Friday, May 21, 2010

Double, Double, Toil and Hubble

Credit: NASA, ESA, and F. Paresce (INAF-IASF, Bologna, Italy), R. O'Connell (University of Virginia, Charlottesville), and the Wide Field Camera 3 Science Oversight Committee

This concerns not mystery writing but mystery viewing. Namely, the greatest mystery of them all, the universe that surrounds us. I journeyed with grandson's sixth grade class to Huntsville, AL yesterday to visit the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, located adjacent to the Army's Redstone Arsenal and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. It was a fascinating trip.

The center's museum features actual rockets and space vehicles that show the development of space flight from its start in the 1950s. As a Nashville newspaper reporter in the late fifties, I visited Redstone Arsenal and sat in a concrete blockhouse to witness the testing of a rocket engine. That was before NASA and it's Cape Canaveral launchings, and I was overwhelmed by the explosive sound of the engine firing. This was when German rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team were designing rockets in Huntsville that would ultimately take men into space.

Mounted to the ceiling in a long corridor of the museum is a three-stage Saturn V rocket, longer than a football field (363 feet), the most powerful rocket ever built. It was used to send astronauts to the moon. The five engines in the first stage produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust using liquid oxygen and kerosene. Five engines in the second stage burned liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to produce 1.25 million pounds of thrust.

A lunar landing module was set up near the Saturn V, along with a moon buggy such as those used to travel on the moon. Our guide said there were three of them still on the moon, waiting for more astronauts to bring new batteries.

One of the Apollo space capsules, fished out of the ocean after a successful landing, was displayed along with samples of equipment used by the astronauts.

A mock-up outside the museum showed a space shuttle (actually, only a shell) atop its main fuel tank, with solid fuel boosters (they were real) and rocket engines attached. Another exhibit, in trailers, held a mock-up of the International Space Station. It showed the crew living quarters and experiment stations. The kids particularly enjoyed the sleeping bag tethered to the wall, to keep astronauts from floating around while asleep.

The most exciting feature of the trip was the IMAX movie, Hubble, which has just been released. It showed the launch of the space telescope in 1990 and three space shuttle missions where astronauts made repairs. The last one, a year ago, installed equipment that made the device 100 times more powerful. The giant screen came alive with spectacular views when animated Hubble photographs showed countless stars and galaxies spreading across the universe.

Distances depicted were mind-boggling. One picture on a Hubble website showed a towering dust cloud that was three light years tall. That's a cool eighteen trillion miles. The feeling you get watching the movie is that you're barely an infinitesimal speck in the midst of all that.

In it's first twenty years, as of April 22, the Hubble has depicted more than 30,000 celestial targets and produced more than half a million pictures. If you'd like to read more about the Hubble, I suggest this NASA site or

Chester Campbell.

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