Sunday, May 31, 2020

And we have a docking....Congratulations!!!!

Congratulations to SpaceX, NASA, and the crews of the Dragon capsule Endeavour and the ISS.  In a horrible week, you gave us a reminder that thousands of people of all races, sexes, and nationalities can do something stupendous.
All images NASA

NASA this morning: "NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley aboard the SpaceX Dragon Endeavour have arrived at the International Space Station. The Crew Dragon arrived at the station’s Harmony port, docking at 10:16 a.m. EDT while the spacecraft were flying about 262 miles above the northern border of China and Mongolia."

NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley (left) and Robert Behnken (right) participate in a dress rehearsal for launch

Bob and Doug, in SpaceX's minimalist-looking but obviously effective suits, carried instrumentation, some small payloads, and a stuffed dragon named Ty to dock with the ISS.  

Coverage of Expedition 63 flight control team with Flight Director Zebulon Scoville during SpaceX DM-2 launch in Mission Control

Trivia:  It was the first time a capsule on its first crewed launch carried no rookies. It is the first two-person mission where both astronauts are married to other astronauts.  They launched from Pad 39A, where fifty years ago I was an eyewitness to Apollo 11's rise.

Wishing many more good missions to come.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The International Space Station - Something to Celebrate

Keith Cowing at NASAWatch spends a lot of time exploring what goes wrong at NASA, contractors, etc., but here he takes note of a success, and a big one.
The International Space Station is, many times over, the most complex, expensive thing ever built in space. What Keith points out is that it's not only a technical achievement, but an administrative, policy, and, above all, human achievement.  

The ISS: like nothing else (NASA photo)

He writes, "Where is the one place where a multi-national program has operated - smoothly - as a real partnership - with no real problems between the partners? Answer: the International Space Station."

Nations that don't always like each other have partnered successfully and with minimal problems. While oddities crop up, like the absurd Russian claim of NASA sabotage, the crews invariably get along and get science done along with gathering knowledge about how to operate and maintain enormously complex structures in space.  People can argue about the tradeoff between the ISS and other needs, in space or on Earth.  The ISS program's cost ($100B+, with the + varying enormously depending on what you count) is enormous by any measure.  What can't be argued is that the only way to learn what's needed to assemble and operate huge spacecraft is by doing it.  Smaller-scale experiments and ground simulations, we have learned, did not prepare us for all that's involved with the ISS. From the microbe/mold problems to growing food in space to the amazing achievement of repairing a solar array never designed for spacewalking astronauts to repair, the ISS has taught us something new every day.

NASA's Chris Cassidy prepares a microsatellite deployment system in the Japanese-built Kibo module (photo NASA) 

To return to Keith's point, those lessons extend beyond the hardware.  On Earth, the U.S. is furnishing weapons to Ukraine to defend itself from Russian-backed separatist attacks.  On the ISS? People are saying "Good morning" in three or four languages and sharing pudding snacks while they prepare for a future in space.  The original space station program, a U.S.-led North American-Japanese-European affair, was expanded with the addition of former enemy Russia after the Cold War ended. There wre political and policy reasons, but it gave us all something in common, too. Decades after the USSR rejected President Kennedy's offer of a joint lunar program, here are astronauts from Iowa and Moscow looking together down at the Earth and out to the stars. 
Obviously these people are carefully (if not infallibly) screened and prepared, and they have much in common before they ever launch.  But it all works. If was can cooperate n the ISS, maybe there's a lesson for Spaceship Earth.  

Monday, May 11, 2020

In Bearable News...

I love bears. They're adaptable, smart, and really magnificent-looking.  Indeed, bears have the largest and most complex brains of any large land mammal relative to their size, and their intelligence, while hard to test, probably overlaps that of the higher primates. Aa bear in California learned how to bounce on the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle and pop the doors open.   
And they're big.

A polar bear weighing a metric ton (2,200 pounds) is on record from Alaska, the biggest brown bears may hit 1,500 lbs, and 800-lb black bears are known. All of these are outliers, of course, but darned impressive nonetheless. 
Bears in captivity may get even bigger if they are overfed or lack enough exercise. Take Samson, for example. Samson was a bear trapped alive by John "Grizzly" Adams and hauled to antebellum New York to be exhibited.  He was a sensation.  He was the biggest bear Adams had ever seen in many years of hunting grizzlies, and when put on a hay scale he weighed 1,503 lbs.  (It's possible he had gained some "cage fat" by this point, but Adams' description of him as a "moving mountain" seems justified.)  Here in my hometown of Colorado Springs, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo reported in 1955 the death of a male Kodiak weighing 757kg (1,669 pounds)!    

Earlier Post: More on Big Bears

Samson. Painting by Charles  Nahl, 1855) this was the model for California's state flag. It is reported, although not certain, this paitning was the model for the California state flag another version is that a bear named Monarch deserves the honor.

Anyway,  I hadn't written about bears in a while, so I thought I'd just dip a toe into recent and ongoing bear items. 

Here in North America, we have black bears (Ursus americanus, which can be many colors including cinnamon and white), brown bears (Ursus arctos, with the grizzly and Kodiak bears being the local subspecies), and the totally awesome polar bears of the north.  The polar bear is getting the most concern of late.  Polars are not in danger of extinction - indeed, it's not clear their population is much below its historic highs - but their  preferred range is squeezed as the pack ice is reduced and the occaional polar-grizzly cross has popped up.  Grizzly range has been greatly reduced by hunting and so on - the grizzly on the Califonia state flag is the only one in the state outside of a zoo.  

Here in Colroado, the last grizzlies were supposed to be gone in the 1950s, but a bowhunter killed one that attacked him in 1979, and this was a sow who had had cubs. A few other good modern sightings are on record.  I wrote a paper once suggesting a few lingered in the San Juan mountains, although probably not a viable population. 

And, of course, I once talked (brilliantly, I'm sure) about the largest brown bears in this little episode of must-see TV.  MonsterQuest: Giant Bears. Alas, I can't find a still image of myself from it.

Chubby North Carolina bear compared to housebound humans... 

This black bear looks like a balloon. A sceintist reports the 700-pound teddy found cornfields where it just ate, lay around, ate, went off to sleep, came back, and ate some more. Jokers compare it to people trapped by the pandemic with nothing to do but snack.  
North Carolina's "chonk bear" (USFWS photo)

There's always controversy on bear conservation, for a number of reasons. One is that protecting bears means a lot of land: bears in North America are the biggest predators in every habitat, and they need space. Black bears, the males anyway, often wander 15 miles or so in pursuit of fodder and females, and sometimes go much further if the range is crowded or food is sparse. A male grizzly needs a range of 300-500 square miles, although such an area can support numerous bears. A grizz may defend a smaller home patch of ground, but won't try to police the whole range. 

With protected areas like Yellowstone, the issue arises of what to do with park bears that go hunting outside the park. 


Yellowstone like any area, has a carrying capacity, although there is often furious debate over what that number is and how to keep the population healthy. Advocates like those served by the Grizzly Times fear culling bears or delisting populations is a dangerous step when the animal has already been extirpated from much of its range.  It gets more complicated because governments generally agree that problem bears, like repeat predators of livestock, can be killed, but of course the bears don't know the rules. And how far should the rules extend? This story out of Montana last month is an example of what bear advocates would call a borderline case at best. Bears don't view humans as their usual prey, but can be dangerous: this attack in Oregon occurred just this week, and here's a recent case from Alaska.


The brown bear is a Threatened species in the Lower 48, while black bears, depending on locations/population/subspecies, may be protected or subject to hunting. That's another controversy altogether, with hunters arguing it's a smart, cheap way to control populations while supporting guiding and other occupations,  and opponents arguing on conservation as well as moral grounds.    (Brown bears may be hunted in limited numbers in Alaska.) The polar bear protected within the United States. 

Here's the plan for the polars. Threats include poaching, habitat loss, climate change, and pollution, although just to remind us we CAN get good things done, here's a report of how accumulated toxins in polar bears are decreasing after a long rise. 

Polar bear, Hornsund, Greenland

Ursus maritimus (USFWS)

That's it for a roundup of bear stuff.   No big new insights or conclusions, but bears are fascinating enough to just read about and think about every now and then. 

A few bear references:
Day, David. 1990. The Doomsday Book of Animals. New York: Viking Press.
Domico, Terry. 1988. Bears of the World. New York: Facts on File.
Galbreath, Gary, et. al. 2008. "An Apparent Hybrid Bear From Cambodia." Ursus 19:85-86
Goodwin, George. 1946. "Inopinatus the Unexpected," Natural History, November.
Halfpenny, James. 1996. “Tracking the Great Bear: Mystery Bears,”  Bears, Spring.
Montgomery, Sy.  2003.  Search for the Golden Moon Bear.  New York: Simon and Schuster.
Wood, Gerald L. 1983. The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats.  Sterling Publishing Co.
Woolford, Riley. 2007. "White Black Bears and Blond Grizzlies: Alaska Bears Wear Coats of Many Colors," Alaska Fish & Wildlife News, September.  
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