Neil Armstrong was honored by NASA with the renaming of a historical Kennedy Space Center building

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Apollo astronauts Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell, and Center Director Robert Cabana in front of the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building (Photo NASA/Kevin O’Connell)

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Apollo astronauts Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell, and Center Director Robert Cabana in front of the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building (Photo NASA/Kevin O’Connell)

Yesterday at Kennedy Space Center among the many celebrations for the 45th anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon, there was a ceremony that honored Neil Armstrong renaming after him a historic building in the Center so far known as the Operations and Checkout Building. It was there that Armstrong and the other astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission got ready for launch.

Neil Armstrong passed away almost two years ago and many people seem to have forgotten the dream of expanding the final frontier of mankind. Others, however, keep on working to bring humans into space, even beyond the Moon. Today, in the Operations and Checkout Building they’re building Orion, NASA’s next generation spacecraft, the one that is supposed to once again bring NASA astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, and this time even beyond the Moon.

The Operations and Checkout Building was built in 1964 and over the decades has been used in various ways for the Gemini missions, for the Apollo missions and for the Space Shuttles ones. Renaming that building was fitting because of its history, including its use during the Apollo 11 mission.

The Operations and Checkout Building renaming ceremony was directed by NASA’s administrator Charles Bolden. Next to him were the director of the Kennedy Space Center Robert Cabana, the other Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins and the mission’s backup commander Jim Lovell, who later commanded the Apollo 13 mission.

During the ceremony, Charles Bolden unveiled an Apollo 11 mission patch that was carried to the Moon and later autographed by the astronauts. It will be held in a frame up to the time in which the first manned mission to Mars will be launched. At that point, the patch will be brought to Mars to celebrate the next giant leap for mankind.

Now the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building celebrates the memory of the first man to set foot on the Moon. For NASA and for anyone working to bring humans into space this memory must be an incentive to keep on taking all the small steps that will eventually lead to a giant leap.



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Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone by Ian McDonald

Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone by Ian McDonald (Italian edition)

Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone by Ian McDonald (Italian edition)

The novel “Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone” by Ian McDonald was published for the first time in 1994.

Ethan Ring is a graphic design expert who helped invent the fracters, a technology with an extremely dangerous potential. Forced to use it for destructive purposes by a European secret agency, after years guilt overwhelms him. His only hope of redemption is to start a Shikoku pilgrimage.

Together with his friend Masahiko, Ethan travels through the pitfalls of a Japan fell into a new form of feudalism. Akira bands, mercenaries paid by local lords and private agencies, control the territory. Another danger is made up of anime downloaded into virtual reality databases.

From the beginning of his career, Ian McDonald showed a preference for “exotic” setting for his Earth stories. “Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone” is set partly in Japan in a future that now is near. The protagonist Ethan Ring is making a Shikoku pilgrimage, which includes 88 temples scattered around the Japanese island of Shikoku.

Ian McDonald uses the Shikoku pilgrimage, a kind of pilgrimage that actually exists, to tell the story of Ethan Ring. The reason for him to go on that pilgrimage is a huge remorse for the use that he made of fracters, the dangerous technology he helped to invent.

The theme of the negative consequences of the use of a discovery or an invention is one of the most classic in science fiction. Ian McDonald tells the story of Ethan Ring alternating that of his present with the pilgrimage and that of his past. The sense of guilt for what he did is so huge that during his pilgrimage the protagonist sees the old Ethan as a different person.

For this reason, the parts of the novel concerning the pilgrimage are narrated in the first person by Ethan while those concerning his past are narrated in the third person. This split is fundamental to the story and Ethan himself says that the person he was before died, killed by guilt.

The neo-feudal Japan of the future is a mix of classic and cyberpunk elements, between Buddhism and virtual reality. “Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone” is a novel for which the labels would be limiting because Ian McDonald brings together several different elements taking what is useful for the story.

There were already stories about dangerous inventions in the cyberpunk movement, such as “Count Zero” by William Gibson and “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. Because Ian McDonald mixes genres and subgenres, in “Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone” the invention was inspired by Kabbalah. The result could be called “Zen and the Art of Kabbalah” because it also has some similarities with the famous novel by Robert Pirsig.

In the course of the novel, the reader slowly discovers Ethan Ring’s past and his attempt to atonement. The story is very introspective, with little action and lots of ideas. Technology has great significance in the plot but the explanations about it don’t go particularly deep because it’s used to develop the philosophical side of the novel.

“Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone” is a short novel by today’s standards. Today we sometimes complain that some novels are too long and contain unnecessary parts, this one is perhaps too short and fails to fully develop the plot. At the same time, the love story between Ethan and Luka seems to me of limited usefulness because I found it dull but maybe it is my personal problem with romantic elements in general.

Due to its characteristics, “Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone” is a novel that should be read slowly to reflect on each sentence, perhaps rereading it to better capture some nuance of meaning that escaped the first time. It’s not easy to read but if you’re looking for a novel that makes you think I recommend it.



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The thrusters of the old space probe ISEE-3 have been reactivated

Artistic concept of the ISEE-3 / ICE space probe (Image NASA)

Artistic concept of the ISEE-3 / ICE space probe (Image NASA)

After several attempts, the project team ISEE-3 Reboot announced that it managed to run the thrusters of the ISEE-3 (International Sun / Earth Explorer 3) space probe, also known as ICE (International Cometary Explorer). On July 2, the team was able to activate the thrusters but then they gave no other signs of life. After several days of trying to identify the problem, this probe now 36 years old seems to really go back to being operational.

The project ISEE-3 Reboot was launched to try to reuse the old ISEE-3 spacecraft, which was coming back near the Earth after completing its missions and being wandering in space for nearly 20 years. In May, the beginning of the project was promising and the team was able to re-establish communications with ISEE-3 but later things became more complicated. At one point, there was a serious fear of having to abandon the hope of being able to control the probe.

The project ISEE-3 Reboot team spent the month of June using the limited time available with the Deep Space Network to communicate with the ISEE-3 spacecraft. The plan was to ensure that it responded to the commands correctly and then activate its thrusters. It took longer than expected because in some days communications were difficult and at times the team had less than an hour to attempt them.

Finally, on July 2, the ISEE-3 probe accepted the command that briefly fired its thrusters. In the following days, however, the next attempts to move ISEE-3 failed. After several troubleshooting attempts, the team turned to the Internet community, affectionately called the Borg, for a collective analysis of the situation.

The ISEE-3 Reboot project is followed by many fans, however they generally don’t have specific skills. Instead, some have in-depth knowledge of spacecraft and helped the project team to identify the possible causes of the problem. For a few days, the team tried various combinations of valves of the propulsion system to find the correct way to activate them and eventually had at least a partial success.

In the coming days, the team will assess the extent to which it will be possible to control the trajectory of the ISEE-3 probe. Depending on what they can achieve, they’ll decide the new mission for ISEE-3. Its solar panels work better than they expected after so many years so they’re very hopeful of being able to use the probe for some scientific research.



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The van Allen probes show how electrons are accelerated in the magnetosphere

Artistic representation of the van Allen radiation belts with their magnetic field (Image NASA/T. Benesch, J. Carns)

Artistic representation of the van Allen radiation belts with their magnetic field (Image NASA/T. Benesch, J. Carns)

The two van Allen twin space probes, known originally as the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP), are about to complete their two-year primary mission, as they were launched on August 30, 2012. They’re still collecting data in the Van Allen radiation belts, two rings – one internal and one external – of electrically charged particles created by the Earth’s magnetic field around the equator. An article just published on line and then on paper in “Physical Review Letters” illustrates the mechanism of electron acceleration in the Van Allen belts.

The van Allen probes were build also with the goal of understanding the mechanisms behind the acceleration and transport of electrons in the Van Allen radiation belts. In particular, the outer belt is the most unstable with its continuous changes of shape, size and composition, phenomena still not well understood.

Some of the particles in the outer band are accelerated up to speeds approaching that of light. A recent analysis of data collected by the van Allen probes by a group of scientists led by Forrest Mozer of the University of California at Berkeley allowed to better understand this process.

According to Forrest Mozer and his colleagues, the acceleration of electrons occurs in two stages. A first process raises the particles energy up to a few thousand electronvolts. This initial mechanism is powered by short pulses of the local electric field that propagate parallel to the magnetic field lines of the van Allen radiation belts. The particles trajectory is determined by the geometry of the magnetic field.

In the second stage, the interaction between electrons and plasma electromagnetic waves causes a further acceleration which cause them to reach energies of the order of the megaelectronvolts. These waves are called Whistlers and are extremely low frequency waves of the type that can also be generated in lightnings.

Forrest Mozer explained that the Van Allen probes were able to monitor this process of acceleration better than any other spacecraft because they are designed and placed in a special orbit for that purpose. Therefore their mission is a success and the data collected are allowing to better understand what happens in the van Allen radiation belts.

It’s knowledge useful also from the practical side because the activity of the belts is influenced by the Sun and the consequences can be felt on satellites but sometimes even on electronic equipment on the ground. Knowing how the processes in the van Allen radiation belts work will help us to better protect ourseleves from their effects.



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R.I.P. Hank Hartsfield

Henry Warren "Hank" Hartsfield, Jr. in an official picture as an astronaut (Photo NASA)

Henry Warren “Hank” Hartsfield, Jr. in an official picture as an astronaut (Photo NASA)

The former American astronaut Hank Hartsfield passed away yesterday, July 17, 2014, due to complications from the back surgery he had several months ago.

Henry Warren Hartsfield, Jr. was born on November 21, 1933 in Birmingham, Alabama, USA. After earning a bachelor of science degree in physics from Auburn University in 1954, he entered the U.S. Air Force in 1955 where he started training as a pilot. For some time he was a flight instructor and logged a total of more than 7,300 hours of flying time in various types of aircraft. In 1971 he obtained a master of science degree in engineering science from the University of Tennessee.

In 1969, Hank Hartsfield was selected as an astronaut by NASA. He was part of the support crew for the Apollo 16 mission and of the Skylab 2, 3 and 4 missions. In 1977 he retired from the Air Force with the rank of colonel but continued in his service to NASA as a civilian.

After the start of the Space Shuttle program, Hank Hartsfield was part of the backup crew for the STS-2 and STS-3 missions. In 1982 he was the pilot of Space Shuttle Columbia on the STS-4 mission. In 1984 he was the commander of the Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-41-D mission, Discovery’s maiden flight. In 1985 he was the commander of the Space Shuttle Challenger in the STS-61-A mission, the last successful one before the tragic destruction of the Challenger at the beginning of the next mission with the death of the crew.

In subsequent years, Hank Hartsfield served in various positions with NASA before leaving it in 1998. Among his last works for NASA, there was the one in the group that set up the basis for the International Space Station project. Until 2005, he work as an  executive of the Raytheon Company, a major American company in the defense sector.

Hank Hartsfield is survived by his wife Judy Frances Massey, his daughter Judy and two grandchildren.

In the course of his life, Hank Hartsfield received several honors such as the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal and in 2006 was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. He also received NASA’s Distinguished Service Medals, Space Flight Medals and Exceptional Service Medal.

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Happy birthday J. Michael Straczynski!

J. Michael Straczynski in 2008 (Photo jms)

J. Michael Straczynski in 2008 (Photo jms)

Joseph Michael Straczynski was born on July 17, 1954 in Paterson, New Jersey, USA.

J. Michael Straczynski, also known as Joe Straczynski and on the Internet as jms, studied at Southwestern College and San Diego State University, where he started writing scripts for university plays. In the ’70s he worked as a radio review and scriptwriter and as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Magazine.

In San Diego, J. Michael Straczynski met Dathryn M. Drennan and in 1981 the two of them moved to Los Angeles, where they married in 1983. Their marriage lasted until their separation in 2002.

Already in the ’80s, J. Michael Straczynski started using the Internet and various online services and is considered the first television producer who interacted directly with his audience. For years he used the services GEnie, Compuserve and AOL as well as Usenet.

After writing a book on the work of screenwriter, J. Michael Straczynski started working for television. Initially, he wrote several scripts for cartoons such as “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” and “The Real Ghostbusters”, an animated adaptation of the movie “Ghostbusters”. He also developed an animated series titled “Spiral Zone” but the script written by him and his concept of the series were altered so much that he decided to be credited only with the pseudonym “Fettes Grey”.

In subsequent years, J. Michael Straczynski left animated productions and started writing scripts for the ’80 version of The Twilight Zone”. During the writers’ strike of 1988, he met Harlan Ellison and the two of them became friends. At the end of the strike he also became a story editor of “The Twilight Zone”, wrote several more screenplays for the show and another one was written by Ellison.

At the end of the ’80s, J. Michael Straczynski started writing comics too. Especially in the early years they were adaptations of stories from various TV shows including some he had worked for but also others such as “Star Trek”. In 1994 he was among the winners of the Inkpot Award and in 2002 he won the Eisner Award.

In the early ’90s, J. Michael Straczynski wrote scripts for several TV shows but in 1993 “Babylon 5: The Gathering” aired, the TV movie that acts as a pilot for the TV show “Babylon 5” for which jms is particularly famous. He won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation for the episode “The Coming of Shadows” together with director Janet Greek and for the episode “Severed Dreams” with director David Eagle. He was also the director of the final episode of the show, in which he appeared in a cameo, and of the double episode produced in 2007 “The Lost Tales”.

His unfortunate experience with “Crusade”, the spin-off of “Babylon 5″ which was very short-lived due to TNT interference in the production and the rare TV movies connected to the show he produced over the years left J. Michael Straczynski with time to devote especially to comics. Between 2001 and 2007 he wrote several issues of “The Amazing Spider-Man” but occasionally also others, often connected to other DC and Marvel superheroes.

Between 2002 and 2004, J. Michael Straczynski produced and written the screenplays for several episodes of “Jeremiah”, inspired by a post-apocalyptic comic. Disagreements between MGM and Showtime on how to develop the how led to its end after its second season and again jms to use the pseudonym Fettes Grey for one of the scripts.

In those years, J. Michael Straczynski also collaborated to write stories and screenplays for movies such as “Changeling” in 2008, “Ninja Assassin” in 2009, “Thor” in 2011, “Underworld: Awakening” in 2012 and “World War Z” in 2013.

In 2012, J. Michael Straczynski launched Studio JMS with the aim of producing TV shows, movies, comics, games, and web series. In March 2013, it was announced that JMS Studio would produce the series “Sense8″ along with Netflix and the Wachowski brothers, that is scheduled to be streamed in early 2015.



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