Friday, May 28, 2010

Shuttle Primer

Don't know much about the shuttle program's history? MIT's OpenCourseWare provides the perfect place to start: a guest lecture from 2005 by leading space science historian John Logsdon.

The lecture works on two levels now. It's an excellent primer on shuttle history, first and foremost. I learned quite a bit---in truth, I had given very little thought to the origins of the shuttle up until recently. The complex institutional negotiations involving NASA, Nixon's OMB, and the various aerospace firms tell a particularly interesting story about the origins of big national science programs.

The lecture also serves as a piece of history in its own right. Logsdon salts the conversation with references to the plan for space exploration then just recently announced by President George W. Bush---a plan that would hold NASA funding steady while making it a priority to get Americans back on the moon (and very eventually on Mars). As you've no doubt heard, the Obama administration has made such plans history.

(Thanks again to Bob MacGregor for directing me to this lecture.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Historicizing the Decision to Scuttle the Shuttle

This marks the first in what I hope will be a series of historical comments on NASA's transition away from the Space Shuttle. Robert R. MacGregor, a Princeton grad student writing a dissertation on rocket design in the US and Soviet Union, kicks us off.

Upon my request, Bob offered a host of powerful historical frameworks to help us think about scuttling the shuttle. Part of what Bob suggested was that we consider this transition alongside the earlier decision to replace the Apollo program with the space shuttle program in the first place. I was struck by one of his side points about the disjoint between the powerful narratives we all know of technological progress and what actually happened to manned space flight:
A big part of why Apollo hoax conspiracy theories are so successful is precisely because the space race narrative doesn't fit in with the narrative of technological progress.  Why would we go to the moon and then just stop? It doesn't make sense---if technology is getting better---that we could go to the moon and then not go back for a half century.  How could the Europeans have ignored the New World after Columbus came back?  While the original Apollo hoax believers were a small minority, and the public cheered Buzz Aldrin when he punched Bart Sibrel in the face while filming a documentary on the moon landing conspiracy,  these arguments only gain credibility as time goes on.  

You might ask, what alternative narrative is there?  Well, the Soviet Union never publicly saw the space race as a race to the moon, and indeed the entire Soviet lunar effort was only made public in the late 1980's during glasnost.  For the Soviet Union, the narrative focused on Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who kicked off the rest of the narrative with a bang, but left its ending unfinished.

I'd like to suggest that the real answer is that space flight is hard and it's not getting any easier.  It's not the kind of problem that better computers or better plastics solve, and the technology involved only gradually gets better over time.  It's a drag-out slugfest with nature that will always be dangerous and expensive.  So instead of Columbus and his conquistador followers, who found a tropical paradise comparatively emptied of its inhabitants by disease and easily overrun with guns and horses, perhaps the better metaphor to the moon landings were the Norse Vikings who, in the early 11th century, landed at L'Anse aux Meadows in Canada and built a small settlement.  They, unlike the Spaniards, didn't find a lush and inviting paradise with cities of gold, but instead found a hostile, bitter environment full of people intent on killing them far from their home and loved ones.  They decided to leave.  No Europeans would come back for four hundred years.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments. More smart NASA comments coming this week.

Friday, May 21, 2010

But how much will it cost?

The HSS newsletter notes that the University of Chicago Press has joined other presses in JSTOR's Current Scholarship Program, which promises to allow access to both yesterday's and today's scholarship all through one portal. I can certainly see the advantage to not having to search through a variety of databases for journal articles from past and present. That could save me a great deal of time and effort.

But I had hoped to find that this program would also include some talk of keeping costs down as well. I imagine many who read this blog hear frequently---as I do---from librarians about the cost of maintaining digital subscriptions. What will putting more under JSTOR's umbrella mean in terms of price? Thoughts?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Primary Source Challenge #1: "I just might be in there."

In the tradition of the great mathematical problem challenges of the last four centuries, Americanscience is kicking off a series of challenges aimed at teachers and interpreters of HOS in the USA. We'll post a primary source text of some interest or complexity and ask you to use the comments to pitch an inventive and insightful approach to that text. How would you fold it into a US history course? Or into an HOS course? What might we expect students to get out of it? What texts could we pair with it? What potential challenges does the text pose? (Short = good.)

I'm kicking off this series with one of my favorite discoveries of the last few years: "Little Boy Boo," an installment from Looney Tunes in 1954

Granted, this is no brachistochrone (original figures here), but I think it will be entertaining and enlightening.

Friday, May 14, 2010

What a difference 45 years makes.

Today's headline: Shuttle Atlantis Lifts Off for Final Planned Mission

Compare that to this video showing highlights from NASA's space program in 1965.

It is hard to believe that the US has gone through a few manned space systems in such a short time.

I like this comparison for three reasons.

  1. It gets to the heart of one of the question we care about most here at Americanscience: how can we best understand science as it took shape within the boundaries of the United States/North America/the Americas? That's a question that we've explored at some depth: here, here, here, and here. No matter the framing for your answer, I'm pretty sure NASA has to enter the picture.
  2. We here at Americanscience want to help you think about today's news with a historical perspective. That's a tall order. But juxtaposition is a way to start. Any space science historians out there? Shoot me a note in the comments. We'd love to share your insights at this crucial moment in NASA history.
  3. This is Prelinger Archives week: where I showcase the terrific Web holdings available for free on the Web to you Americanscience buffs.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Science, American Petroleum Institute Style

This is the first of a series of posts this week drawn from wonderful resources available to us thanks to the Prelinger Library's vast collection of stock footage, made available for free at

A friend turned me on to this short film a year ago or so and I now show excerpts of it to great effect in my American cultural history class. Everyone loves the white-coated scientists turning complex molecules into toothbrushes.

They love the big finish even more: Martians discover the secret to building a society of plenty and to overcoming tyranny: oil---of course---mixed with "competition: more for all."

But that doesn't do it justice. You just have to watch it yourself.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A postman, a streetsweeper,...

...all that was missing were the Bridges of Königsberg.

A few days ago I was strolling around our quiet neighborhood with my infant son. We approached a T in the road. From the left came our local postal delivery guy. From the right rumbled a street zamboni. Can you blame me for feeling as if I had found myself inside some sort of graph theory nightmare?

Turning to the section on Eulerian chains in my undergrad discrete math textbook---Applied Combinatorics---by Fred S. Roberts, I found this sentence: "A large area for applications of combinatorial techniques is the area of urban services."(467) Roberts goes on to list a slew of published studies taking on problems ranging from optimizing snow removal routes to assigning municipal workers' shifts.

Here we have an interesting example of non-military state science sponsorship (even if its just a matter of the state providing the problem). There must be some good historical work out there on this, right? Off the top of my head, I'm drawing a blank. But the comments section is open for suggestions.