Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Little Boy in the Library

Ronald McNair was African-American. For this reason, he was asked to leave a segregated library. He later became a NASA astronaut and the very same library is now named after him.


Space Force, or The Force in space??

McNair's richly complex and accomplished life deserves a biopic more than most, and I’m not just saying that because I’m bored with the actor they got to play Neil Armstrong. Overall, I could easily stand on top of a mountain and shout MOAR SPACE TRAVELER MOVIES until I get lava-larynx.

Having charted the missions & birth place and birth date of every astronaut who ever flew a mission, I've known the basics of Ronald McNair's career for years: he was the first to play a saxophone in space on STS-41-B (1984), he was the first astronaut of the Bahá'í Faith to fly a mission, and he was in charge of chemical experiments and Cinema 360 filming about the Space Shuttle. He was also a Trekkie, and I feel a kinship with all fellow Trekkies, of course. I even visited his center at the Aeronautics & Astronautics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his PhD in Physics.

Ronald McNair Building MIT Boston

However, it wasn’t until I researched libraries for Nerdglorious Trivia that I learned of his civil rights resistance at the once-segregated Lake City Public Library in South Carolina. In 1959, around the time he was in fourth grade, McNair attempted to gather science-based materials, whereupon a Caucasian woman told him "This library is not for coloreds," and called the local police.

I'll repeat that. A librarian called the police. On a 9-year-old boy. For trying to check out SCIENCE BOOKS. Long before Permit Patty and Barbecue Becky, Library Lisa was on the job! Unfortunately, officers could have easily sided with her in this era, and lawfully removed Ronald from the public space, because signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still half a decade away. His mother, Pearl, was also summoned; both she and the officers encouraged the librarian to issue Ronald a library card as she did for the white children. Pearl McNair assured the librarian that her son would take good care of the books, and the librarian reluctantly let the elementary-schooler borrow the ones about flight that he had chosen.

Ronald's Big Mission - Children's Book

Decades later, after his untimely death in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the library was dedicated to his memory. In addition, a children's book called "Ron's Big Mission" offers a fictionalized account of the library encounter.

Other things named in his honor? McNair Crater on Earth’s Moon, his hometown public memorial, a chapel, 2 streets, 4 University buildings, 2 parks, 20 schools, 152 scholarships, a theatre, a Masonic Lodge, and a public playground.

Can't seem to find the actual name of that librarian.

Ronald McNair playing saxophone in space
Ronald Erwin McNair (October 21, 1950 – January 28, 1986)
(click for video of life + mission photographs)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Dumb Or Overly Forced Astronomical Acronyms (DOOFAAS)

Working for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is such a serious and mind-engaging affair, you might think it would render you unable to find time for aimless whimsy in your life. You'd be wrong.


I found this bloke at the HSCA who appears to have time on his hands. This Canadian-Hawaiian Astronomer and Computer Engineer who is also a hockey player (SRSLY) compiled an entertaining list of Dumb Or Overly Forced Astronomical Acronyms (DOOFAAS) and you're missing something truly special if you don't go check it out!

I sampled a select few that tickled mah humerus:

01. ARMPIT... ASKAP Rotation Measure & Polarisation InvestigaTion
02. BICEP... Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization
03. BLISS... Background-Limited Infrared-Submillimeter Spectrograph
04. CHIPS... Cosmic Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer
05. COYOTES... Coordinated Observations of Young ObjecTs from Earthbound Sites
06. DONUT... Direct Observation of NU Tau
07. DUPLEX... DUst-Prominent Longitudinally-EXtended
08. EGG... Evaporating Gaseous Globule
09. EGRET... Energetic Gamma Ray Experiment Telescope
10. FIFI... Far Infrared Fabry-perot Interferometer
11. FOXES... Fluctuating Optical & X-ray Emitting Sources
12. GENIUS... GErmanium liquid NItrogen Underground Setup
13. HIS/HERS... High Intensity Spectrograph / High Energy Range Spectrometer
14. HO-BAGS... Hubble Observatory BAckground Galaxy Survey
15. JIVE... Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe
16. KISS... KPNO International Spectroscopic Survey
17. LACE... Low power Atmospheric Compensation Experiment
18. MACHO... MAssive Compact Halo Objects
19. MARTINI... Multi-Aperture Real Time Image NormalIzation system
20. NOT... Nordic Optical Telescope
21. OGLE... Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment
22. OWL... Overwhelmingly Large Telescope
23. PRESTO... Project to Re-Engineer Space Telescope Observing
24. QUEST... Q & U Extra-galactic Sub-mm Telescope
25. RATTS... Run Away T-Tauri Stars
26. SAURON... Spectroscopic Areal Unit for Research on Optical Nebulae
27. SEQUOIA... SEcond QUabbin Optical Imaging Array
28. THUMPER... Two HUndred Micron PhotometER
29. WOMBAT... Wavelength-Oriented Microwave Background Analysis Team
30. YORIC... Yet another Optimal Resolution Image Constructor (Alas...)

Acronyms - Harvard Collection

It gets better (or worse, depending on how you look at it); other fun DOOFAAS include Boomerangs, Castles, Flamingoes, Squids, Polar Bears, Aztecs, Spartans. Our esteemed List Master declares "TANGOinPARIS" the overall WINNER… and I am inclined to agree.

He invites all who visit to "Mail me yours today!" and I'm quite confident my tasteful and intelligent readers have stores of these on hand. So please check out the full list and send Mr. P the DOOFAAS your particular working environment cherishes.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Future of NASA

With an unpredictable president, and an non-scientific NASA administrator now stunningly and inexplicably confirmed, many space enthusiasts and especially those in the aerospace industry are reasonably wondering, what will the future hold?

What's to come in the new presidential administration

In years past, I have spent Decembers on space calendar giveaways, top missions of the year, and various awards, then created a post in January to discuss space goals, agency changes, and what the new year might bring. I simply had no idea how to continue that trend in 2017 and 2018. It's like we are all through the portal to the Upside-Down!

When I comment on how unconventional things suddenly became over the past year, a few Twitter users have accused me of "zeroing in" on Trump in a way that I "never did with Obama." Not true. I meticulously documented Obama's campaign promises for many years -- as evidenced by my past posts where I literally listed EVERY SINGLE ONE of President Barack Obama's space-related policies.

I just as meticulously documented results, and was never shy about listing his promises and researching them exhaustively, nor did I ever  fail to mention when promises were stalled, compromised upon, or downright broken.

Obameter of Space promises

For the first time since I've begun writing about the nation's civil space policy, the administration itself changed into something so unexpected. Any change in command at the highest level could well mean significant changes to many portions of the space agency, not the least of which is a new leader for the agency itself.

The short list originally included GW Space Policy Institute Director Scott Pace, former astronaut Colonel Eileen Collins, and Oklahoma Representative Jim Bridenstine -- author of the(highly suspect) Space Renaissance Act. That the latter of the list and the very least of the candidates is now installed in an industry he groks only scantly, is jaw-dropping in the extreme. We can only surmise his appointment was based on meager understanding of what his job should actually be, and he shows little sign of being anything but a disaster in an already over-burdened bureaucracy.

Top priorities, as always, are listed as Moon, Mars, and Commercial Space. However, these tended to be the "sexy spotlights," when in fact NASA's $18-$20 billion is spread broadly among many major categories that contribute to successful industries both in space and across the globe.

Here are the major categories of the NASA budget. What will a Trump presidency mean to things like climate change research, Earth sciences, Green efforts, or even planetary science? We know many of these categories have been in the "pork" list for conservatives for many cycles. Will a budget for Moon or Mars glory mean gutting the long term plans for the habitability for our own planet? Such a turn of events seems unlikely.

We can likely count on many Senators in the 10 states with major NASA centers to fight for the jobs inside their borders, and the crucial work that fuels technology and spinoffs from space research; what we do not know is how well they will fare against blatantly partisan attempts to cater to myths that science is untrustworthy, or that science cares about elections, imaginary lines on maps, or whether Floridians just voted to imagine climate change does not exist when sea life is flooding into Miami parking garages.

For the moment, we only have sparse commentary from Donald Trump, and none so far show that he has a grasp of the actual issues facing the space agency. His mere mention of a "Space Force" violates the longstanding Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (United Nations, 1967).

So far most of the details have come from more knowledgeable policy advisers, and not Trump himself. Based on his own comments, comparing the promises of Trump to Obama is a stark contrast, indeed.

I won't try to predict what the future holds, I'll just hope the message from the first man in space holds true into the 21st century.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Penny For NASA Finally Paid Off!

After a startling announcement from NASA, space enthusiasts everywhere will be happy to know the "Penny 4 NASA" effort finally resulted in the space agency budget tripling to $55.2 billion dollars!

All projects and programs will be fully funded, simultaneously. Unnecessary pork allocations and tax cuts for massive corporations will be re-routed so that the space administration no longer has to pick and choose between heavy launch vehicles, space stations, lunar base plans, asteroid-mining, solar system probes to the outer gas giants, or long-duration missions to Mars.

Very. Serious. Astronauts.

"It was Steph Evz of the STEMulus who convinced us," Said US Representative and current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. "She's wicked smart. Science communication matters."

Representatives of NASA's 10 major US centers gave impassioned speeches at the Capitol about how Americans spend $65 billion dollars on illegal drugs and $600 billion per year in casinos. One Cape Canaveral employee produced a pie chart of the national budget and challenged the legislature to use their magnifying glasses to find NASA's tiny slice. Amid the chorus of gasps and mutterings, all members of Congress voted to take pay cuts.

Will they miss the money? Sure. But it's gratifying to know the legislative branch finally realizes that the space program benefited the entire planet, and handed Earth a technological way of life: medical advances, agricultural progress, satellite and communications maintenance, plus new developments in weather forecasting and natural disaster warnings.

Betty White didn't mince words: "I knew I had to step in amid all this kvetching. Look at the nonsense cancellations since Nixon axed Apollo. It's preposterous. You want something done right? You get a coupla old broads to do it. I'm running for President in 2020 with RuPaul as my VP, and we're going to double NASA's budget again. $80 billion, no joke. Anything less is bullshit, you guys. Now get out of my way -- I gotta go pick up my Deadpool 2 tickets."

Could Earth possibly be that lucky? Is it even possible that for the first time in human history, potentially pioneering sciences might benefit all of humanity, without having to take a backseat to military aims or politics?

In another completely unrelated, ludicrously unforseen and utterly unprecedented move, Johnny Depp announced he would forgo his entire $90-million salary for "Pirates of the Caribbean 7" and donate the entire amount to NASA. 

Johnny Depp

"Seriously, I have enough dough," Depp was quoted as saying on the red carpet, at the gala for the "Firefly Season 2" premiere.

"And why should anyone get that kind of ridiculous cash for a movie anyway? Come on, all I do is dress up and play pretend in front of a camera.  It's hardly rocket science. Ninety million could fund the entire Exoplanet Exploration Program for an entire year!"

Yes. Yes, it could.

Happy April Fool's Day! The White House will release the actual Fiscal Year 2019 Budget on April 16th. Tip: Don't believe everything you read on the internet. Not just today, but kinda always.