NASA History on iTunes U

31 07 2012

I’ve been sitting on this press release from NASA’s History Program Office for a week or so now:

RELEASE: 12-247
WASHINGTON — Marking the 43rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, NASA has added an extensive collection of historical video, audio, photographs and documents to iTunes U.
iTunes U is a platform for making educational resources available to a wide audience through the iTunes Store.
NASA’s History Program Office iTunes U site currently contains about 300 items that represent a broad sweep of NASA history related to important moments, activities and figures in NASA history. The site’s content is free to download.
“New materials will continue to be uploaded as we expand the coverage both in depth and breadth,” said Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian. “We’re thrilled to educate people on NASA’s rich history and are open to user suggestions and requests.”
The site includes Apollo program material with a collection of items for each of the Apollo missions, as well as a special Politics of Apollo collection of key documents related to the U.S. lunar program.
The site also features eBooks from the NASA History Series. Available titles include reader favorites such as Asif Siddiqi’s “Challenge to Apollo,” the “Exploring the Unknown” series of documentary histories, and all four volumes of Boris Chertok’s “Rockets and People.”
Other agency programs using iTunes U include NASA’s Academy of Program, Project and Engineering Leadership (APPEL), NASA Spinoffs from the Office of the Chief Technologist, and collections from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. To view all of NASA’s iTunes U sites and download material, visit:
To view Apollo materials not found on iTunes U, visit NASA’s history website at:
For additional interactive features and podcasts about NASA, visit:


On one hand, yay! More NASA history! On the other hand, damn! iTunes U!

Is there a more frustrating user interface than the one Apple deemed adequate for iTunes? Yes, I want to explore the Apollo 11 Press Kit. No, I don’t want to waste even one more second of my life with iTunes. My approach so far has been to look at the contents list in iTunes and then dig through NASA’s website/archives to find what I want there (the Apollo 11 Press Kit, for instance; I’m not sure if I should admire or shake my head at an organization that thinks it’s okay to send a man to the moon in a 12pt Courier typeface, probably pounded out on an IBM Selectric). It’s working pretty well, but I have a feeling that NASA would prefer I stay within iTunes U. Sorry, folks at the NASA History Program Office. I just can’t do it.

Spirit of Flight

31 07 2012

Courage. Photo credit: C. Johnson-Roehr

I admit, we had one other reason for visiting the Museum of Flight this summer. Just before we left for Washington, Exhibit Developer Geoff Nunn let me know that the 2012 Spirit of Flight Juried Photography Exhibit was up in the Great Gallery. I think participants in the #MSL #NASATweetup in November will recognize this photo, since I took it during our tour of Cape Canaveral at the end of the first day. Living in India has taught me one thing: if you stand still long enough, it doesn’t matter how many people are in the vicinity. Eventually, they’ll clear out of your shot, if only for 1/2 a second. It’s become second nature to stand still and wait for that moment. You’ll just have to imagine the roving Space Tweeps outside the frame of the photo.


Courage. 2011. Sunset at Launch Complex 34 (LC-34), site of the Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photographer: S. Johnson-Roehr.

Greenwich Observatory

30 07 2012

Civil Twilight, Greenwich Park. Photo credit: JR

I’ve yet to talk about my own research on this site, mostly because I’d like this to remain a ‘fun’ space, related to—but not dominated—by my real work. I’ve had an article on the relationship between Empire and the first Astronomer Royal under review for most of the past year, making me even more reluctant to write here about the Greenwich Observatory (RGO) for fear of scooping/contradicting/boring myself. But the observatory has been on my mind this week, so I decided to throw up a few photos I took during a winter visit.

Shepherd Gate Clock, Royal Greenwich Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Once you climb to the top of Observatory Hill (because of course you’re going to want to walk up there from Greenwich), you enter the observatory through an iron gate. To the right of the gate is the 24-hour Shepherd Clock, designed in 1852. Originally, the clock displayed astronomical time, but now it shows Greenwich Mean Time (of course). It may or may not reflect your time of arrival accurately, since it doesn’t keep track of British Summer Time. The Shepherd Clock is a slave clock, meaning that it’s controlled by a master clock elsewhere in the observatory.[1] Flamsteed would have been a lot less frustrated if the clock had existed during his tenure at the observatory. On the other hand, he had two Thomas Tompion clocks at hand, making him one of the most time-rich observers in London at the time.

Time Ball, RGO. Photo credit: JR

If there’s one thing visitors know about the RGO, it’s that a brightly colored “time ball” drops every day at 13:00 GMT (BST in the summer). In theory, boaters on the Thames can synchronize their timepieces by the daily ball drop. In practice, boaters stopped looking to the observatory for this soon after the Great War, when the radio started providing time pips.

Site of Well Telescope, RGO. Photo credit: JR

This unassuming patch of gravel is one of my favorite parts of the observatory. Once upon a time, this was the site of the well telescope.  For many years, the existence of a well telescope at Greenwich was a matter of debate:  did Flamsteed actually sink a shaft, install spiral stairs, and make nightly observations from the floor of the well? P.S. Laurie argued for the existence of a hole in which Flamsteed placed a telescope with a 87.5 foot focal length (seriously!).[1] In theory (again), Flamsteed used the instrument to observe gamma Draconis as it crossed the zenith, with the intent of compiling enough observations to calculate the star’s annual parallax. In practice, the well telescope was a failure. For one thing, Flamsteed had to lie on his back to use it. There’s no comfort to be found in lying on one’s back in the middle of the night at the bottom of the well. For another thing, the lens was chipped and cloudy and of little use to the astronomer.[2]

If I described all of the nifty things to see at the RGO (the time galleries, the camera obscura, the 28-inch refractor), you’d be reading this page for another several hours. You won’t be bored, and the planetarium and the Astronomy Centre have plenty of interactive exhibits to entertain the children. I’m not a child, but I spent quite a bit of time crashing imaginary spacecraft the last time I was in the Astronomy Centre. But take heed:

At the moment, the observatory is closed to the public. Why? Take a look at the view from the north side of Flamsteed House.

A rainy day in Greenwich Park, looking toward the Thames. Photo credit: JR

Queen’s House, Greenwich, designed Inigo Jones, 1616-19, 1635. Photo credit: JR

If you’ve been watching the 2012 Olympics, you probably recognize that Neoclassical building. The garden facade of the Queen’s House is getting quite a bit of air time, serving as a backdrop to the dressage and other equestrian events. Behind the Queen’s House and the National Maritime Museum, across the Thames, loom the Docklands. Just to the left of the Queen’s House, above the colonnade, you can see the line of the river and the embankment of the Isle of Dogs. If you cross to the Isle of Dogs and travel north past the skyscrapers (the building with the pyramidal top is the Canary Wharf Tower), across the A11, you will soon find yourself in Olympic Park.

The good news—if you’re in town for the duration of the Olympics, you need only hang on until August 4, when the RGO opens again to the public. Have a nice visit and say hello to the shell of Herschel’s telescope for me.

Remains of Herschel’s Telescope, RGO. Photo credit: JR


[1] It’s no longer controlled by a clock, but by a new quartz mechanism inside the building. The original master isn’t in working condition, but you can see it in the time galleries all the same.

[2] P. S. Laurie, “Flamsteed’s Well,” The Observatory 76 (1956): 24-5.

[2] A. Hunter and E. G. Martin, “The Flamsteed 90-Foot Lens,” The Observatory 76 )1956) 25-6.

Shuttle Trainer

28 07 2012

Flight Deck, Full Fuselage Trainer, Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington. Photo credit: JR

The above photo explains the timing of our visit to the Museum of Flight in Seattle: we wanted to see the package NASA dropped at Boeing Field a few weeks ago. While I’m sure the Board and employees of the Museum of Flight were disappointed by NASA’s decision to send the retired Shuttle fleet elsewhere, they must have been intrigued by the consolation prize, the Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT). A full-scale mock up of a Space Shuttle, the FFT served as a training ground for every Shuttle crew, allowing the astronauts to practice emergency egress and EVA procedures. The FFT has been arriving piece by piece (the aft section of the payload bay arrived earlier this week) and instead of waiting for the entire “spacecraft” to show up, the curators have been putting the pieces on display as they arrive.

Introducing the Full Fuselage Trainer. Photo credit: JR

I’m not sure how I would feel about it as a curator. Letting an exhibit go up before everything was in place would probably make me anxious. And the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery, the new home of the FFT, has an incomplete, cavernous feel to it at the moment as it sits more than half empty. On the other hand, anticipation is building and has been since the first shipment arrived via the Super Guppy. It’s a bold and quite possibly brilliant curatorial decision, inviting the public to witness the building process. Each Super Guppy touchdown is an opportunity for another press release; each component installed is a reason for visitors to return to the gallery. By the exhibit is complete, the community will be completely invested in the project and hopefully the financially longevity of the museum.

At present, though, the gallery is mostly empty, with a few smaller (intriguing!) exhibits holding down its edges. As in the Great Gallery, the wall of glazing at the front of the building creates a difficult lighting situation for photography and I spent a lot of time trying to find a setting that compensate for the glare without erasing the details of the FFT.

The Charles Simonyi Space Gallery. Photo credit: JR

As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, the nose of the FFT consists massive wooden shell painted with matte black. The auto focus on my camera refused to cooperate for close up photos and even when I pulled back, the (lack of ) contrast between the black wood and the black walls of the gallery forced me rely on manual focus.

I’ve uploaded a few more photos to my flickr site. I’m looking forward to going back and documenting the completed trainer one day soon.

Museum of Flight

25 07 2012

Pioneer Pullman of the Air, Boeing 80A-1, Museum of Flight, Seattle, WA. Photo credit: JR

As you could probably tell from my Monterey Bay photo, most of my vacation had nothing to do with work or this website. Kayaking, hiking, running, watching Perry Mason…it was nice to get away from my job for awhile. We did make one stop worth mentioning here, though, when we joined a friend for a day at the Seattle Museum of Flight. Wow, has that place grown since the Red Barn first showed up on the edge of Boeing Field in 1983. The Great Gallery went up while I was a student at University of Washington and the museum has since added the Library and Archives Building (2002) and the J. Elroy McCaw Personal Courage Wing and Airpark (2004) to its campus. We gave it a good effort, but left one wing (no pun intended) almost completely unexplored at the end of the day.

Many of the artifacts at the museum have some connection with the Pacific Northwest. I’m sure the fact that my father grew up in Alaska and never missed a chance to warn me about flying over glaciers had something to do with my interest in the Bush Pilots of Alaska exhibit (or maybe not, it was a damn good display). I’m also sure I drove my partner crazy with my ramblings on Seattle/PNW aviation history as we moved from aircraft to spacecraft. She probably didn’t need to be reminded that Richard (Dick) F. Gordon and I grew up in the same town or that I met Pete Conrad while studying at UW, but she was a good sport about it.

Catherine’s first EVA. Photo credit: JR

We gave most of our time and attention to the exhibits focused on space exploration, particularly the Space: Exploring the New Frontier section. Rendezvous in Space was also sweet and gave me the excuse to start talking about Pete Conrad and University of Washington again. I tossed out a couple of tweets while I was wandering around, but @rindsay beat me to the best one: Science is for gals in housecoats, too.

I know I’m supposed to be a crack architectural photographer, but I found the Great Gallery to be a tremendously challenging space. Everything, everywhere, is backlit and a fill flash doesn’t help much. So, while I managed to get a few good photos of the aircraft and exhibits, I didn’t manage many of the building itself.

Iron Annie, Beech C-45H Expeditor, Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington. Image Credit: JR

The Charles Simonyi Space Gallery, new home to the Space Shuttle Trainer (FFT), also threw up a few challenges to my camera, but I’ll get to those in my next post.

Wallpaper Wednesday

25 07 2012

Liftoff of STS-7 at 7:33 a.m. EDT on June 18, 1983. Photo credit: NASA

I would have loved to provide a glossy HD wallpaper of STS-7 in honor of Sally Ride’s first flight into space. Unfortunately, high-def images were almost non-existent in 1983 and I don’t have it in me to search for them (only a masochist runs a Google image search on the words “Space Shuttle Challenger”.) The image above links to NASA’s image gallery for Sally Ride and that’s going to have to do for now. Maybe I’ll write up something more comprehensive in a couple weeks.

ETA: I’ll come back to this later, but for now let me say this: Sally Ride gave me a lot when I was in high school. She didn’t have to do that and I’m grateful for her willingness to endure the invasions to her privacy in the 1980s. At the same time, as an academic, I can’t help but note the fundamental disconnect between the continued guarding of that privacy in the 2000s and her dedication to furthering the position of girls and women in science. I’m not a scientist, I’m in an allied field—the history of astronomy, not astronomy itself. Even so, I can say that my career in science studies has been affected by the fact that I’m a lesbian. One significant example: the financial award attached to my Fulbright-Hays DDRA fellowship was less than it would have been had I been heterosexual. The straight members of my Fulbright cohort were given money to support a spouse during their tenures as fellows. Even though my partner and I had been together for fifteen years at that point, I spent my research year by myself in another country, the support for my spouse legally withheld thanks to DOMA. Every time I opened up the Fulbright handbook to look up some regulation or other, I had to page by the DOMA statement that reminded me that I wasn’t an equal to other scholars in my field (I eventually got tired of being angry and deleted that page from the handbook). No matter how good my work is (and my fellowship record suggests it’s pretty good), I’ll never be treated as an equal as long as discrimination against lgbtq is legal in the United States.

And that’s the contradiction I see in Ride’s legacy. On one hand, she tirelessly worked to move young women into the sciences. On the other hand, she appears to have left unchallenged a very real stumbling block for some of those young women (appears to have left…I can only go by what the press is giving me right now). Does that mean I’m less grateful for, less appreciative of what she did for women and the world at large? No, not at all. But I don’t think it’s going to help any aspiring scientist if we ignore the larger implications of her choices. Coming out posthumously…well, I don’t think that erases the contradiction between the two positions.

On Vacation

12 07 2012

Monterey Bay, California. Photo credit: JR

Pretty sure the photo says it all. See you in a couple weeks.

Astronomer’s Paradise

4 07 2012

And speaking of time lapse videos… I could have sworn I posted this one earlier this year, but I can’t find it in the archive, so maybe I made my students watch in class instead of talking about it here. “Astronomer’s Paradise” is the first of a planned three episodes in the Atacama Desert Starry Nights series. If you’d like to know more about the creation of the video or the European Southern Observatory, both National Geographic and Nikon Rumors covered the release of the video back in February.

Višnjan Observatory Timelapse

4 07 2012

Visnjan observatory timelapse teaser from Romulic & Stojcic on Vimeo.

As far as I know, Romulic and Stojcic have yet to release the full version of this time lapse of Višnjan Observatory in Istria, Croatia. The two minutes and thirty-six seconds that they did release is pretty sweet, though.

Wallpaper Wednesday

4 07 2012

NASA’s RASCAL with Camera Mount Under “Blue” Moon. Photo credit: NASA Ames/Dominic Hart

There are a few things you shouldn’t do during a full moon. You should avoid criminal activity—your neighbors will probably recognize you in the bright light and if you end up in the emergency room, you’ll get inadequate care because of overcrowding (even if statistical analyses indicate there’s no relationship between the lunar cycle and emergency room chaos, do you really want to take the chance?). You should also avoid going to bed with the blinds open—your neighbors will have a good view of your after-dark activities and even if you’re intending to sleep, the moonlight will keep you awake by shining in your eyes (I proved this one last night). You should avoid looking at a magnified view of a full moon—your neighbors may wander over to ask what you’re observing after you set up the telescope, but they’ll be less than impressed when they go home with an after-image of the moon burned into their retinas (been there, done that, only with Mars).

What you can do during a full moon: naked eye observing. Sky and Telescope has some tips on studying the maria, craters, and volcanic patches on the lunar surface. Or, you can take some of Deirdre Kelleghan‘s advice and try your hand at Sketching the Moon (visit the publisher’s website). Another option: Study the lunar calendar so you know the date of the next Blue Moon (I’ll save you some trouble—it’s August 31, 2012). Or spend the evening looking through NASA’s archive of moon photos.

One thing you should definitely do is click on the image above to download the wallpaper of a Blue Moon fronted by NASA’s RASCAL. This wallpaper perfectly captures my ambivalence about some of NASA’s research (past and present). As much as I’d love to sink more money into programs like MSL and the Hubble Telescope, I can’t forget NASA’s close connection with military research. A beautiful Blue Moon shining behind a modified UH-60 Black Hawk reminds me of that association, but more importantly, it demonstrates how easy it is to distract me with shiny objects and moon rocks. I should be paying more attention to what’s going on outside the public eye.

Happy Independence Day.


Observatories and Instruments