Spaceflight and the Preservation of the Physical Past

This artist's conception by Bill Wright captures a possible future lunar tourist moment. Visitors to the "Tranquility Base Memorial Center" view the "Eagle" spacecraft that first landed humans on the Moon from an observation deck as the activities of the Moonbase take place all around.

This artist’s conception by Bill Wright captures a possible future lunar tourist moment. Visitors to the “Tranquility Base Memorial Center” view the “Eagle” spacecraft that first landed humans on the Moon from an observation deck as the activities of the Moonbase take place all around.

Cultural relics from Apollo, as well as other wreckage, soft landers, and rovers currently exist on the Moon, undisturbed since their arrival. That does not mean that no one will do so in the future. With the Google Lunar X Prize offering a $20 million purse to the first team to land a rover on the Moon; with an added 5 million if the team could image a lunar landing site there is a race underway to return to the Moon with robotic spacecraft.

How might preservation of historic sites on the Moon be assured into the future? Are there analogous situations in which there were no rules/policies/laws in place to enforce preservation? Indeed, there are. Those include the Antarctic experience, as well as the disturbance of such sites as the Titanic, the raising of space capsules from the ocean floor, and the wholesale destruction of Native American cultural sites in the 17th-19th centuries. How might those lessons be applied to the Moon? Progress has been made, most notably in the release on July 20, 2011, of “NASA’s Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts,” but much remains to be accomplished.

While there are important cultural debates presently raging that requires serious attention from all thoughtful and self-aware individuals, the importance of preserving the physical past is perhaps even more important than more abstract debates.

There have been significant instances in the past in which the ravages of conquerors on physical places have taken their toll. France under Napoleon secured significant ancient treasures from Egypt during the first part of the nineteenth century. The recent film, The Monuments Men, and the 2009 book of the same title by Robert M. Edsel tells the story of the Allied effort to preserve the art treasures of Europe at the end of World War II. The international Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Allied invasion force was a small group of mostly middle-aged men and a few women who had worked before the war as historians, museum curators, and professors who recovered many works of art at risk during the war.

Their story was heroic, no doubt, and it speaks to the necessary of conscious efforts to ensure the preservation of cultural treasures. As art curator and historian Lynn H. Nicholas has commented, “Without the [Monuments Men], a lot of the most important treasures of European culture would be lost. They did an extraordinary amount of work protecting and securing these things.”

This was a generally positive story as Allied efforts preserved the past. Such was not the case in the American invasion of Baghdad in 2003. Despite warnings from many antiquities experts, including the American Council for Cultural Policy, that the National Museum of Iraq required efforts to secure the preservation of its collections, little was done by the invading forces. While U.S. forces avoided targeting the museum, and even dodged a firefight there on April 8, 2003, when Iraqi forces barricaded themselves in the museum, at the conclusion of the battle for the city looters took many antiquities as invading forces stood by.  More than forty major works were stolen; only three of them— the Sacred Vase of Warka, the Mask of Warka, and the Bassetki Statue—were recovered. The behavior of invading forces, and especially the civilian leaders with responsibility for policies relating to Iraq, was horrendous throughout this affair. There is no explanation that is satisfactory when some troops could have been deployed to protect the museum.

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There needs to be a balance to conservation, preservation, and exploitation when it comes to heritage sites in space, the Moon, or anywhere else. Thus far there is not. In the twenty-first century, pressures on the system have begun to force some alterations to policies relative to space exploration/preservation. This might represent a return to the earlier associative state approaches in public/private partnerships. John L. Crompton, a social science researcher, suggests: “Pragmatists seek a more effective government and see privatization as a means to that end. Commercial interests seek to obtain more business by taking over some of the agency’s financing, production, or operating roles. For ideologues, privatization is a political agenda aimed at ensuring that government plays a smaller role compared to private institutions.”

Government officials, as well as policy, could likewise encourage private sector development in space tourism, both in low-Earth orbit and on the Moon. The following possibilities exist:

  • Public officials could expand the use of government facilities by private entrepreneurs as a means of encouraging public use and visitation.
  • Private firms could pay fees which government agencies could then use to expand and develop facilities.
  • Government could create a favorable regulatory climate for space tourism.
  • Private citizens could then experience space through both remote access as well as direct participation.

Beyond these very specific possibilities, NASA could also award lease contracts for habitation/support services of facilities in orbit and on the Moon. Baseline development and operational costs could then be funded by NASA lease. In very case, however, the preservation of the Apollo sites must be assured. Stay tuned.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “A Short History of Naval and Marine Engineering”

Short History of NavalA Short History of Naval and Marine Engineering. By Edgar C. Smith. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1938, paperback 2013.

This is quite an old book; it was published originally in 1938 and generally unavailable until this paperback reprint in 2013 except in libraries. This is a facsimile reprint of the original edition; there is not even an introduction of more recent vintage that places the book in the larger context of historical study.

The book itself is a leisurely discussion of marine vehicles from the beginning of the steamship age to the point at which the book was published just before World War II. It begins with several chapters on steamships and the propulsion systems used on those vessels. This includes commentary on commercial and military vessels, innovations in the propulsion systems, screws, navigation, speed, armoring and armaments, and the like. Considerable analysis of the boiler systems for steamships follows, along with related and ancillary machinery. At the narrative moves into the twentieth century Edgar Smith turns attention to other types of propulsion systems, especially the varieties of coal versus oil burning engines.

This is a highly technical study based on journal articles, technical materials, and a few personal papers and unpublished materials. There are numerous schematics and illustrations of how the machinery associated with these vessels operated. At a technical level this is a treasure trove of information. As a work of history this is very much history as an engineer envisions it. There is little in the way on insight about how technology evolves; there is even less about the individuals who made the technology real and their process of invention. On the other hand, if one were restoring an old steamboat this would be an exceptionally valuable work. It explains exceptionally how these technologies worked.

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Announcing a Special Issue of “Astropolitics” on the Power of Analogies for Advancing Space Scientific Knowledge

fast20_v012_i02-03_coverI have just edited a special issue of Astropolitics: The International Journal of Space Politics & Policy 12:2-3 (2014) has just appeared. It is available on-line here. I must mention that a subscription to the journal is required, or access through a subscribing institution, to download the articles.

This special issue began with a session on the “The Power of Analogies for Advancing Scientific Knowledge” at the History of Science Society Annual Meeting in 2013. Two of the authors in this issue delivered papers at the session, which upon revision were included here. To those papers were added four more that covered a range of possibilities for investigating the role of analogy in relation to spaceflight.

The articles include:

This special issue began with a session on the “The Power of Analogies for Advancing Scientific Knowledge” at the History of Science Society Annual Meeting in 2013. Two of the authors in this issue delivered papers at the session, which upon revision were included here. To those papers were added four more that covered a range of possibilities for investigating the role of analogy in relation to spaceflight.

Howard E. McCurdy, Professor of Public Affairs at the American University in Washington, D.C., and a longtime space policy analyst, leads this issue by analyzing the manner in which mountaineers conquered the tallest peaks in the world and how that might relate to space exploration. He finds that mountaineering, like spaceflight, began with a relatively small group of individuals seeking to demonstrate the feasibility of their vision. Those first efforts were technologically complex and expensive relative to national wealth. Advocates sought financial support from societies, philanthropists, and governmental bodies.  Private financing was difficult to get. Over time innovation reduced the average and marginal cost of the activity. These cost reductions attracted venture capital and permitted commercialization, accelerating as time progressed and economies of scale emerged. This pattern in mountaineering history may take place in spaceflight; studious investment may allow innovation to occur.

The second article, by Catherine L. Newell of the Departments of English and Religious Studies at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, used literature, film, and other statements from the advocates of spaceflight to analyze the close relationship between memory of the American frontier of the nineteenth century and the space program of the middle part of the twentieth century. She especially emphasized the roles of popularizers, such as artist Chesley Bonestell, rocketeer Wernher von Braun, and writer Willy Ley to draw these rich parallels.

My contribution explored the manner in which the railroad might serve as a useful analog for spaceflight in the more recent past. While the theme is not a new one, this contribution suggests that the experience of the government encouraging the nineteenth century transcontinental railroad remains valid to some degree for orbital space operations. The government offered the following six inducements for private development: land grants as a means of offering potential future revenue, tied to success in creating the railroad system; direct government appropriations to the company involved in the endeavor; waivers and modifications to taxes and other regulatory requirements; contracts for services once capability is demonstrated; government endorsement and backing of corporate bonds and assets; and direct support for related but supplemental elements of the railroad transportation system.

In every case, these government initiatives were intended to leverage, and not replace, existing private funding, especially additional industry and venture capital. To those six, we might add the following: private financing supplemented with government loans; property and patent rights granted to participating firms; and broadly construed revenues produced from transportation and other fees. Regardless, one must ask these critical questions in the context of developing new space transportation structures: how important, in the final analysis, is cheaper access to space; and is it really the key to future growth of space activities? This seems to be at the cusp of what will go into any stimulation of private space transportation efforts.

James Spiller, Assistant Provost for Research and Scholarship at the State University of New York at Brockport, drew on his special knowledge of Antarctic science to draw parallels between the two places beginning in the 1960s. In 1957, the United States established the first permanent U.S. scientific stations in Antarctica—McMurdo Station and Little America at the South Pole—as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a broad-based scientific effort to understand the geophysical properties of the Earth.

The next year the United States established NASA, in direct response to the Soviet Union’s success in engaging in space science undertaken also as a part of the IGY. Over time the sponsorship of Antarctic stations to establish a geopolitical presence and advance scientific efforts in Antarctica became less and less inherently governmental and more privately funded and operated. At the same time the space activities pursued by NASA have remained governmental activities. There is almost no corresponding private sector involvement in space operations. Spiller explores the lessons learned in these two endeavors.

Lisa Messeri, assistant professor of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia, presented the story of Apollo training—first how geology became a dominant scientific activity on the Moon and then how astronauts underwent analog training on Earth to prepare themselves for lunar geology. The astronauts had no way to train for geological activity on the Moon other than to use similar terrains on Earth. Messeri investigates how the Earth itself became an analog for understanding the Moon.

The search for life beyond Earth has been with us since before the origins of the space age, but now efforts are underway to seek out that life—the scientific discipline is called Astrobiology—and thousands of individuals are working in the arena. Yet, there is no evidence of extraterrestrial life as yet and so all research is analogous to what exists on Earth. This final article in this issue of Astropolitics took on this broad and fascinating topic. Steven J. Dick, former NASA Chief Historian and current Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress, contributed to our understanding of this inviting topic and “argues that just as scientists have profitably employed analogies throughout the history of science, just as historians have investigated analogies to the impact of spaceflight and other human endeavors, and at a time when cognitive scientists have come to see analogy as the ‘fire and fuel of thinking,’ so may we cautiously deploy analogy in order to illuminate the impact of discovering extraterrestrial life, even as fundamentally novel aspects may also exist.”

Collectively these six essays explore various aspects of the role of analogies in the history of spaceflight. Some of them are oriented toward solving very practical problems, such as the work of McCurdy and myself, in seeking to apply lessons from other endeavors to the advancement of commercial enterprises in space. One, Newell, emphasized the connection between nineteenth century ideas of the frontier and twentieth century conceptions of space exploration with space advocates seeking to justify the space adventures with historical metaphors. Another one by Spiller offers a comparison between to activities that emerged at near the same time in space and Antarctica.

Finally, two articles—by Dick and Messeri—showed how scientists have used Earth analogs to study extraterrestrial phenomena without actually being able view the subject firsthand. Each of these essays contribute to the use of analogs in scientific and technical enterprises. I hope you will explore these individual articles.


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Considering the Moon

Artist Pierre Mion’s 1979 painting entitled “Astronauts Explore the Moon” dramatizes the immense size of the lunar craters and mountains on the lunar surface.

Artist Pierre Mion’s 1979 painting entitled “Astronauts Explore the Moon” dramatizes the immense size of the lunar craters and mountains on the lunar surface.

What is it about the Moon that captures the fancy of humankind? A silvery disk hanging in the night sky, it conjures up images of romance and magic. It has been counted upon to foreshadow important events, both of good and ill, and its phases for eons served humanity as its most accurate measure of time. Since ancient times, people have watched the Moon wax (appear to grow larger) and wane (appear to shrink) and wondered at its beauty and mystery. The Moon holds an important place in many of the world’s religions, and once had a part in other religions—such as Christianity—that no longer assign it special significance. Many of those religions see the Moon as a deity, with many names and many incarnations.

The Moon is by far the most dominant and changeable element in the night sky. It has kindled enthusiasm, joy, lust, fear, and horror upon generations of peoples of all races and cultures who have lived out their lives under its silvery reflected light. Defined differently from culture to culture and age to age, humankind remains captivated by its power. We have characterized it by its features, by its phases, and by its influence over Earthly entities whether they are animate or not. Moongazing remains one of the oldest pastimes in the human experience.

Ancient civilizations assigned the Moon dominion over their lives through supernatural intervention; others have envisioned it as a home for extraterrestrial life. It inspires poets and artists, scientists and engineers, creators and destroyers. With the invention of the telescope at the turn of the seventeenth century—coinciding with the rise of the scientific revolution—the Moon took on new meaning as a tangible place with mountains and valleys and craters that could be named and geological features and events that could be studied.

The first truly modern science fiction writer, Jules Verne, specifically focused on the Moon in his novels. For example, in 1865 Verne published De la Terre a la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon). The scientific principles informing this book were very accurate for the period. It described the problems of building a vehicle and launch mechanism to visit the Moon. At the end of the book, Verne’s characters were shot into space by a 900-foot-long cannon. Verne picked up the story in a second novel, Autour de la Lune (Around the Moon), describing a lunar orbital flight, but he did not allow his characters actually to land.

The Moon is often seen as a gift of intense romance from one lover to another. This is a part of our cultural heritage and accepted as an expression of intense affection. For instance, in the classic Frank Capra motion picture, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the leading character George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart tells his future wife, played by Donna Reed:

George: What do you want, Mary? Do you want the moon? If you want it, I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down for you. Hey! That’s a pretty good idea! I’ll give you the moon, Mary.

Mary: I’ll take it! Then what?

George: Well, then you can swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve see, and the moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair…am I talking too much?

As spaceflight became a possibility in the twentieth century the Moon took on added meaning as Earth’s nearest astronomical neighbor and a relatively easy place for humankind to visit and explore. The Moon was early on an attractive target for both the United States and the Soviet Union in their rocket-propelled space programs during the latter 1950s and 1960s because it was so comparatively close. There were also numerous opportunities every month for a launch from the Earth to the Moon.

This mosaic picture of the Moon was compiled from 18 images taken with a green filter by the Galileo spacecraft’s imaging system during its flyby on December 7, 1992. The north polar region is near the top part of the mosaic, which also shows Mare Imbrium, the dark area on the left; Mare Serenitatis at center; and Mare Crisium, the circular dark area to the right. Bright crater rim and ray deposits are from Copernicus, an impact crater 96 kilometers (60 miles) in diameter.

This mosaic picture of the Moon was compiled from 18 images taken with a green filter by the Galileo spacecraft’s imaging system during its flyby on December 7, 1992. The north polar region is near the top part of the mosaic, which also shows Mare Imbrium, the dark area on the left; Mare Serenitatis at center; and Mare Crisium, the circular dark area to the right. Bright crater rim and ray deposits are from Copernicus, an impact crater 96 kilometers (60 miles) in diameter.

In a desperate rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War it held enormous potential as a public relations coup for the nation reaching it first. The number of spaceflight “firsts” associated with the Moon in the 1950s and 1960s clearly demonstrates the significance assigned to various lunar exploration efforts during this first heroic era of the space age. From the first clear images of the Moon to the last landings in the 1970s and to the present the body has held a fascination that propels the space program.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California”

9780873282499Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California. Western Histories. Edited by Peter J. Westwick. Foreword by William Deverell. (Berkeley: University of California Press; San Marino: Huntington Library, 2012. xii + 308 pp. Illustrations, table, notes, bibliography, index. $44.95, £30.95.)

Arguably the most important technological development of the twentieth century has been the creation of machines that gave individuals the ability to fly. An eons old dream to shed the bounds of the Earth, only after 1903 with the first flight of the Wright Brothers did this goal become a reality. At first the air industry was quite small and dispersed throughout the United States, but it grew quickly and many of its largest firms located in southern California. By World War II this industry had grown into a huge sector of the U.S. economy, employing more than one million workers and contributing more than five percent to the gross domestic product. During the Cold War era of the latter half of the twentieth century the relationship of southern California to the industries, economies, and culture of flight remained tightly interlocked and this relationship has continued in the twenty-plus years since the demise of the Soviet Union.

Blue Sky Metropolis is an essential work in any effort to understand the significance of aerospace technology in the life and culture of southern California. Editor Peter J. Westwick, whose leadership of the Aerospace History Project sponsored by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West has been exemplary, has assembled a creditable collection of essays on various aspects of flight in the region. As in all such collections some chapters are more interesting and valuable than others, but collectively they are a useful whole. Some of these are personal essays, such as those by D.J. Waldie and M.G. Lord; others are standard types of research papers that build on existing knowledge to deepen understanding, such as those by Mihir Pandya, Sherman N. Mullin, Dwayne A. Day, Glenn E. Bugos, and Wade Graham; and some, such as those by Anita Seth, Stuart W. Leslie, Peter J. Westwick, W. Patrick McCray, and Zuoyue Wang, break new and important ground. Some of these chapters are part of the new social history in the best sense of the term, especially Wang’s study of Chinese American scientists and engineers and Seth on aerospace labor relations.

Especially useful was Westwick’s article on the relationship between Hollywood special effects technicians and aerospace visualization such as what NASA produces about planetary exploration for public consumption. Also fascinating is McCray’s investigation of the relationship between right wing Cold Warriors and the ideas of space colonization emphasized in such pro-space groups as the L5 Society. Finally, Stuart Leslie’s contribution on aerospace modernism breaks new ground in the relationship between these two arenas in the twentieth century.

Overall, this is a very strong collection with some essays more path-breaking than others. It is rounded out by an interesting photo essay and a selective bibliography with emphasis on “selective.” Raising as many questions as it answers, Blue Sky Metropolis opens intriguing new avenues for investigation.

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A Brief Account of the Origins of Rocketry in Less than 1,000 Words

Although it is unclear who first invented rockets, many investigators link the first crude rockets with the discovery of gunpowder. The Chinese, moreover, had been using gunpowder for some 1,800 years. The first firecrackers seemed to have appeared about the first two centuries after the beginning of the Common Era, and the Chinese were using rockets in warfare at least by the time of Genghis Khan (ca. 1155-1227). Not long thereafter the use of rockets in warfare began to spread to the West, and was in use by at least by the time of Konrad Kyser von Eichstadt, who wrote Bellfortis in 1405, the use of rockets in military operations was reasonably well known in Europe.

The use of gunpowder rockets was refined through the first part of the nineteenth century. Essentially, the military application for rocketry—and there was little other at the time—was as a type of artillery. Sir William Congreve (1772-1828) carried rocket technology as far as it was to go for another century, developing incendiary barrage missiles for the British military that could be fired from either land or sea. They were used with effect against the United States in the War of 1812; it was probably Congreve’s weapons that Francis Scott Key wrote about in the “Star Spangled Banner” while imprisoned on a British warship during the bombardment of Fort McHenry at Baltimore. The military use of the rocket was soon outmoded in the nineteenth century by developments, making artillery both more accurate and more destructive, but new uses for rockets were found in other industries such as whaling and for sea-going shipping where rocket-powered harpoons and rescue lines began to be employed.

William Congreve had served in the Royal Artillery briefly in 1791 but worked as a technician at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, England, when he began experimenting with rockets. By 1806 he was producing 32 pound rockets with a range of more than 3,000 yards. Congreve’s invention enabled artillery without the movement of heavy guns; wherever a packhorse or an infantryman could go, the rocket could provide support.

William Congreve had served in the Royal Artillery briefly in 1791 but worked as a technician at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, England, when he began experimenting with rockets. By 1806 he was producing 32 pound rockets with a range of more than 3,000 yards. Congreve’s invention enabled artillery without the movement of heavy guns; wherever a packhorse or an infantryman could go, the rocket could provide support.

This illustration shows the manner in which the Congreve rocket could be deployed by soldiers on the battlefield.

This illustration shows the manner in which the Congreve rocket could be deployed by soldiers on the battlefield.

Here rescuers are using a rocket to fire a line over to a ship in distress. A strong line is then hauled to the ship which can be used to either guide a rescue boat or establish tackle to bring ashore individuals.

Here rescuers are using a rocket to fire a line over to a ship in distress. A strong line is then hauled to the ship which can be used to either guide a rescue boat or establish tackle to bring ashore individuals.

While the technology of rocketry was moving forward on other fronts, some individuals began to advocate their use for space travel. One of the earliest pioneering figures was the Russian theoretician Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), who had been inspired by the science fiction of Verne and Wells. An obscure schoolteacher in a remote part of Tsarist Russia in 1898, he submitted for publication to the Russian journal, Nauchnoye Obozreniye (Science Review), a work based upon years of calculations that laid out many of the principles of modern space flight. His article was not published until 1903, but it opened the door to future writings on the subject.

A second rocket pioneer was Hermann Oberth (1894-1989), a German who published the classic study, Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen (Rockets in Planetary Space) in 1923. It represented a thorough discussion of almost every phase of rocket spaceflight and inspired many to follow his lead. Among his proteges was Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), the senior member of the rocket team that built NASA’s Saturn launch vehicle for the actual trip to the Moon in the 1960s.

The American Rocket Society (ARS) began life on April 4, 1930, under the name American Interplanetary Society but it soon began rocket experiments and changes its name to more effectively reflect its experimental work. Here is a plan for the ARS-2, an improvement on a German design. It used liquid oxygen and gasoline propellants, and was successfully launched on May 14, 1933, although the rocket veered after takeoff and reached only a 75 mile high altitude. Successive rockets refined the design.

The American Rocket Society (ARS) began life on April 4, 1930, under the name American Interplanetary Society but it soon began rocket experiments and changes its name to more effectively reflect its experimental work. Here is a plan for the ARS-2, an improvement on a German design. It used liquid oxygen and gasoline propellants, and was successfully launched on May 14, 1933, although the rocket veered after takeoff and reached only a 75 mile high altitude. Successive rockets refined the design.

Although the work of rocketeers was path-breaking, only World War II truly altered the course of rocket development. Many combatants were involved in developing some type of rocket technology. As an example, the Soviet Union fielded the “Katusha,” a solid fueled rocket six feet in length and carrying almost fifty pounds of explosives that could be fired from either a ground- or truck-mounted launcher.

The United States began in earnest in 1943 to develop a rocket capability, and several efforts were aimed in that direction. One of the most significant was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where a team under the brilliant Hungarian scientist, Dr. Theodore von Karman (1881-1963), began developing a rocket for use in launching aircraft on short runways and then graduated to the development of the WAC Corporal, which became a significant launch vehicle in postwar rocket research. Others built various types of hand-held anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets as well as the JATO rockets.

Of course, research and development efforts in Germany led to the V-2 ballistic missile, the first truly effective missile of the modern era.

This image from 1941 shows the Ercoupe, a “rocket-assisted” airplane, taking off using a shorter runway than the plane still on the ground. Both planes started at the same position and time.

This image from 1941 shows the Ercoupe, a “rocket-assisted” airplane, taking off using a shorter runway than the plane still on the ground. Both planes started at the same position and time.

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Visions of Venus at the Dawn of the Space Age

A pulp fiction story of life on Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

A pulp fiction story of life on Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

As Earth’s “sister planet,” many have long speculated about the nature of Venus and the possibility of life existing there in some form. Through much of the nineteenth century observers harbored hopes that Venus might be a place  teeming with life. As R.A. Proctor wrote in 1870, because of its similarity to Earth “on the whole, the evidence we have points very strongly to Venus as the abode of living creatures not unlike the inhabitants of earth.”

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, a series of astronomical observations suggested Venus might be much less conducive to life similar to that seen on Earth than previously expected. R.G. Aitken, an astronomer at Lick Observatory, argued admitted that the possibility of life there “must be utterly desolate.”

Even so, and perhaps surprisingly, in the first half of the twentieth century a popular theory held that the sun had gradually been cooling for millennia and that as it did so, each planet in the solar system had a turn as a haven for life of various types. Although it was now Earth’s turn to harbor life, the theory suggested that Mars had once been habitable and that life on Venus was now just beginning to evolve. Beneath the clouds of the planet, the theory offered, was a warm, watery world and the possibility of aquatic and amphibious life. “It was reasoned that if the oceans of Venus still exist, then the Venusian clouds may be composed of water droplets,” noted JPL researchers as late as 1963; “if Venus were covered by water, it was suggested that it might be inhabited by Venusian equivalents of Earth’s Cambrian period of 500 million years ago, and the same steamy atmosphere could be a possibility.”

This theory was popularized by Svante Arrhenius, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who reached millions with popular lectures and publications. Arguing for a tropical environment of more than 37.8 Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) Arrhenius posited a strikingly wet atmosphere on Venus, one conducive to the rise of aquatic and amphibian life. He wrote:

We must therefore conclude that everything on Venus is dripping wet…A very great part of the surface of Venus is no doubt covered with swamps, corresponding to those on the Earth in which the coal deposits were formed…The constantly uniform climactic [sic] conditions which exist everywhere result in an entire absence of adaptation to changing exterior conditions. Only low forms of life are therefore represented, mostly no doubt belonging to the vegetable kingdom; and the organisms are nearly of the same kind all over the planet. The vegetative processes are greatly accelerated by the high temperatures.

Arrhenius speculated that more complex life forms might have evolved at the Venusian poles since the temperatures would not be quite as hot there, and with that “progress and culture…will gradually spread from the poles toward the equator.”

The director of the Smithsonian Observatory, Charles Greeley Abbot, took these ideas even further in the 1920s. He argued that Venus’s “high reflecting power seems to show that Venus is largely covered by clouds indicative of abundant moisture, probably at almost identical temperatures to ours.” Abbot even speculated that Earth might make contact with life on Venus, evincing his excitement at coming “into fluent communication by wireless with a race brought up completely separate, having their own systems of government, social usages, religions, and surrounded by vegetation and animals entirely unrelated to any here on earth. It would be a revelation far beyond the opening of Japan, or the discoveries of Egyptologists, or the adventures of travelers in the dark continent.”

Thus the debate over the climate of Venus portended a larger debate over the possibilities of life in the solar system. Venus’s atmosphere, the pressures it had, the presence or absence of atmospheric oxygen, H2O, and CO2 fundamentally informed this debate. It led to a succession of planetary theories concerning Venus. Measurement of these climate characteristics constrained theoretical models of planetary evolution while also restraining some of the more exotic speculations about Martian and Venerean life.

Venus imaged through the clouds by the Magellan spacecraft in the late 1980s-early 1990s.

Venus imaged through the clouds by the Magellan spacecraft in the late 1980s-early 1990s.

By the 1930s the detection of carbon dioxide in its thick atmosphere forced scientists grudgingly to abandon the idea that Venus contained a carboniferous swamp. The scientists investigating Venus replaced the pre-Cambrian environment, as Carl Sagan noted in 1961, for “an arid planetary desert, overlain by clouds of dust from the wind-swept surface.” They continued to search for water vapor, but failed to find it. What scientists found was carbon dioxide, a lot of it; a layer of gas roughly equivalent to a two mile deep ocean at a pressure similar to that  of Earth. In 1939 astronomer Rupert Wildt postulated a “greenhouse effect” with temperatures far above what was present on Earth. As astronomer Ronald A. Schorn concluded, “By 1940 there was good reason to believe that conditions on Venus were harsh and life impossible.” Charles Greeley Abbot, for one, refused to change his perspective. He wrote in 1946 that “the conditions may possibly be as favorable for life there as on our earth.”

A few others agreed with Abbot. For example, in 1955 Soviet astronomer G.A. Tikhoff commented:

Now already we can say a few things about the vegetation of Venus. Owing to the high temperatures on this planet, the plants must reflect all the heat rays, of which those visible to the eye are the rays from red to green inclusive. This gives the plants a yellow hue. In addition, the plants must radiate red rays. With the yellow, this gives them an orange color. Our conclusions concerning the color of vegetation on Venus find certain confirmation in the observation…that in those pats of Venus where the Sun’s rays possibly penetrate the clouds to be reflected by the planet’s surface, there is a surplus of yellow and red rays.

Subsequent measurements largely overturned these idea about  Venus as a planet teeming with life even before the dawn of interplanetary travel.

So bleak did the situation appear by 1961 that even Carl Sagan thought it unlikely that the planet has ever harbored life. He concluded:

At such high temperatures, and in the absence of liquid water, it appears very unlikely that there are indigenous surface organisms at the present time. If life based upon carbon-hydrogen-oxygen-nitrogen chemistry ever developed in the early history of Venus, it must subsequently have evolved to sub-surface or atmospheric ecological niches. However, since, as has been mentioned, there can have been no appreciable periods of time when Venus had both extensive bodies of water and surface temperatures below the boiling point of water, it is unlikely that life ever arose on Venus.

After carrying out ground-based efforts in 1961 to view the planet using radar, which could “see” through the clouds, and learning among other things that Venus rotated in a retrograde motion opposite from the direction of orbital motion, both the Soviet Union and the United States began a race to the planet with robotic spacecraft to learn the truth about the planet and its prospects for life. The Soviets tried first, launching Venera 1 on February 12, 1961. Unlike lunar exploration, however, the Soviets did not win the race to Venus; their spacecraft broke down on the way. The United States claimed the first success in planetary exploration during the summer of 1962 when Mariner 1 and Mariner 2 were launched toward Venus. Although Mariner 1 was lost during a launch failure, Mariner 2 flew by Venus on December 14, 1962, at a distance of 21,641 miles.

It investigated the clouds, estimated planetary temperatures, measured the charged particle environment, and looked for a magnetic field similar to Earth’s magnetosphere (but found none). Most important, it confirmed that the planet’s surface was an inferno. A report stated:

Earth-based measurements of microwave emissions from Venus had indicated a temperature of about 600 °F., but researchers did not—and could not—know whether the emissions came from the surface, from cloud layers in the atmosphere or from a dense ionosphere high overhead. The question was answered by a microwave radiometer aboard Mariner 2, which revealed “limb-darkening” (weaker emissions at the edge of the planet’s disk than at the center). The conclusion was not only that the surface was the hot part, but that, at about 800 °F., it was even hotter than the earth-based data had implied. An infrared radiometer, meanwhile, took temperatures high in the atmosphere, revealing, to the scientists’ disappointment, no breaks in the clouds.

Certainly, such an environment made unlikely the theory that ­life—at least as humans understood ­it—had ever existed on Venus.

Homer Newell with John Kennedy and others at the time of the Mariner 2 mission to Venus in 1962.

Homer Newell with John Kennedy and others at the time of the Mariner 2 mission to Venus in 1962.

Subsequent planetary spacecraft revealed that Venus was superheated because of the greenhouse effect of the cloud layer, and that the pressure on the surface was about 90 atmospheres, far greater than even in the depths of the oceans on Earth. Add to this the observations of James Pollack and others using aircraft-based near-infrared spectroscopy in 1974 that found on Venus a cloud sheet made predominantly of sulfuric acid, and the possibilities of life on the planet appeared as remote as they had ever been.

Although one would think that evidence from the spacecraft sent to Venus would be conclusive, overwhelmingly altering most of the beliefs held as recently as a generation ago about Venus as an abode of life, such was only partially true. For example, data from the Pioneer Venus mission suggested that in the distant past Venus had an ocean that may have existed for as long as a billion years, certainly enough to spawn primitive life, before sublimating the moisture into space. Planetary scientist Thomas M. Donahue reported that he and his team of researchers had found traces of water molecules in the upper atmosphere of Venus in 1993: “The data indicate that Venus was a pretty wet planet.” Notwithstanding, any beliefs held about Venus as a tropical, proto-organic planet have proven a bust.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Beyond the God Particle”

BeyondtheGodParticleBeyond the God Particle. By Leon Lederman and Christopher Hill. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2013. Acknowledgments, appendix, notes, index. Pp. 9 – 325. ISBN: 978-1-61614-801-0. Hardcover with dustjacket, $24.95 USD.

It was hard to miss the story about finding the so-called “God Particle” when it broke on July 4, 2012. On that date scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland, announced that they had found the long sought after Higgs boson. Less than a year later, on March 14, 2013, physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, confirmed this discovery.

Presumably the Higgs boson subatomic particle is ubiquitous in the universe, forming a field that connects everything to everything. Hence the name that has been given to the Higgs boson, the “God Particle.” It is the central element of all the elementary particles that provide the building blocks of the universe regardless of type or substance or longevity. So what does all of this mean? That, of course, is the subject of this book.

In an earlier book titled The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? (1993) Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman with Dick Teresi discussed the search for this connecting particle or particles, exploring the theoretical reasoning and experimentation that had been completed by 1993 to understand this baffling scientific problem. Also, in this book Lederman unapologetically labeled the Higgs boson the “God Particle” solely for marketing purposes. Twenty years later, Lederman, this time with coauthor Christopher Hill, note that the quest for the Higgs boson was half the fun, but the recent findings at LHC and CERN opens as many questions as they answer.

This new book, Beyond the God Particle, emphasizes what we now know about the physics of the Higgs field, explaining at length what particle physicists are presently doing, how they are accomplishing it, and why this effort is necessary for the future. The authors do a fine job of narrating LHC’s and CERN’s efforts to discover the Higgs boson, the importance of the boson in the cosmos, and offer a path forward for particle physics. This is not easy reading, however, Lederman and Hill do not hold back in terms of theoretical formulation, mathematical equations, and obtuse explanations. The authors wax eloquent about such little-known constructs as “the lowly muon,” explained as an elementary particle that presuggested that the Higgs boson must exist.

They then explain how mass—explained as the amount of matter and not its weight—arose as the Higgs boson created a field to fill up the vacuum of the universe with a constant but exceptionally weak charge. Theorized for several years, these ideas drove the construction of the Large Hadron Collider and the use of this instrument—the most powerful and most expensive particle accelerator ever built—immediately paid off with the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Lederman and Hill go on to highlight several new questions, the answers to which they are convinced will revolutionize physics in the twenty-first century. These questions include: Why were scientists convinced that something like the “God Particle” had to exist? Why is so much of the matter in the cosmos “dark” and invisible to us? How will the discovery of the Higgs boson affect current models of reality like string theory and supersymmetry? These intriguing questions, and others like them, will fuel scientific research for years to come.

I was especially intrigued to a pet project of both Lederman and Hill. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), located just outside Batavia, Illinois, has proposed a new instrument, called Project X, that would enable the study of rare decays, neutrino physics, potential muon storage rings, and the possibility of new sorts of fission reaction. This is a fascinating development, and the authors are unabashed in their support for this project not only for its scientific potential but also because of the need for the United States to recover from the knowledge losses suffered by the cancellation of the Super-colliding Super Collider and the European efforts at CERN and LHC. Lederman and Hill believe that the decisions on this effort will be made not later than 2017 and indeed must be taken by then or the U.S. will fall so far behind in physics that it may not be able to recover in the first half of this century.

While Beyond the God Particle is a chatty book, replete with anecdotes and reasonably understandable explanations, its merger of theoretical physics with the story of the Higgs boson discovery is less than seamless and sometimes awkward. Moreover, the authors’ discussion of American politics is less than evocative. They bash the nation’s political leadership for failure to pursue physics with the passion they believe exists in Europe. They lambast what they think of as the less than scientifically-literate public. They bemoan a political landscape that fails to appreciate the pursuit of science, which they contend is not just about the quest for knowledge but also is critical to the quest for new marketable technologies. Those discussions are both overly simplistic and fail to appreciate the rigors of formulation of science policy in the United States. Lederman and Hill write off this situation as so much political myopia, a sophomoric analysis if ever there was one.

Regardless, Beyond the God Particle is a quite useful, engaging, and potentially important discussion. It brings to the center of the current scientific enterprise the nature of the Higgs boson and its place in directing future efforts in physics.

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The NACA and the National Unitary Wind Tunnel Plan

Aerial view of the Unitary Wind Tunnel Plan at NASA Ames.

Aerial view of the Unitary Wind Tunnel Plan at NASA Ames.

During World War II it became obvious that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) required new tools to pursue a high-speed/high altitude research program. The National Unitary Wind Tunnel Act of 1949 addressed these needs, providing NACA funds to build three new supersonic wind tunnels at its laboratories, to upgrade other NACA facilities, and to support selected facilities elsewhere.

The NACA effort began in April 1945 with a letter to the committee’s director of research, George W. Lewis, from an engineer at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory (AERL) in Cleveland. Bruce Ayer wrote because he believed that the idea had not given “sufficient consideration” to the needs of supersonic flight. Ayer suggested that the advent of jet propulsion ensured that research problems for the foreseeable future would emphasize high-speed flight. He recommended, among other things, building new instruments for researching in this flight regime at existing NACA facilities.

Ayer received a polite and non-committal response from Lewis, but not until the following summer when NACA representatives returned from Germany did the need for new wind tunnels win support at NACA headquarters. When first viewed in 1945, the 100,000-horsepower water-driven supersonic wind tunnel built by the Germans just outside Munich greatly impressed the NACA representatives, as did a planned 500,000-horsepower tunnel designed to produce airspeeds between Machs 7 and 10. NACA leaders concluded that “the Committee should at once take steps to preempt this field of high-speed research and an aggressive and vigorous policy should be adopted in the interest of keeping America first in scientific development along these lines.”

With this decision, the die for the agency’s future had been cast. In essence, in a period of only nine months new supersonic facilities had started as an interesting but essentially unfeasible idea offered by a journeyman research engineer. It had gained support along the review process, and with its adoption through the NACA committee structure new supersonic wind tunnels had become the cornerstone of the agency’s plans for future aeronautical research.

At the same time, the Army Air Forces had also been working quietly on a proposal remarkably similar to that of the NACA. Sensing that the NACA was already on to something important for the future, and seeing firsthand the German research facilities under construction at the end of the war, in June 1945 the USAAF began developing their own proposal to support research for a new generation of jet fighters that would revolutionize aerial combat. The Army Air Forces investigated the need for new supersonic research facilities informally at Wright Field until October 1945, and then established a formal committee to prepare plans for an “air engineering development center.” On December 10, 1945, the USAAF published a formal plan and sent it through Army Air Forces and War Department channels in search of support.

The NACA, not wanting to lose this opportunity to advance supersonic flight technology—in the same way that it had with the jet propulsion revolution of the early 1940s—pursued the effort with diligence. The Army Air Forces, concerned that the NACA might be unable to make the rapid advances the military desired and at a fundamental level wanting a “piece of the action” for itself, was equally tireless. Both started as rivals in the unitary wind tunnel plan, only to be forced into cooperation through an intense political process.

Convergence of these two initiatives became essential for the effort to have much chance in Congress. At the April 25, 1946, meeting of the NACA, the Committee appointed Arthur E. Raymond of Douglas Aircraft Corporation to merge the two proposals into a single package acceptable to all concerned. In June 1946 he recommended a unitary wind tunnel plan incorporating the main features of the rival proposals, a national supersonic research effort for the NACA, and an air engineering development center for the Army Air Forces. The principal addition recommended by the Raymond panel was a provision for wind tunnels at universities, both to allow independent testing and research and to serve as training tools for engineers of the future.

The estimated $2 billion effort recommended by Raymond, which most believed was still not enough to do everything, appeared to many advocates as a “poison pill” for the whole effort. Always a voice of reason, Hugh L. Dryden of the National Bureau of Standards recommended an approach to supersonic facilities less aggressive than those advocated by others.

The National Unitary Wind Tunnel Act of 1949 as implemented by the NACA and by the Air Force included five wind tunnel complexes, one each at the three NACA Laboratories and two wind tunnels plus an engine test facility at what would eventually become known as the Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC). These ground test facilities were built and operated to meet the needs of industry, the military services, and other government agencies. Primarily, these organizations needed large, or as near to flight as possible, Reynolds Number (Rn) testing of supersonic aircraft and missiles and high-speed/high altitude testing of engines.

The NACA committed to the construction of five supersonic wind tunnels located at its various research laboratories. At the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, a 9 in. supersonic tunnel was operating, in which much of the pioneering research on swept wing drag reduction was performed. Langley also committed to designing and building a 4 X 4 ft. supersonic research wind tunnel. This tunnel would become operational in 1948 following installation of 45,000 horsepower drive system.


A technician mounts a model of the Apollo Launch Escape System (LES) in the Unitary Wind Tunnel at the NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, in 1963.

At the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, in the Bay area of California, two supersonic research wind tunnels were constructed. These included the 1 X 3 ft. SWT that operated to a maximum test section airspeed of Mach 2.2. A larger 6 X 6 ft. supersonic research tunnel was also constructed at Ames. This tunnel is notable as it was the first large supersonic tunnel that made use of the asymmetric supersonic nozzle that would be successfully used in several of the yet to be designed Unitary Plan Wind Tunnels. It also contained for purposes of flow visualization a 50 in. Schlieren window system. Tests performed in the Ames tunnels included research on wing shapes, dynamic stability, aircraft control, panel flutter and air inlet design.

Finally, at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, a large 8 X 6 ft. transonic wind tunnel with the capability to operate at test section airspeeds from Mach 0.4 to 2.0, was built for testing aircraft power plants and was operational by 1949. This wind tunnel was an open-circuit tunnel where the air was vented to the atmosphere in order to dispose of the engine exhaust.

Through the design of these supersonic wind tunnels, NACA engineers perfected their understanding of the differences between supersonic and subsonic wind tunnels. Lessons learned by NACA engineers in the operation of these five supersonic research wind tunnels at the three NACA sites laid the groundwork for that organization’s future successes in designing and building modern aircraft.

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My Favorite Funny Horror Movies

In honor of Halloween I thought I would offer a post on my favorite horror movies. There’s only one problem, I don’t really like horror movies and I would be hard pressed to come up with a set of horror movies that I really like. I love comedy, however, and some of the following movies are hilarious. And I mean they are intentionally funny; I’m not thinking of some horror movies that are so inadvertently silly that they are funny like Plan 9 from Outer Space, a film on everyone’s list as one of the worst ever made. So here is my top ten list of terrific horror movies that are really funny. Not a few of them, I must add, are send-ups of classic horror films such as Dracula and Frankenstein.

10. Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995): Leslie Nielson reinvented himself as a comedian in the 1980s after a career as a romantic lead by starring in a series of satirical films ranging from Airplane! (1980) to The Naked Gun (1988-1994) films. All of them are silly, using puns and parodies as their stock in trade. They are also truly funny. This film, directed by Mel Brooks, spoofs the original novel by Bram Stoker and a succession of films that have been Hollywood’s stock in trade since the 1930s. Favorite quote: “Children of the night…what a mess they make!”—Dracula after a bat poops on the stairs.


9. An American Werewolf in London (1981): A John Landis film, famous for his teen comedies, this movie stars David Naughton,Jenny Agutter, and Griffin Dunne. Two American students—Naughton and Dunne—were caught by werewolves while hiking in the Moors of Wales. One (Dunne) was killed outright, and keeps appearing as a ghost to warn the other, and Naughton is in the process of transforming into a werewolf for the rest of the film. A fair amount of comedy results from this, even as it ends badly for all. Favorite quote: “I am a victim of your carnivorous lunar activities.”—A victim of the werewolf.


8. The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck(1967): Roman Polanski made this outrageous film in the counterculture 1960s with a counterculture cast and a counterculture message. Two vampire hunters visit Transylvania to destroy vampires. Everything goes badly, hilarity ensues, and the hunters lose in the end. Favorite quote: “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire.”—A Jewish vampire when confronted with someone holding up a cross to fend him off.


7. Little Shop of Horrors (1986): This musical is one of the joys of recent comedic horror. Starring Rick Moranis as Seymour he finds an alien plant that grows into an insatiable carnivorous plant that proceeds to eat everyone in sight. The greatest scenes involve Steve Martin as a sadistic dentist and Bill Murray as a masochistic patient. This part is unbelievably over the top and belly laugh inanity. Favorite quote: “I’m just a mean green mother from outer space and I’m bad!”—Audrey II, the alien plant.


6. Shaun of the Dead (2004): This outrageous send-up of zombie movies stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as losers who take on zombies all over London and save their friends Shaun’s mother, and the day. Favorite quote: “Look, I don’t care what the telly says, all right? We *have* to get out of here. If we don’t they’ll tear us to pieces, and that is really going to exacerbate things for all of us.”—Shaun.


5. Zombieland (2009): Geeky Columbus, played by Jesse Eisenberg, can’t get laid until the zombie apocalypse begins and his partner is infected. He survives by living by a rigid set of rules, “double tap,” “cardiac”; you get the picture. He meets Woody Harrelson’s crazy Tallahassee, who lives to kill zombies and eat Twinkies. They meet two sisters who get the better of them repeatedly, kill several zombies, and eventually reach Los Angeles where they hole up in Bill Murray’s mansion. Bill Murray’s cameo is awesome. Favorite quote: “My mama always told me someday I’d be good at something. Who’d a guessed that something’d be zombie-killing?”—Tallahassee.


4. It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966): The third Peanuts television special, yes I understand this is not a movie, but how can I omit it from this list, this one introduced Snoopy versus the Red Baron and the story of a Halloween visitation not unlike Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It’s heartwarming and funny and still speaks to me as an adult almost fifty years after it first aired. Favorite quote: “Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. He’s gotta pick this one. He’s got to. I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.”—Linus on the Great Pumpkin.


3. Young Frankenstein (1974): This movie was written and directed by the comedic genius, Mel Brooks, and starred Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, and Peter Boyle. A younger Frankenstein returns to Transylvania and takes up his grandfather’s work, creates a monster, and outrageous adventures. I recently rewatched it, andYoung Frankenstein still holds up really well after forty years. Favorite quote: “For what we are about to see next, we must enter quietly into the realm of genius.”—Frederick Frankenstein.


2. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): Another musical, yes, but not anything like one from Rodgers and Hammerstein, or even Andrew Lloyd Webber. All I can say about it, “Let’s do the time warp again.” Favorite quote: “So come up to the lab and see what’s on the slab. I see you shiver with antici…pation.”—Dr. Frank-n-Furter (Tim Curry).


1. Ghostbusters (1984): What a terrific film; it represented a triumph for Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, and Harold Ramis, as well as an outstanding supporting cast of Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, and Ernie Hudson. Kicked out of a university, the Ghostbusters go into business for themselves. They chase demons, ghosts, and other assorted paranormal phenomena in New York City until coming into contact with Gozer the Gozerian, aSumerian shape-shifting god of destruction. Of course they destroy it in the end. Favorite quote: “Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve *worked* in the private sector. They expect *results*.”—Ray Stantz (Dan Akroyd).

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