Momentous Monday: Welcome, Peter Bean

In honor of his marriage last Saturday, I’m running this story by Peter Bean again in which he writes about the Space Shuttle and its meaning to him. Hard to beleive that this piece originally ran at the beginning of lockdown in Los Angeles.

It’s a very special and, well, momentous Monday for one very big reason. This past Saturday, my friend Peter Bean tied the knot and married his fiancée, Cathleen, so in honor of the occasion, I’m rerunning this guest blog post he originally wrote in 2020.

First, I’m very excited to announce that today is the launch of what I hope will be many guest bloggers here, and my first guest is Peter Bean, who is a truly amazing human — the kind of person I really admire in that “I want to be him when I grow up” way. You can visit his blog and more at The Flushed.

Originally in honor of the ninth anniversary of the decommissioning of the space shuttle Discovery, in its honor I asked Peter to share his experience up close and personal with another shuttle, OV-105, better known as Endeavour, the one that wound up here in L.A. — my original, and his  adopted, hometown.

We finally both got to see the shuttle together a little over five years after it arrived here at the California Science Center, and it was a profoundly moving experience. Walking into that room and seeing the thing up close was like walking into a cathedral.

But now, I’m very proud to turn it over to Peter Bean, one of the most amazing and inspiring people I’ve ever met, and a walking anti-depressant. But don’t tell him I said any of that!


I hate you Space Shuttle, I love you Space Shuttle

By Peter Bean

Peter Bean as Endeavor continues its final voyage

The retired Endeavour space shuttle lumbers down an average Los Angeles street on October 13th, 2012, set to be on display in a local museum. As it rumbles towards me, feelings of love, hate, and sadness mix inside. The United States shuttle program crippled, gut-punched, and inspired humanity. The wings of the shuttle spread outward. Crowds of people push past me for a better look as I squint to see this plane. This is no rocket that pushed Neil Armstrong upward. I’m left wondering about when exactly we gave up the future. The Moon? Mars?

It was in a wood-paneled sixties-looking room complete with an ashtray, patterned fabric chairs, and white carpet. I can imagine the room was brimming with a specific old man funk due to the many, many reporters packed into the small space.

It’s January 5th 1972 and President Richard Nixon announces the shuttle program. He, his administration, and a Space Task Group he created all decided that the United States would not commit to a Mars mission, but instead to low-Earth orbit.

He’d be well out of office by the time the program began in 1981 due to his underhanded interest in getting dirt on his rivals. Between 1983 and 1992 space shuttles Columbia (1981), Challenger (1983), Discovery (1984), Atlantis (1985), and Endeavour (1992) were built and flown. Their primary function: deliver satellites into Earth’s orbit. No longer would we stretch humanity’s arms. No longer would we touch the soil of alien worlds.

The gut punch. Space isn’t easy. The Endeavour space shuttle is now directly in front of me as I stand on the sidewalk and I can see the nooks, the knobs, and the scrapes. It’s not the hulking beast I came to think of in my head. It’s fragile and vulnerable.

A miracle it too didn’t retire in the tragic way its sister ships did. Challenger disintegrated upon launch and killed all seven astronauts in 1986. Columbia broke up during reentry in 2003, killing all of its seven crew.

Challenger’s error came from an O-ring malfunction due to cost-cutting with new shuttle ship building. Columbia’s was a more systematic error in its underbelly shielding. Its sleek black bottom was meant to take on the heat of re-entry. Each tile is quite fragile and lightweight. It’s a marvel of engineering, but its fragility became its downfall.

After these public disasters we realized, as a country, that space very much was not, and is not easy. If there could be a silver lining to these tragedies, it came in the form of international relations. The Russian space program Roscosmos would help us with continued access to the ISS and beyond from then until the present day.

Endeavour’s many cones that form its butt inch past me at a snail’s pace and I can now see the other side of this wide Los Angeles street. There’s a large crowd of people smiling and waving at this space ship. A little girl sits on her dad’s shoulders watching.

With all of the missed opportunities, bloodshed, and limitations, there’s one thing the shuttle program has that Apollo missions before it didn’t: An Enterprise. The prototype ship named Enterprise was built in 1976 and never flew a mission.

I was a child when the shuttle program was in full force, but the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation got me falling in love with space exploration. Much like the beloved Enterprise ships of Captain Kirk and Picard, these real-world shuttles are objects that represent our need to explore. There are four surviving shuttles that a little kid can look upon seated high on their parents’ shoulders.

I recently had the chance to experience an Apollo VR game. It began with me sitting in a similar wood-paneled room much like the room in which Nixon announced the shuttle program, complete with an ashtray and blue fabric chairs. On the rounded television, President John F. Kennedy’s moon speech is blaring. His words echo around the room “Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships. As well as high reward. So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer.”

The game carts me to the tall Saturn V rocket and I’m tucked in. I’m blasted off and ultimately in the lunar lander with Neil Armstrong. As we stand on the moon with my cats rubbing my leg, attempting to break my immersion, I glance upwards at the blue Earth.

It’s a mesmerizing sight that I’m in awe of. It’s often said that when we went to the moon, we discovered Earth. Neil and I (we’re on a first name basis) look back at our fragile world and Carl Sagan‘s voice pounds in my memory from his show Cosmos, when he talked about future space explorers:

“They will strain to find the blue dot. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was. How perilous our infancy.”

Since the Apollo program, the shuttles launched many Earth-monitoring satellites that helped us understand climate change. The Hubble space telescope was launched to help us see into deep space, stretching our eyes farther than the Apollo missions ever could.

The space shuttle Endeavour is now in the distance on this 2012 October day and, despite the potential crippling effect it had on getting humans beyond Earth’s orbit, the crowd around me is a testament to our affection for this object, this ship.

The shuttle program was a step towards something greater. It helped us see beyond our solar system and helped us understand the danger of space. It didn’t dull our curiosity about space, it enflamed it. As President Kennedy described, “It is one of the great adventures of all time.”

Shuttle Visit 02

Image credits:

Header: ©2018 Jon Bastian: Peter and Endeavour meet face-to-face at the California Science Center to talk about their love-hate relationship.

Top of Peter’s post: ©2012 Peter Bean: on the trail of Endeavour’s final voyage to its new forever home. That’s right, it’s a shelter shuttle!

End of article: ©2018 Peter Bean: Curtis Crumbie, Peter Bean, and Jon Bastian under the shuttle at the California Science Center.

If you’d like to be a guest-blogger, use the form below, or send me an email if the form isn’t showing up for you. I anticipate launching the program on May 16, 2020.

Sunday nibble #81: Me and my Shadow

Seven years ago today, I said good-bye for the last time to Shadow, my middle dog and problem child, although given subsequent events in real life, it seems like it’s been forever.

I’m not sure exactly how old she was. I adopted her on May 11, 2001, which was eleven days after the passing of my dog Dazé. The rescue group thought she was about a year and a half old, which would have put her birth around October, 1999 and she didn’t grow much after I adopted her, so the age was probably accurate.

I set her official “birthday” August 23 mainly because it was close enough, plus that was also Dazé’s official birthday, although in her case it would have been within a week of the truth either way because we adopted her as a puppy and knew how many weeks old she was.

That does mean, though, that Shadow hadn’t quite made it to her 15th birthday — or maybe she was just past it. And we never figured out why she died. Her vets had ruled out a lot of things, including cancer. It was just that she started to lose weight but didn’t seem to have anything wrong with her.

I do remember that after they had shaved her on one side to do an ultrasound, it took forever for that fur to grow back and it never really got to its original length, would did imply some sort of metabolic problem that was interfering with her body’s ability to absorb nutrients.

She was sick for a couple of years, and then one evening her back legs collapsed and she couldn’t stand up. I placed her in her bed and made her comfortable but in the morning she was barely mobile and I could tell that she was no longer happy. I don’t know whether she was in pain, but her eyes told me that she’d given up.

I took her in to the vet at the earliest appointment that day but already knew. They took one look at her and agreed that it was time. While they prepared her by putting a catheter in her foreleg, I ran home and got my other dog Sheeba, because I wanted her to be there — one of the advantages of living five minutes from the Vet’s office.

It was quick and painless and then it was done. The only thing that made it easier was that I was going home with Sheeba and not to an empty home like I had after Dazé died, or like I would after Sheeba died in 2020.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, Shadow was my problem child, so I think that I learned more from her than I did from my other two dogs.

Our adventure together began on that May day in 2001 when two volunteers from German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County (GSROC) brought her over.

Shadow wasn’t actually a German shepherd, though. I couldn’t have adopted her if she had been because of rules at my apartment. They thought she might have been a white German shepherd mix, which isn’t recognized by the AKC, so skates through a technical loophole on the breed thing, but eventually I think I figured out that she was probably a Belgian Malinois mixed with a smaller breed, like American Eskimo.

I’d found her in the first place because Dazé had been an American Eskimo and West Highland terrier mix, and when I searched for Esky mixes, Shadow was the only dog that came up. I wasn’t able to test her DNA before she passed, although I wish that I had because when I tested Sheeba’s DNA, she came up with all kinds of surprises.

Anyway, the volunteers brought her over and into my place, then each of them snuck out when she wasn’t looking, leaving her alone with me. However, long before the first one of them left, she went out onto my patio, curled up against the fence, and just stayed there, looking very apprehensive.

When the volunteers were gone, she wanted to have nothing to do with me, and I had that sinking feeling of, “Oh no. This isn’t going to work, is it?” So I inadvertently did the best thing I could. I ignored her and went about my day.

Eventually, I was in my bedroom, sitting on the bed with my back to the door when I heard the faintest of jingles from her dog tags clinking together and realized that she was standing in the doorway. I didn’t look at her, but instead I slid my right hand pack, patted the bed, and then left my fist sitting there.

I could sense her as she very cautiously approached, gently climbed onto the bed and then walked over slowly, finally sniffing my hand. Curiosity had gotten the better of her, and then she sat next to me.

Right after that, I fed her, and when she realized that I was not going to eat her but feed her instead, all of her fear of me vanished and she was joined at the hip from that moment on.

Considering how afraid of me she was in those first couple of hours together, it’s amazing how much she came to depend on me as her protector. If the slightest thing scared her, she would run right to Daddy, and either try to awkwardly climb onto my lap if I was sitting — even though she could have easily jumped onto it — or to hide behind my legs if I was standing.

At night, she had to sleep on the bed, and as close to me as possible. She preferred to curl up behind my legs, which was fine because I tended to sleep on my side with my legs bent, and she happened to be just the right size, curled up, to fit between my ankles and my ass, and fit into the curve of my legs.

I just had to remember not to move too much at night, because she was definitely a liquid dog, and would flow to fill whatever space was available. If I got too close to my edge of the bed, she’d be right there behind me, as close as possible.

Her nemeses were thunder, fireworks, and loud noises in general. Fortunately, we didn’t have a lot of thunderstorms in L.A., but we certainly get a lot of fireworks at certain times of the year, and the place I first lived in with her was in a neighborhood that seemed to believe that celebrating the 4th of July started around the middle of June and continued on a daily and nightly basis until Bastille Day.

That would get her to climb onto my lap and tremble like a leaf for sure.

We were also in exactly the right place to experience the unique double sonic-boom whenever a Space Shuttle returned to Edwards AFB, which happened nine times during her life.

The thing is, those booms were loud, there would be two of them slightly separated, and they would always rattle the windows. Even when I knew that a shuttle flight was coming in, it was never an exact science to know the moment when it would happen, so there was no way I could prepare her for it.

The only way I ever had luck in helping her in this regard came when we had a very rare but very active thunderstorm in the days before I’d adopted Sheeba.

I’ve told this story before, but the short version is that I heard the storm coming, so went into my office, which was the bedroom on the street side of the apartment, and opened the blinds, then called Shadow onto my lap.

I’d watch for the lightning flash, knowing that thunder was coming, and then would start to tell her, “Her it comes. Here comes the boom. Here it comes. Ready?” or words to that effect, over and over, until… thunder. And then I would hug her and say, “Yaaay!”

I think I even got to the point where I could raise one of her paws up along with the “Yaaay!” part. But I managed to turn it into a game, and  I think this gave her a sense of control, which might have been all that it took.

After an evening of our thunder game, she seemed less frightened by loud noises after that.

When it came to play, though, that was Shadow’s big thing. Dazé would sometimes decide to indulge in a little fetch or tug-of-war, but it always felt more like she was doing it because she thought I wanted to. Meanwhile, Sheeba couldn’t be arsed with any of it. Toss a ball her way, and she’d just watch it pass, then give me a look like, “What? You expect me to get that for you? As if.”

Shadow, though, went nuts for things she could chase, toys she could “kill,” or any other way that she could basically just be a dog and bond with Daddy. By the time she passed, I had one of those plastic storage bins that was absolutely stuffed with her toys, most of them hard rubber or squishy plastic, because she could and would destroy any plush toy in two seconds.

And she knew most of them by name, too.

Did Sheeba care when Shadow was gone and the toybox was hers? Of course not.

Despite my presence and protection, Shadow was always a nervous girl, which sometimes turned into aggression toward other dogs but also manifested itself as her suddenly peeing on the floor. And she wasn’t doing either out of any kind of malice. It was just that something would trigger her fight or flight response, and that’s how she reacted.

So a big thing that Shadow taught me was the necessity of patience in dealing with issues like this. After all, if your first instinct when your dog is aggressive toward another one or panics and pees on the floor is to yell at or, far worse, smack it (never do this), you’re only going to make the problem far, far worse.

Gently lead them away from the dog they’re getting aggro at. Put on their leash and lead them outside for a walk when they squat on the carpet. And so on.

The key is not “discipline,” it’s “deflect.” Redirect a timid, scared, insecure dog to what you want them to do, then praise them when they do it.

That was actually what I was doing in the thunder game without realizing it. I never had to tell Shadow, “No! No shake. No scared. Bad!” Instead, when thunder came, I was just there for her and redirected her to having fun.

Success.

This lesson from Shadow really stuck with me, and it applies to people, too. That is, you can’t make dogs or people stop fearing things by yelling at them or berating them. Rather, you can only do it by calming them down, embracing them, and then slowly turning them in the right direction.

Farewell again, little girl. You were special while you were here, and always will be in my heart.

Ride with pride

Today would have marked the 70th birthday of American astronaut Sally Ride, who has so many firsts or near-firsts associated with her that it’s nothing short of remarkable.

Born in 1951, she joined NASA in 1978 and became the first American woman in space five years later in 1983. She was third woman in space overall after Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya, who had gone up in 1962 and 1983 respectively.

She was also the youngest American astronaut to ever go into space, achieving the record with her first flight, when she was 32. She served with NASA until 1987 but still racked up another first — she was the only person to serve on both of the committees that investigated the disastrous losses of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

And that may be where you had a Mandela effect moment and said to yourself, “Wait. Didn’t she die in the Columbia crash?” While she is dead, the answer is “No.” I think a lot of people get her confused with Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher-astronaut, who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986.

Sally Ride died of pancreatic cancer in 2012, at the age of 61, but she did leave another first as her legacy.

She had been married to a fellow astronaut, Steven Hawley, for the five years leading up to her leaving NASA, but her obituary revealed that she had been with her partner, children’s book author and women’s tennis professional Tam O’Shaughnessy, for 27 years.

In other words, not only was she the first American woman in space, but she was also the first member of the LGBTQ+ community (that we know of) to have been in space.

The “that we know of” is significant there, since Ride was not out while with NASA or, indeed, in her lifetime — at least not publicly. And, due to circumstances, that has been the case with all astronauts for all of NASA’s history but it also extends to China, the USSR, and later, Russia.

There may have been other astronauts that fell into one of the LGBTQ+ categories, but if so, none of them has ever said a word about it. It also didn’t help that a lot of NASA’s operations were centered in Texas (thank LBJ for that) where sodomy was illegal up until 2003.

And the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — have not been very gay- or lesbian-friendly, let alone any other member of the community. The fields have traditionally been male-dominated, particularly through most of the previous century.

That’s because science, et. al, was focused on big developments for society-at-large. There was also the built-in misogyny of expectations: Men would become the breadwinners, and women would take care of the homes and children.

Complete and utter bullshit, yes, but for decades, women rarely got the chance to even go to college. If they did, it might be “only” a junior college or secretarial school where they would pick up just the skills necessary to work some menial support job in an office or factory, along with all those necessary skills to keep a tidy, functioning household, handle the shopping and budget, and manage the kids along with the housework.

The shorthand code for this was “learning to keep your husband happy,” and that was the whole point. Shortly before that wedding but definitely around the time of the first baby, Mom was out of the workforce and she even added a new, inanimate spouse, going from just “wife” to “housewife.”

I wish I were kidding.

This really started to hit its peak from the 1920s onward, ironically (or maybe not) because of improvements in technology. Home appliances made big advances going into the 1930s, and suddenly it was possible for one woman to do all of the cooking and cleaning and sewing and whatever all by herself, without a fleet of servants.

Not that poorer households had servants, of course. That’s what daughters were for once they were old enough to wield a mop and change a diaper.

There was a brief glimmer of light during WW II, oddly enough, and to this day the image of Rosie the Riveter, actually based on a real person, is still held up as a progressive icon on many fronts. She stands for not only gender equality, but for the power inherent and the change possible when members of marginalized and oppressed groups work together and speak out.

The original “Rosie the Riveter,” as an abstract concept represented all of those “housewives” who went on to take factory jobs in positions more directly involved with STEM because there were not enough men of the right ages to do it. As a song from the era lamented, They’re Either Too Young or Too Old, and that was exactly the case.

It’s all spelled out in this song from 1943, written for the movie Thank Your Lucky Stars, which was one of those late-war feel-good films showcasing a bunch of Hollywood stars as sort of a USO show for the home front.

Her number is absolutely hilarious, by the way, and the lyrics are quite clever. It’s worth a watch.

Anyway, all of these women (plus people of color who couldn’t get in) experienced a few brief years in the workforce, and realized that, well, “Yes, we can!” And then were promptly put right back where they’d been beforehand when the men came back.

But from that point, it didn’t take long for things to come bubbling back, it’s no coincidence that the sexual revolution, the gay liberation movement, the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, and all the others began about a generation after the war ended.

Well, okay. The Civil Rights movement began pretty much immediately, but the others started with their own baby steps in the 1950s, and followed the model of the CRM.

Certain groups snuck under the STEM barrier earlier than others of course. For example, the film Hidden Figures finally brought to wide attention the important role a group of African-American women played in the American Space Flight effort from the beginning of the 1960s — although it’s easy to forget that while these women were doing the complex calculations that made sure we put humans into space and brought them back safely, it really wasn’t an appreciated skill.

They were referred to as “computers,” and not as a compliment. It was still the boys having all the fun with the engineering and mechanics and actually building stuff. They never seemed to notice that most of it probably would have come flaming back to Earth without the help of their “computers.”

Still… women and people of color did find wider acceptance in STEM. Openly LGBTQ+ people? Rarer, even up until the middle of the 2010s. This is visible every time there’s some scientific study done with a strong heteronormative bias.

There are plenty of studies on why straight men look at women’s boobs, as well as studies on why, but damn little on things like do straight women look at women’s boobs? Do gay men? Do lesbians look at women’s boobs as much as straight men? And so on.

Unfortunately, the subject of LGBTQ+ experience only entered via the so-called soft sciences, like sociology, psychology, and anthropology. They’re considered “soft” because it’s much more difficult to come up with absolute and concrete measurements in these fields.

These sciences are based on statistics rather than discrete data points. Sure, the entire field of calculus, which underlies much of modern physics, aeronautics, and the like, is sort of statistical in one sense, but it’s a kind of statistics that is narrowed down to such a small degree — and which doesn’t rely on human variables — that it’s not at all mushy.

In case you’re wondering, calculus deals with changes in systems based on vectors of movement; e.g. “If we launch a missile at x degrees, it weighs m kilos with fuel at launch, lifts off accelerating at a meters per second per second squared, and burns fuel at a rate of r liters per second while accelerating, at what height will the missile run out of fuel, and what will its trajectory be when the force of gravity, G, reacts with the remaining mass, m-(r-r1), how fast will it be pulled back to Earth, at what angle and what velocity, and where will it hit?

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? And it is, and this is the kind of thing those human “computers” had to do by hand. But here’s the thing… each step of the way, there is a specific value to plug in, and exact rules that determine behavior.

Thomas Pynchon called this Gravity’s Rainbow, and he wasn’t really wrong even if he did write a completely incomprehensible book. It’s a phrase that describes ballistic travel and pays homage to the inventor of calculus, Isaac Newton, who also pioneered optics, hence the rainbow.

But, when it comes to the “soft” sciences, there is no rainbow because things cannot be plugged in as neatly. That’s because those equations may evolve things like, “We tried to determine how many men have had homosexual experiences, and out of a sample of X, we determined that the percentage is p.

The big problem, of course, is that there are so many possibilities not only for the number in X, but the source, so the p could wind up being anything.

Start with the question “Have you ever?” and only ask 5,000 males who attended British boarding schools between, say, 1900 and 1950, and you might get something like 75% or higher.

Start with the question “Do you now?” and limit it to 500 American males regardless of school status, and a lot depends on timing. Ask that question in 2021 among people agreed 13 to 23, and you might get a really high percentage. Ask that question in 1990 but only among men over 40, and you might get single digit percentages.

Also don’t forget… the rules of physics and things you can measure on a scale or with a ruler don’t lie. Humans do. So any study in the soft sciences is going to have a huge margin of error because it all depends on whether someone actually answers the questions honestly.

And, come on, when it comes to sex and sexuality, very few people have the gonads necessary to just answer the questions honestly without trying to put themselves in the best light.

So… we really don’t know how many LGBTQ+ astronauts there have been. We could have had half a dozen by now, or Sally could be truly the only example. (Though I doubt it.) The only thing we do know is that there are definitely a ton of LGBTQ+ people in the sciences, and The Advocate recently compiled this self-reported list of 500 Queer Scientists in STEM fields.

Enjoy!

THIS JUST IN! Announced right before publish time, Sally Ride and Maya Angelou to be the first two women depicted on American quarters. Of course, the linked article mentions nothing about Sally being gay.

Image source: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons