Thursday, December 31, 2015


Back on 17 December last, I was taken aback to hear that from the time the Wright brothers first flew at Kittyhawk, North Carolina — 17 December 1903 — until Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made it to the surface of the moon for humanity’s first walk on extraterrestrial ‘soil’ — 20 July 1969 — only 66 years had elapsed.  

In other words, from the time Orville & Wilbur puzzled out how to get an internal combustion engine plus human being off the ground into free flight using only rudimentary wood and canvas for flight surfaces ’til the Apollo 11 boys broke Earth orbit for a gambit to the collection of space rocks we call our moon, only one moderate human lifetime had passed.  If you were a 17 December baby in 1903 and were still around summer 1969, you would have been 66, or darned near.  

Well, March 2016 will bring my 66th birthday, and thus, I am particularly intrigued by that number this New Year’s Eve. Thinking about 66 seems to be a thing at this point in my life.  

In a way, a 66th birthday is of little consequence.  The Medicare birthday that comes just prior was probably the big deal.  Had a party, didn’t you?  Yes, I did, too.  It was lovely, by the way, with my good buddy and birthday mate, Dick Wendeln, there and a handful of classmates.  But if you’re like me, you welcome upcoming birthdays instead with a toast at a nice restaurant with just your family.  No presents, only presence of loved ones required.  Can’t get much better than that for a 66th.  

So during a span of only 66 years, engineers and prototype builders improved the flying experience by moving from canvas to composites and developing portable power plants that would not only break the speed of sound, but would provide enough thrust take travelers into Earth orbit and beyond.  Amazing.  

And recently, of course, if you’ve been paying attention, Space X and Blue Origin, new civilian space delivery companies, have even succeeded in landing first stages of rockets to be reused.  No longer will complex and expensive first stage electronics, fuel tanks, and rocket engines be relegated to Davey Jones’ Locker upon ignition of the second stage.  Bring ‘em back, refurbish ‘em, get ‘em back in the air.  And while you’re at it, figure out a way to use the second stage over again, too.  

Makes me think of the Wrights, here, as well.  When they had trouble controlling even the gliders in the autumns preceding 1903, Wilbur concluded flight might not be, in fact, possible.  But he and his brother stuck with it, refigured their tables, and with the help Charlie Taylor, the engine builder, defied the odds and built a machine that actually flew.  

Same with landing a rocket’s first stage.  Not too many years ago, even engineers thought it impossible.  The Elon Musk (Space X) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) companies, however, were able to puzzle that riddle, as well.  What new developments are upcoming?  I’ll say again, my favorite channel on cable is NASA TV.  I truly love to hear about what wonders are being worked on peacefully by the world’s best and brightest:  NASA.  European Space Agency.  Russia’s Roscomos.  Japan’s JAXA.  Now even China is in the space engineering mix.  

Oh, what the next 66 years will bring in space travel!  I wonder if one of our grandkids will walk on Mars?  I would like to hang around long enough for that accomplishment, that’s for sure.  

I head off Sunday for Lake Cumberland to get back to work on my book, Nature’s People: The Hog Island story from Mabel Loomis Todd to Audubon.  One chapter and revision to go.  Thanks to Shannon Wood, again, for letting me use her lovely lake house to hole up in and concentrate on one thing at a time.  Much appreciated.  

Also, be advised that I am talking about my Hog Island project for Aullwood’s Winter Speaker Series this round.  Mark your calendars for Sunday, 31 January 2016, @ 2:30, for my talk, Nature’s People.  Lots of cool historical images of Hog Island from the Yale University archive.  It would be good to see you there. 

As exciting as talking space and my book might be, another truth of the time is that some good friends are fighting some mighty nasty illnesses right now.  None of us are getting any younger and bodies do break down.  

It doesn’t take a very long personal journey to find mortality staring you back in the face.  

All the best to everybody in 2016, and let’s stay healthy. What do you say?   :-)

Today’s elder idea:   In honor of my buddy Phyllis Kittel, who loves her volunteer work at the Ark-Valley Humane Society shelter in Buena Vista CO, a poem by Mary Oliver:

A puppy is a puppy is a puppy.
He’s probably in a basket with a bunch
of other puppies.
Then he’s a little older and he’s nothing
but a bundle of longing.
He doesn’t even understand it. 

Then someone picks him up and says, 
“I want this one.”

‘How it begins’ from Dog Songs by Mary Oliver.  Penguin Random House.  2013.  Used without permission.  I hope Mary wouldn’t mind.  

images:  top:  Wright brothers at Kittyhawk on 17 December 1903.  
mid:  from the Space X website.  

Neither of these used with permission either.  Hmmm.