Thursday, June 23, 2011

“The Gradual Loss of Blue Sky”*

Let me tell you a story. I was asked a few years ago what my first memory of television was. I answered pretty quickly that it was the Challenger disaster. Of course, this is a completely inaccurate memory that is entirely not true. I wasn't even two yet on January 28, 1986. It is a false memory, but I remember it because of my attachment to space as a kid. I remember going to my elementary school on some nights when they had telescopes so we could view the stars. Space was almost in reach.

What brings up space? Tonight was the eighth annual John Glenn lecture from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. While I didn't get tickets to see it live, I did watch the stream. While I was watching, I decided to take some notes and jot off a quick post. History is quickly passing and dying, and oral histories preserve a primary source in an authentic voice.

Which is one of the reasons I think this is one of Air and Space's most popular events. People love stories, and John Glenn is an amazing story teller. Combine that with space – I think every 20-something has chosen “astronaut” to answer “what do you want to be” at some point – and you have massive allure. We're lucky that the Smithsonian was able to get two space legends together to speak about the Mercury program. The Smithsonian has all kinds of awesome lectures, which I am always grateful for, even though I don't attend nearly enough of them.

You can find biographies for both men – John Glenn and Scott Carpenter – via Google easily enough. According to the moderator, Space Shuttle Discovery will be “joining Friendship 7” in the Smithsonian's collection.* This may be worth seeing.

Much of the discussion is about preparing for the flights; the environmental tests sound pretty harsh. Especially the ones for the astronauts. I specifically recall liking the “No Smoking” sign on one of the test devices. When they talked about the psych evaluations, I thought that I'd be willing to answer 566 questions if I got to be an astronaut. Then I realized that 566 is a really weird number. Why not just go for 565? or 570? Did they run out of questions? Is 566 symbolic?

If you listen to the whole thing, you'll also hear about the history of the space program in its entirety. Glenn hits on two things America thrives on: Education and leadership in basic research. America has “Learned the new things first,” Glenn said, and describes how all of this new technology and sending a man into space captured more than a nation's imagination. When asked about where NASA should go, Glenn also gave a good recounting of the recent history of NASA, which is worth listening to. For that historical perspective, from Mercury to the final shuttle launch, alone is worth the listen.

What I thought was the funniest moment: When asked, “How do you endure 16 Gs,” Carpenter dead panned: “With difficulty.”

Also. That autobiography that was given out? I am going to have to get my hands on one. For now, here's a link to the Smithsonian's Ustream page to watch.

* The blog's title is a quote from Carpenter during the lecture.
* Which is not the only thing at the Smithsonian, according to the Onion.

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