Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Recording the end of an era

A friend showed me this cool time lapse video of the space shuttle moving across LA. The only thing that would have been cooler is if it included the trip across the country as well.

The moment is bittersweet, however, as it reminds me of how far we have fallen in our nation's goals. When I was a lad, the space age had begun and we were a nation eager to do more.

Things like rechargeable battery technology, hybrid cars, velcro, LEDs, artificial limbs, scratch-proof glasses, freeze dried foods, firefighting gear, water purification, solar panels, and literally hundreds of other inventions all came from the exploration of space. It is estimated that every $1 spent on space exploration resulted in $7 entering the economy through new jobs and new technologies.

Today, as a nation we have completely lost our manned space program. We have to rely on other countries to do it for us. The technologies developed have changed very little in 50 years, and again other countries have surpassed us in many of those areas. We have become a nation of followers instead of leaders. Instead of our national focus being on education and peaceful exploration, it is on free birth control and the erosion of our liberties.

If I keep talking I'll wind up crying. Why don't I just show the video already?

Watching it reminds me of an event that took place over 50 years ago, described in the book The Perfect Machine, when the 200" pyrex mirror for the Hale telescope was moved across country from the Corning glass works in NY to Pasadena, CA, and later to the Mt. Paloma observatory.

According to the Mt. Palomar web site, in 1936
The mirror blank, with only a rough flat front surface, is shipped across the country on a special train from New York to Pasadena, always traveling slower than 25 miles per hour.
The telescope project has captured the public imagination, and thousands of people line the train tracks to watch this special cargo. Guards are posted around the mirror during overnight stops to prevent any damage to the disk. The trip takes sixteen days.

The mirror was ground and polished over the next 11 years, removing about 5 tons of glass to perfect it's shape. In 1947
The 200-inch mirror is transported from Pasadena to Palomar on November 18-19, 1947. The 40 ton cargo requires three diesel tractors to push it up the mountain. Despite a storm, which nearly aborts the transport, the 125 mile trip is completed in 32 hours.
After removing the concrete disk (now located outside the dome) that was used to test the support structure, engineers install the mirror. Initial imaging results are promising but not ideal. It takes two years to finish polishing, aligning, and adjusting the mirror. 
I wish I had been there to see that move!


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