Monday, October 28, 2013

Carl Is Our Co-Pilot

Bucket List Alert.  So, yeah. I just finally saw all 50 states. Cool, right? (Don't let the blasé sarcasm fool you, I got all teary-eyed at the final border). I then got another bucket list item under my belt less than a week later!

Sciencenter, Ithaca

My awesome cousin, Professor Barrett, lives on the southern New York border, so I dropped in for his splendid (and spontaneously invented on that day) "Carl Sagan Tour" around Ithaca.

Of course, one mustn't miss The Sciencenter, an amazing, interactive museum geared toward children, where they may touch, explore, play and learn all manner of scientific concepts about anatomy, force, energy, frequency, atoms, gravity... and, for some reason, a skeleton on a skateboard.


The best part for me was the Sagan Planet Walk, a scale model of the solar system that spans from the museum to the Ithaca Commons, featuring our nearest yellow star, the planets (Pluto has been re-designated as a Dwarf Planet), and the Asteroid Belt -- complete with meteorite that may have actually come to Earth from the actual Asteroid Belt!

At the moment, construction at the Ithaca Commons has forced some of the stone markers to be moved, so the Sun and the inner, rocky planets are marked in their correct orbits with colorful murals.  I hope to return sometime during summer months when it's warmer, and the old stansions are back in their proper places.

Teaching the new generation of Science Headbangers!

Not to be deterred, we had a lovely walk through town streets among two parks, stopping along the way for pictures at the Gas Giants, the Ice Giants, and finally, tiny Pluto -- about 1.6 kilometers from the Sun. Interestingly, a stray cat helped us along the way. Good thing too, because even with a map, we had trouble going from planet to planet without being distracted by coffee shops. Coooold!!

Each stone marker has attractive plaques with information about each major item in the solar system, and round glass windows with a scale version of each planet.  I realized I need bifocals when I couldn't see Pluto at all!  If you prefer auditory stimulus to reading, you can also call 1-703-637-6237 from anywhere, and hear none other than Bill Nye The Science Guy narrate the entire walk. 

The skeleton gloves really make the whole picture

Every few hundred yards, one could also get their handy Planet Walk Passport stamped, confirming attendance at all the celestial bodies. What a great idea!  I have to say, this is the glossiest, best prepared souvenir I've ever had the pleasure to receive from a Science Museum.

The color passport contains a page about each stop on the planetary tour, a map of the town, solar system information. I looked for the copyright and authors, so that I could write them a letter to say how awesome it is... only to find out that it was sponsored by NASA!  The contents were written by Carl Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan.

Passport to the Solar System

Astonishingly, after we'd dragged my little cousin Sierra (aged 6) on the 3.2km walk around the solar system, she still had plenty of energy to play at the museum for another 2 hours, whereupon we mentioned to the Director of Guest Relations, Josh Giblin, that we had done other planet walks in America and Europe, including the one in Maine the Guinness Book of World Records names as the largest in the USA.

Well, hold on there a minute! Turns out, the Scale Solar System in Maine is the largest in the contiguous United States, but as of September 2012, the Sagan Planet Walk is actually the largest in world, actually stretching to another solar system! With the addition of Alpha Centauri, one of the next-closest stars to our own yellow flaming orb, Sagan's now spans from his birthplace in New York to the Imiloa Astronomy Center at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo

 Now we just need to encourage Omaha, Nebraska to create a mid-way Oort Cloud.

Scaled Distance from Alpha Centauri to our Sun

Click here for the complete list of Solar System Walks around the world (192 in total! So far.) and on any of the above pictures to see the entire gallery in my Pillownaut Picasa album. If time or budget prevents you from visiting Ithaca, remember to download the Planet Walk narration from iTunes or call 1-703-637-6237 to hear Bill Nye talk about each stop as you view the pictures!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rocket Riley, The Apollo Moon Tree Man


New Moon Trees! And I do mean brand new Moon Trees. As in... SAPLINGS. Intrigued? So was I.

I've documented many Apollo 14 Moon Trees since NASA started re-cataloging them many years ago, gratified to see many on the west coast and on the east coast!

Sycamore Moon Tree Seed Pods

 Each state in the USA was issued two saplings in America's bicentennial year. In addition to those planted just after the Apollo era, many people have re-seeded second generation trees with seed pods harvested from the full-grown specimens from the 1970s!

Of course, it helps if you live very near a Moon Tree.  Greg "Rocket" Riley, a native of Franklin, Massachusetts, has the very good fortune to live near the Moon Tree in Holliston, MA.  Their treasured tree is a flourishing American Sycamore (plantanus occidentalis), conveniently beside the police station -- so it doesn't suffer the "sign stealing" issue many other Moon Trees do!

Hollison, MA Apollo Moon Tree!
Photo Credit: Jason Major of Lights In The Dark

Each autumn, Greg picks a few new seeds from around the tree... and has sometimes had police come out to ask what he's doing!  Ah, just gathering sycamore droppings!  I visited his home and garden a few towns over, where he plants the pods in various places around his front gardens, varying the amounts of sun and shade, to see what grows best where.

Altogether, he has more than a dozen tiny new trees of varying sizes all around his property. Most are still in pots, alongside other botanical experiments. How I envy people with that Green Thumb talent!  He is truly ensuring that the Apollo Moon Tree legacy lives on into the next generation.

Rocket Riley with his tallest Moon Tree sapling

I asked Greg if I could write about his talented botanical activities on my blog, and also add his Moon Tree to the master list -- though, of course, for that, it needs to be planted in the ground. He promptly prepared a spot on his lawn, and carefully moved one of the potted saplings into freshly turned dirt.

So I was there for the birth of a new Moon Tree, and I'm certain Greg will take excellent care of it as it grows. Next year around this time, I put a reminder on my calendar to ask him for a new photograph, so we can see the progress of the new sycamore.

The newest Apollo Moon Tree!

Hail to Rocket Riley, keeper of the Moon Trees!  Next time you pass through New England, be sure to visit his growing tree farm. To see the entire collection of photographs, click on any of the photos above, or click here to see the Pillownaut Picasa Moon Tree gallery.

If you know the location of any living trees or seeders, or where they were or are being planted, curators at the National Space Science Data Center would love to hear from you. Join the Waymarkers Moon Tree Group to help search for more trees, and email NASA if you find one!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Largest Solar System in America!


There are hundreds of scale solar systems all over the world, and 30 in the USA. Most are designed to be hiked via nature trails, or perhaps bicycled, if they're on paved roads. The largest is in Aroostook County of northern Maine. At nearly 100-miles long, snaking through half a dozen towns, I figured a car would be handy.

The entire solar system is to-scale, both in distance and in the size of the celestial objects! Well, except for the Sun, but they tried. Inside Folsom Hall at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, a partial arc meant to represent our Yellow Star spans two floors!

A young student captured me here in between classes, and I was so excited to begin my 'star trek' through the Maine solar system. When I first documented all the worldwide scale solar systems, I never thought I'd be able to see this one so soon.

The rocky terrestrial planets are fairly close, of course. One can walk easily to tiny Mercury by the roadside.  Within view of this planet, Venus boasts a beautiful paint job!  Each planet is placed on giant poles so that they are visible from the road.

The local visitor centers, and some of the local Inns, have guides for the planetary route. It seems fairly straightforward just to follow Route 1 South, but many of the orbs can be hard to spot while also concentrating on driving. It's probably easier to scout and to take pictures if space geeks do this in pairs.

The small roadside plazas with Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn also each include various moons of the those planets.  Jupiter, another fantastic paint job, sports the most, with the depictions of the four Galilean Moons: Europa, Io, Ganymede and Callisto.  Like the planets, they are all 3-D orbs created to-scale, in the scale distance to their planet.

The scale of the entire route is 1 mile : 1 Astronomical Unit (AU). The AU is based on the distance from Earth to the Sun, or 93,000,000 miles.  Using this scale, Earth of course is precisely one mile out.  I tracked each of the rest and created a precise, printable guide (MSWord) if you are unable to find one of the local pamphlets. The Visitor Center volunteer told me they run out of them all the time because this feature of their landscape is so popular!

I had a great experience at Planet Uranus, which is right in front of the Bridgewater Town Hall. Talk about small town hospitality!  Two ladies came running out when they saw me trying to take a "selfie" (no easy feat, given the angles!) when I had no place to set the camera on a flat surface and set the timer.  They wanted to know where I was visiting from, and marveled at the distance I had flown to see their solar system, confirming they had not yet seen anyone from San Francisco!

 Out past the Gas Giants and the Ice Giants, the route boasts TWO distinct versions of Pluto -- one as a Dwarf Planet as of it's present position (as of 2006), and the older "planet" Pluto before it's designation changed. Beside the original Pluto inside the Houlton Visitor Center is its largest moon, Charon.  That's at the 40 mile mark. You have to go another 50+ miles to reach the terminus, at Dwarf Planet Eris, in Topsfield, Maine!

Scaled Solar System Strolls in America
Click on any of the photographs above to go to the Pillownaut Picasa Gallery, where all the Maine planets are shown, as well as photo collections of the last two solar system walks I completed in Belgium (2012) and California (2011).

Click here to print out a Maine Solar System Guide for the drive, and get thee to Maine!  If you're a space geek? Totally worth it!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Aurora Moment For Scott Carpenter


It is the aurora as I write this, as seems fitting for astronaut Scott Carpenter, who died yesterday at the age of 88. With his passing, John Glenn becomes the very last member of NASA's original Mercury Seven. In May of 1962, Carpenter piloted the Mercury-Atlas 7, callsign "Aurora 7" -- and the latter title was painted on the capsule itself, which is now displayed in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

Scott Carpenter was the 6th human being in space, at a time when going into the vacuum was still largely unknown, and as yet, unknowable in many ways. As the fourth American in space for Project Mercury, and second American to orbit Earth, his skills as a pilot were put to the test in his 3 trips around our planet.

It's strange to think now, but at the time it was the literal truth: before his group, there was no such thing as an astronaut!  They were inventing the term as they went along. Their first training protocols and missions would define the job itself!

I was honored beyond measure to meet Scott Carpenter for the first time just this past year, and shake his hand on the anniversary of his Aurora 7 flight. That same evening, I was quite nearly speechless to be seated at a banquet table with him, whereupon I got to ask him some question about Mars, about NASA's current vision (you probably don't want to know his replies), and about the freaking awesome raspberry coconut puff dessert they served, following the filet mignon!

The event was SpaceFestV at the Starr Pass resort in Tucson, AZ. This edited clip was cut from a larger video I made of many speakers. The gentleman at the podium was reminiscing, and introduced Scott Carpenter to the audience, who all stood to applaud this amazing astronaut, aquanaut, test pilot, and Navy man. He had just turned 88 at the time, and it was heart-breaking to see him try to rise for his own ovation, but true to the hero that he was, he immediately applauded us in return.

I'm so sad to realize now that my first experience at any SpaceFest convention was also his last.

Farewell and RIP, astronaut Carpenter! You saw the Earth in a way that so many of us wish we could!

I am so sorry we didn't get to Mars for you. I know that's what you wanted. We will keep trying.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Brave Stars of Bedrest


Such exciting news this week for the NASA Spaceflight Simulations! The avalanche continues from last week's press buzz across multiple networks, and was also picked up by some infamous social media rogues, such as "The Onion" and also "I F**king Love Science!"

Weight-lifting in space!

My blog still remains a record of multiple studies by both male and female participants, after we documented our space protocols, and some have also written HTML journals.  Now, a new study subject named Daniel Hare got the awesome idea to document his study on Facebook, keeping track entirely in daily Status Updates, photographs and videos!

Daniel, a 27-year-old native of Saint Paul, Minnesota, has just completed his 70-day bedrest phase! Way to hang in there, Daniel!  After simulating weightlessness for over 2 months, he just "returned" to Earth today, and will begin his rehabilitation phase!

Contrary to myth (and wild, anxious speculation on the comment section on many press articles), the studies are neither crippling nor so degrading to bone and muscle that additional medical bills are necessary. The NASA rehab protocols are thorough, and just like astronauts returning from orbit, exercise and nutrition helps everyone return to normal daily activities within a few weeks or months.

Candidate 1122 grows a beard in bed...

His Facebook status record actually starts with the screening phase of the NASA studies, including the hotel facilities candidates are treated to, and some details about the auditions.

The best part are his videos. I had no YouTube channel when I first joined, so I never uploaded any videos until FOX did a story on us. Daniel actually had some folks take movies of him while in various testing phases on the Flight Analogs Research Unit (FARU).

Curious about the meals you are served in space simulations? Ever wanted to know how to shave or cut your hair while lying down at a -6 degree tilt to simulate weightlessness? He documents the power cycle test, shock-enhanced isokinetics, and of course, the ever-famous Enhanced Zero-Gravity Locomotion (eZLS), colloquially referred to as the "Vertical Treadmill."

Daniel with the BBC film crew

In an exciting turn of events, the British Broadcasting Corporation just visited the NASA medical floors to film a documentary!  Daniel is awaiting final word on when the program will be aired, both on the BBC in Europe, and on the Discovery Channel in America. We'll be keeping tabs and hoping for a Spring 2014 release date.

Daniel documents all his procedures on his Facebook page, including exertion trials, ultrasounds, MRIs, muscle biopsy (I didn't have to go through that one myself, though I remember two other men who did),and other medical details. No word on how much of this will actually be documented, or if the show is more geared toward the patient's point of view versus the scientist investigators. I'm hoping for a clean balance, so that the studies are presented objectively to the public!

Thumbs up! Going for a run!

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of how Daniel and his fellow study participants passed the time with games, language lessons, movies, and various TV shows. Hey, another Game of Thrones devotee!  All the fun times made the medical tests fade into the background, because the camaraderie on the ward makes for unique friendships.

Daniel rises from bed today after his 70-day weightlessness simulation! Follow him on Facebook to see how he re-adjusts to Earth gravity!  Click on any of the photos above to go to his page.