Re-Direct: “She Don’t Like Firefly”

Great video here. A statement of Mikey Mason’s declaration of Browncoat Loyalty. It is pretty funny. And totally understandable. How can anyone not be a “Firefly” fan. Certainly grounds for breaking up! Enjoy.

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Is There a Sacred Santa?

The Capitol Christmas Tree in 2004.

With the holiday season upon us—I put up Christmas lights, a tree, etc., last weekend—it is appropriate to reconsider this annual ritual and why we do it. Before the twentieth century Christmas was a significant holiday on the Christian calendar but it was not one in which the extravagance of decoration, “gifting,” and the like dominated.

So how did Christmas become such a significant commercial activity in the twentieth century? It may be that at a fundamental level the holiday is a construction of twentieth century consumer culture. That is the argument of Dell Dechant in an interesting book published by Pilgrim Press in 2002, The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture. It makes the case that the new religion of America is consumerism and that it is most effectively practiced in the holiday season at the end of each year. The book asserts that American society has raised the practice of consumerism to a religious ritual.

At a fundamental level this analysis challenges the dominant narrative in American religious studies, that modern society is becoming less overtly religious and more secular in orientation. The rise of conservative religions and evangelical Christianity, as well as this raising of consumerism to sacred status, are therefore reactions against this trend.

The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture

No question, mainstream religion is less central to the lives of many people, but the pervasive power of the holiday ritual of gift giving and receiving and its folkways are a form of religious observation as well. By suggesting that consumerism has become the modern American religion we may expand the discussion of the subject in the same way that others have suggested that there is an American civil religion built around reverence for the nation’s Founding Fathers, the celebration of democracy and republicanism, and the veneration of iconic spaces and symbols. Delchant finds similar elements in modern consumerism.

This is a provocative idea, suggestive of many other avenues of investigation of American religious life.

An interesting question, if consumerism is the dominant religion of modern America what happens when society become unable to sustain the level of consumerism currently practiced? All signs point to fundamental shifts in the place of the United States as the leader of the world in standard of living, etc., and two or three generations from now—unless something changes—the manner in which Americans live their lives will be quite different. In such an environment does consumerism evolve to remain a major part of society or is it replaced with something else or is there a crisis of faith? I could go on and on. What do you think?

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

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

The 1846-1848 Mexican-American War may be interpreted as a bald-faced adventure in conquest; it may also be interpreted as an unfolding of “Manifest Destiny” in which the U.S. is bringing the “blessings of liberty” to the benighted peoples of the American Southwest. There are a range of interpretations in between and beyond these two poles.

This short general history emphasizes the racism of American invaders over the Mexican people and the imperialism that the author believes motivated the war. Ernesto Chavez, a professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso, offers a brief introduction that ranges widely in time and space to fashion a narrative that suggests the racist tendencies in American society as predominant in this war.

One example of this is in the discussion of the manner in which the Polk administration dealt with the British in negotiating the Oregon boundary at 49 degrees latitude when the president had campaign on the slogan 54’ 40” or fight. They didn’t fight and ended up compromising. Not so with Mexico; the U.S. went to war and conquered that nation. It imposed its own settlement annexing what is now the American Southwest, including parts of California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico. Chavez insists that this was because of the U.S.’s “racialized outlook” (p. 15).

I would never conclude that the U.S. in not a racist nation, clearly it is, but fighting Mexico is quite a lot different than fighting the greatest empire on Earth at the time. It would be an easy decision in 1846 not to fight a two front war, and to negotiate a settlement with the stronger of the two antagonists regardless of a racialized outlook. I’m not sure I would assign racism as the fundamental reason for these divergent ways of dealing with Great Britain and Mexico. Moreover, the U.S. had already gone to war twice since 1776, so it’s not like the two nations’ Anglo heritage kept them from fighting.

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

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How Might We Preserve the History of the Lunar Landing Research Facility?

The Lunar Landing Research Facility in 1974 when it was being used for aircraft drop tests.

The Lunar Landing Research Facility in 1974 when it was being used for aircraft drop tests.

How might we preserve the history of the Lunar Landing Research Facility (LLRF)? It is a germane question. Located at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the LLRF was built in 1965 at a cost of $3.5 million. It was a large 400 feet by 230 feet A-frame structure where a lunar landing training simulator allowed astronauts to practice landings in a simulated one-sixth gravity of the lunar surface. It was an impressive site on the horizon near Hampton where it could be seen from a far-off distance. It also served as a Moon-walking simulator for Apollo astronauts by suspending the subject at his side so that he was free to generate walking movements on a plane inclined at 80.5 degrees.

After ending the Apollo program, NASA maintained the LLRF and it was designated a National Historic Landmark on October 3, 1985, in no small measure because:

Experiences gained by the Apollo astronauts on the Lunar Landing Research Facility indicated that it was possible to successfully master the complicated skills that were required to land the LEM on the Moon. Both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trained there for many hours. Only when they successfully mastered skills necessary to fly the LEM would NASA approve plans for their historic first landing on the Moon in July 1969.

Because of this, the Lunar Landing Research Facility was an indispensable tool that enabled NASA to land a man on the Moon by July 1969.

Furthermore, NASA cast the history of the LLRF as critical to the Apollo effort. As it stated concerning the National Historic Landmark in its fact sheet on Langley Research Center’s contributions to the Apollo program:

Langley’s Lunar Landing Research Facility, completed in 1965, helped to prepare the Apollo astronauts for the final 150 feet of their lunar landing mission by simulating both the lunar gravity environment and full-scale LEM vehicle dynamics. The builders of this unique facility effectively canceled all but one-sixth of Earth’s gravitational force by using an overhead partial-suspension system that provided a lifting force by means of cables acting through the LEM’s center of gravity.

Twenty-four astronauts practiced lunar landings at this facility, the base of which was modeled with fill dirt to resemble the surface of the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trained on it for many hours before liftoff of Apollo 11. As was the case with all space missions, the successful landings of the first two men on the moon depended heavily on expert training in ground equipment like Langley’s Rendezvous Docking Simulator and Lunar Landing Research Facility.

With a sense of pride in the role this site played in one of humanity’s greatest adventures—perhaps its greatest—NASA nonetheless was unwilling to ensure funding necessary for preservation of this site into for future.

All of this reached a crisis point in the mid-1980s when NASA made clear to the National Park Service that it had no funds available for upkeep of sites ancillary to the mission of the agency despite their historical significance. By that time the crash test program had ended and preservation of a large open air historic site presented numerous challenges for NASA.

The spaceflight revolution captivated many in the news media; including then CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. During a 1968 visit to Langley, the adventurous Cronkite tried out the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator - a series of cable-supported slings hanging from the Lunar Landing Research Facility designed to approximate lunar locomotion. At this ingenious facility, astronauts practiced what it would be like to walk on the moon.

The spaceflight revolution captivated many in the news media; including then CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. During a 1968 visit to Langley, the adventurous Cronkite tried out the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator – a series of cable-supported slings hanging from the Lunar Landing Research Facility designed to approximate lunar locomotion. At this ingenious facility, astronauts practiced what it would be like to walk on the moon.

NASA had long tried to gain an exemption from the requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 for proper preservation of designated historic site either on the National Register or Historic Places or one of the select few National Historic Landmarks. Several of NASA’s sites, including the LLRF, were in the latter category. It has always been a challenge to balance historic preservation with reuse of facilities, but NASA began a campaign in the early 1980s to enjoy the benefits of recognition without the requirements of maintaining facilities in line with the law. A “man-in-space” theme study has identified several sites for preservation; for each NASA tried to delay designation. During deliberations of designation of many of them in 1986, NASA’s associate administrator for management stated:

This Agency has a dynamic research and development mission which requires that we make maximum use of limited Federal government resources. To do so, we are constantly modifying, rehabilitating, reconfiguring, adjusting, and altering our facilities to meet now program requirements…in the interest of minimizing Federal expenditures for facilities, we plan to continue to change these facilities as needed to meet future programs.

This correspondence did not result in the desired exemption and NASA made other entreaties to both the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior. On October 2, 1987, NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher told Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel, “NASA simply cannot afford to become entangled in time consuming protracted negotiations over the status of planned changes in operational facilities which are absolutely crucial to the Nation’s continuing aeronautics and space research, technology, and exploration missions.…Accordingly, I have no choice but to request that you take action to dedesignate the facilities (NASA NHLs) described in Enclosure 1 as historic landmarks.” No action resulted and NASA made the same request in 1989, again with no resolution.

Prevailing on Rep. Robert Walker (R-PA), the ranking minority member on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, in 1989 NASA pursued a legislative waiver in the agency’s fiscal year 1990 authorization bill to exempt its National Historic Landmarks from provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The preservation community responded by persuading Congress to delete this language from the NASA appropriations bill but it did not resolve the issue. Other scientific organizations, especially the National Science Foundation, have also weighed in to obtain waivers from the legislation governing managing of designated historic sites. As Harry Butowsky of the National Park Service suggested in 1990:

The question that the listing of technological facilities in the National Register of Historic Places has raised is the general perception among members of the scientific community who fear that such a move would severely limit their ability to upgrade or modify their facilities. While the National Park Service continues to believe that the designation of properties as National Historic Landmarks and their listing in the National Register of Historic Places are compatible with their continuing function as scientific resources, members of the scientific community have expressed their concerns. During the next few months all of the interested parties must see if an agreement is possible that will satisfy the concerns of the National Science Foundation and the owners of the observatories so that both the historical significance of these properties can be recognized and important scientific research can continue as in the past.[viii]

The matter did not rest long like this. In 1990 Congress asked for an analysis of what should be done to reach some accommodation and the result was joint study of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to come up with a set of measures that presumably all could endorse. Instead, the recommendations of this group pushed back on the position of NASA’s leadership.

Neil Armstrong at Lunar Landing Research Facility, Feb. 12, 1969.

Neil Armstrong at Lunar Landing Research Facility, Feb. 12, 1969.

The Advisory Council turned the NASA position on its head: “Given the late-20th-century’s pattern of rapid technological change, however, the protection of the physical environment that facilitated that change takes on increased importance. Federal agencies managing or assisting scientific research have a leadership role in the stewardship of historic properties under NHPA. They are obligated to present and future generations, whose tax dollars will continue to fund their operations, to consider the effects of their actions on the historic values embodied in select facilities.” Its recommendations are quoted below:

The assumption that the NHPA is fine for the majority of Federal activities, but inappropriate for scientific research and development must be rejected. Other Federal programs meeting national priorities must take into account historic preservation, just as they must minimize natural environmental degradation and ensure equal employment opportunity. There is validity, however, to the view that because of the nature of the scientific research process, a special effort should be made toward maintaining flexibility in the planning and execution of research work and meeting the time constraints of priority programs….

With better communication, education, and cooperation among all parties, and with some clear understandings on funding and time constraints facing all parties, the Council’s regulations and the Section 106 review process are flexible enough to accommodate the needs of both scientific research and technology operations and historic preservation.

This did not end the dispute. Since that time NASA officials have been hesitant to maintain the LLRF indefinitely. But there also is no stomach for destruction of the site.

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Katherine Stinson and the Early Age of Flight

Katherine Stinson, as a nineteen year-old, preparing for a flight from Buffalo to Washington, D.C., in connection with the American Red Cross week.

Katherine Stinson preparing for a flight from Buffalo to Washington, D.C., in connection with the American Red Cross week.

Katherine Stinson (1891-1977) is not exactly a household name, but there was a time when she was the face of women in aviation in America. An early enthusiast of aviation, Katherine Stinson learned to fly from pioneering flyer Max Lillie at Cicero Field near Chicago, obtaining the fourth pilot’s license issued to a woman on Jul. 19, 1912. Her younger siblings—Marjorie, who would later run a flying school, Eddie, who would found the Stinson Aviation Company, and Jack, who would become an aircraft technician—followed her aviation dreams and also achieved fame in the profession.

Before anyone had ever heard of Amelia Earhart, Stinson had begun to make a name for herself as an aviator; in 1913 she began appearing in airshows throughout the United States. Billed as the “flying schoolgirl,” she excited the public with her exploits. Pretty, petite, and frail-looking, Stinson emphasized her femininity while participating in a heavily male profession. “I weigh only about 101 pounds,” she said. “I’m very particular about that one pound.” Because of her size most Americans had difficulty believing that Stinson could control an aircraft. Her obvious success as a pilot brought her great popularity.

Stinson’s aeronautical exhibitions led to her establishing several aviation records. She was the first woman to carry the U.S. mail, making a flight at Helena, Montana, on September 23-27, 1913. Stinson also claimed this distinction for Canada by flying the mail from Calgary to Edmonton on July 9, 1918. She was the first woman to perform an aerial loop-the-loop, in Chicago on July 18, 1915, a feat that she repeated many times thereafter. She was also the first woman to sky-write, using fireworks for the purpose in Los Angeles on December 17, 1915.

In December 1916 Stinson traveled with an entourage to Asia for an exhibition tour. She was a great hit in Japan, where her first appearance at Tokyo’s Aoyama Parade Ground in January 1917 drew 25,000 people. The Japanese were, of course, thrilled by her aerobatic flying, but her small size and the fact that she was a woman doing these things in a severely gender-restricted society caused much of the excitement.

Katherine Stinson preparing biplane for take-off. Photograph by William Trefts; Jr, ca. 1913. Missouri History Museum Photograph and Print Collection. William Trefts Collection. Image Number: 29734

Katherine Stinson preparing biplane for take-off. Photograph by William Trefts; Jr, ca. 1913.
Missouri History Museum Photograph and Print Collection. William Trefts Collection.
Image Number: 29734

She wrote at the time, “The women have simply overwhelmed me with attention and seem to regard me as their emancipator.” She added, “the women were wild with enthusiasm,” but curiously, “the men were not far behind.” Stinson’s exploits sparked the organization of several women’s flying clubs in Japan, and applications to a Tokyo flying school by several local women. One woman, Komatsu Imai, was inspired to become a pilot by Stinson and spent several years as a “barnstormer.” In addition to exhibitions in Japan, Stinson also went to China for several airshows, returning to the United States only in May 1917.

By the time of her return, the United States had entered World War I. Turned down when she tried to enlist as a pilot in the Army, Stinson began flying with the Red Cross on humanitarian ventures associated with the war. She also traveled and performed aerobatics to boost morale during the war. In that regard she set nonstop speed and duration records: (1) flying from San Diego to San Francisco, 610 miles, in nine hours and ten minutes on December 11, 1917, and (2) flying from Chicago to Binghamton, New York, 601.763 miles, in ten hours and ten minutes on May 23, 1918. She also helped out at the Stinson Flying School in San Antonio, Texas, which had been founded by her siblings, and was now being employed by the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps to train military pilots.

The stress of the war effort took its toll, however, and while assisting the Red Cross on one trip she contracted tuberculous. The illness effectively ended Stinson’s flying career, as it took several years to recover. In the process of convalescence Stinson went to the arid, warm climate of New Mexico, where she recuperated and lived off her business investments.

In 1928 Stinson met and married Miquel A. Otero, a World War I aviator and the son of a former territorial governor. The two decided that the life of a gypsy flyer was not appropriate for their marriage, and both effectively retired. Thereafter she lived in Santa Fe, worked with the local Red Cross, raised two daughters, and became a successful interior designer. In 1962 Stinson suffered a stroke and went into a coma from which she never recovered. She died in Santa Fe more than a decade later.

Katharine Stinson’s flying career was relatively short, but significant. She was one of the first women to gain fame as a flyer, establishing in the 1910s that women could handle aircraft. As such, she was a forerunner of the women flyers of later eras.


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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Big Splat: Or How Our Moon Came to Be”

the-big-splatThe Big Splat: Or How Our Moon Came to Be. By Dana Mackenzie. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.

If there is one dramatic moment—as opposed to myriad important but mundane events—in the history of lunar science it is the 1984 conference in Kona, Hawaii, in which scientists around the world presented papers on the sole topic of how the Moon originated. What made this conference so remarkable, however, was that a new consensus on the subject emerged through this process of presentation and discussion. Usually, positions are well known prior to any scientific meeting and few scientists change their minds right away. As the author of this outstanding popular history phrased it, “other specialists have to go home and process the new information. Old theories have to be sifted through and reappraised. More papers come out in favor of the new hypothesis, and others come out against it. Eventually, sometimes after many years, a new consensus emerges” (p. 167). Not so at Kona. The consensus on the origins of the Moon that came about there has enjoyed remarkable exceptional staying power since.

The Big Splat: Or How Our Moon Came to Be by Dana Mackenzie is a concise and exceptionally readable account of how a significant but divisive scientific question came to be settled through the investigation of the Moon made possible by sending human and robotic missions there in the 1960s and 1970s. The Kona conference established a consensus in favor of a theory of origins known as the “big whack,” or “big splat.” Two scientists working independently, William Hartmann and Alastair Cameron, first advanced the theory in 1974 that the Moon had been formed by debris from a massive collision with the Earth about 4.6 billion years ago. This theory was predicated on the study of lunar rock and soil samples returned from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, and over the course of the next decade further analysis allowed scientists to resolve most of the questions plaguing other theories of lunar origin by applying the “big splat” hypothesis.

So contentious had the question of lunar origins been prior to the Apollo program, as Mackenzie shows, that many scientists just threw up their hands in frustration at ever being able to develop a reasonable hypothesis. Confusion ruled among scientists about the Moon’s origin as competing schools battled among themselves for dominance of their particular viewpoint in the textbooks. Indeed, some expressed concern that determining the Moon’s origins should be the single most significant scientific objective of Project Apollo, thinking of it as a hopeless objective.

Their concern was legitimate based on what had gone before. Prior to the Apollo missions the origin of the Moon had been a subject of considerable scientific debate and careers had risen and fallen on championing one or another theory. Prior to the 1960s there had been three principal theories:

  1. Co-accretion—a theory which asserted that the Moon and the Earth formed at the same time from the Solar Nebula.
  2. Fission—a theory that asserted that the Moon split off from the Earth.
  3. Capture—a theory that held that the Moon formed elsewhere and was subsequently drawn into orbit around the Earth.

The data supporting these various theories had been developed to an amazingly fine point over time but none of these theories actually explained enough open questions to convince a majority of planetary scientists.

As Mackenzie recounts in The Big Splat, the new and detailed information from the Moon rocks pointed toward an impact theory–which suggested that the Earth had collided with a very large object (as big as Mars and named after the fact “Theia”)–and that the Moon formed from the ejected material. This proved to be a theory that fit the fact that although the Earth has a large iron core the Moon does not, because the debris blown out of both the Earth and the impactor would have come from iron-depleted, rocky mantles. Also lending credence to this theory, although the Earth has a mean density of 5.5 grams/cubic centimeter the Moon’s density is only 3.3 g/cc, which would be the case were it to lack iron, as it does. The Moon has exactly the same oxygen isotope composition as the Earth, whereas Mars rocks and meteorites from other parts of the Solar System have different oxygen isotope compositions. While there were some details to this theory that have yet to be worked out, the impact theory came out as the consensus at the Kona conference and is now widely accepted. In the end, further research will be required but all evidence to date seems to fit into the confines of this giant impact theory.

The Big Splat also offers a wonderful affirmation of the scientific method as a self-correcting system of knowledge. Clinging to the marketplace of ideas, it insists that practitioners explicate their theories in a manner that is rigorous, peer-reviewed, and replicable. In all cases, the mode of science is to seek to disprove or at least modify these new theories. Doing so helps to self-correct the state of knowledge, and there is no higher calling in science. Of course, this road to scientific understanding is rugged and winding, and The Big Splat states this well in the context of lunar origins. What we learn is that scientific understanding is infinitely more complex, convoluted, interesting, and significant than most popular conceptions allow. Dana Mackenzie is to be commended for showing this process in detail and in so doing restates the positive nature of the process. Apply this case study to the major scientific debates of the present, of which there are many, and it is apparent that there are few easy answers.

Dana Mackenzie has written as fascinating detective story in which scientists act as Sherlock Holmes deciphering discreet but imperfect clues to piece together the set of incidents that led to the formation of the Moon. The Big Splat is a wonderfully written science story. It will be of interest to historians, non-specialist readers, and students of all types.

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A Life Well-Lived: “Godspeed, John Glenn”

John Glenn Climbing into his "Friendship 7" Mercury capsule.

John Glenn Climbing into his “Friendship 7” Mercury capsule.

John Glenn (1921-2016) has left us after a lifetime of service to the nation and his fellow humans on Earth. John H. Glenn Jr. served as the astronaut on the February 20, 1962 ­Mercury-­Atlas 6 (Friendship 7) mission, the first American orbital space flight. He made three orbits on this mission, in the pro­cess sealing his place in history. But went on to so much more.

Glenn was born on July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio. Shortly ­thereafter his family moved to nearby New Concord, where after graduating from New Concord High School he enrolled at Muskingum College. By that time he had already learned to fly at a small airfield in New Philadelphia. Not long after the U.S. entry into World War II, he decided to pursue aviation as a career and enlisted in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. He was commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1943 and served in combat in the South Pacific.

Glenn remained in the Marines after the war, and during the Korean conflict (1950-1953) he also flew combat missions. For his ser­vice in 149 missions during those two wars he received many honors, including the Distinguished Flying Cross (six occasions) and the Air Medal with 18 clusters.

­Thereafter, Glenn served sev­eral years as a test pilot on Navy and Marine Corps jet fighters and attack aircraft, setting a transcontinental speed record in 1957 for the first flight to average supersonic speeds from Los Angeles to New York.

John Glenn getting ready to train in the centrifuge.

John Glenn getting ready to train in the centrifuge.

In 1959 John Glenn was selected to be one of the first seven astronauts in the U.S. space program. Three years later, on February 20, 1962, he made history as the first American to orbit the Earth, completing three orbits in a ­five-­hour flight. For this achievement he received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. He left NASA in 1964 to ­re-­enter civilian life.

Returning to his native Ohio, in 1965 Glenn began to take an active part in politics and early environmental protection efforts while pursuing a career as an executive with Royal Crown International, a soft drink manufacturer. In 1974 he ran successfully for the U.S. Senate, carrying all 88 counties of Ohio, and was ­re-­elected in 1980 with the largest margin in Ohio history. Ohioans returned him to the Senate for a third term in 1986, again with a substantial majority. In 1992, John Glenn again made history by being the first popularly elected senator from Ohio to win four consecutive terms. In the early part of 1997 he announced that with the completion of his fourth term in the Senate he would retire and return to space. On January 16, 1998, NASA announced that Senator Glenn would fly as a payload specialist on ­STS-­95, Discovery, in October 1998. On it he participated in experiments on the phys­i­ol­ogy of aging Americans.

John Glenn suiting up prior to a training session at the Johnson Space Center.

John Glenn suiting up prior to a training session at the Johnson Space Center.

As a senator, Glenn was uniquely placed to aid NASA by supporting its budget initiatives for space exploration projects. Although throughout his career in the Senate he capably explained the possibilities of movement beyond the boundaries of Earth and was an advocate for ­well-­developed projects, he was not unswervingly devoted to NASA’s efforts. He provided ­much-­needed political support for NASA’s efforts to win funds to build the space shuttle, and he has usually supported robotic science missions to the planets; but he also questioned the massive expenditures necessary to build a space station, and he did not support the missions to the Moon and Mars proposed by the Bush administration in 1989.

A moderate Demo­crat representing a state that did not benefit significantly from NASA expenditures, Glenn took a mea­sured approach to supporting individual space projects while always providing strong and sometimes eloquent advocacy for space exploration as a ­long-­term objective of the United States.

With his passing, we have lost a hero who was a symbol of grace, dignity, and courage to all he met. During his launch in 1962 fellow Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter said, “Godspeed John Glenn.” I can think of no more fitting statement to utter with his passing.

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Jesse Brown and the Integration of Naval Aviation

Jesse L. Brown in 1948.

Jesse L. Brown in 1948.

Jesse Leroy Brown (1926-1950) is little known today but as a naval aviator he gained famed. As a little boy growing up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, he wanted to become a pilot. One day Brown was watching an airplane flying above and he turned to a friend and said, “Some day I’m going to fly one of those.”

Although the Brown family was poor and suffered from the racism of a segregated society, Jesse held fast to his dream. He studied hard at the all-black Eureka High School, and Brown’s principal, recognizing that the school did not prepare students well for college, took Brown and other promising students aside to teach them more advanced subjects. Brown was also an excellent athlete, and participated in basketball and track and played halfback on Eureka’s state championship football team.

These preparations and Brown’s determination enabled him to enroll in Ohio State University in 1944. While there in 1946 he entered the Naval Reserve program, worked on his degree, and earned money by unloading boxcars for the Pennsylvania Railroad. At the conclusion of his education, Brown entered the Navy and applied for flight training.

Brown passed the rigorous physical and mental tests required of prospective aviators and was sent to flight school at Pensacola, Florida, in 1948. In so doing, Brown became the first black aviation trainee in the U.S. Navy. In the midst of this experience and in defiance of Navy regulation, Brown married his high school girlfriend, Daisy Pearl Nix, and she provided him support and encouragement. “There were times when [Jesse] would come home angry and distressed” because of racial discrimination, she said. “We decided that he would just have to stick it out.” Brown adapted to the situation and quietly worked to earn the respect of his associates. This strategy worked and on Oct. 21, 1948 he graduated from basic flight instruction and secured the right to wear the golden wings of a Naval Aviator. He also received a commission as Ensign.

After completing flight training, Brown was assigned to Quonset Point Naval Air Station, Rhode Island, but he and his family continued to suffer from some racial discrimination. The situation in his squadron, however, was somewhat better. A fellow aviator, Glenn Ferris, commented that few in Brown’s squadron cared about race. “In aviation everyone is more con­cerned about an individual’s flight ability than the color of his skin.”

Even if color-blindness was not total in the Navy during peacetime, when the United States entered the Korean Conflict in the summer of 1950 the reality of daily combat proved to be something of an equalizer between the races. Jesse Brown had been assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 in Jan. 1949, and when the conflict began he was sent aboard the carrier U.S.S. Leyte to the Sea of Japan. He flew his first combat mission on Oct. 13, 1950, a Friday, and flew 18 more missions through Dec. 3, 1950. By all accounts he had performed well, and was a valued member of the squadron.

Meantime, the North Koreans and Chinese began an offensive on Nov. 27, 1950 that sent allied forces reeling. The Chosin Reservoir campaign was one of the most savage of these opera­tions, pitting about 15,000 UN troops against an estimated enemy strength of 120,000 men. Brown and three comrades were flying a close air support mission in Corsair aircraft on the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1950, over the Chosin Reservoir when tragedy struck.

At an altitude of only 500 feet, Brown’s Corsair was hit and he was forced to make a crash landing behind enemy lines. On impact at the top of a snow covered peak, the aircraft fuselage split open and caught fire. The three remaining airplanes of the flight looked to see if Brown was still alive and saw him waving his arms. He was pinned in the cockpit, however, and suffering from broken bones and internal injuries.

Brown in the cockpit of his F4U Corsair in Korea in late 1950.

Brown in his F4U Corsair in Korea in late 1950.

While the flight leader called for a rescue helicopter, Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas Hudner decided to make a crash landing nearby to attempt a rescue, an act of valor for which he received the Medal of Honor. Hudner successfully joined Brown on the ground and tried to free him from the aircraft. He worked for about 45 minutes to pry the partially conscious Brown from the Corsair, but was unsuccessful. Then he tried to put out the fire in the aircraft by shoveling snow into the engine compartment and cockpit.

When the rescue helicopter arrived Hudner was joined by its crew, but was still unsuccessful in rescuing the dying Brown from the aircraft. At sunset they were forced to leave the crash site without recovering Brown’s body. A week later, with Brown’s crash site still in enemy hands and no chance of recovering his body, a flight of Corsairs from the U.S.S. Leyte performed a bizarre tribute by dropping napalm on the aircraft to cremate Brown’s body.

Jesse Brown was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart posthumously. He was the first African American Naval Aviator to die in combat. As a recognition of his service on Feb. 17, 1973, the Navy commissioned the U.S.S. Jesse L. Brown, Destroyer Escort 1089.


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Wednesday’s Book Review: “A Scientific Peak: How Boulder Became a World Center for Space and Atmospheric Science”

The Scientific Peak-Front cover-05A Scientific Peak: How Boulder Became a World Center for Space and Atmospheric Science. By Joseph R. Bassi. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 2015. Abbreviations and acronyms, archives consulted, foreword, acknowledgments, images, notes, index. 246 pages. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-935704-85-0. $35.00 USD.

Joseph P. Bassi, now assistant professor of arts and sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, has been investigating the building of scientific institutions dedicated to the study of meteorology for more than twenty years. This book, a revised version of his dissertation, provides a window into the establishment and evolution of several such organizations in the picturesque Rocky Mountain city of Boulder, Colorado, home of the University of Colorado. In the Cold War era a large number of scientific research centers sprang up around the university. These include most importantly the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and two units of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Coupled with those federal research facilities were a series of private sector firms supporting these scientific pursuits, especially IBM, Lockheed Martin, and Ball Aerospace.

This is fundamentally a history of a “city of knowledge,” but not in the way that planned cities of the Cold War era emerged in such places as Los Alamos, New Mexico, or the “Research Triangle” of North Carolina. Like those more structured entities, this research city grew up around the University of Colorado. It became the anchor tenant in the endeavor, but so much of what took place there has been less about the university than about Federal investment. It also grew like topsy over time. Bassi spends considerable time asking questions about this process. For example, is there some type of formula for turning a place such as Boulder into a scientific research capital? What role did the various actors place in creating this center place for Earth systems science?

Bassi notes how business leaders, politicians, and science leaders worked tirelessly, sometimes together and too often at cross purposes, to ensure the advance of this “city of knowledge.”  In the end, a combination of capital, leaders, skilled workers, and institutions—supported by sufficient capital investment largely from the Federal government—succeeded in establishing a “mecca” of scientific investigation and output.

While the requirements of the military during the Cold War prompted the building of this institutional framework at Boulder, it served needs far beyond national security. Over time the federally-funded NCAR, NIST, and NOAA transformed both Boulder, Colorado, and the nature of scientific understanding. Between the 1940s and 1960s the modern research center emerged in Boulder, one committed to climate science.

Bassi’s study is relatively straightforward, following in the footsteps of the work of W. Stuart Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (1994); Jennifer S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (2003), and Margaret Pugh O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (2004). It offers a creative synthesis of broader versus local perspectives combined with an examination of tensions between public and private entities whose objectives were often allied, but not always so.

Unlike those other works, Bassi offers a narrative that is largely positive. It is a story of progress, writ large, his contribution is a generally positive assessment of innovative scientists, local leaders, and other supporters. There is little of the critique apparent in those other works. For example, Leslie makes the case that government contracts changed the nature of university research, focusing attention in certain areas of immediate use to the entities supporting them. He emphasizes how this compromised intellectual inquiry. No doubt the same happened in Boulder, but perhaps in not quite the same way.

A Scientific Peak makes an important contribution by laying out the creation of a climate science community. I welcome its publication. I’m looking forward to other similar studies of research centers and their relation to the communities in which they reside. For example, I would dearly love to see a related work on Huntsville, Alabama, the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Any takers?


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The Wildness of World Airways under Edward J. Daly

A World Airways Boeing 747-400BDSF at Munich Airport, Germany, 2009.

A World Airways Boeing 747-400BDSF at Munich Airport, Germany, 2009.

There is wild, no doubt, and then there is World Airways wild. This company was the brainchild of Edward J. Daly, an iconoclast whose management and leadership made the corporation, based in Oakland, California, into one of the most important of the nonscheduled air carriers operating in the United States. Daly built an aggres­sive organiza­tion, largely on the basis of contracts with the U.S. militar­y.

For example, in 1956 he contracted his two war-surplus C-46Es, the only aircraft World owned at the time, to assist with Opera­tion SAFE HAVEN, the transport of refugees fleeing Hungary to the United States. A major step forward came on 15 June 1960 when World obtained a LOGAIR transcontinental contract to deliver parts and supplies between military installations. This action assured a solvent corporation and laid the groundwork for future expansion.

In May 1962 World Airways demonstrated its expansive philosophy by placing an order for three of the new Boeing 707‑320Cs. This was the first jet aircraft order from any of the supplemental carriers and it made World one of the most attractive of these carriers. World prospered during the following years, in part because of the 1962 passage of the Supplemental Air Carrier Act designed to weed out weaker and less safe carriers, steadily expanding its private charter business, but especially finding a niche as a contractor to the Department of Defense. Beginning in the mid‑1960s it became one of the principal commercial carriers airlifting military personnel between the United States and Southeast Asia. Each year the American grew there World’s profits rose.

Daly did not allow World to be solely a DOD contractor, however. Daly applied to the Civil Aeronautics Board on April 26, 1967, to move into the scheduled airlines ranks by proposing to operate a $79 transcontinental thrift fare service. Although this plan was not approved, World Airways still continued to branch into new areas. By the end of the decade of the 1960s it was operating a fleet of nine Boeing 707s and four Boeing 727s to provide both intra‑ and intercontinental jet service on a charter basis. It improved this fleet with the acquisition of Boeing 747s in 1973 and DC‑10s in 1978.

In the forced withdrawal of Americans and other refugees from South Vietnam in 1975, World Airways let its wildness show. It operated several  mis­sions into Da Nang and Saigon as North Vietnamese forces were surrounding those cities before the final capitulation of the nation.

Edward J. Daly, President and CEO World Airways, 1950-1984.

Edward J. Daly, President and CEO World Airways, 1950-1984.

Daly took two Boeing 727s to Da Nang to evacuate Americans as the government collapsed. It was anything but orderly. Soldiers, civilians, men, women, and children fought to climb aboard. Daly, who had gone back to assist refugees, was mauled as able-bodied men threw off those less capable of defending themselves. At one point Daly threatened some with a pistol. Almost immediately someone yelled, “We’re full,” and the pilot accelerated the 727 down the taxiway as people climbed onto the wings, and then fell off as the jet became airborne.

A distraught soldier hurled a hand grenade and badly damaged the flaps on the right side. The pilot could not retract his landing gear because several people had crawled into the wheel wells. Shortly after the 727 became airborne, the pilot of the second airplane reported seeing someone lose his grip on the landing gear and fall to his death. The saddest aspect of this flight, there were only ten women and one baby among the 268 people who jammed themselves into the airplanes and into the wheel wells. This was the last flight out of Da Nang. The next day it fell to the North Vietnamese without additional resistance.

Daly did pretty much the same thing on April 2, flying an unauthorized World Airways DC-8 flight evacuating 58 orphans and 27 adults from Saigon. Daly’s maverick approach toward these evacuation flights were implicitly sanctioned the next day when President Gerald R. Ford announced that the United States government would provide airlift for over 2,000 other Vietnamese orphans in a program called Operation BABYLIFT. Daly and World were heavily involved in this effort as well. Of the 2,894 orphans that reached the United States between April 3 and May 9, 1975, the date that the State Department officially ended the evacuation of the children, World Airways joined other privately contracted airlines to carry 1,090 of them.

Hailed as a hero by the media, Daly’s actions in the Vietnam evacuation were not always appreciated by government officials. When censured Daly sent a Telex to President Ford:

We have just been notified…that our contract with the Military Airlift Command for the supply of food to Cambodia has been terminated effective this date….There is no wonder that the peoples of the world have lost their confidence in the U.S. government and its people….With all due respect to you and your worldwide problems, Mr. President, I strongly urge that you get the incompetents out of there immediately and appoint someone with the intelligence, competency and the guts necessary to get the job done. You don’t have days or weeks—you only have minutes.”

Daly’s contracts were reinstated. He was also profiled in People magazine in 1975 for his exploits.

The fall of South Vietnam was the high point in a World Airways career laced with action and not a little adventure. Daly savored the limelight that his flights out with refugees brought him.

Thereafter, World continued to lead as a charter air carrier. While it faced severe financial difficulties during the early 1980s, in part due to the deregula­tion of the airline industry, it was able to weather the crisis and continue its role as the primary supplemental carrier into the last decade of the twentieth century.



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