‘Greatest mission NASA ever pulled off was saving your butt’

November 28, 2018

Image of the ozone hole over the Antarctic, screen capture from Big Think short film on NASA's averting an ozone apocalypes.

Image of the ozone hole over the Antarctic, screen capture from Big Think short film on NASA’s averting an ozone apocalypes.

Why do we trust the scientists at NASA and NOAA when they talk about climate change?

Because they saved all of humanity. And then didn’t brag about it.

Did you even know?

From Big Think:

Pop quiz! Which NASA mission has been most critical to humanity? It’s not the Moon landing. It’s not the Apollo 8 mission, with its iconic Earthrise photo. It’s not even spinoff tech like cell phones, baby formula, and GPS. “All those kind of fall flat, to tell you the truth,” says Michelle Thaller, NASA’s assistant director of science communication. “I think that people don’t understand.” Thaller says the greatest mission NASA ever pulled off was saving your butt. While conducting blue sky research—curiosity-driven scientific investigation with no immediate “real-world” applications—that scientists in the 1980s discovered that the ozone layer was being depleted. Realizing the danger this posed to life on Earth, scientists—and NASA’s crack team of science communicators—mobilized the public, the U.N., and governments to get the Montreal Protocol signed, and to ban ozone-depleting chemicals for good. “We’ve since done atmospheric models that show that we would have actually destroyed the ozone layer, had we done nothing, by the year 2060…” says Thaller. “That would have destroyed agriculture. Crops would have failed all over the world. You couldn’t have livestock outside. People couldn’t have lived outside. We very nearly destroyed civilization, and your grandchildren would have lived through that.” The value of blue sky research is severely underestimated—especially when budgets are being drafted. But it has led to the best NASA spinoff Michelle Thaller can think of: grandchildren.

Ozone hole information just started coming into formed questions when I worked in air pollution research, and most of the best stuff here came after I was off into laws. But having watched hard debates among the scientists, in the field when we were measuring other stuff, in the libraries, over dinner, I watched this issue as it grew up, as the scientists collected the information, devised ways to determine how big a problem it was, invented ways to fight it, and then backed the politicians and statesmen who made the treaty that, literally, saves our butts.

If you didn’t have my experience, did you even know this history?

That’s why it’s here, to remember the right stuff.

And when some yahoo claims he doesn’t trust NASA scientists, I can link to this post before blocking the idiot on whatever platform he decided to be stupid on.


Your tax dollars at work, NASA incredible Moon division: Full rotation

July 19, 2018

NASA posted this back in 2013 — but a lot of people missed it. It’s an animation of the Moon’s full rotation, showing all sides of the Moon lighted by the Sun. Film images come from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

Watching this video we can think of all sorts of oddities about the Moon that maybe we didn’t get answers to in our high school astronomy class, or Astronomy 101 at State U: Why do we see only one side of the Moon from Earth? Doesn’t that mean the Moon doesn’t rotate? And shouldn’t Pink Floyd have called the album, “Far Side of the Moon?”

When NASA ran the 24-second version of the video at the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) site on September 16, 2013, NASA thoughtfully provided more information that you ever wanted:

Explanation: No one, presently, sees the Moon rotate like this. That’s because the Earth’s moon is tidally locked to the Earth, showing us only one side. Given modern digital technology, however, combined with many detailed images returned by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), a high resolution virtual Moon rotation movie has now been composed. The above time-lapse video starts with the standard Earth view of the Moon. Quickly, though, Mare Orientale, a large crater with a dark center that is difficult to see from the Earth, rotates into view just below the equator. From an entire lunar month condensed into 24 seconds, the video clearly shows that the Earth side of the Moon contains an abundance of dark lunar maria, while the lunar far side is dominated by bright lunar highlands. Two new missions are scheduled to begin exploring the Moon within the year, the first of which is NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). LADEE, which launched just over a week ago, is scheduled to begin orbiting the Moon in October and will explore the thin and unusual atmosphere of the Moon. In a few months, the Chinese Chang’e 3 is scheduled to launch, a mission that includes a soft lander that will dispatch a robotic rover.

Tip of the old scrub brush to World and Science on Twitter (@WorldandScience).

A detailed still of the Moon, again from NASA:

Details of the Moon, from NASA's fact sheet comparing the Moon and Earth.

Details of the Moon, from NASA’s fact sheet comparing the Moon and Earth.

December 27, Great Beginnings Day 2017: Darwin, Apollo, and more

December 27, 2017

December 27 is one of those days — many of us are off work, but it’s after Boxing Day, and it’s not yet on to New Year’s Eve or Day. We should have celebrated, maybe.

It’s the end of the year, and yet it is also a day of great beginnings.

We should celebrate December 27 as a day of portent: A good embarkation, and a good, safe end to a nation-encouraging trip to almost touch the Moon.

HMS Beagle, Darwin's ship

HMS Beagle, on a voyage of discovery; painting of the Beagle in the Galapagos by John Chancellor

On December 27, 1831, Charles Darwin and H.M.S. Beagle set sail on an around-the-world voyage of discovery that would change all of science, and especially biology, forever.

December 27 1831
After a few delays, H.M.S. Beagle headed out from Plymouth with a crew of 73 under clear skies and a good wind. Darwin became sea-sick almost immediately.

Darwin never fully overcame his seasickness, but he fought it well enough to become the single greatest collector of specimens in history for the British Museum and British science, a distinction that won him election to science societies even before his return from the trip — and cemented his life in science, instead of in the church.

Darwin’s discoveries would have revolutionized biology in any case. But, in analyzing what he had found, a few years later and with the aid of experts at the British Museum, Darwin realized he had disproved much of William Paley’s hypotheses about life and its diversity, and that another, more basic explanation was possible. This led to his discovery of evolution by natural and sexual selection.

Mini-sheet from the Royal Mail honoring Darwin's discoveries in the Galapagos Islands

Mini-sheet from the Royal Mail in 2009 honoring Darwin’s discoveries in the Galapagos Islands

On December 27, 1968, Apollo 8 splashed down after a successful and heartening trip to orbit the Moon. The three crewmen, Commander Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr., and William A. Anders, had orbited the Moon, a very important milestone in the methodological race to put humans on the Moon (which would be accomplished seven months later).

1968 was a terrible year for the U.S., with the North Korean capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo, assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy during the presidential campaign, riots in dozens of American cities, nasty political conventions with riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, a contentious and bitter election making sore the nation’s divide over Vietnam policy, and other problems. On Christmas Eve, Borman, Lovell and Anders broadcast from orbit around the Moon, a triumphant and touching moment for the Apollo Program and Americans around the world. Their safe return on December 27 raised hopes for a better year in 1969.

Motherboard.tv has a great write up from Alex Pasternack, especially concerning the famous photo taken a few days prior to splashdown:

In 1968, NASA engineers were scrambling to meet President Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon by decade’s end. Because delays with the lunar module were threatening to slow the Apollo program, NASA chose to change mission plans and send the crew of Apollo 8 all the way to the moon without a lunar module.

Exactly 43 [49] years ago, the three astronauts of Apollo 8 became the first humans to orbit another celestial object. As they came around the dark side of the Moon for the third time, Frank Borman, the commander, finally turned their capsule around. And then they saw the Earth.

Borman: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.
Anders: Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.
Borman: (laughing) You got a color film, Jim?
Anders: Hand me that roll of color quick, will you…

One of the resulting photos taken by Anders on a Hasselblad camera became one of the world’s most iconic images.

As Bill Anders recalls it:

I just happened to have one with color film in it and a long lens. All I did was to keep snapping… It’s not a very good photo as photos go, but it’s a special one. It was the first statement of our planet Earth and it was particularly impressive because it’s contrasted against this startling horizon . . . After all the training and studying we’d done as pilots and engineers to get to the moon safely and get back, [and] as human beings to explore moon orbit, what we really discovered was the planet Earth.

Plan to raise a glass today, December 27, 2012, to Great Beginnings Day for the human race. December 27 is a day we should remember, for these achievements. (But if you’re raising a glass, consider Carrie Nation, too!)

Also on December 27:


This is an encore post.

Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.

Carl Sagan’s song of the open road; can you spare a penny?

November 29, 2017

NASA image of a launch of one of the Space Shuttles.

NASA image of a launch of one of the Space Shuttles. “The open road still softly calls,” Carl Sagan said.

“The open road still softly calls,” Carl Sagan said, optimistically, in this film.

Can you spare a penny to keep the road open? To answer the call?


Annals of Global Warming: Ozone hole shrinks; success shows what can happen when world cooperates to end pollution; what’s the bad news?

November 14, 2017

(NASA caption) Ozone depletion occurs in cold temperatures, so the ozone hole reaches its annual maximum in September or October, at the end of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Credits: NASA/NASA Ozone Watch/Katy Mersmann

(NASA caption) Ozone depletion occurs in cold temperatures, so the ozone hole reaches its annual maximum in September or October, at the end of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Credits: NASA/NASA Ozone Watch/Katy Mersmann

Good news from NASA and NOAA: The ozone hole over Antarctica is shrinking, because policy makers heeded warnings from scientists, and they acted in the 1980s to stop the pollution that made the ozone hole grow into hazard.

In other words, cleaning up air pollution works to reduce problems.

If we apply those same principles to global warming climate change, we can save the planet: Listen to scientists, band together internationally, take effective action to stop the pollution.

BUT, much of the shrinkage in the past two years was due to warming atmosphere, which reduces the cold weather period during which the ozone hole grows. In other words, effects of the anti-pollution action isn’t yet clear.

This NASA video explains:

NASA discussed the events in a press release.

“The Antarctic ozone hole was exceptionally weak this year,” said Paul A. Newman, chief scientist for Earth Sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This is what we would expect to see given the weather conditions in the Antarctic stratosphere.”

The smaller ozone hole in 2017 was strongly influenced by an unstable and warmer Antarctic vortex – the stratospheric low pressure system that rotates clockwise in the atmosphere above Antarctica. This helped minimize polar stratospheric cloud formation in the lower stratosphere. The formation and persistence of these clouds are important first steps leading to the chlorine- and bromine-catalyzed reactions that destroy ozone, scientists said. These Antarctic conditions resemble those found in the Arctic, where ozone depletion is much less severe.

In 2016, warmer stratospheric temperatures also constrained the growth of the ozone hole. Last year, the ozone hole reached a maximum 8.9 million square miles, 2 million square miles less than in 2015. The average area of these daily ozone hole maximums observed since 1991 has been roughly 10 million square miles.

Although warmer-than-average stratospheric weather conditions have reduced ozone depletion during the past two years, the current ozone hole area is still large because levels of ozone-depleting substances like chlorine and bromine remain high enough to produce significant ozone loss.

Scientists said the smaller ozone hole extent in 2016 and 2017 is due to natural variability and not a signal of rapid healing.

First detected in 1985, the Antarctic ozone hole forms during the Southern Hemisphere’s late winter as the returning sun’s rays catalyze reactions involving man-made, chemically active forms of chlorine and bromine. These reactions destroy ozone molecules.

Thirty years ago, the international community signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and began regulating ozone-depleting compounds. The ozone hole over Antarctica is expected to gradually become less severe as chlorofluorocarbons—chlorine-containing synthetic compounds once frequently used as refrigerants – continue to decline. Scientists expect the Antarctic ozone hole to recover back to 1980 levels around 2070.

Ozone is a molecule comprised of three oxygen atoms that occurs naturally in small amounts. In the stratosphere, roughly 7 to 25 miles above Earth’s surface, the ozone layer acts like sunscreen, shielding the planet from potentially harmful ultraviolet radiation that can cause skin cancer and cataracts, suppress immune systems and also damage plants. Closer to the ground, ozone can also be created by photochemical reactions between the sun and pollution from vehicle emissions and other sources, forming harmful smog.

Although warmer-than-average stratospheric weather conditions have reduced ozone depletion during the past two years, the current ozone hole area is still large compared to the 1980s, when the depletion of the ozone layer above Antarctica was first detected. This is because levels of ozone-depleting substances like chlorine and bromine remain high enough to produce significant ozone loss.

More work to do; but at least the damage is not increasing dramatically. While it would be good to be able to report that human action to close the ozone hole had produced dramatic results, it is still useful to track the progress of this action, especially when global warming/climate change dissenters frequently argue falsely that the ozone hole never existed, and warming is a similar hoax.

NASA’s AURA satellite group said the ozone holes should be repaired and gone by 2040, 23 years from now.

We hope they’re right.

(NASA caption) At its peak on Sept. 11, 2017, the ozone hole extended across an area nearly two and a half times the size of the continental United States. The purple and blue colors are areas with the least ozone. Credits: NASA/NASA Ozone Watch/Katy Mersmann

(NASA caption) At its peak on Sept. 11, 2017, the ozone hole extended across an area nearly two and a half times the size of the continental United States. The purple and blue colors are areas with the least ozone. Credits: NASA/NASA Ozone Watch/Katy Mersmann


Tip of Millard Fillmore’s old scrub brush to Sean Sublette at Climate Central


Do you remember when government gave humanity hope for the future? A giant leap for mankind on July 20, 1969

July 20, 2017

It’s a day to remember history.  Do you remember that day, the first time humans set foot on the Moon?

God knows we could use more Americans to have faith in the good intentions of NASA scientists today; we could use more dreams like those NASA gave us then, too.

Southwest Elementary in Burley, Idaho, existed in a world far, far away from the U.S. space program. We watched rocket launches on black and white televisions — the orbital launches were important enough my father let me stay home from school to watch, but when he dropped me off at school, I was in a tiny band of students who actually made it to school. Potato farmers and the merchants who supported them thought the space program was big, big stuff, worth missing school.

By John Glenn’s flight, a three-orbit extravaganza on February 20, 1962, a television would appear in the main vestibule of the school, or in the auditorium, and we’d all watch. There were very few spitballs. Later that year my family moved to Pleasant Grove, Utah.

Earthrise from Apollo 11, before the Moon landing

Moonrise from Apollo 11 prior to Moon landing.

Toward the end of the Gemini series, television news networks stopped providing constant coverage. The launch, the splashdown, a space walk or other mission highlight, but the nation didn’t hold its breath so much for every minute of every mission. Barry McGuire would sing about leaving the planet for four days in space (” . . . but when you return, it’s the same old place.”), then six days, but it was just newspaper headlines.

The Apollo 1 fire grabbed the nation’s attention again. Gus Grissom, one of the three who died, was one of the original space titans; death was always a possibility, but the U.S. program had been so lucky. Apollo’s start with tragedy put it back in the headlines.

The space program and its many successes made Americans hopeful, even in that dark decade when the Vietnam War showed the bloody possibilities of the Cold War. That darkest year of 1968 — see the box below — closed nicely with Apollo 8 orbiting the Moon, and the famous Christmas Eve telecast from the three astronauts, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William A. Anders. The space program kept us hopeful.

By early 1969 many of us looked forward to the flight of Apollo 11 scheduled for July — the space flight that promised to put people on the Moon for the first time in history, the realization of centuries-old dreams.

Then I got my assignment for Scouting for the summer.  Out of nearly 50 nights under the stars, one of the days would include the day of the space walk. Not only was it difficult to get televisions into Maple Dell Scout Camp, a good signal would be virtually impossible. I went to bed Sunday night knowing the next day I’d miss the chance of a lifetime, to watch the first moon landing and walk.

Just after midnight my sister Annette woke me up. NASA decided to do the first walk on the Moon shortly after touchdown, at an ungodly hour. I’d be unrested to check Scouts in, but I’d have seen history.

And so it was that on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon: “A small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind,” was what he meant to say in a transmission that was famously garbled (at least he didn’t say anything about jelly doughnuts).

NASA provided a video compilation for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2009:

P. Z. Myers says he remembers a lawnmower going somewhere. It must have been very bright in Seattle. (Thanks for the reminder, P.Z., and a tip of the old scrub brush to you.)

2016 marks the 47th anniversary.

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) lists 11 dates for U.S. history as the touchstones kids need to have: 1609, the founding of Jamestown; 1776, the Declaration of Independence; 1787, the Constitutional Convention; 1803, the Louisiana Purchase; 1861-1865, the American Civil War; 1877, the end of Reconstruction; 1898, the Spanish American War; 1914-1918, World War I; 1929, the Stock Market Crash and beginning of the Great Depression; 1941-1945, World War II; 1957, the launching of Sputnik by the Soviets. Most teachers add the end of the Cold War, 1981; I usually include Apollo 11 — I think that when space exploration is viewed from a century in the future, manned exploration will be counted greater milestone than orbiting a satellite; my only hesitance on making such a judgment is the utter rejection of such manned exploration after Apollo, which will be posed as a great mystery to future high school students, I think.)

* Why 1968 was such a tough year, in roughly chronological order: 1968 produced a series of disasters that would depress the most hopeful of people, including: the Pueblo incident, the B-52 crash in Greenland, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the nerve gas leak at the Army’s facility at Dugway, Utah, that killed thousands of sheep, Lyndon Johnson’s pullout from the presidential race with gathering gloom about Vietnam, the Memphis garbage strike, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., riots, the Black Panther shoot-out in Oakland, the Columbia University student takeover, the French student strikes, the tornadoes in Iowa and Arkansas on May 15, the Catonsville 9 vandalism of the Selective Service office, the sinking of the submarine U.S.S. Scorpion with all hands, the shooting of Andy Warhol, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the Buenos Aires soccer riot that killed 74 people, the Glenville shoot-out in Cleveland, the cynicism of the Republicans and the nomination of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia crushing the “Prague Spring” democratic reforms, the Chicago Democratic Convention and the police riot, the brutal election campaign, the Tlatololco massacre of students in Mexico City, Black Power demonstrations by winning U.S. athletes at the Mexico City Olympics, coup d’etat in Panama. Whew!

More, from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:

And even more:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

This is a bit of a traditional July 20 post, and yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

May 25, 1961, 56 years ago: John Kennedy challenged America to go to the Moon

May 25, 2017

President Kennedy at Congress, May 25, 1961

President John F. Kennedy speaking to a special joint session of Congress, on May 25, 1961; in this speech, Kennedy made his famous statement asking the nation to pledge to put a man on the Moon and bring him back safely, in the next ten years.

It was an era when Congress would respond when the President challenged America to be great, and Congress would respond positively.

On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy delivered a special message to Congress, on the challenges facing the U.S. around the world, in continuing to build free market economies, and continuing to advance in science, as means of promoting America’s future.  He closed with the words that have become so famous.  From the Apollo 11 Channel, excerpts from the speech, via Fox Movietone news:

History from the Apollo 11 Channel:

In an address to a Joint session of the United States Congress, Kennedy announces full presidential support for the goal to “commit…before this decade is out, to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” and urges Congress to appropriate the necessary funds, eventually consuming the largest financial expenditure of any nation in peacetime.

Though Kennedy had initially been convinced that NASA should attempt a manned mission to Mars, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans spent three days and nights working, ultimately successfully, to convince him otherwise.

The complete speech is 46 minutes long.  The JFK Library has a longer excerpt in good video I haven’t figured out how to embed here, but it’s worth your look.  The Library also features the entire speech in audio format.

The complete copy of the written text that President Kennedy spoke from, is also available at the JFK Library.

NASA has a good site with solid history in very short form, and links to a half-dozen great sites.

Can you imagine a president making such a challenge today?


A lot of people like that photo of President Kennedy before Congress!

And then, rather coincidentally, 40 years ago on May 25:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

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