26 Jan 2009
This week we remember two tragic events in spaceflight, the fire onboard Apollo 1 and the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Many of us remember that awful day in 1986 - Monday, January 28 - when the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff. Millions were watching the liftoff because of all the attention given to the “first teacher in space,” Christa McAuliffe.
All seven members aboard were killed and most likely did not die until they hit the Atlantic at over 200 miles per hour. One of the most tragic memories of that sad day was not just the actual disintegration of the shuttle itself, but watching Christa McAuliffe’s parents on national television realize that they were witnessing the death of their daughter.
You may recall it was human error that lead to their deaths. A leaky “O-ring” seal on the solid rocket booster lit into the giant external tank full of oxygen and hydrogen. Seventy-three seconds into liftoff the breach was made, the tanks were torn apart, and the rest is history.
That event was highly publicized, but few Americans know of the fate of Apollo 1 back on Friday, January 27, 1967.
Back then, the cold war was in full swing and so was our determination to “beat the Russians” in getting to the Moon. By 1966 we were readying our Apollo missions, the actual spaceflights that would take us all the way out to the Moon, land us there, and take us back. It was quite the amazingly ambitious endeavor.
The first Apollo missions were never meant to take us there; they were intended to work out the bugs of liftoff and communications and all the other annoying little things that first needed to be perfected.
Alas, the very first Apollo met with tragedy, and not in flight, but on the ground. The Command Module, packed with the three astronauts, Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee, was on the pad for nothing more than testing and training. Their compartment was pumped full of pure oxygen under higher than normal pressures, when a spark from somewhere ignited the cabin. The three astronauts were violently killed in the flash fire.
It was a preventable accident with many problems - many of them glaring - which were corrected for future Apollo missions.
Such is the nature of exploration. Some will die as pioneers to new places. The challenge is to make human error as small a factor as possible.
Let’s remember them all this week. As the plaque for the Apollo 1 victims reads, “They gave their lives in service to their country in the ongoing exploration of humankind's final frontier. Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived.”
12 Jan 2009
The other night, after midnight, I went out to look at the skies. There above was mighty Orion surrounded on either side by Taurus the Bull and The Big Dog, Canis Major. And moving among the great constellations were some of the whitest clouds I had ever seen. The overall effect was ethereal.
Sadly, what I was looking at was one of the major nemeses of modern astronomy, and I'm not referring to the clouds.
The clouds have always been with us, they are part of the natural order of things and something sky lovers have always had to deal with. No, the latest archenemy of astronomy is not the fact that there are clouds, but that in the middle of a moonless night we can see them, white against a dark background.
It is what illuminates them that astronomers despise so much. The light pouring out from the cities, spoiling our skies, is what has many of us up in arms.
It is a true statement that we need some light at night as a measure of safety. Obviously, headlights help us see where we are driving, and streetlights help give our streets some semblance of security. A lit parking lot makes it easier to find our cars and makes it less tempting for bad people to do bad things. But here are some questions I have for which I have yet to hear good answers.
Do we really need to light up huge auto malls at night after hours? Is it important that everyone within a 50-mile radius of a casino has to see it? Do billboards really have to be lit from the bottom up by spotlights that could light up a passing DC-10? Is it necessary for that one neighbor across the street to have a mercury vapor lamp that literally lights half the block like the midnight sun?
The fact that we see those clouds on moonless nights means that a lot of our precious energy is uselessly bleaching our atmosphere or being jettisoned out into space. What waste!
The extent of light pollution we are seeing is unprecedented in human history. It is estimated that about two-thirds of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way! Our present generation is missing out on the spectacle of the star-studded night sky and becoming that much more desensitized to the beauties of the creation.
Do you think this year that you could help in your own small way by turning off outdoor lights when they are not needed? Can you buy lighting fixtures that only deliver light downwards where it is needed? There are all kinds of other ways to help darken our skies found at the website of the International Dark-Sky Association (www.darksky.org).
Let's reclaim our nighttime skies!