March 29, 2012
When John Lasseter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, learned that a Buzz Lightyear action figure from the movie Toy Story was going to the International Space Station, “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he said.
Lasseter was at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum today for the formal ceremony presenting the action figure (which spent 15 months in orbit) to the Museum. “I started crying when Discovery connected to the International Space Station,” said Lasseter. “There’s a tube that the astronauts go through, to go from the shuttle into the space station, and they didn’t carry Buzz. They opened his wings, they put his arms out, and Buzz Lightyear flew, in space, himself, up that tube, into the International Space Station. I’ve got chills right now thinking about it.”
Lasseter remembers watching the televised Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions as a child. “They were my heroes,” he explains. So years later, when a script called for a flashy toy to replace a child’s favorite—Woody the cowboy—”I said we have to have the toy be the coolest one you could imagine. The origin of Buzz, in every way, comes from NASA,” said Lasseter.
Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the Museum’s Space History Division, noted that the Pixar/NASA donation includes videos and educational materials produced by Disney and Pixar to inspire children to get excited about science and technology. Later in the summer, Pixar’s Mission Launch videos will help educate visitors about the concepts of rendezvous, reentry, and space science. And Buzz Lightyear will have a place of honor in the mockup of the space shuttle’s crew cabin in the Museum’s Moving Beyond Earth gallery.
After the ceremony, Lasseter and Weitekamp took questions from the audience. “If Buzz was actually alive,” asked a young visitor from West Virginia, “what would those three buttons [on his chest] be for?” Lasseter explained they were Buzz’s communicator and voice box: “When he’s on location in the Gamma quadrant of Sector 3, and he’s out there as a space ranger, those buttons work different kinds of communication back to Star Command.”
When a visitor wondered where Buzz spent his time between flying on the shuttle and being accepted into the Smithsonian’s collections, Lasseter replied, “He was at Walt Disney World, Florida, riding rides.”
“Today is, without question, one of the greatest days of my life,” said Lasseter, of the donation.
November 7, 2011
For 30 seconds beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, November 9, every television and radio station in every U.S. state and a few of its territories, both broadcast and cable, will offer different programming than usual. Wednesday’s message will be continuous whether by audio, video, or digital stream: This is a Test.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has assured the public that “it’s not pass or fail.” It’s simply the first nationwide trial of the emergency alert system (EAS).
That system has been tested on a local basis every week for the last 15 years, when EAS replaced the emergency broadcast system. But it’s never been tested simultaneously from shore to shore. For one thing, it takes a lot of coordination: from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service. Weather alerts, unsurprisingly, have comprised most of the genuine, local uses of EAS.
But EAS’s roots are not in storm warnings. Sixty years ago, a national system, CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation), was established in case of an air raid during the Cold War. Before CONELRAD, urgent news arrived by telephone or teletype machine to radio stations and fledgling TV networks, where a bulletin was typed in haste and handed to an announcer to read breathlessly on air. In March 1951, an FCC study recommended to President Harry Truman that “basic key stations” of the air defense command (ADC) and select radio stations reserve a special phone circuit and radio frequency to ensure a uniform and sober distribution.
On December 10, 1951, CONELRAD went live on two positions of the AM dial, 640 and 1240 kHz. It was tested nationally for the first time in the wee hours of September 16, 1953. By the summer of 1956, nationwide tests ran as long as 15 minutes and included a selection of tunes by the Air Force Symphony Orchestra. Almost from the start, though, the system gave false alarms from poorly wired connections or even lightning. Once a station on the CONELRAD circuit began transmitting, all other radio stations were to power down.
Commercial radio stations were often based in the center of cities, with their broadcast towers sitting atop the tallest available structures, making a natural bulls-eye for an enemy bomber to home in on its signal. To prevent such radio range finding, all stations other than the ring of CONELRAD transmitters were to temporarily cease broadcasting. Only brief bursts of emergency instructions were issued to prevent enemies homing in on the CONELRAD sites, which were nonetheless set well away from population centers.
Until 1963, the FCC required all radios sold in the U.S. to carry a mark reminding listeners where to tune in for civil defense instructions. Under CONELRAD, the small triangular CD or civil defense mark was also sold in a kit to glue onto the dials of older radios. When the national test transmits this week, we’ll see how that old technique compares to today’s digital reach.
October 20, 2011
When pilots make a bad landing they don’t blame their bankers. Or dig up references from their freshman year economic term papers. So why do bankers, hacks, and Capitol Hill flaks use a beloved aviation term to malign the national economy?
“The world is close to stall speed,” wrote one analyst, whose hyperbole was inevitable after economists from Beijing to Sydney started using the metaphor. “Rhode Island’s economy is now perilously close to stall speed,” frets Leonard Lardaro, professor of economics at the University of Rhode Island.
Over at Minyanville, a site for edgy financial commentary, writer Satyajit Das at least fleshed out the metaphor. “Powered flight requires air to flow smoothly over the wing at a certain speed. Erratic or slow air flow can cause a plane to stall,” wrote Das. “Most modern aircraft are fitted with a ‘stick shaker’ that rapidly and noisily vibrates the control yoke or ‘stick’ of an aircraft to warn the pilot of an imminent stall. The global economy, too, needs air flow — smooth, steady and strong growth. Unfortunately, the global economy’s stick shaker is vibrating violently.”
It’s not clear how long economy writers have laid claim to the metaphor, or who coined it first. But it went full throttle in April after its use in block letters atop a numbing, 62-page white paper by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, Forecasting Recessions Using Stall Speeds.
Not only is the phrase overused lately, it was an imperfect metaphor from the outset. If we’ve got to tap the airman’s dictionary at all, why not minimum controllable airspeed?
The FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook defines MCA as “a speed at which any further increase in angle of attack or load factor, or reduction in power, will cause an immediate stall.”
For the more poetic writers, MCA makes a sound that’s simultaneously terrifying and irritating. When an airplane changes its angle of attack in such a way that a stall is imminent, a “stall warning horn” positioned on the leading edge of a wing issues a haunting, grating moan. Not unlike the shrill clarion of financial pages themselves.
And you don’t need a rocket scientist to tell you what’s next. Already this summer, Bloomberg News compared the U.S. economy to a rocket ship:“If it has enough thrust it can escape the tug of economic gravity. Not enough, and it just might go into a tailspin.”
Just like our patience.
October 5, 2011
Volcanic activity on the moon, traveling to asteroids, and crashing galaxies are just a few of the topics covered in the ten free lectures you can attend at the National Air & Space Museum over the next few months. Created in partnership with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian’s Stars series will feature experts and visuals in the Albert Einstein Planetarium. Afterwards, weather permitting, you can get your own view of the sky at the Public Observatory outside the museum.
The series starts this Saturday with Dr. Gareth Morgan, a geologist with the museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, discussing “The Changing Face of the Moon: Exploring the Ancient History of Giant Impacts and Volcanism.” Tickets are free but you must reserve one here. Lecture starts at 5:45 p.m.; observing at 6:45 p.m.
Click over to the full list of lectures and save the date for your favorites.
September 7, 2011
Each day this week until September 11, the National Museum of American History is displaying artifacts recovered from the horrific crash of United Airlines Flight 93 a decade ago in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, along with more than 50 objects from the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
Helena Wright, the museum’s curator of graphic arts, describes the sensitivity guiding the artifacts’ collection and preservation. “Shortly after the attacks, we began discussing what our role as a museum should be, and concluded that we had a responsibility to document the events of September 11 in the National Collections,” said Wright. “The immediacy and deadly nature of the events posed particular collecting challenges. We worried about appearing ghoulish in the face of bereavement, about important material deteriorating or even being thrown out, and about whether we understood enough about the events to document them for posterity. And we knew we would have to be selective—we cannot collect everything.”
The exhibit includes personal items from some of the seven crew and 33 passengers who perished when a terrorist hijacking ended with the airliner plunging to the ground. One of the artifacts is a tattered but still readable personal log carried by flight attendant Lorraine Bay, who had been working in the first-class section.
Among the most arresting artifacts were those recovered from the aircraft itself, frozen in time at the second of impact. A bright orange call button ripped from a ceiling panel (above) is slightly charred. The aircraft’s vertical speed indicator lies mangled and marred.
The Smithsonian Channel has produced a 46-minute video to present the moving stories behind its collection, while the American History museum considers its exhibit a work in progress, and invites additional donations of artifacts and information from the public.
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