An Infographic on the Evolution of Space Food


Space food is one of those items that is consistently fascinating. What do astronauts eat, and why. This infographic from Labeley.com has some interesting information. Enjoy.

space-food-infographic

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Extra Bases”


Extra Bases

Extra Bases: Reflections on Jackie Robinson, Race, and Baseball History. By Jules Tygiel. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Jules Tygiel, who passed away in 2008, had worked for many years on the history of race relations, baseball, and Jackie Robinson. His book, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1983), was more about the process of integration in the aftermath of World War II than about baseball. It represented the very best in the serious exploration of the history of American sport and its relationship to all manner of issues in the nation. Extra Bases: Reflections on Jackie Robinson, Race, and Baseball History is an example of this same type of exploration.

In Extra Bases Tygiel carries his earlier work farther by reprinting several pieces he had published in a range of periodicals and books. All deal in some measure with the relationship of baseball to American society, especially the issue of race relations. The essays, although available elsewhere, offer a nice retrospective of Tygiel’s work, ranging from discussions of Jackie Robinson to Jim Crow sports to commentary on the nature of baseball in 2000. This will be a book that those interested in sophisticated analysis of baseball will appreciate. Unfortunately, there are not that many readers in that category. For those who would appreciate Tygiel’s in-depth approach, the work is a disjointed collection of seemingly random essays written over some two decades beginning in the 1980s.

Some of these essays are outstanding, especially those about Jackie Robinson and Jim Crow baseball. They are his strong suit and well worth reading. Much of the rest is enjoyable, but less useful.

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Space Navigation: Looking to the Stars


For centuries mariners have looked to the stars to cross the oceans. Mariners at sea carried instruments such as cross staffs and sextants to determine the position of celestial objects in the sky. When combined with an accurate time reference, this would allow a marine navigator to determine the position of a ship on the Earth’s surface. Similar techniques updated with modern technology can be used in space. Early human missions to the Moon even carried sextants and celestial charts that could be used to determine position.

The art and science of space navigation have continued to be employed to ensure that spacecraft arrive at their destinations. Special tools and techniques have been developed to find the way across the vast distances of the solar system. Early flyby missions needed only to arrive in the correct vicinity, but more recent missions orbiting other planets required highly precise trajectories to be successful. Performing this type of navigation requires a network of Earth-based communication stations, accurate time keeping equipment, and many complex calculations.

Probes in the first generation of planetary spacecraft were often equipped with star trackers to maintain attitude and keep antennas pointed at the Earth. Star trackers are small optical devices that maintain a lock on a bright star. The most common star used for this purpose was Canopus, visible in the southern hemisphere. It is the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius, although Sirius is not well-suited for tracking because it is a binary star. The star tracker would signal if a spacecraft drifted away from its correct alignment, and thrusters would be fired to correct the position.

As a spacecraft approaches its intended destination, other kinds of optical techniques are used to refine its position. Cameras on the spacecraft are used to obtain images of nearby planetary bodies with stars in the background. Because the positions of the stars are well known, these images can be used to determine the position of the spacecraft relative to the planetary body. In this way the position of the spacecraft can be determined at higher accuracy than is possible from Earth.

Three 34m (110 ft.) diameter Beam Waveguide antennas located at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, situated in the Mojave Desert in California. This is one of three complexes which comprise NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN). The DSN provides radio communications for all of NASA's interplanetary spacecraft and is also utilized for radio astronomy and radar observations of the solar system and the universe.

Three 34m (110 ft.) diameter Beam Waveguide antennas located at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, situated in the Mojave Desert in California. This is one of three complexes which comprise NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN). The DSN provides radio communications for all of NASA’s interplanetary spacecraft and is also utilized for radio astronomy and radar observations of the solar system and the universe.

Deep Space Network

Since the early days of space exploration a network of communications stations has been required to track and navigate planetary spacecraft. Goldstone, the first US station for this purpose, became operational in 1958 in the Mojave Desert in California to support the Pioneer missions to the Moon. Stations in Australia, South Africa, and Spain were later added. This array of facilities, known as the Deep Space Network, today consists of three globally distributed stations to enable communication with missions at all times. The Deep Space Network is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA. Most data from planetary missions are returned through this network, and different missions must share the system.

Each station in the Deep Space Network is equipped with at least four dish antennas used to transmit and receive data from operational spacecraft. The largest antenna at each station is a 70 meter diameter dish. Others are about 30 meters in diameter. Large dishes are needed to concentrate weak signals from distant spacecraft.

Tracking a distant spacecraft from Earth requires predictions to be made of its position. Communications are not maintained around the clock. Instead, the Deep Space Network re-acquires a spacecraft at specified times. The spacecraft continues to move between communication sessions, so a prediction must be made to point the antenna at the correct point in the sky. Thousands of measurements of the spacecraft’s distance and velocity are made. These are used to update a model predicting the movement of the spacecraft.

Navigation Tasks

One of the first tasks required in space navigation is determining velocity. The speed at which a spacecraft moves can be found by measuring the Doppler shift of its radio transmissions. All spacecraft are designed to transmit at certain radio frequencies. On Earth, the received signal is slightly shifted to a lower frequency because the spacecraft is moving away. This is the same process that causes light from stars and distant galaxies to be “red-shifted”. Measuring the amount of Doppler shift enables engineers to determine the rate at which the spacecraft is receding.

Mariner 10 was the first spacecraft to visit Mercury. It was also the first spacecraft to perform a gravity assist, a milestone in space navigation. This was made possible by increased timekeeping accuracy at tracking stations. This photograph from June 1973 shows Mariner 10 being prepared at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Today gravity assist is a common and essential tool for space exploration. It requires that the position of the spacecraft be determined very accurately so a successful trajectory can be planned.

Mariner 10 was the first spacecraft to visit Mercury. It was also the first spacecraft to perform a gravity assist, a milestone in space navigation. This was made possible by increased timekeeping accuracy at tracking stations. This photograph from June 1973 shows Mariner 10 being prepared at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Today gravity assist is a common and essential tool for space exploration. It requires that the position of the spacecraft be determined very accurately so a successful trajectory can be planned.

The range, or distance, of a spacecraft must also be determined. This can also be accomplished using radio transmissions. The amount of time for a signal to travel between Earth, the probe, and back can be used to determine the distance because the speed of light is precisely known. The amount of time required for the signal to be processed on the spacecraft must also be known. This is done by testing engineering copies of the spacecraft radio equipment used for testing. Movements of the Earth between the time of transmission and when the signal was received must also be known.

The angular position of the spacecraft must also be determined. This is a measure of the probe’s location as seen from Earth, and along with range and velocity allows the position and movement to be calculated in three dimensions. Angular position can be crudely measured by using pointing information of an Earth-based antenna. More precise measurements are possible by using transmissions received simultaneously at two different Earth-based stations.

Timing is Everything

All the space navigation techniques have one important aspect in common: they rely on accurate timekeeping. Atomic clocks are used at each tracking station. These provide a stable timing reference to maintain constant transmission frequencies and allow data to be combined from more than one station.

To measure the velocity using Doppler shift, frequencies of radio transmissions must be precisely controlled. On board spacecraft, ultra-stable oscillators are used to maintain a consistent frequency in radio transmissions. These stable transmissions can be used to determine position, but not with a great deal of accuracy. Highly stable time standards are heavy and consume a great deal of power, so installing them in planetary spacecraft is not an option. This situation is different with GPS satellites, all of which carry their own atomic clocks. To obtain a stable timing reference for planetary spacecraft, a stable time standard known as a hydrogen maser is used to produce a stable transmission frequency on Earth. This signal is sent to a spacecraft, which is then programmed to mathematically alter the frequency and return the signal. This way the velocity of a spacecraft can be determined to an accuracy of a few millimeters per second.

To determine the range, the travel time of a signal must be known to a small fraction of a second. Atomic clocks at the tracking station measure the amount of time required to send and receive signals moving at the speed of light. Atomic clocks are also used to compare signals received at different stations. This allows space navigators to precisely determine the angular position.

A nap of the Goldstone Ground Station in southern California.

A nap of the Goldstone Ground Station in southern California.

The Goldstone station is located in the Mojave Desert of California. The location was chosen for favorable topography and open space that limited radio interference. Goldstone contains several individual sites, each with its own set of large dish antennas. Each site is commonly named for the mission or destination for which it was first used. The first to begin operation was the Pioneer site, used to receive data from the Pioneer probes to the Moon. The Uranus site was first used to receive data from the Voyager 2 flyby of Uranus.

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A Great April Fool’s Day Stunt


Last year on April Fool’s Day the National Air and Space Museum staged a great stunt. Here is a reprise of the dusting of Wonder Woman’s invisible jet. Enjoy!

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “People of Plenty”


People of PlentyPeople of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character. By David M. Potter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954.

I first read this book while in graduate school now more than thirty years ago and I found it stimulating enough to carry around with me ever since. I recently found it on a shelf of my books and decided to reread it to see how it holds up. It does, but perhaps not in the way originally intended. At a fundamental level this is a work of consensus history. That consensus interpretation celebrated the long tradition of shared American ideals and values while de-emphasizing conflict, and that made the United States and the people that made it up somehow “better.” Its advocates 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. Much of this approach, and certainly such was the case with the best of the consensus school historians such as Potter, advocated a pragmatic liberalism that many believed was in constant jeopardy from forces of fear, anti-intellectualism, and authoritarianism.

Potter begins with a discussion of history, its meanings, what it might illuminate and what it is ill-equipped to explain, and in the process bounds promise of historical analysis in seeking to understand the American character. He reminds his readers—and many historians should well take heed of this when they venture into areas that are not fundamentally about the actions of humans—that “The very term ‘history’ means, in fact, human history, and the whole record of history is, in a sense, an account of dynamic external forces operating upon men and of the reactions and responses of men to these forces” (p. x).

He then goes on to discuss the issue of abundance—economic and otherwise—that has fundamentally shaped the American character. Freedom from want for the vast majority meant that other democratic institutions also flourished. He insists that we understand “that democracy paced the growth of our abundance and abundance broadened the base of our democracy” (p. 141). Absent those interlocked imperatives and the United States might have become a very different place. Indeed, I’m sure that based on what I see in this work that Potter would have been disturbed by the increasing economic, as well as opportunity, divide between the highest and lowest of those in American society.

The remainder of the People of Plenty lays out how this sense of abundance has contributed to and interrelated with the American character. He has chapters on the quest for equality, the ideal of democracy, the concept of an American mission to redeem the world, the experience of the frontier and Turner’s famous thesis, and the impact of consumerism and advertising. Potter’s final paragraph in the book offers a telling summation: “the presence of the force of this factor [economic abundance] are recognizable with equal certainty in the whole broad, general range of American experience, American ideals, and American institutions” (p. 208)

Does the experience of American abundance drive the manner in which the American character has evolved? Probably, but there are other nations with similar abundance whose character is strikingly different. What accounts for that difference? Moreover, has the issue of abundance so apparent to David M. Potter in 1954 been altered in the last 60 plus years? If so, might this issue still be a useful interpretative framework for studies of this subject? As powerful as Potter’s thesis is, as a remarkable as his analysis is in this book, does it still work well as an explanation of why Americans are the way they are?

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Important New Publication Released in the NASA History Series


NASA has just released an important new book in its History Series, Historical Studies in the Societal Impact of Spaceflight (NASA SP-2016-4803), edited by Steven J. Dick. The flyer for this is below. Electronic copies in several e-book formats, including pdf, are available from http://www.nasa.gov/connect/ebooks/historical_studies_societal_impact_spaceflight_detail.html online.

Societal_Impact_E-flyer_TAGGED

 

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Fawn Brodie and Interpretations of the Origins of Mormon Polyamy?


Joseph Smith Jr.

The place of plural marriage in the early history of the Mormon church has been an important topic of analysis for historians since it first appeared in Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s. It has also been one of the most contentious issues in Mormon history. Assignment of responsibility for the origination of the doctrine, with all of its overtones of sexual impropriety, has been hotly contested. When Fawn M. Brodie published her path-breaking biography of Joseph Smith in 1945, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, Mormon Prophet (Knopf, 1945, rev. ed. 1971), she characterized the origin of polygamy as sexual licentiousness manifested as religious piety. This set off other historians of Mormonism and they have been debating it ever since.

For instance, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ), the second largest of the Mormon factions and my original place of faith, officially denied until the 1980s that Joseph Smith Jr., Mormonism’s founder, had originated the practice. Instead, it had been the innovation of Brigham Young and his lieutenants, and was evidence of their apostasy. Brodie’s arguments, therefore, really set off adherents to the church.

Indeed, historian Robert B. Flanders was virtually shunned from the Reorganized Church after his book, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi (Illinois, 1965), appeared because his research showed that polygamy’s origins laid firmly at the feet of Joseph Smith. This only began to change in a fundamental way after the 1983 publication of an article by Reorganized Church Historian Richard P. Howard that viewed plural marriage as something that arose in Nauvoo as an historical accident which grew like topsy near and immediately after the death of Joseph Smith Jr. As misguided as this interpretation was because of its conservatism and inability to deal with a raft of Smith’s earlier indiscretions, it opened the door for the acceptance of more critical appraisals.

Latter-day Saint historians never denied Smith’s responsibility for originating plural marriage but tried to explain his sexual antics as religious in origin. Hugh Nibley, in one of the first responses written to counter the arguments in Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith, (No Ma’am, That’s Not History, Bookcraft, 1946), defends all of the prophet’s actions as noble in character. He then comments, in one of the most asinine statements ever written about Mormon history, that Smith’s “teachings are so well-knit and perfectly logical that they have never had to undergo the slightest change or alteration during a century in which every other church in Christendom has continually revamped its doctrines.” Nibley must have somehow forgotten that the church was forced by the federal government officially to abandon the practice of plural marriage in 1890 despite its supposedly eternal nature as a doctrine of God.

Fawn Brodie

Other Mormon historians have also emphasized the pious dimension of the development of plural marriage, in the process downplaying the sexual aspects of the doctrine. Biographies of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Wilford Woodruff, all prolific polygamists, describe the practice’s burden and implicitly argue that they took additional wives not because of any drive of the libido but because of their commitment to the Mormon religion.

Mormon and historian Marvin Hill explicitly took on Fawn Brodie’s sexual misconduct explanation for plural marriage and concluded that it was probably the result of Smith’s own seriousness about his prophetic role. Hill wrote in “Secular or Sectarian History? A Critique of ‘No Man Knows My History’,” Church History 43 (March 1974): 78-96, that “Brodie failed to appreciate the degree to which the prophetic role liberated Smith from the social restraints which customarily control sexual behavior.” He noted that Smith was not charged with any sexual misconduct until 1832, well after his emergence as a prophetic leader, and that if he was such a libertine, it should have been present in the 1820s. Hill also comments that Smith seems to have been greatly influenced in his thinking about plural marriage by his reading of the Old Testament, providing “further proof of Smith’s early and complete absorption in his prophetic role.” Smith also, according to Hill, did not have sexual relations with many of his wives, again parrying the sexual drive as the reason for the practice. In all, according to Hill, Smith emerges as a more authentic and legitimate religious leader than Brodie makes him out to be. While Marvin Hill is overall a fine historian, in this instance his reason was obliterated by his faith.

It is this desire for an answer to Brodie’s charges of Smith’s sexual misconduct and illegitimacy that helps explain the great acceptance of non-Mormon historian Lawrence Foster’s collective studies of sexual practices among the Mormons, the Shakers, and the Oneida Perfectionists. A very fine work, in Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1981), Foster explores experimentation in the marriage relationship that took place in a broad spectrum of antebellum America. He interpreted Joseph Smith as only one of several highly creative and restless souls who were seeking a more perfect relationship of individuals. He was not, therefore, the licentious womanizer that Brodie made of him. He also was not, and this seems to have been largely missed by most Mormons who embraced Foster’s work, the prophet of the living God who restored the true gospel in its ancient purity to the Earth.

One aspect of the effort to clothe the origins of plural marriage in religious reverence resulted in specifically trying to push the date of the revelation on the subject back to 1831. Brodie had pointed out the inconsistency in the official date of the recording of the revelation of plural marriage, Section 132 in the Latter-day Saints Doctrine and Covenants, of July 12, 1843, with the de facto practice of plural marriage from at least 1836.

Using an 1861 recollection of W. W. Phelps, at best a questionable source since polygamy had been firmly established in Utah by then and it was under attack both by the federal government and the Reorganized Church as an illegitimate institution, historian Danel W. Bachman made a case in “New Light on an Old Hypothesis: The Ohio Origins of the Revelation on Eternal Marriage,” Journal of Mormon History 5 (1978): 19-31, that on July 17, 1831, Smith had told five followers in a revelation in Jackson County, Missouri, “It is my will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites, that their posterity may become white, delightsome and just.” Phelps asked Joseph Smith later how this could be since the men to whom the revelation was given already had wives. Smith had told him that it would be done as it was in the Old Testament with Abraham and Jacob, “by Revelation.” Accordingly, if one accepts this argument, the practice was commanded as early as 1831 and put into place at least by 1836, with the formal recording of an earlier revelation completing the process or enacting plural marriage only in 1843.

The efforts to explore Mormon plural marriage practices have led to some valuable observations. But, as in other instances, the either/or nature framing Brodie’s arguments on the subject have prompted Mormon historians to take limiting approaches. The comparative approach of Lawrence Foster has been illuminating, for instance, but I would suggest that without his approaching it as a non-Mormon with multi-religious interests, it never would have evolved as usefully as it did.

An historic image of Mormon polygamy in Utah.

Additionally, studies of plural marriage on its own terms, without moral judgments as to sexual deviance of those involved, have been stunted. And a whole raft of questions never suggested by Brodie await exploration. For instance, the whole gender issue and its relationship in plural marriage is ripe for exploration. Also, what role did plural marriage play in efforts by insecure males to secure traditional gender roles in a society in flux in Jacksonian America? Did the all male priesthood headed by Joseph Smith embrace these practices because of status anxiety? Historian Mark C. Carnes has argued that Victorian males desired to restore order and to resecure the patriarchal authority lost in the Industrial Revolution and its attendant social upheavals. Could plural marriage have been a part of this effort? Joseph Smith’s preoccupation with Old Testament images, especially those associated with the biblical patriarchs, and the elaborate rites of plural marriage and other temple concepts share linkages to actions taking place in broader American society. Could similar concerns for status and security have prompted the development of plural marriage as a religious rite? We await future studies that will develop these and other issues.

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Wednesay’s Book Review: “The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois”


Nauvoo Legion in IllinoisThe Nauvoo Legion in Illinois: A History of the Mormon Militia, 1841-1846. By Richard E. Bennett, Susan Easton Black, and Donald Q. Cannon. Norman, OK: The Arthur H. Clark Company, An imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press, 2010. 436 pp. Illustrations, tables, acknowledgments, appendices, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-87062-382-0. $39.95 Hardcover with dust jacket.

The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois by Richard E. Bennett, Susan Easton Black, and Donald Q. Cannon is overall a fine work of history. No question but that the story of the Nauvoo Legion is important to understanding the Mormon experience in Illinois, and it is surprising that no one has 060sought to come to grips with it in any true measure before now. This is the first full-length historical study of the subject.

The Legion was one of the two legally-constituted bulwarks designed to defend the Mormons and preserve their order. The other was the Nauvoo city charter, which established a governmental structure that fostered the creation of a virtual city-state by the Mormons in Illinois in the early 1840s. This is an exceptionally important topic and the authors have done more than anyone else to record the Legion’s origins, structure, and use. As such it is a very helpful and important study in early Mormon history.

As a measure of dearth in serious historical research and writing on this subject, when John Hallwas and I edited the collection, Kingdom on the Mississippi Revisited: Nauvoo in Mormon History (Illinois, 1996), we were forced to include Hamilton Gardner’s article on the Nauvoo Legion published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society in 1961simply because nothing else of substance existed. It was as if the “New Mormon History” had completely ignored the issue of Mormon militarism in Nauvoo. Accordingly, I am pleased to see this work help to fill that void. Of course, that begs the question, why has so little appeared on this subject? I think it might be because of the militant nature of Nauvoo Legion and its role in the history of Mormon Nauvoo. Perhaps Joseph Smith III said it best in his memoirs: “Looking back along the pathway, I feel it was a pity that such a [martial] spirit crept in among them, however, and a still greater one that the leading minds of the church partook of it” (“The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith (1832-1914),” Saints’ Herald 82 (Jan. 1, 1935): 15-16).

Established as an official arm of the Illinois state militia in 1840, the Nauvoo Legion at its peak had some 2,500 troops. It was organized into two regiments (called cohorts) of infantry and one regiment of cavalry and even had light cannon associated with it. Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon prophet, assumed leadership of the Legion and boasted that his rank of lieutenant general made him the highest ranking officer in the U.S. (the commanding general of the U.S. Army at the time was a major general, never mind that Smith’s was a militia rank rather than regular army). Other senior officials in the Mormon Church also served in high positions in the Legion.

The Mormons took their militia unit quite seriously, and the impressive number of their troops, the acquisition of weapons from the state arsenal, and the amount and enthusiasm of their public drills thrilled the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo but terrified the non-Mormons in the vicinity.

For the Latter-day Saints the Legion promised protection after the conflict in Missouri. They argued that the Legion “will enable us to perform our military duty by ourselves, and thus afford us power, and privilege, of avoiding one of the most fruitful sources of strife, oppression, and collision with the world” (Times and Seasons, Jan. 15, 1841). Contrast that with the perspective of the non-Mormons who saw this as a powerful army, well-equipped and trained, and under the control of theocratic control rather than secular government, and they feared it. For example, the Nauvoo Legion marched in a triumphant show on April 6, 1841, in which Joseph Smith laid the cornerstones for the Nauvoo Temple. Those witnessing the festivities from afar registered fear that this well-armed, expertly-drilled, and religiously-enthused organization might be used to force Smith’s will on those not of the movement.

Thomas C. Sharp, the non-Mormon editor of the nearby Warsaw Signal who visited Nauvoo for the event, dated his opposition to the church from that display. The military power exhibited on that occasion terrified Sharp, who went back to Warsaw with the impression that the Mormons were a warmongering horde that would decimate the region.

This is a complex story, one still not fully rendered in this study. But even so, the authors of The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois have made an important step in interpreting the militarism that the Legion’s existence demonstrates. They emphasize that the Legion was created as a defensive organization, and was rarely used for attack. Of course, it was certainly a deterrent, but that also meant that it was also a constant source of tension in Western Illinois, even if not employed to kill people and break things. It sent a clear message, much as other powerful military forces have done in other times and circumstances; don’t mess with this group of people.

While this is a fine contribution to history, there is one element that the authors might have explored more thoroughly. The place of militarism in Mormonism is a theme that has not received sufficient treatment. Everywhere the Mormons went during their earliest history conflict arose, some of it brought on by their actions and some not. But this religious movement was never pacificistic and always responded to difficulties with swords and gunshots. In Jackson County, Missouri, in the early 1830s violence erupted and shots were exchanged and people died. In 1834 Joseph Smith sent a military expedition to fight the Missourians, with disastrous consequences. In 1838 Mormon vigilantes engaged in a conflict in western Missouri, and then church leaders followed that with a desperate all-out uprising against the state militia. The Nauvoo Legion was a continuation, as well as a response, to this history of violence. And there would be other altercations, with associated loss of life, later in the church’s history. The place of militarism in the Mormon tradition is a fascinating area for exploration. Perhaps further work will be forthcoming on this aspect of Mormon history from these authors. It would be a welcome development.

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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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Three Zones of the Solar System


This illustration depicts the three zones of the Solar System.

This illustration depicts the three zones of the Solar System.

With the success of the New Horizon’s spacecraft visiting Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, it seemed appropriate to discuss hte major zones of the solar system. The solar system consists of the Sun and the objects bound to it through gravity. This includes the Sun, eight planets (since 2006 when Pluto was redesignated as a dwarf planet), their 158 currently known moons, and a large number of asteroids, meteoroids, planetoids, comets, and interplanetary dust. These may be conveniently divided into three distinct zones, each with its own characteristics. The inner zone closest to the Sun contains rocky planets, known as terrestrial planets because of their comparative relationship to Earth. The second part contains the four gas giant planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The third zone includeds the Kuiper Belt, of which Pluto is the most famous (but not largest) body, and the Oort Cloud of distant long-period comets.

Each of these zones has its own challenges and opportunities. The terrestrial planets in this solar system occupy a habitable zone, defined as the region around a star that has conditions conducive to life as we understand it. Fundamentally, this means that the region has at least some planets with temperatures high enough to maintain liquid water. Of course, Earth is the only object in our solar system in this category but evidence supported the theory that Mars once had liquid water a well. Accordingly, the planets in this zone have long been viewed as possible abodes of life and were early targets for exploration because of this and because of their relative closeness to Earth. All have been visited, some of them many times, and the findings from the scientific investigations have both dashed hopes of finding life and of opening other possibilities for exploration.

Beyond the orbit of Mars but inside the orbit of Jupiter lies the main asteroid belt, consiting of thousands of rocky and metallic bodies. The total mass of this material is a small fraction contained in Earth’s Moon.

The second zone, the Jovian planets or gas giants, have enamored all astronomers from the time that Galileo turned the first telescope on them. Little wonder that as soon as the opportunity permitted, spacecraft began to visit these. The most stunning of these missions was the Voyager 1 and 2 probes to the outer solar system. Launched in 1977, these spacecraft visited their primary targets of Jupiter and Saturn and then went on to all the giant outer planets. The two Voyagers took well over 100,000 images of the outer planets, rings, and satellites, as well as millions of magnetic, chemical spectra, and radiation mea­sure­ments. The Voyagers’ windshield tour of the Jovian planets in the second zone returned information to Earth that revolu­tionized the science of planetary astronomy.

This artist’s concept shows the planet catalogued as 2003UB313 at the outer fringes of our solar system, in the third zone. Our Sun can be seen in the distance. The new planet, which is yet to be formally named, is at least as big as Pluto and about three times farther away from the Sun than Pluto. It is very cold and dark. The planet was discovered by the Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, on January 8, 2005.

This artist’s concept shows the planet catalogued as 2003UB313 at the outer fringes of our solar system, in the third zone. Our Sun can be seen in the distance. The new planet, which is yet to be formally named, is at least as big as Pluto and about three times farther away from the Sun than Pluto. It is very cold and dark. The planet was discovered by the Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, on January 8, 2005.

The Kuiper Belt, comprising the third zone, is perhaps the most mysterious of those parts of the solar system since it is as yet unexplored by spacecraft. While there are more icy dwarf planets than in the other two zones, as yet no spacecraft has visited the region. This led the National Academy of Sciences to assign priority to missions to visit this third zone—especially the Pluto-Charon system—and the New Horizons mission was launched in 2006 to help fulfill this objective.

In the Kuiper Belt, icy dwarf planets represent a fascinating puzzle. Are they planetary embryos, whose growth was stunted? Are they relics of the origin of the solar system? Most scientists believe they are both, relics from the formation of the solar system more than 4 billion years ago. If they are the bodies out of which the larger planets accumulated, they promise new understandings of the origins and evolution of the solar system. With these efforts to explore the farthest zone of the solar system, humanity will complete the first stage of the reconnaissance of the Solar System. What is learned in the process will inform the direction of future explorations.

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