Thursday, January 31, 2008

50th anniversary of Explorer 1

Fifty years ago today, America's first satellite, Explorer 1, roared into space from Cape Canaveral atop a Jupiter C booster (a heavily modified Redstone missile with three solid-fuel upper stages). The satellite made the first measurements of cosmic radiation and led to the discovery, confirmed by Explorer 3, of the Van Allen radiation belts.
Erika Lishock and I are proud of our contribution to chronicling this even in our book The First Space Race (Texas A&M University Press, 2004)

For a good collection of NASA and other links to all facets of this story, see today's NASAWatch (

Excerpt from review in the military professional journal PARAMETERS:
From PARAMETERS, the Army War College Quarterly
Available at:

The First Space Race: Launching the World’s First Satellites. By Matt Bille and Erika Lishock. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004. 214 pages. $40.00 ($19.95 paper). Reviewed by Dr. James R. Downey, Professor of Science and Technology, US Army War College.

....Matt Bille and Erika Lishock address this early history with their book titled The First Space Race. Packed with copious details and several first-person accounts, the book provides an excellent understanding of how the space race began and the effects it had on the world. In particular, for the national security audience the book provides a historical insight into the developing competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union, such that where we are today can reasonably be traced to the race to space....
In sum, this book provides a superb insight into the early space race and the overall effects this race had on both the United States and the Soviet Union. Understanding how efforts in space began is a lens into the space programs we have today, both military and civilian. Matt Bille and Erika Lishock’s The First Space Race reveals the story of this world-changing journey.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

New fishes from the deep

Dragging a trawl thought the depths of the Southern Indian Ocean, the the Royal Research Ship Discovery netted a wide variety of specimens. One of the experts on board, Dr. Nikki King, thought several of these looked unusual. After three years of work with taxonomists, she confirmed that no fewer than six were new species. Naming a new species is always a high point for scientists: naming six of them is like an extra Christmas. And if you get six on one expedition, you know there are many more still down there.

Thanks to Dale Drinnon for pointing me to this item.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Challenger: A Solemn Anniversary

On this 22nd anniversary, there's not much to say about the Challenger disaster that has not already been said. Just spare a moment today to to think of the seven men and women, all accomplished, some brilliant, all brave. In their memory. we carry on in the exploration of the universe.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A small new mushroom is a big deal to science

From the Rogue River in Oregon comes news of a new species of mushroom that breaks boundaries for its genus by living underwater. Psathyrella aquatic looks like a common land-living gilled mushroom, about 10 cm high, but mycologists know of no mushroom, past or present, that grows underwater. Oregon State University’s Matt Trappe enthused, "We're not aware of anything at all like this in mycology where the reproductive mushroom structure appears to be perennially underwater. If this evolved in Oregon, what are the odds it can be found in streams and rivers around the world? This raises all kinds of questions about spore disbursement and evolution."

TacSat-2 Signing Off

The USAF is shutting down its pioneering TacSat-2 technology demonstration spacecraft after over a year on orbit, in a mission marked by technical success contrasted with infighting reported by Space News between the USAF and intelligence communities that limited use of its imaging capability (the kind of thing that people should work out BEFORE launching a satellite). The compact intelligence spacecraft demonstrated new technologies and techniques for getting information to combat forces. The 370-kg, $50M spacecraft is hardly a low-cost microsatellite by most definitions, but it is significantly smaller and cheaper than previous American military spacecraft with similar functions, and its success bodes well for continued progress in the military applications of smaller spacecraft.

THEMIS microsatellites celebrate a year on the job

NASA’s five-satellite THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) constellation has finished its first year on orbit and is still operating well. The fleet of five ATK-built microsatellites have been gathering data simultaneously from their different orbital positions to isolate the origins of the elusive but important magnetospheric events known as substorms.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Remembering Vanguard I

The first American satellite program, Vanguard, is often remembered only for its spectacular failure on December 4, 1957. That's unfair: the program, while not a model of efficiency, went on to launch three satellites, make important scientific contributions, and create advances in launch vehicle technology, tracking systems, and other areas that still pay dividends today. Vanguard program veterans have created this site, which includes a paper by myself and Erika Lishock titled, "Vanguard - Setting the Record Straight."

Friday, January 25, 2008

Roll out the spaceplanes!

Virgin Galactic unveiled the designs for what will likely be the first commercial passenger service to space: the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and WhiteKnightTwo mothership. The WhiteKnight has grown considerably, with four engines and two cabins, allowing space for paying passengers who just want to ride the first portion of the trip of space. Many of these will likely be family members come to watch their loved ones launch in the SpaceShipTwo. SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six
passengers. As Alan Boyle reports here, designer Burt Rutan acknowledged safety concerns by saying he was aiming to make the craft "hundreds of times safer" than an airliner. The project's financier, Richard Branson, would like to see test flights being this year, though the date for commercial service is uncertain.

Biofuels - no free lunch

A UN report warns that the rush to switch to biofuels is raising the cost of staple foods like corn, will likely worsen water shortages in some areas, and will lead to the destruction of more rain forests in Indonesia for palm oil plantations, among other effects.
COMMENT: The point here is that decisions like this are complicated. People in office, or running for office, are always tempted to offer simple solutions. With a problem like this, there aren't any. It's like Congress' recent move to mandate the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs without paying attention to the increased mercury pollution certain to be a result. It's a complex, interrelated world out there.

Report closes case on "drunk astronauts"

NASA has finished its probe of the sensational allegations about inebriated astronauts and found... Nothing. Surveying astronauts backthrough the 1990s, they found one incident where an astronaut unwisely mixed alcohol and a prescription drug in the pre-launch period, but that was it.
COMMENT: This makes sense. Whatever the lingering effects of fighter-pilot culture may be on the astronaut corps, it's important to remember that these people train and compete for years for every opportunity they get to fly in space. To jeopardize an oh-so-rare flight opportunity with prelaunch drinking would require an enormous lapse of judgment.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Whither the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker?

An article from the NY Times (free registration may be required) explores how the initial burst of interest (and commerce) in the Big Woods section of Arkansas which erupted in 2005 when an ivory-bill was apparently videotaped is flagging now that scientists have been unable to get stronger evidence the iconic bird is still alive.

Thanks to Chad Arment for bringing this to my attention.

Two more Presidential candidates speak on space

In the nation's most space-conscious state, Florida, candidates Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have expanded on their views on space flight in general and human spaceflight in particular. Giuliani asserted strongly that the U.S. needed to bolster its human spaceflight program, while Romney agreed it was a priority issue but didn't commit to specifics.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Review of Shadows of Existence

Terry Colvin, with permission of WIlliam Corliss (an indefatigable collector of oddities and publisher of Science Frontiers newsletter) has passed along this review of my 2006 book Shadows of Existence. I'm flattered, to say the least. Thanks, Terry.

Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations
in Zoology

M.A. Bille, 317 pp., 2006, $19.95p

Rarely does one find a book so densely packed with
information. This subject is cryptozoology, and Bille
divides his book into five fascinating parts:

*New Creatures: 29 essays on the newest whales,
the mammals of Vu Quang, the unknown horses,
and so on.
*In the Shadows of Existence: 13 essays on the
thylacine, monk seals, woolly squirrels, and
so on.
*The Classic Mystery Animals: 10 essays on
Nessie, the Yeti, Bigfoot, lake creatures, and
so on.
*Miscellanea: 18 essays on the Yarri, the giant
octopus, weird fish, and so on.
*Resources: the basic library of cryptozoology,
reviews of many indispensible books, major
periodicals, internet sites, pertinent

SCIENCE FRONTIERS is a bimonthly collection of digests
of scientific anomalies in the current literature.
Published by the Sourcebook Project; P.O. Box 107;
Glen Arm, MD 21057. Annual subscription: $8.00.

Loss of a rocket pioneer

Wernher K. Dahm, a longtime associate of Wernher von Braun who worked on the V-2 and made important contributions to US ballistic missile programs, has died at 90. Dahm's career included serving as chief of the aerophysics division and later chief aerodynamicist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. He did not fully retire until last year, when he was the last of the von Braun team still working for NASA.

Thanks to Loren Coleman for pointing out this news item.

10 real-life Star-Trek technologies

Some of these are still experimental, but in many ways we're getting surprisingly close to future Gene Roddenberry and company predicted in 1966.

Personally, I want the phaser (the non-lethal one, of course).

Ares booster problems: how serious?

There's been a lot written (including material in this blog) about the known and theorized problems with the extremely elongated Ares I/Orion stack NASA plans to use in returning astronauts to orbit after the Space Shuttle is retired. This article describes the biggest problem, oscillation that could cause the stack to shake severely in the first minutes of flight. NASA does not expect this to delay the Constellation plan to return humans to the Moon by 2020, but it's increasingly hard to believe that problems with the rocket originally sold as a "safe, simple, soon" solution will not damage the schedule or cause potentially crippling cost overruns.

Also see, where Keith Cowing posted some detailed questions to NASA about Ares/Orion problems and got new answers, some of them clear and to the point and some very fuzzy. Cowing reports it's increasingly clear from internal documents that the first Ares flights will be delayed, even though NASA has denied that looking at an extended schedule was anything but a contingency exercise.

COMMENT: I support the Vision for Space Exploration and believe NASA can get the job done. But the agency seems to be going out of its way to insist all Area/Orion problems can be solved without major budget or schedule impacts. As a student of history, specifically the history of space programs, I've stopped believing them. NASA should be much fore forthright and forthcoming.
USUAL REMINDER: These are my personal opinions as a freelance science writer, nothing more.

Shooting down space conspiracy theories

An idiotic book called Dark Mission (I won't dignify it by giving the author's name), has sold very well with its bizarre and provably false conspiracy theories about how, among other coverups and conspiracies, NASA faked the loss of three Mars probes to avoid disclosing information about the nonexistent "face on Mars." Here James Oberg dismantles the book while pointing out the damage such fiction can cause.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

New trees are still found, too

Despite being 18m high, a palm tree just described as Tahina spectabilis was never noticed until it piqued the curiosity of a plantation owner on a family picnic in Madagascar. British biologist Bill Baker compared the discovery to a finding a new species of elephant. He said, “It’s the most astonishing new palm in the last 50 years. It’s absolutely enormous.”

A new moray eel - right under scientists' noses

Gymnothorax baranesi, a new species of moray eel, was just described from the Gulf of Aquaba in the Red Sea. The most interesting part is that this sizable fish was found very near a marine institute in waters thought to be thoroughly studied and known. Mother Nature still has her surprises.

Thanks to Loren Coleman for posting this item.

Friday, January 18, 2008

More on Debbie Martyr's work

Loren Coleman, who has long corresponded with Debbie Martyr concerning her pursuit of the elusive orang-pendek of Sumatra, here offers a profile of her work and the results to date.

A science of happiness?

Yes indeed. Some researchers and two authors whose works are reviewed here are trying to work out what makes humans happy. It strikes me that dissecting something as complex and amorphous as human happiness is akin to dissecting a frog in high school biology: you don't learn anything useful, and the frog dies. Still, it's a fascinating subject to ponder, even when a supposedly intelligent human being complains in a book that America has "eliminated melancholia" and the supposed creative genius that arises from it.

Thanks to Kris Winkler for this item.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why No Giant Insects?

Readers my age will remember the days of staying up late to watch black and white films like Them and The Deadly Mantis. But why, in real life, are there no insects larger than small rodents? This study pinpoints the answer. The tracheal channels carrying air around the insect's body have to become proportionately larger as the creature is scaled up. The result is that the current record-holder for insect mass, the beetle Titaneus giganteus, is as large as a modern insect can get.

Bull-sized fossil rodent discovered

Even David Letterman's jokes about New York City rats don't measure up to Josephoartigasia monesi. A 1,000-kg rodent is a startling find: no one knew the order Rodentia had produced a form larger than the 700-kg Phoberomys pattersoni.

High School students discover new asteroid

I love stories like this. Finding an asteroid as part of your high school project? Beats the heck out of building little clay volcanos.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A MESSENGER to Mercury

NASA's MESSENGER probe has made its first close pass by the planet Mercury, dipping to within 200km of the surface and gaining the first of three gravity assists which will enable it to settle into orbit around the mysterious world.

A truly twisted snail

A snail's shell is normally an elegantly simple spiral. A new species of land snail, however, has a shell so bizarrely convuluted it looks like a tunnel maze in a children's playground. It coils around four distinct axes instead of the usual one (some known land snails do have two or even three axes, but this is a record). Opisthostoma vermiculum, from Malaysia, is only about 1mm long and has not been observed alive. Why the shell is so strange, and how the snail maneuvers with this contraption without getting caught up in plants and debris, are unsolved riddles.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Figure skates 5,000 years old

A cool (hah) bit of archeological news about the origin of a sport we think of as dating back only to Hans Brinker. People in what is now Finland were using bone ice skates for winter travel 3,000 years before the birth of Christ.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sir Edmund Hillary

Sir Edmond Hillary, conqueror of Everest, has died at 88. Hillary was not only an explorer, but a great humanitarian who was revered in Nepal for his efforts to bring education and other benefits to impoverished communities. His curiosity extended to the Yeti, whose existence he believed he had disproved. The world has lost a great man.

"Your flight has been delayed...."

The mission of the space shuttle Atlantis to the ISS has now slipped to February 7 at the earliest. NASA wants to test and replace a connector which allows sensor wires into the propellant tank.

No collision with Mars

Well, darn. For all the planetary scientists who were hoping to see what happened when 2007 WD5, a rock half the size of a football field, slammed into Mars while we had plenty of instrumentation in Mars orbit and on the surface to analyze the results - well, it's not going to happen. WD5 had a 1 in 25 chance a few weeks ago. Now that further information has been gathered on its trajectory, we know know the chances are miniscule. Any Martian microbes are presumably OK with this, but it's a letdown for Earth.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A bit more on orang-pendek

Cryptozoological researcher Bobby Short pointed out to me that this article by Dr. Henry Gee of the journal Nature is still available online. Gee ponders a possible connection between the "hobbits" found on the island of Flores and the orang pendek.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Cave Bears Not So Cuddly

The fearsome-looking cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) was long believed by paleontologists to be largely or wholly vegetarian. Some 30% larger than today's brown bear, the cave bear had a wide distribution across Europe and neighboring regions until its extinction some 20,000 years ago. From caves in Romania and Turkey, however, we now have fossils indicating meat-eating and, plausibly, even cannibalistic behavior. High levels of the Nitrogen-15 in the Romanian fossils indicated the animals there made meat of some kind a significant part of their omnivorous diet. Fossils from Turkey show that large bears killed cubs, just as modern brown bears do, to establish their own reproductive line. Did they eat the cubs, too? This grisly behavior also occurs in modern bears. This case is a good reminder that we have much to learn about even well-established fossil species.

News on a cryptic primate: the Orang-pendek

British conservationist and writer Debbie Martyr, aided by wildlife photographer Jeremy Holden and others, has pursued Sumatra’s orang-pendek (“short man”) or sedapa since 1989. She believes she has seen the animal herself and has collected footprint casts, unidentified hairs, and numerous eyewitness accounts of a primate something like a gibbon, but larger and habitually bipedal. While there is still no type specimen in hand, the search is quite “respectable” as cryptozoological quests go. No less an authority than the WWF's Dr. John MacKinnon once found what he believed were the animal's tracks, and Dr. Henry Gee of the journal Nature suggested the orang-pendek might be connected to the fossil discovery of diminutive humans on the island of Flores.
Martyr's search for the orang-pendek has been necessarily sporadic, interrupted by events like the tsunami and the battle against illegal logging and other threats to Sumatra's remaining wild forests. Martyr's conservation efforts are funded by Flora and Fauna International (FFI). She and her colleagues are trying to preserve habitat for Sumatra's wildlife, especially the critically endangered Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae or Panthera sumatrae).
I had a chance this week to ask Martyr via email what the latest news was on the orang-pendek.
She replied that the last sighting she knew of was in February 2007. She described it as "a good description and first hand witness report of two bipedal large bodied apes." Unfortunately, the area involved is now being clear-cut by farmers who seem to have some kind of government protection, as they are felling trees without interference despite being over 1km inside the boundary of the legally protected Kerenci Seblat National Park. The park is the location of Martyr's office, which she currently shares with an orphaned bear cub and two leopard cat kittens.

To support this worthy conservation effort, go to:

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Another note on candidates and science

Evolution always shows up in some small way in U.S. elections, in part due to the importance of theologically conservative Christians to the Republican party. Of the major candidates still in the fray, only Mike Huckabee has said he rejects evolution (some others, such as John McCain, have endorsed the idea that "the hand of God" guided our development, but only Huckabee raised his hand when asked at a forum who did NOT believe in evolution). So this article on CNN is helpful in clarifying exactly what was said. Huckabee did back off from explicitly endorsing the belief we live on a young Earth (that is, thousands rather than billions of years old), saying he didn't know.

A great source for space policy and law

WHen I attended the University of North Dakota, my space law professor was a very accomplished lady named Joanne Gabrynowicz, who has gone on to head theThe National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law at the University of Mississippi. In October 2007, Joanne and three colleagues launched the Res Communis blog, which keeps up on space law and policy news.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Science in the U.S. Presidential campaign

How big a role are science and technology issues playing in the current Presidential campaign?
Not very. While every candidate has some position on alternative energy, other topics get a mixed reception. This isn't surprising, given that no U.S. election, even after the oil crisis of 1973, was really dominated by any sort of sci-tech issue. I've reported earlier on the mix of positions (again, with some candidates not taking any position) on the U.S. space program. This report from gives a good overview, with links, of what has been said so far on a broader range of issues. (Oddly, LiveScience Senior Editor Robin Lloyd did NOT mention the candidates' positions on space.)

Friday, January 04, 2008

NASA and Google study meteor shower

In an innovative public-private partnership created by NASA's Ames Research Center and internet giant Google, Google moguls park their jets at NASA's Moffett Field, and NASA gets to make use of them for science missions. Yesterday a Google-owned Gulfstream V flew a ten-hour mission to higher latitudes to let NASA scientists observer the intense but relatively localized Quandrantid meteor shower.

Thanks to the always-helpful Kris Winkler for this item.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Space science on a budget

This interesting article from the NY Times describes how, with a flat budget, NASA space science director S. Alan Stern is getting the maximum practical number of missions done by being hard-nosed about holding missions to their original budgets or at least to minimal overruns. It's a difficult situation that sometimes requires accepting less scientific return (like a cut in mission duration) to keep projects from being canceled in a zero-sum budget world.

Evolutionary beliefs by the numbers

A new survey of American showed that 61 percent agreed with the statement "all living things have evolved over time."
Out of that majority, 36 percent agreed the cause was "natural processes such as natural selection," while 25 percent agreed that "a supreme being guided the evolution of living things."
COMMENT: I'm a Christian who has yet to be convinced there are workable "all natural" explanations for some of the more unique human traits, such as our desire to engage in philosophy and theology or our ability to appreciate beauty. But I have never understood my friends who argue that the Earth must be young and we are misinterpreting mountains of evidence (literally) that indicates it's billions of years old. Creation science tries to build as case that the tiny number of freakish events contradicting standard science (such as ancient fossils redeposited in newer strata) are the rule rather than the exceptions. As long as you accept the premise that Genesis is an allegory written for people who couldn't possibly understand geology, paleontology, etc., there is no contradiction. Evolution is a bedrock (again, literally) explanation of our origins and should be understood by all. Even if you don't believe it, you need to know it.

Looking for the Great White: Look out behind you

This rather chilling pic shows what happened when marine biologist Trey Snow went out to observe great white sharks in a tiny inflatable kayak. A 4-meter shark is shown pulling up behind the frail craft of the man, showing that the observer, in the wild, is often the observed. In this case, the shark opted not to bite the strange object, so fortunately this column is not an obituary. I salute all those willing to take risks to get something accomplished for science and conservation.