Wednesday’s Book Review: “Matty—An American Hero”


MattyMatty—An American Hero: Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants. By Ray Robinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Ray Robinson is a sports journalist and editor, and this book is very much in the genre of many other conventional sports biographies. It is a good, serviceable biography; but it is far from great. In it, we learn about one of the earliest stars of major league baseball. Christy Mathewson had been born in 1880, attended Bucknell University and gained fame there as both a football and baseball player. He signed with the New York Giants and played sixteen seasons with them; arguably the most dominant pitcher in major league baseball during his time in the Majors.

While with the Giants, Mathewson won 20 games thirteen times and 30 games four times. During that same period, he won at least 20 games twelve consecutive years (1903-1914). A power pitcher, Mathewson had the most wins in Giant franchise history (372), and had more than 2,500 strikeouts. Perhaps his most dominant performance came in the 1905 World Series when he pitched a record three shutouts in six days against the Philadelphia Athletics, leading the Giants to the championship.

Robinson does a credible job telling the story of Mathewson’s remarkable career. He expends considerable effort narrating the dramatic events of his various pitching performances. He also delves into the story of Mathewson’s close relationship with his Giants manager, the legendary John McGraw, who is credited with working effectively with a sensitive and talented player to make him more dominant than he might have been otherwise.

Robinson also explores the role Mathewson plays in helping to remake the image of major league baseball from one of rowdy hooliganism into one of the “national pastime.” Mathewson served as a model of clean living when the sport was known for its hard-living, hard-drinking players. He became a role model for young boys, and MLB exploited his lifestyle to remake its image. He enthusiastically aided this process, and even wrote a series of boy’s books advocating a moral, strenuous lifestyle.

Of course, Mathewson served as the perfect example of “clean living” for MLB because of his dominance on the mound. Accordingly, in 1936 he joined four other MLB legends–Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson, none of whom exemplified “clean living”–as the first class of baseball players to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was a posthumous induction because Mathewson had died in 1925, at age 45, of tuberculosis.

Ray Robinson has written a solid, readable biography of Matty. I give it three stars because it fails to go beyond the basics of what we already know about him, and has no references or even a bibliography with other works to read on the subject.

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A Balance Sheet on All of the Landings on Mars


cropped-pathfinder-on-mars-300dpi.jpg

Mars Pathfinder panorama in 1997.

Since the beginning of the space age there have been 17 landings on the surface of Mars, some of which were not successful. Initially the Soviet Union carried out two attempted landings in 1971, Mars 2 and 3, but the first lander crashed and the second returned only 20 seconds of data before failing on the Martian surface. Regardless, these became the first human-built artifacts to reach the surface of Mars. Another landing attempt took place in 1973 when the Soviet Union dispatched Mars 7 to the red planet. It failed to rendezvous with Mars and went into a solar orbit without accomplishing its mission. A major contribution came in July 1976 with the successful landings of Viking 1 and 2 by the United States.

After the Vikings, despite other attempts, no other landers were successful in reaching the Martian surface until 1997 when Mars Pathfinder opened the modern age of Martian exploration. Thereafter, several additional landers have successfully made it to the surface of the red planet and have reshaped humanity’s understanding of this intriguing world.

The Phoenix lander on Mars.

The Phoenix lander on Mars.

Mars has proven a difficult place on which to land successfully. The box score for the record of landings is seven successes, ten failures. While it might be expected that landing failures would have been common early in the space age, greater success should come with time, experience, and more sophisticated technology. This is the case, certainly, but unfortunately in the last decade several Mars landing missions have also failed. Successfully reaching the surface of this planet has proven a task not without difficulties, yet the prize of scientific knowledge continues to spur significant efforts. There is no dearth of plans for continued exploration using landers, rovers, and flying machines that might operate in the thin Martian atmosphere. The following is a chronological list of all landing missions on Mars, along with their basic results.

  1. Mars 2 – USSR Mars Orbiter/Soft Lander – 4,650 kg – (19 May 1971): The Mars 2 lander was released from the orbiter on 27 November 1971. It crashed-landed because its breaking rockets failed – no data was returned and the first human artifact was created on Mars. (Lander unsuccessful)
  2. Mars 3 – USSR Mars Orbiter/Soft Lander – 4,643 kg – (28 May 1971): Mars 3 arrived at Mars on 2 December 1971. The lander was released and became the first successful landing on Mars. It failed after relaying 20 seconds of video data to the orbiter. (Lander unsuccessful)
  3. Mars 7 – USSR Mars Orbiter/Soft Lander – 4,650 kg – (9 August 1973): On 6 March 1974, Mars 7 failed to go into orbit about Mars and the lander missed the planet. Carrier and lander are now in a solar orbit. (Unsuccessful)
  4. Viking 1 – USA Mars Orbiter/Lander – 3,399 kg – (20 August 1975 – 7 August 1980): Viking 1 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center, on 20 August 1975, the trip to Mars and went into orbit about the planet on 19 June 1976. The lander touched down on 20 July 1976 on the western slopes of Chryse Planitia (Golden Plains). The lander had experiments to search for Martian micro-organism. The results of these experiments are still being debated. The lander provided detailed color panoramic views of the Martian terrain. It also monitored the Martian weather. The orbiter mapped the planet’s surface. The orbiter weighed 900 kg and the lander 600 kg. The Viking project’s primary mission ended on 15 November 1976, eleven days before Mars’ superior conjunction (its passage behind the Sun), although the Viking spacecraft continued to operate for six years after first reaching Mars. Viking 1 lander was accidentally shut down on 13 November 1982, and communication was never regained. Its last transmission reached Earth on 11 November 1982.  Controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tried unsuccessfully for another six and one‑half months to regain contact with the lander, but finally closed down the overall mission on 21 May 1983. (Lander successful)
  5. Viking 2 – USA Mars Orbiter/Lander – 3,399 kg – (9 September 1975 – 25 July 1978): Viking 2 was launched for Mars on 9 November 1975, and landed on 3 September 1976.  The orbiter weighed 900 kg and the lander 600 kg. The lander had experiments to search for Martian micro-organism. The results of these experiments are still being debated. The lander provided detailed color panoramic views of the Martian terrain. It also monitored the Martian weather. The orbiter mapped the planet’s surface, and, with its Viking 1 orbiter, acquired over 52,000 images. The Viking project’s primary mission ended on 15 November 1976, eleven days before Mars’ superior conjunction (its passage behind the Sun), although the Viking spacecraft continued to operate for six years after first reaching Mars. (Lander successful)
  6. Phobos 1 – USSR Mars Orbiter/Lander – 5,000 kg – (7 July 1988): Phobos 1 was sent to investigate the Martian moon Phobos. It was lost en route to Mars through a command error on 2 September 1988. (Unsuccessful)
  7. Phobos 2 – USSR Phobos Flyby/Lander – 5,000 kg – (12 July 1988): Phobos 2 arrived at Mars and was inserted into orbit on 30 January 1989. The orbiter moved within 800 kilometers of Phobos and then failed. The lander never made it to Phobos. (Lander Unsuccessful)
  8. Mars 8 – Russia Orbiter & Lander – 6,200 kg – (16 November 1996): Mars ’96 consisted of an orbiter, two landers, and two soil penetrators that were to reach the planet in September 1997. The rocket carring Mars 96 lifted off successfully, but as it entered orbit the rocket’s fourth stage ignited prematurely and sent the probe into a wild tumble. It crashed into the ocean somewhere between the Chilean coast and Easter Island. The spacecraft sank, carrying with it 270 grams of plutonium-238. (Unsuccessful)
  9. Mars Pathfinder – USA Lander & Surface Rover – 870 kg –  (4 December 1996): The inexpensive Mars Pathfinder (costing only $267 million) landed on Mars on 4 July 1996, after its launch in December 1996. A small, 23-pound, six-wheeled robotic rover, named Sojourner, departed the main lander and began to record weather patterns, atmospheric opacity, and the chemical composition of rocks washed down into the Ares Vallis flood plain, an ancient outflow channel in Mars’ northern hemisphere. This vehicle completed its projected milestone 30-day mission on 3 August 1997, capturing far more data on the atmosphere, weather, and geology of Mars than scientists had expected. In all, the Pathfinder mission returned more than 1.2 gigabits (1.2 billion bits) of data and over 10,000 tantalizing pictures of the Martian landscape. The images from both craft were posted to the Internet, to which individuals turned for information about the mission more than 500 million times through the end of July. The mission’s primary objective is to demonstrate the feasibility of low-cost landings on the martian surface. This was the second mission in NASA’s low-cost Discovery series. (Successful)
  10. Mars Polar Lander – USA lander – 538 kg – (3 January 1999): and its attached Deep Space 2 probes were launched on a Delta II rocket which placed them into a low-Earth parking orbit. The third stage fired for 88 seconds to put the spacecraft into a Mars transfer trajectory. Trajectory correction maneuvers were performed on 21 January, 15 March, 1 September, 30 October, and 30 November 1999. After an 11-month hyperbolic transfer cruise, the Mars Polar Lander reached Mars on 3 December 1999. The lander was to make a direct entry into Mars’ atmosphere at 6.8 km/s but was lost during the landing sequence. JPL lost contact with the spacecraft and due to lack of communication, it is not known whether the probe followed the descent plan or was lost in some other manner. (Unsuccessful)
  11. Mars Express – European Space Agency (ESA) Mars orbiter and lander – 1123 kg – (2 June 2003): This Mars probe consisted of an orbiter, the Mars Express Orbiter, and a lander, Beagle 2. The scientific objectives of the Mars Express Orbiter were to obtain global high-resolution photo-geology (10 m resolution), mineralogical mapping (100 m resolution) and mapping of the atmospheric composition, study the subsurface structure, the global atmospheric circulation, and the interaction between the atmosphere and the subsurface, and the atmosphere and the interplanetary medium. The Beagle 2 lander objectives were to characterize the landing site geology, mineralogy, and geochemistry, the physical properties of the atmosphere and surface layers, collect data on Martian meteorology and climatology, and search for possible signatures of life. After launch on a Soyuz/Fregat rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome, the orbiter released Beagle 2 on 19 December 2003. It coasted for five days after release and entered the Martian atmosphere on the morning of 25 December. Landing was expected to occur at about 02:54 UT on 25 December (9:54 p.m. EST 24 December). No signals have been received and the lander was declared lost. (Lander unsuccessful)
  12. Mars Exploration Rover A – USA Mars Rover – 827 kg – (10 June 2003): Named “Spirit” upon landing on the Martian surface on 4 January 2004 this rover was one of a pair launched to Mars in mid-2003. Equipped with a battery of scientific instruments it was intended to operate for 90 days, until April 2004, and to traverse about 100 meters a day. The scientific goals of the rover missions are to gather data to help determine if life ever arose on Mars, characterize the climate of Mars, characterize the geology of Mars, and prepare for human exploration of Mars. It has performed exceptionally well and is still operating in November 2007. A primary mission objective was to search for geological clues to the environmental conditions that existed when liquid water was present and assess whether those environments were conducive to life. It landed in Gusev Crater because it had the appearance of a crater lakebed. The rover’s scientific data suggests that Gusev may have at one time been filled with water. (Successful)
  13. Mars Exploration Rover B – USA Mars Rover – 827 kg – (7 July 2003): Named “Opportunity” upon landing on the Martian surface on 25 January 2004 this rover was the second of a pair launched to Mars in mid-2003. It carried identical instruments to “Spirit” and landed at Terra Meridiani, also known as the “Hematite Site” because it displays evidence of coarse-grained hematite, an iron-rich mineral which typically forms in water. This mission has also continued into November 2007. (Successful)
  14. Phoenix Mars Lander – USA Mars Lander – 350 kg – (4 August 2007): The Phoenix Mars Lander was designed to study the surface and near-surface environment of a landing site in the high northern area of Mars. The primary science objectives for Phoenix are to: determine polar climate and weather, interaction with the surface, and composition of the lower atmosphere around 70 degrees north for at least 90 sols; determine the atmospheric characteristics during descent through the atmosphere; characterize the geomorphology and active processes shaping the northern plains and the physical properties of the near-surface regolith focusing on the role of water; determine the aqueous mineralogy and chemistry as well as the adsorbed gases and organic content of the regolith; characterize the history of water, ice, and the polar climate and determine the past and present biological potential of the surface and subsurface environments. Phoenix was launched on 4 August 2007 on a Delta II 7925 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The 681 million km heliocentric cruise to Mars took approximately 10 months, with landing on Mars on 25 May 2008. (Successful)
  15. Yinghuo-1 – Chinese Mars Orbiter – 115 kg – (8 November 2011): The primary scientific aims of the Orbiter were to study Martian environmental structure including plasma distribution, the solar-wind atmosphere coupling and energy distribution, the regional gravity field of Mars, and Martian surface imaging. In addition, the mission was to test deep space navigation and communication. It was to work with the Russian Phobos-Grunt, and be stacked on one of its common boosters. The Orbiter did not perform its scheduled burn to begin its trajectory to Mars. It will stay in orbit around the earth. Roscosmos is investigating what went wrong. (Unsuccessful).
  16. Phobos-Grunt (alternatively Fobos-Grunt) – Russian Spacecraft – 730 kg – (8 November 2011): This spacecraft was designed to land on Mar’s moon Phobos and return a sample to earth to be able to study its history and origin. This would focus on analyzing the material gathered and comparing it to Martian and other Solar System matter for similarities. It was supposed to carry the Chinese Mars Orbiter Yinghuo-1. Once launched into Earth’s orbit, the spacecraft was supposed to fire once again to begin an eleven month trajectory to Mars. These firings never happened, however, and the spacecraft reentered the atmosphere on January 15, 2012. (Unsuccessful).
  17. Mars Science Laboratory, “Curiosity,” (MSL) – USA Mars Rover – 750 kg – (26 November 2011). Launched at 10:02 EST, the objective of Curiosity was to explore the Martian Habitat as a former or current habitat for life, and as such, it would operate for a full Martian year, or 687 earth days. MSL has eight scientific objectives: determine the nature and inventory of organic compounds, inventory the chemical building blocks needed for life, identify features that reflect biological processes, investigate the Martian surface and near surface geological features, interpret the processes that have formed rocks and soils, assess long-timescale atmospheric evolution processes, determine the present state and distribution of water and carbon dioxide, and characterize the spectrum of surface radiation. After leaving Earth’s orbit, the Rover traveled eight months to reach Mars, landing on August 6, 2012. It has been incredibly successful in its science program. (Successful).
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The George Brett “Pine Tar” Incident


George Brett rushing the umpire after having his home run called an out because of the amount of pine tar he had on his bat.

It seems like it took place yesterday, but on July 25, 1983, one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of Major League Baseball. It involved future Hall of Famer George Brett, to this day one of my all time favorite ball players, during a game between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees, and it has gone down in the annals of baseball history as the “Pine Tar Incident.”

This incident provides classic footage to this day, showing an enraged Brett charging out of the dugout toward rookie umpire Tim McClelland after he disallowed a two-run homer off Yankee closer Rich “Goose” Gossage that would have given the Royals a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth inning. The reason, Yankee manager Billy Martin protested to McClelland, was the amount of pine tar Brett had applied to his bat. “You gotta call him out, pal,” Martin told McClelland, “you gotta call him out.”

McClelland consulted with the other umpires before measuring the bat. According to the rules, pine tar could not exceed seventeen inches on the grip end of the bat. “When we measured it, the pine tar was a good seven or eight inches farther,” McClelland recalled, “and I knew then we had a problem.” He called Brett out, and the Royals great went from euphoria to rage in an instant. Brett admitted that never before had he been so mad. “I’d been frustrated before,” Brett said. “You’re frustrated that you…made an error that let in two or three runs and we ended up losing the game by one or two runs. That’s frustration. That’s not mad.” This incident first made him incredulous that the umpires would enforce such a rule, and then his incredulity turned to stark red-eyed anger. Brett commented, “when they put the bat on the ground, to measure it against home plate, someone said, ‘They’re measuring the bat against the plate to see how much pine tar you have on it.’…And I said, ‘If they call me out for that, they’re in trouble’.”

Brett had to be tackled and held down from attacking McClelland. He blistered McClelland with every epithet he knew, and every player knows many. The video of the fight became the standard on television for the rest of the season and periodically thereafter. Lip readers enjoyed picking out Brett’s phrases from the video and manager Dick Howser had to protect his greatest player from emptying benches on both sides. All the while, the paranoid and brilliant Billy Martin stood off to the side and let the Royals self-destruct.

That night, McClelland stumbled across the entire Royals team in the airport. Acting the gentleman, he walked up to Brett and tried to make amends, “You’re not really that mad at me, are you?” Brett responded, “you’re [darn] right I am.” To this day, Brett believes that McClelland should not have enforced that rule.

Dick Howser protested the call and the game, and American League President Lee McPhail, “in the spirit of the rules,” finally allowed the home run on appeal. Out of the whole mess, one irony was not lost on McClelland. “George Brett was probably, and I think most umpires would tell you this, one of the best players to umpires that there’s been in the game,” he said. “George was always joking, always having fun.” He was a gentleman every other time they met, but he was truly angry at this petty ruling. McClelland was ever after “The Pine Tar Umpire.” Martin also lost the Yankee advantage they had once enjoyed over the Royals. It made them all the more competitive every time they met.

There is no question that Billy Martin was playing psychological games in calling our Brett with this obscure and truly arcane rule. Even so, in part through the crucible of the Pine Tar Incident, Brett emerged in 1984 to lead the Royals to their first division title since 1980. They did not advance in that post-season but they did the next year. This set the stage for the 1985 world championship season in which the Royals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in what has come to be known as the “I-70 Series.”

A great video of the incident, along with interviews with Brett and others involved, may be found here.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Scientific Exploration of Mars”


scientific exploration of MarsThe Scientific Exploration of Mars. By Frederic W. Taylor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010. V + 348 pages. Prologue, acknowledgments, notes, illustrations, appendices, index. ISBN: 978-0-521-82956-4. $45, hardcover.

Mars has long held a special fascination for humans who pondered the planets of the solar system—partly because of the possibility that life might either presently exist there or at some time in the past it might have existed ­there. Astronomer Percival Lowell became interested in Mars during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and he built what became the Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona, to study the planet. He argued that Mars had once been a watery planet and that the topographical features known as canals had been built by intelligent beings, created as a planetary-wide effort to bring precious water from the poles to inhabited parts of Mars nearer the equator. The idea of intelligent life on Mars remained in the pop­u­lar imagination for a long time, and not until the scientific data returned from probes to the planet beginning in the mid-1960s did this begin to change.

But near the dawn of the new millennium this began to change as probe after probe peeled back the mysteries of Mars. NASA’s official strategy, “Follow the Water,” yielded enormously significant results. Since then satellite have imaged gullies on Martian cliffs and crater walls, suggesting that liquid water has seeped onto the surface in the geologically recent past. This was confirmed by Mars Odyssey 2001, a recent NASA orbiter, which found that hydrogen-rich regions are located in areas known to be very cold and where ice should be stable. This relationship between high hydrogen content with regions of predicted ice stability led scientists to conclude that the hydrogen is, in fact, in the form of ice. The ice-rich layer may be about two feet beneath the surface at 60 degrees south latitude, and gets to within about one foot of the surface at 75 degrees south latitude. Only time and more research will tell if these findings will prove out. If they do, then human opportunities for colonization of Mars expand exponentially. With water, either in its liquid or solid form, humans can make many other necessary compounds necessary to live and work on Mars.

The Scientific Exploration of Mars by Frederic W. Taylor is a welcome addition to the literature on the Red Planet. It is part history, part statement of the scientific balance sheet, and part personal memoir of the place of Mars in modern science by a well-respected space scientist. Taylor provides a sophisticated, but accessible account of what we know about the red planet, along with some discussion of how we know it. He also offers insight on occasion into how some of this science was accomplished. He is at his best in descriptions of the origin and evolution of the planet, the nature of its changing climate; the nature of the volcanism, impacts, and water; and the search for life.

Where this book fails is concerning the history of Mars exploration. Frederic Taylor is a fine scientist but a poor historian. The basic chronology is correct, B follows A and the like; the core questions of why and so what are elusive. This is very much history written by a non-historian. One will look long and hard for human actors in this story. Discussions of planning, politics, budgets, decision-making, setbacks, personalities, and coups are conspicuous for their absence.

One example of this problem in reciting this history will suffice. In 1967 the space science community learned a hard lesson concerning planetary science when because of political infighting it lost a Mars lander. In that instance, based on recommendations from planetary scientists, NASA’s Office of Space Science had formulated a $2 billion program (in 1960s dollars) to search for life on Mars known at that time as Voyager (not to be confused with Voyagers 1 and 2 that went to the outer planets a decade later). At the same time Homer Newell, leading the NASA science program, canceled plans for missions to other planets to make possible this expensive Mars mission. While a few scientists supported the Voyager mission, many thought it too risky and expensive. A public dispute spilled into the Capitol before the general public.

In the fall of 1967, frustrated by the Congressional action and irritated at this strife, NASA Administrator James E. Webb stopped all work on new planetary missions until the scientists could agree on a planetary program. Thereafter, the scientific community went to work hammered out a mutually acceptable planetary program for the 1970s. Retrenched and restructured, a program emerged that led to a succession of stunning missions throughout the 1970s, even as budgetary pressures and reduced political support remained.

The scientific community learned a hard lesson about the pragmatic, and sometimes brutal, politics associated with the execution of “Big Science” under the suzerainty of the federal government. Most important, it realized that strife within the discipline had to be kept within the discipline in order to put forward a united front against the priorities of other interest groups and other government leaders. While imposing support from the scientific community could not guarantee that any initiative would become a political reality, without it a program could not be funded. It also learned that while a $750 million program found little opposition at any level, a $2 billion project crossed an ill-defined but very real threshold triggering intense competition for those dollars. Having learned these lessons, as well as some more subtle ones, the space science community regrouped and went forward in the latter part of the 1960s with a trimmed-down Mars lander program, called Viking, which was funded and provided astounding scientific data in the mid-1970s.

I have just told you more about the Voyager program, a turning point in both the planetary science program in the United States and the efforts to understanding the red planet, than is contained in Taylor’s study. His discussion is confined to a single paragraph, with not one whiff of the political controversy surrounding it. The Scientific Exploration of Mars views history as an ever upward and outward march of progress.

We see this same approach in other episodes in this book, not the least of which is Taylor’s discussion in the last section of a possible human exploration of Mars in the near future. There are discussions of planning exercises and the like, but no effort to answer the core question, why a human expedition to Mars or a closely related one, why should the public expend precious treasure on such an expedition? Here, Taylor might have pondered such questions as the nature of the human/robot debate in space exploration, as well as any number of others that are germane to the issue of human expeditions to Mars. Instead, he falls back on clichéd phraseology extolling the virtues of such an exploration, and the sometime zany ideas of Robert Zubrin as offered in The Case for Mars (1996).

As a work of Mars planetology written for a general audience this book is quite satisfactory. As a work of history it is sadly lacking.

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Recalling the First Vikings on Mars


This first panoramic view by Viking 1 from the surface of Mars in 1976 depicts an out of focus spacecraft component toward left center is the housing for the Viking sample arm, which is not yet deployed. Parallel lines in the sky are an artifact and are not real features. However, the change of brightness from horizon towards zenith and towards the right (west) is accurately reflected in this picture, taken in late Martian afternoon. At the horizon to the left is a plateau-like prominence much brighter than the foreground material between the rocks. The horizon features are approximately three kilometers (1.8 miles) away. At left is a collection of fine-grained material reminiscent of sand dunes. The dark sinuous markings in left foreground are of unknown origin. Some unidentified shapes can be perceived on the hilly eminence at the horizon towards the right. A horizontal cloud stratum can be made out halfway from the horizon to the top of the picture. At left is seen the low gain antenna for receipt of commands from the Earth. The projections on or near the horizon may represent the rims distant impact craters. In right foreground are color charts for Lander camera calibration, a mirror for the Viking magnetic properties experiment and part of a grid on the top of the Lander body. At upper right is the high gain dish antenna for direct communication between landed spacecraft and Earth.

This first panoramic view by Viking 1 from the surface of Mars in 1976 depicts an out of focus spacecraft component toward left center is the housing for the Viking sample arm, which is not yet deployed. Parallel lines in the sky are an artifact and are not real features. However, the change of brightness from horizon towards zenith and towards the right (west) is accurately reflected in this picture, taken in late Martian afternoon. At the horizon to the left is a plateau-like prominence much brighter than the foreground material between the rocks. The horizon features are approximately three kilometers (1.8 miles) away. At left is a collection of fine-grained material reminiscent of sand dunes. The dark sinuous markings in left foreground are of unknown origin. Some unidentified shapes can be perceived on the hilly eminence at the horizon towards the right. A horizontal cloud stratum can be made out halfway from the horizon to the top of the picture. At left is seen the low gain antenna for receipt of commands from the Earth. The projections on or near the horizon may represent the rims distant impact craters. In right foreground are color charts for Lander camera calibration, a mirror for the Viking magnetic properties experiment and part of a grid on the top of the Lander body. At upper right is the high gain dish antenna for direct communication between landed spacecraft and Earth.

The 20th of July marked the 39th anniversary of Viking 1’s touch down on Mars after a voyage of nearly one year, followed within a two months by Viking 2. The landings represented the culmination of a series of missions to explore the planet Mars that had begun in 1964 with Mariner 4, and continued with the Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 flybys in 1969 and the Mariner 9 orbital mission in 1971 and 1972.

After failing to obtain approval for a more ambitious and expensive program to explore Mars in the late 1960s, NASA came forward with a somewhat more modest $1 billion budget for the Viking expedition to the Red Planet. This purchased tandem spacecraft designed to orbit Mars and to land and operate on the planet’s surface. Two identical spacecraft, each consisting of a lander and an orbiter, were built. Launched on 20 August 1975 from the Kennedy Space Center, Viking 1 spent nearly a year cruising to Mars, placed an orbiter in operation around the planet, and landed on 20 July 1976 on the Chryse Planitia (Golden Plains). Viking 2 was launched on 9 September 1975 and landed on 3 September 1976.

The Viking project’s primary mission ended on 15 November 1976, 11 days before Mars’ superior conjunction (its passage behind the Sun), although the Viking spacecraft continued to operate for six years after first reaching Mars. Its last transmission reached Earth on 11 November 1982.  Controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tried unsuccessfully for another six and one‑half months to regain contact with the lander, but finally closed down the overall mission on 21 May 1983.

With a single exception‑‑the seismic instruments‑‑the scientific return from the expedition was spectacular. Unfortunately, the seismometer on Viking 1 did not work after landing, and the seismometer on Viking 2 detected only one event that may have been seismic. On the other hand, the two landers continuously monitored weather at the landing sites and found both exciting cyclical variations and an exceptionally harsh climate. Atmospheric temperatures at the more southern Viking 1 landing site, for instance, were only as high as +7 degrees Fahrenheit at midday, but the predawn summer temperature was ‑107 degree Fahrenheit.  And the lowest predawn temperature was ‑184 degrees Fahrenheit, about the frost point of carbon dioxide.  The project also observed the Martian winds, finding that they generally blew more slowly than expected.

The Viking Lander.

The Viking Lander.

One of the important scientific activities of this project was the attempt to determine whether there was life on Mars, since the planet had long been thought of as having sufficient similarity to the Earth that life might exist there. While the three biology experiments discovered unexpected and enigmatic chemical activity in the Martian soil, they provided no clear evidence for the presence of living microorganisms in soil near the landing sites. According to mission biologists, Mars was self‑sterilizing. They concluded that the combination of solar ultraviolet radiation that saturates the surface, the extreme dryness of the soil, and the oxidizing nature of the soil chemistry had prevented the formation of living organisms in the Martian soil. The question of life on Mars at some time in the distant past, however, remains open.

Although the three biology experiments discovered unexpected and enigmatic chemical activity in the Martian soil, they provided no clear evidence for the presence of living microorganisms in soil near the landing sites. According to mission biologists, Mars was self‑sterilizing. They concluded that the combination of solar ultraviolet radiation that saturates the surface, the extreme dryness of the soil, and the oxidizing nature of the soil chemistry had prevented the formation of living organisms in the Martian soil. The uncertainty of the conclusions from Viking haunted the program’s chief scientist, Gerald Soffen ever after. He was known to second guess his judgment; perhaps he should have installed a microscope on the lander. But, he also believed he did the best he could. “I think what we did was ahead of our time. We were young enough not to know that it couldn’t be done,” Soffen recalled.

The failure to find evidence of life on Mars devastated the optimism present for exploration of the red planet. JPL director Bruce Murray believed that the failure to detect life, despite the billions spent and a succession of overoptimistic statements, would spark public disappointment and perhaps a public outrage. Murray was right. The immediate result was that NASA did not return to Mars for two decades. As Soffen commented in 1992: “If somebody back then had given me 100 to 1 odds that we wouldn’t go back to Mars for 17 years, I would’ve said, ‘You’re crazy’.”

 

For more information on the Viking project to Mars see:  Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell, On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet, 1958‑1978 (Washington, DC: NASA SP‑4212, 1984).  The Viking homepage on the World Wide Web also has significant information and images from the project.  The URL is: http://stardust.jpl.nasa.gov/planets/welcome/viking.htm

 

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Forty Years Since the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project


Artist's concept of Apollo-Soyuz, 1975.

Artist’s concept of Apollo-Soyuz, 1975.

Forty years ago a great adventure took place. It was one that changed the course of history. In the middle of a forty-year the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union the heads of the two rival states agreed to undertake the first international human space flight in history. Symbolizing the deténte between the United States and the Soviet Union during the mid-1970s, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) specifically tested the compatibility of rendezvous and docking systems for American and Soviet spacecraft.

In essence, ASTP opened the way for international space rescue as well as future joint human flights. To carry out this mission existing American Apollo and Soviet Soyuz spacecraft were used. The Apollo spacecraft was nearly identical to the one that orbited the Moon and later carried astronauts to Skylab, while the Soyuz craft was the primary Soviet vehicle used for cosmonaut flight since its introduction in 1967. A universal docking module was designed and constructed by NASA to serve as an airlock and transfer corridor between the two craft.

U.S. commander Thomas Stafford and docking module pilot Deke Slayton participate in a toast to a successful docking. The tubes have the labels of famous Russian vodka brands, but actually contained borscht, a beet soup.

U.S. commander Thomas Stafford and docking module pilot Deke Slayton participate in a toast to a successful docking. The tubes have the labels of famous Russian vodka brands, but actually contained borscht, a beet soup.

The actual flight took place between 15 and 24 July 1975 when astronauts Thomas P. Stafford (1930- ), Vance D. Brand (1931- ), and Donald K. Slayton took off from Kennedy Space Center to meet the already orbiting Soyuz spacecraft. Some 45 hours later the two craft rendezvoused and docked, and then Apollo and Soyuz crews conducted a variety of experiments over a two‑day period.

After separation, the Apollo vehicle remained in space an additional six days while Soyuz returned to Earth approximately 43 hours after separation. The flight was more a symbol of the lessening of tensions between the two superpowers than a significant scientific endeavor, taking 180 degrees the competition for international prestige that had fueled much of the space activities of both nations since the late 1950s. It was the beginning of possibilities for cooperative efforts in the post-Cold War era between the U.S. and Russia.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Great Warming”


Great WarmingThe Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. By Brian Fagan. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008.

Is there anyone who is not familiar with the concept of global warming? Or, if one wants to use a less politically charged term, climate change? Anthropologist Brian Fagan, who has made a career out of bringing strong scholarship about the human past to the general public, takes up the challenge of explaining to a mass audience what was identified among historians as the medieval warming period lasting between about 800 and 1300 C.E.

During that period Europe enjoyed some of its greatest success, allowed by the production of much larger harvests than ever known before. Those surpluses fostered a much greater diversity of population—not everyone had to be a subsistence farmer any longer—it allowed for the development of cities, the creation of more stable kingdoms, and the funding of great public works projects. In that last category I could point to such cathedrals as that in Chartres.

Not every part of the world enjoyed such a warm period. Global warming may be the term we tend to use, but while the global climate did change not all of it was about warming. In many other parts of the world there were changing water and air currents that proved detrimental to the civilizations living there.

Drought led to crop failures, which led to malnutrition, which led to mass migrations and wars of survival. The Native American civilization in the American Southwest essentially collapsed, so did the Mayan empire. The reality of climate change effected every aspect of human actions around the globes, some for the positive as in Europe, but as often as not in a detrimental manner.

Fagan progresses civilization by civilization to catalog the nature of the changes. He never stops emphasizing the droughts that transformed, or destroyed, so many of these cultures. He also links this to current global climate change. Yes, we are seeing warming in many critical areas, but this is not uniform. What we are seeing mostly, however, is what was also recorded during the medieval warming period, considerable drought and wide fluctuations in temperature as well as more violent weather patterns than previously the norm.

With a global population so large, and the prospect of sustained global warming, Fagan believes that we are in for drastic consequences of climate change in the twenty-first century, especially among the 2.8 billion humans who live in areas where we are already seeing pressure on the water system.

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“New Horizons” Reaches Pluto


Artist's conception of "New Horizons at Pluto.

Artist’s conception of “New Horizons at Pluto.

The “New Horizons” spacecraft is a major NASA program to complete the initial exploration of all of the major bodies of the solar system. It was designed to help understand worlds at the edge of our Solar System by making the first reconnaissance of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the last major section in our solar system to be visited by spacecraft. It arrives at its closet approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, “Bastille Day.” Is that a significant happenstance? Will it signal a major transformation in the same what the storming of the Bastille did for France?

Since no planetary spacecraft had been sent to Pluto or the Kuiper Belt, “New Horizons” was launched aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, Florida, on January 19, 2006, and conducted a Jupiter flyby 13 months later to gain further acceleration.

The half-ton spacecraft contains scientific instruments to map the surface geology and composition of Pluto and its three moons, investigate Pluto’s atmosphere, measure the solar wind, and assess interplanetary dust and other particles. After it passes Pluto, controllers plan to fly the spacecraft by one or two Kuiper Belt objects. New Horizons carries several souvenirs from Earth, including some of the remains of Clyde Tombaugh (1906–1997), discoverer of Pluto.

Then, as part of an extended mission, “New Horizons” should visit one or more objects in the Kuiper Belt region beyond Neptune.

Artist’s impression of how the surface of Pluto might look. The image shows patches of pure methane on the surface. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Artist’s impression of how the surface of Pluto might look. The image shows patches of pure methane on the surface. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

The Kuiper Belt, named astronomer Gerard Kuiper who theorized its existence, was not confirmed until the 1992 detection of a 150-mile wide body, called 1992QB1 located at the distance of the suspected belt. Several similar-sized objects were discovered thereafter, confirming that the belt of icy objects Kuiper has predicted did indeed exist. The planet Pluto, discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, is only the largest member of the Kuiper Belt. Moreover, Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, is half the size of Pluto and the two form a binary planet, whose gravitational balance point is between the two bodies. Other named objects soon joined Pluto, including 1992 QB1, Orcus, Quaoar, Ixion, 90377 Sedna, and Varuna.

The New Horizons timeline.

The New Horizons timeline.

The discovery of these many objects, nearly as large as Pluto and occupying the inthe outer solar system, led the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006 to redisignate Pluto from a planet—there would henceforth be eight of them in the Solar System—and call it by the new designation of “dwarf planets.” The first members of the “dwarf planet” category were Ceres, Pluto, and 2003 UB313. IAU members deliberated on this long and hard before reaching a definition of planets that included the following criteria: (a) it is in orbit around the Sun, (b) it has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) it has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

Its members also specifically commented that “dwarf planet” status of Pluto would hereafter be recognized as a critical prototype of this new class of trans-Neptunian objects. While this decision remains controversial, it represents an important recent step in understanding the origins and evolution of the solar system.

A protest of Pluto's demotion soon after the 2008 IAU decision.

A protest of Pluto’s demotion soon after the 2008 IAU decision.

By that time, of course, “New Horizons” was on its way to Pluto. Controversy remains on this “demotion,” and “New Horizons” lead scientist Alan Stern has been vocal in his criticism of the IAU’s decision.

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Recalling the Voyages of the Space Shuttle Endeavour


Space Shuttle Endeavour on launch pad 39A prior to mission STS-127, May 31, 2009.

Space Shuttle Endeavour on launch pad 39A prior to mission STS-127, May 31, 2009.

The quest for a reusable spaceplane extends far back into the 1920s, but it only found realization with the inaugural flights of the Space Shuttle in the early 1980s. NASA initially built four spaceworthy orbiters—Columbia (OV-102), Challenger (OV‑099), Discovery (OV‑103), and Atlantis (OV‑104)—and named them for famous ships of exploration and scientific discovery. After the loss of Challenger on January 28, 1986, NASA built the replacement orbiter Endeavour (OV-105), the namesake of Captain James Cook’s HMS Endeavour of his first voyage between 1768 and 1771. Constructed beginning in 1987, Endeavour flew the first of its 26 space missions in May 1992 (STS-49) and closed its career with its last mission in May 2011 (STS-134).

Two missions stand out in Endeavour’s history. First, this shuttle proved exceptional in the hands of the STS-61 crew that performed the first servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).  Deployed in orbit by another shuttle in 1990, the HST had a “spherical aberration” that resulted in a hazy ring, or halo, that degraded the imagery. At first many believed that the spherical aberration would cripple the 43-foot-long telescope, and NASA received considerable negative publicity. Because of the difficulties with the mirror of the HST, in December 1993 NASA launched the shuttle Endeavour on a repair mission to insert corrective equipment into the telescope and to ser­vice other instruments.

No flights demonstrate the flexibility of the Space Shuttle more effectively than this servicing mission, the first of five such efforts on behalf of the HST. During a weeklong mission, Endeavour’s astronauts conducted a record five spacewalks and successfully completed all programmed repairs to the spacecraft. The first reports from the newly repaired HST indicated that the images being returned now ­were more than an order of magnitude (10 times) greater than those obtained before.

Because of the servicing mission, the HST dominated space science activities throughout the next several years. The results from Hubble touched on some of the most fundamental astronomical questions of the twentieth century, including the existence of black holes and the age of the uni­ver­se. Highlights of the Hubble Space Telescope results after this first servicing included, as stated in Space Times in 1995:

Compelling evidence for a massive black hole in the center of a giant elliptical galaxy located 50 million light years away. This observation provided very strong support for predictions made 80 years ago in Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Observations of great pancake-shaped disks of dust, raw material for planet formation, swirling around at least half of the stars in the Orion Nebula, the strongest proof yet that the pro­cess which may form planets is common in the universe. Confirmation of a critical prediction of the Big Bang theory, that the chemical element helium should be widespread in the early universe. The detection of this helium by HST may mark the discovery of a tenuous plasma that fills the vast volumes of space between the galaxies, the long-sought intergalactic medium. In October 1994, astronomers announced measurements that showed the uni­verse to be between 8 and 12 billion years old, far younger than previous estimates of up to 20 billion years. These measurements were the first step in a three-year systematic program to mea­sure accurately the scale, size and age of the universe.

These discoveries continued thereafter.

Second, a stunning science experiment occurred with the flight of the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM). This flight on Endeavour in 2000 obtained elevation data on a near-global scale to generate the most complete high-resolution digital topographic data ever created. It consisted of a specially modified radar system that flew during an 11-day shuttle mission. Virtually the entire land surface between +/- 60 degrees latitude was mapped by SRTM and it has been an enormously significant data set for land use scientists.

Then there is the building of the International Space Station (ISS). Without the Space Shuttle program the ISS could never have been completed. The Space Shuttle and two types of Russian launch vehicles launched a total of 36 missions to assemble the station. Of those, twelve were flown by Endeavour, the first in late 1998 when Endeavour’s crew rendezvoused with the already orbiting Russian Zarya module and attached it to the American Unity module on December 6, 1998. When the Space Shuttle left, Unity and Zarya were in an orbit 250 miles above Earth monitored continuously by flight controllers in Houston and Moscow. The last ISS assembly mission by Endeavour was its final mission, STS-134 in May 2011, delivering the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier (ELC-3) to the space station.

From first flight to the present the Space Shuttle was always an important symbol of the United States’ technological capability, universally recognized as such by both the American people and the larger international community. Endeavour, as well as the other orbiters, was one of the most highly visible symbols of American technological capability worldwide.

Space Shuttle Endeavour over Houston.

Space Shuttle Endeavour over Houston.

Even critics of the program, such as journalist Greg Easterbrook acknowledge this. As he wrote in Time in 2003: it “is a metaphor of national inspiration: majestic, technologically advanced, produced at dear cost and entrusted with precious cargo, rising above the constraints of the earth. The spacecraft carries our secret hope that there is something better out there—a world where we may someday go and leave the sorrows of the past behind. The spacecraft rises toward the heavens exactly as, in our finest moments as a nation, our hearts have risen toward justice and principle.”

The Space Shuttle Endeavour’s last flight took place in September 2012 when NASA delivered it to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). It then made a slow trip through the streets of the city to its final resting place, the California Science Center in Exposition Park, arriving there on October 14, 2012. It is currently on display, but the California Science Center has bigger plans for it. Eventually it will be stacked with the external tank and the solid rocket boosters as if ready for launch.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Socialcide®”


SocialcideSocialcide®: How America Is Loving Itself to Death (A Psychospiritual Exploration). By Leo J. Battenhausen. Suwanee, GA: Faith Books and MORE, 2014.

Leo J. Battenhausen, a social worker and counselor, has written a thought-provoking book on the current state of American culture. He offers in the intriguingly named “Socialcide®: How America Is Loving Itself to Death”—a title I wish I had thought of—a diagnosis of an overriding narcissistic and sociopathic trend present in modern society. The need for constant external validation and everyone being celebrated as a winner, the search for unending economic wealth, and a rising sense of spiritual bankruptcy are all part of the problem. In essence, Battenhausen believes there is a long-term social disintegration underway in America.

Some of Battenhausen’s arguments sound a bit like grousing from a curmudgeon. Taken in its best light, however, it reminds me of Roman moralists such as Sallust, Livy, and Cicero calling for a return to ancient Roman virtues. At its worst it reminded me of Andy Rooney on “60 Minutes” and his always grating and sometimes silly grumbling about life in modern America. Always, I detected a strong sense of deep concern about the trajectory of the United States as it hurtles into the twenty-first century.

At some level, Battenhausen is following in the footsteps of other critics of American society. Daniel Bell’s “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” (1976), Robert Bellah’s “The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time or Trial” (1975); and Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism” (1979), anticipated by a generation the current ills Battenhausen discusses in Socialcide®.

Battenhausen’s prescription for reform involves a return to spirituality. He claims there is a fine line between psychology and theology. Both aim to enhance the human condition, or at least the understanding of that condition. He finds that a traditional team of “mother, father, preacher, teacher was a solid interdependent social device that covered all bases in child development—an invaluable, fail-safe way too help children become good, solid people. Today, it is clear that system has fallen by the wayside as much more deviant, defiant, and destructive behaviors have been coming from today’s youth” (p. 464). Battenhausen argues for an embracing of God, spirituality, and a “returning to what is right” (p. 465). Is he right?

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