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Category: Personal

Repeat Posting: Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

Repeat Posting: Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

This piece initially appeared a year ago, on June 21, 2017, the Summer Solstice. Today it is once more the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, and the actual solstice officially took place at 6:07 a.m. EDT/10:07 UTC this morning. The time and other references and weather comments in the piece are as they were last year, when the post first appeared. I hope you enjoy it.

It’s June 21, the day of the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a day that holds various meanings for different peoples, and its significance goes back millennia. The solstice, whether summer or winter, officially took place at 12:24 a.m. U.S. Eastern Daylight Time this morning, or 04:24 UTC.

Just to set the record straight and dispel any questions about my scientific knowledge, I know it’s not the longest day in the world. It’s the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day in the Southern Hemisphere. But we’ll get to this a bit later.

It’s been a mixed bag today here on the West Coast of Florida. We’ve been having a lot of rain, something we didn’t have much of over the winter, and the rainy times are interspersed with sunny breaks. Right now, as I look out the window of my boat, the sun is mostly out but I’m looking at the light through rain-drop spattered glass. At least we’re not getting the effects of Tropical Storm Cindy, which is much further west and at this moment dumping lots of water on the upper Gulf Coast.

In this country, the summer solstice marks the official beginning of summer, though in other places and other cultures it marks the middle of summer, as indicated by the name Midsummer Night, which can occur anywhere from the 20th to the 24th of June. And really it is midsummer, since the days, which have been lengthening since the equinox three months ago, now will start to grow shorter, the nights longer.

The sun has reached its apogee in this hemisphere, as it stands today directly over the Tropic of Cancer. I feel summer ending, we already are on the downhill side, the side that will take us through the hot coming months but already on the slide back into winter, the cold time of year. Just as in the Southern Hemisphere the days will begin to grow longer as the seasons move back to summer.

A year ago on this day I was in Alaska, where there never really was a night. Where I was, well below the Arctic Circle, the sun went down sometime around midnight, but there was a kind of twilight that lasted until the sun rose again a few hours later. Above the Arctic Circle on this day, the sun never sets, and it truly is the Land of the Midnight Sun.

My thoughts turn to other things on this day. Someone asked me the other day, which was Father’s Day in the U.S., what thoughts I had of my father on that Sunday. But really, I think of Father’s Day as a commercial holiday. I also remember the last Father’s Day I had with my father, and how my mother did her unwitting best to create conflict between me and my father. While I may wish a happy day to the fathers I know on Father’s Day, it is today, the day of the solstice, that I think of my father. June 21 was his birthday, which in most years coincides with the solstice. I was told as a child that it was the longest day of the year, which I translated in my own way into it being the longest day in the world, and I would go around telling everyone who would listen that it was.

“It’s the longest day in the world!” I’d exclaim each year on his birthday, from morning until night.

I think today of my father on this day, the 21st of June. Gone now, for nearly 48 years. And I think back to the day of his birth, June 21, 1913. One hundred and four years ago. Even had he not died young as he did, just 56 years old, it is hard to imagine that he would still be alive today had he not died when he did. A prolongation of the inevitable.

A factoid I learned earlier is that today is not the longest day in the history of the world, as one might imagine it to be given that the earth’s rotation on its axis generally was slowing. Rather, the longest day in the history of the world is believed to be June 21, 1912, and things like the earth’s tides and recession of the glaciers have caused a slight increase in the rate of the planet’s rotation since then. My father was born a year later, which arguably could have been the second or third longest day in the history of the world, if not the actual longest day in the world.

I wonder what it was like on that June day, the day of the solstice, the longest day of the year, the day my father was born, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Did his father and mother, his Italian parents, my grandparents that I never knew, know it was the solstice? Did they even know of the solstice? Regardless, I’m inclined to think they did not think of it, if for no other reason than that they had something else on their mind that day. And then I think of the things people from then knew and were taught and how many of those things have been lost today, in these encroaching new Dark Ages in which we find ourselves, and I have to wonder. Perhaps they knew, better than most people today know. Or care to know. And they did note the auspicious day on which their son was born.

I’ll think of my father again on July 27, the anniversary of his death, and by then even our summer, the summer as we define it, will be half over.

The solstices, like the equinoxes, serve as a kind of punctuation for me. I watch the ebb and the flow of the days, the seasons, the years, and they mark the passage of time, time that increasingly slips by way too quickly. All of life is punctuation, I think. Slowing. Stopping. Breaking things, even waves on the water, into different parts, different pieces, different rhythms and fugues and movements and phrases and sentences. It is through such punctuation that we mark our lives, mark our transit through summer and back into winter, from day into night, from life into death. Watching, as a reader of a story does, while the time of our lives flows past. When we lose that punctuation, everything blends into one big mass, and we feel lost in the current, flailing and drowning as we’re pulled inexorably along. At least I do.

Enjoy this song, which I found today amid my files, and with which I end this post, and enjoy the time that nature and life give us.

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here.

Learning From the Mice, Dammit

Learning From the Mice, Dammit

For anyone that doesn’t know, I live on a boat. As life aboard often holds, there are events and occurrences – usually unexpected and mostly unwanted – that crop up from time to time, ranging from electrical emergencies to a non-functioning pump, from rain leaks to other kinds of leaks. Fortunately, though, I’ve been spared the bane of rodents taking up residence on the vessel, something that is not unknown to boaters. Until recently, anyway.

I first became aware that I might not be alone a couple weeks ago when, in the darkness and quiet of the middle of the night, I was awakened by what sounded very much like chewing. The chewing of little teeth on who knew what, in another and distant part of the boat.

My hope that what I heard was imaginary or was one of those transient boat noises that usually can be explained began to evaporate when I started finding subtle signs that something unwanted was aboard. And finally that hope disappeared altogether when one morning I found the plastic top of an oatmeal container quite thoroughly chewed up. I definitely was not alone.

Day-by-day more evidence of a stowaway began to pile up. It was no longer possible to just ignore this interloper, and there was no hope it would just go away. I was unsure whether I was dealing with a rat or a mouse, though when I began to find stowaway poop I became more convinced that this was a mouse. Or, more likely, mice. Now, given a choice, I wouldn’t want either rats or mice aboard, but between the two, I’d pick the latter.

My foray into the world of rodent traps and poisons and all the rest began at a Super Walmart on the way back from a tiny house show at the Florida State Fair Grounds. While they didn’t have anything equivalent to a live-catch trap, there were some high-tech “quick-kill” traps, along with a range of more conventional mouse and rat traps, poisons, glue strips, and high-pitched sonic devices that claimed to make the pests nuts and drive them away. Thinking that technology would get the better of these small-brained critters, I opted for the high-tech traps, as well as one traditional and huge rat trap, in case I had misjudged what I was dealing with.

Well, you know how they say pride cometh before a fall? Well, that might be the moral of my story, that night and many nights to come. I loaded up my high-tech traps with oatmeal (which the critters had already shown a preference for) and (falling for the old, though not necessarily accurate, cliché) some cheese. I set them out in places the creatures seemed to frequent, turned out the light that night, and headed to bed, visions of trapped mice lurking in my head.

Well, that’s the only place there were trapped mice, since the next morning the mice had completely ignored the high-tech traps, preferring to tear up the paper wrapping on yet another oatmeal container, chewing through the plastic top of that one, too. At that point, I castigated myself for falling for some British high-tech trap that might or might not work on Euro mice but had no apparent attraction for American ones. Now it would be war, and we were going to go low-tech and count on good old American spring traps to get the little bastards. Or so I thought.

I went online and found a site that described seven mistakes commonly made in trying to trap rodents. I followed that guidance (well, six points of it, anyway – I decided I didn’t have time to put out unset traps for a few nights for the mice to get used to them) and did the things the site recommended. I set four low-tech traps and four middle-tech traps to join the three high-tech ones. I was now up to 11 traps of four different types. The mice wouldn’t stand a chance.

Just as I was climbing into my berth in the aft stateroom that night, I heard a huge crash that originated forward in the dinette area. When I went to look, I saw the rodents had knocked over several of my champagne flutes, breaking one. Now the creatures, still not visible, had joined the fray, and I went back to the berth and to sleep with the rodents very much on my mind. So much so that I dreamt that I heard traps going off in the night, and in the morning I found squashed mice in the traps. I pictured taking their semi-liquefied remains to the railing and dropping them overboard. Ah, victory, sweet victory.

In my dreams. The reality that confronted me when I awoke the next morning was something different. Entirely different. Not a single trap had been sprung, but the mice had had a fine old time making a mess of things. My victory was all a mirage that took place in my sleeping mind. I could almost hear the mice, or whatever the hell they were, laughing at me. If you’ve ever seen Roadrunner cartoons, you know how Wile E. Coyote plots endlessly to catch the Roadrunner, but the Roadrunner beats him at his own game every time. I was now thinking of myself as Wile E. Coyote, and the Roadrunner was winning.

Now it was time to pull out all the stops. Another foray to find more, and more kinds, of traps, which I did at Lowe’s this time. I escalated to 17 traps of six different varieties, all over the galley area. It was a veritable minefield out there. The little bastards couldn’t walk across it without setting off a trap. I even put out the giant rat trap, in case I was dealing with something bigger than a mouse, and almost lost a few fingers when trying to set it, sending peanut butter flying all over the place. Why don’t they put warnings on these things?

Well, the Roadrunner won the next round, too. Somehow the mice or whatever they were found their way through the minefield. They even set off one of the low-tech traps, flipping it upside down, but there was nothing in it when I looked. That morning I consulted with someone who is something of an expert on capturing rodents, and he suggested coffee cans with torn-up toilet paper in the bottom. The idea being that the mice would climb or fall into the cans and then not be able to get out. Sounded like a neat solution, one he said worked for him. Meanwhile I was receiving such suggestions as getting a cat (but then, I retorted, I’d be left with a cat, and I didn’t know which was worse), poison (which doesn’t always work and, if it did, might leave me with dead mice squirreled away in some obscure place smelling up the boat for weeks), and using such things of dubious efficacy as the sound devices and glue strips. I thought of getting a gun and blowing the critters away, but the fear of blasting a hole in the hull with more severe consequences than those caused by some rodents deterred me from that.

Besides, between the traps and the coffee cans, something had to work. Clearly, I had overwhelming deadly force on my side, so I would win and the rodents would lose, right? Hmmm, as it turned out, not so much. Meanwhile, I had taken to telling myself not to dream of mice before going to sleep, not wishing to raise more false images of success.

Wile E, Coyote’s first victory came yesterday morning. When I got up, I found all three of the high-tech traps sprung, but nothing in any of them. What the hell? And that’s when – picture my surprise – I saw it, the small gray critter crouching on the shelf down below the oatmeal containers. It appeared to be injured, probably from one of the traps, but it was loose and not entrapped. I’m not much of a rodent expert (in case you haven’t figured that out yet), and my estimate was that either it was a big mouse or a very small rat. Probably a big mouse. I managed to sequester this cowering little beast, whatever it was, in one of those coffee cans, and put the top on it. By the time I was done, the whole dinette area looked like a war zone, littered with chewed cereal boxes, traps, torn paper, and the results of general rodent war entropy.

I later took the sequestered thing off to an abandoned shed nearby that was the territory of a bunch of feral cats. They would know what do to with it. But when I checked later in the day, not a cat was to be seen, the furry critter was curled up sleeping where I had left it, and I didn’t know what to do. Okay, maybe the cats would be back after dark. It was now Wile E. Coyote 1, Roadrunner 8. At least it wouldn’t be a shut-out.

Last night I heard a trap snap. It was one of the original high-tech traps, and when I went to move it, there was a small mouse – now I was positive it was a mouse, not a rat – caught in it, seemingly caught by the face fur. It appears the mice are faster than the traps which, I assure you, are very fast, just not fast enough. I took the trap to the aft rail, lifted the snap bar, and let the mouse fall overboard. I didn’t know what to expect, but when it hit the water the thing started swimming like crazy. Back toward the boat. In the darkness it wasn’t clear what happened to it, but I hope when it finally got to shore it had enough mouse sense not to try to re-board the boat. Okay, now it was Wile E. Coyote 2, Roadrunner 8.

A little later I heard more traps snap. I went to look, and all three of the high-tech traps had been tripped, but nary a mouse was in any of them. That’s when I saw another of the furry beasts, sitting there pretending like it had been injured. But when I went to sequester it like its brethren earlier in the day, it showed itself to be anything but injured, and it took off running, crossed the dinette table at record speed, and then disappeared as if into space. In case you don’t know, there are about a million hiding places on a boat, and as many finger holes and other ways into these hiding places, and this guy knew exactly how to take advantage of one of those finger holes. So I set some traps loaded with peanut butter and chocolate chips right next to the more likely holes through which the escapee would have to come up. Bring it on, baby, bring it on.

Later, another snap. One of the traps I set near the holes had been tripped, turned upside down and spewing more peanut butter around. It didn’t look like a mouse had been trapped, but at that hour I really didn’t care to look. More prepared this morning, I finally lifted the trap and, not to great surprise, all that was in it was some residual peanut butter. But no mouse.

Somehow the little bastards managed to trip more of the high-tech traps without getting caught and didn’t go near any of the others besides the one tripped near the finger hole on the floor. They also seemed to be extending their territory, and today I am finding mouse poop in places it had never been before, beyond the dinette and galley. Later, I went to that shed to check on the mouse I had relocated yesterday, and thankfully it was gone. Probably some predator, a cat, a raccoon, a bird, maybe even a rat, did what predators do. That’s the way of nature. But meanwhile I had lost further ground, and now the score stands at Wile E. Coyote 2, Roadrunner 10. A betting person would have his money on the Roadrunner, though I’m not about to throw in the towel, even if we have to go into overtime.

So what, perhaps you ask, have I learned from my battle with these little beasts? One thing, I can say, is how clever they are. Now I’m not about to give them credit for having some sort of superior intelligence, but they are certainly clever and seem capable of learning about dangers (in the form of traps) and how to outsmart them (with their seemingly amazingly speedy reflexes) and to drive their involuntary human hosts nuts (as I’ve described). I might say they’re arguably more clever than some people I’ve known. I’ve also learned they are resilient, and are not deterred either by the adversity posed by a human or the risk of death or capture. And I’ve learned that they are pretty good swimmers, even after being released into chilly brackish water from the jaws of a trap, and they know which way to swim to get to shore.

Like many other life forms deemed lesser to us, whether rodents, bacteria, viruses, cockroaches, moths, mosquitoes, or terrorists, they just keep going and going and going. I’ve watched videos where mice climb over dead compatriots to get to the peanut butter, and the unquenchable pursuit of their own perceived self-interest seems to be hard-wired into them. There is no time for hand (or paw) wringing, no time for tears, no time for fear. Just keep going, survive, look out for yourself above all others, and in that way the species survives.

I don’t know how much applicability all this has for our own survival, but I’m confident there is some. The drive to keep moving, to not let emotion get in the way of doing the necessary, the ability to use clever, if simple, means to outfox our opponents, are all useful human survival techniques. And the overwhelming determination to survive above all else is one of those qualities that we see among human survivors, just as I’ve seen it in the mice.

I can’t say that I have any affection for these little beasts, but I have developed a certain respect for them, as one can learn to respect a worthy opponent. I’m determined to overcome them and rid the boat, my domain, of them, but it is going to take more effort and more cleverness, by far, than initially I had bargained for.

One other thing I think I have learned is that the way to beat a mouse is through its appetite, which appears to be the one weak link in the species’ survival instinct. The willingness of the mice to play Russian roulette with the traps just to get at a drop of peanut butter or a carrot slice will ultimately prove to be their undoing. It may take just the right trap, just the right bait, and just the right set of circumstances to slow a mouse’s reaction time or the ability to extricate itself from the path of the trap bar, and it loses.

Now I’m feeling hungry as I contemplate this last point on the Mouse War learning curve, and I think about how much trouble appetite and hunger can get us into. While I won’t have to dodge a kill bar to sate my appetite, not this time, anyway, it’s another lesson, for sure, of the mice to be learned, and absorbed.

Going Off the Rails With No Way Back

Going Off the Rails With No Way Back

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon once again, there are some things that need to be said. If I’m a curmudgeon — I don’t think I am — so be it.

What brought this sudden bout of curmudeonness on, you ask? It began Saturday morning with telephone conversations with two different bankers in Maryland. I’d written two checks to a friend of mine visiting from Albania, repayment of an old debt. She took the checks to a local branch of Wells Fargo Bank (I’m naming names this time), the bank on which the checks were drawn, and someone from the branch called me to verify the checks’ legitimacy. Okay, I can see the point of that, though I wonder if they would have done the same if my friend was American or had, say, a British or Canadian passport and not an Albanian one. I also have questions about the need for a call given that Wells Fargo seems to have policies in place that deliberately make it as difficult as possible for customers to access their own funds. But that is a whole other story.

In any case, one of the checks was for $2,000.00, and the other one was for $9,000.06. I put the numerical amount as I always do, $2,000.00/100 for the first check, and $9,000.06/100 for the second one. And then I wrote out the amount in the proper format, the one I’ve been using for some 50 years virtually without incident: Two Thousand and No Hundreths Dollars, and Nine Thousand and Six Hundreths Dollars. Okay, granted, the proper spelling is hundredths, but close enough for government work since the words spell out what the numerals already show, and in my haste I dropped the “d.” But that wasn’t the issue.

Now, I don’t know, but I think anyone from about the age of 5 should know that a hundredth of a dollar is a cent. A penny. One hundredth of a dollar is one cent, six hundredths of a dollar is six cents. Even misspelled, I’d bet most 5 year olds can figure that out. But apparently this fine point is lost on Wells Fargo bankers, and I had to explain to two different genius bankers that Nine Thousand and Six Hundreths (sic) Dollars was not $9,600, but $9,000.06. The first banker said their branch policy was not to accept checks with the cents expressed that way. That made no sense to me, but finally he conceded and said they’d cash the checks. All good, right?

Not quite. A few minutes later another banker, the first one’s manager, called me, and after a few unnecessary and unwanted pleasantries, she repeated that the branch didn’t normally accept checks where the cents were expressed as they were on my check. She had me read off the amount of the check, and confirm the intended amount. I was rapidly losing my patience with this whole thing, and I told her I’d been writing checks like this for 50 years, it was the proper way to write a check, and what exactly didn’t she understand? She then feigned a brief reconsideration of the matter, and finally confirmed that they would accept the check. Hurrah. I got to tell a banker what should have been obvious to her by reading the check as it had been written. Duh.

Now I have better ways of spending my Saturday mornings than explaining the obvious to bankers, but this whole affair served to remind me the extent to which this country is going to hell in a hand basket. The signs are increasingly everywhere, how far off the rails we’re going, this just being the most recent one. It seems people, and the country as a whole, just get stupider and stupider by the day.

I’ve railed against the madness in the direction we’re headed before, but it’s time to do it again, drilling down a bit this time.

In the course of a typical day, I get messages – obviously written on a phone with a run-away spell corrector – that are virtually incomprehensible. I’m asked questions that I already answered, sometimes multiple times. And I get abbreviated messages that fail to respond to issues I raised. In short, I can almost always tell when someone is writing me from a phone, and the communication is seriously impaired as a result. This is a significant matter, since communication should be primary, not to mention I don’t understand how people don’t go crazy typing and reading on a small screen. Well, maybe they do, and we just don’t have a name yet for this mental illness.

If you’re a parent in this country, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you that your little darlings are no longer expected to learn cursive writing. At one point, some 45 states and the District of Columbia had dropped the requirement to teach cursive writing, and the dreaded Common Core was at least in large part responsible for that since Common Core doesn’t require cursive as part of the curriculum. Now blaming Common Cause for stupidity is a bit like blaming phones for errors. It’s the people behind Common Core who are exhibiting their ignorance, and the curriculum is just the symptomatic outcome of that.

There has been some retrenchment in a handful of states that realized the folly of dropping cursive writing from the curriculum, but overall this country is on the verge of entering a new Dark Ages where kids can’t even sign their own names. The idea is that they can do everything on a keyboard, but somehow that seems equivalent to saying they don’t need to learn to walk since they can get driven around everywhere by their parents.

Additionally, as studies confirm, the ability to write, and not just type, promotes some cognitive and motor skills that typing does not. Writing is not the same as typing, and while both skills might be worthwhile, school districts and states don’t want to spend the money teaching both. So out goes cursive writing, and with it one of the traits of an educated person. And people wonder why I’d never put any child of mine in a public, and probably most private, schools.

While this has been going on in more recent years, another long term trend – grade inflation in the nation’s colleges and universities – has been underway for more than half a century. It’s true that a degree of grade inflation began during the Vietnam War years, Recent GPA Trendswhen I was in college. Some attribute this to the desire on the part of many professors to keep students out of the draft, which worked for awhile, but based on my own experience it also probably had to do with the proliferation of pass-fail grading during the turmoil of years of sit-ins, walk-outs, and student strikes that closed some institutions, including the one I attended, for nearly entire semesters. But the grade inflation of that period pales to what has been going on since the 1980s, when grade-point averages have been rising an average of 0.1 points a decade, and the percentage of A grades given has gone up 5 to 6 percentage points a decade.

Since the 1990s, the A grade is the most common grade given in four-year colleges, and As are now three times more common than they were in 1960. At that time Cs were most common, and in my own era, Bs were most common. Now if they don’t get an A, students are at the professor’s throat as if the failing rests with the prof and not with their own performance. If you believe that is because college students have gotten that much smarter since 1960, I have a nice athletic building on a fine campus I’d like to sell you. Very good price. Just sign right here. Oh, wait, you can’t sign, because you never learned cursive. Okay, put your “X” on the line there.

Having been a college professor, I can tell you there is a strong tendency toward treating what are supposed to be young (and sometimes not so young) adults as 50 Years Rise of A Gradechildren. There is a stress on not offending the students, sandwiching any critical remarks in between praise, not being unduly harsh in comments even in the face of abject and repeated refusal on the part of the student to follow guidance. This is called the Student as Consumer Era, and it is indicative of schools that need to cultivate their students to stay enrolled and to pay the exorbitant tuitions and fees charged them and their parents. And instead of challenging their minds and belief systems, these educational institutions allow students to retreat to so-called “safe spaces” and to drive speakers with views divergent from their own off campus, allowing a new form of Fascism and sheltered closed-mindedness to run rampant on college campuses.

Moving from the swamp of so-called education, we have cars that stop themselves or keep themselves in their own lanes, ostensibly so their owners (“drivers” is too strong a word for them) can text and talk on the phone. Things seem increasingly geared toward the lazy and the ignorant. My own car turns its own lights on and off, doesn’t have a key, and tells me how many miles I can go before I run out of fuel. Thank goodness it doesn’t stop itself or do that lane thing, which would be way beyond what I would tolerate of my car. It does open its own trunk, though, for unknown reasons and at very inconvenient times, sometimes multiple times in a row. I guess taunting its owner is part of the deal. I can almost hear it laugh when it does this.

In the course of all these trends, we continue to lose human contact at an almost alarming rate. My most recent two forays into paying entry fees – one at a movie theater, the other at a major conference I attended – were done at terminals. Gone were the friendly ticket girl and the helpful conference gatekeeper, replaced by screens and credit card readers and keyboards. That may all be more efficient, but it’s a bit disconcerting, too. My local Walmart has installed all sorts of self-check-out equipment, but I have never found self-check-out to be faster or more efficient than dealing with a human cashier, and it’s also a tad insulting, I think. If the store wants my money, it should at least have a sufficient number of humans on hand to take it. So, unless I have just one or two items and am in a major hurry, I won’t use the self-check-out.

Meanwhile, the medical profession – one area that might benefit from more, rather than less, technology in enabling improved communication between physicians and patients – remains mired back a century or two. If anyone is able to email their doctor, or even their doctor’s office, I’d love to hear about it. And our prescription drug system seems designed to breed frustration and inefficiency, and we wonder why healthcare costs continue to escalate. I’ve written on these things before, and on the inherent inequities and inefficiencies of the medical system, and the most I’ve gotten in response from doctors is a smile and a laugh, as if I were proposing absurdities.

Call me a curmudgeon if you like, but somehow this all feels like we’re headed off the rails with no way back. Maybe, as the illustration says, you’ll get it eventually, but by then it might be — probably will be — too late. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. Am I only the only one who feels this way? I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this, regardless which side of things you come down on.

Charts from http://www.gradeinflation.com 

Seeing the Future Through a Hole in the Clouds

Seeing the Future Through a Hole in the Clouds

When SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket left Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday, it confirmed the company’s commitment to establishing an ever-larger presence in space. And SpaceX is doing so as a private enterprise, a leader in an industry only vaguely foreseen just a few decades ago, at the time I was a science writer covering the nation’s space program on a daily basis.

As it lifted off, the Falcon Heavy became the world’s currently most powerful launch vehicle, capable of boosting 141,000 pounds (64 metric tons) into low earth orbit (LEO). The imagery of the giant rocket rising into the sky from the same pad where the moon rockets of the Apollo program took a dozen humans to the surface of the moon wasn’t lost on the tens of thousands of onlookers at Cape Canaveral. Nor was it lost on SpaceX founder and chief Elon Musk, who sent his personal red Tesla roadster – a product of another of his companies – with a mannequin at the wheel that Musk named Starman – after the David Bowie song – into deep space orbit around the sun.

The launch of the Falcon Heavy seemed designed to give birth to a renewed vision of space exploration, a vision that had gone off the rails from the fading days of the Space Shuttle program and which reached its nadir in June 2010. That’s when then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that the space agency’s primary mission was outreach to the Muslim world. Bolden said he had been charged with three missions by President Obama, this being the foremost one, and none of which had anything to do with space exploration. While the White House later insisted Bolden misspoke and that such outreach was not part of NASA’s mission, all indications were that there was little commitment to setting a new course for America’s drifting space program.

It was a different vision on Aug. 30, 1983, nearly 35 years ago, when the Space Shuttle Challenger left that same Pad 39A at 2:32 in the morning. The mission, officially named STS-8, just the eighth Space Shuttle mission, was the first night launch of the Shuttle. It also carried the first American black astronaut to fly in space, Guion “Guy” Bluford. But the element that often is omitted from accounts of that mission was the fact that its launch nearly was scrubbed due to the weather.

The night of Aug. 29-30 at Kennedy Space Center was marked with thunderstorms. Applying normal parameters, the launch almost certainly would have been postponed given the danger posed by a lightning strike on the vehicle or the conductive contrails of its solid rocket boosters. As I sat at my desk in the KSC Press Center that night, I had already completed the draft of my story stating that the launch had been scrubbed due to weather. I was about to file my story when a hole opened in the clouds over Pad 39A, the launch window was extended and the countdown resumed, and Challenger raced into space through that hole, lighting up the Cape like it was day and illuminating the night sky from Havana to Hatteras.

There was talk at that time, in the early years of the Shuttle program, whether the vehicle would ever be run like an airline, keeping to a schedule of frequent launches and dropping costs. I saw the willingness of flight controllers to bend the rules and launch through the hole in the clouds that stormy August night as a major step in that direction, and I said as much in the piece I finally filed. In some ways, my prediction was prescient, and Tuesday’s launch of the Falcon Heavy was the logical extension of what I saw through that hole in the nighttime clouds.

There were other things that I didn’t see that night, though. I failed to make allowance for things like political pressure, human miscalculation, and the arrogance of managers not willing to admit when they are wrong. In some cases – like launching Challenger in sub-freezing temperatures that clearly exceeded launch parameters on Jan. 28. 1986, or failing to heed the warnings of flight engineers regarding penetration of Columbia’s heat-protective tiles prior to the orbiter’s reentry on Feb. 1, 2003 – dead wrong.

The Challenger and Columbia disasters, like the fatal Apollo 1 test module fire of Jan. 27, 1967, remind us that space exploration is not without its risks, nor without its losses, including and especially human losses. At least until this point, space travel is not analogous to contemporary airline flight. I accuse myself of missing that key point in my STS-8 prognostication, but not of missing the point of where things were headed. And now, with private space enterprises, like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, United Launch Alliance, and others developing new vehicles, taking over more of the functions formerly unique to NASA, and putting private capital at risk, a new chapter is being written in America’s venture into space.

Make no mistake. America still has a long way to go before it reestablishes its place in space. It has always struck me as tragically sad that there are people alive on earth today who were born after the time when men walked on the moon. A dream humans held for thousands of years had come and gone, and now we are back looking into the heavens and dreaming of a return to the moon and beyond. And as impressive as Tuesday’s launch was, to put things in perspective, in 2018 the Falcon Heavy generated just half the lift of NASA’s Saturn V lunar rocket, first launched from the same Pad 39A on Nov, 7, 1967, half a century earlier. The Saturn V could lift 120 metric tons to LEO, a launch capability that has yet to be matched. So powerful was the Saturn V that its sound waves broke windows in Titusville, 10 miles away.

But the Falcon Heavy is not the end of SpaceX’s design train, and the company’s Big Falcon Rocket or BFR – the mundane name is actually Musk’s play on words, with the “F” a stand-in for another less polite word – will be a monster affair capable of lifting 136 metric tons to LEO. Musk sees the BFR as the rocket that will take colonists to Mars, or carry up to 100 paying passengers into space. Meanwhile, the company has been flying unmanned missions for years, and it expects to bring astronauts to the International Space Station aboard its smaller Falcon 9 rocket paired with its Dragon space capsule later this year.

The TSA isn’t going to be setting up security checkpoints at KSC any time soon, but an era when space travel becomes accessible to more and more people is increasingly easy to envisage, and in large part it’s due to the vision and perseverance of private space entrepreneurs. It’s an era that, while it will come a bit later than I saw at the time, there was a small glimpse of through a hole in the clouds one stormy night in 1983.

 

Photo of STS-8 launch by NASA

Read My Novel and Vote for It!

Read My Novel and Vote for It!

Time for a little cross-fertilization. As you probably know, I have a fiction blog called Stoned Cherry. I’m not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse, but I just can’t do one thing, so my writing crosses both non-fiction lines (here) and fiction ones (there).

Well, here’s your big chance to read my novel, Don’t Try Any of This, and comment and vote for it. Just click on the image immediately above, and it will take you to Inkitt where you can be among the first to read the full novel. Your vote actually counts and helps let other readers know that you think the book is worth reading.

Inkitt is a new kind of publisher. It lets writers post their stories and books and lets readers decide which ones have enough merit to be considered for publication. It also periodically runs contests and the best received books and stories rise to the top in the contest ratings.

Why would you want to read the book? Well, if human drama, wry humor, enticing dialogue, the colorful journey and off-beat challenges a teenage girl faces as she moves through such exotic places as Paris. Thailand, Amsterdam, South Africa, and Lake Como, and (if I can say so) some damned good writing and storytelling appeals to you, go read the book now.

So even if you’re already a big fan of the novel, be sure to go to Inkitt, read the book (or as many chapters as you can or want), post a comment, and vote for it. Reading it on Stoned Cherry won’t have any effect. You need to do it on Inkitt (and did I mention to comment and vote for it? I did? Good. Do it!)

And thank you!