The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster: an anthology of reflections and perspectives

Today marks the 32nd anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and its seven-astronaut crew. On January 28, 1986, the craft was ripped apart 73 seconds after it lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. All seven astronauts on board lost their lives, probably when the still-intact and depressurized crew cabin crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

At the time, two-thirds of a lifetime ago, I was a sophomore at Concord High School, where Christa McAuliffe taught social studies. I was also a lifelong aficionado of astronomy and the space program, and was surely between girlfriends. As a result, I formed a lot of memories of this event and its aftermath – in terms of both the Concord community and NASA – in the days, weeks, months, and years that followed.

In 2007, I expanded on these memories in a series of five posts on the Chimp Refuge, then housed at; one year later I underwent a surprising experience related to the disaster, leading me to write another post. Links to all six of these entries are below, but — not to sound too much like a K-Tel record ad from the 1970s — I have collected all of them into this post. That’s right, for the first time, you can get all of these amazing hits in one place!

I have monkeyed with this migrating content so many times over the years that I am not confident of how many of the links, internal and otherwise, might be dead. But technical perfection is not the goal here, which may strike alert readers as sadly ironic. 

Continue reading “The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster: an anthology of reflections and perspectives”

Charles Foley, underappreciated stalwart: 1927-2017

As soon as my mother told me she’d seen Chuck Foley’s obituary on Monday, I had a couple of immediate thoughts: one, I didn’t realize Mr. Foley was already over 60 when I graduated from CHS, and two, only with the benefit of adult hindsight had I come to understand the composure and skill with which he had handled a couple of things no one could have seen coming. This article in yesterday’s focuses on the latter.

When the police wound up shooting to death a student who had recently dropped out during my first-period sophomore English class (Mr. Fenton, room 201 or 202; I think we were reading Silas Marner at the time, and if not that, Great Expectations) it was a genuinely shocking event. Understand that in 1985, the incidence of kids bringing guns to school, with or without lethal consequences, was practically zero. And it wasn’t the kind of thing that happened in a relatively affluent, low-crime place like Concord.

Continue reading “Charles Foley, underappreciated stalwart: 1927-2017”

Remembering the Space Shuttle Challenger

Today marks the 31st anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and its seven-astronaut crew.

As a sophomore at the high school where Christa McAuliffe taught social studies as well as an aficionado of the space program, I formed a lot of memories of this event and its aftermath–in terms of both the Concord community and NASA–in the days, weeks, months, and years that followed.

Ten years ago, I expanded on these in a series of five posts on this blog, and nine years ago on this date I underwent a surprising experience related to the disaster. Links to all six entries are below.

Into the distance, a ribbon of black
“A major malfunction” turns 21
Life in a Northern Town
STS-51-L: what went wrong
The galactic price of organizational arrogance
Reflecting on a retrospective–with a jolt

Today’s Thought on Kinda Big Numbers

If you look up at the sky on a clear night away from obstructions and light sources, you will see a beautiful wash of stars. An awful lot of them, right? It has been estimated that a typical human can see a few thousand stars under such conditions with the unaided eye. This is out of the 100 billion or more stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. So, what’s the comparison?

Imagine that for every star you see, there is an entire night sky worth of stars. Now imagine that for every star in your new super-crowded night sky, there’s an entire night sky worth of stars again.

Chances are, you’d still be a little short.

And don’t forget that the Milky Way is just one of over 100 billion galaxies.

Track UFOs using Google Maps

Someone had to do it. Meet…the UFO Stalker!

I clicked on the “event” closest to where I live. These reports (and you can submit your own, of course) are quite detailed:

Case Number: 16260
Log Number: US-03262009-0014
Submitted Date: 2009-03-26 11:36
Event Date: 2009-03-22 21:05
Status: Assigned
City: Hudson
Region: New Hampshire
Country: US
Longitude: -71.4065
Latitude: 42.7645
Shape: Star-like,Unknown
Distance: Unknown
Weather: None
Coming from Boston on Sunday night 3/22/09 at about 9; 05 PM. We live in NH 03053. I pulled into my driveway and looked up at the stars because they were so bright. I saw what I assumed was a satellite, and said to my wife and two kids hey look at the satellite, they got out of the car and looked up and said where? My wife and daughter went in the house. At that point I couldn’t see anything moving. Then I said, oh I could have sworn I saw something moving. My son said oh yaw there it is, and it was moving slower than a few seconds before when I saw it from in the car. I looked at the corner of the roof of the house to see if it was really moving and it was. Then it started moving a little faster so you could easily see that it was moving. We watched it for a couple of seconds and I saw it jerk real quick to the right about an inch, (as your looking at the stars) and then back. I thought that it was my eyes playing tricks on me so I didn’t say anything , But my son said hey that moved back and forth real fast didn’t it .I said with total surprise you saw that ? And he said yaw it moved, I asked what direction it moved in, and he motioned with his hands what it did. Showing the same direction and movement. Then as we watched, it picked up speed moving in the same direction (North) and it moved really fast and we lost sight of it in a few seconds.

When your son says things like “oh yaw there it is” and “yaw it moved,” well, what more evidence for alien hijinks do you need?

Stellar ideas

One of my main tasks these days is to edit and write teaching materials to accompany interactive online science lessons for middle-schoolers. While working on an update for a lesson dealing with why seasons change, I got to thinking about precession (Earth’s slow, top-like “wobble,” or change in rotational-axis direction) and the fact that the so-called North Star will be anything but in a few millennia. Earth completes one precessional cycle every 25,771.5 years, so in about 14,000 CE, Vega–the fourth-brightest star in the sky–will be the North Star.
I was joking with my dad that in the distant future, the real name today’s North Star is stuck with, Polaris, won’t make a hell of a lot of sense to putative astronomy-buffs-in-the-making. He responded by saying that the history books will show that the star was named after a 20th-century snowmobile.
That got me thinking about other products named after heavenly bodies. Using my dad’s logic, Earth’s satellite will have proven to have gotten its name from either a former NFL quarterback or an energy bar. The nearest planet to the sun was named after a toxic metal or a make of automobile. The “red planet” was named after a candy bar; the planet known for its rings got its handle from a car made by Dodge; and a recently declassified planet was named after the more intelligent of Disney’s two famous canines.
Moving further outward, the brightest star in the sky was named after a provider of satellite radio, the aforementioned fifth-brightest after a manufacturer of helmets, and the ninth-brightest after an 80’s flick starring Michael Keaton in a whimsical and energetic role. The second-brightest star in the constellation known as “the Southern Cross” was named after a mixed drink; the two brightest stars in Gemini got their labels from a couple of felonious brothers in a Nicolas Cage vehicle.
There’s even a star called in Orion called Bellatrix. So close (even on the keyboard) and yet so far.
When you think about it, this scheme is no sillier than the idea that God created human beings and not the other way around. Anyway, I’ll stop now.