Wednesday, 27 July 2005

Space Exploration

Yesterday the space shuttle Discovery had a successful launch. It's the first shuttle mission since the Columbia Disaster happened in 2003. I'm hoping that Discovery can make it home safely and that its astronauts return unharmed. I have always been a big supporter of the space programme, but then given that I was born in the Sixties, it would perhaps be surprising if I wasn't.

By the time I was born, the "Space Race" was well underway. The United States' space programme was largely born out of the Cold War. On October 4, 1957, the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik I, the first man made satellite to orbit planet Earth. Fearing that the Soviets could well develop technological superiority to the U. S., the government created NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and hence the American space programme. The Space Race had begun. Indeed, it would be on May 5, 1961 that the first American would be sent into space. On that date Alan Shepherd Jr. rode Mercury Freedom 7 on a suborbital flight into space. It was not long after that historic flight that President John F. Kennedy would make the space programme a national priority for the United States. In a speech he made on May 25, 1961, Kennedy pledged that we should put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.

One of the first steps towards that goal was launching the first American into orbit around the Earth. On February 20, 1962, Mercury Friendship 7 was launched, carrying John Glenn. Glenn would orbit the earth three times. It would not be long before the United States would be swept up by an absolute craze for outer space. This craze can easily be seen in the television shows of the era. Space travel, either to or from this world, played a central role in a few TV shows in the Sixties. Both My Favorite Martian and The Invaders featured aliens coming to Earth. Both Star Trek and Lost in Space dealt with space travel itself. The topic of space even appeared on many sitcoms of the era. Gilligan's Island, The Monkees, Bewitched, and many other shows had at least one episode with a space age theme. I Dream of Jeannie topped them all. Jeannie's master, Tony Nelson, was an astronaut!

Even TV commercials during the Sixties touched upon space travel in some way, shape or form. The perfect example of this was Tang, which was first used on the Gemini flights in 1965. For literally years Tang capitalised on the space programme in its advertising campaigns. Naturally, there were food products which capitilised on the space craze. Pillsbury developed "Space Food Sticks" for NASA. And as might be expected, Pillsbury made Space Food Sticks available to the general public as well. In 1965 Quaker Oats even introduced a cereal with a space age theme. The spokesman for Quisp was was an alien with a propeller atop his head, named, appropriately, Quisp.

Not surprisingly, toys with a space theme were extremely popular in the Sixties. Boys during that decade could choose from a wide array of toy ray guns, robots, spaceships, and so on. Mattel created a line of "Major Matt Mason" action figures which capitalised on the space programme. Major Matt Mason was not the only action figure with a space theme, by any means. Marx came out with its own "Johnny Apollo" line of action figures which did the same. In 1965 Gilbert came out with Moon McDare. Eldon came out with Billy Blastoff. Even a G. I. Joe action figure was issued with a space suit and space capsule!

Of course, action figures weren't the only space oriented toys around in the Sixties. Both Ideal and Remco came out with their own "space bases." Remco produced a Voice Controlled Astronaut Base, complete with rocket, astronaut vans, and so on. Ideal's Astro Base came with a scout car, astronaut figure, and so on. Ideal seems to have favoured space oriented toys. They came out with a Space Belt and Helmet set, so that kids could pretend to be astronauts. In 1968 they introduced a line of four battery powered robots called Zeroids, whose mission was the exploration of space.

Towards the end of the decade, the American space programme saw its crowning achievement. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 reached the Moon. Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on it. Unfortunately, as the Apollo missions progressed, the American public lost interest in the space programme, although it maintains many supporters to this day. Of course, even after that first lunar landing, there would still be in milestones in the American space programme. In 1973 and 1974, the Skylab missions took place. Skylab was the United States' first space station. The Skylab missions marked the most extensive amount of time American astronauts spent in space (84 days on the last mission). On April 12, 1981, Columbia became the first space shuttle launched into orbit around the earth.

While NASA has seen many successes, it has also seen its share of disasters. On January 27, 1967, a fire on the launch pad would destroy Apollo 1, killing all three astronauts on board. Apollo 13 nearly ended in disaster. Launched on Apr. 11, 1970, an oxygen tank exploded before the astronauts could even reach the moon. For a time it looked as if the astronauts might be stranded in space, but fortunately both Mission Control and the astronauts figured out a means to bring Apollo 13 home. The space shuttle has also seen its share of disasters, as is well known. On January 31, 1986, Challenger exploded on lift off, killing everyone on board. Only a little over two years ago, on February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas.

I remember both disasters quite well, particularly that of Columbia. My brother, who lives in Texas, had the misfortune to see the shuttle on its reentry. He told me that when he saw it, he knew something was wrong. Both the Challenger disaster and the Columbia disaster had a huge impact on me. Growing up, among my heroes numbered the astronauts of the American space programme, so I naturally mourned the passing of the astroanauts of both Challenger and Columbia.

The American space programme has been in existence now for nearly 50 years. In that time NASA has made some great achievements. We placed a man on the moon and developed a reusable spacecraft (the space shuttle). NASA has also had its share of disasters (Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia). It is hard to say what the future holds in store for the American space programme. I have heard that NASA is developing a new reusable spacecraft, one that will be capable of reaching both the Moon and Mars. The international space station will serve not simply the United States and Russia, but many other nations as well. It seems to me that we could be approaching a time when space travel will be routine. I can only hope that I live to see that time.

Tuesday, 26 July 2005

News Bulletin...This Just In....

The heat wave just broke here in Randolph County. It's now a nice 67 degrees (very cool for a mid-Missouri July evening). The drought may break as well. We've had a fairly steady, but gentle rain since about 4:30 this afternoon. I hope the heat wave breaks for everyone else it has affected!

Monday, 25 July 2005

Heat Wave

The past week the big news stories have centred on Karl Rove, Harry Potter, John Roberts, and Lance Armstrong, but it seems to me that this weekend the biggest news story here may have been the heat wave that is just now hitting the eastern part of the United States. In much of the West, including my home state of Missouri, it has already been with us for a week (farther west it has been around a lot longer). Now it always gets fairly hot in Missouri during July. Temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) are not unusual here this time of year. But the past week we have seen temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 degrees Celsius).

Of course, anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I do not like hot weather, and summer is my least favourite time of year. And in this case I definitely believe that I have a right to complain. At 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with the usual high humidity of Missouri summers, the heat becomes more than uncomfortable, it becomes deadly. I have already heard about two deaths in Missouri from the extreme heat--one being a 77 year old Bonner Springs woman, the other an 83 year old St. Louis woman. I am surprised that I have not read of more deaths. In the heat wave of 1980, in Kansas City alone, 108 people died.

As intense as heat waves can be, it surprises me that they do not play a larger role in pop culture, especially where North America is concerned. It seems to me that when heat does play a role in a novel or movie, it is usually set in the South. I guess it is not surprising, then, that heat figures prominently in the plays of Tennessee Williams, as the vast majority of them are set in the South (A Streetcar Named Desire in New Orleans, Summer and Smoke and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in Mississipi, and so on). Heat also figures prominently in William Faulkner's works, much of which are also set in the Deep South. Indeed, when The Hamlet was adapted as a motion picture, it was retitled The Long, Hot Summer.

Perhaps the worst period of extreme heat in North America began in 1933, when seven years of drought struck the states of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. These were the years of the Dust Bowl, a term referring not only to those parts of the U. S. where soil erosion and drought reduced them to aridity, but to the time for which it lasted as well. In fact, record high temperatures from 1934 still stand. The Dust Bowl does figure in several books and movies, the most significant perhaps being John Steinbeck's novel the Grapes of Wrath and John ford's classic movie adaptation of the novel. Several other movies have been set in the Dust Bowl, among them Bound for Glory (based on folk singer Woody Guthrie's biograhy) and The Stars Fell on Henrietta.

I can't think of too many novels or motion pictures which portray heat waves set in the North, perhaps because they don't take place there as often. The first novel in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct, Cop Hater, is set during a heat wave, as is the 1958 movie based on the novel. One movie set in the North during a heat wave which does come to my mind is Do the Right Thing. It is set in Brooklyn and accurately shows the discomfort and even the irritability (to put it mildly) which can arise from extreme temperatures.

As to songs, I can only think of two which invovle the phrase "heat wave" off the top of my head. One is Irving Berlin's "Heat Wave." The other is "(Love is Like a) Heat Wave" by The Supremes. Both are happy songs, even though heat waves are anything but happy. The song "Summer in the City" by the Lovin' Spoonfull does not mention the phrase "heat wave," although it does describe summer heat perfectly. In that song the sidewalk is "hotter than a match head."

Anyhow, perhaps the reason that there aren't that many movies or books set in heat waves is that they are just too unpleasant for people to think about. It is one thing for it simply to be hot and uncomfortable. It is another thing for it to be hot, oppressing, and downright deadly. Fortunately, the heat wave is supposed to break here in Missouri tomorrow. It will drop down to 91 degrees Fahrenheit. The next few days after that will be absolutely cold--the highs are only going to be in the Eighties! Quite frankly, it can happen soon enough as far as I am concerned.