Wallpaper Wednesday

25 04 2012

Shuttle Discovery is Demated. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

What a beautiful photograph.

I’m buried up to my ears in end-of-the-semester grading right now. I’ve been feeling so pressed for time that I almost broke the only rule I set for myself when I created this site last year: never post about my own research. It’s precisely days like these that tempt me to dig into my own photo archives: a stack of papers to grade with more on the way, final exams just around the corner, two conference paper proposals due next week, and so on. But the moment I start talking about my own research is the moment this site because more of a chore and less of a pleasure, so even though it would be easier to upload something from my hard drive, I took some time to look at the latest NASA releases instead. It’s better for you and me both this way, trust me.

The photo above shows Space Shuttle Discovery suspended from a crane boom, shortly after it was lifted off the back of the NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) that carried it to Dulles International last week. In composition, the shot resembles the one Bill Ingalls took of Atlantis on the launch pad last July. He certainly knows how to take advantage of reflective surfaces.

As always, click on the image to download the wallpaper.

Wallpaper Wednesday

18 04 2012

Space Shuttle Discovery Flown Over the U.S. Capitol. Image Credit: NASA/Smithsonian Institution/Harold Dorwin

Really, was there any doubt about today’s image? Click on the Capitol Building to download.

Wheels Down at Dulles

18 04 2012

Wheels down at Dulles International, OV-103 (Discovery), April 17, 2012. Image Credit: NASA

The Internet can be an amazing place, or an amazing tool, however you want to conceptualize it. Yesterday, instead of working on an article I really need to finish, I spent two hours watching the transfer of the Space Shuttle Discovery from Kennedy Space Center to Dulles International Airport, courtesy of NASA TV. During the two hours I was glued to NASA’s live stream, I serial tweeted, carried on several fragmented but enthusiastic online conversations about the landing, updated my fb status, took dozens of screenshots just for the hell of it, and did some preliminary research on the terminal at Dulles. I eventually connected with my partner via cellphone, and we watched the landing together (along with one or two of her co-workers who wandered into her office during our phone call).

NASA 905 SCA (Pluto 95 Heavy) & OV-103 flyover Washington, D.C., April 17, 2012. Image Credit: NASA

Boy, I burned through a lot of nervous energy yesterday, worrying that something would go wrong. It’s a good thing launch control had their emotions under control, if only because they had to land the T-38 escort (Pluto 98) in a fuel critical situation. While it’s not particularly unusual for me to grow sentimental when engaging with space science, it is atypical of me to confess to those sentiments to everyone following me on twitter. Unquestionably, the Shuttle program has shaped the course of my life and, to be honest, that hasn’t always been a good thing. So, while part of me was sad yesterday as Discovery disappeared behind the terminal at Dulles, a greater part of me was relieved to see it all finally come to an end.

If you follow me on twitter, you might have seen  my serial tweets as the SCA taxied to the terminal. If you’re my facebook friend, you probably saw the conversation about wood-fired propulsion systems. If you’re one of my architecture students, you’d better have been in class this morning to see me use the following image as a transition between Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn.

Passenger Terminal, Dulles International Airport. Image Credit: NASA

That’s Eero Saarinen & Associate’s passenger terminal (1958-62) in the background. As as I said in class today—this was one of the first American airports built specifically for jet traffic. It’s a gateway to the deeply symbolic political landscape of the nation’s capital. But it’s not just a gateway, it’s a Modern gateway, in terms of program, structure, and function. The caternary curve of the cable-reinforced concrete roof simultaneously implies the rest and motion experienced by the world traveler. The splay of the massive columns that anchor the steel cables on either side of the terminal provides both formal and structural tension. Passenger circulation paths are controlled through the use of “mobile lounges.” That they function as spaces of surveillance is all but masked by their efficient use as people movers.

Saarinen’s design marks the moment the federal government committed itself to international air travel. Discovery’s retirement to the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly marks the moment the government decided to stop investing in space exploration, the logical outcome of all that travel through the atmosphere in 747s. More importantly, yesterday’s landing marked the end of (one version of) the Modernist project, the progressive, curious, optimistic one that put us into rapid motion at mid-century. If we’ve given up on looking at the universe around us, and it seems we have, I’m afraid we’ve pretty much given up on humanity.

Space Shuttle + 747 = Match Made in Heaven

15 04 2012

As my students know, I love a good timelapse video (ask them how many times I’ve made them watch the construction of the exhibition model for BIG’s W. 57th project). As a timelapse, the Space Shuttle and 747 Mating isn’t the most creative work of art I’ve ever seen. On the other hand, the conjunction of two heavy duty flying machines doesn’t need much artistic interpretation in order to produce a riveting movie.

p.s. Of all the videos I’ve showed my students, the BIG model construction was the only one that  made them clap afterward.

Yuri Gagarin

12 04 2012

Yuri Gagarin, "I Saw How Beautiful Our Planet Is..."

In addition to a 6′ x 6′ Russian star chart, I bought this poster of Yuri Gagarin during my first trip to the Soviet Union in 1988.[1] It was the tail end of the Cold War, but glasnost’ hadn’t quite taken hold; nobody was quite sure it was safe to talk to the Americans, and for our part, we never used names when talking about Russian acquaintances because of the listening devices embedded in the walls. Although at least one woman from our group ended up marrying a fellow she met in Leningrad, I wasn’t so lucky.[2] Few people were overtly hostile, but I had more than one stranger on the streetcar ask me to explain why Americans hated Russians so much. Why did we want to kill them? I was shocked at the time, but in retrospect, why wouldn’t they think that? Back home, Reagan was doing a good job of threatening to annihilate them.

Our cultural excursions were mostly benign (our leaders dragged us to see the attic garret where Raskolnikov would have lived if he’d been a real person). If the outings were meant to demonstrate the advanced development of the Soviet state, they backfired (really? It’s 1988 and you’re still spitting water and blood into a bucket at the dentist’s office?). There was no clear message that the USSR was winning the Cold War. At the same time, daily life was enveloped in both pro-Soviet and anti-American rhetoric, from the monumental Communist slogans on the top of buildings to the posters in the doctor’s office blaming the spread of AIDS on foreigners. While Kristine and Sergei may have ended up a happy couple, the rest of us weren’t going to be friends. Ever.

And so I spent a lot of time wandering around the streets of Leningrad—Riga—Odessa—Tblisi—Moscow—by myself, looking awkward and suspicious, I’m sure. I bought my star charts and my Gagarin posters and my Soviet Workers Unite! poster (an ironic purchase, to be sure) and my space pins [значки] and my lacquer boxes in all but complete silence. I spoke enough to buy my bread rolls [бублик] and pies [пирожки] on the street, but never so much that you could call it a conversation. When I was in Moscow, I spent all day at the VDNKh space pavilion, hanging around the Lunokhod, but made contact with no one. And it wasn’t just my natural reticence. When I returned two years later, people were still reluctant to speak to foreigners because although it appeared glasnost’ was going to be a long-term government policy, no one could be sure. What if someone spoke frankly to an outsider or to the press? Dramatic policy shift wasn’t exactly an uncommon practice in the Soviet Union.

There’s a point to all this and here it is: if you had told me in 1988 or even 1990 that one day the U.S. would be looking to Russia for transportation to an international space station, or that our governments were actually considering collaborating on space science projects, I would have laughed you out of the room. The U.S. was too overtly hostile to the USSR; the USSR had no working technology outside of the military. Working together? Not possible. I knew what I was talking about—most of my predictions about the Russian future were right on the money. Yet here we are in 2012, on the 51st anniversary of Gagarin’s launch into orbit, and I’m not laughing anymore. It’s not the best of relationships between the two nations, it’s not without problems. But I’m about to post links to a photo history of the Soviet space program, a recording of the radio communications during Gagarin’s launch, and a Soviet documentary about Gagarin (1969), and I can still go to bed without worrying about the NSA showing up on my front porch in the  morning. In 1988, I would have stopped to wonder how thick my CIA and KGB files were getting to be. Today, of course, hitting the “publish” button on this post won’t even disturb my sleep.


[1] The words beneath the image were not actually Gagarin’s; rather, they have been attributed to A. Lozenko. It reads, “While I was flying round the Earth in a space-ship [korabl-sputnik], I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it! Gagarin.”

[2] The one woman who hit on me seemed more interested in using me to defect than anything else. At the time, I suspected she was with the KGB because 1) she was persistent in her interest to go to America; and 2) who else would have the guts to walk up to an American woman and express that kind of interest under Soviet rule? In retrospect, I think she was a private citizen who was relieved to see someone else, from somewhere else, who looked like her (i.e. like a 12-year-old boy).

Wallpaper Wednesday

11 04 2012

Very Large Array (VLA)

I’m not sure who took this beautiful photo of Antenna 6 of the Very Large Array (VLA), so I can’t credit them. I can, however, tell you to click on the image to download it. I can also direct you to an aerial view of the VLA acquired by the Earth Observatory so you can get some idea of the scale of the array. No. 6 might be the most photographed antenna in the array since it’s on the path of the 1/4-mile self-guided walking tour. The VLA Visitors Center welcomes visitors between 8:30 a.m. and sunset daily. Can’t get there in person? Watch a video of it produced by the VLA Education Officer Judy Stanley and Kate Theisen (saves you $0.25 on the brochure, I guess).

The VLA has been in the process of upgrading to the EVLA for some time now—the project is supposed to finish later this year. Along with new functionality comes a new name: NRAO announced earlier this year that the radio telescope will now be known as the Karl G. Jansky VLA, named for founder of radio astronomy. In 1932, Jansky was the first to detect the radio waves coming from the center of our galaxy, so it seems appropriate to attach his name to one of the longer-lived instruments produced by his discovery.

Seeking Clues to the End of the Universe

8 04 2012

Today’s New York Times has a nice article (beautiful photo gallery!) about the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA): High in the Chilean Desert, A Huge Astronomy Project.

Wallpaper Wednesday

4 04 2012

Apollo 11 Preparations

Last week I found myself involved in a conversation with someone who believes that NASA faked the lunar landing. This was a first for me and I’m afraid I fumbled my evidence because…really…faked? I have to say the faith this person has in NASA and the U.S. Government is rather endearing—I certainly don’t believe either bureaucracy is capable of sustaining such a large-scale deception for decade after decade. Juggling an archive of evidence twenty miles deep just to sustain a Cold War lie is beyond their abilities, trust me.

In honor of conspiracy theories everywhere, enjoy today’s wallpaper. It shows the Apollo 11 Command/Service Module (CSM) being mated to the Saturn V Lunar Module Adapter in preparation for the trip to the Moon (click on image above to download).

So long, Bradenton Observatory

1 04 2012

South Florida Museum and Bishop Planetarium

See that small dome just above the entrance to the South Florida Museum? It lives no more. In one of those “here’s something odd” articles that appear in my news feed every so often, I read that the observatory dome has been permanently dismantled, some 10-11 years after  it was damaged during a hurricane. I feel like someone should send an apology to all those happy people shown in the photo accompanying the announcement. Somehow I feel as if we didn’t hold up our end of the bargain.

Observatory. Photo courtesy of South Florida Museum and Bishop Planetarium


Observatories and Instruments