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August 5 is Curiosity Day

Today is Curiosity Day. On August 5, 2012, NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity landed on the red planet after a procedure so complicated its engineers dubbed it Seven Minutes of Terror.

On November 26, 2011, an unmanned spacecraft carrying the 1,982-pound SUV-sized rover launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. After traveling 354 million miles, it entered Mars’ thin atmosphere, its heat shield reaching 1,600 degrees as the craft slowed from 13,000 to 1,000 mph. A supersonic parachute deployed to decrease the speed further, to 200 mph.

The shield was jettisoned to allow the ship’s radar to “see” the surface. Rockets fired to slow the rate of descent to several feet per second. They couldn’t get too close to the surface because of the dust cloud they would create, potentially damaging Curiosity’s sensitive equipment.

To solve this problem, engineers designed a carrier they called a “sky crane,” which used the rockets to hover at a safe height while gently lowering the rover the rest of the way via cable. (Another nickname: “rover on a rope.”) Once it was deposited on the ground,  the carrier severed the tether and veered away, crashing into the surface several hundred yards away.

The process from atmospheric entry to touchdown took seven minutes. There was a 13.8-minute delay receiving signals at Mission Control; there could be no intervention from Earth, so there was no margin for error. The outcome had already occurred. Everyone involved with the $2.5 billion project waited helplessly until the signal reached them: Curiosity had made it.

The rover is equipped with a small nuclear power plant designed to generate electricity for 14 years. Since landing, its instruments have discovered carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur in rock, methane in the atmosphere and the remains of an ancient streambed. All are indicators that life may have existed there in the past.

It has also sent back some great selfies like this one combining multiple images taken with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of its robotic arm. ( See how here.)

curiosity day

Another of the rover’s instruments is the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), which utilizes vibrating plates to move soil samples through the chemistry module. On August 5, 2012, engineers directed them to produce musical notes and “sing” Happy Birthday to Curiosity.

We can’t help but be inspired by people with the vision, ingenuity and gumption to take on the challenge of the seemingly impossible and not give up until they achieve it. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory uses the phrase “Dare Mighty Things” at the end of its Seven Minutes video. It’s taken from a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt:

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

If we work together, is there anything humanity can’t do?

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

Test Tube Baby Day

test tube baby dayToday is Test Tube Baby Day. On July 25, 1978, in Oldham, England, Louise Joy Brown became the first person born after being conceived outside her mother’s body, in a revolutionary process now called in-vitro fertilization, or IVF.

In IVF, egg and sperm are placed together in a liquid with some smooth jazz and Bacardi 151; after the egg has been fertilized, it is transplanted into a woman’s uterus. (We’re kidding about some of that.)

The media’s description of Louise as a “test tube baby,” evocative of heretical work performed by mad scientists, was widely adopted but technically inaccurate. Her conception took place in a petri dish.

At the time, her parents knew the procedure was experimental but were unaware that it had never resulted in a baby. This called into question their ability to give informed consent and the ethics and motives of the doctors involved. Disciplinary action might have been taken had Louise not been born.

IVF has become an accepted treatment for infertility. By 2006, the World Health Organization reported that more than 1.5 million children had been conceived via the process. In 2010, Robert Edwards, one of its developers, received the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Happy birthday, Louise!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

July 7 is Nettie Stevens Day

nettie stevens day

Nettie Stevens

Nettie Stevens Day celebrates the scientist who discovered that sex is determined by XX and XY chromosomes. On July 7, 2016, the 155th anniversary of her birth, the only reason many people learned her name was by clicking on that day’s Google doodle.

She studied mealworms and found that a male’s sperm carried both X and Y chromosomes, while a female’s eggs contained only X chromosomes. She concluded that sex determination must come from fertilization of the egg by the sperm. In 1905, she submitted for publication a paper reporting her results.

Meanwhile, Columbia University scientist Edmund Beecher Wilson had reached the same conclusion. He was asked to review Stevens’ paper prior to its publication; his own paper had reportedly already gone to press, negating any possibility of dishonesty.

Historian Stephen Brush disputes the timeline in The History of Science Society, “It is generally stated that E. B. Wilson obtained the same results as Stevens, at the same time,” he writes. But “Wilson probably did not arrive at his conclusion on sex determination until after he had seen Stevens’ results.”

In fact, Wilson wrongly asserted that environmental factors could influence sex. Stevens insisted it was all due to chromosomes. At the time, there was no way to prove either theory. But it’s been known for decades that Stevens got it right. It renders the question of who published first irrelevant.

In spite of that, Wilson and Stevens were credited with making the fully correct discovery independently.  Wilson received the lion’s share of accolades while Stevens was often mistakenly referred to as a “lab technician.”  Brush states, “Because of Wilson’s more substantial contributions in other areas, he tends to be given most of the credit for this discovery.”

The fact that Nettie Stevens had two X chromosomes certainly contributed to the lack of recognition. Her accomplishments put the lie to Brush’s assertion. She published 40 papers and was about to attain full research status at Bryn Mawr when she died of breast cancer on May 4, 1912, at the age of 50.

She—and Wilson, too—have been all but forgotten since then. In 1933, fellow scientist Thomas H. Morgan received the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in chromosomal research even though he didn’t espouse the theory until years after Stevens and Wilson published their papers.

Stevens once remarked to her students that their questions were always welcome “so long as I keep my enthusiasm for biology; and that, I hope, will be as long as I live.”

Let’s remember Nettie Stevens today. And tomorrow and the next day….

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

May 26 is Sally Ride Day

sally ride day

Ride monitors control panels from pilot’s chair on the flight deck.

Today is Sally Ride Day. It celebrates the achievements of the astronaut, astrophysicist, engineer, philanthropist and author best known as the first American woman to travel to space. Today’s date honors her birthday on May 26, 1951.

Women weren’t considered for America’s space program until 1978. Ride was selected from the first group to apply after NASA announced it had changed its policy. Her training included learning to parachute jump, fly a jet plane, survive a water landing and handle extreme G-forces and weightlessness.

She was picked as a member of the space shuttle Challenger’s STS-7 crew, scheduled for liftoff on June 18, 1983. Commander Robert Crippen chose her in part because the mission required the use of a robotic arm that Ride had helped to develop.

At pre-flight news conferences, she was asked if spaceflight would affect her reproductive organs, if she planned to have children, how she would handle menstruation in space, if she would wear a bra and apply makeup. Asked if she cried on the job when under stress, Ride laughed and said, “Why don’t people ask (pilot) Rick (Hauck) these questions?”

Diane Sawyer of CBS News asked Ride to demonstrate how she would utilize the shuttle toilet’s new privacy curtain. On The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson joked that the flight would be delayed while she found a purse to match her shoes. At one NASA news conference, Ride said, “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”

On launch day, she focused on the task ahead. In an interview on the 25th anniversary of the flight, Ride recalled, “I didn’t really think about it that much at the time, but I came to appreciate what an honor it was to be selected to be the first (American woman) to go into space.”

After its successful mission to deploy two communications satellites, Challenger landed at Edwards Air Force Base, CA, on June 24, 1983. At the time, Ride told reporters, “The thing that I’ll remember most about the flight is that it was fun. In fact, I’m sure it was the most fun I’ll ever have in my life.”

She returned to space on October 5, 1984. (Kathy Sullivan, a fellow member of the STS-41G crew, became the first American woman to walk in space.) Ride’s third flight was canceled after the Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff on January 28, 1986. She served on the Presidential Commission that investigated the accident and returned in 2003 after the loss of the STS-107 crew to serve on NASA’a Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Ride left NASA in 1987 to become a science fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University. Two years later, she became a physics professor and director of the University of California’s California Space Institute.

In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, which provides programs, materials and teacher training to schools in order to motivate students—especially girls and minorities—to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). She wrote six science books for children. Intensely private about her personal life, she requested that NASA keep her health issues out of the press. She died of pancreatic cancer on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61.

“As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model,” President Barack Obama said in a statement released shortly after her death.  “She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools.”

Ride was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the U.S., which was presented to her life partner Tam O’Shaughnessy at a ceremony at the White House on November 20, 2013.

“Sally’s life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve,” said Obama, “and I have no doubt that her legacy will endure for years to come.”

Sources:
American Woman Who Shattered Space Ceiling, New York Times
Sally Ride Remembered as an Inspiration to Others, NASA

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays