June 8, 1959 Missile Mail

“Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

If we talk about RocketMail, we’re usually speaking of one of the early free webmail services, up there with Hotmail and a few others.  Not to be confused with the days, when the mail was delivered on Real rockets.

Sort of.

In the early 19th century, expanding western settlement meant that a letter sent to California took one of several routes, to get there. Earlier stagecoach passages were replaced by steamship routes traveling around South America, or by overland transfer 89987-004-3A10E441across the Isthmus of Panama or the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Mexico. The simmering tensions which would lead the nation to Civil War would prove such a system inadequate, as the rapid transfer of information became ever more important.

 

The Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, better known as the Pony Express, was the short-lived effort to speed up the process. Between April 1860 and October ’61, continuous horse-and-rider relays carried letters the 2,000-mile distance from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California.

Individual riders covered 75 – 100 miles at a time, on somewhere between five and ten horses.  138706-004-0303CD27The Pony Express compressed the standard 24-day schedule for overland delivery to ten days, but the system was a financial disaster.  Little more than an expensive stopgap before the first transcontinental telegraph system.

Throughout the “Reconstruction” era and on toward the turn of the century, individuals living in more remote precincts had to pick up the mail at sometimes-distant post offices, or pay private carriers.

The Post Office began experiments with Rural Free Delivery (RFD) as early as 1890, but the system was slow to catch on. Georgia Congressman Thomas Watson pushed RFD legislation through the Congress in 1893, making the practice mandatory. Implementation was slow and RFD wouldn’t be fully adopted until 1902, but elected officials were quick to implement this new way to reach out to voters.

220px-Par_avion_air_mailThe first mail carried through the air arrived by hot air balloon on January 7, 1785, a letter written by Loyalist William Franklin to his son William Temple Franklin, at that time serving a diplomatic role in Paris with his grandfather, the United States’ one-time and first postmaster, Benjamin Franklin.

The first (unofficial) mail delivery by aircraft took place on February 17, 1911, when Fred Wiseman flew three letters between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, California. Comprehensive airmail rules were adopted by the Universal Postal Union in 1929. Since then, airmail was often marked “Par avion”: “By airplane”.

Section 92 of the 1873 Postal Laws and Regulations book states that carriers would deliver “as frequently as the public convenience may require.” What exactly constitutes “Public Convenience” was open to interpretation but, in some cities, business districts received between three and five daily deliveries and twice a day to residential areas.

6a01157147ecba970c01b8d1be010c970c-800wi

In 1950, the Postmaster General ordered residential deliveries reduced to once a day and, by the early 1990s, businesses had learned to live with the same.  There was little to be improved upon, in this happy state of affairs.  Unless of course you’re receiving your mail, by rocket.

The concept is older than you might think.  German novelist Heinrich von Kleist (1777 – 1811) was the first to bring up the idea in 1810, calculating that a network of batteries could relay a letter from Berlin to Breslau, a distance of 180 miles, in half a day. Such a system was attempted using congreve rockets in 19th century Tonga, but proved unreliable. By 1929, American ambassador to Germany Jacob Gould Schurman was discussing the finer points of transatlantic rocket mail delivery, with a German reporter.

A 1936 experiment with rocket-powered mail delivery between New York and New Jersey ended with 50-lbs of mail, stranded on the ice of frozen Greenwood Lake.

From India to the United Kingdom, the 1930s were a time for experimentation with rocket-propelled mail delivery. 1,200 letters were packed into a rocket fuselage in July 1934, and fired between Harris Island in the Hebrides and Scarp island in Scotland, a distance of some 1,600 meters (1 mile). The first rocket blew up so they gathered all the letters they could find, and packed them into a second. That one exploded, too.

10394

As a piece of technology, the rockets’ origins are both simple and ancient. A rocket, quite simply, is a vessel, powered by stored propellant such as gunpowder, kerosene, or liquid hydrogen & oxygen. A Missile is a vehicle propelled by rockets, whose purpose it is to deliver a payload.

Vought_SSM-N-8_Regulus_I_(ID_unknown)_(30571413366)
Regulus Cruise Missile

In 1959, the diesel-electric submarine USS Barbero was officially designated a branch location of the United States Post Office, for purposes of “delivering” mail to Naval Station Mayport, in Jacksonville, Florida. The nuclear warhead was removed from a Regulus Cruise missile and two Post Office-approved containers installed.  3,000 letters and postcards were inserted, addressed to President Eisenhower, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, and other dignitaries.

On June 8, the 13,685-pound, 32-foot cruise missile launched from the decks of the Barbero, two Aerojet-General 33,000 lbf solid-propellant boosters giving way to the turbojet engine which would guide the missile onto its target.   Twenty-two minutes later the missile struck, the Regulus opened and the mail forwarded to the Jacksonville post office for sorting and routing.

Missilemail

Postmaster Summerfield was effusive, proclaiming the “historic significance to the peoples of the entire world”.  “Before man reaches the moon”, he exclaimed, “mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

ea2ad7a5fac60ef99d3742e9ea44331c

Arthur Summerfield’s golden future of missile mail, was never meant to be.  Despite the postmaster’s enthusiasm, the system was Way too expensive.  The Defense Department saw the first and only mail delivery by intercontinental ballistic missile in history, as more of a demonstration of the weapon system’s capabilities.  In any case, aircraft were  delivering airmail by this time, in less than a day.

0831713The Regulus was superseded by the Polaris missile in 1964, the year in which Barbero ended her nuclear strategic deterrent patrols. She was struck from the Naval Registry that July, and suffered the humiliating fate of the target ship, sunk off the coast of Pearl Harbor on October 7 by the nuclear submarine USS Swordfish.

So it is that a United States mail container may be discovered at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton Connecticut, fired from a Balao-class sub, fifty-nine years ago, today.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

May 24, 1935 Under the Lights

The first minor league game played under the lights drew 12,000 spectators, at a time when the host club was averaging only 600 per game. As the Great Depression dragged on, minor league owners were finding night games a key to staying in business. Even then, the Poobahs of Major League Baseball were slow to catch on.

The-lamplighterIn 18th century London, it was a bad idea to go out at night. Not without a lantern in one hand, and a club in the other.

The city introduced its first gas-lit street in 1807 on the Central London Pall Mall, between St. James’s Street & Trafalgar Square. Before long, hundreds of “Lamp Lighters” could be seen with their ladders, gas lights bathing the city in a soft, green glow.

The Westminster Review newspaper opined that gas lamps had done more to eliminate immorality and criminality on the streets, than any number of church sermons.

The United States followed nine years later, when the city of Baltimore lit up in 1816.

Thomas Edison patented the first carbon-thread incandescent lamp in 1879.  The first baseball game played “under the lights” took place the following year near Nantasket Beach, in the ‘south shore’ town of Hull, Massachusetts.

It was September 2, 1880 when two teams, sponsored by the RH White & Co. and Jordan Marsh department stores of Boston, played a full nine innings to a 16-all tie.  The era of the night game had arrived, and the lamp lighters of London, can be seen to this day.

Except, no, it didn’t work out that way.  The lamp lighter part is true enough.  Today, five gas engineers keep the Victorian era alive, winding and checking the mechanisms, polishing the glass and replacing the mantles of some 1,500 – 2,000 gas lamps.

00E97E09000004B0-2848038-It_is_one_of_the_rare_places_in_the_city_where_a_walker_can_imag-4_1416898177238
Modern-day “Lamp Lighter” H/T UK Guardian

Across the pond, organized baseball would take another fifty years to give the arc light another try.

Evidence exists of other 19th-century night games, but these were little more than novelties. Holyoke Massachusetts inventor George F. Cahill, creator of the pitching machine, devised a portable lighting system in 1909. With the blessing of Garry Herrmann, President of the Cincinnati Reds, Cahill staged an exhibition game on the night of June 19, between the Elk Lodges of Cincinnati and Newport, Kentucky.

The crowd of 3,000  had little trouble following the ball and Cahill was an enthusiastic salesman for his invention, but the man was doomed to frustration and disappointment.  Night-time exhibition games were regularly met with great enthusiasm, yet Organized Baseball was slow to catch on.

The Class B New England league played a night exhibition game on June 24, 1927 before a crowd of 5,000, sponsored by the General Electric Employees’ Athletic Association. The Washington Senators were in town at that time to play the Boston Red Sox.  Delegations from both clubs were on-hand to watch Lynn defeat Salem in a seven-inning game, 7-2. Washington manager Bucky Harris and Boston manager Bill Carrigan, were impressed. Senator’s star outfielder Goose Goslin expressed a desire to play a night game. Claude Johnson, President of the New England League, predicted that all leagues would have night baseball within five years, including the majors.

Lighting_Baseball2When the Great Depression descended across the land, minor league clubs folded by the bushel. Small town owners were desperate to innovate. The first-ever night game in professional baseball was played on May 2, 1930, when Des Moines, Iowa hosted Wichita for a Western League game.

The game drew 12,000 spectators at a time when Des Moines was averaging just 600 per game.  Soon, minor league owners were finding night games a key to staying in business.

Even then, the Poobahs of Major League Baseball were slow to catch on.  Five years later, the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in the first-ever big league game played under the lights.

A crowd of 25,000 spectators waited on this day in 1935, as President Roosevelt symbolically turned on the lights from Washington DC.  The Reds played a night game that year against every National League opponent and, despite a losing record of 68-85, enjoyed an increase in paid attendance of 117%.

6DZG7YeE
The first night game in Major League Baseball was played on this day in 1935, when the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Philadelphia Phillies, 2-1

Thoughought the ’30s and ’40s, teams upgraded facilities to include lights and, before long, most of Major League Baseball had night games on the schedule. Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs and the second-oldest MLB stadium after Fenway Park, was the last to begin hosting night games. To this day, the Cubbies remain the only major league team to host the majority of its games, during the day.

Wrigley’s first officially recorded night game ended in a 6-4 win over the New York Mets on August 8, 1988.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

March 21, 1905 Better Babies

By the height of the eugenics movement, some 30 states had passed legislation, legalizing the involuntary sterilization of individuals considered “unfit” for reproduction. All told, some 60,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized in state-sanctioned procedures.

In 380BC, Plato described a system of state-controlled human breeding in his Socratic dialogue “The Republic”, introducing a “guardian class” to watch over over his ideal society.

Ada JukeIn the 19th century, Francis Galton studied the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin on the evolution of species, applying them to a system of selective breeding intended to bring “better” human beings into the world.  He called it his theory of “Eugenics”.

Eugenics gained worldwide respectability in the early 20th century, when countries from Brazil to Japan adopted policies regarding the involuntary sterilization of certain mental patients.

images (35)“Better Babies” competitions sprang up at state fairs across the United States, where babies were measured, weighed, and “judged”.  Like livestock.  By the 20s, these events had evolved into “Fitter Family” competitions.

One of the leaders of the eugenics movement was the pacifist and Stanford University professor, David Starr Jordan.  After writing several books on the subject, Jordan became a founding member of the Eugenics Committee of the American Breeders Association.  The higher classes of American society were being eroded by the lower class, he argued.  Careful, selective breeding would be required to preserve the nation’s “upper crust”.

download (23)
Margaret Samger

Margaret Higgins Sanger believed that birth control should be compulsory for “unfit” women, who “recklessly perpetuated their damaged genetic stock by irresponsibly breeding more children in an already overpopulated world.”

An early advocate for birth control, Sanger has her supporters to this day, including former Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. “I admire Margaret Sanger enormously”, Clinton said.  “Her courage, her tenacity, her vision…”  Time Magazine points out that “Sanger opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States”, describing her as “An advocate for women’s reproductive rights who was also a vocal eugenics enthusiast…”

Detractors have described Sanger as a “thoroughgoing racist”, citing her own words in What Every Girl Should Know, published in 1910:  “In all fish and reptiles where there is no great brain development, there is also no conscious sexual control. The lower down in the scale of human development we go the less sexual control we find. It is said that the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets”.

Admire or detest the woman as you choose, Sanger’s work established organizations which later evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Around the world, eugenics policies took the form of involuntarily terminated pregnancies, compulsory sterilization, euthanasia, and even mass extermination.

lrg_16330_233eugenictree

Madison Grant, the New York lawyer best known for his work in developing the discipline of wildlife management, was a leader in the eugenics movement, once receiving an approving fan letter from none other than Adolf Hitler.

Public policy and academic types conducted three international eugenics conferences to discuss the application of programs to improve human bloodlines.  The first such symposium convened in London in 1912, discussing papers on “racial suicide” and similar topics.  Presiding over the conference was none other than Major Leonard Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin, with Harvard president emeritus Charles William Eliot serving as vice President.

Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary HistoryThe 1912 conference was followed by two more in 1921 and 1932, both held in New York City.  Colleges and universities delved into eugenics as academic discipline, with courses exploring the ethical and public policy considerations of eliminating the “degenerate” and “unfit”.

In Pennsylvania, 270 involuntary sterilizations were performed without benefit of law, between 1892 and 1931.  On March 21, 1905, the Pennsylvania legislature passed “An Act for the Prevention of Idiocy”, requiring that every institution in the state entrusted with the care of “ idiots and imbecile children”, be staffed by at least one skilled surgeon, whose duty it was to perform surgical sterilization.  The bill was vetoed by then-Governor Samuel Pennypacker, only to return in 1911, ’13, ’15, ’17, ’19, and again in 1921.

By the height of the eugenics movement, some 30 states had passed legislation, legalizing the involuntary sterilization of individuals considered “unfit” for reproduction. All told, some 60,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized in state-sanctioned procedures.

California forced Charlie Follett to undergo a vasectomy in 1945 at the age of 15, when Follett found himself abandoned by alcoholic parents.   He was only one of some 20,000 Californians forced to undergo such a procedure.

images (36)
Roadside Marker, Raleigh, NC

Vermont passed a sterilization law in 1931, aimed at what then-University of Vermont zoology professor Henry Perkins called the “rural degeneracy problem.”  An untold number of “defectives” were forced to undergo involuntary sterilization, including Abenaki Indians and French-Canadian immigrants.

Indiana passed the first eugenic sterilization law in 1907, but the measure was legally flawed.  To remedy the situation, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), founded in 1910 by the the former Harvard University Zoology Professor Charles Benedict Davenport, Ph.D.,  crafted a statute, which was later adopted by the Commonwealth of Virginia as state law in 1924.

That September, Superintendent of the ‘Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded’ Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, filed a petition to sterilize one Carrie Elizabeth Buck, an 18-year-old patient at the institution whom Priddy claimed to be “incorrigible”.  A “genetic threat to society”.  Buck’s 52-year-old mother had a record of prostitution and immorality, Priddy claimed, and the child to whom Buck gave birth in the institution only proved the point.

carriebuck2
Carrie Elizabeth Buck was born into poverty in Charlottesville, Virginia, the first of three children born to Emma Buck. Carrie’s father Frederick Buck abandoned the family, shortly after the marriage. Emma was committed to the “Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded” following accusations of immorality, prostitution, and having syphilis.

Buck’s guardian brought her case to court, arguing that compulsory sterilization violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.  After losing in district court, the case was appealed to the Amherst County Circuit Court, the Virginia Supreme Court, and finally the United States Supreme Court.

Dr. Priddy died along the way, Dr. John Hendren Bell taking his place.  SCOTUS decided the “Buck vs Bell” case on May 2, 1927, ruling in an 8–1 decision that Carrie Buck, her mother, and her perfectly normal infant daughter, were all “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous.”

11255
“This photograph was taken on the eve of the initial trial of Buck v Bell in Virginia. Mrs. Dobbs appear to be holding a coin believed to be used as a test for alertness or mental acuity. Vivian appears to be looking elsewhere. It may have ben on the strength of this test that Arthur Estabrook concluded that she “showed backwardness.” H/T DNA Learning Center, dnalc.org

In the majority ruling, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., did more than just greenlight the Virginia statute.  He urged the nation as a whole to get serious about eugenics, and to prevent large numbers of “unfit” from breeding:  “”It is better for all the world“, Holmes wrote, “if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind“. In writing about Carrie Buck herself, her mother and infant daughter Vivian, Holmes delivered one of the most brutal pronouncements in all American jurisprudence: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

It was later revealed that Carrie Buck had been raped by a member of the Dobbs family, the foster family who had taken her in and later had her committed.  To save the family “honor”.  No matter.  Buck was compelled to undergo tubal ligation, later paroled from the institution to become a domestic worker with a family in Bland, Virginia.  Buck’s daughter Vivian was adopted by the Dobbs family.

In a later examination of the child, ERO field worker Dr. Arthur Estabrook pronounced her “feeble minded” saying that she “showed backwardness”, supporting the “three generations” theory expressed in the SCOTUS opinion.

Vivian died from complications of measles in 1932, after only two years in school.  Dr. Estabrook failed to explain in his report, how she seemed to do well for those two years, nor did doctor Estabrook reveal how she came to be listed on her school’s honor roll, in April, 1931.

March 10, 1876  The Speed of Sound

For all of Mark Twain’s abilities, he wasn’t much of an investor.  The man turned down a ground-floor opportunity to invest in the telephone, in favor of a typesetting machine which actually made setting type more complicated, than the age-old printer’s method of setting type, by hand.

As the son of a speech pathologist and husband to a deaf wife, Alexander Melville Bell was always interested in sound. Since the profoundly deaf can’t hear their own pronunciation, Bell developed a system he called Visible Speech in 1864, to help the deaf learn and improve elocution.

220px-VisibleSpeech-illustrationsÉdouard Séguin, the Paris-born physician and educator best known for his work with the developmentally disabled and a major inspiration to Italian educator Maria Montessori, called the elder Bell’s work “…a greater invention than the telephone by his son, Alexander Graham Bell”.

As a boy, the younger Bell developed a method of carefully modulating his speech and speaking into his mother’s forehead, a method which allowed her to “hear” him, fairly clearly.  The boy followed in his father’s footsteps, mastering his elder’s work to the point of improving on it and teaching the system at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes (which operates today as the Horace Mann School for the Deaf), the American Asylum for Deaf-mutes in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts.

539001It was Alexander Graham Bell who first broke through to Helen Keller, a year before Anne Sullivan.  The two developed a life-long relationship closely resembling that of father and daughter.  Bell made it possible for Keller to attend Radcliffe and graduate in 1904, the first deaf/blind person, ever to do so.

Keller used a braille typewriter to write her first autobiography in 1903, dedicating The Story of My Life, to her life-long friend, benefactor and mentor:  “To Alexander Graham Bell, who has taught the deaf to speak and enabled the listening ear to hear speech from the Atlantic to the Rockies.”

aa_keller_radcliffe_1_e
CREDIT: “[Alexander Graham Bell with Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan at the meeting of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, July 1894, in Chautauqua, N.Y.]” [1894, printed later]. Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.
A natural inventor, it was Bell’s 1875 work on electrical telegraphy, which led to the telephone.  Bell heard a “twang” on the line while working , leading him to investigate the possibility of using electrical wires, to transmit sound.

Rival Elisha Gray was working on a similar concept, and filed a caveat (statement of concept) on February 14, 1876, mere hours after Bell applied for patent.

Bell’s device first produced intelligible speech on March 10, that same year.  His diary entry describes the event: “I then shouted into M [the mouthpiece] the following sentence: “Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you.” To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said.  I asked him to repeat the words. He answered, “You said ‘Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you.'” We then changed places and I listened at S [the speaker] while Mr. Watson read a few passages from a book into the mouthpiece M. It was certainly the case that articulate sounds proceeded from S. The effect was loud but indistinct and muffled”.

Alexander-Graham-Bell-3

Many of Bell’s innovations came about, much earlier than you might expect.  One of his first inventions after the telephone was the “photophone,” a device enabling sound to be transmitted on a beam of light. Bell and his assistant, Charles Sumner Tainter, developed the photophone using a sensitive selenium crystal and a mirror which would vibrate in response to sound. In 1881, the pair successfully sent a photophone message from one building to another, a distance of over 200 yards.

Several innovations would later build on this accomplishment to produce the modern laser.

0bcb9e63f5In September 1881, Alexander Graham Bell hurriedly invented the first metal detector, as President James Garfield lay dying from an assassin’s bullet. The device was unsuccessful in saving the President, but credited with saving many lives during the Boer War and WW1.

That was the year in which Bell’s infant son Edward died of respiratory problems, leading the bereaved father to design a metal vacuum jacket which would facilitate breathing. This apparatus was a forerunner of the iron lung used in the ’40s and ’50s to aid polio victims.  As many as 39 people still used an iron lung to breathe, as late as 2004.

The telephone was a commercial success, but that wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Looking for investors for his new enterprise, Bell approached Samuel Clemens in 1877, as a potential investor.  Better known as Mark Twain, the author declined the opportunity, believing the market to be confined to bridge-to-engine room communications, onboard maritime vessels.

download (19)
Mark Twain

One of the towering figures of American literature, Samuel Clemens achieved considerable financial success during his lifetime but, for all his abilities, didn’t have much of an eye for opportunity.  Mark Twain turned down a ground-floor invitation to invest in the telephone, choosing instead to buy into a typesetting machine which complicated the setting of type, compared with the age-old printer’s method of setting type, by hand.

Alexander Graham Bell’s creation would change the world but, to the end of his days, his work with the deaf gave him greatest satisfaction.

Bell would sell his invention, to finance his work on devices to aid the hearing-impaired.  He didn’t keep a phone on his desk, considering the thing to be an interruption and a nuisance.

Later in life, Alexander Graham Bell described his work with the deaf, as “more pleasing to me than even recognition of my work with the telephone.”

Alexander-Graham-Bell-1

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 16, 2003 Columbia

Flight Director Jon Harpold stated the problem, succinctly. “If it has been damaged it’s probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?”

Discussions of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS) began as early as the 1960s, as a way to cut down on the cost of space travel. The final design was a reusable, winged “spaceplane”, with disposable external tank and reusable solid fuel rocket boosters.

The ‘Space Truck’ program was approved in 1972, the prime contract awarded to North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), with the first orbiter completed in 1976.

Early Approach and Landing Tests were conducted with the first prototype, dubbed “Enterprise”, in 1977. A total of 16 tests, all within the confines of the atmosphere, were conducted from February to October of that year, the lessons learned applied to the first spaceworthy vehicle in NASA’s orbital fleet.

columbia_sts1STS-1, the first mission of the “Space Shuttle” program launched aboard “Columbia” from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. It was April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight, aboard the Russian Vostok 1. This was the first and, to-date only, manned maiden test flight of a new spacecraft system, in the US space program.

This first flight of Columbia would be commanded by Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young, and piloted by Robert Crippen. It was the first of 135 missions in the Space Shuttle program, the first of only two to take off with its external hydrogen fuel tank painted white. From STS-3 on, the external tank would be left unpainted to save weight.

There were initially four fully functional orbiters in the STS program: Columbia was joined after her first five missions by “Challenger”, “Discovery”, and finally “Atlantis”. A fifth orbiter, “Endeavor”, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, killing all seven of its crew.

All told, Columbia flew 28 missions with 160 crew members, traveling 125,204,911 miles in 4,808 orbits around the planet.

Columbia-Space-Shuttle-DisasterSTS-107 launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on January 16, 2003.  Eighty seconds after launch, a piece of insulating foam the size of a briefcase broke away from the external fuel tank, striking the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing and leaving a hole in the carbon composite tiles.

These carbon tiles are all that stands between the orbiter and the searing heat of re-entry.  On the ground, mission management teams discussed the problem, without being certain of its extent.  Even if there was major damage, little could be done about it.  So, what to tell the crew?

Flight Director Jon Harpold stated the problem, succinctly. “If it has been damaged it’s probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?”

So it was that Columbia’s 300 days, 17 hours, forty minutes and 22 seconds in space came to an end on the morning of February 1, 2003.

231,000 feet over the California coast and traveling 23 times the speed of sound, external temperatures surrounding the craft rose to 3,000°F when hot gases penetrated the interior of the left wing.  Abnormal readings began to show up at Mission Control, first temperature readings, and then tire pressures.

article-2271525-1747F562000005DC-689_634x334

The first debris began falling to the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am. “Capcom”, the spacecraft communicator, called to discuss the tire pressure readings. At 8:59:32 a.m., Commander Husband called back from Columbia: “Roger,” he said, followed by another word.  It was cut off in mid-sentence.

After sixteen days in space, the ST-107 crew — Rick Husband, commander; Michael Anderson, payload commander; David Brown, mission specialist; Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Laurel Clark, mission specialist; William McCool, pilot; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist from the Israeli Space Agency, probably survived the initial breakup, losing consciousness in the seconds following.

QkRd6

Vehicle debris and crew remains were found in over 2,000 locations across Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. The only survivors of the disaster was a canister full of worms, brought into space for study.

Petr-Ginz-drawing-lPayload Specialist Colonel Ilan Ramon, born Ilan Wolferman, was an Israeli fighter pilot, the first Israeli astronaut to join the NASA space program.

Colonel Ramon’s mother survived the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.  His grandfather and several family members, did not.  In their memory, Ramon carried a copy of “Moon Landscape”, a drawing by 14-year-old holocaust victim Petr Ginz, depicting what he thought earth might look like, from the moon.

Today, there are close to 84,000 pieces of Columbia and assorted debris, stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. To the best of my knowledge, that drawing by a boy who never made it out of Auschwitz, was never found.

article-2271525-1746D34A000005DC-544_634x370
Left to right: David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool and Ilan Ramon

Feature Image credit, top:  Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster, Chris Butler

January 12, 1967 Frozen

“I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country”. – Benjamin Franklin

The human brain is an awesome thing. Weighing in at about 3lbs, the organ is comprised of something like 86 billion neurons, each made up of a stoma or cell body, an axon to take information away from the cell, and anywhere between a handful and a hundred thousand dendrites bringing information in. Chemical signals transmit information over minute gaps between neurons called synapses, about 1/25,000th to 1/50,000th of the thickness of a sheet of paper.

Signal+Transmission+Dendrites+Cell+body+Nucleus+SynapseThere are roughly a quadrillion such synapses, meaning that any given thought could wend its way through more pathways than there are molecules in the known universe. This is roughly the case, whether you are Stephen J. Hawking, or Forrest Gump.

For all of this, the brain cannot store either oxygen or glucose (blood sugar), meaning that there’s about 6 minutes after the heart stops, before the brain itself begins to die.

Legally, brain death occurs at “that time when a physician(s) has determined that the brain and the brain stem have irreversibly lost all neurological function”. Brain death defines the legal end of life in every state except New York and New Jersey, where the law requires that a person’s lungs and heart must also have stopped, before that person is declared legally dead.

Clearly there is a gap, a small span of time, between the moment of legal death and a person’s permanent and irreversible passing. So, what if it were possible to get down to the molecular level and repair damaged brain tissue.  For that matter, when exactly does such damage become “irreversible”?

“Information-theoretic death” is defined as death which is final and irreversible by any technology, apart from what is currently possible given contemporary medical methodologies.  For some, the gap between current legal and clinical definitions of death and the truly irretrievable, is a source of hope for some future cure.

cryonicsThe Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the self-described “world leader in cryonics, cryonics research, and cryonics technology” explains “Cryonics is an effort to save lives by using temperatures so cold that a person beyond help by today’s medicine can be preserved for decades or centuries until a future medical technology can restore that person to full health”.

The practice is highly controversial, and not to be confused with Cryogenics, the study of extremely low temperatures, approaching the still-theoretical cessation of all molecular activity.  Absolute zero.

The Cryogenic Society of America, Inc. includes this statement on its home page: “We wish to clarify that cryogenics, which deals with extremely low temperatures, has no connection with cryonics, the belief that a person’s body or body parts can be frozen at death, stored in a cryogenic vessel, and later brought back to life. We do NOT endorse this belief, and indeed find it untenable”.

The modern era of cryonics began in 1962, when Michigan College physics professor Robert Ettinger proposed that freezing people may be a way to reach out to some future medical technology.

The Life Extension Society, founded by Evan Cooper in 1964 to promote cryonic suspension, offered to preserve one person free of charge in 1965. Dr. James Hiram Bedford was suffering from untreatable kidney cancer at that time, which had metastasized to his lungs.

James Bedford
Dr. James Hiram Bedford

Bedford became the first person to be cryonically preserved on January 12, 1967, frozen at the boiling point of liquid nitrogen, −321° Fahrenheit, and sealed up in a double-walled, vacuum cylinder called a “dewar”, named after Sir James Dewar, the 19th century Scottish chemist and physicist best known for inventing the vacuum flask, and for  research into the liquefaction of gases.

Fifty-one years later, cryonics societies around the world celebrate January 12 as “Bedford Day”.  Dr. Bedford has since received two new “suits”, and remains in cryonic suspension, to this day.

Advocates experienced a major breakthrough in the 1980s, when MIT engineer Eric Drexler began to publish on the subject of nanotechnology. Drexler’s work offered the hope that, theoretically, one day injured tissue may be repaired at the molecular level.

Cryonics1-640x353In 1988, television writer Dick Clair, best known for television sitcoms “It’s a Living”, “The Facts of Life”, and “Mama’s Family”, was dying of AIDS related complications. In his successful suit against the state of California, “Roe v. Mitchell” (Dick Clair was John Roe), Judge Aurelio Munoz “upheld the constitutional right to be cryonically suspended”, winning the “right” for everyone in California.

The decision failed to make clear who was going to pay for it.

As to cost, the Cryonics Institute (CI) website explains, “A person who wishes to become a Lifetime CI Member can make a single membership payment of $1,250 with no further payment required. If a new member would rather pay a smaller amount up front, in exchange for funding a slightly higher cryopreservation fee later on ($35,000), he or she can join with a $75 initiation fee, and pay annual dues of only $120, which are also payable in quarterly installments of $35”.

Ted Williams went into cryonic preservation in 2002, despite the bitter controversy that split the Williams first-born daughter Bobby-Jo Williams Ferrell, from her two half-siblings John-Henry and Claudia. The pair were adamant that the greatest hitter in baseball history wanted to be preserved to be brought back in the future, while Ferrell pointed out the will, which specified that Williams be cremated, his ashes scattered off the Florida coast.

teds_new_will_072502The court battle produced a “family pact” written on a cocktail napkin, which was ruled authentic and allowed into evidence. So it is that Ted Williams’ head went into cryonic preservation in one container, his body in another.

The younger Williams died of Leukemia two years later, despite a bone marrow donation from his sister. John-Henry joined his father, in 2004.

Walt Disney has long been rumored to be in frozen suspension, but the story isn’t true. After his death in 1966, Walt Disney was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

FranklinIn April 1773, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to Jacques Dubourg. “I wish it were possible”, Franklin wrote, “to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But…in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection”.

Maybe so but, for the several hundred individuals who have plunked down $25,000 to upwards of $200,000 to follow Dr. Bedford into cryonic suspension, hope springs eternal.

January 5, 1709 Frost Fair

The science is politicized. Vast sums of public largesse and political capital are lavished on the climate.  We are told to expect global warming, and warned of a coming ice age. The skeptical taxpayer who has to pay for it all is forced to wade through competing narratives, in an exercise not unlike taking a sip from a fire hose. 

Over the past two weeks, temperatures have dipped near 0° Fahrenheit, as far south as Alabama.  The capital of Florida awoke only yesterday to snow in the palm trees, as frozen iguanas fell to the ground.    Ice hangs from the Spanish mosses of Savannah, as something called a “bomb cyclone” worked its way toward the New England coast.

Yikes.

In July 1983, temperatures of -129° were recorded at the Soviet Vostok Station in Antarctica, the coldest temperature ever measured by ground instruments. NASA satellite data recorded a low temperature of -135.8°F in August, 2010.

Four years later, a Russian research ship full of environmental, scientific and activist types, the Akademik Shokalskiy, got stuck in Antarctic ice, as did the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, which had come to their rescue.

Very few media outlets got around to reporting that they were there to study “global warming”.

The environmental activist types would object to my use of the term, preferring what they feel to be the more descriptive “climate change”.  They’re right to prefer the term. We can all agree that climate is changing, five ice ages demonstrate that much, but it does beg the question.  How, exactly, will we know we’ve reached climate optimum?

In England, accounts of the River Thames freezing over date back as early as 250AD. The river was open to wheeled traffic for 13 weeks in 923 and again in 1410.  That time, the freeze lasted for 14 weeks. By the early 17th century, the Thames became a place of “Frost Fairs”.

_72554538_abrahamhondius

The “Medieval Warm Period” lasting from 950 to 1250 was followed by the “Little Ice Age”, a 300-year period beginning in the 16th century.  King Henry VIII rode a sleigh down the Thames from London to Greenwich in 1536.  Elizabeth I was out on the ice shooting at archery targets, in 1564.

English writer John Evelyn describes the famous “Frost Fair” of the winter of 1683-’84:  “Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water”.

The Great Frost of the winter of 1708-09 was held in the coldest winter Europe had seen in 500 years.  William Derham, an English clergyman and natural philosopher best known for calculating a reasonably accurate estimate of the speed of sound, recorded a low of −12°C (10 °F) on the night of January 5, 1709.  It was the lowest he’d measured since beginning readings in 1697, prompting the comment that “I believe the Frost was greater than any other within the Memory of Man”.

24,000 Parisians died of cold in the next two weeks.  Animals froze in their stalls and crops planted the prior year, failed.  The resulting famine killed an estimated 600,000 in France alone while, in Italy, the lagoons and canals of Venice, froze solid.

clip_image0026Breaks in cold weather inevitably marked the end of the frost fairs, sometimes all of a sudden.  In January 1789, melting ice dragged a ship with it, while tied to a riverside tavern, in Rotherhite.  Five people were killed when the building was pulled down on their heads.

The last Thames River frost fair took place in 1814, the year someone led an elephant across the ice, below Blackfriar’s Bridge.  Structural changes in river embankments and the demolition of the medieval London Bridge have increased water flow in the Thames, making it possible that the river will never freeze again.

Today, many blame weather extremes on “anthropogenic” (human) causes, associating what used to be called global warming”, with CO2. Others contend the reverse: that historic increases in carbon do not precede but rather result from, climate extremes. A third group associates the sun with climate change (imagine that), linking an extended period of low solar activity called the “Maunder Minimum”, with the brutal cold of 1645-1715.

The science is politicized. Vast sums of public largesse and political capital are lavished on the climate.  We are told to expect global warming, and warned of a coming ice age. The skeptical taxpayer who has to pay for it all is forced to wade through competing narratives, in an exercise not unlike taking a sip from a fire hose.

Meanwhile, the sun is going to do what the sun is going to do, which at the moment appears to be another quiet period in solar activity.  Very quiet. Before it’s over, we may find ourselves wishing for a little Global Warming.

Feature image, top:  The Battery, Charleston SC, January 2, 2018