Thursday, February 21, 2008

will we find Alice there?

This evening, a friend asked if I saw the lunar eclipse last night. No, I said, because I didn’t know about it. This was actually an unheard of state of affairs for me; for a few years, I caught every lunar eclipse I could, some unexpectedly. Here’s an email I sent to a friend after the last one I saw (October 2004):
Well, although it seems somewhat unfair to me, I only got to watch about the last 20 minutes of eclipsing. To make up for it, I think I have to stay up past midnight to watch the emergence of the moon from Earth's shadow. I missed the first part because I was teaching. Ah, well.

This is, I think, the sixth total lunar eclipse I've seen since 2000, but right now I can't remember where I was for one of them:

January 2000: Minnesota. A group of friends (who were still attending college in a town a little over an hour from Minneapolis) organized a eclipse-watching bonfire. Which is a good thing to have around when one plans on spending two to three hours outside on a January night in Minnesota.

January 2001: Guinea. This one was completely unexpected. I was sitting around with my host family having dinner, when we noticed it was time for the moon to be out yet remained quite dark. A few minutes later, we realized the moon was rising and eclipsing as it rose. It was incredible. I was super exciting [sic—but not inaccurate as you’ll see], hopping around and shouting in English, French, and Malinke how excited I was. The Guineans were afraid: their story for an eclipse is that a cat is eating the moon, and you have to play drums and beg for the moon to come back. I got to explain the process to a few people, however. It was not only a great astronomical experience, but a great cultural exchange.

May 2003: Memphis. My dad and I went out to a field to watch. On the way there, just a few minutes into the partial eclipse, our tire blew out, and we were changing it as the moon grew darker. We arrived at the field about halfway through the process, and stayed basically until it was done. The other time I went out to that field with my dad was when the Leonids were especially bright, in November 2002.

November 2003: Ithaca. I talked my friend Matt into driving out to Varna, where Cornell has an off-campus observatory. We figured there would be someone there manning the observatory, but no one was. About twenty or thirty other people showed up with the same idea, so we just enjoyed being out there together. I played resident astronomy expert for some folks, which was easy since I was basically explaining rotation and revolution. Also, of course, I took the opportunity to point out my favorite constellations. :-)

May 2004: ? This is the one I don't remember, even though it's the most recent. I figure I must have made an attempt to see at least part of it, but I can't for the life of me remember now where I was.

Tonight: I guess this is the last one until sometime in 2007 or 2008. I'll still be here then.

“2007 or 2008” seemed so far away back then. And now I’ve missed the last three I had a chance to see (since I was in Europe last March I could have watched that one—although as I think back, I may have known about it but it was cloudy—and I didn’t get up last August; see the link above for the list of eclipses this decade). The next one for me will I guess be in 2010, unless I’m in Africa this August.

A bit perturbed at myself for being so ill-informed, and remembering that I used to know when these things were coming because I used to visit much more often, I hopped over to that site and signed up for their RSS feed. Here’s the first headline I came across: Private Race to the Moon Takes Off. It turns out, Google and X Prize (the latter of which awarded a $10 million prize in 2004 to the creators of a privately-funded spacecraft that successfully reached >100 kilometers altitude twice) are jointly offering $20 million to anyone who can send a privately-funded robot to the moon and complete a set of tasks. It’s called the Google Lunar X Prize, and—to express the obvious—it’s awesome. It’s another example of how Google really is working to make the world of technology better in all the ways we’ve dreamed about. The competition is in the headlines right now because nine teams have just joined the competition, to join the first team that entered back in December. I imagine there are a few Cornell students aching to make their way onto one of these teams.

There has been a spate of moon-related media lately. Last fall, Hannah and I went to see In the Shadow of the Moon, a documentary that interviews the astronauts who were on the moon, which at this point in history was certainly essential to accomplish. (This movie, inexplicably, is not nominated for an Academy Award. Seriously, this is a fantastic movie. In the metaphorical, not the literal, sense, because it’s not fantasy.) It made Hannah want to watch Apollo 13. Almost everything makes Hannah want to watch Apollo 13. In 2005, Tom Hanks released Magnificent Desolation, an IMAX quasi-documentary that, while it had some good moments, was not the best IMAX film I’ve seen, mainly because so much of it was CGI and sound stage stuff rather than actual footage. (We just saw it this past winter in Memphis.)

And just in the last couple of days, with the landing of Atlantis just in time for the U.S. government to shoot down a potentially dangerous satellite, space activity in general has gotten a lot of news. I personally am still thrilled that we have a permanent human presence in space with the International Space Station. (I along with many others was nervous back in 2003 that the Columbia disaster would abruptly end that promise of a permanent presence.) And who wouldn’t be inspired by the immense success of the Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which are still chugging along (and providing images processed by—guess who—the Cornell Pancam Team).

I believe this work in space has to remain a priority. And I’m pleased Google has taken it on, as well. As usual, I don’t have any dreams myself to make it into space, but I will cheer and in fact support in any way I can.

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