Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘space’

13 JANUARY, 2014

Weight and Weightlessness: The Science of Life in Space, in Charming Vintage Illustrations

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An impossibly lovely primer on how gravity works and why we don’t fall to the center of the earth daily.

As a lover of vintage children’s books, especially ones about science and space, I was thrilled to chance upon the 1971 gem Weight and Weightlessness (public library; Abe Books) by science writer and then-director of Hayden Planetarium educational services Franklyn M. Branley — which renders him cultural kin to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Written less than two years after the historic Apollo 8 moon landing and featuring impossibly lovely Gorey-esque illustrations by British-born, Canadian-raised, California-based artist Graham Booth, this out-of-print charmer tackles the scientific puzzle of what weightlessness actually is through examples from both everyday life and the fascinating world of space exploration — a subject at once of enormous cultural importance and suffering tragic political neglect at the moment.

When you weigh yourself, you step on a scale. The gravity of the earth pulls you down onto the scale. Suppose you weigh sixty pounds. That means gravity is pulling you with a force of sixty pounds.

The scale tells how strongly gravity is pulling you down toward the center of earth. If there were a deep hole under the scale, gravity would pull you all the way to the center of the earth.

The scale and the floor beneath you keep you from being pulled to the center of the earth. They push up against gravity as gravity pulls down.

You can feel the pressure on the soles of your feet. That’s what a scale really measures. It tells how much push upward there is against the pull of gravity downward.

Suppose, all of a sudden, there was a deep hole under the scale. And suppose you and the scale fell into the hole. You would not feel any push upward on the soles of your feet. There would be nothing pushing upward against the downward pull of gravity. Now the scale would read zero.

As long as you keep falling you would be weightless.

That’s why astronauts in spaceships are weightless. They are falling. Nothing is pushing back against them. They are falling around the earth. The astronauts are falling, the spaceship is falling, and so is everything inside it.

They do not look as if they are falling. But they are.

If the rocket went up straight and then changed direction, gravity would still pull it back to the earth. But now the rocket would not come straight down. It would move in a curved path.

Astronauts like weightlessness for a while. It’s fun to float in space. And it’s funny to see things floating around you.

But after a while, an astronaut gets tired of being weightless. He likes to feel something solid under his feet when he stands up. And he likes to feel a bed under his back when he lies down. Also, it’s nice to have food served on a plate, instead of squeezing it out of a tube.

Weight and Weightlessness is well worth the hunt for a surviving used copy. Complement it with Isaac Asimov on the value of space programs, an illustrated chronicle of the Space Race, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s moving Senate testimony on the spirit of space exploration.

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24 DECEMBER, 2013

December 24, 1968: NASA Simulates Exactly What the Apollo 8 Astronauts Saw When They Took the Iconic Earthrise Photograph

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Cutting-edge technology reveals how one of history’s most important images almost didn’t happen.

In the late morning of December 24, 1968, the cameras on NASA’s Apollo 8 spacecraft beamed back to humanity one of the two most iconic photographs ever taken from space — the other being the Pale Blue Dot, taken in 1990. But Earthrise, which depicted the magnificent and humbling view of Earth rising over the moon, almost didn’t happen.

In this fantastic video narrated by Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, NASA scientists use cutting-edge photo mosaics and elevation data from their Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to reconstruct for the very first time, 45 years later, exactly what the Apollo 8 astronauts saw on that fateful morning and recount the unusual circumstances of that fortuitous happenstance.

In the altogether excellent Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (public library), British historian Robert Poole further explores the extraordinary circumstances of that pioneering photograph and its monumental impact on our sense of place in the universe — a sense best captured by the poet Archibald MacLeish shortly after the debut of Earthrise, whose essay “Riders on the Earth” Poole points to as the perfect articulation of how the iconic photograph stirred humanity:

For the first time in all of time, men have seen the Earth. Seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depths of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small… To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know that they are truly brothers.

NPR

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14 NOVEMBER, 2013

November 14, 1963: The First-Ever Footage from Space

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“Through the magic of the camera, earthlings take their first ride into space.”

On November 14, 1963, the Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile shot into space from the South Atlantic at 17,000 miles per hour. This unmanned booster would eventually carry the Gemini space capsules, NASA’s second manned mission to space, succeeding Mercury and preceding Apollo. But what made that fateful November morning particularly noteworthy was something else: Mounted on the second stage of the missile was a camera that offered a preview of what the astronauts would see from space and provided the first-ever footage from the cosmos.

This vintage newsreel captures the historic moment in 59 seconds:

The curvature of the Earth is plainly visible. Through the magic of the camera, earthlings take their first ride into space.

This humble yet monumental black-and-white clip comes as a particularly poignant testament to our progress on the eve of NASA’s big Cassini reveal — an extraordinary mosaic of images captured with Cassini’s bleeding-edge cameras aimed at Saturn, including a view of Carl Sagan’s legendary “pale blue dot” and the first-ever view of the Earth and Moon in a single image viewed from the outer Solar System:

For more awe at our continuous cosmic adventure, see this visual history of space in 250 milestones.

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