Why Does The Moon Dance So?

An Internet denizen asks how the moon’s axis and orbit combine to affect how we see the moon, and the answer is far more delightful than you might imagine.

For purposes of understanding why we can only view one side of the moon from any point on Earth, you can assume that both have the same axis of rotation (they don’t, but we’ll come back to that) and that you are looking down on the north pole of both Earth and moon:

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How Did We Do It?

An Internet denizen asks:

Q: How were we able to put a man on the moon with the level of technology that was available in 1969?

The answer? By spending a crap ton of money over ten years, peaking at 5% of the federal budget. And by relying as much at possible on already proven technology, which isn’t as “high-tech” as you think (more on that below).

Q: Did NASA have advanced technologies that were just not made public?

Very little. They developed the advanced technologies they needed, and except where they were borrowing from the military, they then made them public. NASA’s primary job, after all, is to promote and nurture the American aerospace industry.

Here are a few examples of how the technology came to be:

  • Back in 1961, NASA knew it would need a big moon rocket, but they didn’t know how big or have a design for it. They knew, however, that back in 1955, Rocketdyne had started work on the granddaddy of rocket engines for the Air Force. The first attempt (the E-1) had been a dead end, but the second try (the F-1) had been successfully fired in 1957—the year before NASA was founded. The Air Force had abandoned the engine, but NASA paid Rocketdyne to continue development, and the engine was improved continually throughout the Apollo program, including thrust and reliability upgrades from one mission to another. For all that, the F-1 was in many ways a crude engine by today’s standards. In particular, it required hundreds of difficult, manual welds in refractory metal, which all had to be perfect. Today, the same engine could be formed in three (principle) pieces and welded together by robots, but back then, it was all done by hand.

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How ‘BOUT that Earth!

When Apollo astronauts first visited the moon, they brought back something somewhat expected (though predicted by Heinlein in Rocketship Gallieo) a gorgeous view of our little “blue marble” poised all alone in space.

Nothing will ever match the poignancy of that image, but as technology has improved, we’ve given it some competition.

This image, was used as wallpaper on the Apple iPhone until 2012:

But this is not a photograph of Earth. At all.

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His Master’s Voice

If you grew up listening to music from the great age of vinyl records, you probably recognize this image:Related image

This (often in line drawing form and often with the words “His Master’s Voice”) was used as a logo for the Gramophone

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That We May Touch the Sky


One of my favorite moments from the entire Star Trek franchise occurs in the Next Generation episode, “Hide and Q” when Captain Piccard quotes Hamlet, saying,

What he might said with irony, I say with conviction. What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason. How infinite in faculty. In form, in moving, how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god”

As a science fiction author, I spend a lot of time exploring what it means to be human. I subscribe to the view that indeed, that question and questions like it are the heart and soul of the genre, and of speculative fiction in general.

What then does it mean to be human?

There are many answers to this question, of course, and not all particularly flattering, but two news items this week go a long way toward bracketing the topic.

This week, NASA launched the Parker solar probe, a spacecraft that will not only study the sun, it will dip down and sample its atmosphere.

There is a lot that can be said about this, but just think–we, puny naked apes that we are, have sent a tool to touch the sun. I’m willing to bet that, put in those terms, that thought puts a little energy in your heartbeat. Why? By completion, the Parker Solar probe mission will cost enough to foot the entire cost of all charity medical care in the US for a year (which honestly, is a much smaller amount than it ought to be). So why not, as social liberals sometimes ask (as Jesse Jackson asked about the moon landing) spend that money on the tired, the poor, the huddled masses?

There are two answers to this question, but to explore them, let’s cast our gaze back as ways–way back–to prehistory–to the Pleistocene and the beings who came before us.

Apes are fragile, and our fossil record is spotty, but we’ve identified several dozen “missing-links” between ourselves and our nearest ape cousins. Through most of the last 6 million years, our ancestors lived in the habitat they evolved in–like any other animal. Australopithecines walked upright and had larger brains for their body size than any ape before them–but they were more like chimpanzees than us. They can be thought of as smart chimps adapted to hiking in the heat of the African savanna, and to hiding form the big cats who preyed on them. By a little little less than 2 million years ago, these early hominids had become a lot smarter, and had adapted to the use of stone tools and fire. These were Homo erectus, and they became the most successful ape that had ever lived, spreading across Africa and into Europe and Asia.

This geographic dispersion, however, took forever. A modern human in good shape can easily hike ten miles in a day. A family living in North Africa, moving camp by a mere 30 miles per year, could reach China in 150 years. Erectus took at least a thousand times that long, and they didn’t even stop at Euro-Disneyland. You might reasonably ask what reason they had to move–and fair enough except, put yourself in those shoes. Can you imagine living in any human settlement where no one takes off to start a new settlement for hundreds of years? Hell, we’d do it just out of boredom, or cussedness, or to get away from the in-laws–or to see what’s beyond the next rise.

Dr Ceri Shipton, et. al. of the Australian National University School of Culture, History and Language have been studying H. erectus sites in the Arabian peninsula. Thay’ve found compelling evidence for what he calls ‘least-effort strategies’ for tool making and resource collection. Erectus seemed to rely on the stone at his feet even when more suitable tool making flint was available atop a nearby hill. He seemed to hang around established habitation sites even as the climate made them unlivable. Shipton like to say “erectus was too lazy for his own good.” I’d put it a little differently, erectus, like many people, may have been too lazy to do things the easy way.

By the way, erectus went extinct. Humans walked on another world after our leader said,

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.

Cynicism aside, these are words that all humans understand, be they aeronautical engineers or petty thieves. Neanderthals used essentially the same tool making and hunting strategies for a quarter million years, I built my own treadmill desk in a weekend. Sure, I “stand on the shoulders of giants,” but those giants are also humans, they also have that human spark that drives us to invent, to explore, to seek out new worlds and see what’s there and what works. That’s what gave us bread and vaccines and that’s what gave us industrialized warfare. There two are closely related. We are more than “thinking man,” we are the scheming ape, the crafty ape, the ape of adventure and conquest. What drives us forward can also drive us closer to the brink–but we cannot go back to the jungle. We are mankind, and we much adapt ourselves and our culture to our new stature as the custodians of Earth, or we will meet the same fate as the lowliest creature–eventual, inevitable extinction.

The Parker Solar Probe will touch the sun. It will help us better understand space weather, prepare for manned explorations into deep space, protect our power grid and our communications technology, and maybe even safeguard life on Earth. That’s one reason for sending it. The other reason–the better reason–is because we can.

Earlier in the “we choose to go” speech, President Kennedy said this:

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man.

This is the heart of the matter. Yes, we should feed the poor and tend the huddled masses and we can debate till the cows come home how and to what extent we should do that. But knowledge is important too, and adventure. And when the day comes that humanity no longer looks beyond the mundane requirements of our daily bread to peek over yon horizon, well, that will be the day after the last day of the human race.

Go Boldly.



What’s Your Earliest Memory?

A writer friend commented how some people seem to remember very little from their childhood, while others remember a lot.

I have tons of memories from before we moved from South Dakota when I was four, but I’d be hard-pressed to say which was the earliest. A contender might be pushing my head against the bars of the crib, which was aroused when my own first born joined us. That’s not much of a memory, though.
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Things to See in AZ

With my daily batch of newsletter signups today, I got a very nice note from one of the assistant managers at the Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory, built on public land in Gilbert Arizona by the Rotary Club.

Image result for gilbert az observatory

He says he started out at the Griffith Observatory in LA, and later left the Tessermann planetarium and Santa Ana College when plans were announced to close it and turn it into a TV studio. Fortunately, common sense prevailed, and it’s gone through subsequent renovation and is enjoying a second heyday.

So if you ever find yourself in Santa Ana, CA or Gilbert, AZ, you know what to go see.

Thanks, George!

Space Development Conference 2018

I spent Memorial Day weekend in Los Angeles attending the International Space Development Conference and walking, walking, walking…. I was recognized for my Jim Baen Short Story Award placement along with first place winner Stephen Lawson, met renowned scientists Freeman Dyson and Frank Drake (of Dyson sphere and Drake Equation fame), and met actor-cum-space entrepreneur Harry Hamlin and philanthropist and space promoter Rod Roddenberry.

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An Everyday Science FAIL

Years ago, I read about a study that asked students a math question involving school bus capacity, to which most students answered “three and three quarters buses.” When asked if they thought that was a sensible answer, many responded that they thought they were being asked “school math” instead of “real world math.”

This highlighted a big problem in the way education is done in this country, and the problem isn’t restricted to math.Related image

Today, I watched a car explode, and I knew without shifting my backside from the seat exactly what thy owner had done to cause this yuletime catastrophe.

I was sitting in the drive-through at McDonald’s, having just ordered a hamburger after a quick trip to the store. I’d waited forever for the chance to order (no doubt, due to the car in question), but being literally sick and tired, and as there was a brilliant comedian on the radio, I didn’t mind. I pulled around and paid, rolled up the window, and heard a “Poofshwishshshshshshsh…”

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Living In Infamous Times

Today is December 7th, 2017. Seventy-six years ago today, forces of the empire of Japan unleashed a surprise attack on US Naval facilities at Pearl Harbor, killing 2,403 people, sinking eighteen ships, and dragging the US into the war. Despite the gross imbalance in political and economic power, Japanese planners saw the US as weak and its people irresolute, and they believed that if they struck us hard enough, we would roll over and give them what they wanted–dominion over Southeast Asia and the Southern Pacific.

The lesson from that was, that if you don’t want war, be visibly prepared to win one.

Also on this date, forty-five years ago, Britons started dying in droves as a killer smog built up through the third of what would prove to be five days of temperature inversion over the city of London. Fog is nothing new to London, but this fog was saturated with the sulfur-laden emissions, not only of automobiles and trains, but of a set of coal-fired power plants built inside the city limits by the post-war Churchill administration, mostly to appease business interests and project an image of post war England as stronger than it she was. Churchill dismissed the growing catastrophe as an act of god, even though his government has been warned this would eventually happen before the plants were built, in part using scientific data from similar events in America. In five days, though mortality statistics were suppressed at the time, 12,000 people died–five times the number killed at Pearl Harbor, and not only soldiers, but women, children, and the elderly.

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