Thursday, August 28, 2003

Manned spaceflight at what price?

Hola Kari:

Hope the weather clears up and cools down for you soon!

Though I'm a few years older then you, I can't say I actually "remember" Apollo 11 or Apollo 13. It is one of the phenomena of living in the television era that I'm not certain whether I saw those pictures as it happened or in a documentry later. Given my age during those events, I may well have seen the coverage but I probably don't actually remember it.

I got up before sunrise West Coast time to see the first shuttle launches and I completely relate to your anticipation of various unmanned missions to the planets you mention in your last posting. That post provides a number of possible discussion threads and I'm sitting here thinking which one shall I use to provoke some clamor.

In light of the recently released report on the Columbia accident (Yahoo news special coverage), the question has to be asked: how much life and treasure is manned space flight worth?

You are now President Kari (we will ignore the fact that Constitutionally you are still too young to be President) and the budget team and the science advisor is in your office. The question on the table: shall we continue manned space flight? What should it look like if we do?

Be well,

Just a little window, please...

Hi-De-Ho Rene,

Wouldn't you know it: After a prolonged summer drought that has featured the most parched July in Kansas City history and innumerable August days with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, the clouds have finally come in to the rescue. But why must they come when Mars is in the sky, just begging to be ogled? Here's hoping they pour down some rain and scoot on out of here -- and soon.

Mars Mania has me thinking back on all the other astronomical incidents that have captured our national attention in my lifetime. I was born after the Apollo 11 mission and the Apollo 13 accident, so other than the excitement of the first shuttle launch and the agony of the Challenger disaster, my most vivid memories are not of manned space flight.

Instead, I think of the thrill of anticipation as we waited for pieces of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 to smash into Jupiter; of the jumpy, sporadic images of the surface of Mars sent back through space by the charmingly Erector-setlike Mars Rover; and, to a lesser extent, of the brilliance of Comet Hale-Bopp and the Leonid meteor showers.

Events like this unite us, if only for a few moments. Perhaps it's because there's not much controversy swirling around comets and planet fly-bys. Nobody, except perhaps a handful of astrophysicists, could find anything to argue about. All we have left is wonder and appreciation. Some see the wonder of design, while others see the wonder of chance, but the expanse of the universe baffles us all.

As for telescopes, my parents have one at their home, which is in one of the darkest dark-sky pockets in Kansas. The night sky there looks so much more three-dimensional than around even the smallest towns. Dad is a science teacher, so when we kids were younger we'd have access to the school's pricier telescope. It spoiled me; I don't get too excited about smaller telescopes. Perhaps that's why I've put all my eggs in the Powell Observatory basket.

Clouds, clouds, go away....Come again some other day!


Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Mars Mania LA Edition

Greetings Kari (and take me to your leader!):

Saw this news item on Yahoo! News. And in there, they have a wonderful picture of mars.

The view I had on Tuesday night was nothing like that!

Please be assured I’m not a flack for Costco or Celestron but I have to tell the story of telescope buying in LA. My buddy Harold (see comment to your post from yesterday) went to Costo to buy this Celestron telescope for $159 with rebate. After three stores, he got one telescope. My brother and his wife decided it was time to get one for their two kids and the kid in them and the Costco near them was sold out and gave them a rain check.

Celestron showed up at the Griffith with sales reps and telescopes for the public to use so you got to give credit to the Celestron marketing department.

Anyway, last night, we set up the scope and took a look and it was just great!

If you saw the Mars picture above, did you notice the ice cap? The image we saw was quite a bit smaller and a lot less detail. Think whitish disk the size of a large pinhole. We could just make out a slightly brighter spot on the little disk under 100 x and figured that must be the ice cap!!

The local news coverage showed a helicopter shot of the freeways near the Griffith observatory and it was a parking lot. Also, the reporters are finding retailers have seen their inventory of telescopes disappear. Stimulate the economy!

So is there a telescope in your place? Was there one in your childhood home in the dark skies of Western Kansas? Is there one in your future? Stimulate the economy!


UPDATE: I heard on the radio an interview with Dr. Ed Krupp, director of the Griffith. He said the crowd estimates for Tuesday night was 10,000!!!

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Joy of Discovery

Hi-De-Ho Rene,

I thought it was just a slow news week when I saw the Sunday Kansas City Star. A story about the Mars approach was on the front page, above the fold. Apparently, given what you write, Mars Mania is not a local phenomenon.

You know how much I dig astronomy. Descriptive Astronomy, a 300-level physics class, was my favorite college course, and I missed the dark Kansas skies so much while I lived on the east coast that tug of the stars played a small but integral role in my decision to return home.

Powell Observatory, built in Louisburg, Kansas, by the Astronomical Society of Kansas City, will begin having public viewings tomorrow night. I'll head down there one night this week and give you a report about the crowds and the view.

It was in Louisburg back in my reporting days that I encountered the most interesting astronomer I've ever met. David Levy, the amateur astronomer extraordinaire, author, and co-discoverer of the Jupiter-crashing comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, was not famous yet outside astronomy buff circles. His enthusiasm and resolve were fascinating, and it's not surprising that he became a media darling once those pieces of SL-9 slammed into Jupiter on live television.

It seems to me that science needs more David Levys -- ambassadors who can communicate the joy of discovery as a societal benefit. As a scientist yourself, do you agree?


Saturday, August 23, 2003

Awe and Wonder

Dear Kari,

Am looking forward to sharing this blog with you. I know you to be a thoughtful woman in both senses of the word: an intellectually curious person and a kind individual. This joint project should be lots of fun and enlightening and challenging.

I'm writing having just visited the Griffith Observatory Satellite facility. Right now, the famed facility seen in many a movie and television show is under renovation.

During the month of August, The Griffith is hosting Saturday night star parties to educate and enthrall the public as we approach the Mars Opposition, the closest approach of the red planet in 60,000 years.

As I pulled into the parking lot, it was packed! There were easily five hundred people if not more. The local astronomy clubs had their members bring their telescopes for the public to use. Some were home made Dobsonian reflectors while others were various types bought from mass market vendors.

The line for the biggest scopes were over 45 minutes. I opted to view Mars with some of the smaller ones as I didn't want to wait so long!

In the end, to be honest, the views are nowhere as detailed as images on the television news, magazines or web pages devoted to this event. Yet, here I was joining many others to see this event with our own eyes. There is something about seeing it yourself.

I remember as a child standing outside our backyard in the cold night pointing a very rickety small refractor telescope at the sky to see Mars, Jupiter (and its four moons) and the rings of Saturn. Even then far better images could be seen in encyclopedias but there was an awe and wonder within me in seeing it for myself. I suppose this experience is part of why I became a scientist.

How is Mars Mania in Kansas City?