First Man

Apollo 11 EV Helmet

In director Damien Chazelle’s new bio-pic “First Man”, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is headed to the moon, striving to be the first man to set foot on it. While back on earth, his wife Janet (Claire Foy) is holding down the home. He’s shooting for the stars, but she remains the heart of this film. Two stories are told, the public one we know and the private story of the costs to those involved. 

Who knew that spaceflight could be so violent and noisy, even when everything is nominal. I guess that when you strap half a kilo-ton of high explosives to your back, it is not too much to expect that there will be a whole lot of shaking going on. The movie recounts Armstrong’s three near-death experiences, first in an X-15 skipping off the atmosphere, next in a spinning out of control Gemini capsule and finally while doing desert practice moon landings in a spidery training craft that makes the real moon landing look like a walk in the park.

In-between his work the Armstrongs raise a family and cope with death. They have three children, two sons and a daughter. They attend colleagues funerals and that of their daughter’s, who dies of cancer. Janet seems most affected by the other men’s deaths and the suffering of their surviving widows and endures a there but for the grace of God go I existence. While it is his daughter’s death that most affects Neil, causing him to wall off his feelings of grief and throw himself unsparingly into his work. She finds his stoic façade maddening.

“First Man” deserves a spot in the pantheon of contemporary spaceflight film. Joining “Apollo 13”, “Gravity”, “The Martian” and “The Right Stuff”, while excluding both “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” and their more fanciful like. Even though it relates events that occurred sixty or more years in the past, it seems rooted in the present. Maybe because it tells a story that I have seen. I can still remember that sultry summer evening, huddled around a noisy B&W feed and barely hearing him say, “One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”

Moon and Astronaut Teapot

Destination Moon

Apollo 11 Command Module – Columbia

The Saint Louis Science Center is now hosting the exhibit, Destination Moon. This Smithsonian created show will complete its four city tour next year in Seattle, on the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing. Saint Louis was awarded its stop in honor of its creation of the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft.

I can still remember that July evening, almost fifty years ago, when men first walked upon the moon. I was summering at my maternal grandfather’s resort in Massachusetts, the Pond. Our cottage didn’t have its own TV set, so we went to a neighboring cottage to watch the moon landing. It was a black & white and being in the country, its reception wasn’t the best. When the live moon feed was added, the picture became nearly unintelligible. Still it was a momentous event.

Years later, when I moved to Saint Louis, I worked at McDonnell Douglas. I met engineers who had built the Mercury and Gemini space capsules. They recounted President Kennedy’s famous inspection tour of the plant. While, I was working there, manufacturing of the space shuttle orbiter’s maneuvering system pods was underway, Each pod was as big as a truck. Later, I had the opportunity to work with the same high altitude test chamber that was originally built to test the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft.

Destination Moon is a title that this exhibit shares with a 1950s science-fiction film. In this movie, a failed government rocket launch leads the government to abandon the race to the moon. American industrialists step-in and pick up the mantle of manned spaceflight. A rocket is dispatched to the moon and safely returns, but not before one of the astronauts poses for a photo, with the Earth seemingly resting on his shoulder. It all sounds rather prophetic. 

King Tut

Mask of Tutankhamun

This morning, I went to the Science Center and saw the visiting exhibit, “The Discovery of King Tut”. As its title alludes, the emphasis of this show is on the story of archeologist Howard Carter’s unearthing of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The first half of the exhibit contains a series of life-sized dioramas that show the various rooms of the tomb as they were first found by Carter in 1922. Based upon photos taken at the time, the rooms are a jumble of items that have been crammed into confined spaces. Much is made of the difficulties that Carter experienced moving around in these rooms and removing everything from them.

The second half of the show is a conventional museum exhibit, with each piece individually displayed and labeled. I should point out that nothing in this show is real. They are all reproductions, but very good ones. The use of multiple replicas allows the viewer to see an item in situ and also much better, while on display. The above pictured mask is shown by itself, but also how it was first found, as a death mask on the mummy’s body, inside the inner sarcophagus. Also, few of the items are behind glass, making them easier to photograph.

I went early and this show has been in town for some time now. So, I got what amounted to a private viewing. It was quite the contrast to my experience, forty-years-ago, at the Chicago Field museum. There they had the real Tutankhamun artifacts and a crowd to match. It was so crowded that it was difficult to move from one display to the next. I went as the guest of my then future in-laws. This morning, my private viewing was cut short, when one of the curators announced that “half of Ladue is coming!” When this middle school field trip finally caught up to me, I decided to depart, leaving no footprints in the sands of time. 

Hidden Figures

Mercury Spacecraft

Mercury Spacecraft

Mathematicians do not often get the movie star treatment. When they do, their story doesn’t always end happily. Alan Turing and John Nash come to mind. Your chances for a happy ending, when you pile on the strictures of racism and sexism on top of the stresses of mathematical virtuosity, seem even more remote. But when your one chance is a moonshot, you go for it and in the case of the biopic Hidden Figures, you succeed beyond your wildest dreams. I took my favorite math interventionist to go see this movie and for a couple glorious hours we were both uplifted and renewed. It still feels like a soothing balm.

In 1961 Katherine Goble later Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three real-life African-American women, were working for NASA. It is the height of the space race and things are not going well for America. The Russians are beating the pants off of us. They were employed as ‘computers’ at NASA’s Langley headquarters in southern Virginia. As computers, their jobs were to perform the engineering calculations by hand that today are now performed by machines. As computers they worked as subordinates to their universally white and male engineering colleagues. As computers they did the grunt work that no one else wanted to do.

Although, our three protagonists commute and socialize together, at work they are soon split apart. Jackson goes to the wind tunnel to test Mercury space capsules and hopefully become a real engineer one day. Vaughan de facto supervises the Colored computers, without any recognition and Globe the math prodigy is tasked to formulate the orbital mechanics for the Mercury project.

Among the cast are a few white people of note. Kevin Costner plays the color blind but cold NASA director who accepts Goble as soon as she demonstrates her worthiness, but discards her just as quickly, when she is no longer required. Kristen Dunst plays Vaughan’s nemesis and Jim Parsons shows us that Sheldon Cooper without the laugh track is unrelentingly hateful. It is not surprising that in a movie centered around these black women that it is the whites who are the caricatures and not the other way around. It is just different.

Much has been made of the bathroom sequences. Globe in her new assignment works in a building without Colored bathrooms. In 1961, Virginia is still the segregated south. Globe has to run, in high heels, the mile back to her old digs, just to take a leak. The resonance with today’s trans bathroom controversies is unmistakable. Our three protagonists conquer the twin devils of racism and sexism, but a third threat arises, automation. All I can say is lookout Mr. IBM. 

Since, the movie is historically relevant, is rated PG and is all about math and science, Anne plans on recommending seeing it to her own math prodigies. If you see it, be sure to stay for the credits. The photo montage is just fantastic. 

How Many Miles/Kilowatt?

All-Electric BMW

All-Electric BMW

A couple of weeks ago, I was bicycling in Forest Park and at the Science Center, I came upon a car show being put on by the Gateway Electric Vehicle Association. I had seen their car show several years ago, when the Missouri Botanical Gardens had been hosting it, but there was a striking difference between that show and the one that I’d just come upon. At the Garden’s show most of the electric cars on display were of the DIY variety, where an amateur enthusiast had converted a gas-powered vehicle to an all-electric one. Needless to say, every vehicle in that show was a one-of-a-kind. The Science Center show was totally different. It was almost all corporate.

There were electric and hybrid vehicles there that I’ve seen before, like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, but even the Tesla representative seemed kind of passé compared to some of the new to me hybrid/electric vehicles. There was a Cadillac hybrid and the pictured all-electric BMW. I had not even heard of either of these two offerings. There was a good mix of real car salesmen and owner enthusiast “sales” people. The former were hawking their particular wares, while the later was more interested in selling the public on the whole electric vehicle concept. Noticeable absent from the car show were any models of the Toyota Prius, although many of the owner enthusiasts also owned a Prius. As a Prius owner, this made me feel a bit like a piker. One of the owner enthusiasts is also a blogger – Leaf: EV Adventures with a Family.

In addition to all of the four-wheel electric vehicles, there were also vehicles of the two-wheel variety. The vendor marketing these electric bicycles had about half-a-dozen models to select from. They wouldn’t let me ride any of them. There was too much going on at the car show, but they did offer to come by my house, for a test ride. I picked up the smallest and largest electric bikes and they both seemed to weigh a ton, really 40 to 70 pounds, respectively. I’ll not likely pursue these products, because I bicycle more for exercise than transportation, but I have seen one in use in the neighborhood, since the show.

The real question that every visitor was asking at the car show wasn’t, “How many miles per kilowatt do you get?” Everyone was really asking about range, “How far can you go on a charge?” Except for maybe the Tesla, all of the electric vehicle’s ranges seemed too short to totally rely upon such a vehicle as the sole Midwestern family vehicle. Hence, the large number of Prius backups that were also owned. Because of fracking, the United States is expected to become the world’s largest oil producer this month, surpassing even Saudi Arabia. This new US energy independence seems to loom as a detriment to continued electric vehicle development, but the specter of global warming looms too. I’m not ready to buy a new car now, let alone consider an electric car, but I will check out their next car show.


It was really more of a cake-ride, instead of a cake-walk. Sunday was an absolutely gorgeous day here in Saint Louis. So, Anne and I threw are respective legs over our bikes and headed out at the crack of noon. Our bicycle ride soon morphed in to a scavenger hunt for cakes. Let me explain a bit. Saint Louis is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. As part of this year-long celebration 250 of these brightly painted birthday cakes are planned. I think that over 200 of them have already been placed. This whole project is cutely titled, “Cake-way to the West”, a play on the city’s claim of being the gateway to the west. With these first dozen cakes, we have only scratched the surface. The park was so full people that at times it was difficult to get around in it. In one crowded section I nearly didn’t get unclipped in time and almost went down with the ship. Consequently, we didn’t see the zoo’s cake or a couple of other ones near the park. With this first really spring like day, it is clear that winter is receding fast and warmer weather lies ahead. In the warmer days to come, there will be plenty of time to hunt for the remaining cakes.