Pops, the Perseids, and a trip back in time

August always makes me wistful these days, and its all because of my father and the Perseid meteor shower.

When I was 12 years old, about to turn 13, I was on a backpacking trip in the Washington Cascade Mountains with my Boy Scout troop and my dad, who was an avid hiker and later our Scoutmaster. By coincidence the hike was in early August. We had some heavy rain during the early part of our adventure, but one night, camped near the small village of Holden, the weather was glorious, the night was crystal clear, and we slept out under the stars. As the sky darkened to the pitch black of the deep wilderness, far away from population centers, we marveled at the near constant stream of shooting stars; it wasn’t planned, and I don’t think any of us even knew they had a name, but Perseid meteors of many colors sizzled through the sky. I don’t think I could have counted them; there must have been a hundred or more every hour!

Greg and Dad at Miner's Ridge

The author, at right, with his father near Image Lake after climbing Miner’s Ridge on a hike in August 1970. Rain and clouds went away later in the week, enabling the best possible view of the Perseid meteor shower.

It was a sight like none any of us had ever seen, coming from the Seattle suburb of Renton, light polluted even then. It was a night I will never forget.

Part of the magic of astronomy is the perspective it gives us about time. We see the Moon as it looked about a second ago, the Sun as it was eight minutes in the past, and M31, on a collision course with us, as it looked 2.5 million years ago. The Hubble Space Telescope brings us views of things as they looked close to the birth of the universe.

Every time I see a meteor I’m transported back to 1970, in my sleeping bag in a wilderness clearing, watching hundreds of meteors shoot through the sky, on a hike with my father, who is young, vital, and alive.

Dad passed away in mid-August of 2000, just a few days after the peak of that year’s Perseid shower. The anniversary always makes me look back, and up.

My backyard in West Seattle isn’t ideal for meteor watching. For one thing, it’s in Seattle, where it’s usually cloudy, and if it’s not the city lights wash out all but the brightest of the Perseids. Still, ever the optimist, I always go out and look, just in case. This year was worse than usual for Perseid viewing. The Moon was near full, and though we’ve had a stretch of favorable weather this summer, there were thunderstorms and heavy rain the early morning of the Perseid peak. Shut out again.

The next evening was mostly clear, though, and I went out, grabbed a chair on the deck, and waited just to see if any stragglers would show up. It took about 20 minutes before a fabulous, bright Perseid blazed across the sky.

The astronomy buff in me knows that this meteor was just a little chunk of the ancient comet Swift-Tuttle, itself possibly a piece of the stuff of which the solar system is made. My inner 12-year-old viewed it as a signal from Pops. Things are all right, buddy. Keep looking up.

I have a great life. My wonderful wife tolerates and encourages my astronomy hobby, even though she’s not about to come out and freeze her tail off for a glimpse of the Cassini Division. We have a nice consulting practice, and sometimes people publish my writing. I don’t want to be 12 again. But I like having a time machine that takes me back to spend a little more time with the old man every once in a while.

I miss you, Pops.


Book review: Marketing the Moon

Public relations practitioners and space nuts alike should check out the new book Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program. If you’re both, like myself and authors David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek, you’ll enjoy it doubly so. The book details the public relations and marketing efforts that supported the Apollo program and the race to the Moon during the 1960s.

Especially interesting to me from the PR standpoint was the extent to which NASA and scores of contractors were able to pull in the same direction while helping to tell the tale of the people and the equipment that made the Moon landings possible and popular. Whether their particular piece of the quest was a rocket booster, a wristwatch, or a powdered breakfast drink, participants in the space program were able to share in the attention generated by Apollo without going so far as to say that Neil Armstrong endorsed Tang.

Also fascinating to me, as a former radio reporter who worked for mostly resource-strapped stations (is there any other kind?), was the tale of one small-town station reporter’s efforts to cover the Moon shots on the cheap. He filed his stories using the broadcast equivalent of baling wire and bubble gum.

Marketing the Moon is a large-format volume and a handsome, highly visual one, with lots of Apollo-era photos, print advertisements, and samples of public relations materials used by the various participants in the space program.

I’ve long been of the opinion that NASA public relations has been top-notch. I’ve spoken with former NASA administrator Michael Griffin and space historian Roger Launius about the notion that NASA PR may actually have been too good. Polling shows that people support NASA, but they also believe that its budget is too high, at least in part because they also have a greatly exaggerated impression of what the agency’s budget actually is.

That said, Marketing the Moon is also the story of public relations failure. While the race to the Moon was staggeringly popular, and Armstrong’s giant leap was watched by billions of people around the globe, the buzz didn’t last. Once the race was won, interest flagged among both the media and the public. One can debate which got bored first, but ultimately the attention span wasn’t there. The final three scheduled Apollo missions were canceled, and while missions such as the Mars rovers, and particularly the amazing landing of Curiosity on Mars two years ago, have generated some interest, we haven’t come close to the mania achieved by the effort to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth.

Marketing the Moon is a recommended read. Pick it up in the Seattle Astronomy store.


Ride, Sally, ride

Journalist Lynn Sherr was good friends with astronaut Sally Ride for more than thirty years, but when Ride died in 2012 Sherr said she knew neither of Ride’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, nor knew for certain of her twenty-seven-year relationship with science writer Tam O’Shaughnessy.

“Sally was very good at keeping secrets,” Sherr said during a recent talk at Town Hall Seattle while promoting her biography of the astronaut, Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space.

Sherr met Ride in 1981 when she was on track to fly on the space shuttle and Sherr was newly appointed to the ABC Television News team covering space missions. Sherr laughed at the notion of joining Frank Reynolds, who covered NASA from the beginning of the space program, and Jules Bergman, whom, she said, “practically invented the field of science journalism.”

“Then there was me—who took botany in college to get around my science requirement!” Sherr joked. “I was the color guy.” Ride was among her first interviews, and Sherr said they soon became fast friends.

“We shared a very healthy disregard for the overblown egos and the intransigence of both of our professions, and beneath her very unemotional demeanor, which some found icy, I found a caring and a witty friend,” Sherr said.

Sherr explained that she understands why it took a quarter century of the space program before NASA finally put a woman in space. In the beginning, the need was for military pilots with security clearances, which meant virtually all of the candidates were white men. But when the shuttle program came along, they had bigger crews and needed scientists, so NASA created the position of mission specialist.

“That’s what they started looking for when they reached out to women and minorities starting in 1976,” Sherr said. “All of this, of course, opened the door for people like Sally Ride.”

Ride originally wanted to be a tennis pro but was headed for an academic career when she saw a notice in the Stanford Daily that said NASA was recruiting women. She applied for the gig, and a year later was part of a thirty-five-member astronaut class that included six women, three African American men, and one Asian American man.

“NASA was suddenly looking like the poster child for multiculturalism,” Sherr said, “and all credit to them.”

Ride flew on the shuttle in 1983, and upon her return from being the first American woman in space received a call from President Ronald Reagan, who told Ride she was the best person for the job.

“Millions of other women agreed,” Sherr said. “I think what they did was translate her bold journey into their own tickets for success. Sally became an icon; the can-do symbol of what we can do in the world.”

Photo (9)

Journalist Lynn Sherr spoke about Sally Ride and her new biography of the first American woman in space during an appearance at Town Hall Seattle.

Sherr said she never fully appreciated the “psychic price” her friend Ride—an extreme introvert and naturally shy person—paid for her celebrity, and felt especially sorry that Ride didn’t feel able to go public with her romantic relationship with another woman, O’Shaughnessy.

“I think it’s also part of her story, because hers is a story of a particular time and a particular place and a woman who had the brains and the agility to sieze the moment,” Sherr said. “When Sally was born in 1951 outer space was science fiction and women’s rights were marginal. The social advances and the lucky timing that would enable both to intersect with this life of a very gifted young scientist I think makes hers an inspiring lesson in modern American history. She took full advantage of the ever-widening definition of a woman’s place, and spent much of her life making sure it was everywhere. That she could not or would not openly identify herself as a gay woman reflects not only her intense need for privacy, but the shame and the fear that an intolerant and ignorant society can inflict even on its heroes.”

Sherr said Ride’s life is one for the history books.

“She proved that you don’t need the right plumbing to have the right stuff, in any field or any endeavor.”


Celebrating 10 years at Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft went into orbit around Saturn ten years ago, on July 1, 2004 in universal time. Ron Hobbs, a solar system ambassador of the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, says some of the mission’s most exciting science has occurred quite recently.

10 years at SaturnHobbs spoke at the most recent meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society about Cassini’s decade at Saturn, and notes that recent measurements of the gravitational field of the moon Enceladus have yielded some interesting findings.

“We are very confident that there is body of liquid water at the south pole that extends at least to 50 degrees south latitude on Enceladus,” Hobbs says. “There’s a body of water that’s in contact with rock. We know that some of the ice particles that get shot out into the E-ring have salt and organics in them. This has become on a very short list of places in our own solar system where we might find life.”

Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa are two others on what Hobbs calls the “astrobiological short list.” Many scientists believe that life on Earth may have originated in hydrothermal ocean vents—a safe haven during the heavy bombardment era—and so it’s reasonable to suspect that life might thrive in similar environments elsewhere in the solar system.

Hobbs calls Cassini “the largest, most complex, and capable spacecraft ever built” and notes that we may owe its existence to persistent Europeans. There was some talk in the mid-’90s that Congress would scrap the mission before it got off the ground because of budget concerns. But the Europeans had already built the Huygens probe that hitched a ride on Cassini in order to do a study of the atmosphere of the moon Titan. Hobbs says word is that protests about the proposed cuts made it all the way to the vice president.

“The fact that we have Cassini, as far as I’m concerned, is in large part due to the fact that the Europeans had the guts to talk to the U.S. government and say, ‘You don’t renege on your promises,'” Hobbs says.

Like the Mars rover missions, Cassini has far exceeded the time allotted for its original scientific mission.

“The plan for Cassini when it arrived in July of 2004 was to study Saturn for four years,” Hobbs notes. “Cassini is still one of the healthiest spacecraft we have anywhere in the solar system. All of its instruments are working great, it’s got fuel.” Nonetheless, Hobbs says he occasionally hears talk that Congress again is considering pulling the plug on the mission. He says that would be a bad idea, as we still have a lot to learn.

The NASA video below gives a preview of the work they’re planning for Cassini over the next four years.


Sky Guide developers win Apple Design Award

A pair of Seattle-area software developers are getting some much-deserved recognition for their astronomy app. Chris Laurel and Nick Risinger, founders of Fifth Star Labs, recently received a 2014 Apple Design Award for their gorgeous iOS app Sky Guide.

Laurel and Risinger

Chris Laurel, left, and Nick Risinger, founders of Fifth Star Labs and designers of Sky Guide, an astronomy app that has received a 2014 Apple Design Award.

Laurel is a software developer whose titles include Celestia, an open-source application for astronomical visualization. He has consulted with NASA and the European Space Agency. Risinger is a renowned astrophotographer and designer perhaps best known for his panoramic photo survey of the Milky Way that consists of more than 37,000 individual images. Laurel tells Seattle Astronomy that the idea for Sky Guide germinated as a way to allow people to view Risinger’s imagery.

The first version of Sky Guide came out a little over a year ago, in May 2013, and Laurel says they’ve had the good fortune to be selling well right from the start.

“We have a good app, but it also takes some luck to get the exposure that you need to sell enough to keep yourself employed,” he says. A lot of the luck came in the form of support from Apple, which featured Sky Guide on the app store not long after it launched.

Sky Guide

A screen shot from Sky Guide.

“If you make something that the platform owners like, then they want to feature you because it shows off their devices and software,” Laurel notes of the support from Apple. Soon Sky Guide was featured as the Starbucks app of the week.

“That’s a free download; we don’t get money, but it gets you a lot of people looking at the app,” Laurel says, and that created some buzz. “Once you get enough users using it, then they tell their friends, so you have this sort of organic thing going.”

Laurel says the Apple Design Award came as something of a surprise, but says they’re deeply honored by the recognition from the company. Reviews have been great; Sky Guide was featured as one of the hot products for 2014 in the January issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

Laurel, who is vice president for activities for the Seattle Astronomical Society, says he and Risinger are gratified at the interest the amateur astronomy community has shown in Sky Guide, but notes that this wasn’t their target customer group.

“We were going for a broader audience,” he says, explaining that Sky Guide doesn’t have features such as telescope controls that are offered by other astronomy apps. “We’re going for an audience of anyone who might look up in the night sky and say, ‘What’s that star?'”

We love Sky Guide for its gorgeous look and for its great depth. In addition to Risinger’s superb photography, the app features music and sounds by Mat Jarvis and a wealth of information about bright stars (by James B. Kaler) and about constellation mythology (by Ian Ridpath.) A cool filter feature lets the user see objects as they would appear in various wavelengths, including microwave, infrared, h-alpha, and x-ray.

The Apple Design Award is well-deserved! Sky Guide is available for iPhone and iPad for $1.99. Check it out!


First SHERPA launch from Spaceflight, Inc. set for next year

Seattle-based Spaceflight, Inc. will make a big leap in its business of shuttling small payloads into space with the launch next year of its first SHERPA mission. The company has helped get some three dozen payloads into space, but its president, Curt Blake, says this one will be different.


Drawing of SHERPA in orbit. Courtesy Spaceflight, Inc.

“Up until now we’ve integrated the satellites on board the launch vehicle,” he explains. “This time we’re integrating a whole bunch onto the SHERPA ring.” The ring—a “secondary payload adapter ring”—has five ports around its outside, each of which can carry one or several payloads, depending on their size and configuration. Payloads can be CubeSats or NanoSats as light as a couple of kilograms, or larger satellites up to 300 kilograms. The SHERPA is capable of carrying up to 1,500 kilograms total, though for the maiden mission, set for the third quarter of 2015, it will max out at 1,200 kilograms.

Spaceflight fills an interesting niche in the commercial space business, piggybacking on planned launches and brokering rides to smaller payloads for which it doesn’t make sense to launch on their own.

“The real selling point of this is that secondary payloads generally get a cheaper ride to space, because the primary payload is the one that drives the schedule,” Blake explains. Even more importantly, the folks sending up the primary payload decide where it’s going to go, which isn’t always the ideal place for the secondaries.

“Because of that we developed the SHERPA, which lets us be deployed where the primary is getting deployed, but then we can move around to a place that’s more suitable for the secondary payload,” Blake says.

Following next year’s launch, Blake says Spaceflight is planning two launches each year, one to low-Earth orbit, and the other to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

The first SHERPA will not have its own propulsion system, but future models will, enabling even greater maneuverability and precision in delivering satellites to their intended destinations.

Spaceflight, Inc. is looking beyond the orbit of Earth. Blake says they’re already talking about taking payloads to lunar orbit—it’s a relatively easy proposition to get to the Moon from GTO—and adds that SHERPA might even be able to take small payloads as far as Mars.

“The commercialization of space is definitely leading to rapid innovation,” Blake says.

SHERPA is not an acronym. Blake says the craft was named in homage to the Himalayan guides who lug stuff up to the top of the world. In SHERPA’s case, they’re aiming a bit higher.


Funding Opportunity a “no brainer”

As Congress debates NASA’s budget there’s been some talk about pulling the plug on the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, which has been exploring the Red Planet for more than 10 years. Seattle-based Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs says that would be pure folly.

“We get so much bang for such a little buck for planetary sciences,” Hobbs says. He notes that Opportunity is a mere 600 meters away from what he calls “the promised land of clay” in the Endeavor crater—stratified clay that will give scientists a wealth of information about the geological history of Mars. It’s also a beautiful spot.

“For the photography alone it should be worth going, for the science alone it should be worth going,” Hobbs says. “Put the two together, to me, it’s a no-brainer” to keep Opportunity operating.

Opportunity on Mars

Opportunity took this self portrait in late March as wind storms cleaned its solar panels. Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / ASU

Hobbs notes that it’s just such a geological feature that caused scientists to pick Gale Crater as the destination for the Curiosity rover, which should reach its primary target later this year. Hobbs adds that, to some degree, the existence of Curiosity is a threat to Opportunity.

“If they shut down Opportunity it will be a victim of its own success and the success of all the things that JPL does,” he says.

Hobbs says Opportunity also may be a bit of a victim of over-delivering on its promise. The mission was originally slated to last 90 days, in large part because planners—a superstitious lot—didn’t want to jinx the mission by predicting a long life. Hobbs notes that we build robust spacecraft in America, but there’s a lot of uncertainty out in space.

“You’re going into an extreme environment, and who knows what could happen? You could get hit by a meteorite and be vaporized. Mission over right there,” he says. “You could not land, which is actually the biggest risk and why they sent two” rovers to land on Mars in 2004: Opportunity and Spirit, which worked until 2010. The longest anyone dared suggest the twin rovers would last is a year.

“I think everybody assumed that the first Martian winter would kill them,” Hobbs says. “They certainly thought that a dust storm would kill them. It’s blowing everybody away at this point that Opportunity is still around 10 years later. Nobody expected this.”

In fact, he says anyone who had suggested a rover would last for a decade would have been drummed out of the scientific community.

“They would have been dismissed as completely wacko!” he laughs. “Yet, here we are!”

In fact, Opportunity is working better than it has in several years. A recent wind storm cleaned off its solar panels, and they’re generating higher power than they have in a while.

Hobbs has a hunch that Opportunity ultimately will be funded. It’s continuing work on real science and the public’s love for the rover would likely generate an outcry were the plug pulled.

Stay tuned!

Further reading: