Stunning NASA Video of the Largest Image Ever Taken

This stunning video prepared by NASA depicts over 100 million stars and thousands of star clusters embedded in a section of the Andromeda Galaxy, stretching over 40,000 light-years. it was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and released on January 5, 2015. It’s well worth watching. Enjoy!

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Sputnik and Free Overflight in Space

A Soviet engineer and Sputnik 1.

It came like a shock to the system on October 4, 1957. The Soviet Union launched a beach ball-sized orbital satellite to usher in the “Space Age.” The act in itself proved neither particularly shocking nor threatening but what it signaled certainly was; the sense that if the Soviets could put an orbital spacecraft over our heads it could bring a nuclear missile down on our heads. This resulted in a total reorientation of priorities in the United States and the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a focal point for space activities.

At the same time a little-known principal critical to the safety of the entire world also resulted from Sputnik. The Soviet satellite established the overwhelmingly critical principal of overflight in space, the ability to send reconnaissance and other satellites over a foreign nation for any non-lethal purpose free from the fear of attack on them. Orbiting reconnaissance satellites served more than virtually any other technology as a stabilizing influence in the Cold War. The ability to see what rivals were doing helped to ensure that national leaders on both sides did not make decisions based on faulty intelligence. Both the Americans and the Soviets benefited from this capability, and the world was safer as a result, but it might have turned out another way.

Versions of the Nike surface-to-air missile. From left to right: Nike Ajax, Nike Hercules, and Nike Zeus.

In a critical two-volume 190-page assessment, “Meeting the Threat of Surprise Attack,” issued on February 14, 1955, U.S. defense officials raised the question of international law governing territorial waters and airspace, in which individual nations controlled those regions as if they were their own soil. That international custom allowed nations to board and confiscate vessels within territorial waters near their coastlines and to force down aircraft flying in their territorial airspace.

This has resulted in shoot-downs on occasion, as when the Soviet Union downed a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 in 1983.  But in 1957 space as a territory had not yet been defined, and U.S. leaders argued that it should be recognized as beyond the normal confines of territorial limits. An opposite position, however, argued for the extension of territorial limits into space above a nation into infinity.

“Freedom of space” became an extremely significant issue for those concerned with orbiting satellites, because the imposition of territorial prerogatives outside the atmosphere could legally restrict any nation from orbiting satellites without the permission of nations that might be overflown. Since the U.S. was in a position to capitalize on “freedom of space” it favored an open position. Many other nations had little interest in establishing a free access policy that allowed the U.S. to orbit reconnaissance satellites overhead.

From left to right: Russian Premier Nikolai Bulganin, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower, French Premier Edgar Faure, British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden at the 1955 Geneva Conference. At this conference Eisenhower put forth the “Open Skies” plan.

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to obtain a “freedom of space” decision on July 21, 1955, when he proposed it at a U.S./USSR summit in Geneva, Switzerland. Soviet leaders rejected the proposal, however, saying that it was an obvious American attempt to “accumulate target information.” Eisenhower later admitted, “We knew the Soviets wouldn’t accept it, but we took a look and thought it was a good move.” The Americans thereafter worked quietly to establish the precedent.

Donald Quarles, Eisenhower’s Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Then Sputnik, a scientific satellite, overflew the United States and other nations of the world. On October 8, 1957, an Eisenhower advisor, Donald Quarles, offered this irony to the U.S. president: “the Russians have…done us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the concept of freedom of international space.” Eisenhower immediately grasped this as the precedent for overflight and pressed ahead with the launching of a reconnaissance satellite, and eventually first did so in 1960. The precedent held for later satellites and by the end of 1958 the tenuous principle of “freedom of space” had been established. By allowing the Soviet Union to lead in this area, the Russian space program had established the U.S.-backed precedent for free overflight.

Throughout 1958 the Eisenhower administration affirmed the free-access-to-space position already established in precedent and declared that space would not be used for warlike purposes. At the same time it asserted that reconnaissance satellites and other military support activities that could be  aided by satellites, such as communications and weather, were peaceful activities since they assisted in strategic deterrence and therefore averted war. This was a critical space policy decision as it provided for open use of space and fashioned a virtual “inspection system” to forewarn of surprise attack through the use of reconnaissance satellites.

Some have speculated that Eisenhower might actually have held back the U.S. effort to launch an orbital satellite to allow the Soviets to do so first, thereby establishing this all-important principal of overflight. After all, had the U.S. launched before the Soviet Union, Khrushchev might have protested it as a violation of his nation’s airspace. This could have thrown the “freedom of space” concept into years of intense and confrontational international negotiation. While this is a fascinating possibility, there is no evidence to believe that the Eisenhower administration actually conspired to lose the race to launch the first satellite. Instead, establishing the precedent of “freedom of space” is much more likely a serendipity from the Soviet Sputnik launch.

This proved to be an important serendipity, without question, and as is so often the case in history the unintended consequences of actions turn out to be more important than the intended ones. The story of the establishment of “freedom of space” is a critical case of an unintended consequence of momentous importance for the rest of the Cold War.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Ethnic Cleansing and the Indian”

Ethnic Cleansing and the IndianEthnic Cleansing and the Indian: The Crime That Should Haunt America. By Gary Clayton Anderson. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.

There has been a debate over the last quarter century about the fate of Native Americans at the hands of Europeans who came to the American continent and displaced them. An extreme position is that the Europeans engaged in “genocide,” systematically seeking to wipe-them out. There were some instances in which this clearly took place—Small Pox infected blankets, various massacres, and other atrocities come to mind—but United States policy was far from such an approach.

No question, for nearly four centuries a technologically superior European civilization constantly pressed the native population either to conform to a new hegemony or to withdraw from it, conquering the various first peoples and destroying their population in the process. By the close of the nineteenth century the native population had dwindled, ravaged by war and disease and starvation, to the extent that some began to characterize it as a “vanishing race.” In 1900 the Native American population in the United States reached a nadir at 237,196, a seven-fold decline from what it had been estimated in 1492. But was it genocide?

Historian Gary Clayton Anderson does not believe so. Extermination was never the intention of Euro-Americans. Instead, he uses the term “ethnic cleasing” to characterize how Europeans and their descendants dealt with the native population. The objective of acquiring land and other resources from the native population motivated every aspect of Euro-American engagement with them. In that sense, according to Anderson, the “ethnic cleansing” term is more appropriate than genocide to describe what happened to Native Americans. The term, of course, gained fame in the Balkan wars of the 1990s and suggested the same concept of purging some groups from land wanted by other groups.

One may debate this characterization and there are other books that argue for Native American genocide. An argument about genocide may be found in Alex Alvarez, Native America and the Question of Genocide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and Andrew Woolford, Jeff Benvenuto, and Alexander Laban Hinton, eds., Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America (Duke University Press, 2014). The bulk of Anderson’s book is devoted to making his case for “ethnic cleansing,” followed by a set of case studies explicating it throughout American history.

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Parallels Between the Sputnik and 9/11 Crises

Sputnik 1 changed the direction of space policy in the United States after its launch on October 4, 1957.

Is there a relationship between the so-called “Sputnik moment” in October 1957 and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks? Yes, at several levels there are intriguing parallels between the Sputnik crisis of 1957-1958 that Eisenhower faced and the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the United States made on September 11, 2001.

In both instances, these events signaled that the U.S.was not immune from serious challenge to its society and national power. One was a symbolic attack on American might, the other a literal attack. Both sparked a response that led to serious changes in the direction of the nation, and some might argue that in both instances some of the response was ill-conceived. For example, Eisenhower was forced to respond with many actions that he believed ill-considered, among them the creation of NASA. In addition, Sputnik led directly to several critical efforts aimed at “catching up” to the Soviet Union’s space achievements.

On the whole, however, the actions in the aftermath of Sputnik proved acceptable both from a political perspective and for the long-term health of the United States. These included:

    • A full-scale review of both the civil and military programs of theUnited States(scientific satellite efforts and ballistic missile development.
    • Establishment of a Presidential Science Advisor in the White House who had responsibility for overseeing the activities of the federal government in science and technology.
    • Creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Department of Defense, and the consolidation of several space activities under centralized management.
    • Establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to manage civil space operations.
    • Passage of the National Defense Education Act to provide federal funding for education in the scientific and technical disciplines.

In the case of Sputnik it was a technological challenge and the response involved a broad reorientation of government programs aimed at rectifying the perceived weakness. Sputnik rather “inspired” politicians to fund science as never before. In the case of 9/11 it was a direct security weakness that needed to be addressed. There were hearings and finger-pointing and an opening of floodgates of government funding for all manner of presumed security-enhancing programs. Whereas the Sputnik crisis allowed the scientific-technological community into the White House as never before and opened the public treasury to funding for all manner of efforts never given serious consideration before, the 9/11 tragedy did the same for security and intelligence specialists.

From left to right: Russian Premier Nikolai Bulganin, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower, French Premier Edgar Faure, British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden at the 1955 Geneva Conference. At this conference Eisenhower put forth the “Open Skies” plan.

From left to right: Russian Premier Nikolai Bulganin, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower, French Premier Edgar Faure, British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden at the 1955 Geneva Conference. At this conference Eisenhower put forth the “Open Skies” plan.

Interestingly, in both instances the president took criticism for failing to anticipate and react to the challenge, and thereby mitigating it or at least minimizing its impact. Eisenhower’s supposed complacency in failing to anticipate Sputnik, and his slowness to react afterward, tarred his administration and his image for a generation. Whether he deserved that criticism is questionable, but his failure to recognize the obvious concern of the public was a shortcoming of consequence. Refusing to overreact served his and the nation’s long-term needs well. Similarly, George W. Bush received criticism for the 9/11 attacks and failure to prepare for such an eventuality. Like Eisenhower, Bush responded with a range of changes to the federal government to enhance intelligence gathering and national security:

    • Passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
    • Establishment of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) to coordinate the analysis of all domestic counterterrorism intelligence.
    • Creation of the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) to integrate information on various terrorist watch lists.
    • Consolidation of oversight of intelligence assets under a single individual.
    • Passage of the Patriot Act of 2002.
    • Other reorganizations within and among various federal agencies.
The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

Unlike Eisenhower, Bush aggressively championed these changes and generally appeared to be leading in their adoption rather than opposing some of them. This perception was misleading in both instances, for Eisenhower was fully committed to many of the reforms undertaken during his administration and Bush was opposed to some of those for which he has been applauded, especially the creation of an intelligence “czar” to oversee all intelligence organizations in the government.

In an irony of the first magnitude, Eisenhower believed that the creation of NASA and the placing of so much power in its hands by the Kennedy administration during the Apollo program of the 1960s was a mistake. He remarked in a 1962 article: “Why the great hurry to get to the moon and the planets? We have already demonstrated that in everything except the power of our booster rockets we are leading the world in scientific space exploration. From here on, I think we should proceed in an orderly, scientific way, building one accomplishment on another.” He later cautioned that the Moon race “has diverted a disproportionate share of our brain-power and research facilities from equally significant problems, including education and automation.” He believed it was used to overreact to the perceived threat. President Bush, on the other hand, embraced the use of American power in the aftermath of 9/11 and engaged in actions that some believed an overreaction to the perceived threat, especially the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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Cook versus Peary: Writings on the Controversy

The wording of a sign erected by scientists near their North Pole camp in 2003 had to be changed because the ice was drifting 400 yards an hour. (Credit: Andrew C. Revkin/The New York Times)

The wording of a sign erected by scientists near their North Pole camp in 2003 had to be changed because the ice was drifting 400 yards an hour. (Credit: Andrew C. Revkin/The New York Times)

Several people suggested that I offer some comments on the state of literature on the Robert Peary/Frederick Cook controversy of who reached the North Pole first. Of course, I am of the opinion that the evidence for either of them reaching there in either 1908 or 1909 is flimsy.

Each of the explorers published their own accounts of the effort. Frederick A. Cook, My Attainment of the Pole: Being the Record of the Expedition That First Reached the Boreal Center, 1907-1909 (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1912), with many subsequent editions offers his assessment. The Peary case is made in Rear Adm. Robert E. Peary, The North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909 under the auspices of the Peary Arctic Club (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1910). The account of Peary’s longtime associate, an African American named Matthew Henson, is detailed in A Black Explorer at the North Pole, foreword by Robert E., Peary and Introduction by Booker T. Washington (New York, 1912, reprint Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2005), by Bruce Henderson, tells the story of intense hatred and jealousy between Americans Robert E. Peary, the supposed discoverer of the North Pole in 1909, and his former colleague, Frederick A. Cook, who claimed to have reached there a year earlier. Attacks on the generally accepted Peary account began in 1911 with a book by the rival claimant, Frederick Cook, in his My Attainment of The Pole, and has been played out ever since.

In True North the author marshals evidence to support the claim of Cook that he reached the pole in April 1908, a full year before Peary. There have been many other books dealing with the debate over who was the first to the reach the North Pole, all of them making a case for one or the other of the rival explorers. Sometimes the prose is laced with vitriol.

Some of those other works include: John Edward Weems, Peary: The Explorer and the Man (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1967); Theon Wright, The Big Nail: The Story of the Cook-Peary Feud (New York: John Day Company, 1970); Dennis Rawlins, Peary at the North Pole, Fact or Fiction? (Washington, DC: Robert B. Luce, 1973); William R. Hunt, To Stand at the Pole: The Dr. Cook—Admiral Peary North Pole Controversy (New York: Stein & Day, 1981); Wally Herbert, The Noose of Laurels: The Discovery of the North Pole (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1989); and Fergus Fleming, Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole (London: Granta Books, 2001)

I especially enjoyed Robert M. Bryce, Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997). At more than 1,000 pages, it may be used a door stop if needed, but I recommend it as by far the most detailed and comprehensive, as well as exhaustive and exhausting, discussion of the controversy every undertaken. Larry Schweikart’s “Polar Revisionism and the Peary Claim: The Diary of Robert E. Peary,” The Historian 48 (May 1986): 341-58 is an interesting sidelight to the story. Clive Holland, ed., Fartherest North: The Quest for the North Pole, 1818-1909 (New York: MacLelland and Stewart, 1988) tries to place the controversy in the context of other explorations.

I also found helpful these books: Pierre Berton, The Arctic Grail The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), with many reprints. Perhaps the most entertaining of all stories about the quest for the North Pole is Chauncy Loomis, Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).

Definitively concluding which explorer, if either, was first to reach the North Pole continues to be debated in the popular media. Although Peary received great acclamation in his lifetime for his polar exploits, most current observers view the claims of both Peary and Cook to have reached the North Pole with skepticism. More than a century after the controversy first erupted it seems that neither claim holds up well.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Eismitte in the Scientific Imagination”

EismitteEismette in the Scientific Imagination: Knowledge and Politics at the Center of Greenland. By Janet Martin-Nielson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Eismette means “middle ice” in German, and this book is about the quest to reach that middle point on the Greenland ice sheet and to learn the knowledge that might be gleaned about it. Janet Martin-Nielson has written a fine study of the four major efforts to reach that middle point. Although explorers had been enamored with this location for centuries, the first expedition to reach it was led by the German explorer, Alfred Wegener, who undertook an expedition there in 1930-1931. They came overland using dogs and sledges, established a makeshift camp, and wintered there while taking meteorological readings, ice samples, and other research. They ran out of supplies and Wegener died during the expedition but the harvest of data was very real.

Wegener’s was the last expedition of its type, all that came afterward used motorized vehicles and airplanes to support the effort. With the use of this technology, those efforts yielded massive amounts of scientific data, reduced the risks to members of the research teams, and allowed for the establishment of a near permanent station on the middle ice.

The second expedition, under the leadership of Paul-Emile Victor, the French undertook the Expéditions Polaires Françaises between 1949 and 1953. Using surplus World War II tractors designed for harsh climates the expedition pushed its way to the Eismitte, established one of the more impressive stations in the Arctic, and systematically collected scientific data for years. Resupplied by airdrops Victor’s expedition reaped a treasure of data and reestablished a post-way France which still had designs on maintaining its empire as force to be reckoned with at the Poles.

The third expedition, Project Jello, was operated by the Americans at the Eismitte for several years beginning in 1955. As much as anything this was an offshoot of the Cold War situation, as the Poles became locations of competition and strategic surveillance between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Americans did not so much accommodate to the harsh environment as overcome it with their wealth and their technology. At its height of operations these stations involved several hundred people and data collection emphasized geodetic, magnetic, and other studies that would aid in ballistic missile accuracy. At sum, the American effort was a triumph of technology and logistics, lessons also proved out in Antarctica during this same era and improved upon by all scientific expeditions since that time

The fourth effort was the Expédition Glaciologique Internationale au Groënland between 1956 and 1960. This expanded on the American work, casting it into a larger international context. In very case, the scientific knowledge about this planet, and especially about Polar Regions, expended through this work. As Janet Martin-Nielson concludes that research “from the early days of the first overwinter of the ice sheet in 1930-1931, shed light on the shape, movement, and melt of Greenland’s ice, on the circulation of contaminants through the atmosphere, and on the earth’s climatic past” (p. 122).

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Recalling a Century Old Controversy: Did Cook or Peary Reach the North Pole First?

The wording of a sign erected by scientists near their North Pole camp in 2003 had to be changed because the ice was drifting 400 yards an hour. (Credit: Andrew C. Revkin/The New York Times)

The wording of a sign erected by scientists near their North Pole camp in 2003 had to be changed because the ice was drifting 400 yards an hour. (Credit: Andrew C. Revkin/The New York Times)

The short answer is, probably neither. I have argued for years that exploration has been driven by the three “G’s”: God, gold, and glory (not necessarily in that order). The search for resources, in some cases literally gold, sparked much of the European expansion beginning in the fifteenth century and at a personal level it prompted considerable individual initiative. But glory, either geopolitical or personal, and the quest for converts to whatever the religion of the explorers also fueled the effort.

Except for the God part, the quest for gold and glory certainly sparked the efforts of two Americans, Robert E. Peary and Frederick A. Cook, to reach the geographical North Pole in the first decade of the twentieth century. Both sought fame and with it wealth.

Robert E. Peary at Cape Sheridan, Ellesmere Island, Northwest Territories, Canada, in 1909.

Robert E. Peary at Cape Sheridan, Ellesmere Island, Northwest Territories, Canada, in 1909.

Peary and Cook started out as friends, not unlike Sir Richard Burton and Sir John Speke in Africa a half century earlier. Peary was the older of the two, a veteran of earlier Arctic expeditions, and the leader of the 1891-1892 northern Greenland expedition where Cook served as physician and ethnographer. When Peary shattered his leg on the expedition Cook set it and ensured that it healed properly. Cook also undertook systematic investigation of the native population, still some of the earliest efforts to study the Inuit of Greenland.

Cook went on thereafter to participate in Adrien de Gerlache’s 1897-1899 Belgian Antarctic Expedition, the first expedition to winter over at the Antarctic continent. Cook and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became friends on this expedition. Cook led two expeditions to Mt. McKinley (Mt. Denali) in 1903 and again in 1906; during that later expedition he claimed to have made the first ascent to the summit of the mountain. Subsequent analysis has determined that visual and navigational evidence from the 1906 Cook ascent does not support a conclusion that he reached the summit.

For his part, Robert Peary, a U.S. naval officer on leave from active duty undertook several expeditions to the Arctic after the Greenland expedition. He undertook an 1898–1902 expedition to the northwestern tip of Greenland where he explored parts of Ellesmere Island. In a 1905-1906 expedition Peary sported a new Arctic exploring vessel, the SS Roosevelt, which established a record by reaching the “farthest north by ship.” Peary claimed on this expedition that he achieved a latitude of 87°06′. In the summer of 1906 Peary also claimed to have sighted a far-north “Crocker Land,” later overturned when another expedition in 1914 found that Crocker Land did not exist.

By the first part of the twentieth century, therefore, both Cook and Peary established themselves as seasoned and renowned explorers—albeit ones with a checkered record of accomplishment—and had set their sights on reaching the geographical North Pole. Frederick Cook began his assault on the Pole in 1908 and after having been gone for nearly two years announced in September 1909 that he and two Inuit guides had reached the geographical North Pole on April 21, 1908. Since the Pole constantly shifts with its ice drift, he was a bit cagey with how he characterized this success. His delay in returning had been caused by bad weather, the problem of drifting ice, and the late season that required him to overwinter in the Arctic.

Admiral Robert E. Peary’s crew, pictured here in the vicinity of the North Pole, included Inuits Ooqeah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seeglo and fellow American Matthew Henson.

Admiral Robert E. Peary’s crew, pictured here in the vicinity of the North Pole, included Inuits Ooqeah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seeglo and fellow American Matthew Henson.

Robert Peary undertook his expedition in 1908; wintering at Ellesmere Island and assaulting the geographical North Pole the next spring. He claimed to have reached there on April 6, 1909, establishing “Camp Jesup” within 5 miles of the drifting North Pole. When he heard of Cook’s announcement Peary as livid and denounced Cook as a fraud. Peary’s claims were largely supported, while Cook’s were dismissed. Each published their own versions of these expeditions, and in the years since supporters, detractors, and historians have continued to debate the quality of their accounts. Most people at the time and since have credited Peary as the first to reach the North Pole, and much criticism has been aimed at Cook for fabricating his story. Because of this controversy Roald Amundsen took special care to document every aspect of his expedition to reach the South Pole in December 1911.

Frederick Cook in arctic gear, 1909.

Frederick Cook in arctic gear, 1909.

Each had their cases to make, but neither succeeded in documenting to everyone’s satisfaction that they had reached the North Pole. Cook claimed that his documentation had been lost in Greenland, in no small measure because of Peary’s refusal to bring it back on the Roosevelt when one of his colleagues had asked for Peary’s assistance. Peary, for his part, refused to allow anyone to see the majority of his records; something that the National Geographical Society continued to do until long after his death in 1920. In the second half of the twentieth century arguments on both sides of the cases continue to fuel book sales. It seems that probably neither explorer reached “True North” in the 1908-1909 time frame.

Both got close, no doubt; both claimed to reach it either through oversight/error or fraud/subterfuge. Both were driven to be the first and it is easy to see how they could have fudged readings and overstated positions. On the other hand, I have no doubt from what I have learned about both that they would willingly alter the truth for their benefit. They did so many other times that it is impossible not believe them capable of it here. Based upon modern analysis and an expedition that sought to recreate the Peary route, it now seems dubious that Peary could have achieved the distances per day that he claimed, and it is equally doubtful that Cooke, with a record of fraud in other settings, reached the North Pole.

There is no dearth of books on this subject, and everyone has an opinion. Some are better informed than others. Many believe that Cook’s claims are more legitimate; those who questioned them initially were motivated either by friendship of Peary or seduced by the prospect of economic gain. There is undoubtedly a measure of truth in that position. But Cook’s reputation as a bit of snake oil salesman, his now debunked Mt. Denali climb to the summit and his being jailed for an oil scam after his exploration days were over are primary evidence, suggests that he may not have been honest in his claims.

What is clear is that Peary is one of the most driven and megalomaniacal people of the twentieth century. His campaign to destroy Cook is legendary. For his part, Cook was a natural ethnographer and student of science. He is without question the most vilified of all polar explorers, but how fair are criticisms of him?

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Remembering the Quintessential Yankee

No question about it, Yogi Berra (1925-2015) was an American original. With his passing earlier this week at age 90 it is now more obvious than ever before. As one of the Hall of Fame players from the Yankee dynasty of the 1950s and early 1960s, a team that also included Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, to a legendary post-baseball career as pundit and sage Yogi (and he needed no other name) was a great and honorable man. He was also a genuine personality.

Who hasn’t heard some of his witticisms (Yogisms): “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” or “It ain’t over till it’s over,” or “Half this game is ninety percent mental.” And then there is my personal favorite, “We may be lost but we’re making good time.” That last one seems to sum up so much about our modern society. His folksy wit demonstrates a keen mind, one that gets to the heart of any issue. I recently read The Yogi Book containing a lot of his wit and wisdom. It was a fun read, and gave me a renewed appreciation of this Hall of Fame baseball player and folk hero.

Aside from his knack for summing up great philosophical thoughts in pithy phrases, Yogi Berra was also one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Yogi may not have been the leaders of the Yankees in the one of its most legendary dynasties, that was Mickey Mantle, but I believe he was its most essential element.

During his time with the New York Yankees, 1946-1963, Berra played on more pennant winners, 14, and enjoyed more World Series victories, 10, than any other player in Major League Baseball (MLB) history. Was Yogi the greatest catcher ever to play, even more important than Johnny Bench? Was he one of a handful of the most indispensible Yankees ever to take the field? I think so. Along with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and perhaps Derek Jeter, Yogi Berra’s exploits have defined Yankee greatness through the ages.

Not bad for a kid from the Hill district of St. Louis, whose friend and baseball rival Joe Garagiola says was the best to ever play the game. Both played together and against each other while growing up in the Italian section of that city. Both were scouted by the St. Louis Cardinals, but Branch Rickey signed only Garagiola to a Cardinals contract. He did not think Berra had what it took to play beyond the minor leagues.

In a Karmic sort of way that dumb decision ranks right up there with the Cardinals snookering the Chicago Cubs out of Lou Brock by trading Ernie Broglio for him in 1964. As a Cardinals fan I kick myself thinking about how Yogi Berra would have helped them in the 1940s, 1950s, and the early 1960s when they already had a good team that might have become a dynasty to rival the Yankees. With such a talented catcher as Berra on the field with Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, and Red Schoendienst, I would be surprised if they had not won several more championships.

But he became a Yankee, perhaps the quintessential Yankee. Even more than playing catcher better than anyone else of his era, Yogi also excelled both at managing and at life. He took the Yankees to the World Series in 1964, only to lose in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. At least the Cards got even in that one instance. Yogi was also a good and decent human being, a folksy sage who mentored the young and stayed close to his family.

Yogi Berra had just passed 9oth birthday on May 12. I’m sorry to learn of his passing. Here’s to Yogi’s high quality life. While I am not a Yankee fan I am certainly happy to cheer this one.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “WarStars”

COVER_72WarStars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination. By H. Bruce Franklin. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008. Revised and Expanded Edition.

Americans have long viewed as necessary to the survival of the United States an absolute protection from foreign attack. That was one of the reasons that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was so troubling to the American psyche. This has prompted a never-ending search for security, and a corresponding search for a superweapon that would so demoralize an enemy that it would never attack the United States. From Robert Fulton’s Revolutionary War era submarine to such recent developments as Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the United States has spared no expense and no measure of effort to ensure its safety.

Bruce Franklin is a cultural historian, not a military of a policy analyst, so don’t look for reasoned discussion of the present-day implications of this quest for security. What he does do, however, is write a compelling cultural history of this aspect of America, demonstrating effectively how the U.S. has pursued the ultimate defensive weapon, one that would ensure that no one would ever want to attack this nation because of the dire consequences.

I am most familiar with this story in relation to aerospace history, and indeed that is a major part of the story in the twentieth century. Indeed the airplane was supposed to make the nation invincible because no one would accept the dire losses that would result from any conflict. It would make war, in the words of many aviation enthusiasts, obsolete. Guess what, it didn’t. There is considerable literature, film, art, and the like that spoke to that belief.

We have seen the same in the context of nuclear weapons, and their delivery methods by both airplanes and missiles, as something too terrible to contemplate. Cultural outpourings attest to American reactions to this situation in the era since World War II. Franklin is at his best in analyzing film—such as Fail-Safe, On the Beach, and Dr. Strangelove—that called attention to the disparity between the imagined future of the technocrats and the horrors of what might befall humanity. Of course, those might be viewed as “fifth column” efforts to weaken American resolve and strength, and in the 1950s the McCarthy “Red Scare” had elements of this as part of the agenda. Those clamoring for those superweapons, however, always viewed them as way to end all war and ensure the triumph to the American way of life.

Central to this, especially in the post-World War II era, was the nuclear weapons delivered through the modern technology of ballistic missiles. Accordingly, for the first time in human history people hundreds or even thousands of miles removed from the battlefield were now living life as a target. This had a profound impact on American culture as everyone now lived on the receiving end of an attack from space. Franklin explores the manner in which society has dealt with the rising threat of attack from above over time. Thinking about the unthinkable became a central aspect of Franklin’s discussion of the super weapon. It changed not only the dynamic of international relations and cast a long shadow over every confrontation between first-world nations in the post-1945 era, but it also transformed American culture.

Franklin published the first edition of this book in 1988, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It received good reviews at the time, but the position of the champions of the superweapon in American culture found the greatest evidence of their belief with SDI and the Soviet collapse. Ronald Reagan, it seems, had won the Cold War after 40 years of stalemate. SDI and other military measures, in their minds, bankrupted the Soviet Union, despite the reality of many internal reasons ranging from economic crisis to imperial overstretch to the incursion of knowledge that a better future might be achieved by pursuing a different political agenda more in synchronicity with rather than in tension with the West. Indeed, it may be that Reagan’s most important role in helping to end the Cold War may have had nothing to do with the pursuit of a superweapon. Instead he was astute in allowing the internal situation in the Soviet Union to play out and was helpful by working with Gorbachev on arms control and the reduction of nuclear weapons.

A new edition of WarStars was published in 2008. This is the version of the book that I read. It is a solid work, exploring the cultural history of the search for security by emphasizing “peace through strength.” It is an important study, worthy of anyone’s consideration.

Posted in aeronautics, aviation, Cold War Competition, History, Science, Space, World War II | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The World’s Spaceports

In the more than fifty years since the beginning of the space age, the most remarkable and visible installations created have been the launch facilities. These spaceports are not numerous, with only 24 active sites worldwide, but many of them are sites where history was made.

This map shows the launch sites, current, abandoned, and projected as of 2008.

There are the well-known launch sites, such as those at the Kennedy Space Center on the east coast of Florida, that are open to the public. Others are top secret closed sites shrouded in mystery, such as the Palmachim launch site in Israel. Most of these spaceports are national facilities, located at various places around the globe in response to political realities and geographical considerations.

This launch of the Titan IVB/Centaur launch vehicle from the Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida, started the Cassini orbiter and its attached Huygens probe to Saturn. Launched on October 15, 1997, from Launch Complex 40 it would undertake a 2.2-billion mile journey that included two swingbys of Venus and one of Earth to gain additional velocity, arriving at Saturn in July 2004 where it entered orbit and soft landed Huygens on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

Each of these sites offers the capability to launch satellites into various orbits around the Earth, most often in a west to east equatorial orbit, but for national security satellites usually in a polar orbit. Some launch sites also have concentrated on non-orbital flights, engaging in sounding rocket research to the upper atmosphere, such as that conducted at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the coast in Virginia. Since 1957, more than 5,000 satellites have successfully launched into orbit from these various spaceports around the globe.

The busiest spaceports are operated, as should be obvious, by the most aggressive nations involved in spaceflight. The space programs of the United States and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) have long been comparable in size and operation. But in addition to Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Baikonur, and Plesetsk, there is also Kourou, Tanegashima, Sriharikota, Jiuquan, and Xichang among the world’s most busy spaceports.

Not all launch tests were successful. This test of a reentry vehicle in 1963 had to be destroyed by the range safety officer at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

As the twenty-first century progresses, the activity of these current spaceports will probably increase, and new sites will be added to fulfill future requirements for space access.

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