I was asked yesterday about the “surly bonds of Earth” reference in the post about Neil Armstrong’s death. There is indeed a story behind that and a very unusual young man.
John Gillespie McGee Jr. was born in Shanghai to a US ambassador, thus was American. His initial school was in Shanghai, “The American School” there — no doubt he was fluent in multiple languages by the time he left around age 10. As a boy in the US in the Rugby School, he became fascinated with poetry. And when war broke out in Europe, he was ready — but the US was not. In 1940, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and wound up eventually in the UK flying Supermarine Spitfires protecting London from bombing attacks.
On December 8, 1941, the US joined World War II officially after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Three days later, McGee and two squad mates were diving together through an opening in the clouds near London, only to have a trainee suddenly appear in their path. In the collision, McGee’s aircraft was badly damaged, and he was unable to get out before the craft struck the ground. Witnesses suggested that he’d just gotten the canopy open. He was 19.
Weeks before, across the back of a letter to home, McGee had scrawled this text after a particularly inspiring flight: Continue reading →
I was delighted, as were millions, by the successful touchdown of the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. It was a monumental achievement, of equipment working right (thanks to tremendous engineering and science) despite nearly a year’s exposure to extraordinary conditions and extremes in rapid succession. But as Sam Rayburn (48th, 50th, and 52nd Speaker of the House) notes, “Any jackass can kick down a barn. It takes a good carpenter to build one.” We’ve seen NASA in the role of “good carpenters” here. Who’s the “jackass”? Continue reading →
Tonight — 10:31 Pacific Time Sunday, or 1:31 AM Eastern on Monday — the Curiosity rover will hopefully touch down safely on the surface of Mars. The events actually take place about 14 minutes in advance, but we cannot know the results until the radio communications get from Mars to Earth. The vehicle is big. While the two famous rovers Opportunity and Spirit were roughly grocery-cart sized, this one is more like an automobile. It has tremendously greater science capability — and it is too big, and needs too much power, to operate from solar panels. So it does not: Curiosity is nuclear-powered. Continue reading →
President Obama decided to uphold the Bush plan to end the Space Shuttle’s operations. This was an Obama decision that I fully supported, though many conservatives were critical, and I wrote “In Praise of President Obama” as a result. Continue reading →
The Stratolauncher was announced a few months ago. It is an innovative design funded by Paul Allen (Microsoft’s other founder) and is a joint project of Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, with other companies making significant contributions. The project, under way for more than eight years in secrecy, looks like this: Continue reading →