April 16, 1917 The Sealed Train

The Kaiser calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in”, the Russian Republic would collapse, and they would be out of the war. He was right.

The “War to End all Wars” entered its third year in 1917, seeming as though it would go on forever. Neither side seemed able to gain strategic advantage on the front. The great battles of 1916 seemed only yesterday, in which any single day’s fighting produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, combined. At home, the social fabric of the combatant nations was unraveling.

WW1_DatabaseBy 1916 it was generally understood in Germany, that the war effort was “shackled to a corpse”, referring to Germany’s Austro-Hungarian ally. Italy, the third member of the “Triple Alliance”, was little better. On the Triple Entente side, the French countryside was literally torn to pieces, the English economy close to breaking. The Russian Empire, the largest nation on the planet, was on the edge of the precipice.

The United States had declared its intention to enter the war barely ten days earlier. While no American forces had arrived as of yet, both sides understood that the balance was about to shift. For Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, it was time to throw a knockout punch.

Imperial Russia had seen the first of what would be two revolutions back in February, when food riots led to the overthrow and exile of the Imperial family.  Full scale civil war broke out in 1918, resulting in the Bolshevik murder of the Czar and Czarina, together with their children, servants and dogs.

The Kaiser calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in”, the Russian Republic would collapse, and they would be out of the war. He was right.

After the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, the more moderate Menshevik “Whites” vowed to continue the war effort. The split which had begun with the failed revolution of 1905 was more pronounced by this time with the more radical Bolsheviks (“Reds”) taking Sealed Train Locomotivethe more extreme road. While Reds and Whites both wanted to bring socialism to the Russian people, the Mensheviks argued for predominantly legal methods and trade union work, while Bolsheviks favored armed violence.

In a small town in the northeast of Sweden, there is a train station.  A bronze plaque on a blue tile wall, proclaims: “Here Lenin passed through Haparanda on April 15, 1917, on his way from exile in Switzerland to Petrograd in Russia”.

Lenin was in exile, and Imperial Germany was at war with Russia at this time.  British historian Edward Crankshaw writes, the German government saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection”.

Not far from food riots of his own and loathe to inflict such a bacillus on his own homeland, a “Sealed Train” carrying Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and 31 dissidents departed from exile in Switzerland on April 9, complements of the Kaiser.  Leaving Zurich Station amid the jeers and the insults of 100 or so assembled Russians shouting  “Spies!” “Traitors!” “Pigs!” “Provocateurs!”,  Lenin turned to a friend.  “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

North through Germany and across the Baltic Sea, the group traveled the length of Sweden, crossing at the border village of Haparanda into Russian-Occupied Finland.  The group arrived at Finlandsky Vokzal (Finland Station) in Petrograd on the evening of April 16, 1917. Like the handful of termites that brought down the mighty oak, that small faction inserted into the picture that April, would help to radicalize the population, and consolidate power on the Bolshevik’s side.

Lenin's Journey
Lenin’s Journey from Zurich to St. Petersburg, April 1917

By October, Russia would experience its second revolution in a year.  The Kaiser’s Germany could breathe easier. The “Russian Steamroller”, was out of the war. Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff could move their divisions westward, in time to face the American’s arrival.

Since the end of the Soviet era, Russian historians have come to believe that Vladimir Ilyich (Ulyanov) Lenin personally ordered the murder of the czar and his family, and that the Lenin era was every bit as bloody, as that of his successor Josef Stalin.

Lenin called for “Mass Terror” during the civil war of 1918, resulting in executions in the tens of thousands.  Historian Alexander Margolis had the last word on the subject if not the understatement of the century, when he said:  “If they had arrested Lenin at the Finland Station, it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble”.

Romanov
Czar Nicholas II & family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’

April 15, 1912 Unsinkable

The elderly owner of Macy’s Department Stores Isidor Straus was offered a seat with his wife Ida, on account of his age. Strauss refused any special consideration and Ida refused to leave his side. The couple went down with the ship.

Titanic_stern_and_rudder
For Scale, Note the Man Standing Next to Titanic’s Stern and Rudder

The maiden voyage of the largest ship afloat left the port of Southampton, England On April 10, 1912, carrying 2,224 passengers and crew.  An accident was narrowly averted only minutes later, as Titanic passed the moored liners SS City of New York and Oceanic.

Both smaller ships lifted in the bow wave formed by Titanic’s passing, then dropped into the trough. New York’s mooring cables snapped, swinging her around stern-first.  Collision was averted by a bare 4 feet as the panicked crew of the tugboat Vulcan struggled to bring New York under tow.

The Southampton-to-New York run made stops at Cherbourg, France and Queenstown Ireland, to pick up passengers before the Atlantic crossing.  Titanic stoker John Coffey jumped ship in Ireland, hiding under a pile of mail bags.  The Queenstown native may have had a premonition as he claimed, or maybe he just wanted to go home.  Be that as it may, subsequent events may have made him the luckiest man on the cruise.

Edward Smith
Edward Smith, 1911

By the evening of the 14th, Titanic was 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, conditions clear, calm and cold.  There were warnings of drifting ice from other ships in the area, but the ship continued to steam at full speed.  It was generally believed that ice posed little danger to large vessels at this time, Captain Edward Smith opined that he “[couldn’t] imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder.  Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Lookout Frederick Fleet alerted the bridge of an iceberg dead ahead at 11:40pm. First Officer William Murdoch ordered the engines put in reverse, veering the ship to the left.  Lookouts were relieved, thinking that collision had been averted.  Below the surface, the starboard side of Titanic ground into the iceberg, opening a gash the length of a football field.  The ship had been designed to withstand the flooding of four watertight compartments.  The iceberg had opened five.  As Titanic began to lower at the bow, it soon became clear that the ship was doomed.

last-image-of-the-titanic
Last known image of titanic

Those aboard were poorly prepared for such an emergency. The ship was built for 64 wooden lifeboats, enough for 4,000, however the White Star Liner carried only 16 wooden lifeboats and four collapsibles. Regulations then in effect required enough room for 990 people. Titanic carried enough to accommodate 1,178.

As it was there was room for over half of those on board, provided that each boat was filled to capacity. The crew, however, hadn’t been adequately trained in evacuation.

The “women and children first” protocol was generally followed, sometimes to the exclusion of all others.  Ship’s officers didn’t know how many could safely board the lifeboats, and many were launched barely half-full. The first lifeboat in the water, rated at 65 passengers, launched with only 28 aboard.

3rd class passenger Bertram Dean and his wife Georgette had decided to leave the UK and emigrate to the United States.  Mr. Dean planned to become a partner in a tobacco store, owned by a cousin in Wichita.   Down below, Bert Dean was among the first to hear the collision.  After inspecting the damage, Dean told his wife to dress the children, two-year old Bertram and two-month old Millvina, the youngest passenger on board.     Georgette and the two kids were placed on lifeboat #10, the first to escape.  Most of the male passengers and crew were left aboard, even as lifeboats launched half empty.Carpathia Iceberg

J. Bruce Ismay, CEO of White Star Lines, helped to load some of the boats. Looking about and seeing no women or children in the vicinity, only then did he step onto a lowering collapsible, but he never lived down having survived a disaster in which so many others perished.

Titanic chief architect Thomas Andrews was last seen in the First Class smoking room, staring blankly at a painting of the ship.  John Jacob Astor IV, the wealthiest passenger onboard, was traveling with his young wife Madeleine Talmadge Force, 29 years his junior.  Placing her on a lifeboat, Astor asked if he could join her, explaining that she was pregnant.  All that money didn’t help him, Astor was refused.  All he could do was kiss his young wife goodbye as the boat lowered out of sight.

The elderly owner of Macy’s Department Stores Isidor Straus was offered a seat with his wife Ida, on account of his age.  Strauss refused any special consideration and Ida refused to leave his side.  The couple went down with the ship, as did Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet, who returned to their rooms and changed into Tuxedos.  Emerging on deck, the wealthy industrialist declared, “We are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen”.

The stories that will never be told, are those of the 700 or so 3rd class passengers below decks.  Disoriented, terrified and trapped below decks, one by one they spent their last moments gasping in shrinking pockets of air, as frigid water swirled like class V rapids through the pitch black interior of the ship.Titanic last moments

Distress signals were sent by wireless and lamp, but none of the ships responding were close enough to effect the outcome. The Californian, six miles to the north, was close enough to see distress rockets, but crew members thought the liner was having a party.

Two hours and 40 minutes after striking the iceberg, Titanic went up by the stern.  The forward deck dipped underwater as seawater poured in through open hatches and grates.  The immense strain on the keel split the ship in two between the third and fourth funnels, as the unsupported stern rose out of the water.  Propellers exposed, the stern remained afloat for a few minutes longer, rising to a nearly vertical angle with hundreds of people still clinging to it. The last piece sank out of sight at 2:20am, plunging passengers and crew into 28°F water.  Most of them died within minutes of hypothermia, cardiac arrest, or drowning. Lifeboats had room for almost 500 more, but only 13 were pulled from the water. Titanic_wreck_bow

RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene around 4am, in response to Titanic’s distress calls.  Originally bound for Austria-Hungary, Carpathia diverted to New York with survivors.  A crowd of 40,000 awaited the arrival of 705 survivors on the 18th, despite a cold, driving rain.  It would take four full days to compile and release the full list of casualties.

Millvina Dean, once the youngest survivor of the Titanic disaster, died 97 years later, the last survivor of the sinking.  The remains of her father lie with the ship on which he perished, 12,415 feet beneath the surface of the north Atlantic.

April 14, 1958 Laika

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his kids. “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”

At the dawn of the space age, no one knew whether the human body could survive conditions of rocket launch and space flight. The US Space program experimented with a variety of primate species between 1948 and 1961, including rhesus monkeys, crab-eating macaques, squirrel monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and chimpanzees.

Baker
“Miss Baker”

On May 28, 1959, a squirrel monkey named “Miss Baker” became the first of the US space program, to survive the stresses of spaceflight and related medical procedures.  A rhesus monkey called “Miss Able” survived the mission as well, but died four days later as the result of a reaction to anesthesia.

Soviet engineers experimented with dogs on a number of orbital and sub-orbital flights, to determine the feasibility of human space flight.  The Soviet Union launched missions with positions for at least 57 dogs in the fifties and early sixties, though the actual number is smaller.  Some flew more than once.

Laika
Laika

Most survived.  As with the early US program, those who did not often died as the result of equipment malfunction.  The first animal to be sent into orbit, was a different story.

Three dogs were plucked from the streets of Moscow and trained for the purpose.  “Laika” was an 11lb mutt, possibly a terrier-husky cross.  In Russian, the word means “Barker”.  Laika was chosen due to her small size and calm disposition.  One scientist wrote, “Laika was quiet and charming.”

First, were the long periods of close confinement, meant to replicate the tiny cabin of Sputnik 2. Then came the centrifuge, the highly nutritional but thoroughly unappetizing gel she was meant to eat in space, and then the probes and electrodes that monitored her vital signs.

sputnik-2-launched-a-month-later-and-carried-the-first-living-animal-a-dog-named-laika-into-space
Sputnik 2, Pre-Launch Propaganda

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his kids.  “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”

Laika was placed inside the capsule for three days, tightly harnessed in a way that onlyLaika and capsule allowed her to stand, sit and lie down.  Finally, it was November 3, 1957.  Launch day.  One of the technicians “kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight”.

Sensors showed her heart rate to be 103 beats/minute at time of launch, spiking to 240 during acceleration. She ate some of her food in the early stages, but remained stressed and agitated. The thermal control system malfunctioned shortly into the flight, the temperature inside the capsule rising to 104°, Fahrenheit.  Five to seven hours into the flight, there were no further signs of life.

There were official hints about Laika parachuting safely to earth, and then tales of a painless and humane, euthanasia.  Soviet propaganda portrayed “the first traveler in the cosmos”,  heroic images printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers.   Soviet authorities concealed Laika’s true cause of death and how long it took her to die.  That information would not be divulged , until 2002.

Mach2Sputnik2In the beginning, the US News media focused on the politics of the launch.  It was all about the “Space Race”, and the Soviet Union running up the score. First had been the unoccupied Sputnik 1, now Sputnik 2 had put the first living creature into space.  The more smartass specimens among the American media, called the launch “Muttnik”.

Sputnik 2 became controversial, as animal lovers began to question the ethics of sending a dog to certain death in space. In the UK, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals received protests before Radio Moscow was finished with their launch broadcast.  The National Canine Defense League called on dog owners to observe a minute’s silence.

Protesters gathered with their dogs in front of the UN building, to express their outrage.  In the Soviet Union, political dissent was squelched, as always. Of all Soviet bloc nations, it was probably Poland who went farthest out on that limb, when the scientific periodical Kto, Kiedy, Dlaczego (“Who, When, Why”), reported Laika’s death as “regrettable”.  “Undoubtedly a great loss for science”.Atomic_Robo_Last_Stop_Sputnik_Poster2

Sputnik 2 and its passenger left the vacuum of space on April 14, 1958, burning up in the outer atmosphere.

It was not until 1998 and the collapse of the Soviet tower of lies, that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists who had trained the dog, was free to speak his mind. “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us”, he said, “We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.  We shouldn’t have done it…We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog”.

Afterward

belka-strelka-2As a dog lover, I feel the need to add a more upbeat postscript, to this thoroughly depressing story.

“Belka” and “Strelka” spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5 on August 19, 1960, and returned safely to Earth.  The first Earth-born creatures to go into orbit and return alive.

Strelka later gave birth to six puppies, fathered by “Pushok”, a dog who’d participated in

Charlie, Pushinka
Charlie, (l) and Pushinka, (r)

ground-based space experiments, but never flew.  Nikita Khrushchev gave “Pushinka”, one of the puppies, to President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Pushinka and a Kennedy dog named “Charlie” conducted their own Cold War rapprochement, resulting in four puppies.  Pups that JFK jokingly referred to as “pupniks”.  Pushinka’s descendants are still living, to this day.

kennedy-dog-pushinka-puppies
Pushinka and her “pupniks”, enjoying a moment on the White House lawn

April 13, 1861, Sumter

Thousands of shells were fired at Fort Sumter over 34 hours. Federal forces fired back, though vastly outgunned. For all that, the only casualty was one Confederate mule.

South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, after which the state government considered itself to be that of a sovereign nation. Six days later, US Army Major Robert Anderson quietly moved his small command from the Revolution-era Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to the as-yet to be completed Fort Sumter, a brick fortification at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.

MoultriePresident James Buchanan attempted to reinforce and resupply Anderson, via the unarmed merchant vessel “Star of the West”. Shore batteries opened up on the effort on January 9, 1861, effectively trapping Anderson and his garrison inside the only federal property in the vicinity.

The newly founded Confederate States of America couldn’t tolerate the presence of an armed federal force at the mouth of Charleston harbor, while secessionists debated whether this was South Carolina’s problem, or that of the national government, in Mobile.

Meanwhile, the Federal government refused to recognize the Confederacy, as an independent state.  Neither side wanted to be seen as the aggressor, both needing the support of the border states.

fort_sumter_drawing

Political opinion was so sharply divided at that time, that brothers literally wound up fighting against brothers.  By the time the war got going, every seceding state but South Carolina sent regiments to fight for the Union.  Even that state contributed troops.  A surprising number of northern soldiers resigned commissions and fought for the south, including Barre, Massachusetts native Daniel Ruggles, Ohio Quaker Bushrod Johnson and New York native Samuel Cooper, to name a few.  But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Confederate Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard (I love that name) was placed in charge of Charleston in March, and immediately began to strengthen the batteries surrounding the harbor.

Fort Sumter was designed for a garrison of 650 in the service of 130 guns, most of them pointed outward, positioned to defend the harbor against threats from the sea. In April 1861 there were only 60 guns, too much for Major Anderson’s 85-man garrison, almost half of whom were non-combatants:  workmen or musicians.Battle-Sumter

When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, the resupply of Fort Sumter became the first crisis for the new administration. Lincoln notified South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens that he was sending supply ships, resulting in Beauregard’s ultimatum:  the Federal garrison was to evacuate immediately, or Confederate batteries would open fire.

Major Anderson’s response lacking acceptable specificity, shore batteries opened fire at 4:30 am on April 12th, 4003 guns firing in counter-clockwise rotation. Abner Doubleday, Federal 2nd in command and the man erroneously credited with the invention of baseball, later wrote “The crashing of the shot, the bursting of the shells, the falling of the walls, and the roar of the flames, made a pandemonium of the fort.”

Two years later at Gettysburg, Norman Jonathan Hall would lose over 200 men from his brigade, in furious fighting at a critical breach in Union lines, near the”copse of trees”.  One day, a brass plaque would mark the spot of the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy.  On this day, Lieutenant Hall raced through flames to rescue the colors, after a direct hit on the main flagpole knocked the flag to the ground.  His eyebrows were permanently burned off of his face, but Hall and two artillerymen were able to jury-rig the pole, so that once again, Old Glory flew over Fort Sumter.

Fort_sumter_1861
The Confederate flag flies over Fort Sumter, 1861

Thousands of shells were fired at Fort Sumter over 34 hours. Federal forces fired back, though vastly outgunned. For all that, the only casualty was one Confederate mule.

The only fatalities in the whole mess, occurred after the Union surrender on April 13. Firing a 100-gun salute while lowering the flag, one cannon misfired, mortally wounding privates Daniel Hough and Edward Galloway.

The following day, Colonel Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army.

The Civil War had begun, but there didn’t seem to be a single individual who understood what kind of demons had just been unleashed. Robert Rhett, the rabble rousing editor of theFort_Sumter_storm_flag_1861 Charleston Mercury Newspaper, offered to personally eat the bodies of all the slain in the coming conflict. Not wanting to be outdone, former Senator James Chesnut, Jr. said “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed,” promising to personally drink any that might be spilled.

The war between the states would end the lives of more Americans than the Revolution, WWI, WWII, and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, combined.

Charleston, 1861

 

April 12, 1955 Conquering Polio

Poliomyelitis tended to come out in the summer, disproportionately effecting children and young adults.

When I was a boy, I once asked my mother what polio was.  At the time, I didn’t understand the expression on her face.  What I saw that day, was her realization that her children would never have to fear a plague that had terrified her generation and those before it.

Imagine the impact of the AIDS virus. Now, instead of the well understood vectors by which that virus is transmitted, imagine all the terrifying finality of that disease combined with the randomness of the common cold.Wheelchair

The first major polio epidemic in the United States appeared in Vermont, when 132 cases were diagnosed in 1894. A larger outbreak killed 6,000 New York City residents in 1916, with over 27,000 cases diagnosed.

Poliomyelitis tended to come out in the summer, disproportionately effecting children and young adults. 58,000 cases were reported in the 1952 epidemic alone, 3,145 of them died and another 21,269 left with mild to disabling paralysis.

A President of the United States suffered from polio, as a younger man. The press did their best to treat the matter with delicacy, but the disease left him able to stand only with great pain and difficulty, dependent on a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Others were doomed to 800lb monstrosities called “iron lungs”, seven-foot long, “negative pressure ventilators” which reproduced the movements of breathing.  The Smithsonian Institution estimated that 1,200 Americans were dependent on iron lungs in 1959.  Lattimore, North Carolina resident Martha Mason contracted polio at age 11, and spent 61 years in an iron lung before her passing in 2009.

Today, modern “biphasic” ventilators (alternating negative/positive pressure) are worn like the cuirass of the conquistadors, all but replacing the iron lung.  As of 2014, there were only ten individuals left, living their lives in one of the things.

Iron Lung

Early efforts to develop a vaccine, proved fruitless.  One New York University study produced no immunity whatever, at the cost of nine dead children.  Other vaccine trials used “volunteers” at state mental institutions.

Jonas Edward Salk was born on October 28, 1914, the son of Jewish immigrants of Irish descent. Daniel and Dora (Press) Salk were not themselves formally educated, but the Jonas-Salk-2couple kept their kids focused on school.

Salk attended City College of New York and New York University School of Medicine, taking the road less traveled on graduation from Med School. Instead of becoming a practicing physician, Salk went into medical research.

Salk accepted an appointment to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1947, the following year beginning a project funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which later became the March of Dimes. The grant was funded to determine the number of polio types, but Salk took it several steps further. He saw it as an opportunity to develop a vaccine.

It’s not widely known that the American Revolution took place during a smallpox pandemic. George Washington himself was a proponent of vaccinating, which, as with rabies, was always done with live virus.Polio Trials

Live virus vaccination carries obvious risks, and Dr. Salk was interested in the way the body developed antibodies to killed virus. He and his team completed lab trials in 1954, when they injected themselves and a number of volunteers with inert virus. Having had no ill effects, they began field trials a short time later.

Field trials of Dr. Salk’s vaccine were some of the most extensive in history. 20,000 physicians and public health officials were involved in the trial, along with 64,000 school personnel, 220,000 volunteers, and over 1,800,000 school children.

News of the vaccine’s success was announced on April 12, 1955, and Jonas Salk was hailed as a miracle worker. David Oshinsky, history professor at New York University and author of Polio: An American Story, tells a story about that day. “The public was horribly and understandably frightened by polio,” he wrote. “There was no prevention and no cure. Everyone was at risk, especially children. There was nothing a parent could poliodo to protect the family. I grew up in this era. Each summer, polio would come like The Plague. Beaches and pools would close — because of the fear that the poliovirus was waterborne. Children had to stay away from crowds, so they often were banned from movie theaters, bowling alleys, and the like. My mother gave us all a ‘polio test’ each day: Could we touch our toes and put our chins to our chest? Every stomach ache or stiffness caused a panic. Was it polio? I remember the awful photos of children on crutches, in wheelchairs and iron lungs. And coming back to school in September to see the empty desks where the children hadn’t returned.”

Jonas Salk consumed over seven years of his life on his goal. When broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow asked him “who owns the patent on this vaccine”, Dr. Salk replied: “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

All those years, all that time, work and effort, and even in the end the man took no personal financial interest in the result. A mortal virus afflicted the children of his generation, and he was going to lift heaven and earth, if he had to, to stop it.Salk

In the late 50s, Salk became interested in building his own research institute. He searched for a site for over a year, until he met San Diego Mayor Charles Dail, himself a polio survivor. Dail showed Salk 27 acres on a mesa in La Jolla, just west of the proposed site for the new UC campus then planned for San Diego. In June of 1960, the citizens of San Diego overwhelmingly voted “yes”, to donate the land for Salk’s dream. Construction began with initial funding from the National Foundation/March of Dimes, and completed in 1967.

Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995, at the age of 80. A memorial at the Institute bearing his name reads: “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”poliovaccina

By 1979, the disease was eradicated from the United States.  The worldwide effort to wipe out polio began in 1988, with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.  20 million volunteers from virtually every country in the world have vaccinated over 2.5 billion children, at a cost of $11 billion. Worldwide, the incidence of new polio cases decreased by 99%.  Today, the only region where polio remains endemic, are northern Nigeria and the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And so it is that those of us born after 1955 can go on in blissful ignorance, having no idea of the terrors our parents endured before us.

April 11, 1970  Houston, We’ve had a Problem

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 1½ days

Apollo 13 liftoffJack Swigert was supposed to be 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 exposed to German measles. Jim Lovell was the world’s most traveled astronaut, 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, former backup crew member on Apollo 8 and 11, this would be his first spaceflight.

The seventh manned mission in the Apollo space program was intended to be the third moon landing, launching at 13:13 central standard time, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Apollo spacecraft comprised two separate vessels, separated by an airtight hatch. The crew lived in the Command/Service module, called “Odyssey”.  The Landing Module (LM) “Aquarius”, would perform the actual moon landing.

Apollo 13 Schematic

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 SM hydrogen and oxygen tank. Two minutes later, the astronauts heard a “loud bang”.

Spacecraft manufacturing and testing had both missed an exposed wire in an oxygen tank.  When Swigert flipped the switch for that routine procedure, a spark set the oxygen tank on fire. Alarm lights lit up all over Odyssey and in Mission Control.  The 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 it at the time, but the entire Sector 4 panel had just blown off.apollo-13-damage

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, saying “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, but 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, in order to preserve power for splashdown.

Apollo_13-insigniaThis situation had been suggested during an earlier training simulation, but had been considered unlikely. As it happened, the accident would have been fatal without access to the Lunar Module.

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 1½ days. Heat fell close to freezing and food became inedible, as mission control teams, spacecraft manufacturers and the crew itself worked around the clock to jury rig life support, navigational and propulsion systems.  This “lifeboat” would have to do what it was never intended to do.

Atmospheric re-entry alone, presented almost 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.

Apollo_13_Prime_Crew
Left to right: Commander, James A. Lovell Jr., Command Module pilot, John L. Swigert Jr., Lunar Module pilot, Fred W. Haise Jr.

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. There is no coming down a second time. You get one bounce and then nothing but the black void of space.

For four days, most of the country and much of the world held its breath, waiting for the latest update from newspaper and television news.  With communications down, TV commentators used models and illustrations, to describe the unfolding drama.  Onboard 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 walk home.

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.Apollo_13_timeline

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 its seal, too little wouldn’t provide enough separation between the two bodies.  The result of either failure, would have been identical to that of the “shooting stars”, you see at night.

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

By this time the Command Module had been in “cold soak” for days.  No one even 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 CM reached 2,691° F, as the kinetic energy of re-entry was converted to heat.

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.

apollo-13-problem

April 10, 1869 SCOTUS

There have been fewer justices in Supreme Court history than you might think. The recent passing of Antonin Scalia made way for only number 113

ConstitutionThe Stuart King James had judges riding into the countryside once a year to hear cases, saving many of his subjects the arduous journey to London.  The custom carried “across the pond” and, from the earliest days of the American colonies, judges could be found “riding the circuit”.

Article III of the United States Constitution establishes the judiciary as a coequal branch of the federal government, “vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish”. That’s about it.

Congress passed the Federal Judiciary Act in 1789, creating a six justice Supreme Court, and signed into law by President George Washington on September 24.  Principally written by Senator Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, the act established the office of Attorney General, and largely laid out the Federal court system, as it exists today.

United States Circuit courts were established in each federal judicial district, exercising jurisdiction over both original (first instance) matters and appeals, until the creation of the Federal Court of Appeals, in 1912.

Judicial Districts map
2017 Judicial Districts map

Supreme Court justices were not exempt from Circuit court duty, each justice “riding the circuit” to hear cases in his own district, in addition to his caseload, back at the capital.

Smaller districts may occupy a single federal courthouse, while larger districts stretch across thousands of miles.  This duty became increasingly onerous, until finally abolished by the Judiciary Act of 1891. Yet, the vestiges of this system remain. Today, each justice hears certain provisional appeals from specific circuits, which he or she may decide unilaterally, or refer “en banc” to the entire Court.

Increasing caseloads led Congress to increase the number of judicial districts to seven in 1807, and nine in 1837, finally raising that to ten during the Civil War.  With each new district, came another justice.

In one of the political skirmishes leading to President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868, Congress passed the Judicial Circuits Act in 1866, shrinking the number of justices to seven, thus preventing Johnson from appointing any new justices.

Congress raised the number to nine circuits with nine justices on April 10, 1869.  Today there are eleven federal judicial districts, while the number of justices remain at nine.

Supreme_Court_cartoonIn 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to increase the number of justices to 15. Then as now, the court was sharply divided along ideological lines, consisting of a four member conservative majority called the “four horsemen”, three liberals dubbed the “three musketeers” and two “swing votes”.

The conservative bloc became a roadblock to President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, preferring the federal government take a hands off approach to the economy.

Buoyed by his landslide reelection in 1936, Roosevelt proposed to provide retirement at full pay for all justices over 70.  Any justice refusing retirement would be provided with an “assistant” with full voting rights, providing Roosevelt with an overwhelming liberal majority.

Not even vice president John Nance Garner would go along with Roosevelt’s aggressive and illegal “court packing scheme”, nor would a democrat-controlled congress. Yet Roosevelt’s effort had the desired result, as former swing vote Owen Roberts became a reliable vote for the liberal minority. By the time of his death 1945, Roosevelt had appointed every justice on the court, except Roberts himself.

supremecourtThere have been fewer justices in Supreme Court history than you might think.  The recent passing of Antonin Scalia made way for only number 113.

A proponent of “Judicial Originalism”, justice Scalia and his conservative allies on the court seek to decide on the constitutionality of the laws before them, based on what the framers of the constitution intended when they actually wrote the thing. In contrast, the liberal majority believes in a “living constitution”, a form of jurisprudence whose supporters believe the Constitution is a document which adapts to the times.  Detractors believe that amounts to law-making from the bench, a job more properly left the legislature.

With the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court hanging in the balance, President Obama and his allies pulled out all the stops to get his nominee confirmed and seated before the end of his presidency. The Republican controlled Senate invoked the “Biden Rule”, as described in the former Vice President’s 1992 speech on the Senate floor:  “It would be our pragmatic conclusion that once the political season is underway, and it is, action on a Supreme Court nomination must be put off until after the election campaign is over.”

Barack Obama himself tried to block the confirmation of Samuel Alito in 2006, saying Filibuster“There are some who believe that the president, having won the election, should have complete authority to appoint his nominee, that once you get beyond intellect and personal character, there should be no further question as to whether the judge should be confirmed. I disagree with this view”. The filibuster was joined by Senators Kennedy, Leahy, Durbin, Salazar, and Baucus.

In 2007, now-Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said “We should not confirm any Bush nominee to the Supreme Court, except in extraordinary circumstances”. That was 19 months before the next presidential inauguration.

The resulting conflict is great fodder for the bicker fest that passes for our national politics, from the legacy media and the talking heads of the punditocracy, to the endless and meaningless cage matches over the rhetorical anthills of Facebook.

CapitolSenator Schumer once said, “We have three branches of government. We have a house, we have a senate, we have a president.” He got that wrong, but he was part right.  We have three co-equal branches in our government, each having specific responsibilities as laid out in the Constitution.

The “advice and consent” clause contained in Article II grants the President authority to appoint judges to the Supreme Court, “by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.”  The Senate, for its part, will do what the Senate will do.

Later today, Justice David Kennedy will administer the oath of office to his former law clerk, judge Neil Gorsuch.  The 113th justice of the United States Supreme Court, and the first in history to serve alongside the justice for whom he once clerked.