Thursday, September 07, 2006

California Legislators Sign Resolution to Keep Pluto

In an unusual move, I'm going to suggest that you read this California State House Resolution. Please especially appreciate these paragraphs:

WHEREAS, The mean-spirited International Astronomical Union decided on August 24, 2006, to disrespect Pluto by stripping Pluto of its planetary status and reclassifying it as a lowly dwarf planet; and

WHEREAS, Pluto, named after the Roman God of the underworld and affectionately sharing the name of California's most famous animated dog, has a special connection to California history and culture; and

WHEREAS, The deletion of Pluto as a planet renders millions of text books, museum displays, and children's refrigerator art projects obsolete, and represents a substantial unfunded mandate that must be paid by dwindling Proposition 98 education funds, thereby harming California's children and widening its budget deficits; and

Refrigerator art projects. Unfunded mandate indeed!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Maybe it's a picture hanger? No, maybe a garbage bag.

I love that NASA is now obsessive about the space junk. Not only are they combing over the heat shields with cameras multiple times looking for damage, but they are also peering out the windows looking for junk that might scratch the tiles when they start to leave orbit. Apparently the junk is rather hard to make out:

A second mystery object was spotted midday Tuesday and photographed by astronaut Dan Burbank. Jett said the object looked like a picture hanging clip. But it may be a garbage bag, which would unlikely be a damage risk, but the issue will be moot if the heat shield looks good, Hale said.

Now who was hanging a picture in space and forgot to pick up after themselves?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Songs that mention (or allude to) the space shuttle Challenger

Prince, "Sign 'O' the Times"

  • American Music Club, "Challenger"
  • MC Paul Barman, "School Anthem"
  • John Denver, "Flying for Me"
  • Jean Michel Jarre, "Rendezvous (Ron's piece)"

Friday, June 23, 2006

Richard Feynman, my bf

I think that now, while we're waiting together for the launch of STS-121, is a good time to tell you about my private boyfriend, Richard Feynman. What is a private boyfriend, you ask? Well, it's a relationship entirely distinct from the one I share with my Associate (which relationship involves actually knowing each other and, as it happens, a marriage certificate). It simply means that I heart him.
Look at this picture of him at a televised hearing of the Presidential Commission on the space shuttle Challenger. He'd just soaked a piece of O-ring in his glass of ice water in order to demonstrate that when cold, rubber gets brittle and squeaky and allows rocket fuel to burn blowtorch-like holes in the sides of External Tanks full of more rocket fuel. The best part is that, as he's holding up this chilled O-ring for the cameras, he goes, all casual, "I believe this might have something to do with your problem." Damn he's smoov.

So what if the O-ring thing wasn't really his insight, but that of co-Commisioner General Kutyna? Only my private bf could have pulled off the moment with quite this dramatic and irascible bravado.

I should probably mention that he's most famous for his work on quark theory, coming up with the idea of nanotechnology, starring in Calthech's production of King Lear, and entertaining people with amusing quotables such as, "Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it."

Let's look at him in younger years. Here is, I'm not kidding you scholars, in his Nobel-Prize portrait.

Damn baby.

Doesn't he look like he's about to lead a big band? Or win the girl using nothing but Brylcreem and snappy dialogue?

Another time I'll tell you all about my other private bf, Daniel Schorr.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Fine, let's go to the moon

Scholars, I'm often asked what I think about NASA's new plan to return to the moon. (Probably people ask this just to be polite.)

This plan was, you'll recall, the result of a weird gesture by President Bush, who for about ten minutes had been led to believe that announcing a trip to the moon would revitalize his floundering public image. Of course, the suggestion that we spend billions of dollars going to the moon and then Mars (dollars that would presumably be added to the national deficit, as I don't see him instituting a moon tax) was met with deafening silence cut through with bits of derision. The administration dropped the idea as if it was on fire— I'm pretty confident that he has literally never uttered the word "moon" since—but no one informed poor NASA, god bless them. Those guys have been working overtime trying to spiff up the detailed plans for our Return to the Moon.

NASA's website offers lots and lots of stuff to help us get psyched about the moon missions. One is a video they made using mainly footage of Bush's Moon speech. I recommend watching this for a sad giggle. For one thing, you can actually hear Bush getting bored reading out the speech. Like, he can't even muster fake enthusiasm to get through a description of how the astronauts will mine minerals on the moon to power a transport to Mars. You can hear him start to slow down and emphasize the wrong words— you know the way he does, like a fourth-grader who has trouble with reading comprehension.

in the video, NASA tries to jazz up the flatness of his delivery and the Bushian long pauses with exciting music and animations envisioning the not-far-off day when we will live out the exciting plans Bush is describing. (My favorite of these shows some kind of robot dog scurrying off a spaceship onto the lunar surface).

In addition to this video, the site also offers some pictures of the vehicles that will be used for this space travel:

The thingy on the left is for hauling heavy stuff, like pieces of a space station or lunar home or what have you. The thing on the right is the Crew Exploration Vehicle— it's what the people ride in. It consists of a capsule atop a rocket, a concept familiar to anyone who has ever heard of the moon landings. Let's compare the Crew Exploration Vehicle to the Apollo-era Saturn V, which you will recall was developed in the EARLY NINETEEN SIXTIES:

Comparing these two sort of sums up my feelings about going to the moon. Going to the moon is really fun. I will be glued to the coverage. I envy the astronauts who will get to go. But there's something really sad about spending billions of dollars to recreate a technological feat that was accomplished many years before I was born.

Imagine what would happen if you took a time machine back to the sixties and told all those NASA engineers in their awesome short-sleeved dress shirts that you were visiting from 2006. They'd lean forward eagerly and ask, have you solved the fuel problem? is there a transport to Mars? No, wait, are there colonies on Mars? And you'd have to look them right in their geeky glasses and tell them, No, none of that has come to pass. The President wants to go to the moon, in a vehicle that looks just like the Saturn V. That is, if we can get the Congress to fund it. (Which we won't.) Scholars, I think those engineers would cry.