April 12, 1961 Space Race

“When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow.’ – Yuri Gagarin

To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible time.  Most of us who lived through the period feel the same way.

In the wake of WW2, irreconcilable differences between the two great super powers split the alliance which had once defeated Nazi Germany. The most destructive war in history had barely come to a close in 1946, when the Soviet state set itself to gobbling up the non-communist states of eastern Europe. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered the most famous oration of the era on March 5, declaring “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

The 1950s were a time of escalating tensions and sometimes, calamity.  The war in Korea. The beginning of American intervention in Vietnam. The Cuban Revolution of 1959.  The exodus from Soviet-controlled East Germany to the west resulted in a “brain drain” of some 20% of the population, culminating in the “Berlin Crisis” of 1961. First it was barbed wire and then a wall, complete with guard towers and mine fields. Nobody else, was getting out.

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The Cold War took on inter-stellar proportions on July 31, 1956, when the United States declared its intention to launch an artificial satellite into space. The Soviet Union announced it would do the same and then stunned the world, launching the first inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) on August 27, 1957 and then beating the US to its own goal with the launch of Sputnik 1, on October 4.

Soviet propagandists enjoyed another victory on November 3 when “Laika” launched aboard Sputnik 2.  Meanwhile, the American space program couldn’t seem to get out of its own way.

Three days later and half a world away, the Harvard Crimson newspaper reported the capsule’s appearance over Boston:

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Laika

“Pupnick–the dog-bearing satellite–will be visible to early risers Thursday morning at about 5:09, Dr. Fred L. Whipple, director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, announced last night. Whipple added that Boston, where the rocket will be directly overhead, will be “one of the best places” from which to view the Russians’ latest satellite”.

Soviet propaganda portrayed heroic images of “the first traveler in the cosmos” printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers.  There were official hints about Laika parachuting safely to earth, and then tales of a painless and humane, euthanasia.  The real story was far more depressing.  Tightly harnessed, stressed by the forces of launch and overheated, Laika died within the first seven hours of her flight.

Belka and Strelka became the first animals to enter space and return safely to earth aboard Sputnik 5 on August 19, 1960 followed closely by the American chimpanzee Ham, whose smiling visage appears at the top of this page.

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Belka and Strelka

On this day in 1961, 27-year-old Soviet Air Force Major Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter space aboard the Vostok 1  capsule, returning to earth after an hour and 48 minutes’ orbit.  Major Gagarin’s  “Poyekhali! (Let’s go!) would become the catch phrase for the entire eastern bloc, for the following half century.

Soviet capsules were parachuted onto dry land in the early days of the space program, while the Americans preferred to “splash down”.  Gagarin ejected from the craft and parachuted to earth in Kazakhstan, much to the fear and dismay of local villagers:

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Gagarin Capsule

When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow.’

During the flight, Gagarin is supposed to have said “I don’t see any God up here.”

No such words appear in any of the transcripts. It’s unlikely he said such a thing.    Gagarin and his family celebrated Christmas and Easter, and kept Orthodox icons in the house.  He had baptized his daughter Elena, shortly before the historic flight.  The phrase more likely originated with Nikita Khrushchev, who  attributed the quote to Gagarin during a speech about the Soviet state’s anti-religion campaign.

220px-Yuri-Gagarin-1961-Helsinki-cropGagarin’s flight gave fresh life to the “Space Race” between the cold war rivals.  President John F. Kennedy announced the intention to put a man on the moon, before the end of the decade.

Today, the accomplishments of the space program seem foreordained, the massive complexities of the undertaking, forgotten.

In the modern era, the most powerful supercomputers on earth put the $2.5 Billion Hubble Space Telescope into orbit, with defective “vision” and literally requiring “glasses”.

In the early days, these guys were sending human beings tens to hundreds of thousands of miles into space, on less computing “horsepower” than contained in your modern cell phone.

 

On a lighter note
After that Laika story, this tale needs a happy ending.
In 1960, “Belka” and “Strelka” spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5, before returning to Earth.  Aside from a few plants, these were the first creatures to enter the void of space and return, alive.
Strelka later gave birth to six puppies, fathered by “Pushok”, a dog who’d participated in ground-based space experiments, but never flew.   During a thaw  in relations, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave one of those puppies,”Pushinka”, to President John F. Kennedy.
Pushinka and a Kennedy family dog named “Charlie” conducted their own Cold War rapprochement, resulting in four puppies, pups JFK jokingly referred to as “pupniks”.  Pushinka and Charlie are long gone but their descendants are still around, to this day.
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Mama Pushinka with JFK’s “Pupniks”: Butterfly, White Tips, Blackie, and Streaker
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April 11, 1970 Houston, we Have a Problem

 Fifteen years before Angus “Mac” MacGyver hit your television screen, mission control teams, spacecraft manufacturers and the crew itself worked around the clock to “MacGyver” life support, navigational and propulsion systems. For four days and nights, the three-man crew lived aboard the cramped, freezing Aquarius, a landing module intended to support a crew of 2 for only a day and one-half.

Apollo 13 liftoffThe seventh manned mission in the Apollo space program was scheduled to be the third moon landing, launching at 13:13 Central Standard Time from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Jack Swigert was the backup pilot for the Command Module (CM), officially joining the Apollo 13 mission only 48 hours earlier, when prime crew member Ken Mattingly was grounded, following exposure to German measles.

Jim Lovell was the most seasoned astronaut in the world at that time, a veteran of two Gemini missions and Apollo 8.  By launch day, April 11, 1970, Lovell had racked up 572 space flight hours. For Fred Haise, backup crew member on Apollo 8 and 11, this would be his first spaceflight.

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Apollo 13, original crew photo, Left to right: Commander, James A. Lovell Jr., CM pilot Ken Mattingly, LM pilot, Fred W. Haise Jr.

Two separate vessels were joined to form the Apollo spacecraft, separated by an airtight hatch. The crew lived in a Command/Service module called “Odyssey”.  The Landing Module (LM) dubbed “Aquarius”, would perform the actual moon landing.

56 hours into the mission and 5½ hours from the Moon’s sphere of gravitational influence, Apollo crew members had just finished a live TV broadcast.  Haise was powering the LM down while Lovell stowed the TV camera.  Mission Control asked Swigert to activate stirring fans in the Service Module’s hydrogen and oxygen tank. Two minutes later, the astronauts heard a “loud bang”.

Apollo 13 Schematic

Manufacturing and testing of the vessel had both missed an exposed wire in an oxygen tank.  Swigert had flipped the switch for a routine procedure, causing a spark to set the oxygen tank on fire. Alarm lights lit up all over Odyssey and in Mission Control.  The entire spacecraft shuddered as one oxygen tank tore itself apart and damaged another.  Power began to fluctuate.  Attitude control thrusters fired, and communications temporarily went dark.

The crew could not have known at the time.  The entire Sector 4 panel had just blown off.

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The movie takes creative license with Commander James Lovell saying “Houston, we have a problem”.  On board the real Apollo 13 it was Jack Swigert who spoke:  “Houston, we’ve had a problem”.

205,000 miles into deep space with life support systems shutting down, the Lunar Module became the only means of survival.  There was no telling if the explosion had damaged Odyssey’s heat shields.  It didn’t matter. For now, the challenge was to remain alive.  Haise and Lovell frantically worked to boot up Aquarius, while Swigert shut down systems aboard Odyssey.   Power needed to be preserved for splashdown.

The situation had been suggested during an earlier training simulation, but considered unlikely. As it happened, the accident would have been fatal without access to the Lunar Module.

annexe6 A13-S70-34986 Fifteen years before Angus “Mac” MacGyver hit your television screen, mission control teams, spacecraft manufacturers and the crew itself worked around the clock to “MacGyver” life support, navigational and propulsion systems. For four days and nights, the three-man crew lived aboard the cramped, freezing Aquarius, a landing module intended to support a crew of 2 for only a day and one-half.

With heat plummeting to near freezing food inedible and an acute shortage of water, this tiny, claustrophobic “lifeboat” would have to do what it was never intended to do.

Atmospheric re-entry alone presented near-insurmountable challenges. The earth’s atmosphere is a dense fluid medium. If you reenter at too steep an angle, you may as well be jumping off a high bridge. As it is, the human frame can withstand deceleration forces no higher than 12 Gs, equivalent to 12 individuals identical to yourself, piled on top of you.  Even at that, you’re only going to survive a few minutes, at best.

We all know what it is to skip a stone off the surface of a pond.  If you hit the atmosphere at too shallow an angle, the result is identical to that stone. There is no coming down a second time. You get one bounce and then there is nothing but the black void of space.

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Apollo XIII timeline

Most of the country and much of the world held its breath for seventy-eight hours, waiting for the latest update from newspaper and television news.  With communications impossible, TV commentators used models and illustrations, to describe the unfolding drama.  On board Odyssey, power was so low that voice-only transmissions became difficult. Visual communications with Mission Control were as impossible as the idea that the stranded astronauts could get out and walk home.

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“Astronaut John L. Swigert, at right, with the “mailbox” rig improvised to adapt the command module’s square carbon dioxide scrubber cartridges to fit the lunar module, which took a round cartridge”. /T Wikipedia

As Odyssey neared earth, engineers and crew jury-rigged a means of jettisoning the spent Service Module, to create enough separation for safe re-entry.

One last problem to be solved, was the crew’s final transfer from Lunar Module back to Command Module, prior to re-entry.  With the “reaction control system” dead, University of Toronto engineers had only slide rules and six hours in which to devise a way to “blow” the LM, by pressurizing the tunnel connecting it with the CM.  Too much pressure might damage the hatch and seal.  Too little wouldn’t provide enough separation between the two bodies.  Either failure would result in one of those “shooting stars” you see at night, as the searing heat of re-entry incinerated the Command Module and everything in it.

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Shooting star as seen by night, H/T contentbuket.com

By this time, the Command Module had been in “cold soak” for days.  No one knew for certain, if the thing would come back to life.

Crashing into the atmosphere at over 24,000mph, the capsule had 14 minutes in which to come to a full stop, splashing down in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. External temperatures on the Command Module reached 2,691° Fahrenheit, as the kinetic energy of re-entry converted to heat.

Apollo 13 after it came back to Earth.
Apollo 13 landing

The Apollo 13 mission ended safely with splashdown southeast of American Samoa on April 17, 1970, at 18:07:41 local time.  Exhausted and hungry, the entire crew had lost weight.  Haise had developed a kidney infection.  Total duration was 142 hours, 54 minutes and 41 seconds.

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A Trivial Matter
“In 1992, Lovell…decided to write a book-length account of the incident titled Lost Moon. He and co-writer Jeff Kluger finished one chapter and a proposal, which was in turn sent to publishers and production houses. A bidding war was sparked, and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment wound up winning film rights. The movie actually began shooting in 1994 before Lovell’s book was even released. (It was later re-titled Apollo 13.)” Hat Tip MentalFloss.com

March 24, 1921 The Civil War, Laid to Rest

As young men, these two had been mortal enemies, each bent on killing the other.  Now as aging veterans, the pair spent their last years exchanging family photographs and wishing the other, continued good health.

The past met the present that April Friday, seven short years ago.  Re-enactors dressed and equipped for another age, leading the hearse carrying twin gold boxes down roads lined with Patriot Guard riders.  There the blue sack coats and slouch hats of another era met the black berets and service caps, the crisp, midnight blue of the ASU, the modern “dress blues” of the United States Army.   There were uniforms new and old, veterans and historians and children and throngs of the curious, with cell phone cameras.

The last veteran of the Civil War was being laid to rest.  That doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

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Willis Meadows was nineteen in the spring of 1862, joining his brothers and cousins in Company G of the 37th Alabama Volunteer Infantry, assigned to the western front along the Mississippi and defending what he would have described as the “War of Northern Aggression”.

On July 1, 1863, the Union armies of General US Grant made the final drive on the “Gibraltar of the Mississippi”, the fortified strong point of Vicksburg.

Meadows watched the oncoming blue uniforms, the sharpshooter sheltered behind the iron boiler plate, picking off his enemy through a hole in the iron.

Peter Knapp was 21 that day, approaching from the east with three other Union soldiers from Company H of the 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry.  Their job was to take out Confederate snipers. Knapp spotted Meadows firing from his shelter and took aim, firing at that peephole. Willis Meadows fell over with blood running down his face, the bullet entering through his eye and coming to a rest, near his brain.

The battle moved on leaving Meadows where he lay. There was no question the man was dead, except, he wasn’t. Federal troops picking up the dead afterward discovered this one, still breathing. Union surgeons probed for the bullet with no success before deciding to quit. Such a procedure was far too dangerous. Meadows was placed on a POW ship and later paroled to a Confederate hospital where he spent the rest of the war, first as a patient and later as nurse’s aid.

Knapp was captured a few months after Vicksburg and held in a number of Confederate POW camps, including the dread hell on earth known as Andersonville.

After the war, Meadows returned to the farm in Lanett Alabama, just over the Georgia state line. He later married though the marriage bore no children and may have died in obscurity, except it wasn’t meant to be.

Knapp farmed for a time in Michigan and married in 1887 before moving to Kelso, Washington.

The decades came and went. The assassinations of three Presidents. The panic of 1893. The War to end all wars. Willis Meadows was seventy-eight this day in 1921, when he began to choke. He grasped his throat with both hands as violent spasms wracked his old body.  The fear that this was the end turned to certainty as the lights began to dim, and then the object flew from his mouth and clattered across the floor.  It was that bullet, lodged in his head nigh on sixty years.

The “Coughs Up Bullet” story was national news in 1921.  Eleven years later, the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” cartoon was published in 42 countries and 17 languages.

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Mr. Ripley missed the most surprising part.

The story came and went with the next twenty nine years, until one Henry Kilburn brought a diary to the attention of a Washington state newspaper editor, in 1950.  Seems Kilburn’s family fell on hard times and the Knapp family, childless, adopted Kilburn’s sister, Minnie Mae.

It was Mae Knapp who gave that diary to her brother.  It was Peter Knapp’s diary.

Peter Knapp had seen that story back in 1921 and realized, he had to have been the man who fired that bullet. The pair met months later and compared stories. It was true.  As young men, these two had been mortal enemies, each bent on killing the other.  Now as aging veterans, the pair spent their last years exchanging family photographs and wishing the other, continued good health.

Alice Knapp of Nehalem Oregon was the child of another era, a woman born into the age of DNA who loved to study genealogy.  Alice was investigating her husband’s roots in 2009 when she came upon Peter’s story, now dead some eighty-five years. Inquiring as to where the man had been buried, Alice was stunned to learn that he wasn’t. Even more astonishingly, neither was his wife, Georgianna.  Childless, the cremated ashes of the couple were sitting on a storage shelf, unclaimed and forgotten all those years.

Alice explained, “I felt the ashes had to be buried or at least scattered somewhere.  Not sitting in some storage locker.”

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In April 2012, CBSnews.com reported:

“The Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War performed a ritual for the dead based on a Grand Army of the Republic ceremony from 1873. The funeral also included a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace,” a bugler…performing “Taps,” and the laying of wreaths. Following a musket salute, a folded U.S. flag was presented to Alice Knapp”.

So it is the last known veteran of the Civil War was laid to rest, only seven short years ago. 151 years to the day, following the Confederate victory at Fort Sumter.

 

A Trivial Matter
In October 1861, William Tecumseh Sherman told US Secretary of war Simon Cameron he needed 60,000 men to defend the Kentucky territory, and 200,000 to go on the offensive. Cameron considered the request “insane” and cashiered the commander, very nearly leading to Sherman’s death by his own hand. General Ulysses S Grant, long rumored to have a problem with alcohol, did not see craziness in the disgraced commander, but a unique sort of quiet competence. Later in the war, a civilian ran his mouth at General Grant’s expense. Sherman came to the defense of his friend and commander, saying “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other“.

March 17, 1968 Skull Valley Sheep Kill

“From 1951 through 1969, hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants were conducted at Dugway … It is unknown how many people in the surrounding vicinity were also exposed to potentially harmful agents used in open-air tests at Dugway”. – GAO report, 1994

The father-daughter pair had just finished a meal at the Zizzi restaurant in the cathedral city of Salisbury, ninety miles southwest of London. The two took ill two hours before sunset.  A passing doctor and nurse found the couple on a park bench.

Sergei Skripal, age 66, and his daughter Yulia (33) were slipping in and out of consciousness, foaming at the mouth with eyes wide open, but entirely white.  Sergei and Yulia Skripal were weeks in intensive care before regaining consciousness. In a May 23 interview with CBS News, Yulia said “I don’t want to describe the details, but the clinical treatment was invasive, painful and depressing.”

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Sergei and Yulia Skripal

Though Vladimir Putin’s Russia vehemently denies the charge, the incident has been classified as an attempted assassination carried out against the former spy and his daughter, using the military grade nerve agent, Novichok.

The terrifying history of “Nerve “Agents” began in 1936, when the German biochemist Dr. Gerhard Schrader was working on pesticides.  Schrader first experienced problems with his eyesight, and soon had difficulty breathing. Symptoms included involuntary muscular spasms, the scientist’s arm was fully paralyzed, days later.

Dr. Schrader had discovered a class of chemical compounds known as organo-phosphates.

Nerve agent final

Organo-phosphates are a class of organic chemical which block nerve signals to bodily organs. Nerve agents are generally clear to a golden amber in color, tasteless liquids which may be evaporated, into a gas. The Sarin gas used in the 1995 Aum Shinrikio attack on the Tokyo subway was odorless as was the VX used to assassinate the brother of Kim Jong-un. in 2017.

Symptoms of nerve agent poisoning begin with constriction of pupils and convulsions, leading to involuntary urination and defecation. Death by asphyxiation or cardiac arrest follows within minutes.

British chemist Dr. Ranajit Ghosh discovered the “V”series of organophosphate compounds in the 1950s, sold as a pesticide in 1954 under the trade name Amiton. The stuff was soon taken off the market, as it was too dangerous for safe use. British Armed Forces took control of the compound at Porton Downs and traded it to the United States  in 1958, for information on thermo-nuclear weapons.

The American military went into full-scale production of VX gas as a chemical weapon of war in 1961. The Russian military developed an analog of VX called VR in 1963, later developed into the Novichok group, including the most toxic molecules ever developed.

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Dugway Proving Ground

The Dugway Proving Ground near Salt lake City Utah was established in 1941 and used for hundreds if not thousands of open-air tests of nuclear, biological and chemical compounds.

A 1994 GAO (US General Accounting Office) reports:

“From 1951 through 1969, hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants were conducted at Dugway … It is unknown how many people in the surrounding vicinity were also exposed to potentially harmful agents used in open-air tests at Dugway”.

On this day in 1968, the manager of a Skull Valley livestock company phoned the department of ecology and epidemiology at Dugway to report the unexplained death of 3,000 sheep.  The animals had been grazing in the Skull Valley area, some 27 miles from the proving ground.

The Dugway safety office compiled a count of 3,843 dead animals. Exact cause of death was at first difficult to determine, since “no other animals of any type, including cows, horses, dogs, rabbits, or birds, appeared to have suffered any ill effects, a circumstance that was hard to explain if VX had in fact caused the sheep deaths.”

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View of two farmers checking the corpses of dead sheep on a farm ranch near the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. (Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images) H/T Smithsonian.com

Necropsies revealed the presence of VX nerve agent, as did grass and snow samples taken, some three weeks after the incident.  Total sheep deaths were counted at 6,000-6,400 including those humanely euthanized.  With even the suspicion of VX nerve agent, the animals had no market value whatever, either for their meat, or for wool.

Military Accidentally Ships Anthrax To Labs In Nine StatesA report which remained classified for thirty years, blamed a faulty nozzle left open, as the test aircraft gained altitude.

Public backlash was vehement against the US Army Chemical Corps, and nearly lead to its disbanding.  President Richard Nixon ordered a halt to open air testing of “NBC” agents, in 1969.

Today, few nations possess stockpiles of  nerve agents, a hellish weapon of war which may, with a mere puff of wind, turn on those who would use it.  The use of such an agent would almost certainly lead to nuclear retaliation, should any nation so attacked, posses the capability.  So it is the nations of the world hold the proverbial wolf by the ears, desperately afraid to hang on, and unable to let go.

February 13, 1961 A Prehistoric Spark Plug

Winston Churchill once quipped “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”.  Guess he got that right.

Sometime around Easter Sunday, 1900, Captain Dimitrios Kondos set sail from the island of Symi. Kondos and a team of Greek sponge divers worked their way through the Peloponnese, across the Aegean en route to the rich fishing grounds off the coast of North Africa. The team was stopped and waiting for favorable winds off the Greek Island of Antikythera, when some of the divers thought they’d have a look around.

Elias Stadiatis descended some 150-feet, and quickly signaled that he wanted to come back up.  Stadiatis told a wild tale about a rocky bottom, strewn with the rotting corpses and men and horses. Dozens of them.

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Greek sponge divers

The effects of nitrogen narcosis were well understood by this time, that lethally narcotic-like state of drunkenness where deep divers have been known to hand regulators, to fish. Captain Kondos was convinced that Stadiatis was drunk on nitrogen. He donned the canvas suit and brass helmet, and went down to look for himself.

The divers had discovered a 1st-century (BC) shipwreck, a treasure trove of statuary: four marble horses, and thirty-six stone statues including Hercules, Ulysses, Diomedes, Hermes and Apollo.

The most astonishing find from the wreck was a complex clock-like mechanism, believed to be built around 100-200BC and vastly more sophisticated than anything known to have come from antiquity. In more recent years, computer x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning have revealed the enormous sophistication of the “Antikythera mechanism“, an analog computer comprising some 37 exquisitely precise gear wheels, enabling the device to follow the moon and sun through the full cycle of the zodiac.

The thing can even recreate the variable velocity of the moon, as the body speeds up through its perigee, and slows through the apogee.

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Antikythera mechanism, recreation

What those Greek sponge divers had discovered was an Out-of-Place Artifact, (OOPArt), an object which called into question, our understanding of what has come before.  OOPArts are artifacts of historical, archaeological, or paleontological interest, evincing a more advanced technology than known to have existed at the time, or even a human (or at least intelligent) hand at a time and place, where none are known to exist.

OOPArts run the gamut from the genuinely surprising to risible hoaxes to the favorites of cryptozoologists, UFOologists, paranormal enthusiasts and proponents of ancient astronaut theories.  Some turn out to be objects of mistaken interpretation, based on little more than wishful thinking.

The Iron Pillar outside the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque in Delhi is believed to date from the fifth century Gupta monarchs of India.  Standing 23-feet, 8-inches and weighing in at 13,000-pounds, the thing is almost entirely free of rust, demonstrating a level of metallurgical proficiency, surprising for the time.

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The “London Hammer” was found in June 1934 near London Texas. It’s a common enough object, except is seems to be embedded, in 400 million year-old rock. Geologist J.R. Cole explains the conundrum:

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London Hammer

“The stone is real, and it looks impressive to someone unfamiliar with geological processes. How could a modern artifact be stuck in Ordovician rock? The answer is that the concretion itself is not Ordovician. Minerals in solution can harden around an intrusive object dropped in a crack or simply left on the ground if the source rock (in this case, reportedly Ordovician) is chemically soluble”.

“Young Earth Creationist” Carl Baugh has other ideas, claiming the object to be a “monumental pre-flood discovery”. You can see the London Hammer and decide for yourself, at the Creation Evidence Museum, in Glen Rose Texas.

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USNS Eltanin photo, 1964

The “Eltanin Antennae” was photographed by the cargo-carrying icebreaker and oceanographic research vessel USNS Eltanin in 1964.  Located on the sea floor off the Antarctic coast, the object lies under 12,808 feet of water.

To many, the object is clearly the result of intelligent life, even extra-terrestrials.  Author Brad Steiger has called it“an astonishing piece of machinery… very much like the cross between a TV antenna and a telemetry antenna“.

Other authorities have identified the object as Chondrocladia concrescens, an unusual carnivorous sponge.

Artist Karl Weingärtner created a mobile phone-style clay tablet for a museum display in 2012, complete with cuneiform script, keypad. Weingärtner posted a photo to his Facebook account, to help sell his art. Some wag dubbed the thing “BabyloNokia”, and it was off to the races. The “Conspiracy Club” website ran the image with the caption: “800-Year-Old Mobile Phone Found In Austria? Check This Out.”

Babylonokia

For the editors at UFO Sighting Daily, the BabyloNokia was proof positive that ancient astronauts had been here. Not to be outdone, the British tabloid Daily Express ran with Weingärtner’s image, claiming the object dated to the 13th century, BC.

Winston Churchill once quipped “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on“.  Guess he got that right.

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A large geode, lined with Amethyst crystals

Wallace Lane, Virginia Maxey and Mike Mikesell liked to prospect for geodes, near the California town of Olancha.

A geode is a hollow stone formation,  containing a secondary lining of crystals or mineral matter.  Geodes form slowly, over geologic time.  There’s no way of knowing what’s inside, until it’s broken or cut, apart.

On this day in 1961, the trio discovered the “Coso Artifact”, a geode containing an unusual object.  A Champion spark plug.

A reader wrote to Desert Magazine, claiming a trained geologist had dated the thing, at 500,000 years old.  The identity of the “trained geologist”, went unsaid.

A number of Pseudoscientific theories arose, to explain the object:

• The spark plug was evidence of an ancient, advanced civilization, possibly proof of the long lost city of Atlantis, itself.
• Prehistoric extraterrestrial visitors came to Earth. How such creatures came to possess a “Champion” spark plug, went unanswered.
• Human time-travelers from the future had left or lost the spark plug, thus proving their visit to the past.

The answer it seems, was more prosaic.  Researchers determined with help from the Spark Plug Collectors of America (who knew?), that this was a 1920s-era Champion spark plug, widely used in the engines of Model T and Model A Fords. The “geode” wasn’t that at all, but the accretion of iron and other minerals, produced as the object rusted in the ground.

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Geologists from the University of Washington Earth and Space Science department were invited to inspect the thing again, just last year. Scientists confirmed the opinion that this was a 1920s-vintage plug but, I don’t know.

Sounds to me like someone’s still betting on the 500,000-year version of the story.

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January 12, 1967 Cryonic Suspension

Suffering from an incurable and metastatic kidney cancer, Dr. James Hiram Bedford became the first person in history to be cryonically preserved on January 12, 1967. Frozen at the boiling point of liquid nitrogen, −321° Fahrenheit, he remains in cryonic suspension, to this day.

The human brain is an awesome thing. Weighing in at about 3-pounds, the organ is comprised of something like 86 billion neurons, each comprised 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.
There 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.
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Figure Dendrites. Cell body. Nucleus. Axon hillock. Axon. Signal direction. Synapse. Myelin sheath. Synaptic terminals. Presynaptic cell. Postsynaptic cell.

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.

“Information-theoretic death” is defined as death which is final and irreversible by any technology.  Clearly then, 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”?
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The 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”.
cryonic capsules
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.
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.
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Dr. James Hiram Bedford

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.
In 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.
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Judge Aurelio Munoz

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

As to cost, a Cryonics Institute (CI) video advertises a cryopreservation fee of $28,000, payable in monthly installments of $25.
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.
The 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.
ben_franklin-1-2-e1336601575917The 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.
In 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.

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January 11, 1693 The Wrath of God

“Then came an earthquake so horrible and ghastly that the soil undulated like the waves of a stormy sea, and the mountains danced as if drunk, and the city collapsed in one miserable moment killing more than a thousand people.” Eyewitness quoted by Stephen Tobriner: The Genesis of Noto: An Eighteenth-century Sicilian City

In his 1897 short story The Open Boat, Stephen Crane writes of the puniness of humanity, when bared and exposed to the wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please.
“If I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods, who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? 

On this day in 1693, those Seven Mad Gods got together, and unleashed the wrath of the ages.

ABWCWW Earth s CoreDeep in the ground beneath our feet, a rocky shell comprising an outer Crust and an inner Mantle forms a hard and rigid outer shell, closing off and containing the solid inner core of our planet. Between these hard inner and outer layers exists a liquid core of molten material, comprising approximately two-thirds the cross-section of planet Earth.

The air around us is a liquid, exerting a ‘weight’ or barometric pressure at sea level, of 14.696 pounds per square inch. Scientists estimate the pressures within this outer core to be approximately 3.3 million times atmospheric pressure, generating temperatures of 10,800° Fahrenheit, a temperature comparable to the surface of the sun.

That rocky shell closing us off from all that is actually quite elastic, broken into seven or eight major pieces, (depending on how you define them), and several minor bits called Tectonic Plates.

Over millions of years, these plates move apart along constructive boundaries, where oceanic plates form mid-oceanic ridges. Roughly equal and opposite to these are the Subduction Zones, where one plate moves under another and down into the mantle.

The planet is literally “eating’ itself.

Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and one of twenty regions of Italy, lies on the convergent boundary of two such pieces of the planet’s outer shell, where the African plate is subducting beneath the Eurasian plate.  Over time, the forces built up along these subduction zones, are nothing short of Titanic.

Sicily is also home to the terrifying Mount Etna, one of the most active volcanoes, in the world.

The first foretaste of what was about to happen began at 21:00 local time, January 9, 1693. The earthquake, centered on the east Sicilian coast and felt as far away as the south of Italy and the island nation of Malta, had an estimated magnitude of 6.2 on the Richter scale, and a perceived intensity on the Mercali Intensity Scale of VIII – XI: Severe to Extreme. Mercali describes a Category XI Extreme earthquake:

Few, if any, (masonry) structures remain standing. Bridges destroyed. Broad fissures in ground. Underground pipe lines completely out of service. Earth slumps and land slips in soft ground. Rails bent greatly”.

This thing was only stretching and yawning.  Just getting out of bed.

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The main shock of January 11 lasted four minutes with an estimated magnitude of 7.4 and a very large area that reached X on the Mercali scale, and XI in the province of Syracuse.

The soil beneath our feet, ordinarily so substantial and unmoving, behaves like a liquid at times like this. Low density, sandy soils compress in response to applied loads while dense soils expand in volume or dilate. Saturated soils are like unto quicksand, as underground liquids are driven up to form miniature volcanoes called “sand boils, water spouting up from the ground in geysers, rising 30-feet and more.

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Sand boils resulting from the 2011 earthquake, in Christchurch

The catastrophic eruption of 1669 was well within living memory and reports describe minor eruptions on this day as well.  As if even a small volcanic eruption could be called “minor”.

Several large fractures opened in the earth, one 1,600-feet long and nearly seven-feet wide.

Meanwhile the ocean withdrew from the coast, as the Ionian Sea gathered itself, to strike. The initial withdrawal left the harbor dry at Augusta, damaging several Galleys owned by the Knights of Malta.   The tsunami when it came was at least eight feet in height and possibly as high as 26-feet, inundating an area nearly a mile from the shore.

The final death toll of as many as 60,000 is uncertain, unsurprising in light of the fact that whole regions were blotted out. 63% of the entire population was wiped out in Catania, 51% in Ragusa. Syracuse, Noto, Augusta, Modica – all lost between one-out-of-five, and one-in-three.

Reconstruction in the wake of the catastrophe was so extensive, as to spawn a new and unique form of art and architecture, known as Sicilian Baroque.

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The Cathedral of Noto is one of the many buildings constructed in Sicilian Baroque style after the earthquake of 1693

Today, the colossal Mount Etna remains one of the most active volcanoes, on earth.  Sensors placed along the land and seaward flanks of the volcano reveal the alarming discovery that the volcano itself, is moving.  Mount Etna is sliding at a rate of an inch per year and sometimes more.  One eight-day period in 2008 showed a movement of two inches, raising concerns that Mount Etna may one day collapse into itself.

On May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens erupted after a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, resulting in 57 deaths and inflation-adjusted property damage, of $3.3 Billion.  The US Geological Survey called the resulting collapse of the north face of the volcano “the largest debris avalanche on earth, in recorded history”.  Should such an event strike the Stratovolcano that is Mount Etna, the result would be felt from the Spanish coast to the shores of Israel, from North Africa to the French Riviera.

Given geologic time scales, such an event could happen next year, or ten thousand years from now.  No one knows.  We are so puny when compared with the Wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please.

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Ruins of the Norman castle in Noto Antica

Featured image, top of page:  New life before the shattered ruins of the old city of Not (Noto Antica), destroyed on January 11, 1693.  The new city of Noto was built, eleven kilometers away