Monday, January 30, 2006

UFOs over Norfolk, Virginia - Please don't shoot!

For the record, this is NOT a photo of a UFO. I made this image in Macromedia Fireworks to give this blog entry a picture.

It is one thing to see UFOs on reruns of the X-Files. But when they are sighted near your hometown, you have to blog about it before you go to bed.

Pilot Online features a story about young man who shot video of strange lights near Norfolk, Virginia.

An amazing detail in the article concerns the oldest UFO sighting in American history: a ball of fire seen over Chesapeake in 1813. The witness reported it to Thomas Jefferson.

Even more bizzare is how citizens in Northwest Virginia debated whether or not it was legal to shoot an alien.

Did these guys see The Day The Earth Stood Still or Aliens?

If they did, they would know the sci-fi movie cliche of the trigger-happy goofball who tries to shoot an alien visitor...and is promptly vaporized by a death ray, splashed with acid blood, or has his skull wind up in a trophy case.

Take a hint. If you see a UFO land, DO NOT SHOOT! Your pop-gun is no match against extra-terrestrial biology. Say "Greetings" or run away screaming. Pick one.

With all this UFO and alien talk near where I live, I am tempted to start pouring a bag of Reeses Pieces around my yard and camp out with a flashlight.

Unfortunately, I lost my Speak and Spell years ago.

Hot Wheels on Mars, Space Toys and Retro Sci-Fi

I discovered this Hot Wheels Action Set several years ago while Christmas toy shopping. To see the Mars Sojourner Rover hanging on a peg next to die-cast funny cars and NASCAR toys was amusing. When I saw that bright red Hot Wheels swoosh next to the JPL logo, I just had to buy it.

The Mars Pathfinder mission landed in 1997, delivering a rover the size of a toy remote-controlled car to the Martian surface. A docking station protected the rover during the bouncy airbag landing. When the airbags deflated and solar panels unfolded, the rover was free to roam the surface.

The rover's landing station was renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, in honor of the late Dr. Carl Sagan, astronomer, astrobiologist, and host of the TV series Cosmos. Carl Sagan had died in December of 1996, but his name had been memorized on Mars, or Barsoom as it was called in the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels that Sagan read as a child.

The real rover's top speed was two feet a minute, not exactly a set of hot wheels, or an action vehicle. There is nothing hot about Mars, it is a frozen planet.

Printed on top flap of the package is the landing date of July 4th 1997, along with the words Mission Accomplished. Unfortunately, those same words have been politicized today and are often used with bitterness or sarcasm.

Toys based on real space vehicles seem slightly more noble than their sci-fi and fantasy counterparts. They are not just playthings, but serve to educate and inspire. They connect on a level different from books or videos, bringing real space travel into the realm usually occupied by fantastic worlds and characters.

A pint-sized rover attains a new level of cool when it is being sold as a Hot Wheels toy. Like R2-D2, the rover is a plucky droid on a mission, a hero of its own real-life space opera.

Other space vehicles take on a new charm as toys. The space shuttle might not travel at warp speed or do battle with galactic foes, but to a child it is still a spaceship...and spaceships are cool.

Are they still cool? When was the last time you met a kid who wanted to be an astronaut? With the pressures of growing up intensifying with each generation, do the young have a place for dreams outside of getting into the right college?

Neil Armstrong walked on the moon before I was born. Teenagers today were not even around for the first shuttle launch. When the first black and white TVs flickered in the living rooms of America, some children dreamed of being cowboys: idealized heroes in a time that was old as a dusty ghost town. Few of them became modern cowboys. They set aside their cap guns and cowboy hats, putting away childish things to become corporate workers and businesspeople. Is space exploration now as retro as a silver-glitter space suit from the Captain Video era?

I think kids are still drawn to the idea of space travel in the same way they are almost instinctually drawn to dinosaurs. Space is a realm of adventure and mystery, a galactic playground for the young imagination.

From metal toys that are still sold as retro curiosities, to model rockets that fathers and sons build from balsa wood and cardboard, space toys have been around almost since Robert Goddard and his first liquid fueled rockets.

Perhaps there is an eight year old kid right now watching the IMAX movie Roving Mars, seeing the images from Opportunity and Spirit on the big screen. Maybe that kid will leave the theater with the desire to become an astronomer or astronaut...and thinking how nifty it would be to have a toy rover.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Challenger - 20 Years After

This Saturday will mark the 20th anniversary of the Challenger shuttle diaster.

Much will be said and written about this tragic date, but I would like to take a moment to help knock down some urban myths about the loss of the Challenger and her crew.

MSNBC features 7 myths about the Challenger shuttle disaster, concerning stories that have circlated through gossip and urban legends over the past two decades. has an entry debunking the story of a tape and transcript of the final minutes of the shuttle crew after their vehicle exploded.

On a more positive note, the NASA homepage is marking the Challenger anniversary by remembering the crew of Apollo 1 and Columbia as well.

There is also a page on NASA's future projects, such as the return to the moon.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Garfield the Cat Cartoons - Created At Random

I found a web site that allows you to make random Garfield cartoons. There are three frames filled with pre-existing cells of the lasagna-loving feline. Press "Go" on the page and new cells appear.

The combinations are sometimes funnier than the original strip. Could this be a new form of webcomics?

Monday, January 23, 2006

Martian Glaciers and the "First Sip For Mankind"

There is a story over on the Red Orbit site on how glaciers may have existed on Mars. We are not talking about small bits of ice, but the type of glaciers we see carving out the face of a mountain on Earth.

U.S. and French researchers say that debris found in areas far from the polar caps appear to be the work of glaciers. It suggests that Mars once had large areas of ice before a massive climate change, and that pockets of ice may still be there. The ice could be a benefit to future human explorers.

There are intriguing events that martian ice might bring about. When humans landed on the moon, someone had to be the first person to step off the lunar lander and put their foot on the moon. That honor belonged to Neil Armstrong.

If we send people to Mars to land and survive off ice they find there, not only will we have a person be the first to set foot on Mars, but there will a first person to take a drink of martian water.

Will there be a speech? A ceremony?

I imagine it will taste just like regular Earth water after all the filtering, but the fact that it comes from another planet will make each bottle priceless.

You can not privately own a moon rock, martian water will most likely be treated the same way. But if trips to Mars become more frequent, that might change.

Considering that wealthy people will pay big money to indulge in conspicuous consumption, how long will it be before egotistical billionares start paying up to mix a bit of the red planet with their cocktails?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Abandoned Blogs and Ghost Blogs ...BOO!

It looks like I may have used the term ghost blog the wrong way.

I though a ghost blog was similar to a ghost town: the blogosphere version of a place with empty old buildings that creak in the wind, with the occasional tumbleweed.

But ghost blog is used when describing a blog that is ghost written. This marketing site has an article that describes ghost blogging in detail.

A blog that is silent for a long period of time is an abandoned blog.

I found that a large number of blogs are created, but well over half of them stop getting regular updates. I will post more as I sort though my searches.

I guess the blogosphere is like outer space, both have large amounts of junk floating around in orbit. In both places, that junk may be up there longer than the people who created it. With storage capacity for information becoming so cheap and services like Internet Archive, some abandoned blogs may still be available decades, or even centuries, from now.

I wonder how many future senior citizens will be embarassed when their grandkids discover their ancient postings? Will they be surpised when they read about grandma's teenage angst and musings on the cute boys in her junior high class?

To my future descendents...I bid you greetings from the 21st century.

Ghost Blogs, Rod Serling and Thank You Very Much

The last couple days I have been researching some of the legal aspects and etiquette of blogging. It is simple enough to post on Blogger, but making sure you are staying within the boundries of the law and good manners is another.

For instance, what if I review a DVD and I want to put a picture of the cover on my blog? It would be simple to find a picture on Google image search and link to it, but I do not think that is legal. I'm contacting people who I think can give me advice on this. What about famous pictures and paintings? Do I need to get permission to post a sample of work by Leonardo da Vinci? What are the boundries of copyright?

I am sure there are simple answers to these problems, it is just a matter of doing the research. I would be grateful to anyone who cares to send me an email or comment about this.

It seems like a minor issue, but I want to be a responsible blogger. Sloppiness and stupidity has hurt professional journalism and other media. People cut corners out of greed or laziness, and they paid a steep price for it along with their peers. Even small details can cause big problems if they are overlooked. I have been hurt enough by other people's incompetence that I try not to take anything for granted.

This week I have been exploring the blogosphere, in search of other bloggers to read and possibly share with. In my travels, I found many "ghost blogs", where people posted for a year or two, then they just stopped.

Reading a ghost blog is like finding a house with the front door wide open, and you discover no one has been home for over a year. There are plates on the kitchen table, the radio is on, the family photos are still on the wall, but no one is home. Why did they leave? Did they go on their own, or did someone take them away? Is that Rod Serling standing in the next room, smoking a cigarette and about to launch into sinister introduction?

Some ghost blogs are written by people who were never serious about it. They posted for a while, then the charm wore off and they stopped posting. Others close up shop and move to other places, never leaving a forwarding address.

The strangest ghost blogs are where someone posts a "mission statement" first entry, proclaming big plans about entries they will write...and then nothing else after that.

There is a sadness in finding a blog like this. It makes me wonder if that person had lofty ideas about writing and sharing their life, but was defeated by self-doubt or shyness before embarking on their blogging journey. It reminds me of space shuttle launches that were scrubbed only 2 seconds before liftoff. The engines fired up and started to thunder, the reddish flame of ignition blasting out of the nozzles, and then silence...followed by mission control explaining a safety mechanism kicked off and shut everything down.

To be so close to adventure, but to go nowhere, is a bitterness unlike any other. How many people start creative projects of all sorts, and then are felled by personal demons before they even try?

Maybe some discoved that serious blogging is a full time job. You must always be thinking of new things to write. You have to post almost every day or your content gets stale. You haven't posted since last week? You are a slacker!

You are often your own editor, so any mistakes in spelling or punctuation are all you. There is no "grammer pulice" to watch your back. If you have any editioral help at all, it is probably someone sending you an IM or an e-mail saying "Nice entry, but you need to re-read Elements of Style you sentence-chopping, comma-dropping idiot!"

People have enough stress in their lives already. Having strangers send them snarky emails about their use of passive voice might be too much to handle.

Do I have the stamina for this? I guess I will find out soon enough.

I would like to take this opportunity and thank Rachel at babayaga for adding my blog to her links and to T Campbell for mentioning me twice on his webcomics blog. I appreciate the help.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

See you in 2015!

New Horizons is on its way! I was wrong about the date, it is arriving at Pluto in 2015. I'll be sure to mark it in my day planner.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Scrubbed...for now.

The New Horizons space probe launch was delayed till Wednesday due to high winds. NASA is playing safe with this one. I can't say that I blame them.

If that wasn't bad news enough, astronaut Mike Mullane's new book Riding Rockets has been provoking fresh debate over the space shuttle program. Mullane calls the shuttle the "most dangerous manned spacecraft ever flown" and spares little in his criticism of the space program's handling of flight safety.

Mullane is reported to describe how astronauts tolerate danger and mismanagement in the NASA culture, risking their chance to fly if they speak out too harshly.

As one who once dreamed of space travel as a kid, this sort of news gives me a heavy heart.

I've read about the Soviet-era space disasters, how cosmonauts on the Salyut 1 space station died when a valve popped open on re-entry and suffocated them, or how others perished when the chutes on their capsules failed to deploy. Even with the deaths of three Apollo astronauts in the early days of the race to the moon, I always felt that American space program set high standards for technology and safety, and that is why we had a space shuttle working while the Russian Buran Shuttle sits as an Earthbound curiosity. America might have it's own share of problems, but no one could compare to our triumphs on the final frontier.

We had a close call with the Apollo 13 mission, but we never lost an astronaut. We sent missions to the moon, put up a space station, and hauled cargo into orbit. Like so many technologies, what was once awe-inspiring almost became as routine as Fed Ex and instant coffee.

Then, on a terrible January day in 1986 our luck ran out, and our space program was shown to have more than its share of flaws.

The shuttle did fly again. American culture is dusted with the shiny glitter of science fiction. We figured that NASA was busy cooking up the next step in our journey. Maybe we thought those NASA wizards would replace the shuttle something that even Arthur C. Clarke or ILM couldn't dream up. Going backward is alien to our optimistic view of techonology and our culture. We sometimes expect brighter things to just happen.

Then came tragedy of Columbia, and we learned the space program hadn't come as far from 1986 as we thought. Even the thrill of the shuttle's second comeback flight was dampened by fear, turning the flight into a white-knuckle ride, because of something so frustrating and small as bits of foam.

Now the once great shuttle seems like a worn out workhorse, one we can't even risk using to push the Hubble back in orbit. Now we are having to depend on the Russians and Soyuz spacecraft, that are even older than the shuttle, to ferry crews from the International Space Station.

I sometimes feel that this is part of the disappointment that comes with age. You look up to institutions and people as a young man, then become jaded when you find they don't measure up to idea you had of them.

But Mike Mullane still feels the passion for spaceflight. He would go on a another mission if he could. There are brave men and women who feel that the failures of both man and machine are worth risking, just to have a chance to see the sky change from blue to black.

Tomorrow the New Horizons probe will take another shot at the launch window. If successful, it will roar into space and become the fastest vehicle ever launched. It will fly past the orbit of the moon in about six hours, which took the Apollo astronauts three days achieve.

Astronauts have died in the quest to reach space. Rockets have exploded into fireballs seconds after leaving the pad. Space probes have manfunctioned and crashed into the planets they were meant to explore. Machines break and sputter. Efficient organizations degenerate into fiefdoms. The smartest people make the dumbest mistakes. Billions of dollars evaporate with no ROI.

But remember...we are new at this.

Barely a century ago, two inventors at Kitty Hawk were trying to get a small wooden aircraft to stay aloft for more than a few minutes. To go from propelers to scramjets in such a short time is enough to make one hope we can overcome our own limitations.

Let us just hope the weather helps us out a little too.

Monday, January 16, 2006

WANTED - Volunteers to look for comet dust

Now that the Stardust space probe has landed with its cargo of comet dust, all that remains is to examine the samples.

And you and your computer can help.

The project is called Stardust@home, which is similar to the SETI@home project that used personal computers to look for signals from space. This time, ordinary home computers will be part of the process to find the tiny grains of space dust.

The Stardust probe gathered particles by exposing a gel to space, in the trail of the comet Wild 2.

It would take an army of scientists peering into microscopes, looking through all that gel, to detect the few bits of dust that could tell us about the origins of the universe. Now a "virtual microscope" will be used instead, and the general public gets to join the search.

If you've ever wanted to be like Mr. Spock, peering into that strange blue light on the bridge of the Enterprise, here's your chance.

Tomorrow I'm going to Pluto! See you in 2018!

Well...just my name is going into space.

In about 17 hours the New Horizons space probe will lift off, begining a voyage to the edge of our solar system. Traveling along with the probe will be an American flag and a CD with nearly 430,000 names.

Last year, I signed up at the New Horzions web site and put my name and my wife's in the database.

Also along for the trip will be six people with the name Bill Gates, five Darth Vaders, two Captain Kirks, three Luke Skywalkers, three Han Solos, two Buzz Lightyears and one Bilbo Baggins.

Unfortunately, it appears that Mr. Spock or Mr. Scott couldn't make the trip.

This has been a pretty good week for space news. This weekend the Stardust probe landed safely with captured comet dust particles and the Mars Rovers are still going strong.

We all wish the New Horizons probe a safe journey.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


After a few days of thinking over my blog topics, I'm ready to get down to business. Time to put away the ray guns and bubble space helmets with TV antennas.

A site that grabbed my attention is The Space Review, featuring stories on space travel and technology. The Space Review doesn't just cover the technical aspects spaceflight, but the business aspects as well.

With companies like Virgin Galactic getting ready to take flight, the challenge won't just be to deliver cargo and astronauts into space, but to also deliver ROI.

I'm reminded of the famous line from The Right Stuff: "No bucks, no Buck Rogers!"

Another story explores how Skylab astronauts accidently photographed Area 51, and how NASA and the CIA dealt with the problem.

On a lighter note, also visit Bad Astronomy. Created by Philip Plait, a computer programer and astronomer, Bad Astronomy exposes how sci-fi movies are often more fiction than science.

If you get a puncture in your spacesuit, will you explode? If aliens from Mars did invade Earth, would they die from the common cold? Now you can find out.

Other Bad Astronomy features venture where space science and pop culture merge, such as the controversial TV special that suggests the Apollo moon landings were faked. What about that face on the planet Mars? If you ever bump into a ranting conspiracy theorist who thinks the moon landing was a hoax, give them the link.

Or just tell them to adjust their tin foil hat.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006 - Commercial art of mid-century

A website that I can't say enough good things about is EphemeraNow.

I've always had a soft spot for the advertising of the 50's and 60's. You can get a sense of the era in way products like batteries, stereos and especially kitchen appliances were sold.

What particularly amazes me is the level of imagination and detail that on display in the artwork and photography. This was the time before digital photography and Adobe Photoshop.

I love the ads with space themes, of course.

I've always thought the science fiction art of the 50's depicted planets like Mars as much weirder than they turned out to be in real life. If you look at the rocks in the picture above, they look unearthly. You could almost imagine some hearty astronauts climbing up one of those peaks.

I remember back in 1976 when the first Viking probe landed on Mars and sent back pictures. I think people were kind of let down that Mars didn't look like it was sculpted out of foam on a Hollywood soundstage. It was just rocks and sand, like an Earth desert. You can almost imagine a development of condos sitting on one of the plains.

Which reminds me...this image is my favorite.

Thanks to the editor of Ephemera Now for letting me use the images.

Blogger - Let's party like it's 1995

I'm still getting the hang of using the Blogger Dashboard.

My last post was about my memories of being eight years old at Walt Disney World. Now I remember back in 1995 when I bought my first real computer (1 gig hard drive, 100mhz processor, and a smokin' 8 megs of ram, Windows 95) and started using it.

I didn't have an internet connection, so no web surfing. I wanted to use it to write, but I didn't have a copy of Microsoft Word. So I spent the first few hours getting used to the START button and resisting the temptation to click on anything that might crash my system.

Eventually I got tired and spent the night playing with a Darkseed, an old DOS game.

Sometimes when I am working on something and I get burned out, I try to remember back to how much fun it was to learn simple commands and functions. It's probably the same sort of techno-lust people in the 1950's had for TV; when people would watch the test pattern on a 9-inch black and white screen because it was "new".

Writing on a blog has brought a little of the fun back for me. Even simple tasks teach you new tricks. And the more you use the technology, the better you get at it.

So I guess this post is like a test pattern. For the full effect, you are now free to hold your nose and make a high-pitched noise.

Go on. Don't be shy.

Monday, January 02, 2006

A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow

And tomorrow's just a dream away...

For my first blog entry, I wanted something friendly and optimistic.

I remember the "Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" song from a trip to Walt Disney World's Carousel of Progress when I was eight. How far back was that? Pretty far.

While visiting Disney World, I visited Tomorrowland. I rode on simulated flight to Mars and an exhibit about flight sponsored by Eastern Airlines. Tomorrowland was closer to a world's fair than a theme park. It was meant to be fun for excited kids and their stressed out parents, yet there were some educational and inspirational moments mixed in with the corporate marketing.

On that same trip to Florida I went to Kennedy Space Center and walked inside the giant vehicle assembly building, where Saturn V rockets were assembled for moon flights. I stood in awe at the rocket garden outside the visitor's complex.

When you are eight years old and see real space hardware up close for the first time, it leaves an impression. The transition from the kiddie ride world of Disney to space age reality can shake you the same way shuttle liftoff does an astronaut.

To the child that I was, it was the first awareness that I would see the world change so quickly and radically in the small space of time that is a human life. Humans would make further steps in reaching for the stars and creating a more harmonous world. During this time in my life, I was also becoming aware of disasters and horrors brought by technology. I would soon become all too aware of the threat of nuclear war, fought with missles not unlike those in the rocket garden.

It was just a family vaction that summer, but much of what I saw would echo through my later life.

When the year 2001 dawned, there were no spinning wheel space stations or bases on Mars. I had discarded any hope that the future would be a Disney-esque wonderland before I left elementary school. But the magic four digit year had arrived. I found myself using technology everyday that would have sent my eight year old self into spastic a fit of yelling "COOL!"

Now in 2006, the events of the last five years have made me feel a Space Mountain ride of highs and lows. I am both jaded and giddy.

The September 11th attacks, the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia and the flooding of New Orleans make our present seem borrowed from the pages of dystopian science fiction novels. 2001 through 2005 owe more to J.G. Ballard and George Orwell than Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury.

But we have also witnessed the first private space flight roar into the skies over the California desert. Private citizens have been creating and communicating with new tools and outlets for information. An entire music collection, a library of text, and even hours of video can be carried around in a device the size of a deck of playing cards.

In 2006, we may be afraid of terrorists, annoyed by phisher emails, and chased by our work-lives in our private time thanks to cell phones and pagers, but every so often there are amazing events that are worth noticing though the clutter of info-tainment and marketing.

That is my hope for this blog. This is my space to sort through what amazes me and what scares me about our present and future. This is my Tomorrowland where I get to design the rides.

As a world weary adult, I sometimes snicker at the future saw visiting Disney World back then. Tomorrowland has been redesigned since then. The Mars flight simulator has been retired and the buildings now reflect a retro-future look. It is more Buzz Lightyear than Neil Armstrong now.

I fear sometimes that reflects what we feel today about dreams of the future. That we have become so bored by science and technology that nothing amazes us anymore.

But every so often, something does cut through the static and glare of our media-saturated world.

Two yeas ago on January 3 2004, the martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on the planet Mars. They left Earth from launch pads I gazed upon as a child from the windows of a tour bus.

Two years after they plunged through the thin Martian atmosphere they are still functioning, weathering the cold and dust of a distant planet. They journey on and send us pictures and data. It is something that would have made an eight year old boy yell "COOL!".

It is the year 2006. May it be a bright beautiful tomorrow.