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Category: Science

Voyage to the Moon: A Personal Journey

Voyage to the Moon: A Personal Journey

“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” – Words on the plaque left on the moon by the crew of Apollo 11

There have and will be many words written and numerous commemorations broadcast this week to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first time humans set foot on the moon. For that reason, and others of a more personal nature, this will be an account of my own journey leading up to that momentous event, and since, and not any kind of historic or scientific record of the flight of Apollo 11 or the first moon landing. Yes, it’s long. But it’s been a long trip.

What happened on July 20 and 21, 1969, to me was the culmination not just of my own interest in space and space exploration that I had pursued since I was a child, but the result of many centuries of human scientific development and evolution, and also the climax of the eons that preceded them when primitive humans looked up at the moon with wonder, yearning, and maybe even fear. That phrase on the Apollo 11 plaque, “We came in peace for all mankind,” best summed up my feelings on that historic night.

The Early Years

I can’t say specifically what triggered my early interest in space, except perhaps a general interest in science, but I do know that by the age of 9 I was writing novellas about future space explorers engaged in both dramatic and mundane tasks in the far reaches of the solar system. Starring protagonist Fairleigh Starr and his intrepid crew aboard the space freighter Euphrates, I still have those little string-bound books and their illustrative covers, hand-drawn in crayon on cardboard, somewhere in my archives. I also still have some of my early astronomy books.

I don’t remember the exact year or my age, but at some point my father got me an actual, real, reflecting telescope, and this opened up new vistas beyond our planet to me. Many were the nights he and I would brave the cold out in our driveway pointing the telescope toward the moon and beyond. Under the red skies of Northeastern New Jersey, illuminated as they were by the myriad lights of the New York Metro area, it was hard, if not impossible, to see much beyond the biggest and brightest celestial objects, the moon being paramount among them. All these decades later I can still picture in my mind’s eye the distinct craters and the bright silvery surface of earth’s sole natural satellite as seen vividly through that telescope.

The late 1950s and early 1960s were heady times for anyone interested in space exploration. In fact, they were heady times even for those not so interested. As the United States faltered through one failed launch after another, the Soviets – known more generally to us as the Russians – were succeeding in their advance into space. The thing that got our attention more than anything was the successful launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, in October 1957. More than attention, it struck fear into the hearts of many, including my own mother, who tucked her 7-year-old son, being me, into bed one post-Sputnik night, saying as she did, “I don’t think we’re going to live to see Christmas this year.” Thanks for that, Mom.

As it turned out, we did survive to see that Christmas, and many since. But again it was the Russians who were first to send a man not just into space, but into orbit, when cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin circled the earth one time on April 15, 1961. Less than a month later, on May 5, 1961, the U.S. finally succeeded in launching the first American into space, astronaut Alan Shephard, on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight launched atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket from Cape Canaveral. Watching the launch and recovery of the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule on TV still remains in my memory, as do the other Mercury launches and recoveries to follow. And then, nine months later on February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, three times, aboard the capsule Friendship 7, and the U.S. took the lead in what was clearly a space race. By then I was hooked on space, and there was no looking back.

What led us on the path to the moon was a speech President John Kennedy gave to Congress on May 25, 1961, when he said that the U.S. “. . . should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Kennedy repeated the same objective in a now-famous speech he delivered to 40,000 people in the stadium at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962, saying, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The course was set to the moon, and despite a chorus of naysayers, the objective was reached, Kennedy’s challenge fulfilled, on July 20, 1969.

The mission of Apollo 11 had lifted off four days earlier, on July 16, 1969, at 9:32 a.m. EDT (13:32 UTC), from Launch Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral – known at the time as Cape Kennedy in JFK’s honor – carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins toward the moon. A product of the work of Wernher von Braun and his team of German rocket engineers brought to the U.S. following World War II, the Saturn V rocket that bore them aloft was, and remains, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, so loud on launch its sound waves broke windows in Titusville, 12 miles away. Armstrong later described the initial ascent as a very bumpy ride, at least until first-stage separation, when he said things became smooth and totally silent. At that point, the world waited, and watched.

“The Eagle Has Landed”

July 1969, exactly a half century ago, was a personally tumultuous time for me. At 19 ½, in the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Rutgers University, I was in the midst of my first real affair, and that in itself was proving more challenging than I had bargained for (Sheila was an artist, she didn’t look back – thank you Bob Dylan for summing things up so well). I had a summer job mowing grass and picking up litter on the New Jersey Turnpike, out of the Secaucus yard in the most congested and polluted sector of the Pike in its final miles between Newark Airport and Exit 18, the northern terminus and gateway to the George Washington Bridge. I was living back at home for the summer and in a state of ongoing conflict with both my parents. Worse was how I sensed my father often didn’t have the heart for the conflict, but my mother goaded him into it and to appease or please her, he’d rise to the occasion.

It also was perhaps the most creative time of my life. On the many and prolonged breaks my maintenance team on the Turnpike would take, once Moe, our supervisor, had driven off and left us to our own devices, we would drop our mowers and tools and retreat to the shade under an overpass, or occasionally wander off the Pike to some nearby diner for a late breakfast. While the other guys sat around and shot the shit for hours, I would sequester myself to write and draw in my own imagined, but productive, world. Along with my writing, I was able to draw in ways I had never before, nor since, been capable of. If you can imagine completely changing the gears in your head, that was what it was like that summer.

I don’t remember all the details or reasons, but the small group of friends of which Sheila and I were a part could not be together the night of the moon landing. It was a Sunday night, July 20, and I had work the next morning, moon landing or no moon landing. As I recall, my high school friend John Horohan was with his girlfriend Jane, who had introduced me to Sheila, and I don’t remember whether Sheila was with them or somewhere else. She wasn’t with me, though, nor I with her, which was the main thing.

The lunar lander had touched down on the moon’s surface earlier that afternoon, almost out of fuel and in a different location – the Sea of Tranquility – than initially planned, at 4:17 p.m. EDT (20:17 UTC). As it turned out, Armstrong had to take over the controls of the lander following a computer overload and finding too many bus-sized boulders at the initial West Crater landing site. It was with relief when Mission Control, along with the rest of the world, heard Armstrong’s words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

The actual moon walk was planned for later that night, and that to us was the big event. I had been sleeping out on our enclosed back porch, as I was wont to do in the summers spent at home, and that night I was watching there in the dark, on the small TV we kept on the porch, the events unfolding 240,000 miles away on the moon. On the moon! My parents were upstairs in their room also watching on their TV, and we could have been on separate planets for the divide between us on that historic night. Other than some forays my mother would make down to check on me – mostly to harass me for staying up past my alleged bedtime, as I recall – we had little or no contact that night.

The telephone provided the link between me and my friends, a kind of lifeline as it were, and we stayed in touch intermittently via it as the time approached for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to step out of the lunar lander and descend the craft’s ladder to the surface of the moon. As we and 600 million other people around the globe watched, that came at 10:56 p.m. EDT (02:56 UTC on July 21), when Armstrong stepped down onto the lunar surface, uttering the famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (controversy has dogged those words ever since, and it’s pretty well believed that a blip in the radio transmission changed the intended and spoken “one small step for a man” to what is commonly attributed to Armstrong). Aldrin followed Armstrong down the ladder, and together, as we watched in fascination and through bleary eyes and blurry black and white video images, the pair bounced around on the lunar surface, collecting moon rocks as they did, for the next two and a quarter hours. Meanwhile, Collins, in the command module, named Columbia, orbited the moon, keeping an eye on things from 69 miles above the lunar surface.

Little did I realize at the time what connections I would have with Armstrong, and especially Aldrin, and other men who set foot on the moon, a decade and a half later.

The Aftermath

What I saw in the lunar mission and the success of Apollo 11 was not just a victory and amazing achievement for America, but the culmination of centuries of discoveries and achievements of many people of many nationalities. There was Copernicus, a Pole, who in the Sixteenth Century, postulated a universe with the sun, not the earth, at its center. He was preceded in the heliocentric theory by Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek, eighteen centuries earlier, and followed in the next century by Galileo, an Italian, who was declared a heretic for his beliefs by the Catholic Church in 1633. It took the Church three more centuries to finally concede that it’s supposedly infallible belief was, well, wrong. Galileo’s theories of gravity also proved to be correct, not bad for a heretic.

There was Newton, an Englishman, and his discoveries of the laws of physics. And Lippershey, a Dutchman, who invented the telescope. And da Vinci, another Italian, who had invented an actual flying machine – the helicopter – and the parachute, and who also had postulated a heliocentric universe. The Chinese in the Ninth Century invented the rocket, but Goddard, an American, invented the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. And von Braun and the other German rocket engineers brought it all together, with American support and funding, with the Saturn V. I don’t mean this list to be inclusive, but simply illustrative of the worldwide, global contributions over the centuries that finally resulted in Apollo 11 and the moon landing.

Indeed, as the plaque said, “We came in peace for all mankind.” And at the moment of mankind’s first steps on the moon and the days that followed, the world was largely united in hailing a feat that previously existed only in the realm of dreams and the imagination. Of course, there are still those on the fringe who continue to imagine that the whole moon landing was staged, that the astronauts descended to some hidden chamber under the launch pad or went to Hollywood, where there was a set made to look like a moonscape and the whole thing was an elaborate deception. And when I was posted as a diplomat to Albania in the 1990s, people there said they had been told by the previous Communist regime that it was the Russians, not the Americans, who had landed men on the moon.

A week after the lunar landing and walk, on July 27, 1969, my father died, unexpectedly, in front of me, in the midst of one more of our low-level conflicts. He had gotten to witness people walking on the moon, something almost unimaginable at the time of his birth in 1913, and then he was gone. And thus, with his death, began the rest of my life, the half century that followed.

After Apollo 11, there were just six more lunar missions – five lunar landings, one short of what was planned when Apollo 13 ran into serious problems en route to the moon and had to return to earth without reaching its destination. Later, as a journalist covering the space program, I lost count of the number of times when engineers and managers who had been involved with the Apollo program told me that getting men to the moon was not the big challenge of the Apollo program. It was getting the crew of Apollo 13 back alive. In any event, with the splashdown of Apollo 17 on December 19, 1972, the moon program was over, less than three and a half years after the launch of Apollo 11. The country, embroiled in the Vietnam War and deeply divided, was withdrawing into itself, and Congress cut NASA’s funding. What was left of funding for manned space flight was directed toward the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission with the Soviet Union and three missions of Skylab, the world’s first space station. After all the years of striving to reach the moon, and meeting the challenge President Kennedy laid down, we reverted to missions in low earth orbit. To this day, that is where we have remained.

What struck me then, and continues to trouble me, is how for eons people looked to the heavens and wondered and dreamed of what it would be like to walk on the moon. And now billions of people, billions of children, and adults, were born and lived since the last human left the moon, and again are left to look toward the heavens, toward the moon, and wonder and dream, just as primitive humans did millennia ago.

As America and the space program drifted through the 1970s, I looked inward, too, and essentially cut myself off from what was going on in the world, and what remained of the space program. I had this peculiar idea that if I cut off the news of the world and its problems those problems would go away and leave me alone. It didn’t take more than several years to realize that’s not how things work.

A Return to Space

My return to space came in 1982. After detours through Woodstock and Key West and grad school at the University of Florida, I wound up taking up a reporting job in Cocoa, Fla., at the doorstep to Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center. While I was with the weekly paper, The Tribune, I struck up a friendship with the lead reporter, Peter Adams, at our sister daily, TODAY (now FLORIDA TODAY). Perhaps it could only happen in Brevard County, Fla., but the lead reporter was the Science Writer, formerly known as the Aerospace Writer, whose primary duty entailed covering the space program.

The Space Shuttle program was under way, with the launch of the orbiter Columbia and STS-1 in April of 1981. Peter invited me to accompany him to witness a launch of the Shuttle at KSC, the launch of Columbia and STS-5 on November 11, 1982. It was one of the most exciting things I’d ever witnessed, and again, I was hooked. I later finagled my first assignment actually covering a space launch, as a freelancer for The Globe and Mail of Toronto, reporting on the launch of a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral carrying a Canadian satellite that subsequently failed to go into orbit and was lost. Peter and I continued to remain in close contact, and when he left the paper to go to The Orlando Sentinel, our main competition, he recommended me for the choice position of Science Writer. I not only moved to my first position on a daily, but to the premier reporting position, with the charge to report daily on the space program and other science topics.

The first launch I was to cover as primary reporter was the maiden launch of the new orbiter, Challenger. But before it could launch I received a phone call from a confidential informant late one night in the newsroom. The word was that a problem with the Shuttle’s main engines had been discovered and the launch would be delayed, possibly for months. I was able to chase down other sources to confirm the report, and we were first to break the story of Challenger’s impending lengthy delay, which turned out to be totally correct. I had already managed to win the confidence of those closest to the Shuttle program and to break my first big story.

Challenger finally did launch on April 4, 1983, carrying a tracking and relay satellite into orbit. The flight, the first of many Space Shuttle missions I would cover, also featured the first EVA – Extra-Vehicular Activity, or space walk – of the Shuttle program. In my time as Science Writer, I got to cover many other firsts: The first flight of Spacelab. The first American woman in space. The first flight of two women in space, and the first space walk by an American woman. The first African-American in space. The first Shuttle night launch. The first launch of the orbiter Discovery. The first Shuttle landing at KSC. The first recovery and return to earth of orbiting satellites. The first classified Department of Defense Shuttle mission. The first in-space repair of an orbiting satellite. The first flight of a politician in space. Many of my stories got national play via the Gannett News Service and appearance in USA TODAY, for which TODAY served as the model.

I approached my work as a Science Writer the same way I approached other reporting positions I had filled, which was to build in as much diversity and have as much fun with it as I could, all while doing a competent and credible job of reporting. I felt my specialty was taking highly complex scientific and technical details and issues and translating them in a way that just about any reader could understand, without dumbing them down. In the course of my term, I managed to score a wonderful stint at Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., got to visit the WET-F – the huge water tank where astronauts practice doing EVAs in simulated weightlessness – in Houston, launched my own weather rocket, the Yacenda-1, from Cape Canaveral, flew aboard a NOAA hurricane tracker plane through a tropical storm, rode on the huge transporter that carried the Shuttle to the launch pad, and sat at desks of scientists with actual moon rocks on them. I came up with the term “astroworker” – a word my editors hated and took out at every chance they could, which is why you’ve never seen it – to encapsulate the kind of manual activity many astronauts and mission specialists engage in while in space.

More than anything was the thrill of meeting, interviewing, and in some cases spending time with people who had helped establish America’s place in space, people that had just been names bordering on mythological to me, and now I had the opportunity to be face-to-face with them. I got to interview and know half the men who had walked on the moon. It was said even then that Neil Armstrong rarely granted interviews. I had a telephone interview with him while he was a professor in Ohio, and he was indeed the humble, quiet, non-self-aggrandizing person I had been told he was. And I got to pal around for several days with Buzz Aldrin, who was and is every bit the character he was ascribed to being, though also knowledgeable and serious about America’s space pursuits. He told me of what was to be his next mission, setting up a space science program at the University of North Dakota. I love that the President featured Aldrin at the most recent State of the Union address.

I got to visit Edgar Mitchell and meet his family aboard Mitchell’s yacht when it was docked in Brevard County. I had the opportunity to interview Alan Bean about his art and Alan Shephard about his beer business. I had a number of encounters with Fred Haise, of Apollo 13 fame, both as a reporter and later as someone bidding for business from the company with which he became an executive, Grumman Aerospace. As then chief of the astronaut corps, John Young was someone I got to see and quote in numerous news conferences. I was able to meet Tom Stafford at an evening event. Though he wasn’t an astronaut, I got to interview Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound and live to tell about it. And, a high point, I got to hang out with Walt Cunningham of Apollo 7 fame during some very entertaining days at Cape Canaveral when I had invited him to speak at a conference I helped organize, and then some time later have lunch with him at Brennan’s in Houston. I still remember the moment when we were waiting to board a tour bus at KSC and Cunningham was sitting on top of a waste basket, just as a place to rest. The bus driver informed us we needed to get tickets to take the tour, and then, realizing who the unassuming guy sitting on the trash can was, came bounding back off the bus, practically giddy and shaking, blurting out, “I’m sorry, Mr. Cunningham! I didn’t recognize you at first! Of course you don’t need a ticket! Anything you want, Mr. Cunningham!”

Along with all the other names and personalities, I got to interview Judy Resnik, one of my most memorable interviews. I still have the tape of that interview in which Resnik said she didn’t fear going up on the Shuttle since NASA took such care looking after the astronauts’ safety. When Challenger blew up on the bitterly cold morning of January 28, 1986, taking the lives of Resnik and her six crew mates with it, NASA wasn’t looking out for the astronauts’ safety, and neither was it when Columbia disintegrated on reentry on February 1, 2003. Both were avoidable disasters.

Looking Forward

I was no longer covering the space program at the time of the Challenger disaster — in fact, earlier the very morning it occurred I had looked toward the space center and said to myself, “One day that thing is going to blow up and I won’t be there when it does” — but I still was involved with space through my public relations firm, ITech International, which specialized in aerospace and high technology, among other areas. To me, the Challenger disaster was personal, both on account of the needless death of Judy Resnik and the other astronauts and specialists and the civilian school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, aboard, all of whom I had seen in news conferences and reported on, but because I helped bring Challenger into the world, covering its first launch, and the issues that had delayed that launch.

Following the Challenger disaster my old paper, TODAY, invited me to write an op-ed piece about the disaster and my views on where the country should go in its wake. In it I wrote how the Space Shuttle was equivalent to the early iterations of airliners that eventually led up to the DC-3, the first commercially successful airliner, and rather than expending money on another Shuttle orbiter, the nation should dedicate itself to new iterations of space transportation systems and go on to further space exploration. Obviously, Congress and NASA felt otherwise, and the space agency went on to build the orbiter Endeavour, which launched for the first time on May 7, 1992. And then, with the landing at KSC of the orbiter Atlantis on July 21, 2011, the Space Shuttle program came to an end.

And now, 50 years after the triumph of Apollo 11, we remain confined to low earth orbit. The International Space Station, development of which began when I was still involved with the space program, is the sole embodiment of humans in space. Since the end of the Shuttle program, the U.S. doesn’t even have the means of bringing our own astronauts to and from the ISS, depending on Russian rockets to do so. There are commercial rockets in the late development stage that are expected to be able to carry people to and from the ISS, but they’re not certified for this purpose yet. In fact, much of what holds promise for the future of space exploration rests with private companies, such as SpaceX and Boeing and several others.

I’m sure there is a lot of important work that goes on aboard the ISS, but I would venture that few people outside the program can name even one or two projects, specifically, that the ISS crews are working on. There is even credible argument that space is an expensive and not terribly great place for doing science. Regardless, whatever they are doing, it doesn’t provide the kind of excitement and global attention that deep-space exploration, most notably the Apollo lunar voyages, provided, and can provide. I am not denigrating the tremendously exciting and important and truly amazing unmanned space missions we’ve conducted. Our knowledge of the solar system and the universe beyond has been expanded enormously by these missions, and they should be continued. But somehow they lack the appeal and drama of manned missions of exploration to new destinations.

NASA and the space program reached its nadir in 2010 when its then-Adminstrator, Charles Bolden – himself a former astronaut – told Al Jazeera television that he had been charged by President Barack Obama with three primary tasks: Encourage children to learn about math and science, improve relations with foreign nations, and, Bolden said, “perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering.”

Compare that with President Kennedy’s challenge, that the nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade was out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard. In the intervening decades, it seems we have come down not just from the moon, but from rising to the kind of challenge the nation responded to in the 1960s.

Now there is talk of going to Mars. I’m happy to see that. While recognizing the costs and dangers involved in such missions, I think it is inevitable that the human spirit is always going to drive us on to bigger and more daring ventures, whether on earth or in space. I think it makes a lot of sense for us to go back first to the moon, and establish a base there. It takes a whole lot less energy to launch a rocket from a place where the gravity is one-sixth what it is on earth. There may be other justifications for a base on the moon, but that one alone provides justification if, in fact, we are intent on going to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system.

Most of my space interest these days is constrained to looking at the full moon, when it appears and the skies are clear, and watching for night launches from Cape Canaveral. I’m living 120 miles from the launch site, but in the dark of night I can get pretty clear views of the launches, which continue to excite me. Recently, during the latest SpaceX launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket from Pad 39A on June 25, the same launch pad from which Apollo 11 launched, I actually got to see the return to earth of the two first-stage boosters that came back to land at KSC. I think that was even more exciting than the launch, all the more so since I wasn’t expecting to be able to see that, just as watching the first Shuttle landing at KSC from the grandstand beside the runway was so exciting 35 years ago. I’m sure that one of these days I’m going to need to go back down to the space center and watch a launch from closer up.

And now, fifty years after that first footstep on the moon, I and the other 7.7-whatever billion people on this planet can only look up at the moon, and wonder: Will mankind ever again set foot on that celestial body? Will my children get to go there? Some might even wonder if they, themselves, will get a chance to go to the moon.

It is of such wonderment that giant leaps are born.

Watch the actual ignition and liftoff of Apollo 11 shot by a NASA camera at the launch pad

All images by NASA except the last image which is by SpaceX

This is a joint posting with my fiction site. It also appears on Medium.

That Time of Year Again: Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

That Time of Year Again: Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

This piece initially appeared two years 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 occurs at 11:54 a.m. EDT/15:54 UTC this morning. The time and other references and weather comments in the piece are as they were two years ago, when the post first appeared. I’m no longer living on the boat, and it’s been a rainy year so far. And this year it’s been 50 years, half a century, since my father’s death. I think I will make re-posting this piece an annual event. 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.

Click here if song doesn’t play.

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

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.

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

From Water to Water

From Water to Water

. . . for water thou art, and unto water shalt thou return.”

Taking a little poetic license here with the wording of Genesis 3:19 to illustrate the intrinsic nature of hydrogen technology.

We’ll get to how that works, but first a little background, about me, and about hydrogen and its use in electricity-producing devices known as fuel cells.

I covered the space program as a science writer back in the 1980s, including daily interaction with NASA’s Space Shuttle program. That’s when I first started getting really interested in hydrogen as a potential fuel source for the future, including replacing fossil fuels for use in our cars, trucks, buses, and possibly even aircraft. At the time, I considered various possible fuel sources, and the one that made the greatest sense to me was hydrogen, the most abundant element in the Universe. Not to burn hydrogen as we burn gasoline or diesel, or as the Space Shuttle burned it for lift-off, but rather as a source to produce electrical energy through a fuel cell that would then drive electric motors.

NASA has been putting fuel cells aboard spacecraft since the early 1960s, and they are what generate electricity aboard many spacecraft, including the Space Shuttle when it was operational. Fuel cell technology is actually a very old one, the principle first demonstrated in 1801 – yes, 1801, that’s not a typo – by Humphry Davy. Sir William Grove, who came to be known as the “Father of the Fuel Cell,” then invented the first fuel cell, which he called an “electric battery,” in 1839. Two researchers, Charles Langer and Ludwig Mond, were the ones, in 1889, to coin the term “fuel cell,” as they attempted to produce a device that would convert coal or carbon to electricity. What is considered the first successful fuel cell, using hydrogen and oxygen with alkaline electrolytes and nickel electrodes, was developed by Francis Bacon in 1932.

It wasn’t until 1959 that Bacon was able to produce the first practical fuel cell, one that could be put to use driving equipment. Also during the 1950s, General Electric invented the proton-exchange membrane fuel cell, and in the subsequent decade NASA started putting fuel cells aboard spacecraft. The technology since then has continued to develop, evolve, and gain in efficiency, which puts us where we are today.

My conclusion 30 years ago that hydrogen, used to generate electricity through fuel cells, would be the wave of future automotive technology was not the first bit of technical or scientific prognostication I had come up with. Ever since I was a kid I saw concept after concept that I first postulated subsequently adopted by manufacturers and appear on cars as well as on ships. It’s taken nearly three decades, and it probably will take another decade to be fully realized, but I finally am seeing my conclusion about hydrogen and fuel cells coming into reality. I don’t suppose I am the only one who saw this development, but I feel increasingly vindicated that it was an accurate prediction.

Now, getting back to the water-to-water thing. If you remember anything about your early schooling, beyond perhaps your first teacher’s name or the name of your best friend, it is the formula for water: H2O. The “O,” of course, stands for oxygen, the third most abundant element in the Universe. And the “H” stands for hydrogen. Two atoms of hydrogen, combined with one atom of oxygen, give us that liquid, water, essential to life as we know it.

Now here’s the really neat thing about hydrogen. It can be produced by separating it from oxygen in water, yielding both key elements to produce energy in a fuel cell – hydrogen and oxygen – and then when they are rejoined at the end of the process, voila, you get back water, and only water. It starts as water and ends as water. Water-to-water. Neat, huh?

Compared with a standard internal combustion engine burning gasoline or diesel, which produces poisonous carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and other nasty stuff, it’s kind of a no-brainer. But what about pure electric cars with motors powered by batteries, you ask? Aren’t they even cleaner, producing no pollution? Well, that’s only if you look at the motors themselves. But where does the electricity needed to charge the batteries to drive the motors come from? Right. Power plants which, depending on the plant, might burn fuel oil, coal, nuclear fuel, or natural gas (the latter perhaps being the cleanest source of mass power production, save for hydroelectric plants which have their own issues associated with them).

Former Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly once waxed eloquent about how all the nation’s cars should be electric and how much cleaner that would make the environment. I pointed out to him something called the Law of Conservation of Energy, which means it would take the same amount of energy to move all those cars regardless the source of the energy, and if the source of the electricity was central power plants, as it would be, there still would be a significant amount of pollution associated with all those electric cars. Alas, O’Reilly, clearly not a physicist, chose to ignore my message.

There are other problems with electric vehicles, too, including significant environmental issues with both the manufacture of the big batteries used in cars – building an electric car produces more greenhouse gases than does building a conventional car – and their disposal when they’ve reached the end of their useful life. And while the best pure-electric vehicle today might go over 300 miles on a charge, most still are limited to a range of 100 – 200 miles. Not very far, especially when it can then take anywhere from 30 minutes for a quick charge up to around 80 percent of battery capacity to as long as 12 hours to re-charge the batteries. If you’re not in much of a hurry or not going very far, an electric car might meet your need. Otherwise, not so much.

There is another huge problem with electric cars that was highlighted in recent months by the three major hurricanes to hit U.S. shores this year: Harvey, Irma, and Maria. When power is knocked out for large swaths of territory for hours, days, weeks, and, in some cases, months, an electric vehicle becomes a very large paper weight. Lacking a source of power to recharge its batteries, an electric vehicle isn’t going anywhere once its batteries are depleted. While there usually are conventional fuel shortages around big storms, people can fill their tanks ahead of time and often there are limited sources for gasoline and diesel available before, during, and after big storms. A conventionally powered vehicle might keep going while an electric one might not.

Looking now at hydrogen cars, the cars being produced and sold that are called “hydrogen-powered” actually employ fuel cells to drive the electric motors that drive the cars. While lagging far behind electric and hybrid-electric cars in terms of sheer numbers on the roads, the biggest problem retarding their more widespread use is a chicken-and-egg conundrum centered around the availability of hydrogen fuel stations. With low numbers of hydrogen vehicles there is low incentive to provide hydrogen fuel stations, and the low number of hydrogen fuel stations deters more widespread marketing and purchasing of hydrogen vehicles. But there might be changes on the way as, I would argue, there should be.

It’s estimated that by the end of this year there will be just 50 hydrogen filling stations in the U.S., most of them in California. There also are fleet stations and those used for research vehicles, but there is a huge gap in the number of places where one can fill up a hydrogen vehicle. Consider, however, that it only takes 3 – 5 minutes to refuel a hydrogen car, comparable to filling up a gasoline or diesel car, versus the hours needed to charge an electric vehicle, and the fact that hydrogen cars have ranges in excess of 300 miles and acceleration often equivalent to a conventional car.

Besides the paucity of places to fill up, the other problem with hydrogen is how to generate it in clean and economical ways. While it’s the most abundant element, it loves to join with oxygen to make water and other atoms to form other substances, and breaking it free to run it through a fuel cell is both a technical and an economic challenge. While there is enough oxygen in the air to use in a fuel cell, it’s a more difficult proposition with hydrogen.

There are all sorts of ways used to generate hydrogen, ranging from throwing iron filings into vats of sulfuric acid, to cracking hydrocarbon molecules in natural gas to, a more recent proposal, using geothermal heat at great ocean depths to generate large quantities of hydrogen. While the first method produces toxic waste, the second produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and the third is still under development, there is a simple, tried-and-true method, alluded to at the outset of this piece, that starts and ends with water.

That method uses electrolysis to separate water into its constituent atoms, and then after passing them through a fuel cell, reunites them as water at the end of the process. In fact, it’s relatively simple to construct a hydrogen generator of this sort – I’ve done it myself with readily available materials costing somewhere around $100 – and there are commercially available hydrogen generators for prices equivalent, or less, than making one’s own, and there even is a portable hydrogen reactor and fuel cell available for $105.99.

The basic problem with generating hydrogen through electrolysis is that it uses electricity to produce the hydrogen to be used in a fuel cell to, you guessed it, make electricity. But it’s not hard to envisage using solar or wind energy to provide the electricity used in the electrolysis. In fact, I think it doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to picture each household with a hydrogen vehicle generating its own hydrogen. And maybe it’s a bit of a stretch today, but why can’t we see each hydrogen vehicle with its own on-board hydrogen generator, powered with rooftop solar panels, producing its own fuel from water that then returns to water and is recycled back through the hydrogen generator and, employing a little hyperbole, becomes its own perpetual motion machine?

We’ve heard of the supposed possibility of running cars on water, but with hydrogen cars this is a possibility, and it’s all based on science, not science fiction or a scam, if the technical issues can be worked out.

Elon Musk, who has put all his eggs in the electric car basket with Tesla Motors and the Tesla Gigafactory battery-production facilities, calls hydrogen technology “incredibly dumb.” He thinks it’s inefficient. But the major automobile manufacturers against which Musk and Tesla are pitted might disagree, and there are no fewer than eight hydrogen cars either currently available or under development for the marketplace in the next few years. These include the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity, two hydrogen cars already on the market, and hydrogen cars planned for release in the next few years by Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, and Nissan. A small Welsh startup, Riversimple, is making its subcompact hydrogen car available in the UK this year, Ford expects to have its hydrogen car out this year, and startup truck maker Nikola Moto Company unveiled a prototype hydrogen truck late last year that it expects to offer by 2020, with a range of between 800 and 1,200 miles. Nikola also plans to open 364 hydrogen filling stations by 2019.

Meanwhile, the French firm Alstom ran its first hydrogen fuel cell train, the Coradia iLint, in Germany in March, reaching 80 kph, and 140 kph in tests run in the Czech Republic, and orders for the train are already pouring in. Its sole emissions are steam and water.

“It’s so clean you can breathe it in,” says Stefan Schrank, Alstom’s project manager of the train’s emissions. And it is 60 percent less noisy than a diesel-powered train.

Whether the various plans for hydrogen cars and other vehicles reach fruition remains to be seen. It’s still not clear whether hydrogen is the fuel of the future and always will be – as Charles de Gaulle once said of Brazil, which he called “the country of the future, and always will be” – or if it becomes the primary fuel to replace fossil fuels. The question may be decided in the next 10 – 15 years, or even sooner. It was my pick 30 years ago, and so far I’m still betting on it.

Water-to-water, baby. I think that’s a winning formula.