Hot Air: Geeky Me

From today’s New York Times:

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, in orbit around the asteroid Ceres, has died quietly, the space agency announced on Thursday.

I’m of the generation that remembers being excited when Telstar went up. Yep, that was July, 1962. I was six years old and had been hooked on space ever since Gus Grissom and John Glenn went up for joyrides in their Mercury capsules atop, respectively, Redstone and Atlas rockets. Grissom, BTW, was born and raised in Mitchell, Indiana, just a few miles south of us on SR 37. His boyhood home has been preserved and there’s a neat little Grissom museum — I’ve written about it herein before — near the entrance of Spring Mill State Park.

Early astronauts in the car (L to R): Elliot See, Gordon Cooper, Neil Armstrong, and Gus Grissom, flipping the bird.

Anyway, Telstar was the first space satellite designed to relay television and other communications signals across great distances. It transmitted the first space-relayed TV image, a flag at the Andover Earth Station, across the Atlantic Ocean from Maine in the US to the Pleumeur-Bodou satellite communication center in far-northwest France. Both stations had been built to monitor that first Telstar and relay signals that’d been bounced off it. The flag image transmission was a closed-circuit test.

The first public transmission was a joint news program hosted by CBS’s Walter Cronkite and NBC’s Chet Huntley in the US and the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby in Brussels, Belgium. The transmission was to be carried on all three US major networks at the time as well as Eurovision and Canada’s CBC. The plan was for the three to talk live with then-President John F. Kennedy in Washington. Due to timing issues, the JFK segment couldn’t be done so producers — I love this — broadcast instead a few minutes of the Chicago Cubs versus Philadelphia Phillies baseball game being played at that moment in Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The Cubs, naturally, lost that day, this being the Dark Ages of the team’s history.

Telstar 1

Telstar was a great improvement over the Project Echo satellites, which were really glorified balloons shot up into low orbit. The first Echo was launched in 1960. It had a metallic finish and so was able to reflect crude microwave signals back to Earth. Sometimes I’d sneak outside in the backyard in the middle of the night to watch Echo pass overheard in a generally south to north path. When I’d spot it, my neck sore from craning for so long in search of it, I felt as though I was connected to outer space. I wanted to dash back inside and wake everybody up to tell them what I’d seen but thought the better of it when I considered my efforts would only have been rewarded with a solid clunk on the head for sneaking out.

Space launches back in the early and mid ’60s were events. Every manned launch was carried live on all three networks. Even unmanned satellite launches were covered live on TV. It all culminated with the launch of Apollo 11, the first to put humans on the moon, in July, 1969. After that successful voyage, space launches became old hat. Now, the only people who know in advance about launches, manned or not, are space geeks like me glued to our YouTube streams. And the only way a space launch will garner real attention these days is if one or more people are killed in a lurid explosion.

My guess is when whatever space agency decides to send astronauts to Mars, we’ll all be excited about a space launch once again. Then we’ll go back to shrugging our shoulders for successive launches.

During the early days of the space race, it’d be almost inconceivable to think we’d be sending a probe to orbit an asteroid, but that’s what Dawn‘s mission indeed was. It was launched in 2007 to study the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. Ceres, technically, is a dwarf planet, like Pluto. It’s about 600 miles in diameter. Nevertheless, it’s part of the millions of hunks of rock and dust that orbit the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the result of a cloud of space detritus that failed to coalesce into an honest-to-gosh planet, probably because the gravity effect of that big lug Jupiter kept the stuff from forming a single mass.

Dawn (artist’s conception from

Now Dawn has gone quiet.

And I still get a kick out of machines — and humans — being blasted into space.

The Big Lowdown

Don’t miss today’s episode of Big Talk. My guest will be longtime journalist Jeremy Shere, founder and co-host of The Btown Lowdown. TBL is a weekly podcast featuring a calendar of events hereabouts and an interview with an interesting local figure (next week it’ll be Kel McBride, the Lively Death Lady, talking about her Before I Die Festival.

Shere says he’s based his model on that established by Malcolm Abrams and Bloom magazine. If Abrams could succeed in the face of a lot of naysaying, Shere suggests, so can he and TBL. The secret? Extraordinary perseverance and a devotion to high quality.

Big Talk airs today at 5:30pm on WFHB, 91.3 FM, immediately after the Daily Local News. And, of course, I’ll throw a podcast link your way here, tomorrow AM.

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