Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Beginning of Infinity”

The Beginning of InfinityThe Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World. By David Deutsch. New York: Viking, 2011. 496 pages. Acknowledgments, illustrations, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0670022755. $14.50 USD paperback.

What explains the workings of the physical world? For millennia humankind has tried to answer that question. Mostly the answers offered have been based on observation. Often those answers have reflected what was known based on the best tools available. Regularly those answers have been incorrect.  Always those answers have been incomplete. Such is the nature of the scientific enterprise.

Physicist David Deutsch takes aim at this process of gradually, intermittently, erratically, and haltingly learning more about the way the natural cosmos works. He talks about this process as “progress” but in reality while there has been greater understanding gained over time it was anything but a linear path. Instead, as Deutsch makes clear, learning about the universe has been very much a path of taking one step backwards, two steps forward, and three steps sideways.

In many ways this is a very good book. It takes many disparate disciplines in science—astronomy, cosmology, physics, biology, ecology, evolution, and a range of others—and links them into a crosscutting unity of knowledge. Deutsch always emphasizes the progress being made in understanding, and assures the reader that humans are capable of “infinite progress.” This quest for “godlike” knowledge may be uncomfortable for some but also challenging for all. Can humanity learn things without any limit whatsoever? Might we reach a point where there is nothing left to know? I am reminded of the 1888 statement of Simon Newcomb, the director of the United States Naval Observatory who announced in a similar fit of absoluteness: “We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.” He most assuredly was wrong about that.

But Deutsch does not stop there. He also argues that this achievement of infinite knowledge will also lead to infinite material and moral improvement. He sees the success of modern technology, specifically citing space travel and advances in medicine, as harbingers of a fundamental transition for Homo sapiens to perfection. If we can accomplish all we have done, Deutsch sees no reason to believe that ultimate progress might also be achieved in creating open and tolerant societies and anything else that we choose to accomplish. I must admit that I am taken aback at such statements of absolutes, of the achievement of what could only be called utopia. This is not the first time that such predictions have been made; utopianism abounds. But the challenge is that my definition of utopia and yours may well not be the same.

No question about it, reading The Beginning of Infinity is thought-provoking. I’m pleased to let it rest there. I was taken by Deutsch’s very understandable discussion of the latest in physics, describing dark matter and energy, multiverses, and string theory. His chapter on the philosophy of science and his discussion of artificial intelligence are also quite fascinating. I was less enamored with Deutsch’s incursion into humanistic knowledge and the social sciences. Creativity, free will, and liberalism—all issues he takes up at various points in The Beginning of Infinity—are not nearly as well illuminated in this work. Certainly, he is no expert in those fields and his conclusions relating to them are less useful than other parts of the book.

Accept this for what it is, a very ambitious attempt to unite varieties of knowledge and understanding in a rational philosophy. Enjoy its insights, of which there are many, and read it critically in assessing its larger contribution to understanding.

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Covering Apollo: Jules Bergman at ABC News

Jules Bergman demonstrating Skylab/Apollo in 1973.

Jules Bergman demonstrating Skylab/Apollo in 1973.

The son of New York business people Irving and Ruth B. Bergman, Jules Verne Bergman was born to cover the Apollo program in the 1960s and early 1970s. Educated in journalism Bergman went to work for CBS, then Time magazine, and later WFDR-FM radio in New York City. After a stint in military service during the Korean War, Bergman returned to New York City in 1953 and became a news writer with ABC Television and Radio. He remained with ABC News for the rest of his career, progressing from a junior staff writer through reporter to science editor.

When named as science editor for ABC in 1961, Bergman became the first network correspondent in the United States assigned to report exclusively on that subject. It was a recognition of the significance of science in American life for ABC News, but it was also an opportunity for Bergman as a relatively young reporter to carve an important niche for himself covering such dramatic and photogenic news stories as the American space program.

As science editor for ABC News Bergman made his reputation covering the nascent U.S. space program. He especially focused on the activities of the astronauts, helping to put a human face on a highly technological endeavor. Early on, Bergman went on location for his reports on the space program to give his audience “not an ivory-tower discussion of science, but an on-the-spot report of discoveries, which are changing the lives of human beings daily.” He covered all 54 human spaceflight missions in the United States between the first launch of Alan Shepard on 5 May 1961 and the Challenger accident of 28 January 1986, many of them from the launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida, or mission control in Houston, Texas.

Bergman brought a special zest to space program reporting by traveling with the astronauts and participating in their training and exercise regimens.  For instance, in one report he road a centrifuge to the sustained force of five gravities to demonstrate how astronauts prepared for launches into space, and his on-camera wrap-up called the experience “exhilarating.” During the Mercury program’s flight of M. Scott Carpenter in 1962, Bergman reported on the biomedical monitoring of astronauts by being placed in a harness with sensors to record vital signs. The instruments showed that he was under as much stress during his twelve hours on the air as the astronaut in orbit.

Jules Bergman and Peter Jennings at ASTP launch in 1975.

Jules Bergman and Peter Jennings at the ASTP launch in 1975.

In the end, Bergman’s linkage to the space program proved a symbiotic relationship. His reporting helped to make the U.S. space program one of the best known and best liked activities of the federal government. At the same time, the space program helped to make Jules Bergman a household name in the America of the 1960s. Officials in charge of the space effort solicited his assistance both to explain their complex technologies and the rationale for their program. In turn, Bergman sought their support to give his reporting more credibility, insight, and excitement.

Jules Bergman also developed a series of award-winning documentaries for ABC News during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1962 he developed the special, “90 Seconds in Space,” about Project Mercury, and in 1965 “Anyone Can Fly.” In 1974 he wrote and narrated the documentary, “Fire,” which received an Emmy Award. He also produced “Weekend Athletes” (1975), “Danger in Sports” (1975), “Crashes, Illusions of Safety” (1975), “Asbestos, The Dusty Way to Death” (1978), and “Dupont” (1982).

In the latter 1970s Bergman was diagnosed with a meningioma, a nonmalignant brain tumor, which was removed but he was plagued for the rest of his life with growths from his skull and had several operations to remove them. He also developed epilepsy during this period and took medication to control seizures. These health issues slowed Bergman’s career significantly in the 1980s. He died of an apparent seizure at age 57 in his apartment bathtub on February 12, 1987.

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Something Fun for a Friday: “50 Favorite Firefly Quotes”

I was sold on the short-lived “Firefly” TV series the first episode I saw. A joy to watch, it was Joss Whedon’s contemplation on living and dying on the edge free from the restrictions of society and the regimentation of modern existence. This fan video captures some of the best quotes from the series. Browncoats unite! You can’t take the sky from me! Enjoy!

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Mankind Beyond Earth”

download (1)Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, and Future of Human Space Exploration. By Claude A. Piantadosi. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Vii + 279. Bibliography and additional readings, index. Hardcover with dustjacket. ISBN: 978-0-231-53103-0. $31.50.

Columbia University Press has caught the spaceflight bug. In the last few years it has published four books relating to spaceflight: Crowded Orbits: Conflict and Cooperation in Space (2014) and Space Race: National Motivations, Regional Rivalries, and International Risks (2011) both by James Clay Moltz; Space as a Strategic Asset (2007) by Joan Johnson-Freese; and this book, Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, and Future of Human Space Exploration. All of these have in common a focus on space policy. They are long on politics, and unfortunately they are short on history.

That is certainly true of Claude A. Piantadosi’s study despite its affirmation in its subtitle that it offers history as well as other elements to the discussion. Piantadosi unflinchingly seeks to “reenergize Americans’ passion for the space program.” He firmly believes that human exploration, settlement, and exploitation of the Moon and Mars is the destiny of humanity, and invokes the image of the “final frontier” as the raison d’être for aggressive space activities.

Piantadosi organizes his book along thematic lines, into three parts. The first part is focused on historical discussions of humans versus robots in space, the nature of the challenge of getting into space and doing useful things there, the biological concerns raised in human space activities, a bit about past missions in space, and the potential for future lunar exploration. In his second part Piantadosi focuses on the inherent problems in going elsewhere in the solar system and trying to live there. In part three of this book the author focuses on targets for exploration in the solar system. First, of course, is Mars and Piantadosi longingly looks forward to a time when humans will journey there. There are a not a lot of other targets in this solar system, but the author does write about asteroids and other possibilities for human activity. He then turns to interstellar flight and prospects for human exploration beyond our star system.

The best part of this book is Piantadosi’s contribution to helping to explain the biomedical issues associated with long-duration space operations. Since he is a medical doctor, this is not surprising. Piantadosi notes the problems of fragile Homo sapiens moving into a realm for which they are ill-adapted. From the most critical—meaning that its absence would cause immediate death—to the least critical these include such constants available on Earth of atmospheric pressure, breathable oxygen, temperature, drinking water, food, gravitational pull on physiological systems, radiation mitigation, and others of a less immediate nature. Every human spaceflight vehicle, every spacesuit, every subsystem of even the most simple design takes this as its raison d’être because of the extreme hostility of the space environment. Rather than concluding that Homo sapiens are limited to their own planet, however, the author is quite excited by the prospect of working on these problems and seeking biomedical solutions to them.

At some level reading this book is like going into a time machine and coming out sometime between the 1960s and the 1980s when arguments based on the frontier thesis, when issues of American hegemony in human space activities, when advocates routinely called for the U.S. to have a space program that was second to none because of the Soviet threat to American activities. There is also the incessant optimism about the future of spaceflight and the central place of government programs in making expansive objectives possible. Piantadosi trots out all of the standard rationales for human spaceflight: geopolitics, human destiny, avoidance of extinction, human nature to explore, you name it. There is really nothing new added to those arguments by the author, although Mankind Beyond Earth offers a relatively fine rendition of longstanding arguments.

If one is seeking a reasonably coherent tract advocating for human space exploration then this is the book for you. If you value detailed references, analysis, and the like you will be disappointed. There are no footnotes, endnotes, references of any type. There is a bibliography by chapter at the end, but much of this is quite generic. I was surprised to see that virtually no NASA History Series publications were cited and by all evidence I could garner from the narrative they did not enter into the writing of this narrative. Finally, if you are critical, have fundamental questions, or value historical accuracy concerning human spaceflight efforts, this book will also be disappointing.

I was struck by the large number of errors in the book. Some of these are relatively minor. For example, the author contends (p. 111) that astronauts performed four Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions. It was actually five missions; it is possible that Piantadosi failed to count correctly because the third one was divided in two and flown at two separate times and labeled Mission 3A and 3B. Other errors are more troubling. The author makes a total mess of the story of the N-1 Soviet Moon rocket (p, 73). For example, he contends that it launched a 95-ton payload into orbit in 1956. No! I really wonder where he found this type of information, but since there are no references there is no way to find out.

Finally, I was puzzled by his assertion, again without any references, that “Historians spend a lot of time analyzing failed societies, often drawing fascinating parallels or projections to the modern social order” (p. 118). I always want to know which historians are being singled out for criticism in such statements as this; I certainly question generic statements of this type. He goes on to suggest that historians have little to offer when it comes to spaceflight because the history “is too young and has no terrestrial counterpart” (p. 118). I take exception to this deriding of historical understanding, but I really object to the assertion that there is not any terrestrial parallels to human spaceflight. There is, and there is a strong historical literature offering insights relative to it.

Overall, Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, and Future of Human Space Exploration is interesting largely because of the biomedical analysis offered. If we cannot resolve the challenges of microgravity, radiation, and other effects from the space environment then long duration spaceflight will not be successfully pursued. At the same time, Piantadosi’s history is pedestrian and more full of errors than allowable. The rationales for human spaceflight are also tired, as well as soft, but Piantadosi certainly presents them in the best light possible.

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Robert Gilruth and the NACA’s Entry into Space Technology

Robert Gilruth during an Apollo mission.

Robert Gilruth during an Apollo mission.

During the latter part of World War II leaders of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA, had become interested in the possibilities of high-speed guided missiles and the future of spaceflight. It created at the end of World War II the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD), under the leadership of a young and promising engineer at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, Robert R. Gilruth.

Gilruth, as much as anyone, served as the godfather of human spaceflight in the United States. After his central role in PARD, he went on to lead the Space Task Group for NASA that accomplished Project Mercury, and then served as director of the Manned Spacecraft Center—renamed the Johnson Space Center in 1973—which had suzerainty over Gemini and Apollo. His organization recruited, trained, and oversaw the astronauts and the human spaceflight program throughout the heroic age of spaceflight. Yet, his name is much less well known than many others associated with these projects. He was a contemporary on a par with Wernher von Braun and a host of other NASA officials, and he certainly contributed as much to human spaceflight as any of them.

Gilruth was a representative of the engineering entrepreneur, a developer and manager of complex technological and organizational systems, accomplishing remarkably difficult tasks through excellent oversight of the technical, fiscal, cultural, and social reins of the effort. Johnson Space Center director George W.S. Abbey appropriately commented at the time of Gilruth’s death in 2000: “Robert Gilruth was a true pioneer in every sense of the word and the father of human space flight. His vision, energy and dedication helped define the American space program. His leadership turned the fledgling Manned Spacecraft Center into what it is today, the leader in humanity’s exploration of outer space.”

Gilruth established Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore as a test-launching facility under the control of Langley on July 4, 1945. From this site they launched between 1947 and 1949 at least 386 models, leading to the publication of the NACA’s first technical report on rocketry, “Aerodynamic Problems of Guided Missiles,” in 1947. From this, Gilruth and the PARD filled in the gaps in the knowledge of space flight. As historian James R. Hansen writes: “the early years of the rocket-model program at Wallops (1945-1951) showed that Langley was able to tackle an enormously difficult new field of research with innovation and imagination.”

Discussing the scrub of the Gemini VI space flight are (from left), Christopher C. Kraft Jr., Red Team flight director; Dr. Robert R. Gilruth, center director; and George M. Low, deputy director. The three officials monitored the countdown on NASA's Gemini VI from their positions in the MSC Mission Control Center on December 12, 1965. The Gemini VI flight was subsequently rescheduled and launched on December 15, 1965.

Discussing the scrub of the Gemini VI space flight are (from left), Christopher C. Kraft Jr., Red Team flight director; Dr. Robert R. Gilruth, Manned Spacecraft Center director; and George M. Low, deputy director. The three officials monitored the countdown on NASA’s Gemini VI from their positions in the MSC Mission Control Center on December 12, 1965. The Gemini VI flight was subsequently rescheduled and launched on December 15, 1965.

Gilruth served as an active promoter of the idea of human spaceflight within the NACA and helped to engineer the creation of an interagency board to review “research on space flight and associated problems” toward that end. “When you think about putting a man up there, that’s a different thing,” he recalled. “There are a lot of things you can do with men up in orbit.” This led to concerted efforts to develop the technology necessary to make it a reality. In 1952, for example, PARD started the development of multistage, hypersonic, solid-fuel, rocket vehicles. These vehicles were used primarily in aerodynamic heating tests at first and were then directed toward a reentry physics research program. On October 14, 1954, the first American four-stage rocket was launched by the PARD, and in August 1956 it launched a five-stage, solid-fuel rocket test vehicle, the world’s first, that reached a speed of Mach 15.

These strides in the development of rocket technology positioned the NACA as a quintessential agency in the quest for space becoming important in the 1950s. And it enjoyed renewed attention and funding once the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957. “I can recall watching the sunlight reflect off of Sputnik as it passed over my home on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia,” Gilruth commented in 1972. “It put a new sense of value and urgency on things we had been doing. When one month later the dog Laika was placed in orbit in Sputnik II, I was sure that the Russians were planning for man-in-space.”

In the aftermath of the Sputnik crisis Gilruth and other NACA engineers ramped up efforts to advance human spaceflight:

Proposals fell into two rough categories: (a) a blunt‑nose cone or near‑spherical zero‑lift high‑drag vehicle of a ton to a ton‑and-a‑half weight, and (b) a hypersonic glider of the ROBO or Dyna‑Soar type. The first category of vehicles used existing ICBM vehicles as boosters; the second used more complex and arbitrary multiplex arrangements of existing large-thrust rocket engines. A number of contractors looked at the zero‑lift high‑drag minimum weight vehicle as the obvious expedient for beating the Russians and the Army into space. Others, notably Bell, Northrup, and Republic Aviation, set this idea aside as a stunt and consequently these contractors stressed the more elaborate recoverable hypersonic glider vehicle as the practical approach to the problems of flight in space.

By April 1958, they had concluded that the first of these options should become the basis for NACA planning for an initial human space flight.

Technician Durwood Dereng measures elevation of double Deacon booster prior to launch of RM-10 research model at Wallops, February 6, 1951.

PARD technician Durwood Dereng measures elevation of double Deacon booster prior to launch of RM-10 research model at Wallops, February 6, 1951.

It soon became obvious to all that an early opportunity to launch human spacecraft into orbit would require the development of blunt-body capsules launched on modified multistage ICBMs. Robert Gilruth recalled of these decisions:

Because of its great simplicity, the non-lifting, ballistic-type of vehicle was the front runner of all proposed manned satellites, in my judgment. There were many variations of this and other concepts under study by both government and industry groups at that time. The choice involved considerations of weight, launch vehicle, reentry body design, and to be honest, gut feelings. Some people felt that man-in-space was only a stunt. The ballistic approach, in particular, was under fire since it was such a radical departure from the airplane. It was called by its opponents “the man in the can,” and the pilot was termed only a “medical specimen.” Others thought it was just too undignified a way to fly.

While initially criticized as an inelegant, impractical solution to the challenge of human spaceflight, the ballistic concept gained momentum as NACA engineers, led by Gilruth lieutenant Maxime A. Faget, championed this approach. At a meeting on human spaceflight held at Ames on March 18, 1958, the ballistic approach gained official support. By April 1958 the NACA had completed several studies “on the general problems of manned‑satellite vehicles,” finding that they could build in the near term “a basic drag‑reentry capsule” of approximately 2,000 pounds and sufficient volume for a passenger.

In August 1958 the NACA developed preliminary specifications that then went to industry, especially the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, for a ballistic capsule. Gilruth emphasized the simplicity if not the elegance of a ballistic capsule for the effort:

The ballistic reentry vehicle also has certain attractive operational aspects which should be mentioned. Since it follows a ballistic path there is a minimum requirement for autopilot, guidance, or control equipment. This condition not only results in a weight saving but also eliminates the hazard of malfunction. In order to return to the earth from orbit, the ballistic reentry vehicle must properly perform only one maneuver. This maneuver is the initiation of reentry by firing the retrograde rocket. Once this maneuver is completed (and from a safety standpoint alone it need not be done with a great deal of precision), the vehicle will enter the earth’s atmosphere. The success of the reentry is then dependent only upon the inherent stability and structural integrity of the vehicle. These are things of a passive nature and should be thoroughly checked out prior to the first man-carrying flight. Against these advantages the disadvantage of large area landing by parachute with no corrective control during the reentry must be considered.

The Mercury spacecraft that flew in 1961-1963 emerged from these early conceptual studies by Gilruth’s team at the NACA.

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One for the Record Books: The Stardust Sample Return Mission

Artist conception of Stardust encountering Comet Wild 2.

Artist conception of Stardust encountering Comet Wild 2.

This is one of the most interesting, but little known, missions NASA has ever undertaken. Stardust was the first U.S. space mission dedicated solely to returning extraterrestrial material from beyond the Moon. I am pleased to have played a role in acquiring the return capsule for the National Air and Space Museum where is it currently on display.

Stardust was launched on February 7, 1999, on a 3 billion-mile round trip to rendezvous with Comet Wild 2, captured comet and interstellar dust in a unique return capsule, and returned that capsule with cometary samples for analysis by Earth-based scientists. It was the fourth NASA Discovery mission, a series of low-cost missions, following Mars Pathfinder, Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), and Lunar Prospector. Seven years later, the journey ended with the capsule streaking across the sky and parachuting to a landing on U.S. soil at the Utah Test and Training Range on January 15, 2006.

The Stardust mission originated at the Jet Propulsion laboratory in response to NASA’s 1994 Discovery Announcement of Opportunity (AO) which invited mission proposals that could be developed under a budget of less than $150 million. While it did not win funding in 1994, Stardust was approved by NASA the next year. While missions with objectives of returning cometary samples had been proposed earlier, it was not until the discovery of extrasolar planets and the existence of thousands—perhaps millions—of small icy bodies in the solar system that the NASA science leadership accepted the necessity of such a comet rendezvous mission.

Stardust as a concept emerged when Dr. Peter Tsou, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), operated for NASA by JPL, proposed a cometary sample return using an “Aerogel” substance to capture particles of a comet’s tail. The Aerogel used on Stardust was first discovered in 1931 by Steven S. Kistler of the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California. A silica substance of great resilience, Aerogel had small commercial uses and was only available in small quantities before Stardust. Tsou refined and manufactured the Aerogel used on Stardust at JPL, making it more rugged that what was already available for use in the mission. The success of Aerogel on Stardust prompted its transfer for commercial uses in a host of other settings. Especially, it found use as insulation for buildings and other types of structures.

To accomplish Stardust Tsou brought aboard Dr. Donald Brownlee of the University of Washington, who served as the Principal Investigator for the science mission. The two had collaborated for more than twenty years in the study of cosmic dust and comets and this project offered the opportunity for the first time to recover particles from these icy bodies. They persuaded Dr. Benton Clark of Lockheed Martin to join the team as the chief designer of the spacecraft and a sample return capsule needed to accomplish the mission.

Scientists examining the comet samples on the "tennis racket" collected by Stardust.

Scientists examining the comet samples on the “tennis racket” collected by Stardust.

The Stardust team proposed an elegant, simple, and successful project that involved the launch of a spacecraft to encounter a comet in the outer Solar System so that it flew a return trajectory, a return capsule that could deliver cometary particles to Earth, and an analysis that would answer core questions about the nature of the small bodies in the outer solar system, the origins of the solar system, and perhaps point directions for future research on the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. They proposed launching on a trajectory for Stardust to encounter Comet P/Wild 2. Using a “tennis racket” arm containing Aerogel that would be exposed to the comet’s tail they could capture tiny particles for later analysis.

The Stardust spacecraft contained guidance, electrical, propulsion, communication, an array of scientific experiments, and other major systems. Its return capsule consisted of six major components: a heat shield, back shell, sample canister, sample collector grids, parachute system, and avionics. Stardust used its extraordinary silicon-based solid Aerogel, a spongelike structure that is 99 percent empty space and only slightly denser than air, to capture the cometary particles. It was deployed in a grid system at the end of the spacecraft’s arm; the cometary particle grid held 32 Aerogel tiles. The canister containing the samples was sealed in an exterior shell that protected them from the heat of reentry. For the next seven years it proceeded as intended, capturing cometary material and returning to Earth where its return capsule safely landed by parachute on January 15, 2006.

The Stardust sample return mission turned out well. The material Stardust returned include interstellar dust that is believed to consist of ancient pre-solar material that includes remnants from the formation of the Solar System. Analysis of that material has already yielded insight into the evolution of the planets and the origins of the Solar System. Since 2006 the dust samples have gone to laboratories around the world for scientists to study the chemical composition of the comet and its signature of the early Solar System. The results of these investigations have been significant if not revolutionary.

Stardust on display at the National Air and Space Museum.

Stardust on display at the National Air and Space Museum.

Scientists found a new type of organic material in the comet dust, material that was volatile in comparison to what we know of these materials on Earth. These appear to be more “primitive” than those found in meteorites reaching this planet. Many scientists believe these samples contain pre-Solar System interstellar materials. They were also surprised to find that Wild 2 contained a diverse array of chemical compositions, suggesting that there had been considerable mixing of solar nebula. What this means, scientists suggest, is that these cometary particles offer a peak into the origins of the Solar System and perhaps the origins of life.

After the return of the sample from Comet Wild 2 in 2006, the main spacecraft took on another assignment, New Exploration of Tempel 1 (NExT), which led to a rendezvous with comet Tempel 1 in 2011. This allowed scientists to study changes in the comet between the time that the Deep Impact mission encountered Tempel 1 comet on July 4, 2005, and the 2011 encounter. Reaching Tempel 1 on February 14, 2011, the Stardust-NExT mission sent back imagery and data on the comet. With fuel depleted on March 24, 2011, the Stardust spacecraft ceased operations after twelve years of operations. At that time, the spacecraft was approximately 194 million miles from Earth.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The U.S. War with Mexico: A Brief History with Documents”

41yeONB5uvLThe U.S. War with Mexico: A Brief History with Documents. Edited by Ernesto Chavez. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2008.

The 1846-1848 Mexican-American War may be interpreted as a bald-faced adventure in conquest; it may also be interpreted as an unfolding of “Manifest Destiny” in which the U.S. is bringing the “blessings of liberty” to the benighted peoples of the American Southwest. There are a range of interpretations in between and beyond these two poles. This short general history emphasizes the racism of American invaders over the Mexican people and the imperialism that the author believes motivated the war. Ernesto Chavez, a professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso, offers a brief introduction that ranges widely in time and space to fashion a narrative that suggests the racist tendencies in American society as predominant in this war.

One example of this is in the discussion of the manner in which the Polk administration dealt with the British in negotiating the Oregon boundary at 49 degrees latitude when the president had campaign on the slogan 54’ 40” or fight. They didn’t fight and ended up compromising. Not so with Mexico; the U.S. went to war and conquered that nation. It imposed its own settlement annexing what is now the American Southwest, including parts of California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico. Chavez insists that this was because of the U.S.’s “racialized outlook” (p. 15). I would never conclude that the U.S. in not a racist nation, clearly it is, but fighting Mexico is quite a lot different than fighting the greatest empire on Earth at the time. It would be an easy decision in 1846 not to fight a two front war, and to negotiate a settlement with the stronger of the two antagonists regardless of a racialized outlook. I’m not sure I would assign racism as the fundamental reason for these divergent ways of dealing with Great Britain and Mexico. Moreover, the U.S. had already gone to war twice since 1776, so it’s not like the two nations’ Anglo heritage kept them from fighting.

After a short introduction there is a selection of interesting documents that offering unique perspectives on the story, as well as a timeline, and an annotated bibliography. These are all useful attributes of this fine short introduction to a very complex topic.

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The Beatles Come to Kansas City, Fifty Years Ago

Charles O. Finley, Owner of the Kansas City/Oakland A’s, 1960-1980

Time flies. It seems like only yesterday, but it was actually 50 years ago. My colleague, Mike Green, and I published a biography of Charles O. Finley, owner of the Kansas City/Oakland A’s between 1960 and 1980 in the summer of 2010. Between 1972 and 1974 his A’s won three straight World Series, the only team other than the Yankees to do so. Here is a story about Finley from 50 years ago. It has little to do with the A’s, but it is pure Finley showmanship.

Finley, of course, had a public persona as one of the dark princes of Major League Baseball. He engaged in manipulation, connivance, and cajolery for what he wanted, and mostly what he wanted was unflagging respect and success. He publicly and bitterly warred with his players, his many managers, other MLB owners, the city leaders where his team played, sports journalists, and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. He enjoyed joking that his initial “O.” stood for “Owner,” a title he ensured no one ever forgot. Others had different words, and “obnoxious,” “outrageous,” and “obstreperous” were only a few of them. The meddlesome Finley micro-managed every aspect of his team’s operation, even including field tactics during games. He had spies watching the actions of his employees and reporting on incidents both large and small. His autocratic manner was well-known throughout MLB and stories of his antics abound, forever affecting perceptions of his reign over the A’s.

Finley was famous for his fights with Major League Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, for his outlandish promotions (some of which he stole outright from Bill Veeck), for meddling in the A’s club house, and for his abuse of players and any other employees he had around him. He is also famous for some of his innovations, including colorful baseball uniforms, night World Series games, and the designated hitter. Some baseball purists might damn him dor championing these ideas but there is no mistaking that they changed the game.

Here is the story of one incident in which Finley tried to do something nice for the fans in Kansas City. In the fall of 1964 Finley was in the doghouse in Kansas City because of his seemingly constanct efforts to move the team someplace else, it was Dallas one day, Seattle the next, Oakland every third Wednesday, etc., and to gain fan approval he engineered a concert with the Beatles in Kansas City. Finley saw that the Beatles did not have a Kansas City stop on their first U.S. tour, and he tracked down manager Brian Epstein at the Cow Palace in San Francisco to try to bring the band to Municipal Stadium. He offered $50,000 for an appearance, but Epstein said that the going price was $100,000 so Finley countered with a $150,000 offer.

Epstein agreed to divert the band’s tour to Kansas City for an additional concert date at the Kansas City Municipal Stadium, and they played on September 17, 1964 for only 31 minutes to a crowd of about 20,208 fans. Drew Dimmel recalled that “When confirmation was announced on my local ‘rock’ station, WHB, that tickets were going on sale to see The Beatles, live, at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City I persuaded my dad to drive me down to the ticket booth. I bought two field-level tickets, paying $6.50 apiece; one for my little brother and one for me. I was 15 and he was 12.” In actuality, the standard ticket price for this concert was $8.50, making it the highest in the 1964 tour, except for one concert in New York City. But Finley also had a $2.00 ticket, which is one of the lowest admission prices of any Beatles concert. Never shy about publicity, the back of the $8.50 tickets featured Charlie Finley wearing a Beatles Wig as a joke.

Charlie Finley Advertising the Kansas City Concert by Wearing a Beatles Wig

Jim Schaaf, who ran the A’s promotions department in Kansas City, recalled the excitement surrounding that first Beatles tour through the U.S. The band “came in early in the morning, and there was all kind of people at the Muelbach Hotel. I mean, people lined up all over the place…young kids out there when the Beatles came in, and then…When these guys came in, they got in about 2:00am…and they were a bunch of fun guys. They didn’t go to sleep.” The next morning they held a press conference, inviting all of the high school journalists in the Kansas City area to meet the Beatles. Schaaf recalled trying to get them out of bed, “I felt a heck of a lot of pressure because they wouldn’t get up!” Schaaf knew this was something that Finley prized, and he eventually pushed the press conference back to noon and it turned out well. Finley was delighted. Schaaf concluded, “I thought we had a big crowd because we had people sitting on the infield.”

The Beatles began their set with the song “Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey,” and the crowd went wild. Some fans rushed the stage but stage manager Derek Taylor settled them down. The Beatles then continued their show. Because it did not sell out, Finley did not make back his promotion of the concert. Of course, some did make money on the deal, especially the two people who acquired the sheets on the beds of the Beatles rooms in their hotel. They cut them into small squares and sold them as souvenirs. They netted $159,000 for their efforts.

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Some Thoughts on Walter Cronkite and the Space Program

Walter Cronkite covering Apollo in the 1960s.

Walter Cronkite covering Apollo in the 1960s.

Walter Cronkite (1916-2009) was the longtime anchor of the CBS evening news between  1962 and 1981. A dedicated journalist, he became a voice of trust for many Americans in the 1960s, providing news summaries and commentary on the most critical stories of the decade. One of them was the space program, which he covered personally from both studios in New York City and the Kennedy Space Center. He was a self-proclaimed space advocate and he is closely identified with the human spaceflight efforts of the 1960s, especially the Apollo missions to the Moon which he anchored. Here are a few facts and quotes about Walter Cronkite:

  • He was on NASA’s list of potential journalists in space (one of 40 finalists), “I can’t imagine any red-blooded person not wanting to get into space,” he said. “My biggest problem would have been that I would be disappointed that I was only going into Earth orbit. I would love to go deep in space, to the moon. I’d like to get out there and get a look at our planet, our little blue planet out there in the sea of dark.”
  • His interest in flight began with a biplane ride with his father in the 1920s. The plane’s engine failed on takeoff, but the pilot managed to hop over a fence and land in a field.
  • During the launch of Apollo 4, the first launch of the Saturn V rocket, he exclaimed: “The building is shaking. Oh, it’s terrific. We’re holding the glass wall with our hands. The roar is terrific. Look at that rocket going , look at it going! You can see it, you can see it! Part of the roof has come in here.” (November 9, 1967)
  • Art Buchwald once wrote about how his wife identified with Cronkite more than the astronauts, virtually believing that he was responsible for whether things went well or not on Apollo. His mood was a barometer for how things were going on Apollo 10 in May 1969.
  • During the 1960s, it was “Walter’s extraordinary coverage of space, more than anything else” that enabled the CBS Evening News to overtake NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley report in the network ratings. (CNN/USA president Rick Kaplan, once one of Cronkite’s producers at CBS). “In that age of TV, Walter Cronkite was as well-known as John Glenn.” (60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt).
  • Cronkite wrote a stirring ode to space exploration near the end of his life. “Yes, indeed, we are the lucky generation,” he wrote. In this era we “first broke our earthly bonds and ventured into space. From our descendants’ perches on other planets or distant space cities, they will look back at our achievement with wonder at our courage and audacity and with appreciation at our accomplishments, which assured the future in which they live.”
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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame”

Cooperstown ConfidentialCooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame. By Zev Chafets. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009.

I have enjoyed the National Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (HoF) for many years, having visited there several times. This book promised to reveal something about the gang of superb baseball players ensconced there; many of whom were also rogues while only a few were heroes. What I really learned here was what I already knew. There are a lot of great players who were not so good at life. Everyone knows about Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Both drank, caroused, and gambled with the best of them. Cobb was an unreconstructed rebel whose racism was legion. Ruth’s appetites were so base that they would shock even those who were close to him. Rogers Hornsby and many others were best characterized a dicks; bunches of them, including Joe DiMaggio, had ties to gamblers and organized crime. Many great ballplayers have not been equally great at life. Other players, such as Cal Ripken Jr., Stan Musial, and Christy Mathewson, have squeaky-clean images. Their actual lives seem to match their images.

One of the most important themes of this book is that there are many rogues in the HoF; of course we already knew that. Some great ballplayers that have been exposed as less than stellar human beings have been barred from entry. Chafets profiles Steve Garvey, who has been denied entry despite his comparable statistics to many already in the hallowed Hall. Others, such as former MLB Players Association executive director, Marvin Miller, were repeatedly denied election to the hall for no reason other than that his superb leadership of the players ticked off every owner for a quarter century. There is no doubt that Miller had a profound impact on the game, perhaps the greatest impact of anyone in the latter half of the twentieth century, yet he ended his life still outside the HoF.

Chavets, of course, covers all of the various ironies of the Hall. This includes the pricks who are ensconced, the large number of marginal candidates admitted by the veterans committee, the attempts to overcome the racism of the past by inducting several great Negro Leagues players, the special case of Pete Rose, and especially the really difficult problem of PED use and how it will affect future voting. Through all of this the Baseball Writers Association, the group that votes on inductees with virtually no guidance from the MLB, looms large as a fickle, petty, and poorly prepared group to vote on the HoF.

Already we have seen players whose statistics are clearly Hall caliber passed over because of the suspicion of PED use. Never mind that many of the steroids used were neither illegal nor banned by MLB when the players were using. Never mind that there is no evidence implicating some of the players passed over. I could start with Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, and Jeff Bagwell but there are several others for which there is really no evidence other than hearsay, third-hand reports, and no attempt at a legitimate investigation. I could go much further, especially concerning Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemons, to say nothing of many others yet to be a part of the balloting process.

Chavets believes that the HoF should eliminate a clause in his charter that discusses a player’s character. I agree. Someone got all of those hits, homeruns, and chalked up all those wins. Those people rise to the level of a HoFer and should be inducted on into the Hall on that basis. If we want to enforce a morals clause on those inducted, the Hall will hold only a very small group.

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