Thursday, August 30, 2012

Golden rule days

This weekend, there will be a reunion of the University Daily Kansan, the student newspaper of the University of Kansas.

Readers of the Blog are probably familiar with the university, given my seasonal predilection toward writing about basketball. But I don't think I have ever said anything about the Kansan. (And a warning: this is going to be text-only. All the photos I have of that era are good, old-fashioned prints that have never visited the inside of a scanner. This will also help protect the guilty, including me.)

Although the newspaper is run and staffed by students, I have always hesitated to call it a "student newspaper." It is (or was) supported by its own ad revenue, and the students running the show were acting as professionals; all the management positions were paid.

When I was there in the glorious days of yesteryear--let's just say this was back in the day when the phrase "dot-com boom" was spoken unironically--the Kansan had a great crew. Sharp people. Fun people. It was a good time.

But more than that, we all learned a lot. Some of it was good old fashioned classroom learnin', but a sizable chunk of it was out in the real world. We learned how to chase stories by chasing them. We learned good news judgment by deciding what to pursue and how to play it. Art direction. Photography. We got better because we were doing them every day.

And to me, one of the the most incredible things about that time is that I completely took for granted how fortunate I was to work in a real newsroom before I worked in a real newsroom. In literally every job I have had--including my current one--I have encountered roughly the same organizational structure, meeting schedule, newsroom layout and even jargon as I did at the Kansan. Even then, in the early days of Web media, we had an online editor who was working hard to create a well-trafficked news site.

I don't think of myself as a newspaperman anymore. I'm a print journalist in an era where most of the printed words appear on screens of various sizes. It's an exciting time. But it turns out that the lessons I learned at the Kansan still apply today, and I suspect this is true for most of my fellow co-workers who are still in the business.

Which I guess made us students, and the term "student newspaper" perfectly appropriate.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Going out on top

Neil Armstrong's career involves more than 200 different types of aircraft, teaching, advanced engineering degrees, combat experience and of course spaceflight. That's a lot of highlights.

He piloted the X-1, the plane used earlier to break the sound barrier for the first time...

He took the X-15 to the edge of space and hypersonic speeds--more than 3,500 miles per hour...

He saved the Gemini 8 mission from disaster by hands-on piloting in Earth orbit...

And of course, the guy didn't just walk on the Moon, he landed a spaceship on it...

As I mentioned in my previous posts, achievements like this aren't just individually important--they inspire great things. Here's to those great things including another giant leap for mankind, whether on Mars or elsewhere in deep space. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Amelia Earhart found?

Air & Space had a great article a while back about the search for the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra in the Pacific. She, the plane and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared about 75 years ago while trying to circumnavigate the world.

I probably don't have to explain that the disappearance is one of aviation's great mysteries. There was a massive search for them when they didn't arrive at their landing site, but nothing was turned up. Explanations ranged from the ridiculous--alien kidnappings and the like--to the imaginative, in which they were captured after spying on the Japanese.

In reality, they probably just crashed where no one could easily find them with the technology of the day. It's a big ocean, and the odds were always against solving the puzzle of where they ended up.

But now the search described in that Air & Space story may have come across something interesting. To my eyes, it looks like nothing:

 Coral? Airplane parts? (photo from Gizmodo)

But to the search team, there is reason to be excited. I guess the more definitive proof will be when they bring some of the possible artifacts to the surface to examine. And maybe a cliffhanger whose first chapter began in 1937 can finally have a satisfactory ending.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Missed it by that much

The U.S. Air Force tried to fly an air-breathing aircraft for about five minutes at Mach 5--roughly 3,600 miles per hour--yesterday. They failed.

It's the third time they have test-flown this one-of-a-kind system, called the X-51. The first test went relatively well; the novel propulsion system, a "scramjet," or supersonic-combustion ramjet, ran for more than two minutes before a seal blew somewhere and the whole thing stopped working:

In the second test, the scramjet never ignited.

In the most recent test, a control surface failed.

It's all very frustrating because there is a huge amount of promise in being able to propel an aircraft at those speeds, where normal jet engines won't work. The Air Force has shown that the scramjet concept does, indeed, work, but can't seem to get the whole X-51 to function the way it should. The test yesterday, for instance, is like failing to bake a cake because you tripped on the way to the kitchen: it has nothing to do with cake-baking but is necessary to get it done. The scramjet never got a chance to turn on because an unrelated system crapped out.

This, by the way, is roughly the same sort of failure that has kept DARPA's Falcon project from working properly.

I can't help but think that NASA has a much better record with experimental craft and high-risk missions. I don't think it's fair to say that scientists there are any smarter or more detail-oriented than those at military research agencies. I do, however, have a sneaking suspicion that when your budget is shrinking, you work extra hard to make sure you stick the incredibly challenging landing... and secure more funding for the next big step.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Landing on Mars: a first-person account

The coverage of Curiosity's landing yesterday was pretty awesome, right? I thought so too. But I had also thought that the lander was capturing video of its own descent, which was going to be streamed live. That didn't appear to be the case.

But it turns out I was half-right. The lander actually captured more than 1,500 high-resolution images during its descent; when sequenced, those will of course look a lot like a video.

Curiosity is still warming up on the surface of Mars, and there are many higher priorities for bandwidth than getting those images back to Earth. In the meantime, however, it has sent nearly 300 low-resolution images of the landing, which are good enough for security-camera-style video.

HOW COOL IS THAT? You see the heat shield fall away, you see the surface approaching, you even see the dust kicked up by the "sky crane's" engines as it hovers and lowers the lander. I can't wait to see what the full-length, full-resolution images show; someday, that will roughly be the view of astronauts as they hurtle toward another giant step for mankind.

Monday, August 6, 2012

NASA is landing on Mars!

Everyone agrees the Curiosity lander will arrive on Mars sometime in the next couple of hours. The suspense stems from a more difficult question: whether the attempt will results in a scientific triumph or a gently smoking crater.

This project is a big deal, as it gives NASA the ability to do more science on Mars' surface than ever before. Liquid water--and even small-scale life--could be among the discoveries Curiosity digs up. That's neat. What's also neat is that they will be streaming the landing live from more than 350 million miles away... a distance so great it takes light (and radio transmissions) about 15 minutes to traverse.

So by the time you watch Curiosity touch down here...

Live Video streaming by Ustream

... it will already have been on the surface of Mars long enough to listen to half a Weezer album.

No human boots will make footprints like Apollo 11 in 1969. But like that mission, people all over the world (OK, mostly space dorks like me) will be watching... and hoping this is a giant step.