13 May 2007
SETI League
PriUPS Project

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Three Thousand Degrees

Actual tile from Atlantis orbiter removed after flight.

Before you started reading this sentence, you were focusing on a space shuttle tile, apparently one still glowing white hot at 3,000 degrees (F) from the rigors of orbital re-entry. 

Things are not what they seem, however.  The photo was taken on a beautiful spring day in New Jersey, one of the precious few we have had this year.  Even better, it was Saturday, and the spring day threatened, with at least initial success, to turn into a glorious evening.  What does a three-pen nerd do on a Saturday evening?  (I'm sure you've asked yourself this many times.)  Of course, he goes to

A Science Fiction Book Club Meeting

At least he does if the subject of the evening promises to be space exploration!  This nerd is a largely-but-not-totally inactive member of the Science Fiction Association of Bergen County.  The organization is run by a tireless gentleman, who, despite having the appearance of owning a life and not bearing any obvious stigmata indicating he has traded time for his immortal soul, manages to organize several meetings per week for the group.  Knowing my interests, he even finds time to alert me to upcoming events in which he thinks I will be interested, hence my not-total inactivity.  Although the smaller discussion and media groups tend to meet on weekdays, the general meeting of the club is on Saturday evening.  If there were an Arcturan insectoid on the wall beaming a remote view of the meeting room to you, it would be obvious why.  I display my pens with pride, but there is little doubt that many other attendees are worthy of the honor even if they have never appeared before the board.

The general meetings almost always have speakers or other program items.  The speakers are normally selected from the New York metropolitan area's collection of writers, publishers, artists, and media workers.  Modestly breaking format, as was done when I gave a talk on SETI a number of years ago, this evening's meeting was devoted to a presentation by Joe Lennox, an accomplished space historian (and banker in real lifethere's no more money in space history than there is in SETI).  Joe is a New Jersey resident who spends a lot of his time traveling to schools and giving the kids a potted history of the United States manned space program.  He carries three quite large suitcases and a movie screen.  Even so, the Saturn V moon rocket he assembles before our eyes is only a model; the real one is 300 feet tall.  Our groupunaccountably he called us "adult" instead of just "old"—was pretty well versed in much of what he presented.  His normal audience of grade school students is astonishingly ignorant of recent space accomplishments.  An example he gave were the wildly improbable estimates of how many people had walked on the moon.  The kids guess thousands or even a million.  The correct answer is 12, which I didn't happen to know, but I would have been a bit closer.


I enjoyed the presentation, which had a number of models and good examples of the scale of the space undertaking.  I won't further summarize it—covering a half century of spaceflight in a couple of hours is a job for a specialist.  If you live in the NYC area and are affiliated with a group, Joe would be eager to offer a presentation, and you'll get to see the rockets and the suitcases, not to mention an enormous fold-out of the Apollo control panel.

And the shuttle tile.  For me, that was a highlight of the evening.  The tile in the photograph above appears white hot, and I'm sad to report that its appearance, along with the sinister purple glow, is strictly an artifact of my cellphone camera.  In fact, the tile was at room temperature and sitting on a table.  It is roughly palm-size, which I proved by placing it there, noticing its light weight, lack of thermal conductivity, and its surprising smoothness.  The tile, of which there are about 25,000 on a shuttle, was a damaged one removed from the Atlantis ship after return from orbit.  That makes it (I think) the only object I have ever held that went into space and returned.  I've held meteors, but theirs is a one way journey, and seen spacecraft in the Smithsonian, but they don't let you hold them, and their scale would make it forbidding regardless.

So, thanks, SFABC and Joe Lennox, for putting this small artifact of progress on the table and allowing me to have its fancifully but undeliberately distorted photo appear on my blog. 


A less than charming or endearing quality of science fiction fans is our belief that we know everything.  I'm no different; see my various fulminations against the innumeracy of CNN and other bastions of reportage.  When Joe gives his presentation to kids, he's astonished at how little they know.  Of course we, notional adults that we are, know too much.  The problem is that we try to prove it by asking erudite questions and pestering the speaker while he is trying to make a point, and otherwise getting ahead of him.  I restrained my personal tendency to do that fairly well; it was only at the end that I asked a question about Sputnik.  In his first slide he described it, the first manmade earth-orbiting satellite, as "about the size of a basketball and weighing 183 pounds."  I am not an expert on sporting orbs, but I have touched basketballs far more often than shuttle tiles, and they are not nearly that heavy!  How could something that size weigh so much?  Joe's reply:  It was essentially solid metal.  Not wishing to be rude, I tentatively accepted that answer, but looked up Sputnik (and basketballs) when I got home.

A regulation basketball has a diameter of 9.39 inches and weighs about 21 ounces. Its volume of about 7.2 litres would therefore weigh 7.2 kilograms or about 16 pounds if filled with water.  In order to weigh 183 pounds it would have be filled with a material more than 11 times as dense.  Solid lead would just about do it, but even the benighted Soviets were more clever than to use their astonishing accomplishment and propaganda victory to be able to say "we just shot a ball of solid lead into space."  (Lead doesn't transmit "beep beep beep" very effectively, either, although it does emit a satisfying thud-crunch under the correct circumstances.)

It turns out that Sputnik did indeed weigh the 183 pounds we were told, but it was 22 inches in diameter, more than twice that of a basketball.  Given that a sphere's volume is proportional to the cube of its diameter, Sputnik had more than eight times a basketball's volume, about 92 litres.  That would allow it to be more sensibly filled with a transmitter, batteries, and a combination of metal and empty volume, yet still come up to its advertised weight.  Whew!

So maybe he should have said "beachball."  Picky, picky, picky.  It was a delightful and interesting evening, even it not as technical as it might have been.  Since the weather had devolved into a light rain as the meeting ended, my small non-nerd fraction didn't even have to regret missing the glorious evening of the first paragraph's promise.

I make this closing statement with some trepidation:  The club membership could use augmentation.  Although the turnout was satisfactory, there were empty seats.  If you're interested in science fiction and live in the area, you might occasionally check the SFABC web site for the monthly program.  My trepidation arises due to the selection of refreshments served.  They're heavy on the chocolate, and if too many people show up...

Tell you what:  You'll especially like the programs on art and discussions of fantasy fiction!

Follow-up 10 June 2007

Excerpt from John Rigden article in Physics Today, June 2007 Just spotted in June 2007 Physics Today, page 47.  Did somebody say "Beachball?"

NP:  "Fear of Bliss" - Alanis Morissette

© 2007
Richard Factor

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