Astronaut Training

 

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If I devote just one hour a week to running, I can stay in good shape. I do this by running four times a week on my local track, two miles per outing, and timing myself. In my Gemini days I could make two miles in thirteen minutes, but my time has gradually crept up, and today I feel as if I am going to cough up a lung if I do it in fourteen. This pace can be examined from an Olympic or a geriatric point of view, and is either tortoise-like or spectacularly fast. Personally, I think it’s pretty goddamned swift …

– Michael Collins, Command Module Pilot, Apollo 11

 

I had all but stopped running last year, but when I read the above in February, I started again.

What followed was the brutally unforgiving process of making it up to one mile, then two, and then – more or less – the above routine. I was humbled. Two years before I’d run a half-marathon.

Granted, at some point the digital arrangement on my scale would have educed a similar resumption. I like to think, though, that it’s due to the power of literature to change the reader.

The thing is, I’ve just read this, and it too is powerful:

I believe that the good Lord gave us a finite number of heartbeats and I’m damned if I’m going to use up mine running up and down a street.

– Neil Armstrong, Commander, Apollo 11

 

Master and Command Module Pilot

 

 

Michael Collins, who went to the moon with Neil Armstrong, is also a first-rate prose stylist with a natural feel for detail and a light touch for humor; his book sounds a lot like what you would expect if E.B. White had qualified as an astronaut and flown to the moon.

 – Margaret Lazarus Dean, Leaving Orbit

 

I’m only halfway through Collins’ memoir Carrying the Fire, but I’m here to tell you he writes better than lots of people for whom the pen is the day job.

E.g. on being the new guy thusly assigned the unwanted task of testing devices to slow jets upon landing:

Arriving at the appointed spot, a deserted runway ending at the lake bed’s edge, the new test pilot is quickly strapped into the oldest, most dilapidated jet he has ever seen, a model long since abandoned by even the South American air forces. Peering down through cobwebs and birds’ nests, he is shown the one and only shiny new gauge in the cockpit – the airspeed indicator, all-important in delivering a precise reading of the amount of kinetic energy (one half the mass times velocity squared) the engineer demands for a given test run. The engineer has consulted his slide rule, charts, computer, and astrologer, and screams up to the cockpit over the whine of the engine, which the sweating pilot has finally managed to start with laconic advice from a disgusted mechanic who obviously feels personally insulted by having been sent this imbecile. “Say… er… er… is it Collins? O.K., Collins, we need eight-two knots on this one, no faster please, Collins.” They need the name to put on the accident form.

 

Speaking of laconic, here’s what he has to say about the mortality rate of pilots during training (NB his prior stateside training for combat in Korea, not to be a test pilot):

Continue reading “Master and Command Module Pilot”

Starstruck

 

Occasionally I will pause my lessons to remind students that the cosmos is not easy to comprehend.

The other day I had kids take out sheets of loose leaf and turn them sideways. I instructed them to draw a (small) Sun at one end, and, a thumb-width away, a (smaller) Earth. Then I asked them to estimate where the nearest star lay in relation.

I offered a candy bar as a prize for the most accurate estimation.

 

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I collected the sheets and, laughing between mouthfuls of chocolate, told the students they’d need paper that extends from their desks to the Cambridgeside Galleria.

Yea, for as they shall know our galaxy’s enormity, so too shall they rue my cheap trickery!

Then I showed them this short video, about going to the desert to construct a properly scaled map of the Solar System. The guys who did this really are ingenious.

 

 

 

I Can’t Explain

 

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Because this record did not actually promise any sales, there was little incentive for any corporate entity, particularly a recording company, to accelerate the approval process. I asked Jon Lomberg if there was anything missing from the Voyager record for this kind of reason. “The Beatles,” he responded instantly. All four members of the band wanted “Here Comes the Sun” included – but their publisher wouldn’t grant the rights.

-Jim Bell, The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission

 

I watched some of the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary and what’s been indelible is the Marine saying, regarding a most unhappy matter, that he did not know how to explain it so that it made sense.

That sentiment less unhappily came to mind reading the above excerpt. Imagine trying to explain to the Heptapods or Kanamits such a situation. On the bright side, said situation does illuminate various aspects of human ingenuity.

Personally, my incomprehension regards the quadrofabs. I’d have been all “Uh, guys… You know you have a song called ‘Across the Universe,’ right?”

 

PS “Across the Universe” eventually did go interstellar.

 

Horizontal Bopp

 

Up until last week, had you mentioned New Horizons, I’d have figured you were talking about day care or something.

Turns out it’s an interplanetary space probe launched ten years ago. I really need to quit skipping my NASA briefings.

 

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This short New York Times documentary on its mission is both fascinating and cheering.

Plus, it clears things up if you’re wondering whose are the first human remains to leave the solar system, or how to qualify as a planet.