My Friday night travels

On Friday I drove up to Westfield, New Jersey, to give a public lecture to Amateur Astronomers, Inc. at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. On this, my second visit to this amateur astronomy club, my lecture topic was the story behind the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon, the subject of my first book, Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8.

I visit a lot of astronomy clubs, giving talks on space and its history, so it is not a light complement when I say that this particular club is one of the most active, organized, and enthusiastic astronomy clubs I have ever seen. This is not to say that other clubs are not active, organized, or enthusiastic, only that it seems to me that the members of Amateur Astronomers are particularly so.

This fact only makes the decision by Union County College to throw the club and its observatory off campus seem incredibly stupid. Fortunately, the club has managed to negotiate a two year postponement of their eviction. What will happen after that, however, remains unknown.

A look at the Washington Post’s take on the space war

The Washington Post today includes an excellent article outlining quite succinctly the mess that’s resulted from the space war between the House, the Senate, and the administration over NASA’s manned program. Key quote:

In an effort to restore a NASA consensus and fund future human space travel, negotiators from the House and Senate have been meeting frequently in recent weeks. Participants say, however, that the sides are dug in and that stalemate is a real possibility.

As I have been saying for months, don’t expect anything good to come from Congress, even if they come up with a compromise. Obama and NASA under Bolden did a very bad job selling their ideas to Congress, and Congress returned the favor by rejecting those ideas and instead coming up with two different plans, both of which serve their own parochial interests rather than the nation’s. The result is a micromanaged mishmosh that won’t get anything done, while wasting huges sums of cash that the federal government does not have.

The day the Constitution was ratified

An evening pause: As today is the day in which our Founding Fathers ratified the Constitution, I thought it might be worthwhile to allow Andrew Klavan the opportunity to give us his “A Young Person’s Guide to the United States Constitution.” To quote: We are going to have a little civics lesson, to make up for what you’ve been learning in school.

Earliest Kodak color tests

An evening pause: Though this sequence of shots from a 1922 Kodak test of Kodachrome film (possibly the earliest in existence) is hardly the stuff of drama, it is fascinating nonetheless, as it gives as an honest glimpse into the culture of its time. As you watch the different women pose for the camera, ask yourself: Has anything changed?

Global topography of the Moon

New results from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, including a new global topographic map.

Global topography of the Moon

From the caption: A lunar topographic map showing the Moon from the vantage point of the eastern limb. On the left side of the Moon seen in this view is part of the familiar part of the Moon observed from Earth (the eastern part of the nearside). In the middle left-most part of the globe is Mare Tranquillitatis (light blue) the site of the Apollo 11 landing, and above this an oval-appearing region (Mare Serenitatis; dark blue) the site of the Apollo 17 landing. Most of the dark blue areas are lunar maria, low lying regions composed of volcanic lava flows that formed after the heavily cratered lunar highlands (and are thus much less cratered).

Arctic icecap reaches 2010 minimum

It appears that the Arctic icecap has reached its 2010 minimum. Though the icecap extent in the spring was the largest since 2002 (see image below), the melt was fast and the minimum appears to be the third lowest since 1979.

Icecap extent

Does this mean the icecap is melting and will disappear shortly, as some politicians like to believe? Hardly. Though the data suggests a long term decline in ice extent, recent trends also show evidence that the icecap might be recovering. What will actually happen is still anyone’s guess.

China continues satellite maneuvers

China is continuing the mysterious maneuvers of the two satellites that might have actually touched earlier this month. Key quote:

The maneuvers, which appear to involve rendezvous operations between the SJ-06F satellite and the more recently launched SJ-12 craft, could amount to practice for space station dockings or coordinated satellite observations from orbit. Few folks would have a problem with that. But they also could be aimed at developing the expertise for lurking near someone else’s satellte and eavesdropping, or even knocking that satellite out of commission in the event of a crisis. That’s the worrisome part.

Mirror, Mirror

An evening pause: Though appearing somewhat hokey today, the original Star Trek is still one of the most intelligent television show ever produced, with decent writing that often expressed profound ideas. And it was about space exploration and the future! The clip below, from the episode Mirror, Mirror, illustrates all these things perfectly. And Kirk’s speech to the Spock from the alternative-universe expresses beautifully the significance of each individual’s responsibility to the world.

“One man cannot summon the future,” says the bearded Spock.
“But one man can change the present,” responds Kirk.

Ohio Town forbids Tea Party to Celebrate U.S. Constitution in Town Square

Freedom of speech alert! Ohio town forbids celebration of U.S. constitution in town square because of the “political affiliation” of the event’s organizers. Key quote:

Several residents of the small central Ohio town formed the Andover Tea Party in May 2010, and in that same month, they asked to use the square for a rally to commemorate Constitution Day, which celebrates the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787. But on July 19, a trustee informed one of the tea party organizers, Margaret Slingluff, that they would not be allowed to hold the event, which would have included singers performing patriotic songs and public policy-related speakers, in the square.

A court suit has already been filed.

The Space War, in a nutshell

Bumped, with update below

This Christian Science Monitor article gives a nice summary of the present state of war between the President, the House, and the Senate over NASA’s future.

All in all, things do not look good. With so much disagreement, whatever Congress and the President eventually agree to is going to be a mess, accomplishing little while spending gobs of money that the federal government simply no longer has. The result will almost certainly be a failed NASA program, an inability of the United States government to get astronauts into orbit, and an enormous waste of resources.

The one shining light in all this is that we still have a unrelenting need to get into space, not merely to supply the International Space Station but to also compete with other nations. It is my belief that this need — and the potential profits to be made from it — is going to compel private companies to build their own rockets and capsules for getting humans and cargo into space. And I think they will do it whether or not the federal government can get its act together.

Thus, though the U.S. might find itself a bystander in the space race for the next decade or so, in the end we will have a vibrant, competing aerospace industry, capable of dominating the exploration of the solar system for generations to come.

So buck up, space cadets. The near term future might be grim, but the long term possibilities remain endless.

Update: This announcement today from Boeing and Space Adventures illustrates my above point perfectly. For decades Boeing has been a lazy company, living off the government dole while doing little to capture market share in the competitive market. Now that the dole of government is possibly going away, however, the company at last appears to be coming alive. Instead of waiting for a deal with NASA, Boeing has been going ahead with its CST-100 manned capsule, figuring it can make money anyway by selling this product to both private and government customers.

How blind cave fish find food

How blind cave fish find food. Key quote:

“Vibration Attraction Behavior” (or VAB) is the ability of fish to swim toward the source of a water disturbance in darkness. Postdoctoral associate Masato Yoshizawa measured this behavioral response in both wild caught and laboratory raised cave and surface-dwelling fish using a vibrating rod at different frequencies as a stimulus. Most cavefish displayed VAB and would swim toward the vibrating rod and poke at it, while few surface fish did.

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