Considering the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary: I’ll take it! Then what?

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

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

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

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

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

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Palgrave Features the Series Jim Fleming and I Edit

With #ICHST2017 underway in Brazil, this week our #SeriesoftheWeek focusses on the History of Science & Technology

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “New Weapons, Old Politics: America’s Military Procurement Muddle”

New Weapons, Old Politics: America’s Military Procurement Muddle. By Thomas L. McNaugher. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1989.

A muck-raking analysis, the author uses case studies to illuminate concerns at the heart of the ongoing debate over defense acquisition, especially a slow and heavily bureaucratic approach to development, a preference for new weapons over well-organized and trained forces, a cost for technology out of bounds, and the implications of a military/industry alliance that does not want much in the way of change. He asks for changes that have few allies, especially less centralization in procurement, less haste in developing new weapons, and greater use of competition.

At the time this book was published in 1989 the Department of Defense spent more than $100 billion a year to buy weapons systems, and McNaugher makes the case that everyone recognizes that the process is remarkably inefficient. Efforts at reform, however, have long been balanced against those of the status quo. Machiavelli said it best in The Prince: “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” The yin and yang of forces in favor of or opposed to changing the system has ensured that this is a perennial problem, according to McNaugher.

The author takes a chronological approach to the issue. He begins with the period after World War II when new technologies emerged and gained primacy in the Cold War. American leaders realized that the costs of maintaining military parity with the Soviet Union would be prohibitive over the long term. As a democratic society without the desire or the capability to press millions into service to the state, officials of the United States sought to make up the difference with better weapons systems. Whatever was needed to assure victory in a confrontation was appropriate, and R&D for new weapons systems expanded exponentially in relation to other costs for the DoD and the rest of the government.

This was a messy and inefficient process, everyone knew it, but tolerated it in the crisis years of the 1950s. Once the Kennedy administration worked through its early crises with the Soviets, SECDEF Robert McNamara tried to rein in the system, achieve efficiencies where possible, and enforce better management. It was partly responsible for the debacle of the C-5A procurement for a widebody transport aircraft. The landscape was littered with other weapons systems that failed. The FB-111, as an example failed because it was supposed to be all things to all people. It could dogfight and bomb as well as be both a Navy and Air Force warplane.

By the time that the Nixon administration took office in January 1969 concerted efforts at reform came, spearheaded by David Packard who modified the acquisition process somewhat with some success. In the process, the McNamara reforms were largely modified or overturned altogether. McNaugher notes that with every attempt at change the breech between the technical needs of engineers versus military planners widened. These issues had to be balanced against the pressures of Congress based on political concerns. Indeed, McNaugher examination of weapons procurement since World War II demonstrates that with every reform effort there seemed to be greater imposition of political pressures into the weapons acquisition process.

Managing the iron triangle of defense acquisition—cost, schedule, and performance—is a never-ending challenge, McNaugher demonstrates this case studies, drawing back periodically to offer lessons learned. He finds that the overwhelming bureaucracy of the DoD is a major part of the problem. So is the incessant politics prevalent between the military services, the military-industrial complex, and the other power centers in Washington. The overstretch of technology also comes up for criticism, as does the need for professionalization of the procurement work force.

McNaugher’s recommendations for reform read like déjà vu all over again. He argues for less centralization in the procurement process, less haste in pursuing innovative technologies, and greater competition between firms vying for government contracts. These reformers have diagnosed the same problems and offered a version of the same solutions. The problem is the implementation of these perfectly reasonable reforms. It remains an issue nearly thirty years after this book was originally published.

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Three Canopies into the Pacific: Coming Home during Project Apollo

Apollo 11 Returning to Earth on July 24, 1969.

Since July 24 is the 48th anniversary of the return from space of Apollo 11, here is a short account the return via parachutes of the Apollo spacecraft.

For all of the earlier work on the Gemini Earth landing system in the mid-1960s—paraglider, parasail, or parachute—virtually nothing about the Apollo program revolved around its Earth landing system. Gone were any extravagant efforts to conclude a land landing; the Apollo astronauts would be rescued at sea after a parachute landing. The Apollo familiarization manual described the system used for this recovery as follows:

The C/M-ELS begins operation upon descending to approximately 24, 000 feet +0.4 second, or in the event of an abort, 0.4 second after launch escape assembly jettison….The apex cover (forward heat shield) is jettisoned by four gas-pressure thrusters. This function is imperative, as the forward heat shield covers and protects the ELS parachutes up to this time. At 1.6 seconds later, the drogue mortar pyrotechnic cartridges are fired to deploy two drogue parachutes in a reefed condition. After 8 seconds, the reefing lines are severed by reefing line cutters and the drogue parachutes are fully opened. These stabilize the C/M in a blunt-end-forward attitude and provide deceleration. At approximately 10, 000 feet, drogue parachutes are released, and the three pilot parachute mortars are fired. This action ejects the pilot parachutes which extract and deploy the three main parachutes….The main parachutes are disconnected following impact. The recovery aids consists of an uprighting system, swimmers umbilical, sea (dye) marker, a flashing beacon light, a VHF recovery beacon transmitter, a VHF transceiver, and an H-F transceiver.

The spacecraft would reach the water landing in the Pacific—for all of the lunar missions—at a velocity of “33 feet per second at 5,000 feet altitude for a normal or abort landing.”

To develop the Apollo landing system NASA contracted with the North American Rockwell Corp. Building on knowledge gained in the Gemini and Mercury parachute landing systems, North American Rockwell undertook a rigorous and extensive design and testing regimen. As Northrop engineer Theodor W. Knacke reported in 1968:

Numerous interesting design details are contained in the Apollo parachute system. The reliability requirement of independent parachute deployment, coupled with large command module oscillations, necessitates divergent drogue parachute and main pilot parachute deployment angles coupled with positive thruster type deployment. The command module oscillations create the possibility of contact between the parachute risers and the hot rear heat shield, and last but not least, the increase in CM weight without an accompanying increase in compartment volume or allowable parachute cluster loads resulted in novel design approaches for parachute packing, storage and shape retention.

Designed for use in both optimum and crisis situations either during launch abort of return from the Moon, this system was fully redundant and handled forces equivalent to 3 g’s without difficulty.

Not all went well with every aspect of the Apollo parachute recovery system. A number of tests failed during the run-up to the missions to the Moon. For example, on September 6, 1963, an Apollo command module boilerplate, No. 3, was destroyed when one pilot parachute was cut by contact with the vehicle and one of its main parachutes did not deploy. Then rigging problems caused the other two parachutes to fail. An investigation led to rigging and design changes on future systems. As in this case, these difficulties were resolved and the program continued.

The most serious operational failure came during the descent of Apollo 15 from the Moon in 1971. During its reentry, all three main parachutes deployed without incident at an altitude of 10,000 feet, but one of the three parachutes deflated while the Apollo 15 capsule was obscured by clouds between 7,000 and 6,000 feet. Regardless, crew and the spacecraft returned safely because redundancy in the system allowed one chute to fail without adverse affect although with slightly higher velocity at impact. Failure analysis found that the parachute lines had been damaged by fuel from the reaction control system (RCS) during return, a normal occurrence but in this instance the parachute assembly was in the way of the RCS ejection ports. The Apollo mission summary reported only: “During the descent, one of the three main parachutes failed, but a safe landing was made.”

As reported at the time: “The most probably cause of the anomaly was the burning of raw fuel (monomethyl hydrazine) being expelled during the latter portion of the depletion firing and this resulted in exceeding the parachute-riser and suspension-line temperature limits.” Based on this anomaly and its occurrence, only once in all of the missions to date, NASA investigators believed that there was only a 1 in 17,000 chance of failure on future missions.

The Apollo 11 Command Module (107) is loaded aboard a Super Guppy Aircraft at Ellington Air Force Base for shipment to the North American Rockwell Corporation at Downey, California. The CM was just released from its postflight quarantine at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC). The Apollo 11 spacecraft was flown by astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, during their lunar landing mission. Note damage to aft heat shield caused by extreme heat of Earth reentry.

This basic approach worked well throughout Apollo, but NASA engineers still wanted to have a parasail landing system similar to that pursued but not deployed for Gemini. Personnel at the Landing Technology Branch of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center tried to adapt the parasail landing system to the Apollo Application Program, the follow-on to the Moon landings. The branch reported that it

expects to have a system that will be adaptable to Apollo. Their present effort is not aimed directly at incorporation of such a system, but rather at developing the technology and hardware necessary for the system itself. They are, however, basing their designs on a spacecraft that is of the CM size and type. The resulting system will most likely consist of a steerable parachute, plus some combination of landing rockets, deployable energy absorbers and stability aids.

Its staff added that it had contracted with four organizations for various aspects of this effort:

  • Bendix Products Aerospace Division is developing a computer program to analyze land-landing dynamics.
  • North American Aviation is investigating landing gear systems for the Command Module.
  • Pioneer Parachute is developing a parasail type of steerable parachute.
  • Northrop Ventura is developing a cloverleaf type of steerable parachute.

The primary concern was that this landing system handle a 14,000 pound capsule and be containable within a 1.5 cubic meter space. While this system was considered even less heavy and bulky than a water system, the addition of landing rockets to cushion a landing might push total weight above that already envisioned for the Apollo command module. “Probable weight increase and cost of incorporation must be weighed against the added capability and decrease in cost of recovery operations,” the study concluded.

This statement was the first reference in this recovery literature from the 1960s concerning the very important trade engineers had to make between added weight and reduced recovery operational cost. The Navy was generally quite agreeable during the space race era to deploy their ships for recovery, and NASA was not required to pay for that operation. That made water recovery, at least from NASA’s perspective, not only the most expedient but also the lowest cost method of recovery. Even so, this program concluded without adopting anything more sophisticated than the parachute system used for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. It would not be until a return to canopies for some projects in the 1990s that NASA returned to the parasail/paraglider concept for landing.

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Are There No Great Movies about the American Revolution?

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze.

I have been watching the AMC series, “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” of late. This series is based on a fine book, Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (2006), which is both informative and exciting to read. This AMC series is not the most exciting television ever created, but it has been sufficiently engaging to keep me coming back to view the first ten episodes in season one. And I will be watching when season two begins in April.

The series led me to ask a question, however, why are there no great movies, and I could also add television series, about the American Revolution? Of course, perhaps not all will accept that there are no great movies on this subject, but let me here assess some of the movie depictions of this formative event of the American nation. Please note I have stayed away from commenting here about series such as John Adams (HBO, 2008), and The Adams Chronicles (PBS, 1976),  Swamp Fox (Disney, 1959-1961), and Johnny Tremain (Disney, 1957). Perhaps I will blog about those at another time.

So here is a discussion of movies about the American Revolution. I am taking these in chronological order for ease of commentary.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939): Directed by John Ford, and starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, this story is about American settlers on the New York frontier during the American Revolution. Mostly it is a story of the frontier and Indian wars, however, something that John Ford specialized in throughout a long career. The settlers endure British and Indian attacks on their farm during the so-called Mohawk War. In the film the settles take shelter in Fort Herkimer, but it is poorly defended and running low on both food and ammunition. To save the fort, the Henry Fonda character makes an epic dash for relief to Fort Dayton where the Continental Army was located. In an epic conclusion, just as the settlers are about to be overwhelmed, troops arrive to save them and to note that the American Revolution has ended and the last scene is the raising of a United States flag. It is pure nostalgia, of course, but it played well to the movie-going public in 1939. As Frank S. Nugent wrote about the film in his review in the New York Times on November 4, 1939: “It is romantic enough for any adventure-story lover. It has its humor, its sentiment, its full complement of blood and thunder…a first-rate historical film, as rich atmospherically as it is in action.” Exciting, perhaps; entertaining, absolutely. But the film’s relationship to historical authenticity is purely by accident. And this may be the best of the films about the American Revolution.

The Scarlet Coat (1955): Cornel Wilde depicts Maj. John Boulton of the Continental Army who goes undercover to break up a spy ring in 1780. This leads him to the the best-known traitor in American history, Benedict Arnold. He uncovers the plot for turn West Point over to the British. Of course, Arnold did just that, while his British contact, Maj. John André, was captured by Washington and executed. This is not a particularly good movie. It was a big budget production with B-movie adventure, quite a lot of trite dialogue, and not much in the way of memorable moments. Ann Francis as the love interest is just too much.

The Devil’s Disciple (1959): With a stellar cast that includes Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Laurence Olivier, you might think this would be an excellent film. Although based on a play by George Bernard Shaw, the film does not come off well. It proves, once again, that great actors cannot rise above mundane dialogue and sets. During the American War of Independence a resident in a New York town is arrested by the British. Despite a case of mistaken identity, when brought before British commander Gen. John Burgoyne he refuses to cooperate and displays a willingness to die for his principles. At the last minute he gets away from the British and takes up leadership in the patriot cause. The full film is below.

1776 (1972): It’s a little silly, and somewhat comical, but the Broadway musical turned into a film is an enjoyable romp about the writing of the Declaration of Independence. William Daniels as John Adams and Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin steal the show. Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson seems overmatched. The songs are catchy, the overall mood respectful and patriotic. The film attempts to explain the divisive issue of slavery in the colonies, and the broad complicity in this abomination, as well as the challenge of getting everyone to agree that independence was the appropriate step.

Revolution (1985): In this film Al Pacino’s character, a trapper named Tom Dobb, searches for his son who was pressed into service in the American Revolution. Over time, he becomes convinced that Independence is necessary for the American colonies and becomes a patriot. The battle sequences are broad and well-produced. Otherwise, this movie was a disaster, receiving nominations for four Golden Raspberry Awards. Fortunately it lost in every category.

Sweet Liberty (1986): I’m not at all sure that this is a film about the American Revolution as it is about the depiction of historical events on film. Alan Alda plays a college professor who has written a book based on the diary of a Revolutionary War woman (played by Michelle Pfieffer) that is being made into a film. Alda is a technical advisor on the film and constantly clashes with the director over depictions of the story. Michael Caine as the over-the-top star of the film is hilarious. So is the final battle sequence.

April Morning (1988): Howard Fast has written several terrific historical novels, and this film is based on one. In it Tommy Lee Jones stars in the story of the battle at Lexington on April 19, 1775.  It depicts the march of the British army from Boston and the “Shot Heard Round the World” on the Lexington Green. This is a very cerebral movie, with debates between several protagonists over why the they should take up arms against the British Crown. It is a better than average movie, perhaps the best on the Revolution ever made, and something well worth watching.

Mary Silliman’s War (1994): This small story of the American Revolution revolves around the abduction of Mary Silliman’s husband by Tories and her efforts to cope with his absence. The story takes place in Fairfield, Connecticut, from about May 1779 to May 1780. It speaks to the impacts the war had on families and communities, and focuses on the opportunities (for personal advancement) as well as disruptions and liabilities connected with the war. It also offers a good representation of how the war affect breaks down the old social order and democratizes society. Firmly rooted in the historical record, unlike many of these other movies, it is based on the biography of Mary Fish Silliman, The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America (1984) by Joy and Richard Buel, and upon family correspondence, her journal, and her reminiscences written after the war.

The Patriot (2000): Oh my, what a mess of a movie. A personal project for ultra conservative, and embarrassingly improper, Mel Gibson, this is the poorly disguised story of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, in South Carolina. It takes all manner of liberties with the history, and nothing recounted in it may be accepted at face value. Its depiction of African Americans as free and working for Gibson’s character is one of the most dishonest aspects of this notoriously dishonest film. The battle scenes might be powerful, but otherwise this is a waste of time.

The Crossing (2003): Not a bad movie at all, Jeff Daniels brings the appropriate gravitas to George Washington and Howard Fast’s novel about the crossing of the Delaware and the attack on the Hessians at Trenton provides a good foundation for the drama. I remain amazed by the abilities of Daniels to play a range of characters. In addition to Washington he did a fine job portraying Joshua Chamberlain in Gettysburg, but also the co-lead in Dumb and Dumber. The full movie is available free on-line. Check it out.

All For Liberty (2009).  Set in South Carolina in 1775, this small independent film depicts the American Revolution as a struggle between Tories and Patriots. The central character, played by Clarence Felder, is a Swiss-German colonist who puts up with dishonest colonial leaders and arrogant aristocrats. He takes up the patriot cause. With neighbor against neighbor was don’t see large battles, but there are many skirmishes, ambushes, and farm burnings.  It has a good look and feel and tells a compelling story that eschews major historical figures.

None of these films are in the category of great. Some are downright awful, but several are quite good. I would rank Mary Silliman’s War, Sweet Liberty, All for Liberty, and The Crossing in the quite good category, largely because they tell us something useful (often several somethings) about the Revolution. I will use clips from these films in history classes in the future.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Beyond the Sixth Game”

Beyond the Sixth Game. By Peter Gammons. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Game six of the 1975 World Series is often referred to as the greatest in history. The Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds battled to a standstill in extra innings with the Reds leading the series 3-2. Carlton Fisk hit a walk-off home run in the twelfth inning to send the series to a seventh game, which the Reds won to claim its first series victory in more than a generation.

Gammons seeks to go beyond this iconic struggle to answer a question that many have posed afterward, why did such a promising Red Sox team fail to win even a single World Series with the personnel that excited everyone in 1975. The team challenged for years from 1973 through the early 1980s, but only played in the one series it lost. It had three future Hall of Famers on that team—Carlton Fisk, Carl Yastrzemski, and Jim Rice—as well as an outstanding pair of starting pitchers in Luis Tiant and Bill Lee and talented everyday players led by AL Rookie of the Year and league MVP Fred Lynn.

Gammons answer seems to be that changes to the game, especially the advent of free agency, as well as the rise of cable sports networks and superstations, contributed to the team being broken up and players leaving for better deals elsewhere. While Gammons hits hard the leadership of the Red Sox for failure to adapt to a new environment, he seems to wallow in the nostalgia of what might have been and like so many other sportswriters lent credence to the owners’ position that free agency was one of the worst things that ever happened in MLB.

Gammons ran through a list of players who were with their teams their entire careers—like that is the most important thing—but fails to note that players have moved all the time. Let me cite a few greats who moved elsewhere before free agency because their team owners wanted to get rid of them: Babe Ruth, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, and Henry Aaron. Gammons failed to note that several after the advent of free agency remained with their original teams for their entire careers; Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Guinn, George Brett, Kirby Puckett, and Willie Stargell come to mind. The issue of player movement is really not terribly compelling.

Gammons is wrong to give legitimacy to the side of the owners fighting the MLB Player’s Association seeking some parity with the baseball establishment. Owners wanted to turn back the clock to keep MLB in the desperate years of the 1950s when the result was that the dominance of New York teams because of their greater resources hindered the growth of the game. The equity created through arbitration and free agency ensured that the game was never more popular before than it was after the new structure forced changes in management that allowed for free agents and core players from a farm system now more important than ever.

Red Sox leadership failed to make changes. It was stuck in the mud in the same way that it was with the integration to the game in the 1940s. It suffered because of that; it did the same here as well. It took new leadership and the advance of new thinking to create the juggernaut so dominate in the early twenty-first century. Gammons could not have known this in 1985, but this book now appears both dated and arguing a lost cause.

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Sacred Space, Chosen-ness, and Perspectives on the American Past

textbook-thumb-200x282-80797In his classic book, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (1959), Mircea Eliade suggested that humanity has always sought to designate physical locations as either sacred—to be held reverent and exceptional, to be approached with respect and awe—or secular depending on the type of experiences that have taken and are intended to take place there.

The perception of sacred space has often emphasized God’s intrusion into the human world, certainly Eliade thought so, but humanity creates it own “sacred space” with a qualitative difference between how one approaches it and how one interacts with the secular or, in Eliade’s parlance, “profane” space of everyday life that lacks special meaning. There is, Eliade observed, in sacred space “a strong, significant space; there are other spaces that are not sacred and so are without structure and consistency.” These other spaces, he argued, are “amorphous.”

At a fundamental level sacred space represented the location where the world of humanity meets the world of deity and the eternal. The temple in all religious traditions incorporates sacred space of the most sublime type. It might be viewed as a place where the vertical axis of communication between heaven and Earth meet, the spot where the traffic between two existences reach out to each other. As the biblical dictate stated: “Take heed that you do not offer your burnt offerings in any place that you see, but in the place which the Lord shall choose…there you shall offer your burnt offerings” (Deut. 12:13, NIV). Assignment of sacred stature to places, locations, and structures—both natural and human-built—has dominated the idea of sacred space throughout human history.

While Eliade was concerned exclusively with the overtly religious dimensions of sacred space in the realm of humanity, let me suggest that we may apply his ideas about sacred space to places “holy” in the context of American civil religion. Sociologist Robert Bellah in his 1967 article, “Civil Religion in America,” that Americans have accepted as a people a common set of principles, values, rituals, memories, holidays, and beliefs that as a society have special meaning. They reside parallel to, and in some cases instead of, more overtly religious ideals. He referred to this as American civil religion, a national and nationalistic perspective on the nature, meaning, and ideals of America.]

We see this is many ways in American history. For example, in Richard T. Hughes’ powerful recent book, Myths America Lives By (2003), he shows how the citizens of the United States have embraced a conception that they are part of a nation chosen of God, special among all others on the globe. One may appropriately question if such a special relationship exists, but the power of this longstanding belief for understanding the development of the United States is undeniable. It helps explain much about American actions on the world stage, about how its politicians act in crisis, and the peculiar moralisms that find expression in all types of issues in the public sphere.

It is no secret that the Puritan immigrants to America from England viewed themselves as God’s elect, but perhaps fewer understand that this sense of “chosen-ness” has found expression throughout the nation’s history. Citizens of the United States have long viewed this as a new “land of Canaan,” to use a religious conception, and found representation in the idea of a national covenant in which the inhabitants lived justly and were rewarded as a result. At it’s best, this value calls on Americans to shoulder responsibilities that reflected a high-minded national creed: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

At the same time, these beliefs offer enormous negatives for the United States. High-minded morality has too often been used to justify high-handed political, economic, and diplomatic activities by the United States. For example, as discussed by historian Richard Hughes, it has led to misguided efforts by Americans “to export and impose its cultural and economics values throughout the world, regardless of the impact those policies might have on poor and dispossessed people in other parts of the world.”

This belief in “chosen-ness,” while it is uniquely untrue, is among the most powerful and persistent conceptions motivating American beliefs. It has its roots in Old Testament concepts and fosters the conclusion that the United States is exceptional not only because of its superpower status, its economic might, its military muscle, or its cultural expressions but also because of a special relationship with God. There is nothing new about this. The author of Deuteronomy recorded that God told the ancient Jewish people: “The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the people on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deut. 7:6, NIV).

Americans appropriated this belief as a chosen people and it has motivated much of what has taken place throughout the history of the republic. From the Puritans of colonial New England with their “city on a hill” to the recent “mission” of George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives claiming that they are bringing democracy, capitalism, and liberty to Iraq and the remainder of the Middle East a belief that the U.S. has been blessed by God permeates the national character.

As historian Walter A. McDougall concludedin is book, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776 (1997), Old Testament traditions “were coherent, mutually supportive, and reflective of our original image of America as a Promised Land.” Over time Americans absolutized the idea of divine chosen-ness. Neo-orthodox theologian H. Reinhold Niehbuhr concluded in 1927: “the old idea of American Christians as a chosen people who had been called to a special task was turned into the notion of a chosen nation especially favored…As the nineteenth century went on, the note of divine favoritism was increasingly sounded.”

During the Cold War those feelings of divine favoritism waxed and manifested themselves in myriad ways. Historian Richard Hofstadter remarked in The Progressive Historians (1968) that during the years of struggle with the Soviet Union Americans, seeing totalitarianism of all stripes, engaged in a broad rethinking of America and accepted “a revival of the old feeling that the United States is better and different.” As he explained, “the cold war brought a certain closing of the ranks, a disposition to stress common objectives, a revulsion from Marxism and its tendency to think of social conflict as carried à outrance.”

As a society we have adopted a civil religion that reveres the founders, venerates the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and emphasizes a consensus interpretation of our national past that celebrates the long tradition of shared American ideals and values while de-emphasizing conflict. Its proponents questioned the ideas and people who challenged those cherished principles, seeing in many of them strains of authoritarianism, anarchy, and narrow- and simple-mindedness of all varieties.

Broad efforts to control the telling of the past along a specific civil religion emphasis has sometimes manifested itself in discomfiting ways.  While much of this language would place a “civics” spin on the teaching of American history—and could be largely innocuous—some go beyond that to emphasize a narrow presentation of historical facts and little latitude for interpretation.

We have seen of late renewed attempts to deal with these issues. Debates over curricula, the priority of using leftist interpretations of the past, and the exhibitry of contested themes in American history all speak to the ongoing issues to be adjudicated in the earlt twenty-first century. What will happen in these connections in the future. It is obvious that there are political forces motivated by ideology that are debating the nature of the United States and its future evolution. What will this debate mean for the study of the American past?

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Cassini Arrives at Saturn: Happy Anniversary!

This image from the Cassini spacecraft shows four moons huddled near Saturn’s multi-hued disk. The coloration of the planet’s northern hemisphere has changed noticeably since the Cassini spacecraft’s arrival in orbit in mid-2004. Giant Titan (5,150 kilometers, or 3,200 miles across), with its darker winter hemisphere, dominates the smaller moons in the scene. Beneath and left of Titan is Janus (181 kilometers, or 113 miles across). Mimas (397 kilometers, or 247 miles across) appears as a bright dot close to the planet and beneath the rings. Prometheus (102 kilometers, or 63 miles across) is a faint speck hugging the rings between the two small moons. This view looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from less than a degree above the ringplane. This image was taken by Cassini’s wide-angle camera on October 26, 2007, at a distance of approximately 1.5 million kilometers (920,000 miles) from Saturn and 2.7 million kilometers (1.7 million miles) from Titan.

Representing the international character of many NASA planetary missions since Voyager, Cassini-Huygens, a joint effort of NASA, the European Space Agency, and Italian Space Agency, has also proved to be an incredible success. It seems appropriate to recall this mission since Cassini, the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, arrived there on July 1, 2004. This mission also sent a probe (Huygens) to the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan on January 15, 2005. Huygens was a product of the European Space Agency, and the first outer planetary mission by that organization. I will write specifically about Huygens in another blog post.

But even before its Saturnian encounter, the Cassini mission advanced science by finding individual storm cells of upwelling bright-white clouds in dark “belts” in Jupiter’s atmosphere, and by conducting a radio signal experiment on October 10, 2003 that supported Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

At Saturn, Cassini has discovered three new moons (Methone, Pallene, and Polydeuces), observed water ice geysers erupting from the south pole of the moon Enceladus, obtained images appearing to show lakes of liquid hydrocarbon (such as methane and ethane) in Titan’s northern latitudes, and discovered a storm at the south pole of Saturn with a distinct eye wall. Cassini, like Galileo at Jupiter, has demonstrated that icy moons orbiting gas giant planets are potential refuges of life, and attractive destinations for a new era of robotic planetary exploration.

It seems appropriate to recognize the important of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn at this point when it arrived at the planet. It’s success was the result of large-scale flagship planning and operations in an international setting between NASA and other space organizations. Some have derided these missions as “Battlestar Galacticas” that cost too much and are too slow in their development; others emphasize that these costly and time-consuming missions provide more good science over a longer period than smaller, quicker projects. The reality is that both sides are correct, and that the best answer is a mix of missions of a large, complex variety but also smaller, more focused projects. Regardless of where one comes down on this debate, no one can deny that Cassini has been a stunning planetary science mission that has made a fundamental impact on our knowledge of this unique planetary system. So, happy anniversary Cassini; and I hope there are many more.

Cassini performed two flybys of Venus and one of Earth to obtain the velocity needed to leave the inner solar system. It then flew by Jupiter before finally arriving at Saturn in July 2004, more than six years after launch.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency”

A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency. By Glenn Greenwald. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.

Reporter Glenn Greenwald’s thesis is straightforward: George W. Bush approached every issue he faced as one on which the forces of good had to overcome the forces of evil. Everything, and as far as Greenwald is concerned that means literally EVERYTHING, was in black and white with no shades of gray whatsoever. Consequently, the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath defined his presidency were viewed as the result of evil being perpetrated by those who were evil on the good people and the good nation of the United States. The sense of American innocence present in this perspective was palpable. The myth of the innocent nation so much a part of Bush’s character, allowed him to come to believe that whatever he did to respond to this perceived evil was just and righteous.

No doubt this sense was fostered by Bush’s strikingly non-nuanced Christian beliefs, and this too led him to accept as true that he was locked in a desperate struggle with evil. He viewed the world this way, seeing it in virtually all periods of American history but it is especially present in the great struggles of the twentieth century. He accepted that in World Wars I and II America was fighting for the survival of all that was good against forces of evil. But it also was especially prevalent in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and certainly in the aftermath of 9/11 in the global war on terrorism.

In essence A Tragic Legacy is a character study of George W. Bush. It is one that points to what Greenwald believes were fundamental flaws in his personality; but it is more than that since it also exemplifies the mindset of his administration and policies pursued during the first decade of the twenty-first century. This led to a demonization of people and cultures that held ideas different from Bush, and tragic wars in Iraq and, although less so, in Afghanistan.

Greenwald makes a convincing case, but as someone who values academic arguments for me there was a bit too much of journalistic license in the discussion. For one thing I appreciate the scholarly apparatus, and I found the lack of any sort of documentation whatsoever troubling. Greenwald offered basic statements about where large quote came from, but no specifics. For example, on p. 105 he quotes from a Dr. Rafael Medoff’s 2003 article but doesn’t bother to tell you the name of the article or where it appeared, to say nothing of page number, etc. That is common throughout the book. I want more specificity and the ability to follow-up on, even to fact check, what is being said. It’s not that I don’t think Greenwald is incorrectly quoting these sources; I always want to verify everything.

Perhaps that is not a problem for other readers, but it is for me. I take the analysis in this book seriously, and I want the substance to back it up.

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The Assassinations of Joseph Smith Jr. and Hyrum Smith

Joseph Smith Jr.

June 27th marks the anniversary of the 1844 assassinations of Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon founding prophet, and his brother Hyrum Smith at the Carthage Jail in Hancock County, Illinois. It is usually a day of remembrance for those claiming the legacy of Smith and the religious group he founded. The murders occurred late in the afternoon of the 27th, when conspirators engineered an attack on the jail. Although they killed only the Smith brothers, Mormon Apostle John Taylor was also seriously wounded while Willard Richards survived essentially unscathed.

This event set in motion a series of tumultuous changes, leading to the succession of Brigham Young as the head of the majority group of Mormons. He, of course, led them to Utah where they became a powerful force religiously, economically, and politically. Other groups also emerged; there occurred a splintering of the church as constituted in the era of Joseph Smith into at least ten identifiable groups. The fights were over theology and doctrine, polity and personality, pettiness and provocation. My own religious home among this panoply of groups, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (which changed its name to Community of Christ in 2000), coalesced around the leadership of the prophet’s son, Joseph Smith III, a bit later.

How the Smiths came to be in the Carthage Jail, for me, is the most interesting part of the story. Perhap the greatest mistake of Joseph Smith Jr.’s, life—certainly it was the most costly—was the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, published by Mormon dissidents in June 1844. They exposed Smith as an authoritarian leader who controlled everything in Nauvoo. They challenged his leadership, his practices—especially plural marriage—and his militarism. Smith pushed the Nauvoo city council to declare this newspaper a “nuisance” and ordered it destroyed.

In another time, in another circumstance, Smith might have gotten away with the destruction of the Expositor. Not this time. The dissenters Smith sought to destroy this time had been a part of Mormonism’s middle class, persons who had known both power and influence—especially William Law, a successful businessman and a counselor to Joseph Smith in the First Presidency for a time in the early 1840s—who immediately filed charges for Smith’s arrest. He was ensconced in the Carthage Jail, along with brother Hyrum and other lieutenants, on the afternoon of the 27th when armed conspirators assassinated the Smith brothers.

A murder conspiracy developed only on the afternoon of the 27th as men called together by the local militia leadership near Carthage were dismissed without any official mission. As they returned to Carthage, they gradually dwindled to no more than 75, but some began to assert that since they were gathered together that they should, according to John Hay, who grew up in the area, “finish the matter totally. The unavowed design of the leaders communicated itself magnetically to the men, until the entire company became fused into one mass of bloodthirsty energy.” George Rockwell placed the best possible light on the conspiracy by telling his father soon after the event that those involved were “unwilling to be trifled with any longer, [and] they determined to take the matter into their own hands, and execute justice before they [the Smith brothers] should succeed in making their escape.”

Thomas Halman was present in Carthage at the time of the mobbing. A little more than a month after the murders he wrote to a friend, George Weston, about the episode. His account provides an interesting perspective on the conspiracy: “About four o’clock on the 27th of June the jail was surrounded by a mob disguised, who demanded the prisoners. The guard told them to desist—fired and wounded some, but before they had time to do more, they were being held down by the mob (taking good care not to hurt them) whilst others of the mob were making quick but thorough work of the object they had in view. They reached up stairs, Hyrum closed the door upon them and received his death wounds thro the door. Jo fired upon them, from some unknown cause raised the window on the cast and jumped from it. But received a number of balls before he reached the ground. They both expired immediately!”

Artist’s depiction of the asassination of Joseph Smith.

William R. Hamilton was one of the youngest members of the militia at the time of the Smiths’ murders in 1844. Later a judge in the county, he was the son of Artois Hamilton, who owned the hotel in Carthage. Hamilton described his experiences of the murders in a letter to Foster Walker, a resident of Pontoosac, in Hancock County. Hamilton noted that the mob approached the jail from the north, streaming on either side to completely surround the building. “The guards were quietly sitting in front and in the hall below,” he commented, “all of whom were captured without much trouble or danger. Just a little suspicion might be attached to the officer in command. Yet it might be presumed he thought his only duty was to keep the Smiths from coming downstairs.”

Hamilton wrote that he sprinted to the site of the murders ahead of his company. “When about fifty yards away I saw Joseph Smith come to the window and fall out.” Then he added:

One of the men went to him and partially straightened his body out beside the well curb. Just at this time I got up amongst the men and heard him say, “he’s dead,” when all the mob immediately left. I went to where Smith was lying and found that he was dead without doubt. I then went up to the room where they had been quartered, where I found Hyram Smith lying upon the floor on his back, dead. No person was in the room, or came while I was there. He was stretched out on the floor, just as he had fallen after being shot. The shot that killed him was fired through the door panel by one of the mob, while in the hall, and struck him in the left breast; he falling backward. There were in the room at that time four persons the two Smiths and Elders Taylor and Richards. Taylor was wounded, being hit several times—all flesh wounds—and was the same night taken to Nauvoo. Richards was not hurt and immediately after the mob left the hall, carried Taylor into the cell department of the jail, which was done just before I went upstairs.

Hamilton also described how the Mormons had tried to secure the door when the mob came upstairs and how Smith had fired an old English pepper-box revolver through the doorway. He then commented that “After I had satisfied my curiosity, seen and been among the mob, seen the prophet shot, and seen the dead men, it occurred to me I ought to go home and tell the news. When about 200 yards from the jail I met the company coming ready for business. Nothing was to be done but to “about face,” return to camp and be disbanded; which was promptly done in good order, as their prisoners were dead and not likely to run away.”

As soon as the murders were done the mob disappeared. John Hay remarked of this: “They went home at a killing pace over the wide dusty prairie. Warsaw is eighteen miles from Carthage; the Smiths were killed at half-past five; at a quarters before eight the returning crowd began to drag their weary limbs through the main street of Warsaw,—at such an astounding rate of speed had the lash of their own thoughts driven them.”

They were concerned that the Nauvoo Legion would march but it did not. While the women and children were ferried across the river to Missouri, the “men kept guard night and day in the hazel thickets around the town.” But nothing happened. The Mormon leaders called for patience and mourning but not revenge. They sent a delegation to Carthage to retrieve their dead. The bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith were returned to Nauvoo the next day and buried on June 29.

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