On July 20, 1969 I was 15 years old and sitting in front of the family TV with my little Kodak Brownie Fiesta, and I snapped this shot off the screen…
The TV was a monochrome unit powered by vacuum tubes and had a tuner that picked up VHF channels 2 through 13 and maybe also UHF channels too, although there wasn’t much to see on UHF and on VHF you just had the three major networks and maybe one or two local independent stations. It got its signal with rabbit ear antennas. Cable TV was for the rural folks who lived too far away from the city transmitters to get a good signal. The household telephone (there was only one) was hard wired into the wall and had a rotary dial. The household music player was a German made console unit, also powered by vacuum tubes, that had an AM/FM radio that also picked up four shortwave bands, plus an automatic turntable you could stack up to five records on. It would play record speeds of 16, 33 1/3, 45 and 78 rpm. It was however, not a stereo unit. We wouldn’t get a stereo record player in the house until I was 17 and mom bought me a small portable unit for Christmas. Cameras used photographic film, you wanted to read the news you bought a newspaper, school teachers handed out assignments and tests printed on mimeographs, and if you wanted to listen to music on the go, something small enough to fit in your pocket say, you bought a small transistor radio. These typically only picked up AM radio signals and had a jack for a single earphone to plug into one ear. The Sony Walkman would not appear for another decade. Computers took up entire floors and were programmed with punch cards and paper tape, and the “user” was considered to be the programmer who submitted the job, not the poor schlep who needed the output. I was sitting in front of the TV with a camera on that day because the first mass market home video recorders would not appear until 1975.
My co-workers and I at the Space Telescope Science Institute watch the launch of Atlantis in the main auditorium…
Atlantis went up right on schedule and it was just about a perfect burn to orbit. So good they didn’t need to tweak it a tad immediately after main engine cut-off like they often do. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll be able to do all the work on Hubble they want to this mission. If they can, then the telescope may very well keep on giving us great science about the heavens for the next decade.
Back in the 1950s, William Clayton and Fred Ladd combined several films into one they serialized and syndicated to local TV stations for use on their daytime children’s shows. I was a pre-schooler and the stars in the night sky were fascinating. Mom bought me a little “Golden Nature Guide” book on stars…
…which, as you can see, I’ve kept all these years. That book I think, was my first step into the world of learning, and what it taught me about the heavens above was a revelation. The sky above was beautiful, mysterious, and yet understandable. My world, which until then compassed only the backyard of the apartment complex we lived in, and a small shopping plaza just down the street, suddenly became huge.
There were other kid’s space shows on TV back then, but The Space Explorers stuck in my imagination…largely for the beautiful imagery and background music Clayton and Ladd chose. One of the films they used was a Czech Russian educational film titled, Universe, which lent The Space Explorers some absolutely riveting (to my pre-school eyes) artwork of the stars, planets and moons. I have tried for years to get a copy of the whole, thing, but I suspect all the various copyrights to all the pieces Clayton and Ladd used to make The Space Explorers are just too hard to get all in a row and still make it worthwhile to put on DVD. But I am stumbling across more and more of the parts on YouTube now, and what’s impressive to me at age 55, is how detailed my memory of that cartoon serial was, compared with other things I watched from that period in my life.
In my scrap books are some of my earliest sketches and drawings and that little art deco spaceship is there among them. I tried for years to find a model of it somewhere. Finally, a small enthusiast shop, Fantastic Plastic, has come out with a model you can build. If this is the sort of thing that strikes your fancy, then you might want to explore their online catalog, as it is full of all sorts of spacecraft, well known and obscure, from science-fiction films past and present. I ordered two…one for practice since I haven’t built a model anything in years. For most of the 1980s I worked as a freelance architectural model maker and built custom models of new buildings and parks from scratch. So I’m not entirely without some skills in that regard. But by now they’re probably very rusty. The kits came in the mail last week and unpacking them, and examining the pieces, I could feel the seven year old boy inside of me get all wide-eyed and excited again.
I won’t paint them quite like I see in the shots on the Fantastic Plastic page, but it’ll be close. I want to try for an effect that’s more like smooth aluminum metal then silver paint. That’s what’s going to take some time investigating and practicing and why I bought two kits instead of just one. And the windows should look like they’re being illuminated from within, not dark. But as I can’t install lights in this thing that’ll be a trick to accomplish with paint. But with the right touch of the brush I think I can do it. Eventually one is going down in the art room, and the other in my office at Space Telescope. I’ll post some shots of the finished work here.
One more thing: As I was composing this post, I decided I wanted to include a scan of that old book on stars mom gave me back in my pre-school days, because it was one of those small but important things, a touchstone, for the direction my life would eventually take. I’ve said before that I was blessed in a way, to have entered school shortly after Sputnik scared the hell out of The U.S., because suddenly there was an emphasis on getting America’s youth a good science education. When I went to scan the book, I took another look at the back cover. Here it is…
Each guide has been written by an outstanding authority on science education… A lot of the information in that book, printed in 1956, is dated now. But the spirit is even more relevant now after decades of republican party and religious right assaults on science, reason and knowledge, then it was even at the height of the cold war. Science is not a dry collection of facts on display in a museum or a textbook. Science is a way of knowledge, where knowledge is understood to be something you actively discover, not something you passively receive. A science textbook is not a bible. It is not a political diatribe. It Wants to be challenged. You are Supposed to have questions when you finish it. And you are supposed to be unafraid to ask them.
My little golden book of stars. A relic of the cold war. It was a time in America of stifling, absolutely stifling conformity. But for a moment, for one brief and shining moment, the nation understood clearly, in the shadow of a nuclear, not biblical Armageddon, that the way you fight totalitarianism is by teaching your young to how to think for themselves, and that the pursuit of knowledge is a great adventure.
One of the absolute best spiffs in the world, working for Space Telescope, is the monthly "popular lecture" series. They’ve had them pretty much ever since I started working there. Once a month one of the scientists at the Institute, or someone affiliated in some way with the work we do, gives a lecture targeted to a general audience, on the work they’re doing. The lectures are open to the public and all are welcome to sit in and listen, and ask questions afterward.
It’s really great getting a chance to hear the people doing this work speak for themselves, and hear firsthand the latest thinking about what makes our universe tick. Tonight’s lecture was about the very first stars to appear after the big bang and it really made me realize just how very…different…the early universe was.
It’s counter-intuitive that generating stars is hard when all you have are the vast tendrils of gaseous hydrogen in the early universe to work with. But that was the problem facing the theorists. As it turns out, getting nearly pure hydrogen gas to collapse enough to form a star isn’t easy. It doesn’t really want to. It will collapse, but then as it does it heats up slightly and wants to expand again. So it achieves a stability well below the threshold for generating a star. To go the rest of the way, the gas needs to cool by radiating off some of its heat, and that’s something it turns out hydrogen isn’t good at.
But molecular hydrogen is…and there’s the key ingredient. The random motion in a hydrogen gas structure will eventually form molecules and those will radiate heat much more easily. That will cool the structure down enough that it can collapse some more. Then it becomes a question of how big it got…and here is where the early universe shows its strangeness.
Remember…these are the first stars. They can’t be formed from the shock waves of other stars dying or coming to life, because there are no other stars yet. And all they have to work with is hydrogen gas. There are no metals yet, no elements heavier then helium, because those are formed in stars and there aren’t any stars yet. The presence of metals in the interstellar medium actually makes it easier to form stars. The way star formation works now, just doesn’t work back then. The hydrogen structure (gas cloud…whatever…) has to collapse on its own, due to its own random motion and gravity, with no assistance from any other nearby objects, because there are no other nearby objects yet. And it has to be massive…really massive…for its collapse to break through the threshold where the heat from its own collapse simply pushes it back apart again and it never forms a star. I mean…Really Massive. About one-hundred times the mass of our sun massive. Far more massive then the most massive stars that form in the cosmos as it is now. Otherwise, it simply achieves stability as a dense cloud of hydrogen gas.
But if the structure got that big when it started collapsing, and was able to keep on collapsing over time as it shrank and heated up, radiated some heat off a bit and collapsed some more, heated up again, cooled down some more, and so on…at some point it hits a threshold where the collapse suddenly runs away and then the only thing that stops it is when the gas gets so dense and hot nuclear fusion starts happening and the gravitational collapse is pushed back by that. Then what you end up with is…a star about a hundred times the mass of our sun.
Those stars are Strange. They are fantastically brilliant, live very very short lives, and are massive enough to produce carbon, and then use their own carbon to produce other metals up to iron. Some of them, in death, may have formed the massive black holes that lit the earliest quasars.
But they didn’t form galaxies. The galaxies, by the time they began to form, already existed in a cosmic medium that had been seeded by metals from the first stars. In that medium star formation was easier, resulting in much smaller, more longer lived stars.
No first stars have been observed yet. They would be too faint, and too red shifted for the instruments we currently have. The next generation space telescope (the James Webb Space Telescope) may be able to observe the first galaxies. But observing a first generation star would be possible only in its death supernova, and then only by lucky chance. But now I know better why the next generation space telescope is so focused on infrared astronomy and not visible light astronomy. They need that to see the early universe…the first galaxies…and, maybe, the first stars. All of that stuff is red shifted away from the visible light now, because of the expansion of the universe since then.
I love this job. Other jobs I’ve had the upper management has been something out of Dilbert. It’s scary how true to life Dilbert is sometimes. This one I get to hear the top floors talk about how they’re gathering light from near the beginning of time and trying to figure out what it’s telling us about the universe we live in. And I get to hear about it before it goes into the textbooks.
This is a shot of the Mars Phoenix Lander descending to the surface of Mars. It was taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as it passed overhead. In the shot, Phoenix is hanging from its descent parachute.
It was the time of Sputnik, the middle of the cold war, and the Soviets were ahead of us in the space race. It was the time before Telstar, in a day when most newsrooms had mechanical teletype machines, and if you wanted the news from overseas quickly, you tuned in via shortwave radio. You could still buy artist renditions of the planet Mars, showing its many canals. Saturn only had seven rings back then, Pluto was still a planet, and the best images of our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, were breathtakingly beautiful, but still a bit fuzzy. There were no black holes, no neutron stars, the term “quasar” had not yet been coined. The best telescope in the world was the amazing 200-inch Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar.
I was six years old, going on seven, and the stars entranced me. And sitting in front of our black and white TV, one odd little cartoon series utterly captured my imagination. It was called The Space Explorers, and you only saw it in serialized form on the morning kid TV shows. While I was growing up in the Washington D.C. suburbs, I watched every episode of it raptly on the Ranger Hal show, whenever they showed it.
I say it was “odd” because it wasn’t entirely animation as I was used to it back then…or even now. There was instead, traditional animation sandwiched between special effect photography of the most beautiful art deco rocketship I’d ever seen, then or since. And interspersed with that, the most thrilling space art you’d ever want to see, set to a recurring bit of very evocative, very beautiful space music. For years I searched in vain for a copy of that music. To this day I hear it whenever I look up at the stars.
The plot was simple. Commander Perry, space explorer, is flying the first rocketship to Mars, the Polaris I, when suddenly there is a malfunction and the rocketship goes off course. His last radio transmission indicates he is about to crash land on one of Mars’ moons. But before he can say which one, the transmission is abruptly cut off. A rescue mission is quickly organized, and the designer of the rocket, Professor Nordheim is joined by navigator “Smitty” on the sister ship of the one Commander Perry was flying, the Polaris II. Unbeknownst to them, Perry’s young son Jimmy has stowed away on the Polaris II. He’s discovered only after the rocketship takes off.
In the episodes that followed, Jim Perry learned about the planets of the solar system, as they were known at the time. Each episode showcased some aspect of the solar system that Jimmy finds puzzling, and which Professor Nordheim patiently explains to him. The animation was, as I said, interspersed with some of the most breathtaking space art you ever saw, then or now, of the various planets, set among dazzling starry backgrounds. I couldn’t take my eyes away, even though all I had at the time to watch it on was a black and white TV set.
In later years, I thought the creators of the cartoon had been creatively brilliant to mix traditional animation with model photography and that stunning space artwork. What I later discovered was that the cartoon had different visual styles, because it had been sewn together from three different films by William Cayton and Fred Ladd for Radio & Television Packagers, Inc. Fred Ladd would later bring Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and Sailor Moon to the U.S. They did a fantastic job, but the copyright issues of the various individual films that make up The Space Explorers, is probably why we don’t have the DVD today. The traditionally animated cartoon hailed from eastern Europe and was originally less then a half hour long. The model photography came from fragments of a German Kulturfilme produced during WWII, titled Weltraumschiff 1 startet (Spaceship 1 Launches), and the stunning space art of the various planets and stars came from a Czech educational film titled, Universe.
It all seems very dated now…and yet stumbling across clips from it, as I did just a few moments ago (which is why I’m blogging this now), can still evoke that sense of childhood awe in me. One thing I don’t like about space travel in TV and the movies these days, is that they make it all seem so routine, and in the process, make space seem like a small world after all. Nowadays when I want to experience that sense I had when I was a kid, of the vastness of space, I have to retreat to my collection of Hubble pictures…or drive to some lonely spot in the southwestern desert at night, and look up.
Here’s a clip…from a time when the universe was still vast, and a voyage to Mars was still an adventure.
[Update...] Here’s a “trailor” for the series, made from various stills and short clips on The Space Explorers appreciation site. Yes…that’s a steering wheel the good professor is using to pilot his spaceship with. Like I said…this was all done in a time before the general public had any real understanding of how space travel would work. When I was a kid, I used to hear folks argue that rockets wouldn’t even work in space, because in a vacuum they’d have nothing to push against. It was a while before Newton’s Third Law sank in generally…
But I was only seven…and the technical details didn’t matter. I’d hardly have understood them anyway. What mattered was how amazing it all seemed…and how vast and beautiful space was…
Nothing much to say. You may have already noticed the Twitter box I’ve installed at the top of the right sidebar (when it’s working…right now it apparently isn’t because Twitter is doing some sort of upgrade…). Other then twittering I’m not much in a talkative mood right now. Just de-stressing with my brother here in Oceano…wishing I could live here all year long.
It’s the end of July and you need a light jacket in the mornings here. It stays cool, but not cold, all year long here. Mornings here by the Pacific coast everything’s covered in dew. Most mornings there is a light fog. By noon the fog is gone most days and it’s blue sky and sunshine and mild temperatures. That’s the climate here. All year long.
Cute guys here too. Way too good looking for my own good. Too bad there’s no IT work here for me. But if there was IT work around anywhere near Oceano or Pismo or Arroyo Grande then the price of housing here would be insane, as opposed to merely delusional.
Every day I go to work I am reminded of how lucky I am to be a part of the human exploration of space. Some days more then most. The crew of the SM4 servicing mission to Hubble came to the Institute today and after conferring with the astronomers, gave the staff a little talk in the main auditorium. It’s the forth time I’ve had the experience of listening to them firsthand and it always leaves me ecstatic. How many times in a lifetime do you get to be a part of something like this? I am so lucky, so fortunate.
Never in my wildest dreams when I was a little space cadet did I ever think seriously I’d ever get to be a part of the space effort. Never. I grew up with little expectations beyond maybe having a series of jobs shuffling boxes from one end of a warehouse to another. There was no money for college…some in mom’s side of the family never thought I’d amount to anything at all. I remember one jerk in high school who told me without a doubt I’d end up a truck driver like my dad. As if there’s anything wrong with being a truck driver…but he was from the well-to-do side of the tracks. Never mind that I have a house of my own now, a nice car, and an income better then my wildest dreams. The other day at one of our happy hours, my D.C. friends got started talking about the Hubble images, and one mentioned that the Deep Field was God for him. I know the feeling. To think that now I’m part of a team that gathers light from near the beginning of time and brings it to the world for people to see is just amazing. I’m playing a small, very small, part in writing a few new lines in the book of human knowledge. Seriously, what more could I ask of life?
Well…a boyfriend of course…but I guess you can’t have it all…
I brought my best 35mm film cameras and lenses to work today, and when the time for the assembly came I was dressed up in full photographer drag: two Canon F1 bodies hanging around my neck and one of my new gadget bags…a nice Tamrac shaped a bit like a teardrop so it hangs better around your body then the old bulky one I used to carry around in high school. I had my best big glass lenses with me: the 50mm f1.2, the 24mm f.14, the 80mm f1.8 and the 135mm f2. I could take better available light shots with those inside the auditorium then with the 17-70mm f5.6 zoom on my EOS 30D. I hate using flash, especially in a crowd. It distracts people, and calls attention to yourself. I want to be invisible when I’m taking pictures. But good available light lenses for the EOS cameras are too damn expensive, and when a digital image detector starts getting noisy, which they will if you have to kick up the sensitivity to take pictures in low light situations, it’s really, really ugly. I tried that when Senator Mikulski came to the Institute after the SM4 mission was given the final go-ahead, and the digital noise in the resulting images was just awful. So this time I came with the film cameras, which, yes, are a bit more clumsy to use then the EOS and its quick auto focusing zoom. But I grew up on those cameras and fixed focal length lenses, and I’m used to working with them now, second nature.
Some staff had brought their kids into work to see the astronauts and their questions were just delightful. One kid asked what happens when they’re suited up for a space walk and they have to go to the bathroom. Another asked how they deal with getting itchy. The astronauts loved taking their questions, and they treated all of them seriously. When I was that age I think I would have just been awed into silence.
After the assembly we all gathered outside the front of the Institute for the traditional group photo with the astronauts. I wandered around the front of the crowd taking pictures while everyone was getting ready, and Matt Mountain, the director of the Institute, must have briefly mistaken me for the official photographer in my camera drag because he asked me where I wanted the astronauts to be. Embarrassed, I told him I was just a staff member. I was far from the only one there with cameras of course, but I guess I still have this air about me when I’m busy with my cameras looking for shots. And I admit that sometimes I make use of that when I want to get a shot. Once upon a time I did it professionally, and thought that one day it would be my living. I can still get myself into that mindset with very little effort.
Later as the crowd was gathering back inside I managed to get a few more casual shots of the astronauts mingling with the staff and their kids, below the big model of Hubble in the main lobby. I was switching lenses between the cameras and my clumsy middle aged fingers fumbled my good 135mm f2 lens and dropped it hard on the tile floor. I was sure I’d be picking up pieces of lens glass, but there was only a small dent on the filter ring after all. So I guess I won’t be mounting any filters on that lens now, but thankfully the glass and the mechanism were undamaged. Those old Canon FD lenses, like the cameras themselves, were made to take a beating that the new stuff never could. Had that been one of the EOS lenses it would surely have been ruined.
I don’t know yet if they’ll do it this time too, but on previous servicing missions the staff was allowed to sign a small poster the astronauts would take into space. So my signature has been into space a couple times. Not quite anything like actually having an instrument I made go up, or for that matter myself. But I can say at the end of my life that a piece of me has been in space. But more then that, I can say I’ve been part of a team that’s written a few new lines into the book of human knowledge. I never in my wildest dreams ever thought I’d have this chance in life, to be a part of space. When I was a kid, I sat with my little Kodak Brownie Fiesta camera in front of the TV set while Neil Armstrong made the first human footprint on the moon, and snapped off a couple shots. I’d experimented a few weeks before with different films and lighting, so I knew what would work. Remember back then home VCRs were still years in the future. I didn’t quite get the framing right…the Brownie wasn’t exactly an SLR after all…but it was good enough…
When they offered me the job at Space Telescope some years ago, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I still feel that way.
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