Mar 29

Return to flight

NASA’s space shuttle program may be approaching the end of its two-year hiatus. This morning, the shuttle Discovery was moved from its processing hangar to the Vehicle Assembly Building, where it will be mated with a redesigned external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters. Discovery‘s rollout to the launch pad is scheduled for next Monday, and her launch is tentatively planned for May 15.

Oct 05

Happy trails, Gordo

Colonel Gordon Cooper died yesterday at age 77. He was one of the legendary seven Mercury astronauts and flew into orbit on the last and longest Mercury mission in 1963. Cooper also commanded the Gemini 5 mission in 1965 and was backup commander for Apollo 10.
I don’t know whether Cooper witnessed the X Prize victory of SpaceShipOne before he died, but I hope so. With his passing, only three of the Mercury Seven remain alive: John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, and Wally Schirra. Gus Grissom was killed in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967. Deke Slayton died of brain cancer in 1993, and Alan Shepard succumbed to leukemia in 1998.

Nov 18

Falling stars

I’ve just come in from watching the Leonid meteor shower with my children. The peak was predicted for 4:00 to 6:00 a.m., so I set my alarm for 5:00 and we spread a blanket on the front lawn and lay down to watch the show. The weather was perfectly clear, which helped to make up for skyglow we get from Raleigh and Cary. I knew that these were less-than-ideal viewing conditions, but hoped that the meteors were sufficiently bright that we’d be able to see them anyway.
We weren’t disappointed. They were bright, and we saw several per minute the whole time we were out there. It was chilly, but not terribly cold, and eerily quiet even for Holly Springs; normally, we have the sound of vehicles passing on Highway 55 as background noise even when nothing else is audible, but at 5:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, traffic was virtually nonexistent. The only sounds were the growling of my stomach (which was obviously ready for breakfast), the three of us breathing, and occasional exclamations when an especially spectacular meteorite zipped through our field of vision. Most of those exclamations came from us, but we could occasional ones from neighbors who were watching the show too. It was that quiet.
According to the CNN article that tipped me off about this event, the last time the Leonids put on a show like this was in 1966. I may have seen that shower. I can’t be sure of the exact date, but I distinctly remember lying on a blanket watching meteors with my father on the lawn of our house on Lionel Street in Monroe, Louisiana. We lived in that house from (I think) 1965 to 1970, so that’s the right location for a 1966 memory. I’ll have to ask my Dad if he can confirm this when I see him at Thanksgiving.
I did notice a couple of differences from the 1966 experience. My vision was a lot better back then; I didn’t even need glasses yet, let alone bifocals. And I don’t recall my joints complaining about lying on the ground. Even my Dad was younger back then (by about five years) than I am now.

Oct 04

Looking down

The Enterprise titles begin with some lovely pictures of the Earth from orbit, which demonstrate how far Star Trek has come in 35 years. Remember when the original series depicted the same thing in episodes like “Miri” and “Tomorrow Is Yesterday”? It looked like a globe: continents and oceans, but no clouds. That’s understandable, because manned space flight was only five years old at that point, and a meeting of everyone who had done it would have fit comfortably into an ordinary conference room. Orbital photos of the Earth existed, but they were grainy black-and-white images that didn’t come close to conveying the breathtaking reality that cosmonauts and astronauts saw.
Nowadays, Star Trek doesn’t have to guess what Earth looks like from orbit, or use visual effects to simulate it. They just use a photograph of the real thing.