Comets visit the inner Solar System, and leave without saying goodbye. Maybe they leave a trail of dust behind, and when the Earth passes through it, we get a pretty light show in the night sky, in the form of a meteor shower. Likewise, asteroids frequently go whizzing by, though they don’t leave us with a pyrotechnic display.
Sometimes these rocky interlopers head straight for Earth. And when they do, the results can be cataclysmic, like when an asteroid struck Earth about 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and 75% of life on Earth. Other times, it’s not quite as cataclysmic, but still devastating, like in about 2350 BC, when debris from a disintegrating comet may have caused the collapse of an ancient empire.
But regardless of the severity of any of these individual events, the conclusion is crystal clear: Earth’s history is intertwined with the coming and going of space rocks. The evidence is all around us, sort of.
Our Sun is the source of life on Earth. Its calm glow across billions of years has allowed life to evolve and flourish on our world. This does not mean our Sun doesn’t have an active side. We have observed massive solar flares, such as the 1859 Carrington event, which produced northern lights as far south as the Caribbean, and drove electrical currents in telegraph lines. If such a flare occurred in Earth’s direction today, it would devastate our electrical infrastructure. But fortunately for us, the Sun is mostly calm. Unusually calm when compared to other stars.
The first film of a total solar eclipse has been restored by specialists at the British Film Institute (BFI) and made available for viewing. The film was taken in North Caroline in 1900 by Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne was a British man who was a magician turned film-maker. He took the film as part of a Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) expedition.
Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth and a legendary figure around the world, has died. Glenn, 95, was the last remaining Mercury astronaut, the first group of US astronauts. He flew on Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962, and later flew on the space shuttle in 1998 at age 77, becoming the oldest astronaut to fly in space. He also spent 24 years as a U.S. Senator from Ohio, and had a run for the presidency.
Glenn will always be remembered as the first American to orbit the Earth during those tentative, challenging, daring days when humans were just beginning to venture beyond the atmosphere that had nurtured them since the species began. – NASA obituary of John Glenn
“With John’s passing, our nation has lost an icon and Michelle and I have lost a friend,” said President Obama said in a statement. Obama added that Glenn’s flight pioneering flight “reminded us that with courage and a spirit of discovery there’s no limit to the heights we can reach together.”
“On behalf of a grateful nation, Godspeed, John Glenn.”
“John spent his life breaking barriers, from defending our freedom as a decorated Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, to setting a transcontinental speed record, to becoming, at age 77, the oldest human to touch the stars,” Obama said. “John always had the right stuff, inspiring generations of scientists, engineers and astronauts who will take us to Mars and beyond — not just to visit, but to stay.”
Glenn, born on July 18, 1921, was described in statement by his family and Trevor Brown, dean of the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, as “humble, funny, and generous.” And “even after leaving public life, he loved to meet with citizens, school children in particular. He thrilled to music and had a weakness for chocolate.”
Glen married his childhood sweetheart, Annie Castor, and studied at Muskingum College in Ohio. Glenn became a Marine Corps fighter and flew 59 combat missions during World War II and 90 in the Korean War.
Glenn attended Test Pilot School at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Md. After graduation, he was project officer on a number of aircraft. In July 1957, he set a transcontinental speed record from Los Angeles to New York — 3 hours and 23 minutes. It was the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speed.
Glenn accumulated nearly 9,000 hours of flying time, about 3,000 of it in jets.
The ‘space race’ began when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. After a series of failures for the US space program, they finally succeeded on February 1, 1958 when Explorer 1 became the first US satellite in space.
But the main goal was to send humans to space.
In 1959, when the newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration searched for the first Americans to fly in space, it focused on military test pilots. Glenn was in the select group – known as the Mercury 7 — who was chosen.
Glenn was assigned to the NASA Space Task Group at Langley, Va., in April 1959. The Space Task Group was moved to Houston and became part of the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center (which is now Johnson Space Center in Houston) in 1962.
While Glenn wasn’t chosen for the first Mercury space flight, his flight is well-remembered for being the first American to orbit Earth. But before any US astronauts could be launched into space, history was made on April 12, 1961 when Russian cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin became the first human in space when he completed his successful orbital flight aboard Vostok I.
Prior to Glenn’s 4-hour, 55-minute flight in Friendship 7, Glenn had served as backup pilot for astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space who flew on May 5, 1961, and to Virgil “Gus” Grissom, who followed Shepard on another suborbital flight on July 21, 1961.
On Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn launched from Cape Canaveral on Friendship 7, circling the earth three times. He became a national hero.
“Roger, liftoff, and the clock is running. We’re under way,” Glenn said after launch. After reaching space he said, “Zero-G and I feel fine. Man, that view is tremendous.”
Glenn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
“The last of America’s first astronauts has left us, but propelled by their example we know that our future here on Earth compels us to keep reaching for the heavens,” Obama said.
Here are some tributes via Tweets for John Glenn:
We are saddened by the loss of Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth. A true American hero. Godspeed, John Glenn. Ad astra. pic.twitter.com/89idi9r1NB
The spread of metallurgy in different civilizations is a keen point of interest for historians and archaeologists. It helps chart the rise and fall of different cultures. There are even names for the different ages corresponding to increasingly sophisticated metallurgical technologies: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.
But sometimes, a piece of evidence surfaces that doesn’t fit our understanding of a civilization.
Probably the most iconic ancient civilization in all of history is ancient Egypt. Its pyramids are instantly recognizable to almost anyone. When King Tutankhamun’s almost intact tomb was discovered in 1922, it was a treasure trove of artifacts. And though the tomb, and King Tut, are most well-known for the golden death mask, it’s another, little-known artifact that has perhaps the most intriguing story: King Tut’s iron dagger.
King Tut’s iron-bladed dagger wasn’t discovered until 1925, three years after the tomb was discovered. It was hidden in the wrappings surrounding Tut’s mummy. It’s mere existence was a puzzle, because King Tut reigned in 1332–1323 BC, 600 years before the Egyptians developed iron smelting technology.
It was long thought, but never proven, that the blade may be made of meteorite iron. In the past, tests have produced inconclusive results. But according to a new study led by Daniela Comelli, of the Polytechnic University of Milan, and published in the Journal of Meteoritics and Planetary Science, there is no doubt that a meteorite was the source of iron for the blade.
The team of scientists behind the study used a technique called x-ray fluorescence spectrometry to determine the chemical composition of the blade. This technique aims x-rays at an artifact, then determines its composition by the spectrum of colors given off. Those results were then compared with 11 other meteorites.
In the dagger’s case, the results indicated Fe plus 10.8 wt% Ni and 0.58 wt% Co. This couldn’t be a coincidence, since iron meteorites are mostly made of Fe (Iron) and Ni (Nickel), with minor quantities of Co (Cobalt), P (Phosphorus), S (Sulphur), and C (Carbon). Iron found in the Earth’s crust has almost no Ni content.
Testing of Egyptian artifacts is a tricky business. Egypt is highly protective of their archaeological resources. This study was possible only because of advances in portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry, which meant the dagger didn’t have to be taken to a lab and could be tested at the Egyptian Museum of Cairo.
Iron objects were rare in Egypt at that time, and were considered more valuable than gold. They were mostly decorative, probably because ancient Egyptians found iron very difficult to work. It requires a very high heat to work with, which was not possible in ancient Egypt.
Even without the ability to heat and work iron, a great deal of craftsmanship went into the blade. The dagger itself had to be hammered into shape, and it features a decorated golden handle and a rounded rock crystal knob. It’s golden sheath is decorated with a jackal’s head and a pattern of feathers and lilies.
Ancient Egyptians probably new what they were working with. They called meteorite iron from the sky in one hieroglyph. Whether they knew with absolute certainty that their iron meteorites came from the sky, and what that might have meant, they did value the iron. As the authors of the study say, “…our study confirms that ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of precious objects.”
The authors go on to say, “Moreover, the high manufacturing quality of Tutankhamun’s dagger blade, in comparison with other simple-shaped meteoritic iron artifacts, suggests a significant mastery of ironworking in Tutankhamun’s time.”
The invention of the rocket changed space science forever. The Universe could only be inspected from the surface of the Earth, with all that atmosphere in the way, until rockets were invented. And as far as the modern age of rocketry goes, it all started 90 years ago with Robert Goddard’s liquid-fuelled rocket.
Goddard was a dreamer. He envisioned rocket-powered spacecraft plying the solar system. Obviously, he passed away before interplanetary travel materialized, but his work on rocketry certainly laid the groundwork for that eventual achievement. The Goddard Space Flight Center is named after him, and it’s doubtful that any engineering or technology student in the world doesn’t know who he is.
Goddard’s first liquid-fuelled rocket was modest by today’s standards, of course. But he had to solve several technical challenges to achieve it, and his ability to solve these challenges led to not only this first flight, but to a total of 34 rocket flights in 15 years, from 1926 to 1941. His rockets reached the altitude of 2.6 km (1.6 miles) and speeds of 885 km/h (550 mph.) He also patented 214 inventions.
Goddard is considered the father of modern rocket science, but he is actually one of three men who are considered the main contributors to modern rocketry. Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1858-1935) and German Hermann Oberth (1894-1989) are the other founding fathers of modern rocketry.
Goddard didn’t invent rocketry, of course. The Chinese used rockets as far back as the 13th century, and rockets made appearances throughout history as weapons and fireworks. But Goddard’s success at liquid-fuelled rocketry, and the capabilities that came with it, is when rocketry really got off the ground. (Sorry.)
Nowadays, Goddard is understood to be a driven and highly-intelligent person, the type of person who is responsible for advancing science and technology. But back in his time, before he had successful flights, he and his ideas were ridiculed. Check out this criticism from the New York Times, January 13th, 1920:
“That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”
Stinging words, to be sure, but people who know anything about the history of science are familiar with this kind of condemnation of brilliant people, coming from those who lack vision.
Now of course, we have huge rockets. Great thundering beasts that lift enormous loads out of Earth’s gravity well. And we’re so accustomed to rocket launches now that they barely make news. But I always get a kick out of imagining what people like Goddard would feel if they were able to view a launch of one of today’s behemoths, like the Ariane 5. I’m sure his chest would swelled with pride, and he would be amazed at what people have accomplished.
But his vindication wouldn’t just come from the huge leaps we’ve made in rocket technology, and the huge rockets we now routinely launch. It would also come from this retraction, delivered decades too late but with class, by the New York Times, on July 17 1969, the day after Apollo 11 launched:
Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.
It was thirty years ago, January 28, 1986, that space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing seven astronauts. This is a tough time of year in the history of human spaceflight, as 19 years on January 27, 1967 three astronauts died in a fire in the module of Apollo 1. Then on February 1, 2003, space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.
Remembering these events brings home the fact that even today, spaceflight remains far from routine. But over the years, what else have we learned from these tragedies?
But Jerry was also featured in an article we did in 2008. A year earlier he came across a file of papers from 1985 that proposed how teacher Christa McAuliffe’s eight lessons would be performed on orbit as part of the Challenger mission. Woodfill worked to find old videos, photographs and other materials that had been tucked away in sadness and grief following the loss of Challenger and put together lesson plans and gave them to the Challenger Center. The lessons are available on the Center’s website.
Jerry and I discussed other “lessons” that may have been learned from the tragedies, and he had some interesting ideas about paradigm shifts that have occurred over the past 30-plus years. Here are a few “old” ideas that have changed or are in the process of changing:
Civilians, especially women should not be launched on risky missions to space
We’re certainly beyond the “women can’t do what men can” in our society (for the most part, anyway), and NASA’s last class of astronauts was 50% women (4 out of 8). It did take NASA until 1978 to hire the first female astronauts.
As far as civilians being part of space flight…. that’s the whole point the pioneers of spaceflight did what they did, to try and make flying to space as routine as flying in an airplane.
“While we’re not quite there yet,” said Woodfill, “the prospects for civilian space travel is altogether more plausible. “Now we have a maturing commercial space paradigm that wholly embraces the idea of everybody someday being eligible for a trip to space.”
Woodfill also mentioned that he used to hear that some people thought the idea that a Challenger-like mission should never be attempted again.
“That is refuted by the Challenger’s Lost Lessons project in 2008 and how much these recovered lessons mean to the families of the crew,” he said, “ and to the teachers that are now using these lessons in their classrooms.”
McAuliffe’s backup, Barbara Morgan completed her space shuttle flight in 2007 as a mission specialist, doing special education activities during the mission.
Nothing good can come of such a tragedy.
“An obvious challenge to such a posture was a redesigned, safer, more robust Solid Rocket Booster system,” Woodfill said. “In fact, it led to the work-horse SRBs adapted and upgraded for the Space Launch System (SLS) which will likely take us to Mars.”
The tragedies have provided lessons to be learned. “Go-fever” has been tempered with a more analytical view of each mission and the potential risks it entails. Crew safety at NASA has become top priority. All NASA workers are told to “speak up” if they see something that might compromise any mission.
Human spaceflight is too risky.
This debate will likely continue, but ask anyone associated with spaceflight and they’ll tell you they know the risks and that it’s all worth it for what it means for humanity. You can read Neil de Grasse Tyson’s ideas about this here.
National Geographic is currently running a show they produced called “Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes,” that shows some old footage shot at NASA following the accident. Shown is then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and astronaut and Senator John Glenn who met with NASA’s space shuttle launch team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Bush said he met with the families of the lost astronauts and relayed that they pleaded that the space shuttle program continue “forward full speed.”
Glenn said, in part, “We’ve had tremendous triumph. …. And with this program, we’ve succeeded. Really, if we’re honest about it, beyond our wildest dreams. I would have never thought we’d go this far without losing some people, at something where you’re going at 5 miles a second, with the heat of reentry and the complexity of a system where everything has to go right. Now, we have a tragedy that goes along with our triumphs. I guess that’s the story of mankind.”
As many have said, the future doesn’t belong to the faint of heart, and it is part of human nature to explore and push the boundaries. But there are always lessons to be learned and ideas to be challenged. That’s part of the story of humankind, too.
During the many thousand years that human beings have been looking up at the stars, our concept of what the Universe looks like has changed dramatically. At one time, the magi and sages of the world believed that the Universe consisted of a flat Earth (or a square one, a zigarrut, etc.) surrounded by the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. Over time, ancient astronomers became aware that some stars did not move like the rest, and began to understand that these too were planets.
In time, we also began to understand that the Earth was indeed round, and came up with rationalized explanations for the behavior of other celestial bodies. And by classical antiquity, scientists had formulated ideas on how the motion of the planets occurred, and how all the heavenly orbs fit together. This gave rise to the Geocentric model of the universe, a now-defunct model that explained how the Sun, Moon, and firmament circled around our planet.
Don’t know much about history? How about the future? A new infographic by graphic designer Martin Vargic portrays both past and forthcoming events in our Universe, from the Big Bang to the death of our Sun. The graphic is color-coded and shows “significant events in cosmic and natural history.” It also illustrates how briefly humanity has been part of the scene.
Fun future events are when Earth’s day will become 25 hours long (Earth’s rotation is slowing down), and the amazingly distant time when the Solar System finally completes one orbit around the galactic core.
Spacewalks have been described by astronauts as magical, amazing, and “holy moly!” This new 30-minute NASA documentary called “Suit Up!” celebrates 50 years of extravehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalks. 50 years ago this year, the first spacewalks were conducted by Russian Alexei Leonov in March 1965 and then American astronaut Edward White followed soon after in June 1965. The documentary features interviews with astronauts past and present, as well as other astronauts, engineers, technicians, managers from the history of spacewalks.
They share their personal stories and thoughts that cover the full EVA experience — from the early spacewalking experiences, to spacesuit manufacturing, to modern day spacewalks aboard the International Space Station as well as what the future holds for humans working on a tether in space.
“Suit Up,” is narrated by actor and fan of space exploration Jon Cryer.