, and the shifting planets in the nighttime sky, plus the occasional comet and meteor showers. I never did well in math, so I gave up my dream of becoming an astronomer. But my love for the offworld never faded, and I kept my sweet spot for the moon.

There’s nothing more entrancing than watching the glow of a full moon on a white blanket of snow, as the whitened trees glisten from its brightness. Or how a summer night feels so romantic with the moon sailing over the ocean. How welcoming the moon can be when it peeps out from a clearing sky, or transform into a mysterious red when it eclipses. Or blots out the sun and turns black.

Lots of sci-fi novels and movies use the moon as a backdrop or a plot device. It has religious significance for many. One can be mooned, have a moonface, or eat a moon pie, or wear a moonstone. Or be like Cher and Nicholas Cage and be moonstruck.

If you’re lucky and under the right conditions, you can catch the new moon in the old moon’s arms, or the old moon’s arm around the new moon. That means right before and after a new moon, there’s a thin ribbon of light, the slenderest of crescents, holding the dark side. Through a telescope or good binoculars, you can make out some details of the dark side too. This phase doesn’t last long, as it’s right before sunrise or just after sunset, and the moon is very close to the sun in the sky and very near the horizon.

If you catch it just at the right time, you can see an occultation, or the moon appearing to hide a star or planet. It’s literally now you see it, now you don’t. The moon slides in front of a celestial body, for a matter of minutes or hours. Then the celestial body magically reappears. It’s fascinating to watch.

During daylight, a moonrise might seem as if it’s almost see-through and blue. Spotting a full moon rising from a mountaintop is downright spectacular. You’ll never see something so big in your entire life. Or catching it rising over the ocean – the glow on the horizon, then a tiny, shy peep, as it creeps higher into the sky, a ribbon of light shimmering over the ocean’s surface, until, for a moment, the entire orb appears to be balancing on the horizon itself. Way cool!

I’ve already spent much of last and this week reliving the moon landing and the entire NASA early space mission by watching programs on PBS, or reading articles, or posts on my Twitter feed. I still marvel at this accomplishment.

But most importantly, I remember how unifying this singular moment was for our planet. How we all came together to marvel at such an achievement. It was an accomplished started out of competition and ended in peace. We need, not only as a nation, but as ambassadors of this legacy, to remember what good can come of scientific achievements, and to put aside all that makes us angry and frustrated, in order to move forward to use our discoveries to better the fates of all humankind.

 

My Summer Reads   Leave a comment

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Since I write speculative science fiction with strong female protagonists, I’d thought I’d spend this summer reading female sci-fi writers writing books with strong female protagonists. You know, to see how they do it. Maybe I can pick up a few tips here and there.

So what’s in the pile?

All of Elizabeth Moon’s “Vatta’s War” series. I accidentally picked up the fourth book in the series, “Command Decision,” not realizing it was a later entry in the storyline when I bought it. I read it anyway. Sure, I didn’t get some references but it didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve got four other titles to read so I know what’s going on. Then after that, Ms. Moon added “Vatta’s Peace” to the collection. I’m looking forward to adding that to the list as well.

Last winter, as I sat on the examination table waiting for my doctor to see me, I occupied myself by reading “Command Decision.” The doctor walked in and noticed the book. He immediately pulled it from my hands and said, “This series IS AMAZING! So what did you think of the others?” That’s when I admitted I hadn’t read them. He then goes on telling me the plot lines, characters’ foibles and a few spoilers. While I enjoyed his hearty endorsement of the series, I fortunately forgot most of what he said. I’d love to find out for myself what dangerous situations Kylara Vatta has to dig her way through.

Octavia E. Butler, “Parable of the Sower,” “Parable of the Talents,” and “Kindred.” Oh, wowThis writer has me gobsmacked. No wonder she was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and two-time winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Not only is her prose wonderful, her stories will leave you on the edge of your seat. One can never be certain about anything in her worlds. Twists aplenty. Beloved characters die. In her worlds, nothing is certain except uncertainty.

I read “Parable of the Sower” first. Butler predicted the present measles epidemic when it was written in 1993. In “Parable of the Talents,” she predicts a Trump-like character who runs and wins the office of president, and the ensuing rise of racism and rabid Christians  wreaking havoc on an already fragile America.

Butler’s foresight all those years ago gave me chills. I’ve actually put sticky notes in the pages where her words ring close to true. But my favorite is the sayings she created in the books, and one in particular:

“All that you change, changes you.”

Right now I’ve begun “Kindred.” I’ve only read the first chapter and the range of detail and emotions she conveys has me hooked.

My sister teaches college. Her school offers a course on Octavia E. Butler’s literature. I only wish I lived nearby. I’d audit the class!

Happy Summer Reading, Folks!

 

 

 

 

On The Cusp Of Summer   Leave a comment

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The Earth captured at summer solstice, 2017 – Credit: Japan Meteorological Agency’s Himawari-8 satellite

Ah, summer. Leisurely days spent sipping ice tea by the pool or barbecue. Or maybe a vacation on a beach or lake? Or a trip overseas? There’s just something about this favorite season of everyone’s that brings smiles and thoughts of relaxing the sultry days away, maybe indulging too much ice cream and gazing at fireworks.

Summer almost seems like a reward for shivering in winter, raking all those autumn leaves and pulling the enthusiastically growing spring weeds from all those places they shouldn’t be growing. It’s the glamour girl of the seasons, letting down its long, luxurious hair to blow in the west wind, shining brightly in the glittering sun.

But really, summer is just a spot on the Earth’s orbit that means that one of its poles has reached its maximum tilt towards the sun, and from an observer’s viewpoint, the sun has reached its highest point in the sky. And during the northern hemisphere’s summer, anyone south of the equator is entering winter. Or, if you’re at the equator, there’s hardly any shift in time or seasons.

The summer solstice occurs in the northern hemisphere anytime between June 20-22. It’s a quirk of the calendar, not of the Earth. If one also notices the time of sunrise and sunset, you’ll see that sunrise times seem stuck in place for a few days, but the sunset times grow later. The sun in the sky appears to be at the same place for a short while. That’s known as an analemma. Click on the link for a previous blog post that nicely explains what it is.

Skygazers are rewarded with lots of wonderful constellations during the summer. Facing south, both Scorpius and Sagittarius dominate the sky. There’s the Perseid meteor showers from August 8-13. The Summer Triangle too – consisting of three brilliant stars: Deneb in Cygnus, Altair in Aquila and Vega in Lyra. The Milky Way shines brightly above around midnight, and Aquila and Cygnus are poised within it.

While haze might make some nights a bit challenging for observing the sky, viewers should take every opportunity to turn off the porch light and look up. Those stars won’t be hanging around forever. They’re busy marching on to the next season, which is autumn, and in the northern hemisphere it occurs on September 23. So put down your smartphone, turn off the TV and get outside!

 

 

 

Local Aliens   Leave a comment

Alien Fest - Mispelled sign

Humans Escape, Aliens Esape…Got It?

Tomorrow is the umpteenth Pine Bush UFO Fair, located in the northern edge of Orange County, New York. It’s a town that seemed to be plagued (or blessed) by an unusual amount of UFOs in the mid 1980s into the 1990s, although they’ve been spotted forever. Although I’m going to miss it this year (and I’m upset about that!), thousands will descend upon the place, seeking out stories from locals who’ve witnessed all sorts of strange happenings. There’s also a cosplay contest, live music, lectures from UFOlogists, authors and more.

What I like about this festival is it celebrates the incredible and unbelievable. I don’t doubt for one moment that the townsfolk have seen something, even aliens. But many others are skeptics, wondering what in the universe do all these aliens crave here? The Shawangunk Mountains? Horse farms? Corn fields? The Cup and Saucer Diner‘s coffee?

Who really cares.

What’s great is every nerd from miles around descends upon this quaint village and supports all the businesses, buys books from local authors, listens to good music played on Main Street and eats in its restaurants. And so should you.

Alien Fest - Star Trek Fans

Yours truly with a tribble and some like-minded folk

Alien Fest - Porch Aliens

House Guests

Alien Fest - Green Kiddies

Local Aliens

Alien Fest - T-Shirts for Sale

Neat Merch!

These days, reality is so hard on us humans. Every day we’re battered by news headlines that grow worse by the minute. When’s the last time you glanced at the paper or news app and didn’t cringe? So in a way, discovering that aliens are snooping through our hills kind of seems normal. I mean, it’s pretty hard to digest what’s happening to the United States these days, so why should the possibility of E.T. looking for a decent phone connection be out of the ordinary?

So if you find yourself driving on NY State Road 17 West, go on Exit 119 and head north on Route 302 until you hit Pine Bush. Even if you can’t make the festival, you never know what awaits you on your way there.

Or watches.

Just look out for those flying boomerangs at night. From what I hear, they’re pretty amazing.

Is Our Future Really Dystopian?   Leave a comment

Japanese Robot

One can argue that this is a great time for things dystopian. There’s a lot of discord in this world and in our country in particular. School shootings seem to happen so frequently they hardly get a notice in the news. Climate change is a reality more than a concept. Now measles is roaring back…is smallpox next? And superviruses and superbacteria threaten us all, with no cures or countermeasures in sight. Racial tensions are again on the rise, while the gig economy undermines workers’ abilities to save for the future or just be secure.

And so on…

It’s easy to picture a future without hope or purpose. I’m even going through a rough patch myself and wonder if there’s any sparkle left to dream about. Any one of those scenarios above could make great fodder for a novel. And have.

But just image if one day we all took stock of what we have and set about to make it right. Make changes that benefit all, not a precious few. Pollyanna as that sounds, one rather famous series used an evolved humankind as its background. Yes, that’d be Star Trek. In it, those who inhabit the Earth (and not necessarily humans) have eschewed wealth for equality and humanity. Sure, each episode mirrored what’s happened here on the home planet, but the outcomes often were positive, if not hopeful.

Would it even, I daresay, be an odd sort of dystopia if everything went right and nothing went wrong? Can you imagine? Sure, it’d be boring but the movie Pleasantville is based on a premise of a perfect TV world turned upside-down with the introduction of color.

I suppose it’s somehow easier to believe things’ll blow up than to bloom. There’s a certain comfort in knowing that you or me don’t have it so bad as they will in the future. Or in the past. Or on planet Zorthon. Think about it. Isn’t it cathartic to complain? A downhill slide from justice into injustice, because somehow society needs to be punished. Bombs will blow, diseases will conquer, war will end all.

Again, does it have to?

There are a few simple things we, as humans, can do to change things. They are (in no particular order):

  • Don’t like who’s in office? Vote! Or better yet, run yourself. Take an interest in your town, your county, your state, your nation. Because, believe it or not, your vote matters. Ditto for…
  • You don’t like it that school kids are being shot? Or our environment’s being polluted at a crazy rate? Or something else? Contact your congressman, senator, mayor, governor or even president. You might get the runaround. Attend town halls or village meetings. Speak up. Make your voice heard. And if that doesn’t work, see the above point.
  • Stop wasting everything. Buy enough food that you’ll actually eat so it doesn’t turn into a dystopian event in the fridge. Use one sheet of a paper towel roll instead of two. Or better yet, use a rag and wash it out. Buy household paper that’s been sourced from recycled paper.
  • Don’t litter.
  • Walk instead of drive…if you can. It’s better for you in a myriad of ways. And don’t run the car. Turn it off.
  • Here’s something to ponder: Toothbrushes. Count up the number of toothbrushes you use in a year. Six? Eight? More? Then count the number your family uses. Add that up. Now apply that number to everyone on your street. Or multiply that by the population of your town. Or the population of the United States (or whatever country you happen to live in. You throw all of that away and it lands in a landfill. It lasts longer than humankind. All for clean teeth. What’s the solution? While there are bamboo toothbrushes, which is a step in the right direction, we need to come up with something better.
  • Ditto with needles – the injecting kind – but that’s human waste…and dangerous. But it’s not recyclable either.
  • Or baby diapers. An infant goes through thousands. Add that number up by the number of births in one year. All going to the landfill…

Before you get totally depressed, all of the above can be changed. This is a nation of innovation, or was, anyway. We still can be. Let’s hand it to the upcoming generation of engineers and scientists (and anyone else who’s inspired to join in) and create/invent materials that will biodegrade and/or can be developed from renewable sources.

And maybe, our future will be that much cleaner, clearer and less dystopian.

The Teaser   Leave a comment

So there I was at work the other day, embroiled in my task. A coworker friend pats me on the shoulder and says, “Hey, what did you think of the trailer?”

To be honest, I was so into what I was doing I had absolutely no idea of what he was talking about. In fact (and I’m rather ashamed and embarrassed to admit this), I envisioned some sort of Casita-type or mesh-wire thing filled with junk or landscaping equipment.

“What trailer?” I say.

My friend nearly choked me with his eyes. “You got to be kidding me, right?”

Lord, oh lord how can I be so absolutely clueless? I stop what I’m doing and after that first flush of major humiliation, my mind goes into search mode. Within nanoseconds, it retrieves the teaser vid I’d seen the second it hit the cablewaves.

“Oh, that.” Nice save. “Of COURSE. THE trailer. Where Rey goes all Matrix on a TIE-fighter. Yeah, I saw it.”

Naturally, this leads into a spirited discourse on minutiae featured in the “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” trailer. Yeah, sure, we’re at work, but this is MUCH more important than our tasks at hand. And come on, what else matters?

I’ve been a fan of Star Wars ever since my friend Debbie and I walked into the Beach Twin as 14-year-olds with nothing else to do but see this film we kind of heard that was pretty okay. Our lives were transformed forever once we stepped out of the theater. I don’t think we ever took our eyes off the screen for a second. Every sequel since I’ve eagerly waited and watched, except for Episodes I, II and III, which, as you must all agree, sucked. And quite honestly, I liked IV, V and VI just the way they were, not with all those enhancements and ESPECIALLY not with that ersatz Anakin Skywalker stuck in over the one who really should be there.

I’ve actually enjoyed the rest of the Star Wars enterprise. It’s a brain vacation in a theater seat, as I become entirely absorbed in whatever those Rebels, First Order and Empire folks get themselves mixed up in.

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My son and me, geeking out over BB-8 at NY ComicCon

I know this year’s New York ComicCon’s going to have an amazing exhibition on “SW:TROS” and I can’t wait. That’ll only get me even more hepped up for its December 20th premiere.

And if this one’s anything like the latest entries in the saga, I’ll be anything but disappointed.

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