Category Archives: Astronomy

Some Personal Space Shuttle History

Thirty-four years ago next month I showed up for work at Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne Division. Having grown up in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, I was familiar with Rocketdyne, as during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs the rocket engines they made, which powered the vehicles used to launch our astronauts into space, were all designed and manufactured not far from where I lived.

The factory was in Canoga Park, but the engines were tested at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, which was in the hills to the west of my home. I have vivid memories of seeing the night sky light up and hearing the roar of those engines as they were being tested. I also remember going out at night and lying down on our front lawn to watch Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite (launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957) go by overhead. I was ten years old at the time.

While these experiences didn’t cause me to pursue a career in engineering, they did serve to pique my interest in astronomy and space exploration. They also had absolutely nothing to do with my ending up working at Rocketdyne. My beginning there was entirely serendipitous. I was working for the temp agency, Apple One, where I had been temping at a hard drive manufacturer called Micropolis. Their business model, perhaps the industry itself, was somewhat seasonal and work for temps was boom and bust there. As had happened many times before (we’d heard about it and weren’t surprised when it happened) business slowed down and they decided to lay off the temps, who comprised the majority of the workforce.

That was on a Friday. That evening, my contact at Apple One called me and asked if I could show up at Rocketdyne the following Monday. I don’t remember the exact date, but it was in the middle of January, 1987, almost exactly a year after OV-099, Space Shuttle Orbiter Vehicle Challenger, exploded as it was ascending to orbit, killing all seven crew members.

I was to turn 40 years old later that year and of course I would show up. I needed to work. However, that it was Rocketdyne I was to show up at was something of a bonus, as far as I was concerned. I had known people who worked at Rocketdyne over the years, and it never occurred to me I could work there. I wasn’t an Engineer or a Scientist. I didn’t even have a college education, though I did have a Juris Doctorate, which I had earned eleven years before. I was the only person in my law school without a baccalaureate. None of that mattered as a temp (or what they called a “job shopper”.) They didn’t ask anything about my background or my capabilities. They just needed a warm body who could perform data input.

So, that following Monday I showed up to work at the plant on Canoga Ave. in Canoga Park. I had never worked at a really large organization before. In fact, with the exception of the temp job I had previously been working at, I had never worked anywhere that had more than a dozen or so people. Most places I’d worked only had five or six, at the most. Rocketdyne had armed guards at the gates. There were at least four entrances guarded by men with guns. It was actually a bit heady.

I ended up hiring in a year later and worked there until May of 2010, when I accepted an early severance package offered to everyone over the age of 60. I turned 63 the next month, June. I’m writing several memoirs, and my time at Rocketdyne will play a big role in at least one of them. However, my purpose here is merely to introduce one of the “awards” I received when I worked there.

I was not a big fan of individual performance awards, believing they tended to pit people against each other when, in fact, we needed to find ways to improve our collaborative and collective abilities. This particular award was given to each of the members of the Space Shuttle Main Engine High Pressure Fuel Turbo-pump team, who labored mightily to manufacture, test, and deliver 10 additional pumps for the program when Pratt & Whitney was unable to certify their alternate design. As our contract ran out, and we knew there would be no new business, the team had to wind down and members had to find other places to hang their hats.

You should note that everyone on the team received one of these shadow boxes, with a flag, a turbine blade, several mission buttons, and these inscriptions (see below.) I’m including the back, because our managers took the time to personally thank each person on the team; there were well over fifty, if memory serves. This “award” hangs in my home office. This coming May it will have been 20 years since I received it, and I’m every bit as proud of it now as I was back then. Plus … how often do you get to have a piece of rocket engine hardware and other space memorabilia?

PS – In case you don’t get to it (it’s on the back of the shadow box) that turbine blade traveled a total of 27,600,000 miles, mostly doing nothing after MECO (Main Engine Cut Off) on each flight.

PPS – Just to be clear, in these two photos (below) I’ve superimposed the award (from the front) on a picture of a shuttle night launch. It has a glass door, which I opened because it’s reflective and I didn’t want that in the photo, and digitally removed with Photoshop. I’ve separately added the two pieces of text from the back, without including the box, and superimposed them on that same night launch photo.

Obverse of My Turbo Team Award
Reverse of My Turbo Team Award

Evolution

Another quite simple Photoshop effort, though all this is is a compilation of a quote I’m fond of and a photo of what is referred to as the pillars of creation, located in M16, the Eagle Nebula, over thataway.

The Pillars of Creation

If you study cosmology, and you’re not blinded by any particular religious dogma, it becomes clear that our evolution as a species (the human one) draws a gravity-assisted line from the first hydrogen atoms to who we are now. That we have reached a point in our evolution where we have been able to understand how we and our universe came about and developed over billions of years, I find every bit as awesome as the thought of some bearded white dude thinking us up out of nothing. Actually, I find it more awesome.

Understanding cosmological (read, primarily, stellar) as well as biological evolution is, to me, far more beautiful and compelling than anything I’ve learned from all of the world’s religions, including the one I was raised in (Judaism) and the one I was surrounded by (Christianity). I find it far more compelling and reasonable and, again for me, all the proof I need that we don’t need a “God” or “Gods” to explain how we came to be and where we’re headed.


Are We Alone?

“Is it all just for us, or do we get to share it with anyone?”

~ Paul Sutter (Astrophysicist on “How The Universe Works”)


Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is around 100,000 light years in diameter. That’s roughly 587,900,000,000,000,000 miles or 946,100,000,000,000,000 kilometers across. Those are in the quadrillions, which translates loosely into a “shitload.” The fastest man-made object—according to my research on the Intertubes—was a bit of a toss-up between NASA’s Helios 2 and their Juno spacecraft; that is until the Parker Solar Probe was launched. When it reaches its closest to the sun (in a few years) it will be traveling at approximately 430,000 MPH! That’s screaming. However, even at that speed it would take nearly 1,560 years to cross the entire galaxy.

Current estimates suggest there may be as many as 200,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe. Astronomers, astrophysicists, and cosmologists suggest our galaxy alone contains up to 200,000,000,000 stars. That’s an awful lot of stuff, eh?

The Milky Way
The Milky Way

Yet, in all of this, we have not been able to answer the most fundamental question we have about the universe . . . Are we alone? Is there life out there we just haven’t discovered? I like how astrophysicist Paul Sutter looks at it (see the quote from him, above, that I started this post off with.) I find it difficult to believe, now that we understand much of the physics and chemistry of the Universe, that life hasn’t (or won’t) evolve in places other than this one nondescript star system we call home.

Another quote I love is one I’m going to paraphrase, as the original quote, from Edward Robert Harrison, doesn’t quite provide the essence of what I’m trying to get across. His quote is: “Hydrogen is a light, odorless gas, which, given enough time, turns into people.” It almost says it all, but I think “Hydrogen is a light, odorless gas which, given enough time, begins to wonder where it came from . . . and where it’s going,” is a bit more on point.

If you are unfamiliar with, or new to, the field of cosmology you might not know what this means. Essentially, it’s refining what is the generally accepted understanding of how the Universe has evolved from nothing but sub-atomic particles to Hydrogen and, through the process of star formation (and spectacular stellar deaths via supernovae) the heavier elements have been formed . . . many of which are the building blocks of life, and us. We’re the descendants of the primal Hydrogen that made up the early universe and its first generation of stars.

To me, the concept of evolution—both of the universe itself and of life on Earth (perhaps elsewhere)—is far more incredible and truly beautiful than any origin story of any religion I’ve encountered . . . and I’ve encountered a fair number of them. Imagining the evolutionary process, which has played out over billions and billions (h/t Carl Sagan) of years is—for me—a challenging flight of fancy and an enlightening exercise in the dialectic, or zen, or yin-yang of life in this universe.

I hope one day we’ll find out we’re not alone. Perhaps that will give us the humility we need to get along with one another on this little blue dot we call home.


I Swear I Was Stone Cold Straight

I had one of those timeless moments this evening. I was on my way to pick up my vehicle, which needed some work due to a safety recall. The Honda dealership was kind enough to provide me with a creature comfort-laden Nissan Pathfinder, which I happily drove to work from the Enterprise office, and was to return to the Honda dealer, where I was headed, on the way home.

I had just exited California 118 (the Ronald Reagan freeway) at 1st Street in Simi, turning south to the dealership about a quarter mile away. As I was crossing over the freeway, the light was red and I was stopped at the apex of the arched overpass. The entire perimeter of the sky was filled with soft pink clouds, and there was a long golden streamer of cloud radiating eastward, driven by the last rays of the setting Sun. As I looked from west to east, the clouds and the edges of the sky faded from a bright to a soft pastel pink.

In the sky to the east hung an almost full Moon, its glow softened by a thin layer of clouds, and to the West a long, steady stream of vehicles moved steadily toward their destinations, their headlights forming a brilliant necklace of light. I wanted to take a picture, but a panorama would have taken time I didn’t think I had. I looked through hundreds of pink sunset pictures I googled, hoping to find something at least evocative, but nothing felt right, so I have nothing but my memory . . . and the experience.

The whole moment lasted about 10 seconds, but it was extraordinarily beautiful and felt timeless. It wasn’t all that different from some other similar experiences; after all, it was just a sunset, the Moon (yawn), and moderate freeway traffic, yet it felt eternal (for a moment 🙂 ). Weird, huh?


Want Something to Worship? Try This

Instead of attending services — whether in a Church, Synagogue, Mosque, or Temple — watch this. It’s far more powerful than any scripture I’ve ever encountered.


The Helical Model of our Solar System

Picture our solar system hanging in space. What is it you see? Planets in nearly circular orbits, revolving at varying speeds around our central star, the Sun? What we don’t usually see is a depiction of what these orbits look like when you also factor in the movement of the Sun around the gravitational center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, and the vortex-like movement of the planets as they get dragged along behind it. This animation takes our star’s galactic motion into account as well, and the paths are much different than what we ordinarily see. Take a look.

Pretty cool, huh?


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