Sunday, January 29, 2006

Science Sunday -- Remembering Columbia


I watched Columbia fall.
I wept as Columbia fell.
How long
it seemed to take,
for that burning fireball,
caught in gravity's well,
to reach the earth,
and merciful God,
be extinguished within in its dark embrace.
Seven died in spectacle,
That we might look again
with old humility and new respect.
Terrestrial cameras spotted her first
at 220,000 feet above the earth,
plunging at 20 times the speed of sound,
descending like Tennyson's eagle,
but with the left wing, broken.
She was a meteoric fireball
in supersonic free fall,
plummeting so fast,
she outran
the very sound waves of her fiery disintegration.
Hammer blows of burning air,
like the claws of invisible velociraptors,
unzipped her ceramic skin,
untiled and bare,
they broke her titanium bones,
tore her limb from aluminum limb,
scattering her pulverized precious cargo
into the trembling atmosphere.
The astronauts in her exploded womb
all fell asleep in Columbia's dream.
Near the end,
Columbia was a ghostly, streaking hare,
chased by the wolves of her own debris.
Her melting hull was skywriting her epitaph
in the blue expanse of air.
Racing to terminal velocity,
to the finish line on earth,
she was overtaken there,
by the Tortoise,
which followed slowly, but surely, close behind,
bearing Columbia's disembodied voices,
the very last parts of her to land,
those dirge-like sonic booms,
that will echo long,
in humanity's memory and esteem--
So that there will resume
the the ascent of Man,
where Columbia fell
to kiss the Earth,

I wrote this tribute to the astronauts of Shuttle Columbia shortly after the disaster on February 1, 2003. It was published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer as Monday Commentary by Dean Jorge Bocobo, a week later. The tragedy and its aftermath, including the investigations and reports are covered here. Since that tragedy, much has been accomplished in both manned and unmanned exploration of outer space. There is talk of returning to the moon and of course, the Red Planet of Mars already beckons. Our robot scouts are on its surface and circling our nearest planetary neighbor. Water -- huge frozen slabs of it -- have already been discovered there. And last week a probe to Pluto was launched. We've greeted visitors like comets with our eyes and even brought back some of the cosmic dust from its tail. Hubble sees farther and farther away, and farther and farther back to the very moment of the Beginning. Man has fallen but always he arises. Albert Einstein was right: God may be subtle, but he is not malicious.

SCIENCE TEACHERS: TUNE YOUR CLASS IN TO ORBITING SPACE SUIT NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is alerting science educators all over the world to a remarkable educational science opportunity this month:
Currently aboard the international space station is an extra Russian Orlan space suit, which has reached the end of its lifespan and can no longer be worn. To dispose of it, the crew of the space station will send it on one final mission. During a spacewalk scheduled for February 2006, the extra suit will be pushed into space, where it will become an independent satellite -- Suitsat-1.

Although no one will be inside the suit, it won't actually be empty. Suitsat-1 (also known in Russia as Radioskaf or Radio Sputnik) will carry a radio transmitter, sensors and materials created by students around the world, including voice recordings and artwork. The suit will broadcast on amateur radio (also known as "ham radio") frequencies, which are above the FM broadcast band. While Suitsat-1 remains in orbit, students, scouts, teachers, ham radio operators and the general public are encouraged to tune into the signal, which will include the student recordings, information about the condition of the suit and a special commemorative picture.

So, how will you prove to your friends that you've been hearing voices from space? Anyone who receives the voice signals or captures the commemorative picture Suitsat-1 beams down can receive a certificate. In addition, included in the transmission will be special words recorded by the Suitsat student "crew members" from around the world. Students who find these special words will receive an additional award. Because the words are in different languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Russian and Japanese), students are encouraged to work with others who speak those languages...

When Suitsat-1 is "launched" from the space station, the crew will place it in a trajectory that will cause it to de-orbit, re-enter Earth's atmosphere and burn up. How long it transmits depends on how long it takes the suit to get hot enough that it can no longer broadcast. While mission planners estimate that should take a week or two, they are not certain. Suitsat-1 could broadcast for as little as an hour or as much as several weeks, so anyone interested in hearing it should be ready to listen as soon as possible after it is deployed.

Transmissions from Suitsat-1 will be on a frequency of 145.990 MHz FM. They can be picked up easily with a VHF hand-talkie ham radio, and can also be heard with other FM VHF receivers, such as police-band scanners. Using an external or ground-based antenna will make it easier to receive the signal and to hear it longer during each pass.

Suitsat-1 is sponsored by the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station group. ARISS is an organization of volunteers from national amateur radio societies around the world and the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation.
I'm not sure if the transmissions can be picked up in the Philippine Archipelago, but I know there are quite a few ham radio operators around -- so pass the word and check out the NASA site for more information. I may even take a crack at this! Here is a really nice writeup on SUIT SAT 1 from Frank H. Bauer Chairman of Amateur Radio on the International Space Station.

ENRICHING URANIUM: The Belmont Club, writing in The Coming of the Bomb, points to this US Army War College PDF Getting Ready for a Nuclear Ready Iran. If you read nothing else but above two articles regarding this past month's biggest story related to nuclear weapons proliferation, you'd know more about what's behind the headlines than most people in the world. Certainly than you might read in the main stream Filipino media. This stuff is not for the feint-of-heart in habitually introverted Philippines. I realize of course that some folks may think "enriching uranium" has something to do with the "gap between the rich and the poor" so let me point to this Wikipedia entry on enriched uranium which explains the basics.

My simplified explanation: Naturally occurring uranium is composed of three isotopes--about 99.3% U238 and 0.7% U235 and U234. Enriching uranium is the process required to increase the percentage of the U235 isotope to "useful levels".

MAKING ELECTRICITY: For example, at 20% U235 in a given mass of uranium, you have the fuel needed to make electricity in a Light Water Nuclear Reactor (like the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, regarding which see my post at Odious Debts dot org: PPA the Bitter Fruit, BNPP the Rotten Root)

WEAPONS GRADE: At over about 80% U-235, any Tom, Dick or Hadj-Murad could build a small uranium fission bomb to take out Tel-Aviv or any other infidels that stand in the way of a nuclear-powered mullah like Iran's current leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

CELLCOS GETTING 3-G SPECTRUM FOR FREE? This is gonna make a lot of folks really mad. Lito Banayo in Malaya OpEd has the scoop from Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano on how the Philippine cell phone companies, mainly Globe and Smart have gotten the bandwidth needed for 3-G operations for free from the Philippine government, even though other countries, like the UK, Germany, the US and even Indonesia have made billions of dollar auctioning the rights to frequency space.--
Alan Peter S. Cayetano is what my daughter would call a "tech-kkie". I purposely spelled or misspelled it that way to show how this young congressman from Taguig and Pateros is so in love with the gadgets of computer development.

When we were in Hong Kong recently, I was amazed at how he knew where to buy whatever latest gigabyte-optimal accessory there was to an I-Mac. And all I asked was where I could buy an iPod for a daughter’s long delayed Christmas gift, at a bargain, hopefully.

One morning when he joined me for breakfast at a hotel coffee shop where the "purser" waiting on us was Filipino, he pointed to an article in the Hong Kong Standard, where the Indonesian government was going to bid out third-generation, or 3G mobile telephone licenses. And their telecommunications officials expected to generate 500 million US dollars from the tender. And he told me, ruefully, that the Philippines, yes, this poor country whose officials splurge at Las Vegas and parts beyond as if the world would end tomorrow, specifically, our National Telecommunications Commission, gives our 3G licenses for free. Yes, you read right – for free!
And they won't help with the darn Garci investigation either, the bums!


AmericanPainter said...

So touching and descriptive as to bring the miserable memory and tears flooding back.

We should never forget the valiant sacrifice that our daring astronauts give.

Amadeo said...

You are right about Wretchard of the Belmont Club. He brings to his insightful commentaries his over-reaching grasp and feel of many critical global issues, which in many instances he frames with his unique historical perspectives.

I learn a lot parked in his blogsite every available time I could spare. And his commentators are also an erudite bunch.

Another favorite is Powerline, which has limited focus, dealing essentially with political issues in the US, occasionally lacing the site with rave entries about old-time musicians the trio of lawyers (the blog writers) grew up with.

But a truly inexplicable phenomenon is the far-left DailyKos; already well on its way to almost 295 million hits. Founded and manned by a 35 year old first-generation immigrant from El Salvador. I can’t even point to what the unique appeal of the group (the Kossacks) is. The writings are not that exemplary. But the rhetoric definitely is very incendiary and bellicose. But now, even Senator Boxer (CA), erstwhile presidential candidate Sen. Kerry (MA) and ever lovable Sen. Ted Kennedy(MA) have participated in their discussions.

sab said...

Very moving! Your poem reminds me of In Flanders Fields. Only of course, yours is a description of Columbia.