Thursday, November 8, 2018

Carl Sagan Day 2018

Happy 10th Annual Carl Sagan Day!

As of tomorrow, it's been a full decade of HAIL, SAGAN! Once again, colleges and museums have planned awesome planetarium shows, educator workshops, family activities, telescope classes, and star-gazing. From Carl Sagan book readings in SC to Florida Meetups for Carl Sagan Day to MIT lectures Sagan Day 2018, celebrations honor what would have been Sagan's 84th birthday.

Carl Sagan and the Voyager Golden Records

Best known from the original COSMOS series of the 1980s (the most widely watched program in PBS history!), Carl Sagan is known for his part in the Voyager Golden Records aboard spacecrafts Voyager I and II, and their longevity; his many fiction and non-fiction books packed with highly-quotable written material, and his tireless advocacy for science and astronomy.

He is immortalized in a science museum near his Ithaca, NY home, which includes the Carl Sagan Planet Walk scale solar system, complete with stampable passport at every planet, and narrated by Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Sagan taught at Cornell and Harvard universities, and worked at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Other titles included technology officer of the Icarus planetary research journal, Planetary Science Chair at the Astronomical Society, Astronomy Chairman at the Advancement of Science Association, and Co-Founder of the Planetary Society, the Earth's largest space-interest group.

Carl Sagan passed away in December 1996 at the age of 62, and was buried in New York (Lakeview Cemetery, Ithaca) right beside his parents.

An astronomer, philosopher, professor and NASA consultant, Carl Sagan won 30 public awards, published over 600 scientific articles and authored or co-authored 20 books. I’ll never weary of recommending Pale Blue Dot to anyone who will listen!  The unmanned Mars Pathfinder spacecraft was renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station in 1997. Asteroid 2709 Sagan is also named in his honor.

Sagan was instrumental in the early Mariner missions to Venus, determined landing sites on Mars for the Viking Lander probes, and also assembled the first physical messages sent into space.  He was instrumental in establishing the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), urging the use of radio telescopes to detect signals from other intelligent life. Along with Frank Drake, he also composed the Arecibo message, beamed once into space in 1974.

Carl Sagan with the VLA

He's one of those people who makes you scratch your head and think, "What the heck have I been DOING with my time?!"

Carl had the ability to make space "knowable" to audiences of all ages. He was known for popularizing  science in a way that inspired people to understand both our insignificance in the larger universe, but also, paradoxically, the absolutely precious nature of our enormously unlikely existence.

Follow me on Twitter today for #TriviaThursday, all day today, which is all about Carl Sagan's life, works, activism, and scientific accomplisments! Speaking for space geeks everywhere... thanks a billion, Carl.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Space Travel Still Sucks

Even back when "" was all the rage with their irreverent lists, I wasn't always a fan of basic "Internet Top 10" lists. However, once in awhile -- and when my space blog was the hot new thing in the fledgling "Spacetweep" community -- something grabbed me that was worth commentary.

One particular article has remained on my mind through the years, and if you missed it, click graphic to read the:

6 Reasons Space Travel Will Always Suck

They weren't wrong. Space travel sucks. Space travel has always sucked. No matter what Elon Musk tries to spin, space travel will indeed continue to suck. Amazingly, most people still say they want to experience it... but upon speaking to them, it's clear that's because even people who truly support space agencies don't always know what it takes to survive off-Earth, and how sick you can become without the comforting gravity in which you evolved.

The saddest-but-truest statement starts out the article with a big bang: "We love movies about space, but are continually bored by actual space travel."

This is not what space travel will look like. Ever.
Yeah, we wish.

They drive home the point that even for far-off future generations, space travel may not meet our expectations, because...
6. There is No Sex in Space
5. It'll Be More Like a Submarine Than Star Trek
4. Life in Zero-Gravity is Horrible
3. There's Nothing to See
2. Getting Anywhere Interesting Means Never Going Home
1. In Space, On-Star Won't Do Shit For You

I read the entire article, desperately hoping I could disagree with it. Nope. They nailed it on every count.

Space Travel Will Make You Sick
Spacebarf: actually the least of your worries.

There is no way to reproduce, so we aren't going anywhere as a group. Cramped quarters, not a cruise ship. Weightlessness messes with your head, your balance, your blood, your muscles (including your heart) and your bones. I know all this first-hand from my spaceflight simulations, which I performed for Johnson Space Center between 2008-2010. At one point while adjusting to micro-gravity, even the fillings in my teeth hurt.

All that just to travel through 99.99% of blackness – perhaps to reach something that will be the last thing you ever see. That's if you make it at all, considering the massive dangers… because you're dead if even the slightest thing goes wrong.

Guys like Bas Lansdorp, Dennis Tito, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Peter Diamandis, and especially Elon Musk just make me roll my eyes. It's all well and good to be rich and visionary about hardware, but they are selling a fantasy.  

I would give anything if even just one of them repeated my spaceflight simulations so that they actually understood what space flight can do to the human body.

They talk like we are leaving for Mars in a year or ten. We aren't. 

Space Travel Isn't All It's CRACKED Up To Be
Hey, suppose we go to all that trouble... and THIS
is the only thing on the other end of the journey?

Key concept: "Your life depends on your time aboard the starship being skull-crushingly boring."

So apparently, that's the funny part. The unfunny part? Underneath all the hyperbole, the message is clear: We all want the "future" of space travel to get here, but few truly understand the reality of what it takes to get us there. We have to go through many, many downers before we get to the payoff.

Why is all of this on my mind? Once upon a time, I put my body and brain on the line for science. As an astronaut analog, I spent more time in contraptions simulating micro-gravity than most astronauts have spent in actual orbit. The longest any astronauts spent on the Moon was on the Apollo 17 mission, where Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt were on the lunar surface for 4 days. My lunar study hardware put me in 6% gravity for 7 days. 

I have a 10-year bone density DEXA scan coming up. I'll see if there were any lasting effects from my participation in the study of how leaving Earth gravity affects humans long term.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Is "Earth" Truly the Right Name For a Ball of Liquid Blue?

In random ponderings, I have always thought "Earth" was an odd name. The crust of our planet is about 70% ocean, and only 30% above-water landmass that is habitable to We The Species who think it's our job to go about naming things.

We decided our planet should be descriptive instead of being named after a god, so wouldn't it make more sense if we were named for WATER?

Figuring my spacey questions might be a welcome breather between Trump rants and film remake freak-outs, I posed this question to a blog forum I infrequently lurk. This particular philosophical discussion yielded thought-provoking responses.
Planet  Water

ETYMOLOGY  / Language History: Greek era , Old German erda

Indo-European roots akin to Crimean Goth airtha, old Saxon ertha, Olde English eorthe, Middle English erthe

Greek hydor or hudor, Latin unda wave, Old English wæter; akin to Old High German wazzar

The Greek word for water now survives as the prefix hydro- (as in words like hydrogen or hydration). But with the widespread "borrowing" of languages, perhaps we might even be Wazer or Wave? Had humans known more about planetary properties during the time of naming, we might be something entirely different.

If we changed our planet name, what would be more descriptive?

Yourfindit: If we rename the whole planet, then all the Aliens will have to go through a long process of correcting and updating their records.

Legbamel: Mess?

LolitaV: I always though the name should start with Sector; like Sector Z8474895-AJ1248_X.

Aningenious: I'd go with Skaron 6 it's quite cool and any aliens would have to be mad to attempt to invade a planet called Skaron 6.

Nothingprofound: It's always fascinated me that we're the one planet NOT named after a Latin deity.

Exit2013: It doesn't matter... sooner or later this planet will be a waterworld. Seriously.

PetLvr: We have friends that named their chihuahua "Paul" because they heard someone on a TV show make fun of people who name their pet dogs human names... we can do that for the planet Earth. I vote for "Planet Melvin."

Planet Earth

Theresa111: Globe ? Earth's fine by me, kinda used to it. I have given the name some thought throughout my existence and figured someone simply named it before being privy to the rest of the planets elements.

Sam1982: Who had the naming rights anyway?

kdawg68: We should probably ask the insects what they think, since they do outnumber us vastly. Or, we could just go with "Insectia."

Animemania: If we held a poll to change the planet's name...that would be just awful. We'd be stuck calling Earth "Planet Stupid" or something.

crazyTsu: But mud is everywhere (well in most places), not only here. What's in a name? we name things according to what we are familiar with. Our familiarity has not evolved so much and I aint no marine creature either so no oceanworld for me.

Flamingpoodle: The 71/29 split only applies to the earth's surface. Besides, we call it earth because we live on the eartherns part.

Well, if we're going to split hairs, it's actually 70.78% to 29.22% -- but who's counting? ;) I originally rounded because the point of the exercise was "early colloquial assumptions versus current knowledge." If we really wanted a descriptive name, we’d have to include core material, and we aren't about to call our planet "Giant Ball of Mostly Molten Silicon and Iron."

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)