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.

An “OOPS!” for the ages.

That sucks.

HOUSTON (AP) — Flight controllers were revamping plans Wednesday for the remaining spacewalks planned during space shuttle Endeavour’s visit to the international space station, after a crucial tool bag floated out to space during a repair trip.
The briefcase-sized tool bag drifted away from astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper on Tuesday as she cleaned and lubed a gummed-up joint on a wing of solar panels on the space station. She and fellow astronaut Stephen Bowen were midway through the first of four spacewalks planned for the mission. The tool bag was one of the largest items ever lost by a spacewalker.
As Stefanyshyn-Piper cleaned up a large gob of grease that seeped from a gun used to lubricate the joint, the tool case somehow became untethered from a larger bag and floated away along with a pair of grease guns, wipes and a putty knife attached to it.
”What it boils down to is all it takes is one small mistake for a tether not to be hooked up quite correctly or to slip off, and that’s what happened here,” said lead spacewalk officer John Ray.

I’ve misplaced a tool here and there myself, but when something literally flies off into outer space, you know you’ll never see that bad boy again.
At least no diapers are alleged to have been involved in this gruple.

A fish story worth listening to

When I was a junior astronomy nut between the ages of about 10 and 12, the innumerable books on the subject I checked out of the Concord (N.H.) Public Library all included confident claims that, one day, we would find planets orbiting stars other than our own. It was simply inevitable based on statistical principles alone, unless one bought into the idea that the Earth really was of divine provenance. (Astronomers in particular, hearkening to the travails of Galileo Galilei, had little use for that idea.)
Although I wanted to see this prediction realized tomorrow, I figured that, between the ongoing basic game efforts of observatory drones and the ever-increasing power of optical telescopes, I would at least live to see it.
That day is here, and the already iconic image courtesy of the Hubble telescope leaves no doubt.
If you want the real skydirt, skip this drivel and read Steinn Sigurðsson’s post. My less technical and far less informed treatise follows.

Continue reading “A fish story worth listening to”

Reflecting on a retrospective — with a jolt

When it comes to unknowingly beating long odds, what happened tonight is as freakish as it gets for me.
As many have probably seen or heard already today, the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost in the worst space disaster in human history on this date in 1986.
Some of you may have been taking in the Refuge for long enough to remember my series of posts about this event one year ago, where I remarked on having been an astronomy and space-program buff as a sophomore at Concord (New Hampshire) High School, where Christa McAuliffe — chosen to be the first civilian in space — was one of the seven astronauts killed. What I envisioned late last January as a couple of lengthy posts about the Challenger from both scientific and personal perspectives rapidly expanded into a colossal multi-day wordburst that I have to say I was pleased with, even if this nominal series didn’t seem to garner much attention from the regulars. It didn’t need to; it served its purpose for me and a few of my longtime friends — and, I think, for this blog — well.
These days I keep another blog (really more of a verbal and audiovisual sump) where I’m in the process of, among other mindless things, counting down a list of my favorite fifty songs of all time that I made around New Year’s Day; I write a little bit about each song and the artist(s) who performed it and embed YouTube videos wherever possible. The list might have been a lot different if I’d made it a two years, two months, or two weeks earlier or later than I did, but it is what it now is, and I found myself about to post #24 earlier this evening when I got a phone call.

Continue reading “Reflecting on a retrospective — with a jolt”

Cthulhu Fhtagn Peruvian Meteorite

Steinn (Dynamics of Cats) reports that Mars Invades Peru.
This must be smack-dab in the middle of physical-type scientists’ radar screen since my Rocket Scientist(tm) friend sent a similar blurb from Yahoo News.
I expect Scully and Mulder have been called in to investigate. Rocket Scientist(tm) mysteriously alluded to the Colour Out of Space in his e-mail, signing off with the baffling words:
Ph-nglui mglw’nath Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.
The Thing From Beyond the Stars is either a meteorite that released volatiles or a man-made object containing similar gaseous substances as Steinn rationally suggests. Rocket Scientist ™, who has experience in these matters, likewise remarked that a man-made object was a possibility. Now my friend is also usually quite measured, but on occasion, he claims that he is the reincarnation of Abdul Alhazred. So I’m worried. Maybe – just maybe – Cthulhu Fhtagn Cheezburger.
My hat’s off to Steinn for that masterful alliteration and to gwyn for directing me to the LOLTHULHU site.
Purchasing that collection of Lovecraft short stories the weekend before last wasn’t such a great idea. I blame Warren for spinning me off on a Lovecraftian trajectory
Note added in proof.
LOLTHULHU was previously cited on Pharyngula. I should have known.

Barbara Morgan’s long, strange, and difficult trip

When a social-studies teacher at my school was selected to become the first civilian in space in 1985, it was a shining occasion for Concord High and for the community as a whole. It didn’t end well, with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and its aftermath having been amply documented here and elsewhere.
The runner-up to McAuliffe in NASA’s Teacher in Space competition was an educator from McCall, Idaho named Barbara Morgan.

Continue reading “Barbara Morgan’s long, strange, and difficult trip”

Will NASA learn to learn?

In 1986, NASA and Morton Thiokol engineers warned administrators that the fuel-tank seals on the Space Shuttle Challenger were likely to fail in sufficiently cold weather. NASA’s leadership ignored them, and the result was seven dead astronauts and a destroyed spacecraft.
So catastrophic an event would, one might think, be sufficient to effect permanent changes in an agency’s management culture. But in 2003 it was the same story: Engineers leery of fatal damage to the Columbia shuttle from the shredding of its foam insulation were ignored, and seven more astronauts and another spacecraft met a violent end.
Now it appears that NASA, despite calling for its own internal investigation about the behavior and general psychological well-being of its astronauts, would really rather not acknowledge the results.

Continue reading “Will NASA learn to learn?”

Is NASA turning to ethanol as a fuel?

For its astronauts, that is. Not for its spacecraft.
Allegations that NASA crew members got plastered — not just tipsy, but good and pissed — right before scheduled lift-off on at least two occasions have surfaced. One of the flights was a (no laughing) Russian Soyuz mission and the other a Space Shuttle expedition that was ultimately postponed for unrelated reasons.

Continue reading “Is NASA turning to ethanol as a fuel?”

Italian scientists identify impact crater; UK scientist says no way

Researchers from the University of Bologna are claiming that Lake Chelo in Siberia occupies a crater resulting from the most violent visitation by extraterrestrial debris in modern Earth history. Meanwhile, a source at Imperial College in London says that circumstantial evidence argues against the possibility.

Continue reading “Italian scientists identify impact crater; UK scientist says no way”

Italian scientists identify impact crater; UK scientist says no way

Researchers from the University of Bologna are claiming that Lake Chelo in Siberia occupies a crater resulting from the most violent visitation by extraterrestrial debris in modern Earth history. Meanwhile, a source at Imperial College in London says that circumstantial evidence argues against the possibility.

Continue reading “Italian scientists identify impact crater; UK scientist says no way”

This week’s sky at a glance

That’s the name of a regular feature of Sky & Telescope magazine’s Web site, and I’m posting this primarily so that I remember to check it out regularly. I have access to a telescope and live in an area with virtually no light pollution, so I have the opportunity to check out everything S & T notes in its list of check-it-outs.
The most interesting upcoming phenomenon is the virtual superimposition of Venus and Saturn at dusk one week from today. The two planets will appear to be separated by 2/3 of a degree of arc, and telescopes with a magnification of less than 50x, the two planets will appear in the same visual field. Tonight and tomorrow night, Saturn’s moon Titan can be seen three or four ring-lengths to Saturn’s east.

And the sun stood still

Today is the summer solstice for those of us in the northern hemisphere, meaning that summer is here and that today will feature the greatest amount of daylight of any of 2007’s 365 1/4 days.
One quirk of this phenomenon that no one but me cares about is that the solstice, despite being the “longest day of the year” (an inapt but popular description), includes neither the earliest sunrise nor the latest sunset. Thanks to the vagaries of astronomy, the earliest sunrise actually occurs about six days before the solstice and the latest sunset is observed about six days after the solstice. The difference is marginal (less than a minute at each end of the day), but worth mentioning.
The graph below is a rough depiction of the sunrise and sunset times in my hometown of Concord, New Hampshire.

Continue reading “And the sun stood still”

Think our solar system is “special”? Grow some balls!

I used to dig up comparisions like this when I was about ten years old.
I used to have need to know what the biggest, brightest known star in the universe was. It didn’t seem fair that overall we have a pretty poorly endowed sun, not really the type that would boastfully blaze around naked in an astral locker room. And I don’t have a couple, three billion years to wait until it reaches its bloated prime. Oh well; it’s not the size of the furnace, it’s the parameters of the orbit.
Despite being online about 22 hours out of every Earth day, I’m still only beginning to appreciate that someone out there has placed every single one of my passing childhood obsessions on the Web in more or less the exact form in which I conceived them, right down to the colors.