Serendipity – Part 1

One of the benefits that space exploration brings to mankind is a happy serendipity.  I have several examples of serendipity that we should explore together, but since folks may be unfamiliar with the term, here is a short personal story to illustrate how serendipity works in science.

When my daughter was in middle school, participation in the annual science fair was mandatory.  Lacking any ideas on a good project, she asked a family friend — an avid amateur astronomer — if he could recommend a good project.  Yes, one that his daughter had done a few years before, finding the rotation rate of the sun.  Easily done with a telescope, look for sunspots every day and track how fast they move across the solar disk.  This determines how quickly the sun turns on its axis.

As a bonus for later, my friend informed me privately that this is a trick question!  At the bottom is the secret.

We borrowed his telescope and learned many things right away:  first and foremost is safety.  Never look directly through a telescope or binoculars at the sun!  Also, the telescope can focus the sun’s rays enough to set the telescope on fire (this happened to our friend’s daughter).  We learned how to set up the telescope, collimate it, mask off part of the aperture, set up a projection board so that the image could be traced on paper, etc., etc.  We learned a lot very quickly.  I say “we” because as all parents know, science fair projects are a family activity.

Part of the official science fair process required my daughter to make a ‘hypothesis’ before starting the project that she was to prove or disprove.  Her hypothesis was something like this: “the sun will turn on its axis about every week”.  The science fair rules required proof or disproof of this hypothesis.

So after school, we started observing.  Immediately she encountered a problem:  the projected disk of the sun was completely blank.  The telescope setup was checked and rechecked.  Many days in a row, the solar disk always showed a blank.  We called the astronomer friend and tried every recommendation he gave us.  Nothing.  Just a blank, bright, sharply-focused circle of light.

Time was running short.  No data, no project; no project, no passing grade. 

So my daughter started reading up on the sun and sunspots.  Guess what?  Sunspots come in an 11 year cycle and it was right at the sunspot minimum.  Reports from professional observatories all agreed — no sunspots at this time.

Serendipity – finding something that you didn’t expect to find.  Who would have guessed that sunspots come and go?

My daughter learned a lot about the sun and sunspots.  But it didn’t prove or disprove her hypothesis.  The project was due, so she wrote up what she had learned — and what serendipity means — and put together a presentation about how sometimes in science you find out things that you didn’t expect.  Since hers was one of the very few astronomy projects at her school, this presentation got a blue ribbon in its category and the permission to go to the county science fair.

Our community straddles two counties, so she was allowed to compete in both science fairs which were two weeks apart.  In the first science fair, the judges loved my daughter’s project, her presentation, and her conclusion.  She won a big trophy, an impressive calculator, and a certificate for a free dinner at a fancy restaurant.  Quite a haul for the science fair project that went bust.

At the other science fair, she ran into a different mind set.  The judges said: you never proved or disproved your hypothesis. 

Yes, she knew that, but look what she did find out!  Sunspots come and go in cycles.  Isn’t that important?  And in science isn’t it important to have an open mind, sharp observational skills, and the ability to recognize what you didn’t expect? 

Not at all said the judges.  The rules are specific, prove or disprove your hypothesis.  No data, no conclusion, no project, no prize.  We walked out with a poorly xeroxed certificate of participation.  And marveled at the difference between the two mindsets.

So, rather than a dictionary definition of serendipity, I thought a real world, personal story might be a better illustration.  Many discoveries have been made by people looking for something else: vulcanized rubber, penicillin, the moons of Jupiter.  If science so narrowly defined as simply proving or disproving a previously defined hypothesis, we would not have made nearly as much progress and we have.

NASA has had more than a few examples of serendipity.  This week, that is my topic: serendipity.  Space exploration — finding out things that we didn’t expect.


Oh, the trick question?  Did you know that the sun is a ball of gas and at different latitudes it rotates at different speeds?  Our friend set my daughter up!  Her hypothesis was going to be wrong no matter what, and she was going to discover something she didn’t expect even if sunspots had been everywhere.  Serendipity bound, she was.

She still has the telescope we made later that year.  And she still has the interest in astronomy that started with no sunspots.  To my mind that is the best science fair prize of all.   

Thoughts for Independence Day

Taking a little different tack today — tomorrow is official birthday of the United States of America and it is time for Americans – and the rest of the world – to remember why the United States is as it is

At NASA we fall under the Constitution; yet in 1789 nobody believed that flying to the moon or the planets would ever be possible.  Yet that controlling document says that the national government is to “promote the general Welfare”  and thus it allows the United States to pursue exploration of realms unimaginable two centuries ago.

Here are two short stories that are worth pondering if you want to understand America.


It quickly became fashionable that the July 4 celebration include speeches and other commemorations. At one particular event early in the 19th century a Federal District Court judge was the master of ceremonies.  The dignitaries on the platform included an old farmer who had fought at Concord on April 19, 1775,  “where the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world.” 

The judge called the old farmer to the podium and asked, “Were you fighting because of the tax on tea?” 

“No, ” the old farmer replied, “we never drank tea.” 

Trying again, the judge asked, “Were you fighting because of the Stamp Act?” 

“No” came the reply. The old man allowed that he had never seen any of those stamps. 

Getting desperate, the judge said, “Well, you must have been reading Thomas Locke on the Rights of Man.”

“No” said the farmer; “Our only books were the Bible, Isaac Watt’s Psalms, and the Farmer’s Almanac.” 

Flustered, the judge asked “Well then, tell us: why did you fight the redcoats that day?” 

The old farmer replied: “As long as anybody could remember, we had been running our own affairs.  Those soldiers were coming down the road to take that away from us.”


The chief revolutionary was George Washington, “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of his Countrymen.”  George is not the greatest writer America has produced.  Much of his writing is a tough read.  But read this passage from his Circular to the States written as the Continental army disbanded in 1783.  And think particularly about the very last sentence which I have emphasized.


The citizens of America, placed in the most enviable condition, as the sole lords and proprietors of a vast tract of continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the world, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now, by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and independency.


They are, from this period, to be considered as the actors on a most conspicuous theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.


Here they are not only surrounded with every thing, which can contribute to the completion of private and domestic enjoyment; but Heaven has crowned all its other blessings, by giving a fairer opportunity for political happiness, than any other nation has ever been favored with.

Nothing can illustrate these observations more forcibly, than as recollection of the happy conjuncture of times and circumstances, under which our republic assumed its rank among the nations.


The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of ignorance and superstition; but at an epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period.


The researches of the human mind after social happiness have been carried to a great extent; the treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labors of philosophers, sages, and legislators, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the establishment of our forms of government.


The free cultivation of letters, the unbounded extension of growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of society.


At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a nation; and, if their citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.


Have a thoughtful Fourth of July.  Here is a picture I took outside the National Archives, the quotation is from Jefferson:

Statue with text: Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty

Questions and Answers

I’ve been LOS for the last few days.  LOS means loss of signal and in the lingo of Mission Control that means that you cannot talk with the astronauts because the radio signal is blocked.  My LOS was caused by taking a couple of days off (personal business!! Or rather my wife’s honey-do list!) and not having the Blog software set up on my home computer . . .

Anyway, this is a good day to tackle some of the comments and questions that folks have been posting, so here goes.  I’ll start with the easy ones first and work up to the harder ones.

Bob Mahoney had a question about posting comments to my blog.  First of all Bob, I don’t know why special characters would block out your posts but there may be some weird software thing there that I don’t know about.  Secondly, all comments to this blog are moderated (a NASA requirement since this is an official NASA blog) and the moderator is me.  So if you sent in a comment and it didn’t get posted, possibly it was because I found it offensive or off topic (not likely at least so far) or more likely because I was LOS (see above).  Obviously, this blog is not really my principal work duty . . . .

Dave Hromanik asked if Gene Kranz was going to appear at the NASA exhibit at the Smithsonian Folk Life festival on that National Mall in Washington, DC.  Dave, to the best of my ability to find out, the answer is no.  Sorry, Gene would have provided great commentary.  But he keeps a very full schedule for a retired guy and unless something changes he is not going to make this event.  See him on the Discovery channel most Sunday evenings when they show that great series “When we left Earth”

Coleton B. Cooke asked why the Ulysses probe is about to quit sending information back to earth.  Ulysses is a pretty deep space probe and uses radioisotope thermal generators to produce power.  Small amounts of radioactive material are embedded in a device that captures the heat from the natural decay and converts that to electrical power.  After 17 years the process of natural decay has resulted in heat/power levels that are not adequate to power the spacecraft.  As the rocket propellant freezes, the spacecraft will loose attitude control and no longer be able to point the radio antenna at earth.  Or even power the radio for that matter.  Wish we could “refuel” the probe, but its kinda far away . . . .

Coleton also asked if the wagon tracks from the Oregon trail are really still there.  Yes, in some places, they sure are.  I have seen them (and walked in the ruts) in a couple of places.  Check out this web page:  Some things really do last for 160 or more years. 

Kenneth asked if we could devise a plan to keep the last Shuttle attached to the International Space Station as a new room.  Kenneth, there are a couple of reasons why this basically wouldn’t work.  First of all the shuttle is primarily water cooled.  That is, we use water evaporated (sublimated really) into space to cool the electronics.  Water is a precious commodity on the ISS and is mostly recycled.  If we can’t use the electronics on the shuttle then it is basically a dark cave that is going to get cold in a hurry after the lights go out.  Secondly, the weight of the shuttle will cause attitude control problems for the ISS over the long term.  Its OK for a short term docked mission, but over the long term the control system would have a hard time compensating for it.  But the biggest reason is this:  how do we get the guys that flew up on the shuttle back?  Sending more Soyuzes just to do that is probably cost prohibitive.  So, look for a Space Shuttle Orbiter at a museum near you after they retire in 2010.

Michael Mealing asked (in a round about way) what I thought about the various private efforts to fly into space?  Frankly I am very excited about these efforts and wish the various groups the very best luck in their efforts.  It is perfectly clear that for the long term exploitation of space, private enterprise has got to get involved in a big way.  The problem to date is that there has not been a good business case for private flights into space.  The space tourism industry may make this possible.  The up-front capital costs to build the first system is still huge and skeptical financial investors have not signed on; just a few visionaries who are willing to take on a high-cost, high-risk development project.  Once the first system flys and turns a profit, the whole business should grow quickly.  Anyway, I hope it will grow.  So GOOD LUCK to all those guys trying to get off the ground!

Ed Minchau wrote that it was “deceptive” of me to talk to children at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival and lead them to believe that they would have a chance to fly into space.  Ed, I certainly hope I wasn’t deceptive.  Obviously there are currently only a limited number of seats planned for rides into space.  But see above — I really do hope that private industry, perhaps aided by NASA through the Centennial Prizes or the COTS effort — will take off and allow lots of folks to go to space within MY lifetime.  Looking at the children, it is hard to say what might be possible in their lifetime.  If we give them a dream to shoot for.  Anyway, I made no promises that I couldn’t keep and told them each and every one straight out that I wasn’t handing out tickets but encouraging them to think about future careers in the space related jobs.  Hurt my feelings here, Ed.

Robert wrote that “space exploration is not meaningful enough . . . but space utilization is . . . what if it were NASA’s goal to deliver to earth by 2040 sufficient energy to . . . ” (fill in the blank).  Did you know that under President Carter, NASA was given the goal of developing fuel efficient automobiles?  Our heart really wasn’t in it, but we provided several technical improvements and build a roadmap to more efficient transportation which was handed over to the Department of Transportation, where it resides to this day.  When I was in college, there was a lot of talk about Space Power Satellites — unfortunately the business case did not close:  that would have been the most expensive electricity put into the national grid.  Times have changed and solar cells are cheaper and more efficient.  But the transportation costs to build an SPS (or lunar based power station) are still . ..  astronomical . . We need to get the transportation system up and working (and more economical) before we can talk about building power generating plants in space and maintain a straight face.  I personally like the Helium 3 fusion power plant.  Helium 3 is potentially the best fuel for a fusion power plant and Helium 3 is plentiful on the lunar surface.  Unfortunately nobody has built a working fusion power plant yet, and we still have to get back to the moon to dig up the Helium 3 . . . .So, one step at a time Robert.  Your idea is a good one, just the timeframe may be a bit longer.  In fact, I am positive your idea is the ONLY good way to power the planet — but in the long term.

Ticonderoga wrote “It is NOT the job of NASA to fly in space . . . it is to enable others to fly into space”.  To which I say amen.  The better job we do in getting more people into space in a more economical manner, the better it will be for all the pursuits that we can imagine in space.  So I think we are aligned in intention, maybe just the execution is different than what Ticonderoga would like to see.

I am about out of time today, so I close with one other comment that I really liked.  Scott wrote “none of NASA’s budget is spent in space . . . all of it is spent here on earth . . . to keep our technology competitive with that of other nations”.  Well said, Scott.

Keep those comments coming folks.  Some of the ideas are really energizing and thought provoking!