I’m In A Spacesuit

We went to Hamilton Standard (now Hamilton Sundstrand) where they made spacesuits. I got to try one on!

During my 26 years in Connecticut I’ve done a few things beyond weather at Channel 8. Though some folks remember me on Good Morning America, I also hosted four seasons of Inside Space on the SciFi Channel.

SciFi was a thinly watched network back then. I suspected we had more viewers for WTNH than Inside Space and Inside Space was seen worldwide!

After a while management caught on that we were SciFa not SciFi and we were cancelled. The good news is under the supervision of Executive Producer Dave Brody we put out a lot of very good stuff.

This is one of my favorite segments, one of the few taped in Connecticut. We went to Hamilton Standard (now Hamilton Sundstrand) where they made spacesuits.

I got to try one on!

To The Moon

There’s a big buzz today over NASA’s announcement yesterday that they plan to send men back to the moon – in essence establishing a colony with a permanent presence.

I’ve railed against the shuttle program and manned space flight in general, yet my initial reaction to this isn’t negative.

Certainly, I’m skeptical. Long ago NASA lost ‘the right stuff’ they had when we sent Apollo to the Moon. Our shuttle program is a foolish embarrassment, with little upside. Our greatest scientific breakthroughs have come from unmanned missions.

And, as my former producer at Inside Space, Dave Brody, said – NASA’s budget for everything else has pretty much been cut to the bone. There’s not much else they’re funded to do. They probably only have enough money to study, not build, a moon program.

Here’s one reason for skepticism, from NASA’s “Why the Moon?” page.

Six lunar exploration themes evolved from the recent Global Exploration Strategy discussions. NASA engaged the global space community to develop the themes by asking the question, “Why should we return to the Moon?”

If you think a governmental bureaucracy is inefficient, hold onto your hats for a multi-government bureaucracy!

Use the International Space Station as an example. While we play nice, attempting to build the station, Russia sells tourist flights! My sense is, in the spirit of cooperation or to hide the terrible partnership we forged, we’re subsidizing them.

I’ve looked through the objectives reached by the Global Exploration Strategy discussions. Couldn’t most of these be done better without people?

A notable exception is, “Understand the impact of extreme isolation on individual psychological health and group dynamics.” That one goal might be scary enough to keep people here on Earth.

Not every NASA proposal makes it off the drawing board. This is a big ticket item, and I’m unsure if Congress is willing to make the monetary commitment necessary.

Like I said, I’m not dead set against it, just skeptical.

Blogger’s note: The rendering at the top is from NASA. Here’s a larger version. I’m astounded they posted it, because it’s flawed in a way NASA should have spotted immediately.

On the Moon, with no atmosphere, shadows are pure black. Same thing in space. There are illuminated areas and there is total darkness. There is no mid ground.

Our ‘grayed’ shadows on Earth are caused by atmospheric scattering. There’s no lunar atmosphere, hence no scattering on the Moon.

Explosives Alkalais And Me

Back when I used to host Inside Space on SciFi, we took a trip to Boulder, CO for a series of shows. In one, we went to the atomic clock at the National Institute of Standards and Technologies.

The NIST building is Boulder was jam packed with nerds and geeks – my people. Inside, some scientists are tracking the weather on the Sun, while others are following the orbits of objects which might one day hit the Earth. Who knows what else goes on?

The atomic clock we visited wasn’t really a clock as much as an accurate counter. A small stream of cesium passed by a sensor. Since cesium has a very predictable resonant frequency, it became the calibration source for the counter&#185.

I remember the clock being more plumbing than anything else, with wires exiting at various intervals. Parts of it were wrapped with what looked like, and probably was, thermal insulation. It was definitely a homebrew device.

Dave Brody, our producer, spoke with the clock’s master. Dave wanted to know where we could set up and shoot our video?

The answer was simple. We could do what we wanted, but we had to be very careful. If we bumped the clock, the building would have to be evacuated. Of course, it wouldn’t matter to us. We’d be dead!

We got the point. This scientist was being funny, but also serious. This was one dangerous clock.

I really didn’t know much about cesium, except that it doesn’t like to be alone. When cesium combines with other elements, the reaction is explosive!

At least, that’s what I’d heard. I’d never seen cesium at work until tonight when I ran across the video at the bottom of this entry.

I am now very glad we stayed away from the clock. Very glad.

&#185 – That last paragraph was done from memory. I’m sure it’s not 100% right, but it gets you in the ballpark.

Life On Mars

I was sitting at my desk when the Instant Messenger window opened up. It was Dave Brody. He had been our executive producer at SciFi when I hosted Inside Space.

Dave was excited about an announcement that had been made and exclusively reported by space.com, where he now works:

Washington — A pair of NASA scientists told a group of space officials at a private meeting here Sunday that they have found strong evidence that life may exist today on Mars, hidden away in caves and sustained by pockets of water.

Here’s the full space.com story if you’re interested. Dave and I have been through similar announcements before; specifically the Allen Hills Meteorite ALH84001&#185.

It is because of Dave that I actually got to hold that meteorite, safely sealed in a controlled environment, through a port in my rubber gloved hands

It would be astounding if life were actually found today, living on Mars. But hold on. To quote George Harrison, “What Is Life?” What these scientists consider life and what you and I probably think of when we hear the word are totally different.

I typed something like that back to Dave, who replied with his best read on what the first extraterrestrial life discovered might be. “Pond scum. Extremeophile&#178 Pond Scum.”

When scientists start talking about extraterrestrial life, they’re not talking about ET! They’re thinking about forms of life that I consider more chemistry that biology.

Still, Dave has a very important point that applies… even to the most rudimentary forms of life. “If it has our DNA, it means “they is us” (as Pogo once said).”

He’s right. I guess, that changes everything.

&#185 – From Wikipedia – A 4500-million-year-old meteorite found in the Allen Hills of Antarctica (ALH84001). Ejection from Mars seems to have taken place about 16 million years ago. Arrival on Earth was about 13000 years ago. Cracks in the rock appear to have filled with carbonate materials between 4000 and 3600 million years ago. Evidence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have been identified with the levels increasing away from the surface. Other antarctic meteorites do not contain PAHs. Earthly contamination should presumably be highest at the surface. Several minerals in the crack fill are deposited in phases, specifically, iron deposited as magnetite, that are claimed to be typical of biodepositation on Earth. There are also small ovoid and tubular structures that might possibly be nanobacteria fossils in carbonate material in crack fills (investigators McKay, Gibson, Thomas-Keprta, Zare). Micropaleontologist Schopf, who described several important terrestrial bacterial assemblages, examined ALH84001 and opined that the structures are too small to be Earthly bacteria and don’t look especially like lifeforms to him. The size of the objects is consistent with Earthly “nanobacteria”, but the existence of nanobacteria itself is controversial.

&#178 – Extremeophile seems to be an alternate spelling for extremophile.

An extremophile is an organism, usually unicellular, which thrives in or requires “extreme” conditions. The definition of “extreme” is anthropocentric, of course. To the organism itself its environment is completely normal. Non-extremophilic organisms are called mesophiles.

My Day in a Spacesuit

It’s been a while since I hosted Inside Space on SciFi. It was a really good show. Maybe I realize that more today than I did then.

Isn’t that always the way? You have a backstage view of the job you’re performing. You know when you’ve executed perfectly and when you didn’t get close. No one else knows, but you do.

A friend sent me an email yesterday and that sent me looking into the archives to find a show he wanted to see. I found one where I’m trying on a spacesuit at Hamilton Standard (now Hamilton Sundstrand) here in Connecticut. They’re made for space, not Earth. You realize that as you put it on… all 150 pounds!

After I had gone in and out of the suit, one of the techs helping out told me a story. Some people panic when they realize getting out of it means going through a rigid, difficult to move, ‘tunnel. It can take hours until they’re comfortable enough to make a move. I’m glad he waited until after I was out to tell me.

One thing Inside Space had going for it was the producer, Dave Brody. Dave is more detail oriented than anyone I’ve ever worked for before or since. He and I would get into fights about syntax and script, but when the shows were finished they were things of beauty. Sometimes, to make a point, the video would be layer upon layer upon layer. Dave’s philosophy of video is similar to Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound.’ The screen was constantly used to make a point.

As long as I was dubbing it, I put a streaming copy here on the website. Just click to see it on any Windows computer with a broadband connection.


I woke up early (for me) Wednesday, turned on the TV and saw SpaceShipOne fly to space and back. Very impressive. It looks likely this entry from Burt Rutan will claim the $10,000,000 Ansari X Prize. That’s something I first predicted back in May – though it didn’t take a genius to come to that conclusion.

OK – it cost more than $10,000,000 to develop the ship, but that’s not the point. This venture has commercial potential beyond the X Prize itself.

I watched on CNN because I think Miles O’Brien is not only knowledgeable but he’s connected and often has information others do not. I thought sitting him with Burt’s brother Dick, an aerospace legend in his own right who piloted the first non-stop round the world unrefueled flight, was a bad idea. Either Dick’s mind was somewhere else (excusable under the circumstances) or he just doesn’t have the right makeup for TV.

The plane took off, tucked under another Burt Rutan flying contraption. In this regard it was similar to the early X-15 rocket plane, launched from beneath the wing of a B-52. At about 50,000 feet SpaceShipOne was released and within seconds its rubber burning engine was pushing it toward the heavens&#185.

A minute or so later SpaceShipOne, moving vertically, began to roll. I’ve seen a number of different figures but it was at least 16 revolutions, maybe more.

Watching the roll, I assumed I was watching a disaster in the making. I knew there was no reason for the ship to corkscrew itself into space. Any second I expected to see a wing break off or parts begin to disintegrate.

Obviously none of that happened. On the ground, pilot Mike Melville said it was probably something he had done. I don’t believe that for one second.

With the backing of Richard Branson, SpaceShipOne is the prototype for space tourism. It’s not good for business to say your rocket ship is unstable or difficult to control – but it surely is.

Rutan will figure a way to get around this problem for one more flight, win the prize, and modify this design into a more stable model for commercial work. SpaceShipOne will go to the Smithsonian before it can hurt anyone.

This is a great program. The government’s space program is so top heavy, so money laden, that it has discouraged anyone else to get into the business. Rutan and people like him will change that paradigm.

Under different circumstances I would be very upset about the post-flight claims concerning the spinning. Today, I’ll let it pass.

&#185 – I have read and like to say it’s a tire burning engine. Dave Brody, former Executive Producer of Inside Space (a show I hosted under his tutelage) on the SciFi Channel and now in a similar position at Space.com, says it actually burns condoms – a much more romantic thought.

Men on the Moon – 35 Years Ago

Yesterday was the anniversary of the first men landing on the moon. Thirty five years ago today, Neil Armstrong took that first giant leap for mankind.

I remember those two days. I was excited to be working at WSAR in Fall River, Ma. It was my first professional broadcasting job.

I was on my way to work as the astronauts landed. I had stopped in my green Volkswagen Beetle at a rest area somewhere between Boston and Fall River. People were standing around listening to their radios. It was a sultry summer evening.

It is still astounding to me that we were able to achieve this amazing journey. Even today, with technology so far advanced, our space program is far from worry free. This was really uncharted terriotory in every sense of the word.

Over the years, some parts of the experience have been lost, others aodpted as if they had happened, when in reality they hadn’t.

For instance, we’ve all seen the film of Apollo 11’s landing, with the voices of the astronauts and Houston controllers calling out flight details. That film was not developed until the astronauts returned! Sure, we heard the voices live. We never saw the pictures.

Maybe there’s confusion because we did see (with some of the poorest video ever watched) Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. That was transmitted live from a camera mounted somewhere on the exterior of the lander.

One of my favorite trivia questions concerns the first words from the moon&#185. It wasn’t “One small step…” or “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

The first words from the moon were, “contact light.”

“Contact light…OK Engine stop…ATA outta detent…Mode control: both Auto…descent engine command override off…Engine arm off… 413 is in.”

Not very sexy. And, as my personal space expert, and former Inside Space producer, Dave Brody reminds me, that was said by Buzz Aldrin, not Neil Armstrong.

It is possible the greatest human achievment of my lifetime was achieved 35 years ago. That we haven’t exceeded this over that time period is a shame.

&#185 – My favorite trivia question is: “What is Lady Bird Johnson’s first name?” It is neither Lady or Bird.

Facilitator… That’s Me

I’m not sure what the proper term is – emcee, host, moderator? I personally like facilitator, though I can’t give you the exact definition of the word. Whatever it is, I did it today, as I shepherded a roundtable discussion on air quality at Southern Connecticut State University. I think it went very well.

This is a skill I never knew I had until Dave Brody, producer for Inside Space, had me moderate a few “Star Councils”; panel discussions on space&#185. Once, I told a panelist (I think it was Bob Zubrin, founder of The Mars Society), “I’m not calling on you until I actually see smoke coming out of your ears.”

My approach is to be the opposite of anyone I’m questioning. I don’t care what your beliefs are, I’m your antithesis, and I’ll make you justify every position you take. It really forces people to become more passionate and factual as they begin to speak.

It becomes clear from the start that no statement will go unchallenged.

Being contrary is its own reward. So, this is totally fun for me.

When I was first approached to do today’s panel, I was skittish because it looked like the panel members might be all of one mind. A lovefest with no critical thinking would be worthless. I was assured there would be diversity of opinion and I was not disappointed.

Sometimes, I think I’d like to try my hand at doing this at some tech or broadcasting convention, but I have no idea where to go or who to contact to get the ball rolling.

&#185 – I am reminded by Dr. Frank Tavares at Southern Connecticut State University, that it was he who got me to moderate my first roundtable. It had to do with the future of communications. My boss (who I never really got along with) was a participant, as was the GM of the local cable company and a few others. We pulled no punches.

It was Brody who got me to do these in quantity, with world renowned experts, on the road at scholarly meetings, with an audience of opinionated and well informed experts. And, of course, doing the “Star Councils” on-camera made them even more fun.

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