Monday, September 14, 2009

In memory of Assaf Ramon, z'l and his father, Ilan Ramon, z'l

The Astronomer pointed out to me that I had confused the Space Shuttle with the International Space Station, both of which are bright, man-made objects in the sky, orbiting the earth, and both of which cause my family to scoot off outside, typically at dinner time, to ooh and aah instead of sitting nicely and eating their vegetables. But they are, the Astronomer explained with great patience, two entirely different things, and I ought to understand the difference.

But with the death of Assaf Ramon yesterday during an in-flight training exercise weighing heavily on our hearts, I thought instead of learning the difference between the SS (Space Shuttle) and the ISS (International Space Station) I would remind myself why Ilan Ramon, Assaf's father, was such an Israeli hero (our youngest son is named for him) and why sometimes a mother ought not to worry so much about missed dinners when there are Space Shuttles to be seen.

As everyone knows, Ilan Ramon was the first (and only) Israeli astronaut, and a member of the SS (not ISS) Columbia's crew on its 28th (and last) mission. (An astronaut, by the way, is someone who travels in space, and space is defined (in the United States) as 50 miles above sea level.) He was in charge of scientific experiments being done on the mission. (This particular mission did not involve servicing any satellites, unlike previous Columbia missions.) We in our little Israeli town adored him because he asked for kosher food, made kiddush, and carried with him a miniature Torah scroll that had survived Bergen-Belsen.

The Astronomer recalls getting up early, and a bit reluctantly, on the last morning (about 5 or 6AM Israeli time) of Ilan Ramon's flight, dragging the kids out of bed to wave at the Columbia as it passed over our heads.

Because we don't use the radio or TV on the Jewish sabbath, it wasn't until after sunset that night, February 1, 2003, that we heard the news.

It's a little more than 6 years later. Our youngest son Benjamin Ilan is about to celebrate his 6th birthday, our oldest son Joshua has just finished his basic training for the Israeli Air Force. And Assaf Ramon, Ilan's oldest son, is being buried this afternoon next to his father, Ilan. May Assaf and Ilan Ramon rest in peace, may their family be comforted.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Space Shuttle and ISS flying in formation

Did any of you catch the 2 of them tonight?

Sorry I could not give you any advance warning, as I did not know when the space station and shuttle where going to separate. But as it happened, the shuttle pulled away from the ISS in preparation for its landing tomorrow. Thus the 2 crafts still follow almost exactly the same orbit, but a few hundred kilometers apart.

At about 7:30 this evening they both passed our skies at a low angle. The shuttle came by 1st at a magnitude of 0.7. The sky was still blue and we had a lot of blowing clouds here, but the kids and I did find it as it came out of the clouds heading northwest. Then about a minute later the much larger shuttle, and therefore brighter at magnitude -1.2, came zooming after it. I was very excited to have caught it (and the kids thought it neat too!). Actually this was the last visible pass of the ISS for the next 2 weeks.


Space Suttle Passes

              About once every week or two, my husband, the Astronomer, grabs the kids up from the dinner table, napkins and crumbs flying, and exclaims "The shuttle!  The space shuttle's passing over!" Then they all charge out the door, leaving me alone at the table with a bunch of unfinished vegetables and congealing chicken.  The things we must endure . . .
              Once I joined them.  Sure enough, right at its appointed time, a bright flying object—apparently the space shuttle (I'll take his word for it)--passed by at a steady clip across the night sky.  We all stared up for a minute or so and then trooped back in and finished dinner.
              So what's the big deal with the space shuttle?  Why do we charge out to stare at it and not, say, an airplane? (Kids: Don't get any ideas.)
              AstroTom says it's a big deal because men (let's assume he means people) built the shuttle and put it up there, and there are people in it.  I told him that this makes the space shuttle about as interesting as an airplane, which people also put up there, and considerably less interesting than a meteor, which people most certainly did not put up there.  Then he said that the space shuttle goes around the earth every 90 minutes, and is, in fact, in orbit
              It turns out that being in orbit is actually interesting.  Being in orbit puts the space shuttle in a different category than airplanes, which fly but are not in orbit.  Something that's in orbit has been shot up there, sort of like a rocket to the moon, with a force great enough to "break the bonds of earth's gravity" as science writers are wont to say.  I can more easily relate to the force required to open the bag inside a box of cereal.  You have to pull the two sides apart but it has to be a controlled pull or your hands will fly apart and you'll end up with a jagged rip and cornflakes all over the room.  The shuttle had to be shot into the air with enough power to get it up in the air and keep it from falling right back down, but not so much that it would shoot up too high and wind up somewhere beyond Saturn.
              How do they keep the shuttle up there in its neat circle, once it's off the earth?  Well, the Astronomer explained, using the drawings Newton made of a cannon on a mountain, the shuttle is actually falling all the time.  (Isn't that disconcerting?)  But, fortunately, the shuttle, like that ball fired by the cannon, is shot away hard and fast at an angle, not straight up, so that it neither shoots off into space nor ever falls back to the earth.  This last part works only because the earth is round.  If the earth were flat, the shuttle would eventually land, far far away.  But the earth isn't flat, so every time the shuttle goes far enough to land on the earth's surface, the surface curves out of its reach, and it keeps going.  Here's the neat part: This was all planned.  The initial thrust is just fast enough, and the angle is perfectly calibrated, so that the roundness of the earth balances out, or effectively cancels out, the pull of earth's gravity. 
              But we tidy housewives know that stuff men put into space falls back to earth all the time.  (I heard it on an episode of "West Wing.")  How does that happen?  Does the shuttle run out of steam, eventually caving into the never-tiring power of gravity?  It turns out that friction is the culprit.  Space, even at 225 miles (360 km) high (which I'm told is relatively low), is not a perfect vacuum; the little bit of air causes enough friction to modestly slow down the speed of the space shuttle so that, over time, it would indeed surrender to gravity and fall on our heads if it were not periodically re-thrusted, given an extra boost to keep it going a while longer.
              I still am not sure what those people are doing in the space shuttle, how long they're going to be there, and how much it's costing us tax payers to keep them there.  I also just heard that the "space shuttle" is not the same thing as the "international space station," which I kind of knew but never really thought about.  I'll ask the Astronomer the next time we all go rushing away from the dinner table.  

The Astronomer's Wife