The Second Half

How to Skip Your Own
Birthday Celebration

The second half of life is a third. It arrives already shattered and goes by like a spell. Compared to the eternity that teen years seem to feel, or the accelerated learning curve lived up to the 30s, the last quadrant is mute and serene, like a trip to another galaxy.
Everything reflects the light of long ago, but there’s no sound in the outer space of advanced age; even the most cheering applause is silenced. The traveler reaches the void looking back; a last minute sorting through spinning memories, before darkness falls.
All that one needs to know is learned early in life. And readily forgotten for the next few decades. So growing old is revisiting childhood, as some put it, making a bit more sense of what’s going on inside, but like then, just as clueless about everything else.
Some of us perceive ourselves as children till we catch a mirror staring back. That smooth layer has been ravaged, the mouth, twisted down in the corners, and the eye twinkle is long gone. But apart from such shocking self-checking, we’re still here.
On the edge of maturity, it counts to have mastered a few things. But accomplishing anything comes clouded by wrong turns and missed

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Read Also:
* The 23rd
* Sendoffs
* You Say It’s Your Birthday

opportunities. All is clear now, understood, and absolutely irrelevant. Still there’s pride in learning a new way to tie shoelaces. Perfect, if it wasn’t for the back pain bending to actually tie them.
As I approach the other margin still gasping for air, I’m still puzzled about how little I know. Was it a choice I’ve made, not to veer towards the upper echelon? Or have I fussed and fought only to come up short of whatever was that I was searching for?
The third slice of a life, staled and musty, is reserved for those who lasted and endured, not those who crafted a legend out of their days. Like a bitter brew, it soothes the gut and vanquishes the last sweet taste, left by cakes and pastries baked in youth.
Some go like shooting stars, but the majority succumbs in quiet desperation. Some go before they even come; others overstay their welcome. We live our ways unaware of our moment of departure. Here’s to when it comes, it won’t make me beg too much to stay.

Space Lighthouse

ISS@20, Life Amid Stars
Enters Its Third Decade

Here she comes. And there she goes. 16 times a day. The International Space Station, which completed 20 years in orbit last week, is humankind’s friendliest eye in the sky, a silent witness watching over us at every turn of our home planet.
It’s been an amazing ride and view. Just the sheer technological mastery necessary to keep it afloat, and the wealth of scientific data it provides daily, are enough to fulfill its lofty dream of being the space outpost of everyone of us, Earthlings.
Built by 16 nations, it’s been the temporary home to 230 highly trained rocket scientists who could even play some football up there: the ISS is almost as long as the field, or the equivalent of a six-bedroom house. They’re wiser with their time, though.
The station is a scientific research hub, from life to physical sciences, from astronomy to meteorology. For instance, the yearlong study monitoring twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. Mark in Houston, Texas, and Scott, racing overhead at five miles per second.
Above all, the ISS‘ greatest achievement is being a beacon to our best aspirations, of harmony among nations, working together to build a better future. As such a beautiful dream is far from becoming reality down here, it’s crucial that it survives in space.

A BLUE WORLD, ROUND AS PIE
Watching it sliding soundlessly above high mountains of clouds and vast water mirrors, allows us also into a truly surprising realization: all ground noise we make, tall buildings we erect, and border walls we raise, are invisible and meaningless from the air.
The ISS sees no wars, hate, hunger, tragedy. It does, however, observe the terrible ways we treat Earth, and from above it’s easy to see the pollution of the air, the desertification of land, the smoke of wildfires caused by our abandon. And that’s beyond sad.
From up there, lies and climate change denials can’t be heard either, which is probably good. But not seeing rising sea levels or lines dividing people, doesn’t mean that we’re unaffected by them. All it takes is, well, an astronaut, to report their deadly impact.

THE THIRD BRIGHTEST IN THE SKY
Just like the dream behind its conception, the ISS is also vulnerable: a little debris the size of a quarter can disable it and risk the lives of its dwellers. And it’s also susceptible to the whims of near-sighted (more)
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Read Also:
* Space Droppings
* Heavenly Palace
* Meanwhile, Up There

Continue reading

Play Dough

But Why Didn’t They
Call it The Big Pizza?

The world would laugh, if it’d even care, about the little idiosyncrasies New Yorkers seem to invest themselves with so much passion one would think that the fate of humankind is squarely pinned on them. Case in point: pizza, local fast food extraordinaire.
Now, we know, would it kill us to exercise restrain and abstain from such prosaic subject? We’re not above it, though; yesterday, when we were cold and short of cash, it seemed like a good idea. But fear not, for we approach the beast with utmost respect.
For even for pizza there’s a certain way of eating it, if far from solemn, that denizens of this great cesspool are proud of mastering early on. And then there’re all the wrong ways to be ashamed doing it. Just ask the Mayor, who was caught eating the holy dough with fork and knife.
Anathema, nothing less. After all, the whole combo of flour, cheese and tomato sauce may have been invented in the old country ages ago, but the slice and the ‘fold and eat with your hands’ maneuver have been both trade-marked right here, on the streets of the five boroughs, just like steaming manholes and yellow cabs.
What? You have a problem with that? No one should be surprised if many an argument has flared up or settled down over a steaming pie, and for that dwindling minority with a pocketful of change, nothing is as affordable and substantial than a 4am slice by the curbside.
But alas, not even pizza is that New Yorker, and as with many other city-by-the-river staples, it’s been appropriated by the world, many times over, gritty, warts et al. Perhaps one day we’ll all be talking about pizza like we do today about the old Times Square. But we digress.
We’re living in other times, that’s for sure, even if equally lean. Definitely diminished slant on little localized treats, though, as they plan on printing a pie in space and making a slice last longer than a heat wave. Never mind us old farts, for kids are unlike to mourn the demise of such a 20th century food relic.
Big Apple? Who were they kidding? So, fine, it was supposed to evoke the original sin and all that, besides looking a bit more photogenic in tourism ads. But the likelihood of seeing someone eating apples on the streets of New York was never bigger than spotting a kangaroo at a subway stop, or a beret-wearing mime.
Although we’re sure those have also been spotted somewhere around here. In any case, we thought about getting a quick survey on wonders of this thousand-year snack, that can proudly be a meal on its own right. Just don’t bring pineapples anywhere near one or we’ll scream.

MORE ITALIAN THAN ITALY
Inevitably, as with many scrumptious foods we’ve been indulging for centuries, the old loaf of bread covered in cheese and herbs (predating even the ascension of tomatoes, around 700 A.C.E.) came from the ancient country. Many trace its earliest reference to Virgil’s Aeneid, written almost 800 years before that.
To some, it was a baker in Pompeii, Publius Paquius Proculus, who invented it some 2,000 years ago, and in fact, a relic of the Vesuvius eruption that destroyed his city and Herculaneum is a fossilized round dough that strongly resembles some of the culinary achievements of ‘The Original Ray,’ in New York.
For the typical Napolitan, for instance, there’s nothing else but Marinara and, Ok, once in a while, Margherita, and we’ll spare you from the origins of these two common pizzas. We said hold the pineapples before but New Yorkers are known not to be above some sausage, (more)
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Read Also:
* Wait a Minute
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The 23rd

When 2 + 3 Is Not 5,
Some Call it an Enigma

Numbers and the Internet. Man-made to gauge and track the world, they’re now endless and will go on long after we’re gone. As matter can always be reduced to its numeric essence, so all manner of human expression may one day reside on the digital realm.
Take 23, for instance, the number assigned by fate to my first breath. Like with other numerals, there are hundreds of Websites about it, on math and numerology to cults and strange coincidences, with everything in between, besides, of course, celebrity birthdays.
Age-wise, few are like 23, and most of anyone would consider it among life’s best years. Perhaps. We tend to appreciated this sort of thing when we’re either heading towards it, or receding from it. But it is a time when choices are wide open and self-fulfillment is still a priority.
A mind-boggling assortment of arcana is related to 23 as a prime number, but even as its complexities keep planets spinning, and the Space Station aloft, few are wise to them. We all have 23 pairs of chromosomes, though, even if they no longer dictate one’s gender.
A curious statistical theory, the Birthday Paradox, says that within a group of 23 people, chances are, two share the same day of birth. That’s the least amount of people to whom such a likelihood is higher than 50 percent. But please, don’t go asking strangers for their day.

THE CHAOS & MYSTERY OF NOT MUCH
Yes, there are at least two weird groups that attribute 23 a special meaning. Discordianism associates it with chaos, with some mumbo-jumbo about inverting the pyramids (you read it right), and the goddess Eris. By the way, the Great Pyramid of Giza was built with 2.300 stones, so there you have it.
As for 23rdians, they see the number as an enigma permeating all spheres of existence, claiming author Robert Anton Wilson as a spiritual mentor of sorts. Wilson, in turn, may have caught the 23 fever from William Burroughs, who once told him about his own obsession with it.
Add to these, well, peculiar people, Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash. Despite his work on economics, he was almost better known for having a strange, and tragic, thing about the number (and Pope John XXIII, but if you have to ask, don’t). And of course, (more)
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Read Also:
* On This Day
* You Say It’s Your Birthday

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Space Droppings

The High-Speed Junk Our
Dreams Left Above Earth

Look at that sky above you. See how the stars are bright tonight. Think about the immensity of the universe, quasars and nebulae, waiting to awe you, just beyond the reach of your fingers. And be careful with the falling debris of thousands of objects man placed on Earth’s orbit.
That’s right. We can’t seem to live without producing many times as much as we’re capable of consuming. And just like the oceans, all that floating garbage is choking us. Or, in the case of space, either falling often over our heads or racing around the planet at top speed.
So, hail poets and philosophers and astronomers and dreamers. But also, hail the new class of space cleaners that will have to be trained and sent to do what janitors have been doing since time immemorial, besides taking the blame for their bosses’ crimes: cleaning after us.
The U.S., and as a distant second, Russia (as in former Soviet Union), are by far the biggest producers of space junk around. But neophyte China‘s also doing its part, as it launched this week a monitoring center to protect its over 130 space objects in orbit.
Other countries are concerned too. A month ago, Japan announced that it’s studying the possibility of laser-blasting, Star Wars-style, all that junk out of existence, probably from the International Space Station itself. Just imagine George Lucas losing his sleep over this.
But theirs is only a slightly more sophisticated idea that’s been tried before, with disastrous results. We’ve covered that a few years ago. Then as now, there were few reasons Continue reading

Ungrounded

Threat to Our Dream
of Living Among Stars

In the concert of nations, Russia holds little sway. That is, if one discounts its nuclear stocks and storied past as a fierce competitor with world power credentials, its influence is now mostly regional. That’s not how President Vladimir Putin sees it, though.
So, despite all the hyperventilation about its imperialistic moves against its neighbors, which it never really ceased to control, and the phony indignation displayed by U.S. and Europe, the world doesn’t really care much about it. Except when it comes to space.
Specially, in what the International Space Station, that marvel of global scientific cooperation, is concerned. Aloft for over 10 years, with a steady stream of technological achievements to boot, the flying lab has done more to world harmony that many a peace talk ever could.
That positive outlook is what has been seriously challenged this week when the Russian president issued a not-so veiled threat to bar the launch of American satellites by Russian-made rockets, and even ban the use of the station itself by the U.S. after 2020, which, to be sure, is a qualified ruse.
The ISS hasn’t been projected to be fully operational much beyond that date anyway, and only recently its decommission got a reprieve, as the bitter reality that it’s been reduced to become the only game in town, or rather, space, has sunk in for nations still interested in exploring it, including the U.S.
Which is also at fault in the whole thing, for the record, and not for trying to upset Putin’s campaign to destabilize Ukraine next door. But because the U.S. has withdrawn much of that once unwavering support to its own space program since the last Shuttle left the assembly line.

WORLD, WE’VE HAD A PROBLEM HERE
After the great conquests of the 1960s and 70s, NASA, the agency in charge of firing up the imagination of Americans still starstruck, has frankly come up with mediocre plans to follow up the Apollo, the Hubble, the Shuttle programs, and even the ISS, of which it was a crucial contributor.
Instead, lacking the funding and epic ideas needed to go ‘to infinity and beyond,’ to use Buzz Lightyear credo (if you have to ask…), after folding the Shuttle program, NASA decided to count on the aging and unreliable Russian Soyuz rockets, to lift its ambitions to orbit. It couldn’t couldn’t work.
Why? Haven’t you noticed where they all land, and eventually depart from? You’re right, Ukraine. That in itself granted Putin a free ride, and power over the aspirations of millions of Americans who wished we still had a first class ticket towards the future.
The space card was bound to be played also when a misguided bet was placed on the market’s ability to carry our dreams aloft, on board Continue reading

Spilled Expectations

A Site Flags the Unpunished
& the Wonders of What’s Next

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst in U.S. history, coincided with Colltales’ birth four years ago, and helped establish both the site’s green credentials and its status as a breaking news destination. A bittersweet landmark, for sure, but a landmark all the same.
Over 1,300 hundred posts later, increased readership and considerable growing pains, Colltales remains a source of constant renewal. As for the state of the environment at the gulf and BP, the corporation responsible for the spill, the news are diametrically opposed.
Despite company and official claims to the contrary, recovery of marine and marshland life, and cleanup of miles of severely impacted coastlines continues to lag. Very unlike the record profits posted by the British giant concern since the April 20, 2010 disaster.
In fact, BP has been spending a large chunk of such profits fighting claims by individuals and local businesses affected by the spill, even though the Obama administration had forced it to put up a $20 billion compensation fund for the victims of its mismanagement.
As it turned out, what happened was an accident only by definition. Long before (and, sadly, ever since) the aging equipment used to pump oil out of the gulf, that sub-contractors operate for BP and other companies, is still highly vulnerable to tragic events just likely.
The defective cement supposed to seal the well feeding the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was already under much more pressure that it could handle, a government report found out, and when it failed, it caused the rig to explode and sink, claiming the lives of 11 workers.
Far from an ‘accident,’ what happened was a tragic confluence of predictable negligence and cost-cutting measures by BP and its partners, Transocean and Halliburton, resulting in the record spill of an estimated 4.9 million barrels for three full months, until the well was capped in July of 2010.
By then, the devastation to wild life and local economies was all too apparent: massive numbers of birds perished, entire micro ecosystems went into disarray and a still unknown number of marine animals were wiped from waters washing the beaches of all five gulf states.

A HOLE TOO DEEP TO FILL
As it’s becoming a habit when it comes to corporate crimes and malfeasance, despite a tacit admission of guilt and heavy dollar-figure penalties, no one went to jail. It took BP less than two years to go back to profitability, while many local business simply folded.
The event also marked one of the saddest and most ironic Earth Days in its now forty four year tradition, and
Continue reading

The Other Half of the Sky

Future of Space Travel May
Belong to Female Astronauts

Some two years ago, NASA was looking for a few good astronauts. It found a few good women. In fact, four out of the newest batch of eight space-bound Americans are female, truly a record. Unlike most professions, being an astronaut accurately reflects our demographics.
They may all thank their lucky stars to Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian who became the first woman in orbit 50 years ago last Sunday. As if on cue, Wang Yaping, China’s second female astronaut, has returned to Earth yesterday, after 15 days in space with two others.
Valentina’s launch, two years after Yuri Gagarin’s historical flight, was a second stunning win for the Soviet Union in the early years of the space race. After Godspeed John Glenn, in 1962, it’d take two decades for Sally Ride to, well, ride the Space Shuttle and become the first American female to get there.
As it goes, June seems to be a special time for women in space. Apart from Wang, Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut, went aloft last year on the 16th, the same day as Valentina‘s, while Sally, who passed away last July, boarded the shuttle 30 years ago, on the 18th.

VALENTINA & THE FEMALE FLYERS
Perhaps mirroring the times, their trips were radically different. Valentina‘s type of orbit is now routinely done by unmanned rockets. Sally rode the no-longer active Shuttle Program, and Wang’s flight is part of China’s ambitious plan to build its own space lab.
Thus, even though our bets are still heavily stacked in the new crop of female astronauts and scientists who may help lift us all to a consistent new program of space exploration, the odds are still against women in space: of 534 space travelers, so far only 57 have been female. So much for demographics.
But let’s not restrict our imagination just yet. When it comes to exploring the physical universe, there’s practically everything to be done. Assuming that we don’t self implode without even trying, within a century we may as well be traveling if not through the stars, then at least among near planets in and outside the Solar System.
It may all start with a quick landing on an asteroid. Then another trip to the Moon, this time not on gossamer wings. A few additional extravagant dreams, and that long haul to Mars, the one-way ticket reserved for a very special breed of not yet born humans, and who, most likely, won’t return to Earth either.
And who’s not to say that on that very open-ended journey, someone may become the first space mother? It’s likely – and even preferable – that nationality won’t be relevant then. Or race. Or, to a certain extent, age. Gender, though, will. And there’s just one that’s been trained on this particular task for 100,000-plus years.

Just the time-frame we need to get used to think, if we’re to vanquish war, climate change, pollution, over population, diminishing natural resources, and, wny not? greed. As a matter of fact, if we do get at least a few of those right, there won’t be really any limits to what we’ll be able to do. Including having a birth in outer space.
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* The Red Chronicles
* Sorry, Not a Winner
* Out There

The Red Chronicles

Mars, As Red As They Come (NASA) Click for Video

Think You Could Move
to Mars? Pack Lightly

A curious thing happened while we were mourning the Space Shuttles’ demise, and lack of a recognizable project to follow it up: NASA got busy with Mars. Thus, even if such news are breaking at least 54.6 million kilometers away, and often farther than that, we take it.
Last time we checked it, there were two rovers on the surface, and a satellite orbiting the planet named after the Roman god of war. And as we’re already researching ways of sending humans for a permanent visit up there, no one has mentioned anything about armies to follow.
It belongs to Mars, for example, the most spectacular event connected to space exploration in recent memory: last August’s landing on the planet of one of those rovers, Curiosity, through an ingenious and complex succession of stages. Or so we were told, since there’s no real-time footage of it.
But even the animation NASA prepared detailing the landing beat by a large margin the next-best thing, the docking of privately-built Dragon capsule on the International Space Station last October. While that was the promising opening salvo of a new era of commercial cargo trips, Curiosity’s pictures are way hotter.
This week, it’s supposed to crack its first Martian rock open, and astrophysicists and scientists of all stripes are beside themselves about it. In the meantime, elsewhere in the traffic-free red surface, the other Continue reading

Space Odor

Fragrance Maker to Send People
to Space, Where the Smell Is Odd

Astronauts have struggled to describe the strange but unmistakable scent of space. ‘Seared steak,’ as one put it. No, ‘burnt gunpowder,’ said another. So odd it is, that NASA has commissioned a chemist to develop something similar, so rookies can get acquainted with it.
The out of this world odor can’t be covered up by any cologne. But AXE, the maker of a popular deodorant, is promoting the launching of its new fragrance by offering 22 lucky buyers the chance to fly aboard Lynx, a suborbital plane being readied to take tourists aloft.
As space is about to become the novelty du jour for those bored with the signs on the ground (and with deep pockets to afford taking off), we may also see a new era of space traveling being offered to common folk, via lottery. Just like it was done with the Titanic and we don’t mean to sound ominous here.
Until governments see a reason to invest heavily in space exploration, manned trips to outer space are about to get very rare indeed, and almost never for scientific purposes only. That could change tomorrow, of course, if there were suddenly the prospect of developing a super-duper weapon out there.
Funding wouldn’t be short for that, we’re sure. For all the great things you’ve read here, and our personal enthusiasm about the Space Age, it was never a question why it was being pursued, and what was the shadow program going along for the ride. We just wouldn’t let that take anything away from its overall  greatness.
That era, much to our chagrin, has come to a close, apparently. Or at least has slowed down to an almost grinding halt. For all the hoopla about traveling to Mars or to land a man on an asteroid, realistically we don’t Continue reading

Polls & Tallies

Possible Losses Paving the Way
For One Man & His Ideas to Win

From where we’re standing, we’re far from knowing what many of you already know: who’s the U.S. President. Or perhaps you know as much as we do now, 24 hours before. But whether you’re mad about or celebrating the outcome of this election, it’s almost a miracle that it’s actually produced a winner.
That’s because, as predicted with even better accuracy than the result itself, thousands across the land had to wait hours in line to vote, voting machines malfunctioned, suspicious steps were taken by election officials, and many, arguably due to the media frenzy, wound up not voting in the end.
The first sight things could go awfully wrong, or as pessimists had already declared, ‘as expected,’ came not long after results from New Hampshire’s Dixville Notch were in, a 5 to 5 dead-heat tie: Reddit Pennsylvania reader ‘centrapavote’ filmed a machine that would register votes cast for President Obama as if they were for the GOP candidate.
Other contraptions malfunctioned in Ohio precincts, while in central and south Florida, hundreds endured drizzling rain and an average of seven hours wait in line, so to cast their votes. And that may be the reasonably good news, since votes were indeed cast, and defective polling stations were put out of commission.
Much more serious, and again, from where you stand, you may have already a better view of this issue, was the unheard of decision by Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, ‘who asked voting machine giant ES&S to install last-minute, unverified, custom firmware updates on the state’s voting machines,’ according to Boing Boing.

THE KILLING OF YOUR VOTE
Ohio being a ‘swing state,’ (and you thought they’d rather square dance down there, eh?) with 18 electoral votes to be earned by the candidates, two shy of the 2008 election, the move can’t be perceived as purely technical, as in, operating technical problems. It reminded everyone of Florida, circa 2000, and the less than noble job performed Continue reading

Got Milk?

How Many Laws It Takes to Explain
a Cat’s Gulp? Let Us Count the PhDs

With due respect to Barbra Streisand, the real zen master is the feline, as research upon research piles up to prove it. This time, it took scientists from MIT, Princeton, and Virginia Polytech, to show the world what it already knew: when cats drink, they’re actually solving fundamental hydrodynamic problems you didn’t even know existed.
For starters, they lap their drinks four times a second, way too fast for your inferior human eyes to see anything but a blur. And unlike dogs, for example, they hardly make any noise doing it. Oh, and the toothbrush-like raspy hairs on their tongue have nothing to do with it.
In lay terms, the four engineers reported that the cat’s lapping method depends on its “instinctive ability to calculate the balance between opposing gravitational and inertial forces.” Come again?
Elementary, dear reader. The cat darts its tongue, curving the upper side downward so that the tip lightly touches the surface of the water. The tongue pulls a column of liquid upwards, and quickly traps it inside his month, before it has a chance to give in to gravity and spill. Did we mention that the cat’s chin remains dry during the process?
How did they measure all this? With high tech machines, silly, one of which had been designed for some way less important experiment at the $100 billion International Space Station, before being found in Continue reading

Skin Deep

When Aching, Breaking Bodies
Are Replaced By Bionic Suits

Evolution’s ultimate job to our bodies, its finish, is of course the skin, this marvelous outer layer that makes up for our biggest organ. Soft but strong enough to hold our guts together, it’s in a word, a marvel. It’s also porous, tears up easily, and can’t withstand the elements.
As for the bones, they do keep it all in place, but are also brittle and fracture often. Now two new bodysuits may be our response to nature’s shortcomings: an exoskeleton that we may someday wear on the Moon, and a bionic armor, for those who can’t walk.
We shouldn’t be complaining, but apart from perfect atmospheric conditions, our skin is good as dead, as in leather thick dead. It can’t be soaked, or frozen, or exposed for any extended amount of time without breaking up and affect our entire organism. And it still takes the body a long time to replace it and cover up again, when it’s slashed.
An adult has over 200 bones inside, most of them located in the hands and feet. But even if they’re hard to split apart, they often do, and depending of the part of the body, you may never walk again or even move it for the rest of your life. Even when it’s not that radical, bones ache and wear and tear right when you begin enjoying life, and you still have to drag them around.
That’s all a result of our still evolving human condition, of course, and who knows, maybe one day this limitations will be laughable. In the meantime, we may be still forever in debt with the visionaries who won’t wait for that skin deep and rock bone age to dawn on us. They’re Continue reading

Tear Us Apart

Blood, Salt & Tears:
The Body’s Real Mojo

Now, for a moment of hyperbolic rhetoric: what human hasn’t been accused of displaying ‘crocodile tears’ or shedding ‘blood tears,’ as part of a survival strategy or in response to an emotional shock of some kind? It turns out, many, we know. Just fell like asking anyway. Because now there are both: cooking salt made of tears and a medical condition that makes people cry bloody tears.
The salts come in five different emotional or simply reactive settings: Anger, Chopping Onions, Sneezing, Laughter and Sorrow, produced using a ‘centuries-old craft with the freshest human tears.’ And Haemolacria is a little understood condition to which there’s no known cause or cure. Between these two extremes, there are the bees who love human tears, and that’s not a song.
It probably had to happen sooner rather than later. As far as recycling is concerned, it’s been already applied to pretty much every other secretion of the human body. Only tears, arguably the most emotionally-driven of them all, had so far eluded a second life or even the making of a by-product from them. That’s all in the past, now.
If this sounds a bit creepy or gag-reflex inducing, just think about the machine astronauts use at the International Space Station, that recycles all human waste back into potable water, and you may not feel so, well, sensitive about it. Besides, there’s the obvious dimension of Continue reading

Meanwhile, Up There


Six Astronauts from Three Nations
Flying High Above Us at 17,300Mph

How easy it is for us to forget. In the time you’ll spend reading this post, Commander Dan Burbank, Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoly Ivanishin, André Kuipers, Oleg Kononenko and Don Pettit, will zip by over us a few times, busy tending to the 30th astronaut expedition to the International Space Station.
Since we’ve started the week marking the 50 years last Monday of John Glenn‘s historical flight circling the Earth aboard the Friendship 7, it’s only fitting to take a few minutes today to think about the current crew of six working 24/7 to keep his legacy, and our stardust dreams, alive.
We do forget about them, sometimes, so focused we must be on our own ant-like business of being alive. But, as flight engineer Don Pettit wrote this week, “when earthlings can see us, we cannot see them. The glare from the full sun effectively turns our windows into mirrors that return our own ghostly reflection.”
Pettit, from Oregon, along with Turkumenian Konokenko and Dutch Kuipers, arrived at the ISS two days before Christmas. Burbank, from Connecticut, was already there, and so was Russians Shkaplerov, who turned 40 last Monday too, and Ivanishin, all brought aloft on board two Soyuz rockets.
They should all be back to Earth for Easter. But make no mistake, these guys are the text-book combination of super-athletes and rocket scientists: if there’s anything humanly possible to do to avert disaster, they’re perfectly capable of doing, with honors, as most of everything they’ve done in life has been.
Up there, though, they’re but a speck of dust, racing among 500,000 other objects of different sizes, all capable of ending their adventurous lives in the time it takes us to complete this sentence. From up there, they can’t expect to get help from any of the seven billion who mostly ignore them.
That’s why this Saturday, out of the blue, we thought we should try to spot them crossing over our heads, as silently as the other heavenly bodies around them. Except that theirs carries some of our own shine and hearts. The ISS is fair game to be wished upon too, just like any other shooting star.
You can follow them on Tweeter, read their blogs or find out more about their mission. You can also talk to your friends or children about them. Or just keep them on your mind, as you go about your daily chores, usual aggravations and small miracles.
Click on the two pictures that illustrate this post for the videos that will help you picture yourself up there, watching us from above, as Pettit says, without really seeing us, but the planet as a whole, as it wakes up and goes dark several times a day.
Here’s to you, ISS and the only star in the vast wide universe to carry six beings just like us. Take good care of them.

Falling Junk

Long Life for
Our Star Trash

Since ancient times, people looked up at the sky and dreamed about the future, new worlds, or whether it’ll rain or shine. These days, they look out for something else: space junk. Statistically, the 60 to 80 tons of metal garbage we’ve once sent aloft and now comes back to Earth every year has little chance to hit anyone, personally.
Which doesn’t mean it can’t. Most actually get burned while entering our atmosphere. A lot dive straight to the sea, which covers most of the planet’s surface anyway. Then there’s the stuff that falls in deserted areas, and few even notice it. That leaves a small, tiny, teeny percentage of flaming rocks that, yes, can crush you to death.
We don’t want to worry you too much. After all, if this was Saturday, we’d be doing better featuring cat pictures. But think about a lottery, for instance, and the buck you risk weekly, hoping to change your life with a struck of a number. Well, chances of hitting the jackpot are roughly equivalent to chances of being hit by falling debris. So.
Let’s take a quick look at what’s up there, what may have reached its expiration date some time ago, and what’s getting closer and closer to reentry, shall we?
FLYING LITTER
The straight dope: right now, there are about 500,000 known pieces of space junk in orbit, including items 0.5 inches wide, and 21,000 objects larger than four inches in diameter, all currently being tracked by the Department of Defense’s U.S. Space Surveillance Network.
But if that makes you relax, you don’t know what’s coming at you at 17,500mph: once an object larger than those four inches reenters the atmosphere, it’s virtually impossible to know where exactly it’ll land.
A few years ago, a 2.5-ton scrap, left over after disabled German satellite Rosat reentered the atmosphere in October, missed Beijing and millions of residents by a matter of minutes. The 21-year old Rosat fell instead on the Bay of Bengal a few moments from the Chinese city.
Given the size of that thing, it’d have been, of course, a major catastrophe. But at that kind of speed, size is not really that relevant. There have been collisions in space between debris and operating satellites, or even misguided attempts at destroying them in orbit. That only increased the amount of high-speed junk circulating the Earth.
The International Space Station has had to dodge debris several times and even has a procedure for astronauts to adopt in such an event. And they did have to evacuate the ISS under the threat of a collision a couple of times. As you know, even a tiny bit of racing metal can disable the station and they’d have to abandon it for good.

ETERNAL LANDFILL
The only thing certain about this dangerous by-product of our space adventures is that it’ll all eventually fall back to Earth, and there isn’t much that can be done about it. NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office has been trying to address the problem for quite some time now.
The program’s main goal is to find ways to avoid collisions, specially when launching new satellites that, ultimately will also contribute to the pile. Or soon, there won’t be a way to safely launch them up at all. But NASA is historically plagued by budget concerns anyway.
The same goes, by the way, to its Meteoroid and Orbital Debris Program Offices. All both programs can do is to track some of the objects. There isn’t any practical plan to do away with the problem which, in the case of meteorites, has the potential to end our civilization.
But before the hawks who like to blame the government for incompetence start to croak, see if there’s any initiative from the private sector to deal with the issue of space debris. Or with errant meteors, for that matter. That’s because there isn’t.
And to show that in matters of space, we’re really falling behind, while we argue about government spending and earth-bound priorities, the Swiss has come up with a way. Expensive, lengthy but better than nothing. Let’s see if it gets off the ground. We hope it does.
Even sexier programs, such as space travel, have a hard time finding deep pockets to get off the ground. So, like education, health care, defense, and individual freedom, either the government steps in or it’s every man for himself. That’s how it already looks like anyway.

WHAT GOES UP…
Two dramatic examples, coincidentally both Russian-made crafts, underline the need for us to, well, at least keep an eye on the sky. The $160 million Phobos-Grunt satellite, and the $65 million Meridian communications satellite both malfunctioned either in orbit or right before reaching it and crashed back shortly after launch.
Besides the huge amount of money literally burned with the failed projects, and the effect they had on Russia’s once proud space program, there’s something else about them: they both could’ve hit a major city and caused a catastrophic event. Not this time, thank goodness.
Before we forget, let’s quickly address the one-track minded, shoot from the hip, Monday quarterbacks out there who have one ‘solution’ to this problem: to blast it, either with lasers or some other video-game-inspired solution. Well, let’s us be the ‘Nth’ party to tell you all: it does not work, either with satellites or meteorites.

China already tested in 2007 this disastrous theory, which has even its own name, the Kessler Syndrome, when it blasted an aging weather satellite, only to create about 2,500 pieces of new debris. It happened again two years later, though, in a head-on collision between U.S. Iridium satellite and a defunct Soviet Cosmos spacecraft.

Add another 1,000 pieces of trackable debris to the space landfill tally up there. And so on. The consequences of blasting a meteor in outer space, supposedly using nuclear power, as many advocate, are unpredictable and, most likely, absurdly devastating. But, if the rock’s really heading toward us, who knows?
PERMANENT GRIDLOCK
With over 50 nations now actively launching rockets to space, the traffic jam is obviously increasing. And speaking of nukes, some of these do have nuclear powered engines, and are not any safer than the usual sources of propulsion. That was the case in 1978, with a secret spy Soviet satellite.
The Cosmos 954, which had compact nuclear reactors for each of its radar antennas, spiraled out of control and fell to Earth, shedding debris across the frozen ground of the Canadian Arctic. It required a major cleanup operation, obviously motivated by its military purposes.
The number of space debris is projected to triple by 2030, and if today there are probably 10 times more objects in space than we’re able to track with our current sensor capability, imagine how it’ll be then.
There’s growing awareness of the problem and spacecraft built nowadays are relatively superior than those launched before, in what they use lighter materials, are more energy efficient, have longer life spans, and can more easily be tracked and even brought back to Earth for recycling, instead of just crash-landing.
That being said, and even if unrealistically, we’d consider stopping launching anything else to space, there’s still the problem of what’s already there. Perhaps in a 100 years or so, if we’re still around, we’ll send some kind of space-age, small-planet sized shredder to turn it all into something we can reuse. Stardust, anyone?
But that’s, well, a fairy-dusted way of imagining the future. Just like imagining the you’ll hit the lottery someday. Which doesn’t mean we don’t want you to, just don’t forget us. Or the fairies. And, for crying out loud, take at look at the sky above you, every once in a while.

* Originally published on 8/15/2011.

Friendship 7


Godspeed,
John Glenn

It was 50 years ago today. The man who would become at 77 the oldest person to ever leave Earth’s atmosphere just a few years after that, was also the first American to fly to space.
The order of the previous sentence is not reversed. For most things in life, it’s good have a perspective, a context, a place and time. Not for this fact, though, and not for John Glenn.
Every time we frame his flight into what was happening them, he and his adventure get somehow short changed. Before even taking off, he was already upstaged by Yuri Gagarin. The Mercury program was not the one that would finally get us to the moon.
And the space age making history then, was really an ongoing arms race in disguise, between two dangerous superpowers.
So let’s drop the academic, and ultimately toothless, exercise of Continue reading

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Landing of Storied Shuttle
Kicks Race For Its Final Home

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Farewell Mission

Last Discovery Mission
Takes First Robot to Space

JUST IN: The Discovery is already in orbit on its way to the International Space Station. God speed.

If all goes well, NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery starts today its farewell mission to space, ending its 28 flawless years of service. Aptly named after the great era of discoveries, this shuttle has had an illustrious career, which includes the launch Continue reading

Up, Up and Away

Space Station Reaches
10 Years of Earth Watch

“The future ain’t what it used to be.” Nothing like the sage of America’s formerly favorite pastime, Yogi Berra, to convey in a few words, a world of meaning. The International Space Station that is completing its first 10 years in orbit (11/02/2000), for example, never became the home away from home its creators once envisioned. Ever since its first crew spent a few uncomfortable days in it, it got much better, but never quite the easy ride of the sci-fi stories. And, let’s face it, it never will.
Then again, perhaps we’re all better off knowing that the envisioned world of The Jetsons and even of Blade Runner was not meant to be. Imagine texting and driving a hyperspeed-flying car? Or sending an ultra intelligent robot to the past, to kill somebody else’s grandfather? And don’t even let us start with all those promised wonderful foods in a Continue reading