Friday, August 31, 2012

Bringing back extinct species

In this article in The Atlantic, Rebecca J. Rosen muses on the possibilities of bringing back extinct species, whether we should, and something I hadn't thought of before: if we bring them back via genetic manipulation, should we try to tweak their nature a bit for our preferences or our current environmental conditions? 
The example she uses isn't the best - the California grizzly bear is not an extinct species, just an extirpated population, and we could bring it back any time we wanted just by moving Grizzlies in from other states.  Still, her question of bringing back a predator with a genetic modification that makes them detest human flesh - if such an adjustment is possible - is a good one.  Do we bring an animal back just as it was (my heart says yes, my brain is unsure) or do we try to give evolution a hand and adapt it to a different climate or the presence of humans or whatever else has changed?
Good questions, ones that might really matter in the near future.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Are disc-shaped aircraft behind UFO sightings?

This is a reasonable question, one asked again in a recent post on The Cryptozoologist. After all, experimental aircraft have taken on a lot of odd shapes over the past 70 years or so, since the science of aerodynamics became less guesswork and more engineering in the years before World War II.  You can find plenty of Internet claims and speculation about German disc-shaped aircraft, and all the other major powers had their experimental planes too, some of them very weird.  But to stand in for "flying saucers" in the postwar world requires high performance as well as striking appearance, and I don't think it happened.

The reasons I discount disc-shaped aircraft, beyond the occasional experimental vehicle, is that the aerodynamics stink. They're hard to control. As with a flying wing, you are spreading the aerodynamic effects over this huge surface, much of it far away (relatively) from the ailerons and other control surfaces that give it direction. I don't believe for a moment the Nazis or anyone else developed a high-performance disc in the 1940s-1990s. That said, the sophisticated digital controls and other advances in the B-2 era might, I think, allow you to develop a high-performance disc today, but it would be a big investment for no real return unless getting the disc shape was the entire purpose of the project: payload would still be minimal. The exception would be if you got away from the jet propulsion system into some kind of propulsion that delivered thrust evenly around the disc (you can do that with jets, but the complexity and weight penalties will kill you, and the Coanda effect mentioned by some of the Nazi buffs is real but even less efficient.) "Revelations" by "insiders" about German or American disc aircraft never try to explain the engineering of the thing.
For those who are curious, I did try to come up with a practical disc in fiction: Send me an email if you'd like to read my story "The Old-Fashioned Way."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The CubeSats are coming

Cubesats at 10cm on a side, and they are the next big tiny thing in satellites.

See in New Scientist (registration required)

Spontaneous Human Combustion solved?

I try to take a properly skeptical approach to ofddities, but the riddle of SHC has always seemed to me to need a better explanation that than the brush-off it gets in sources like Skeptical Inquirer. How can a human body burn to ashes with only its own fat for fuel?  A "wick effect" - a human candle - sounds theoretically possible, but hasn't been duplicated in practice. This researcher thinks the answer lies in body chemistry: that the right circumstances can permeate the body with highly flammable acetone. 

See it in New Scientist (registration required)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Had to happen: Bigfoot hoaxer killed

A man trying to create a Bigfoot hoax instead created a deadly accident - meaning, he occasioned his own death. I always figured this would be a headline about someone shot by a hunter who thought he'd bagged fame and fortune, but instead it was a terrible tragedy involving two teenage drivers who will never be the same. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The "Anternet" - nature's internet works like ours

Ants, it seems, behave in response to the amount of food the same way the Internet handles packets of data. If there's less food (think of it as bandwidth), fewer gatherers (packets) leave the nest. If the net is broken by researchers preventing gatherers from returning to the nest, the nest, after a delay, stops sending out new ants. Ants can transmit only very limited amounts of information, but the way they operate, like the Internet, allows them to circumvent that limit and forage and gather with great efficiency.

Winner: Best Neil Armstrong Cartoon

Well, it's my contest, I get to pick the most touching memorial to the man I call America's Captain Cook.  I thought it was this item, published in the Bangor Daily News.
 (I can't amke out the cartoonists's name. No copyright violation intended: notify if problematic)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ad Astra, Neil Armstrong

"The important achievement of Apollo was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet and our visions go rather further than that and our opportunities are unlimited." - Armstrong

 I wrote Neil Armstrong's bio for an encyclopedia once. I couldn't speak to the man himself, but a close associate relayed messages. Ever modest, Armstrong asked that he not appear in the book Notable 20th-Century Scientists at all (a wish I couldn't grant.) He did say he thought his pioneering work with fly-by-wire control systems, not being the moonwalker, was his most important achievement.
He will always be one of my heroes.

In 1969, songwriter John Stewart watched the moonwalk and marveled at the way it drew the whole world together, despite all our troubles:

The rivers are getting dirty

The wind is getting bad

War and hate are killing off

The only earth we have

But the world all stopped to watch it

On that July afternoon

To watch a man named Armstrong

Walk upon the moon

The last film of the last thylacine?

Interesting historical discussion of the film taken of the last zoo-kept thylacine, often thought to be the last individual of his species. The species almost certainly survived past the death of this animal in 1936, but for how long? No one knows.

An episode in the life of Nessie

Has any creature, real or mythical, attracted quite the attention the Loch Ness monster has?  Arguments over reality, appeals to mysticism, witches and biologists, they've all been featured in the 1400 years or so that monster tales have circulated.  Filmmakers, of course, have not been idle.  This article recounts a singular moment, when famed eccentric director Walter Herzog took his turn at the mysteries of the Loch. 

A one-species ecosytem? Yes it exists

This microbe is the only species in its ecosystem.  The implication for finding life in ever more unlikely places - including far deeper locales and even on other planets - are major.  Almost three kilometers down in a gold mine, Desulforudis audaxviator runs its own little chemical factory in total darkness and isolation.  "Life finds a way."

Friday, August 24, 2012

Sputnik: The Human Story (Part 4 of 4)

We conclude our stody after the launch of Explorer 1. I hope you've enjoyed it!

The instrumentation aboard that first American satellite was the brainchild of Dr. James Van Allen, then head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa. Beginning with a childhood filled with crystal radio sets and electric motors, Van Allen had earned a doctorate in nuclear physics in 1939. Since then he’d been a naval gunnery officer, a developer of proximity fuses, head of the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel, and the drafter of specifications for the Aerobee sounding rocket. Before Explorer, Van Allen was best known for his work studying the physics of the upper atmosphere using “rockoons.” He proposed a particle detection experiment for Project Vanguard, but kept it small enough so it would likely be useful in the event Vanguard was supplemented by von Braun’s proposed Army satellite. The result of this foresight was the discovery of the radiation belts around Earth – the Van Allen belts.

Physicist Len Cormier, who personally made up one-half of the National Academy of Sciences’ tiny IGY satellites office, recalled, “About a month before the announcement of the radiation belts – over pizza at Luigi’s – Van Allen remarked that they had been unable to decipher the data from Explorer.” Soon after that, though, Van Allen did decipher it. The strange “dropout” periods reported by his Geiger-Mueller counters in Explorers 1 and 3 were not caused by the absence of radiation, but by being swamped with reading far higher than expected.

In May 1958, Project Vanguard, on its third try, put a satellite into orbit.

“I heard a tremendous roar, as if a fire had started. Suddenly, books, shoes, and other things flew over the balcony down into the hangar.”- Propulsion engineer Kurt Stehling on the Vanguard celebration at Cape Canaveral

Several thousand miles west of Huntsville, in the Mojave Desert of California, a group of maverick physicists and engineers at the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) in China Lake took matters into their own hands, and unofficially jumped into the satellite race in late 1957. Without authorization or official funding, the NOTS team attempted to leapfrog the larger programs with a five-stage rocket launched from a fighter plane. On a shoestring budget, largely “borrowed” from other programs, the satellite was pulled together in the NOTS workshops with not much more than the proverbial “chewing gum and baling wire.” But morale was high; after Commander William West, USN, a World War II hero then flying test aircraft at NOTS, watched a ground-test version of the rocket explode, he remarked with typical test-pilot swagger: “Don’t worry. It won’t do that when I’m carrying it.” On the second of the six launch attempts, the rocket did, in fact, explode - just far enough away from West’s F4D-1 Skyray for pilot and plane to survive. The NOTS program most likely produced only one short-lived satellite, but it deserves to be remembered for its sheer audacity.

And so the world had two space powers, and the story unfolded from there – a complex tale of engineering, Cold War politics, and human dreams. Sputnik 1 set in motion events Sergey Korolev could never have predicted.

“I must say, if I think about it from the viewpoint of history, I suspect that the whole space program is better because the Russians went up first. It shook up the complacency of the West…it was a challenge for us to do better than they were. The result was that the space programs got a lot of support from this country…In fact, the whole formation of NASA might not have happened if we had gone first.”

- William Pickering, JPL Director in the Sputnik era, in 1989

In October 1958, the U.S. created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to run civilian space programs. This organization eventually absorbed JPL, the Vanguard program, and Wernher von Braun and most of his Army team.

The people of the early Space Age live on in their achievements and the organizations they created. Korolev’s government design bureau is now the giant Russian space firm RSC Energia. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Naval Research Laboratory, Marshall Space Flight Center, and other American organizations with “space roots” in the Sputnik era, continue to develop space probes, satellites, and launch systems.

Of the three great theorists of the early 20th century, only Hermann Oberth lived to see the launch of satellites and men into space. Oberth had the satisfaction of seeing humans land on the moon using the lunar-orbit rendezvous approach – something he had conceived in the 1920s. He died in 1989 at the age of 95.

Sergey Korolev went on to launch many more satellites and space probes, put the first human into space, and lead the Soviet drive for a lunar program. He died on January 14, 1966, the result of a botched medical operation. Only after that was his identity revealed to the world.

Wernher von Braun had his great triumph with the landing of men on the moon using the Saturn booster his organization – now NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center – developed. He hoped to follow it with a greater triumph, a voyage to Mars, but the money and political will did not exist. Von Braun died in 1977.

James Van Allen led the team that developed the world’s first student-built satellite and continued work with NASA space probes. For almost five decades after Sputnik, he kept studying, teaching, and writing on space science. When the authors of this article approached him about the book which became The First Space Race, he was happy to discuss his activities in 1957-58, which he remembered with astonishing clarity, spend a day taping interviews in his office in the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Building, and contribute a Foreword for the book.
The last word on the legacy of the Sputnik era goes to a man who never lived to see it.

"There can be no thought of finishing, for 'aiming at the stars,' both literally and figuratively, is a problem to occupy generations, so that no matter how much progress one makes, there is always the thrill of just beginning."

- Robert Goddard, 1932

A Personal Note

As authors, we have been pursuing this story since 1998, carrying it through the 2004 publication of our book and subsequently through the articles and papers we’ve been writing ever since. We had the great fortune to speak or correspond with many of the greats of this era, some of whom are no longer with us. We cherish our memories of time spent with them, and we’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those who assisted us – as everyone we contacted, without exception, enthusiastically did. We are honored to have contributed to the preservation of knowledge about the birth of the Space Age.

Matt Bille and Erika Lishock

August 2007

Suggested reading

The stories of the Sputnik era and the people who lived it are scattered in countless places. For those seeking worthwhile books on the subject, we have some suggestions for a “starter list.” See:

William E. Burrows, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age (New York: Random House, 1998).

Boris Chertok, Rockets and People (Washington, DC: NASA SP20054110, 2005).

Paul Dickson. Sputnik: Shock of the Century. (New York: Walker & Co., 2001).

Roger Launius, John Logsdon, and Robert Smith (eds.) Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000).

James Harford. Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997).

Clayton R. Koppes, JPL and the American Space Program (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.)

Walter A. McDougall. …the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

Constance McLaughlin Green and Milton Lomask, 1969. Vanguard - A History (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4202, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969).

Asif Siddiqi, Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974 (Washington, DC: NASA SP-2000-4408, 2000).

Kurt Stehling, Project Vanguard (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1961).

Ernst Stuhlinger, with Frederick Ordway III, Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co. 1994).

James Van Allen, Origins of Magnetospheric Physics (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983).

The loneliest whale in the world?

What if no other creature on Earth spoke your language?  This whale sings alone, and there is no one to answer. Of unknown species, this whale sings a song at more than twice the 15-to-25 HZ frequency of other whales. Not only is the species unknown, but its calls, first picked up by the US Navy in 1989, indicate it's not following the migration route of any known species.  I can't help but think of the theme song from an old Bigfoot movie The Legend of Boggy Creek (whether you like or hate the movie, the song is haunting):

Perhaps he dimly wonders why
Is there no other such as I
To love to touch before I die
No one to hear my lonely cry

Is the whale a freak, a hybrid, or even - just possibly - the last of a vanishing species?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sputnik: The Human Story (Part 3 of 4)

Then, on 4 October 1957, Sergey Korolev successfully placed a satellite in Earth orbit. The spacecraft itself was an unimpressive-looking sphere, not much bigger than a basketball. What it signified, though, was enormous. The first space race was over.

“It was a complete shock. I had not anticipated it in the least. But I knew it would change the modern world.” - Arthur C. Clarke

“Those damn bastards.” - General John Medaris (after Sputnik 1)

Korolev was not allowed to rest on the laurels of Sputnik 1, nor did he wish to. His brain and his files bulged with ideas for lunar probes and piloted spacecraft, but nothing beyond the first Sputnik had been approved until he had that first great success. Korolev and his team, including rocket designer Mikhail Tikhonravov and propulsion engineer Valentin P. Glushko, immediately set to work.

“We never thought that you would launch a Sputnik before the Americans. But you did it. Now please launch something new in space for the next anniversary of our revolution.”
- Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, immediately after Sputnik 1

Korolev answered the Premier’s demand with Sputnik 2, which captured the world’s imagination by virtue of its size (over half a ton) as well as its passenger – the dog Laika, the first living creature in orbit. Laika’s name and likeness were everywhere, including on a brand of Russian cigarettes. The man who launched her, though, was a cipher. The world, including most of the Soviet Union, had no idea who Korolev was. He was only “the Chief Designer,” and his name was a state secret.

Back in the United States, Project Vanguard hustled to develop a response to the Soviet Union – or perhaps even more to a questioning American public. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower had approved Project Vanguard in 1955, then watched with growing impatience as its timetable slipped and costs mushroomed. When Sputnik succeeded, he called the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Donald Quarles, on the carpet. The President’s words to the public were stoic: “Our satellite program has never been conducted as a race with other nations.” To his aides, he confessed, “I can’t understand why the American people have got so worked up over this thing. It’s certainly not going to drop on their heads.” Quarles’ response was to note that the Administration’s policy had never been to launch the first satellite, only to launch a successful one. But perhaps he was one of the first to see what many came to believe was a silver lining to the whole affair: “…the Russians have done us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the concept of freedom of international space.”

On December 6, 1957, what had originally been meant as a non-orbital Vanguard test vehicle, now fitted with a tiny satellite, attempted a launch from Cape Canaveral in full television view of the entire world. The result was an embarrassment that for many years tainted the Vanguard name: a massive explosion two seconds after launch. Vanguard’s director, John P; Hagen, was in Washington, connected by telephone to the launch team under his deputy, J. Paul Walsh. Their conversation was brief and to the point. Walsh: “Explosion!” Hagen: “Nuts.”

In the end, it was von Braun’s Jupiter-C rocket, a modification of the Redstone missile born from V-2 technology, which answered Korolev’s challenge in space. After the shock of the Soviet triumph, Wernher von Braun received what he and General Medaris had long sought: permission to attempt a satellite launch. Moreover, their directive was to do it as quickly as possible. In von Braun’s words to the incoming Secretary of Defense, Neil McElroy: “We knew they were going to do it. Vanguard will never make it! We have the hardware on the shelf. For God’s sake, turn us loose and let us do something! We can put up a satellite in 60 days, Mr. McElroy. Just give us a green light and 60 days!” On January 31, 1958, he fulfilled his promise. Wernher von Braun’s Jupiter-C (renamed Juno 1 to make it sound more civilian) was thrust into the night sky over Cape Canaveral with its American payload, Explorer 1.

"It [space travel] will free man from the remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet. It will open to him the gates of heaven."

-- Von Braun after succeeding in the launch of the first American satellite

One of the colorful personalities who witnessed the launch was JPL mathematician and head of the Research and Analysis Section, Al Hibbs. Hibbs had previously achieved some degree of fame when LIFE magazine reported his profitable success in discovering and exploiting a flaw in the “random” pattern of a casino’s roulette wheel. After the launch, he sat in the blockhouse at the Cape making calculations based on telemetry from the launch vehicle. With General Medaris hovering over him, he concluded “with 95 percent confidence there’s a 60 percent chance that it’s in orbit.” The General snapped, “Don’t give me that crap, Hibbs! Is it up?” 
“It’s up.”

Apparently the President was more cautious. His initial response after being told of a successful launch was, “Let’s not make too great a hullabaloo about this.” However, after it was confirmed the satellite was in orbit, he added, “That’s wonderful. I sure feel a lot better now.”

The instrumentation aboard that first American satellite was the brainchild of Dr. James Van Allen, then head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa. Beginning with a childhood filled with crystal radio sets and electric motors, Van Allen had earned a doctorate in nuclear physics in 1939. Since then he’d been a naval gunnery officer, a developer of proximity fuses, head of the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel, and the drafter of specifications for the Aerobee sounding rocket. Before Explorer, Van Allen was best known for his work studying the physics of the upper atmosphere using “rockoons.” He proposed a particle detection experiment for Project Vanguard, but kept it small enough so it would likely be useful in the event Vanguard was supplemented by von Braun’s proposed Army satellite. The result of this foresight was the discovery of the radiation belts around Earth – the Van Allen belts.

Newest mammal - weird rat can't gnaw

The whole point of existence for a rodent is to gnaw everything in sight.  but this rat can't. Nor can it chew. It has 2 teeth!  The new Indonesian species, Paucidentomys vermidax, has a name that can be loosely translated as "worm-eating mouse with few teeth."  The codiscoverer says that, compared to all the 2,200 known rodent species, this one is bizarre: "In having lost all teeth except a pair of unusually shaped incisors that are incapable of gnawing, this new rat is unique among rodents."
COMMENT: We are not only still finding new species. We are finding one that teach us there are evolutionary pathways we didn't know had ever been followed. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sputnik - The Human Story (part 2 of 4)

In Part 1, we saw how rocetry and spaceflight were ancient dreams.  Today we see how they were made real.  Today also bring on scene Dr. James Van Allen, the father of modern atmospheric physics, who was wonderfully helpful in our book, contributing a Foreword and spending a full day with Erika taping interviews.

“No sane nation would make such a fantastically expensive piece of precision machinery (think of the cost of the turbine engine) to drop a ton of explosives on England. But what a break for astronautics!” - Arthur C. Clarke on the V-2

“This is what cannot be.”
-Russian engineer Viktor Bolkhovitinov, viewing the captured V-2’s engine

Von Braun’s American counterpart in the prewar years was physicist Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945). Goddard, writer of two seminal papers on the technology and uses of rocketry, launched the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket on March 16, 1926. In developing rocket theory and design, Goddard and the handful of associates who worked with him were ahead of their German and Russian counterparts. What Goddard never had, though, was the money and materiel to develop a rocket as powerful as the V-2. He was unable to gain the interest of the War Department, who could not grasp the possible military applications of rockets. This must have brought back his memory of being mocked in a 1920 article in the New York Times for daring to suggest that a rocket could function in the vacuum of space. On the physicist’s dismay at learning of the V-2, and thinking what he could have done for the United States with military backing, a colleague remarked, “I don’t think he ever got over the V-2.”

“In my opinion, such a thing is impossible and will be impossible for many years.”
- Dr. Vannever Bush, head of the Pentagon’s Research and Development Board, speaking in 1945 on long-range ballistic missiles

“Every vision is a joke, until someone accomplishes it. Once realized, it becomes commonplace.” 
– Robert H. Goddard

On 5 April 1950, American physicist James Van Allen (1914-2006) hosted a gathering of scientists at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, to discuss international cooperation in scientific research. The guest of honor was one of the world’s leading geophysicists, Dr. Sidney Chapman of Great Britain. In the course of the discussion, American physicist and engineer Lloyd V. Berkner asked Chapman, “Sydney, isn’t it about time we had another International Polar Year?” in reference to an international, collaborative polar research effort first conducted in 1882 and again in 1932. The idea of a Third International Polar Year excited the group, and they immediately went to work contacting educational and research leaders. Broadened in scope and renamed the International Geophysical Year, the IGY, which ran from July 1957 to December 1958, spurred the U.S. and the Soviet Union onward towards a new goal: the successful placement of a man-made satellite into Earth orbit. Officially or not, the first space race had begun.

“The race into space may be said to have started in Van Allen’s living room that evening in 1950.” -TIME magazine, 1959

In June 1954, Commander George Hoover of the Office of Naval Research arranged a meeting in Washington which included some of the leading minds in space science and technology. These included Fred Durant, president of the International Astronautical Federation; Professor S. Fred Singer of the University of Maryland; and Smithsonian astronomer Dr. Fred L. Whipple, in addition to von Braun. Out of that meeting came an Army-Navy-civilian proposal called Project Orbiter. Orbiter was never launched, but it became the blueprint for the Army program which eventually launched the first American satellite, Explorer 1.

“Everybody talks about satellites, then nobody does anything. So maybe we should put to use the hardware we already have.” - George Hoover at the famous meeting of 25 June 1954

The U.S. Department of Defense in 1955 selected Project Vanguard, under the auspices of the Naval Research Laboratory, to attempt to orbit a scientific satellite during the 1957-58 IGY. The U.S. National Committee (USNC) created a Technical Panel on Rocketry, which appointed a subcommittee to study “a long-playing rocket.” As Dr. William H. Pickering, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory put it, “...this is about the time the long-playing records came out, 33 rpm. We had the long-playing rocket which would go up and round and round and round.”

Directing the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, whose proposal for a satellite lost out to the Project Vanguard, was Major General John B. Medaris. He was a hard-charging, no-nonsense solider who, perhaps surprisingly, bonded very well with the outgoing Wernher von Braun and his German colleagues. After Vanguard was selected as the official program, he continued to pester his superiors about the need for an Army program as a backup. As he later observed, “In various languages, our fingers were slapped, and we were told to mind our own business.”

“You know how complicated it is to launch a satellite. Those people (the Soviets) will never do it.” - General John Medaris (before Sputnik 1)

And so the stage was set, and the two competitors, the United States Navy and the Soviet Union, pressed towards the goal, with the Army still waiting on the bench. With the world as audience, both sides reached higher and higher towards space, sometimes coming close, sometimes engulfing the launch pad in a fiery spectacle. Then, on 4 October 1957, Sergey Korolev successfully placed a satellite in Earth orbit. The spacecraft itself was an unimpressive-looking sphere, not much bigger than a basketball. What it signified, though, was enormous. The first space race was over.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sputnik - The Human Story (Part 1 of 4)

As we struggle with decisions on the future of space, I decided it was a good time to offer a look back.  Here, in four parts (one posted per day), is the human story behind the first satellites, as written by myself and Erika Lishock for QUEST magazine. 


“Nothing ever built arose to touch the skies unless some man dreamed that it should, some man believed that it could, and some man willed that it must.” - Charles F. Kettering

Any engineer can tell you that the paradigm-shaking events that launched the Space Age 50 years ago involved a significant number of technological breakthroughs. But how did the Space Age really start? Was it the fervor of a nationalistic movement, or an educational institution, or a military-funded program that gave it birth and heralded its first faltering steps? Or did it start long before 1957 – in the minds and hearts of those who dreamed, and believed, and eventually willed it into reality? In this article, we’ll take a brief look at the human side of the timeline up to and through the pivotal first months of the new era.

The beginnings of the Sputnik story lie too far back to be traced, to the first humans who looked at the sky and wondered what lay high above them and whether they might someday reach it. As civilizations arose, the pieces of modern cosmology and physics began to form, divined by those who, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s phrase, “in high cold towers asked questions of the stars.”

In the 15th through 18th centuries emerged the great celestial mathematicians and physicists; Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, who, through entire lifetimes of observation and unimaginably laborious hand calculations, turned speculation into theories, and numbers, and formulae: if an object reached an altitude of x above most of the atmosphere, and attained a velocity y parallel to the Earth’s surface, it would continue to “fall” around the earth; the result would be an artificial moon. By the nineteenth century, it was all possible in theory. In the twentieth, it became fact.

“When ships to sail the void between the stars have been built, there will step forth men to sail these ships.” - Johannes Kepler

And so we come to Konstantin Edvardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935). Space visionary and pioneer of cosmonautics, the poor math teacher in rural Russia had been rendered totally deaf by scarlet fever at the age of 10, and because of this, never received any formal education. Inspired by the novels of Jules Verne, and driven by imagination and a will to prove himself despite his disability, Tsiolkovsky stayed up long nights working out the details of travel beyond the atmosphere. He created the rocket equation and calculated the velocities required for payloads and orbits. He came up with the idea of a large multistage rocket, a “rocket train,” the notion of a space station, and the use of hydrogen and liquid oxygen as booster fuel and oxidizer.

“Earth is the cradle of humanity, but we cannot live in the cradle forever.”
- Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

Tsiolkovsky’s most famous pupil (though it’s not certain they ever met) was Sergey Pavlovich Korolev (1907- 1966). As a young aircraft engineer in his twenties, Sergey joined an amateur rocket enthusiast society led by the equally visionary Frederich A. Tsander. Korolev worked on rockets until 1938, when he became a victim of Stalin’s political purges, was unjustly accused of suspected political unreliability, and sentenced to imprisonment in a Soviet Gulag – a nightmare of cold, hunger, and death for most. His story would likely have ended there had he not been transferred two years later to a sharaga, a slightly less torturous work camp for political undesirables whose skills were nonetheless needed by the war effort. After the war, he took a lead role in developing missiles for the government that had imprisoned him. He built for the USSR the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7, which was later modified and eventually placed the first satellite into Earth orbit on October 4, 1957.

"I've been waiting all my life for this day!"
– Sergey Korolev at the launch of Sputnik 1

Further to the west, Hermann Oberth (1894 -1989) was born in what was then Austria-Hungary. He too, was inspired by the works of Jules Verne, and at age 14 was busily constructing model rockets. After serving on the Eastern Front during World War I, he began studies in physics. His 1922 thesis submitted to the University of Heidelberg was rejected because the topic - the use of rockets for space travel - was deemed impractical and outlandish. Undaunted, Oberth turned the thesis into a book, The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space. This work sparked widespread discussion of rocketry by academics and scientists who had previously ignored this immature field of technology. In 1930, Oberth fired the first test model of his own design for a liquid-fueled rocket engine. Working with him were some students from the Technical University of Berlin. One of them was named Wernher von Braun.

"This is the goal: To make available for life every place where life is possible. To make inhabitable all worlds as yet uninhabitable and all life purposeful." - Hermann Oberth

Wernher von Braun (1912 - 1977) was 18 at the time of Oberth’s test firing. The handsome young man with an aristocratic pedigree had already shown himself as both a promising engineer and a natural leader. In 1931, he helped Germany’s amateur rocket society, the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (VfR), launch its first liquid-fuel rocket. Three years later, the VfR was effectively absorbed by a branch of the Army Weapons Office, with von Braun and several other VfR alumni becoming civilian Army employees. Von Braun was the critical integrator, the first man who succeeded in wrapping the efforts of Oberth and Tsiolkovsky in steel on a scale large enough to make spaceflight truly viable. Always controversial as the lead inventor of the A-4 (or V-2), the first ballistic missile, mass-manufactured by concentration camp prisoners under horrific conditions, he came to the United States after the war. There he eventually became technical director of a crucial branch of American rocketry, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. As a note of interest, after Von Braun left Peenemunde for the United States, invading Soviet troops found a German edition of one of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's books on rocketry and space travel. It had been annotated throughout by Wernher von Braun.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Impossibly Cool - helicarrier from The Avengers flies

OK, we all know the helicarrier in the movie The Avengers was imaginary. Someone figured out each rotor would have to have been larger than the entire ship to make it work.  But this hobbyist hasn't let reality stop him from making a flying model. Watch this thing move across the water and rise into the air, and the unbelievable is no longer crazy....

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Who's that owl? Oh, it's TWO owls!

New bird finds are rare, just a few a year, but now we have four announced in the last month.  The most recent two are from the Philippines. US ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen, who is one of the really prominent figures in new bird discovery (and rediscovery) said, "More than 15 years ago, we realized that new subspecies of Ninox hawk-owls existed in the Philippines. But it wasn't until last year that we obtained enough recordings that we could confirm that they were not just subspecies, but two new species of owls." She explains that the songs are not learned but are unique to species.  Welcome to the Camiguin Hawk-owl (noted for singing "a long solo song" at night) and the Cebu Hawk-owl!

New family in Oregon (spiders, that is)

In a cave in southern Oregon, the first new family of spiders found in North America since 1890 has seen the light of science  A population so distinct it requires not just a species name and not just a genus name but a family name is rare anywhere: this is the first family of spiders anywhere in the world in 22 years.  Charles Griswold of the California Academy of Sciences  described the spider, 7.5 cm across, as "biggish," but adds, "When you're in a cave and it's dark and there's only the beam of your head lamp, they look much bigger. It's quite astonishing to see them hanging from a few threads."  The distinctive hook-legged creature (Robert Kiehn, on a Facebook board, compared it to the Face-hugger in the Alien movies), is tagged Trogloraptor marchingtoni.

Friday, August 17, 2012

OK, not hypersonic...

This really stinks. We had the Air Force all ready to test their hypersonic scramjet X-51 WaveRider, and they drop it from the B-52, and a tail fin fails before they can even ignite the motor.  I hope Boeing puts more care into their airliners than they did into building four of these things. I mean, seriously, you have a multimillion-dollar breakthrough X-vehicle, and you can't put a decent tailfin on it? (Or someone dropped or bumbed it hard and somehow no one noticed, which isn't very flattering either.) I hope we got a warranty. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Trying for hypersonic

X-51A WaveRider test set

This week, a B-52 will drop an experimental unmanned aircraft that will - hopefully - operate for a record 5 minutes on the power of a scramjet engine. The Supersonic Combustion Ramjet is intended to allow for missiles and aircraft to travel at X-15 type speeds of 3,600 mph in the atmosphere, at altitudes up to 70,000 feet.  Most jet engines, even on supersonic aircraft, keep the airstream flowing through the combustion chamber subsonic.  Trying to sustain combustion in a supersonic airstream is a goal engineers have pursued for over 50 years.  Today, flight by flight, albeit with plenty of failures along the way, they are getting closer. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

In honor of Mars, look back in TIME

TIME magazine has covered space since before Sputnik, giving the topic numerous cover stories.  Here's a sequence of those covers, from a concept for an unwieldy robot explorer through the Moon landing, the loss of the two Shuttles, and our triumphs on Mars.  Very cool.  Thanks to Dwayne Day for pointing this out on Facebook.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

New bird from the cloud forest

Two new birds in a week! Here's the latest: the Sira Barbet.  A colorful bird, red-breasted with a black mask, the species Capito fitzpatricki was nabbed in 2008, but it took the discoverers this long to complete the exhaustive process of confirming a new-species identity and writing a description.  And the meaning of the name? It fit in the existing genus Capito, and the species name was chosen "in honor of Cornell Lab of Ornithology executive director John W. Fitzpatrick, who discovered and named seven new bird species in Peru during the 1970s and '80s."

Go, Ornithology!

Curiosity - the Movie

Great NASA animation of the historic landing.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

IMPORTANT science - will Luke die in the Tauntaun?

Forget exploring Mars, what really would have happened to Luke in The Empire Strikes  Back when Han cuts open a dead tauntaun and shoves Luke into it to keep him warm?  "I always thought they smelled bad on the outside," Han wheezes. 
Turns out Han didn't have much time. Luke was already dangerously cold, the tauntaun would have been cooling rapidly, and Han had only 17 to 47 minutes to get him into the "emergency shelter," which we need to assume had some kind of heater. 
So Han was a fast shelter-builder. Whatever this great movie needed was worth it!

Monday, August 06, 2012

"NASA, this is Mars..."

Congratulations to JPL, all of NASA, and the contractors involved for a magnificent success. Remember that it was impossible to test this thing in Mars-like (0.4G) gravity back here on Earth. Double kudos to NASA, which has been blundering around in the public relations area, for hosting public events and getting citizens more excited despite the risk of failure. A reminder that America and NASA can still do great things.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

A lovely - if decidedly odd - woodpecker

White woodpecker recorded

A unique Pennsylvania woodpecker - a mostly white (leucistic) specimen of the Pileated Woodpecker  Dryocopus pileatus

"Frankenstein" hybrid fish?

What is it? Well, it's a fish, but... Mark Sawyer, editor for an angling publication, has never seen a fish like the one he recently caught, photographed, and released in Briatain's Magpie Lake.  Neither has anyone else.  As this article describes it, Sawyer thought it had "the head of a roach, the body and tail of a brown goldfish and the rear fin of a bream." [NOTE: By "roach" he presumably means the common small fish known to ichthyologists as  Rutilus rutilus, though the name is hung on several other types in various locales.) He suggested it was a hybrid of two or even three species (which would mean it was the result of at least two generations of mixed breeding in the wild.)  A curious thing is Nature....

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Newest bird species hails from India

Meet the Great Nicobar Crake

New birds are certainly not deluging science the way amphibians are (see previous post), but they still turn up.  According to the Zoological Survey of India, the new crake, a quick runner but a poor flier, was spotted on India's Great Nicobar Island. The new-species opinion was confirmed by American ornithologist Pamela Rassmussen (I wrote about her in my 2006 Shadows of Existence: she's famous for rediscovering Jerdon's courser, an Indian bird long thought extinct).  Now the bird awaits a scientific name. 

New amphibians - by the thousand!

3,000 species in 25 years

Yes, you read that right. Herpetologists have described an average of 120 new species a year for the last quarter-century.  The total number of amphibians on the AmphibiaWeb project has passed 7,000.  So we've gotten them all now? No where close.  Given that 100 have been described so far in 2012, the species discovery curve is, if anything, trending UP. The news isn't all good - as many as 40% of the known species are threatened to some degree - but the sheer number is astonishing. We don't know all the inhabitants of this planet yet, not even the vertebrates. Not by a long shot.

Friday, August 03, 2012

The mystery of Washington's Eagle

Giant raptor may have dominated North American skies
The idea that we have missed, among the birds of America, a huge eagle, seems preposterous. But John James Audubon's claim of a new species, Washington's eagle, is not easy to discount. If it was valid, where is it now? Are the rare modern sighting claims accurate, or is this creature extinct?

COMMENT: The last claimed sighting mentioned in Shuker's column is a little hard for me to swallow: the bird as described is too large for a practical raptor, and the sketch looks oddly owl-like. The rest of this column, though, is captivating.

Intriguing photo - maybe - from Loch Ness

At first look, this photo was striking: it looked sizable and hard to explain. 
Boat captain George Edwards claims he got Nessie on film, and some cryptozoologists (including myself) found it very interesting.  A poster on the Monster Talk blog, though, has pointed out you can see the edge of a boat railing in the extreme lower left corner. That makes the object look closer and smaller than I thought (seal size, perhaps), though it's still not clear what the object is.
COMMENT: Darn.  I don't think there's a "monster" in Loch Ness, but I WANT there to be.